Lockdown has obliterated the little control I had over my kids’ viewing habits. We once had mutually-agreed rationed hours. Now? All bets are off and the screens are forever on. I’ve forgotten what my boys look like without the white wash of tech light.
“Do you want to play chess?” I might ask.
My eldest son, D, will look at me with the same pitying smile that I’d offer my own dad when he asked the same question.
The family calls any device an iPad now, following an embarrassing conversation at a birthday party. Someone was explaining that the only way they could calm their four-year-old from a temper tantrum was to give her a tablet. I’d assumed the mum was describing some sort of sedative and asked if it were prescribed.
It’s not so bad when the boys are at school. We limit electronics (TV aside) until after dinner. They don’t complain — instead they wrestle with each other, in the hope that the noise and possibility of stuff getting smashed might mean we relent just that little bit earlier.
Over the summer, though, I was stronger. I hid all electronic devices during the day. I wouldn’t even allow TV. Would my youngest son, J, have met his cat gang if I hadn’t done this? Possibly. Because, if I’m honest with myself, the imaginative possibilities of his little mind are closed down by the endless videos of Hot Wheels that I let him watch on his Kindle Fire HD.
Does he dream of Americans unboxing toys?
(For a moment in the summer, the answer was a definite no.)
Nervous Cat was a ginger tom, often seen hiding underneath neighbourhood cars. He was well named, rushing away in a flash of fire should feet step too near. J explained how, with patience, it was possible to stroke Nervous Cat. You had to stalk the animal, bent over low, hands out. From the kitchen window, I once watched him do just this. He displayed a patience not obvious when throwing down his Fire should an advert or two delay the YouTube video about dancing dinosaurs.
Cute Cat was much discussed, little seen. Much like the word ‘nervous’, I wondered if J really understood what the word means. Further evidence of this is the fact that he’s been known to call me ‘cute’, especially when he’s after something. I’m many things but, sad to admit, I’ve not been cute since the mid-90s. Cute Cat is black, we’re told. He (all the cats seem to be male) smiles at J. Whenever his brother says it’s impossible for cats to smile, they haven’t got the right face muscles, J replies ‘you haven’t got the right face muscles’ and cries.
In August, we moved house. Even without the pandemic, it would have been a nightmare. Forced to exchange and complete on the same day, our buyers assured us that they had the necessary finances in place and all would be fine. They didn’t. We ended up having to pay £700 to store our furniture overnight. We stayed in a hotel and had McDonald’s for dinner. The kids watched their tablets until falling asleep. It wasn’t fun/they loved it.
It was driving to the new house that J mentioned that he’d miss the cats. It was only at this moment that I realised the role they played in his interior life. An important part of his world had been removed. But, unlike the crates of toy cars and Lego, it wasn’t coming with us.
My wife suggested that one day we might get a dog. J said he didn’t want one. Buster, his grandparents’ terrier, licked everyone’s faces and that was how the germs spread. I thought briefly of a world in which a pandemic was caused by over-affectionate dogs. Many of female friends on Instagram would feel extremely conflicted.
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “There’ll be new cats in the new place. There are always cats.”
As soon as we arrived, we followed J to the garden. There were no cats.
Names J suggested for the new cat, should we get a cat, please could we get a cat:
- Mr Scratchy
One day, in the old house, over dinner, J got chatty. (Not catty.) This happens. Too often the desire for conversation awakes in the middle of the night. It wasn’t that long ago that I was woken by D prodding my leg and asking me to name the most venomous animal in the world.
“Your dad,” I’d said. “Being woken in the middle of the night.”
“Wrong. The Box Jellyfish.”
J wasn’t eating. J was attempting to distract me from this.
“Daddy, why are cats scared of stones?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Why are cats scared of stones? Nervous Cat is really scared of stones.”
“How do you know they’re scared of stones?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes.
“Because when I throw stones at them, they run away.”
D spat out his baked beans with the force of his laughter.
We, my wife and I, once owned a cat. It was an elderly rescue one. It had cat AIDS, something I never knew existed until owning a cat with it. Harry, the cat, enjoyed sleeping and scratching stuff that I didn’t want scratching.
Once, in the spare room, it was lying on the scratched windowsill alongside my desk. It was the summer, the window was open. I was sitting in a swivel chair, watching YouTube videos. The doorbell sounded. I turned the chair to get up. In doing so, the back of the chair knocked Harry out of the window.
There was a horrible screeching and banging noise as he landed on, then slid off, the crenelated plastic of the knackered lean-to. I rushed outside to find Harry’s body twisted terribly in the dead Christmas tree that we’d chucked on the patio six months earlier. Surely he was dead.
It’s at such moments that character is revealed — my first thought was to worry about what my girlfriend (now wife) would say. But there! Movement! All was not lost. I lifted Harry from the skeletal branches and set him on the ground. This was probably the ninth of his lives.
He died before the end of the year, his cat AIDS catching up with him.
After paying the £500+ vet’s costs, we agreed never to have another cat.
I first became aware of Angry Cat when Jacob reported that he’d been twice bitten by a cat. I knew this couldn’t be the work of Cute Cat. Nervous Cat was a contender. But no. It was a new member of the gang.
My other son, D, was with J at the time of the attack.
“He didn’t bite you,” said D. “He ran off.”
J showed his teeth and hissed at D.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” I asked, not a little disturbed.
“Angry Cat,” said J. “That’s what he did before he bit me. I was trying to stroke him.”
I suggested the boys keep away from Angry Cat. J hissed at me.
A few weeks after moving house, a tabby appeared in our new garden. (That we now have a garden is proof that we’re no longer in London.) I broke J from his tablet. The whole family tip-toed outside. J approached the cat. It wasn’t nervous. It didn’t appear too angry either. It allowed a stroke. Cute. J’s smile lit up the grass.
“We shall call it Puss-Puss.”
Both children had been sent home from school to ‘self-isolate’ with the rest of their year groups. Their teachers did an excellent job of preparing resources and organising Zoom calls. But, obviously, all this was delivered electronically. And when the kids wanted a break from schoolwork, they’d ask if they could ‘watch’. This is their way of describing going on YouTube and staring at mindless videos of American kids screaming through the opening of toys. That’s not entirely accurate. D has matured to the stage that he enjoys watching American kids scream through playing video games.
Our parental decision came as most do — at the coffee machine.
“Maybe we should encourage the kids to go outside a bit more,” said my wife. “We’ve got a garden now.”
We took turns looking out for Puss-Puss. Whenever she arrived, we had the kids drop everything. They rushed out to the lawn, now more mud than turf, to play with the animal. For a few minutes at least, screens were forgotten.
It was all good. We’d found a balance between iPads and the natural world. And it was pleasing that the kids, when offered the choice between YouTube and cats, would always choose the latter. Their choice made us feel like good parents. And then, one day, I was upstairs, working. And I heard laughter from downstairs. A new development: Puss-Puss had been let inside. D was very excited to tell me the news, bounding up to my room:
“She’s done a wee on your books, Dad!”
There are limits to the indulgence of my children. I grabbed the cat and deposited it outside.
“If we had a cat, we could teach him not to wee on your stuff,” said J.
Forced to choose between allowing my children’s imagination to flourish and keeping my possessions cat-piss-free, I didn’t waver.
I found my iPad and Googled “cat wee danger”.
The high levels of ammonia found in cat urine may trigger your respiratory problems. It can also be very dangerous for people who are suffering from bronchitis and asthma. Red eyes, itchy skin, or a runny nose may be a sign that your feline friends are putting you at risk.
“How about we get a new PlayStation instead?” I asked. The boys were very happy with this suggestion. “But … don’t tell your mother just yet.”
We no longer tell the boys if we see Puss-Puss. Maybe things will be different when the lockdown is over. Maybe when Covid’s gone, I’ll stop feeling guilty.
Or maybe we’ll break and buy a cat.