Warning: I burst out giggling every time I stick my nose in the following excerpt from Chapter 2 of Han Dong’s A Tabby-cat’s Tale. It’s a perfect example of how the author uses irony to inspire laughter. As you read this excerpt, it’ll be hard to focus on anything besides the hero, an anti-social, flea-ridden, incontinent cat called Tabby, but try and pay a little attention to this Chinese family’s reaction to the cat’s quirkiness. Tabby’s eccentricities don’t diminish their love, but intensify it. It’s truly hilarious. —Melissa Armstrong
We never found out what had happened in those two hours, but what was certain was that the cat’s temperament had changed radically, and that it had gone in a highly unusual direction. Tabby no longer wove around our legs under the table. In fact, the family rarely knew his whereabouts, or if they did, they couldn’t get at him. Everyone knew we kept a cat, but the only signs of his existence were a particular smell—though it was impossible to trace the smell to its source. The neighbours’ children were endlessly curious and searched every corner of the house. Sometimes my sister-in-law, as Tabby’s owner, put on a show of joining in, but she wasn’t in the least anxious—she knew that Tabby was unlikely to make an appearance. So as the kids ransacked the flat, even turning cupboards and drawers upside down, she smiled secretly, knowing full well that Tabby had found a safe hiding place. Even my sister-in-law was unwilling to hazard a guess as to where he was. If she knew, she might betray her fear, so it was better not to know, better to have unconditional trust in Tabby. (This gave my mother an idea: Why not hide their savings book with Tabby? No burglar would ever find them.)
Tabby, strictly speaking, belonged to my sister-in-law. It was her idea to get a cat, and she was his chief caregiver. The rest of us just did the odd bit to help out but we had no particular role. With his change of personality, Tabby became doubly incontinent, pissing and shitting all over the flat and carefully concealing the evidence. It was my sister-in-law’s duty to clean up after him; this was unpleasant enough in itself, but having to find the mess first made it even worse. As I said, Tabby was an expert at hide-and-seek and could easily tuck himself out of sight; hiding a much smaller pile of crap wasn’t a problem at all. As for a tiny puddle of pee, that was almost indiscernible. My sister-in-law had only the stink to go on. Every day she had to get my brother or me to move cupboards and bookshelves and lift the bed boards and frames. She swept out the turds, applied charcoal to get rid of the smell of cat pee, washed the soiled upholstery and bedding and hung them out to dry in the sun. The flat was never really tidy, in fact it got to be quite a mess. The furniture was piled higgledy-piggledy in the middle of the room, as if we had just moved in or were about to move out and the removal truck was waiting downstairs. It began to get us humans down, but Tabby was in his element. Our house had become a jungle, the air pungent with the odour of cats. Gradually, we too became acclimatized; the smell became attenuated and our noses less sensitive. This had the effect of making it more difficult to locate the puddles of cat pee, and we failed more often. My sister-in-law, conscious that her olfactory sense had dulled, worried constantly that she had overlooked something. She went around sniffing all day long, until she sounded as if she had chronic rhinitis.
Still, there were good times. Picture the touching scene: My sister-in-law sits at the table, Tabby in her arms, all four paws in the air, revealing his pale tummy. She’s engrossed in picking off his fleas, cracking each one between her fingernails and dunking it in a bowl of fresh water at her elbow until, after half-an-hour or so, the surface of the water is black with Tabby’s fleas.
Our cat was infested with the creatures, so his mistress had to repeat this service constantly. By this time, my sister-in-law was the only person who was allowed to touch him, and even she had raw, red scratches all over her hands from his sharp claws. She didn’t care and never went to get a rabies inoculation. My brother was horrified. Rabies can stay dormant for as much as twenty years, he told her, and might flare up at any time. ‘But Tabby’s a clean-living cat,’ retorted my sister-in-law. ‘He never goes out, so he can’t possibly have picked up rabies. If he bites us and behaves oddly, it’s because he has psychological problems.’ Tabby lay in the crook of her arm like a beautiful baby, staring at us wide-eyed, content to allow his mistress to part his belly fur this way and that. His eyes closed in blissful content and grunting issued from his throat. But appearances were deceptive: at any moment, this un-swaddled infant might leap into the air and extend his fearsome claws. Once, my sister-in-law was bent just a little too close over her task, and Tabby nearly had her eye out. As it was, her nose was badly scratched, and she was scarred for life. Her cat duties were not just never-ending, they were extremely hazardous. No wonder they demanded her unwavering attention.
My sister-in-law went to work every day, came home and spent the rest of the evening caring for Tabby. As time went by, the cooking gradually devolved on my mother, who was over sixty and in frail health. Until then, the most she had done in the kitchen was lend my sister-in-law a hand, but now she wielded the ladle over the wok and my sister-in-law didn’t lift a finger. My elderly mother shopped and cooked, served us and even did the washing-up afterwards. It was hard for her—she’d been a pampered only-child, and this was the first time in her life that she’d had to take charge of the house. At the start, my mother accepted her new responsibilities with alacrity. Her daughter-in-law constantly praised her efforts—because she had a guilty conscience—and so my brother and I had to follow suit. If my sister-in-law put her nose through the kitchen door, it was only to prepare food for Tabby. She stewed fish guts for him until the kitchen stank to high heaven and we had to hold our noses. But sometimes, the kitchen smells were delicious—that was when, on high days and holidays, she went out especially to buy fresh fish for Tabby, which she left swimming in the wash basin. These she cleaned and cooked herself, entirely for the cat. We never got so much as a taste, nor did she. She and my mother jostled for space in the kitchen, so that Tabby should get his meals on time. Sometimes the smell of Tabby’s food made our mouths water. Once, my brother and I accidentally tasted a spoonful of Tabby’s food and told my mother how good her cooking was; another time, I had a spoonful of the sweet and sour fish my mother was making and it was so horrible that I thought it was for the cat. Eventually, my mother’s confidence in her cooking plummeted, and she no longer wielded the wok ladle with the energy of a master chef.
It was not that my sister-in-law wanted to leave my mother in charge. In fact, her constant care for the cat was largely done for my mother’s benefit. If she didn’t prepare the cat’s food, then he would have had to eat a portion of our food, wouldn’t he? Most importantly, my mother was super-sensitive to bugs. In summer, a single mosquito in the flat would keep her awake. If she got bitten, she would be scratching all night. And the mosquitos found her irresistible: in fact, she was the best mosquito-repellent for everyone else. Any mosquito would make a beeline for her and leave the rest of us alone. With fleas, it was even worse. Even since Tabby’s arrival, my mother had been covered in streaks of blood from flea bites, which were indirectly caused by the cat. My sister-in-law felt so sorry that she redoubled her efforts to rid Tabby of his fleas. But she wouldn’t get rid of Tabby. Even my mother could see that her daughter-in-law treated him like her own son, and she accepted this. Both mother-in-law and daughter-in-law were highly principled women, and somehow, Tabby kept their relationship in harmonious balance.
Tabby was the pivotal point of family life, and the pivot of the pivot was the never-ending supply of fleas. One day, my sister-in-law bought him a Happy Kitty flea collar. The fleas deserted him in droves, which made him happy, but rather than disappear, they scattered to the four corners of the flat before coming together in one place—my mother’s bedding. My mother wasn’t wearing a Happy Kitty flea collar, so you can imagine the outcome. The old lady had a much harder time of it than Tabby: no flea collar and no one to spend all day picking the fleas off of her. When my sister-in-law saw the appalling devastation that my mother’s continual scratching was wreaking on her body, she had to take Tabby’s collar off. Once they had heard the news, most of the fleas returned to live on the cat, although a few remained behind, and even one bite was enough to give my mother a sleepless night. However, she was at least liberated from the torment of hundreds of fleas inflicting thousands of bites on her. The truth is that my mother learned to tolerate the flea bites somewhat, and the sight of my sister-in-law bent assiduously over Tabby’s belly made it difficult for her to complain.
After that, my brother swore to exterminate the pests. He got a can of insect repellent and directed a fierce jet at Tabby. The cat yowled and fled, not under the bed or behind the cupboard, but onto the windowsill, perhaps seeing safety in the outside world. Our flat was on the seventh floor, and luckily the windows were screened with a plastic mesh. Otherwise, Tabby would have fallen through. He dangled from the mesh, and his claws scrabbled and tore at it. Spread-eagled and silhouetted blackly against the rectangle of light, he mewed piteously. But my brother was determined to solve this problem once and for all. He emptied half the can, filling the flat with DDVP; the spray formed droplets on Tabby that dripped from his fur. His mewing grew fainter until finally he dropped, still spread-eagled, to the floor.
My brother had to adopt emergency measures to revive him. He rinsed him with bowl after bowl of clean water, finally holding him under the kitchen tap. Tabby went limp and let himself be handled. Normally, he refused to be bathed, and it took the two of them to manage it, my sister-in-law washing him while my brother gripped his back legs. This time was different: he even allowed my brother to give him two soapings and several rinses. My brother then towelled him dry and blew warm air at him with the hair dryer; he even trimmed Tabby’s front claws. My sister-in-law came home from work to see a well-groomed Tabby and my tenderly solicitous brother. This gave her a gnawing, jealous feeling, but she never got the bottom of what had happened, and my brother never told her about the insecticide. From then on, however, Tabby never trusted anyone but my sister-in-law. She was the only person he allowed close to him, yet he attacked her with renewed savagery. My sister-in-law’s arms were covered in a network of scratches, both fresh and old, and she became expert at dodging his attacks. My sister-in-law must have been suspicious about the cold Tabby caught as a result of the incident with the spray can, and his subsequent bath, perhaps connecting it with something my brother had done, but her woman’s intuition warned her not to probe too deeply, in case it led to divorce. She didn’t want that—neither did my brother—so Tabby’s bath became a taboo subject, which they both learned to avoid. My brother simply assumed an air of guilt, as if he were a man with a mistress on the side.
—Han Dong, translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harmon