The Human Zookeeper

I do tend to over-think things. This morning, over my breakfast bowl of trifle and yoghurt – inappropriate I know, but it was what happened to be in the fridge – I over-thought that my twelve cats could be conceived of as chaos-engines, i.e. the cats create the chaos I need in order to restore order, and be at least somewhat soothed.

You see there’s nothing more dispiriting than coming home to a house that’s exactly as you left it. Even now after – quick calculation – twenty-four years alone, I still find it difficult to believe, when I turn my key in the lock, that nothing will have moved in my absence. I find myself scanning the kitchen and living room just in case something might have moved.

At least when I come downstairs in the morning, thanks to the twelve cats, I know things will not be the same as I left them the night before. I know there will be cat litter all over the floor; food dishes upturned; drinking-water slopped; things knocked over; things probably broken. I know there will be a good three quarters of an hour of zoo-keeping-and-cursing to get through before I can allow myself to sit down in front of the News with my cup of coffee and my bowl of cereal or whatever-happened-to-be-in-the-fridge. ‘Getting up’ takes ages. If I have an appointment at 9 a m I have to set the alarm for 5.30 a.m.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like without the cats. Presumably it will come to that one day, assuming I manage to outlive the current cohort, as is my plan (and assuming no new moggies come tapping at my window pane with their little muddy paws and beseeching miaows). I think life would be cheaper, since even without vets’ bills the cats cost me more than I cost me. I think it would be very restful, since being zoo-keeper to twelve cats is the equivalent of a part-time job, hours-wise. I could put my feet up and watch daytime TV. I could… I could…

I think it would be like being dead, actually. Indeed, once the cats are outlived I shall hope to be dead soon after. Preferably not run over by a bus or anything too nasty or time-consuming.

I need to make order out of chaos, so I need a good supply of chaos to make the order out of. It’s the same as writing – you need the chaos of unwritten words, unimagined stories, to make the stories out of. You need to make things make sense. Life – real life – doesn’t.

When I was first married I developed a Theory of Housework. (Told you I over-think.) There were two points to it:

  1. Everything has is optimal Place and its Condition. The house-person’s job is to return things to their optimal Place and Condition. For example, the Place of clothes is hanging in the wardrobe and the Condition of clothes is clean and ironed. So, dirty clothes must be collected, washed, ironed and returned to the wardrobe.
  2. Running a house is really like being the minder of a big, square machine-for-living. You are trapped, to all intents and purposes, inside the machine. As machine-minder your task is to get all kinds of waste (dirt, dust, clutter, rubbish etc) outside the house, and get the raw materials for the machine to keep on functioning – food etc, etc inside the house. All housework can be boiled down to getting stuff out or getting stuff in and preferably more stuff out than in. Those with more stuff in than out are in danger of becoming hoarders and will end up crawling through tunnels of ancient newspaper or being removed by the Council whilst all the clutter is emptied into hired skips and fumigated, and then finding themselves consigned to an old-folks home or saddled with social workers for ever after. Don’t give them the excuse, is what I say. Fly under the radar.

This makes it sound like one of those demon housewives, one of those poor people who clean, clean, clean from dawn to dusk. I watched a TV programme about that once – someone who smoothed the quilt on her bed over and over and over again, to get out every last wrinkle. But she never, ever got to the last wrinkle. There was always another wrinkle…

It’s a balance, isn’t it? I need the cats to make enough chaos for me to have to be clearing up all day long, but I need the natural tendency to daydreaming idleness I inherited from my father and the ultra-low boredom threshold I inherited from my mother to stop me getting obsessive about it.

And if I do feel tempted to polish or scrub in excess I simply remind myself of the old saying that nobody, on their deathbed, wishes they had done more washing-up.


(The Human Zoo: Desmond Morris, 1969)

A Lady Wot Lops

Being a married woman did have its advantages. It was a bit like owning a Rottweiler.

My husband was stern, and brave. I am not sure whether he was stern and brave because he was naturally stern and brave or stern and brave because he was always absolutely and entirely sure that he was Right. He was also clear-thinking and decisive. He did not panic. I used to think, if you were to be cast away on a desert island, he’d be the one to be cast away with. He’d know what to do.

I once had a painful, persistent eye problem, serially misdiagnosed by our hopeless local doctor. One afternoon, when I could no longer bear the light from the window even with my eyes tight shut and my hands over them, he bundled me into the car, drove me forty miles to the nearest eye hospital and made a loud and thorough nuisance of himself in demanding that a specialist come and sort it out, immediately. Apparently, if he hadn’t been so bloody-minded I would have lost the sight in one eye.

It was a bit hit-and-miss, though. Like Rottweilers. On one occasion we were recklessly overtaken by a man in a potato-lorry.  My husband caught up with him in a lay-by and addressed a few stern words to him, whereupon the potato man, who turned out to be a lot wider and stockier than anticipated, threatened to cream him. Over the bonnet. I believe the verb ‘to cream is’, or at the time was, a variant on the verb ‘to marmelize’ except that what is left of you afterwards is not so much orange and chunky as white and thinly-smeared.

Husband was also a boon when energetic, practical stuff needed doing. I am not exactly lazy but I can’t get worked up about power-tools and widgets. The other week I recall I was forced to mention rawlplugs in one of my posts. A lady should not need to know what a rawlplug is. They are uninteresting objects and made of red plastic, which makes them unpleasant to behold.

Similarly, a lady should not be required to wield a pair of loppers. Loppers are man-things, a bit like a giant and very sharp beak on a pair of telescopic arms, for cutting off high branches. Normally the very thought of lopping would have sent me to the sofa with an extra-sugary bowl of Weetabix to watch Loose Women or Countdown until the urge to do so had passed over.

Unfortunately the climbing roses down the side of the garage had grown to way above my head. They were the size of small trees and whipping about shamingly in the wind. Worse, the giant rose bushes had become overgrown with passion-flower, including a bumper crop of overripe orange fruits with disgusting blood-red seeds (I marmelized several). Not only that, there were brambles. Every garden on this hillside is infested with brambles, and not just the ordinary kind; these are brambles on steroids – stems as big as your wrist, each thorn the length of a baby’s finger. But sharper, and more painful when they ping back and hit you in the face. As I discovered.

So I invested in a pair of loppers. The only way I could afford them was because I got paid for one of my many abortive attempts at employment. This one had lasted two weeks and generated sufficient funds to justify the purchase of a stout pair of Taiwanese loppers.

They’ll see me out, I told myself comfortingly. This is something you find yourself saying as you get older. “They’ll see me out” means the object is substantial – a good-quality steel kitchen-knife, say – and you are likely to be dead before it wears out, meaning you’ll never ever have to buy another one.

I can’t say I actually enjoyed lopping, though no doubt the exercise was good for me. It was really hard work. Not only do you have to cut through these big thick prickly stems, which you have to find first, tracing them upwards, visually, to the rose-stem or bramble waving defiantly above your head. Not only that, but once cut they won’t come down. No sir, they just stay there, doomed to wither but ensnared in layer upon layer of rotting passion fruit. So you have to get a hook – luckily the previous people had left behind a hook, whose purpose had hitherto been a mystery to me – and engage in an undignified tug of war with all this super-long cut stuff to try to free it.

So, before the mid-day sun made working outside dangerous for a person of my advancing years and pale complexion, I had built up two giant heaps of brambles/roses/passion-flower/birds-nests. This evening or tomorrow morning I have to go out there with the secateurs (another thing a lady should not be required to trouble herself with) cut it all into more manageable bits and stuff it into numerous plastic garden bags and bins. And then, oh joy of joys, I have to drive it all to the tip.

A man-place!