You may think you know everything about cats, but you don’t know my cat. Cats are supposedly aloof and indifferent to what their human housemates get up to during the day — and lots are, I’ve fostered many of them — but my cat is not one of them.
Meet Toulouse. Toulouse is roughly three years old. Two years ago, almost to the day, he arrived at our house looking not so hot after a prolonged stint at London’s RSPCA Harmsworth Hospital. He’d been fished off the street unneutered, without a microchip and with his face mostly caved in from some mystery accident, probably involving a vehicle.
After all of that trauma you might think he’d be skittish or shy. But no, Toulouse skipped straight out of his carrier and onto my lap. He spent that first night tickling my ears with his whiskers and kneading my scalp as though he was trying to give me a head massage. He’s been that way ever since, his neediness generally adorable, and his constant displays of affection very welcome.
But then came the coronavirus pandemic and I started working from home. Many of us have gone through a period of adjustment since then — on the whole, I’ve adapted fairly well to this situation. But there’s one small exception: the small fuzzy terrorist who seems determined to derail my concentration and sabotage my use of technology with his constant need to be the center of attention.
Cats spend most of their day sleeping. But for some reason my cat is always awake mid-morning and mid-afternoon, when I am at my most busy with work. I can only conclude he’s doing it on purpose. At lunchtime, or in the evening as my work day draws to a close, he’s nowhere to be seen. I’ll pop my head into the bedroom to find him curled up on a pillow in a ball, with a paw hanging over his face like a “do-not-disturb” sign.
But when I’m really trying to knuckle down and get stuff done, I swear that he senses me concentrating through the walls. It’s at those moments that he likes to make it known that he needs to be loved, petted or played with. Prowling into the room, he announces himself loudly and repeatedly, making intense eye contact with me while honking like a little furry goose.
Sometimes, a small plastic mouse toy that he found in a dusty corner and carried up two flights of stairs will fall from his mouth. He’ll pick it up again and drop it at my feet, looking up at me hopefully as he continues his almighty racket (he likes to play fetch).
Other times, I’ll pause what I’m doing and reach out to stroke him, whereupon he will turn around, nose and tail in the air and prance straight back out of the room. This can go on all morning if he’s in the mood for it. If I fail to acknowledge him, his mews get increasingly mournful. He tilts his head to one side, and he stares at me unblinkingly with full pupils as though I’m breaking his heart. We both know it’s really the other way around.
Worst of all, though, is when I’m on video calls. If he hears me speaking to another human being, he immediately assumes I must be talking to him. Wherever he is in the house, he gallops in, hurls himself onto my desk and starts affectionately headbutting me in the face. I can no longer see the screen, and whoever I’m on a call with can no longer see me, as a copper-colored cat torso blocks the camera.
If I’m speaking with my colleagues, they mostly tolerate this with amusement. But as a journalist, I’m often speaking with important people with whom I’m keen to establish a professional rapport. So far I’ve managed to fend him off with treats while during these calls, but I dread the day I fail to block him from pushing his nose up against the webcam while I’m speaking with a tech executive or respected researcher.
Why don’t you just shut the door? I hear you ask, as though I hadn’t thought of this myself. The sorry truth is that closed doors are something of a trigger for his worst behavior. If he comes across a closed door and knows I’m on the other side of it, he will yowl as though I’ve abandoned him in a ditch. He also starts tearing up the carpet (does he think he can dig under the door?). That can’t happen as I’d really like to get my rental deposit back one day.
Sometimes if there are birds in the treetops outside, I can persuade him to perch distractedly on the windowsill above my desk, but even that poses risks. Halfway through a recent video call with a new colleague, I noticed a ginger fringe running along the top of my picture. Toulouse, I realized, was resting his butt on the top of my screen and wisps of his fur were being picked up by my laptop camera.
As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, he also has a chronic sneezing condition caused by the trauma to his face and the multiple surgeries that followed. This means at any given moment, and without warning, he can and will spray cat bogeys across my keyboard, screen. Or, as has happened on occasion, they’ll fly directly into my open eyes or mouth.
The place he likes to be most of all is directly on my Macbook keyboard. If I’m not quick enough to physically block him, there will be typos, rogue commands, error messages and disturbing beeps as his pearly pink toes go to town on the keys. He’s nearly tweeted from my account more times than I can count and has even been known to shut the whole machine down. My greatest fear is taking my eye off the ball for a mere second and his backfoot hitting publish on a half-finished article.
Most of the time I gently shoo him on, trying to minimize the damage he does along the way, but as an occasional treat I let him curl up for a brief catnap on the keys like a cosy cinnamon bun. If it’s near the end of the day, I’ll even rest my head down on the desk next to him for a moment and smoosh my face into his satiny ginger fur while I marvel how something so smol and mostly self-sufficient can have such a large presence in my home.
His sweet sleeping countenance seems to be an evolutionary feature designed solely to make me forgive him everything under the sun in a heartbeat. If I’m going to be constantly interrupted while I’m working, I tell myself, it could be a hell of a lot worse.
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