Tim Dowling: the pet food system is broken, and the cat blames me


The door of my office shed is open to catch the sounds of the late summer morning: the bright ring of scaffolding poles being dropped on to the back of a lorry; someone power-washing lawn furniture; the intermittent thrum of a distant helicopter. Because of all these sounds, I do not hear the approach of the youngest one before he leans through my door and holds up an open packet of cat food.

“Have you fed the cat?” he says.

“Yes,” I say.

“He’s hassling me,” he says. I look over the youngest one’s shoulder and see the cat frozen in mid-stride in the middle of the lawn, taking a keen interest in our conversation.

“He’s lying to you,” I say.

“But I’ve opened it now,” the youngest one says.

“Niall,” the cat says from across the garden.

“That’s not your name,” I say. “Don’t let him get inside your head.”

“I think I’m just gonna feed him again,” the youngest one says. He turns and walks back towards the house, with the cat following at his heel.

“If you do that, you will destroy what’s left of the system,” I say. “And I will be the one who pays.”

Here is the system: in the mornings I give the cat some weird dry food specially prescribed for its kidneys, which the cat hates. At some point before lunch, the dog eats the cat’s food. Then at 6pm, after an hour of intense lobbying from the cat, I put some wet food in its bowl, which it attacks for about 30 seconds before leaving most of it for the dog to eat in the night. At 7pm, the cat starts pestering me to feed the dog because what it really wants is dog food.

This system is already under strain because the dog is still on holiday, so there is no dog food for the cat and no dog to eat the cat food. The youngest one’s decision to go off-schedule has a predictable effect: the cat turns up at my open office door at 2pm.

“Meadhbh,” it says.

“I don’t know who that is,” I say. “Are you sure you’re pronouncing it right?”

“Ruadhan,” the cat says.

“You’ve already been fed,” I say. “Twice.” The cat stares.

“Eireann,” it says.

“Yes, the system is broken,” I say. “But that’s not my fault.”

The cat watches as I push back my chair and stand up.

“This is not me obeying you,” I say. “This is me going to the kitchen for my own reasons.”

I walk across the grass and the cat follows. Once inside, I realise the problem is not an absence of available food but a surfeit: the remains of unfinished meals in the cat’s bowl have built up in layers, with today’s untouched off-schedule serving lying on top of it all in a slimy, packet-shaped slab. The dog really is a key component of the system.

“OK, we’ll reset,” I say. “A full reset.”

I fling the uneaten food into the bin, scrub the bowl clean and dry it thoroughly, while the cat watches. Then I set the bowl on the windowsill and fetch the bag of dry cat food from the cupboard. The cat follows from sink to windowsill to cupboard to windowsill, standing over the empty bowl in expectation.

“Right,” I say. “Erase today from your memory. It’s now 8am tomorrow, as far as you know.” I fill the bowl halfway, as is usual in the morning, and take two steps back. The cat looks at the food, then back at me.

“Noirin,” it says.

“You don’t even know what you want any more,” I say.

“Niall,” it says.

“Niall’s not here,” I say. “Niall can’t help you now.”

“Niall,” the cat says.

“Niall swans in, upsets the system and swans off again. That’s who Niall is.”

“Niall,” the cat says.

“We’re done here,” I say.

Back in my office with the door firmly shut, I begin to wonder if the cat has actually ever eaten anything besides dog food. When I look up 20 minutes later, the cat is sitting on the other side of the glass. It mouths a name.

“I can’t hear you,” I say. It mouths another name. And another.