Around six months ago I bought Fina a cat bed. I didn’t skimp on it either: it was an expensive one with a leather exterior and plush, polar fleece cushions in tasteful shades of chocolate and fawn. I thought she’d like it. She steadfastly refused to go into it, however. We tried to coax her in by hiding cat treats in the cushions, leaving her favourite toys in it, and positioning it in tempting spots in front of the heater or in pools of morning sunlight. We would pat it while speaking in cootchy-coo voices or making those silly clicking sounds we believe animals find irresistible but which actually probably annoy them. She would sometimes lie next to it or in front of it, taunting us, but never actually in it.
Until a fortnight ago that is, when for no reason whatsoever, she wandered over to this same bed, curled herself up into a little ball, and went to sleep. Since then, she has scarcely left it. Her dappled brown coat blends into the cushions so that she becomes invisible. When she is awake, all you see are two luminous moss-green eyes staring at you fixedly from a cloud of brown. When she is asleep curled up in a ball, you have to look closely to make out her sharp pointed chin tucked away, one small fang protruding; the jut of her hipbone like an eagle’s wing, or her delicate paws draped languidly over the side. She loves her bed, and I love to watch her in it. But why she suddenly decided to revoke her anti-cat bed stance after all this time is a mystery.
Perhaps science holds the answers. A book came out a few years back called All Cats Have Aspergers Syndrome (feel free to click the link here if you think I’m making this up.) The premise was that cats share a number of characteristics with Aspergers sufferers. I don’t actually have a copy of the book with me, and am unable to recall exactly what arguments were made. However, I imagine they would be something like the fact that both cats and Aspergers sufferer’s are undemonstrative, unable to interact socially with peers, become upset when their routines are disrupted, and possess the uncanny ability to tell you what day of the week a particular date falls on (actually, I’m not 100% sure about the last characteristic – that could just be Burmese.) Most compellingly, however, they both have what the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes describes as ‘limited or inappropriate facial expressions, or a peculiar, stiff gaze.’
Now this is Fina down to a T: she has never yet to this day given me a hug, hates all other cats on principle, becomes hysterical if you feed her at 6.45 rather than 6.43, and can state with absolute certainty that the 7th of October 1932 was a Friday. I don’t think she has Aspergers Syndrome though. No, she has Multi Personality Disorder – a split personality – or what is often wrongly termed schizophrenia (if you watch United States of Tara you’ll be on familiar ground here). My case, if you please.
On one hand, we have warm, fuzzy, cooperative Fina, the Fina who’ll sleep contentedly in her cat bed for hours (and pretend she never did otherwise) or lie in front of the heater, stretching her body into a giant bow, taut belly bared. Warm air fans the fur on her stomach so it ripples like a prairie in the breeze. She becomes dopey in the heat: an ear might twitch but that is the only sign of life. If you were to paint a portrait of her in this mode, you might call it, ‘Cat in Repose.’
This is the side of Fina that sits curled on my lap purring as I read in bed each night, her hairy little chin tucked under her tail to form a perfect Celtic knot. You can stroke her sleek autumnal coat, your hand gliding over the ridge of her collar, her knobbled hip-bones, then her undulating flanks dappled like a riverbed. Her silkiest spots are just behind her ears. She also has wonderful puffy cheeks like blown dandelions, gossamer-soft. Every so often, she’ll stretch her paws out dead straight and stiff, claws splayed. You can cut her nails when she’s relaxed like this, pressing her rubbery pink pads until she obediently releases her talons. She gives a little grunt of satisfaction each time the nail-clipper pares off a claw. Every so often, she languorously tips her head back to be scratched beneath her chin, vampish, old Hollywood style, as if to say,‘Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.’ Then, when you’re ready to sleep, you jiggle your leg and she obediently leaps off your lap and sidles out the door so that it closes behind her with nary even a click.
There is more that she does which is lovelier still: when I call her in from outside, she’ll come cantering up as if anticipating a wonderful surprise – and she never seems disappointed when she finds it’s only me there. Some days she’ll present me with a leaf in ceremonial fashion, laying it deferentially at my feet. She’ll sit on the toilet seat and watch me do my make-up in the morning, wide-eyed, head tipped to the side, like a little girl watching her mother get ready for a party. Or she’ll sit near me while I’m typing, about 10 cm from my face, staring intently at me and purring. When she does this, she habitually rests on a spirex notebook with her tail looped modestly over her paws, but sometimes she’ll sit on my lap, wedged underneath the desk like a centre drawer to be slid out. She focuses intently on her purring, narrowing her eyes in concentration and thrumming away avidly. I’m sure that for cats, purring is like what ‘Om’ is for yogis, all her energy directed at one small spot in the universe; the outcome, pure bliss.
But then we have evil Fina. Evil Fina sprints. Bites. Scratches. Scrambles. Scatters. Slips on the polished floorboard. Skids, doormats flying. In the middle of the night you hear her pounding up and down the hallway or yowling like a banshee wrest from the grave. And I’m sure that someone has given her Hemingway to read, as only this could account for her occasional mania for hunting me. She waits behind doorways, springing out and wrestling me with her little paws. Sometimes nets and guns are involved too, though I’ve told her this isn’t sporting. Anyway, enough – I think I’ve established her psychosis beyond reasonable doubt.
While assessing Fina’s mental state, I became quite engrossed with this notion of cats suffering from psychological disorders and began to wonder what sorts of illnesses other animals might have. I asked a group of friends I was out to dinner with what they thought.
‘Animals? they echoed blankly at first.
‘Yeah, you know. Like donkeys – what disorder could donkeys be diagnosed with?’
‘Agrophobia?’ suggested one.
‘Or maybe bulimia?’ offered another.
‘Brilliant! And why’s that?’ I asked encouragingly. They both shrugged. Perhaps I had targeted the wrong group of friends.
However, I persisted. I tried to give them an example, to make things clearer: ‘Maybe sea cucumbers could suffer from bulimia. You know, they disgorge their stomaches over whatever it is they want to eat, then suck all their digestive organs back into their bodies along with the food. That’s kind of like throwing up compulsively.’ There were a few uncertain nods around the table. Several people stopped eating and pushed their plates aside.
I gave them another example. ‘Or if you want to stick with eating disorders, maybe stick insects could suffer from anorexia.’ Blank looks greeted me from all sides. ‘You know, people often describe someone who’s really skinny as a ‘stick insect?’ Gradually, they began to get it.
Anyway, we eventually came up with quite a good list of disorders different animals could be afflicted with. For instance,
– All ostriches are in denial (head in the sand.)
– All snakes have a persecution complex.
– All sea-horses have sexuality issues (that constant gender switching.)
– All walruses are control freaks (they’re always throwing their weight around.)
– All koalas have depression (all that sleeping – classic symptom.)
– All praying mantises suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (after all, if your mother tore your father’s head off at your conception, you’d be traumatised too.)
– All echidnas have anger management problems (they’re so damn prickly.)
But why I thought Fina had the problem and not me – that’s another matter.