Our greatest pet-sitting challenge at my daughter's house is, unexpectedly, the cat. Leopard Prince of Darkness: I think I've got his title right. If not, I hereby rechristen him because it's an absolutely appropriate title, with its suggestion of satanic cunning. He's quite happy to sleep inside all day, but once night falls the hunting instinct takes over and he wants to be, like his two year old Warsaw human cousin, OUTSIDE. Our instructions specifically say “Don't let the cat out at night.” He doesn't seem to understand that there are predators out there ready to attack him as he attacks birds and small rodents. The Lavender Farm chicken population was decimated recently by a quoll: heads ripped off in a bloody quoll massacre. There's a powerful owl in the vicinity, claws at the ready and quite capable of mauling a cat. He's already been chased by a fox, and the fox I saw crossing the road nearby was twice his size. Since he doesn't recognise self-interest we have to do it for him.
Unfortunately, the loo is outside, and every time we go to open the door we find him ahead of us, ready to shoot out. If we escape without letting him loose on the pleasures and dangers of the night, we still have to get back inside. He's waiting, nose against the door, ready to try for liberty again.
I am reluctant to be outsmarted by a cat. At midnight last night, I strategised before I got up to deal with my ageing bladder. He was awake and prowling round the living room. I picked him up and deposited him in the main bedroom. I couldn't figure out how to use the knife to lock the sliding door (nothing if not inventive, my daughter) so I closed the door into the central room too. There he was, behind two closed doors, but I didn't trust them to contain him. Then I realised that if I left the loo door open, I could see the sliding door into the living room. Aha! Now I'd know if the door was still shut before I had to crouch my way up the stairs to the back door commando-style, so my arms were at cat level ready to grab him. Now our midnight necessity no longer needs to be such a saga of cat control.
J has installed a metal window screen that will cut off his last escape route through our bedroom – a leap through the screen onto the tank stand and he's away – and allow us to sleep with our window open to a starry sky, a frog chorus, the dawn rooster crow, and if we're lucky the catarrhal grunt of the koala that lives at the end of the street.
Maybe these humans can outsmart an uber-feline after all.
So much for triumphalism! The next evening the cat wasn't home before dark. Usually as night falls he's asleep under Em's ear. Not this time. We tapped on his tin of food with a spoon and he didn't appear. We left the door ajar, and he didn't appear. J walked round the yard tapping and calling. He didn't appear.
Anxiety set in. We each dealt with it differently. J sat up with a glass of wine and generated increasingly horrific worse-case scenarios and a vow never to look after animals again. I went to bed with a fat trashy novel – “A blinding passion. A perfect marriage. An impossible choice” – to distance myself from crisis. We both thought of anxious nights in the past waiting for teenage drivers to return from parties.
Leopard eventually came home. I put aside the trashy novel. We slept.