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Tim Dowling: something very weird is going on with my neighbour’s cat

Tim Dowling
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

I wake up in the dark, exactly three minutes before my alarm is meant to go off. There is something so crushing about this that I let out an exasperated moan.

“What’s wrong?” my wife says, rolling over.

“It’s morning, that’s what’s wrong,” I say.

By the time I have checked my email, dressed and brushed my teeth, my wife is sitting up in bed looking at her phone. I raise the blinds, but the sky outside is charcoal grey – the room seems to darken further.

“Ugh,” she says. “Will you turn on the lights?” I press the switch by the door.

“Not that much,” she says. I turn the lights down. “More,” she says.

“Say when,” I say. The room goes dark.

“That’s off!” she says.

“Make up your mind,” I say, turning the lights back up.

“Too bright!” she says. “Stop gaslighting me!”

“Actually that film is probably due for an update,” I say. “Same idea, but with a dimmer switch.”

“Yes, why don’t you go and write it,” she says.

By the time I cross the garden to my office shed, there is a new email: a post from the neighbourhood forum I joined when we moved in three years ago. It says: “Whoever put a collar on my cat, please don’t.”

I usually delete these updates unread (I get four a day) because they’re an unwelcome reminder that the world is a petty and vindictive place, where people park inconsiderately and steal each other’s garden waste bins. But this post seems to tell quite a story. You think you own a cat, but then it comes back with a new collar and a bell. Maybe it was never yours!

It’s disappointing, if unsurprising, to find that few of the replies are sympathetic. One neighbour says that if the cat still has the collar on, it must like it. The implication is clear: the cat has made its choice.

Outside, five parakeets and a magpie are fighting over access to two bird feeders, while a pigeon below hoovers up scattered seed. Wings flap aggressively; the feeders swing on their chains. It’s like Morrisons on Christmas Eve morning, but for birds.

My computer pings: an email from my wife, with a link to an estate agent’s listing for a small house in the country. This is her new hobby: pretending we are moving, even though we’ve just moved. My coffee is cold. I return to the kitchen.

“I just sent you something!” my wife shouts. I step round the sitting room door to find her at her computer.

“I didn’t look at it,” I say.

“Here,” she says, clicking on a picture of a front room with a sliver of sea view.

“Nice,” I say.

“This is just me fantasising,” she says.

“I know,” I say, but I think: that’s what you said about Acton.

“It would need a lot of work, but I don’t mind that,” she says.

“Did you see ‘whoever put a collar on my cat, please don’t’?” I say.

Related: Tim Dowling: ‘By week three of not drinking, I imagined I’d be in a better mood’

“Is this you changing the subject?” she says.

“No,” I say, “I just wondered if… is that as bright as your screen goes?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Just look at the pictures.”

“I can barely make them out,” I say, reaching across to press a key with a large sun symbol on it. The computer screen brightens incrementally.

“Leave it,” my wife says, slapping my hand.

“This woman,” I say. “One day her cat comes in with a collar, where before there was no collar.”

“That’s nothing,” my wife says, recounting a much more dramatic story in which disputed cat ownership resulted in thousands of pounds in legal fees.

“Anyway, I have to work,” I say.

“I’m not planning anything,” she says, scrolling. “Just getting my eye in.”

Back in my office, I open a blank page on my computer screen, and stare. I imagine a scene – an opening scene: two men, one a qualified electrician, stand in an attic.

Of course I can install it, says the electrician, but why would you want the dimmer switch up here?