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We've all suffered the misery of the multi-viral bombardment known as a cold. Aching limbs, sneezing, nose redder than a monkey's buttocks in summer and a head that feels like it's got Dorothy, Toto and the whole Munchkin crew doing one of their jolly dances on it.
At the time of the flea-spraying, I was in the grip of a cold, so I wasn't in the best of moods. My wife was showing the kind of patience which only a loved one can muster. Even the late Mother Theresa would have eventually said "Oh for fuck's sake stop whimpering you snivelling twat" and slapped me with her sandals. I was curled tightly in bed, wearing socks and something woolly which used to belong to my mother. I was being plied with hot blackcurrant. All I needed was a pair of floppy ears, and I'd have looked sorrier than a spaniel that's just been told it can't dribble out of the car window any more.
I coughed slightly, and wrapped the blankets tighter. Then I noticed our cat on the bed. Normally this is not a problem, the cats have a reasonable use of our house's facilities (using the word "reasonable" as it would be used in a court of law, for example: "Leaving the car seat pushed right forward so I can't get my bloody knees in are "reasonable" grounds for divorce."). Usually, the only after effect of letting the cats sleep on the bed is to wake up with a collection of volcanic flea bites deep between the buttocks the following morning. There have been many times when my wife and I have stood naked in the bedroom, nodding sagely at each other, saying "We must spray them with that powder again" whilst rummaging about with our fingernails in our respective cracks. Even worse was the time that both cats had spent a restful night depositing armies of fleas on my clean boxer shorts pile. The following day, a battalion of fleas had started to wake up whilst I was having a job interview, and decided to mount an offensive on my gusset. The rejection letter I later received was very polite and didn't say "Mr Gaunt, the answer to the question "What can you offer our company?" is not to say 'Oh Jesus' and gasp with pleasure as you scratch your plums", but I knew the thought was there.
So, because of the flea problem, we had made the rule that the cats were not allowed on the bed - and yet lying next to me was a few pounds of fur and whiskers snoring contentedly, twitching its tail and not worrying about tax or that expensive sounding rattle in the car. Maybe you've never heard a cat snore - our two have only suffered from this affliction as they approach their golden years. It's a strange sound - completely unlike the terrifying, wall-shaking row which comes from my father-in-law (the only man I know who had a brush with the police because his snoring affected the behaviour of next door's fish. When I used to visit my wife's house before our marriage, to practice the gentle art of courtship, the sound of snoring from the next room was the cue to put away the Scrabble and start scrabbling frantically at underwear fasteners, but I could never concentrate properly on trying to behave like an Italian Love God (from Leeds) whilst the teat on the end of my condom was wobbling about in rhythm with the foghorn blasts exploding out of Daddy's snotbox in the next room).
Anyway, cat's snoring is something different altogether. The first time I heard it was during a rare quiet moment in the house when I was four paracetamols into completing a tax return, and was just about to prick my finger with a needle so I could sign it, then heard a faint, high-pitched whine. I had never heard a noise like it, and because of the strange acoustics of rooms packed with Ikea furniture, it sounded like it was coming from our defective central heating thermostat. This didn't surprise me at all, since our central heating system was previously serviced by an engineer who said it was healthy to shiver and looked suspiciously like an Eskimo.
Eventually I traced the noise down to the two cats wrapped around each other on the rug snoring in each other's ears. It was an image of absolute furry contentment - a cuddle so decadent that it could only have been surpassed by Chewbacca and a room full of his naked Wookie friends curled up like a pile of shag-pile carpeting and telling each other to growl softly so they could hear the Johnny Mathis album better.
Anyway, as I looked at the cat snoring on the bed, I spotted a flea leap on to the sheets and start looking around furtively for some blood to suck. I sighed to myself. We had been putting off spraying the cats for weeks now, but since I was lying sick in bed I was a sitting target. It had to be done. I shouted my wife feebly.
"Cat on the bed"
In an instant she appeared, with a fresh tumbler of hot blackcurrant and Florence Nightingale's smile.
"We ought to spray them again, you know", I said.
Just for a moment my wife's face turned to thunder, as the memory came back. I looked into her eyes and saw, for a fleeting instant, the image of her chasing a cat round the garden, puffing a flea powder spray impotently into the air and thinking that shouting "Come back or I'll run you over" would work.
Spraying a cat with flea powder is only one of a range of options in the anti-flea armoury, and it is also one of the few to actually have any effect. Flea collars are as effective as aromatherapy. You might as well commission Uri Geller to touch your cat's head and say with his ridiculous accent "Use your positive energy to banish the fleas" then charge a million pounds and bugger off in his helicopter. Supposedly the collars zap the fleas as they make their heat-seeking journey northwards in the search for the Blood Boulevard which is a cat's head. I don't know if there's something particularly lazy about English fleas, but they seemed perfectly content to munch around our cats' arseholes (not something which lights MY fire), probably having been put off moving upwards because of their fear of snoring. I would swear that when I looked through a magnifying glass, I saw a group of fleas rubbing their swollen tummies, pointing to the cat's head and shaking their heads with smug smiles.
No - there are only two solutions to the flea problem; a bloody good dusting with flea powder, or a thorough dousing with napalm. Since napalm would have made a terrible mess of the kitchen linoleum - and God alone knows what state the curtains would have been in - there was only one alternative.
I got out of bed, went downstairs and took the flea powder out of the cupboard. On the back there was a picture of a demure woman happily combing back the fur of a gleeful cat. It was a foul lie crafted by Beelzebub, so I spat on it. It was nasty stuff - like greyish talcum powder in a squeezy bottle, and it smelled faintly of sick. I gave a tentative squeeze, and a light coloured, oddly smelling cloud puffed up into the kitchen. The bottle said "Enough for six sprayings". Good. In the real world that meant there was enough for about two - provided my wife's aim was good.
My wife went to fetch the cats. Fortunately they were both inside the house. One, of course, was curled up on the bed, and the other was prowling round the house looking for the most expensive, luxurious, visible and non-wipeable floor covering to be sick on.
Getting them into the kitchen didn't prove so difficult. All I had to do was give a quick blast on the electric can-opener, and they came skipping happily through licking their lips. I locked the doors behind them. Now was the tough bit. The first part of the operation involved back-combing the fur (as per the illustration) so that the powder would penetrate. If you've never done this, make sure that you first buy a pair of gloves from someone who works in a job that daily tackles angry porcupines. Cats DO NOT like have their fur back-combed. It's the feline equivalent of having your testicles shaved with a butter knife, and they will do everything in their power to stop you doing it. Instead of the TV Gladiators prancing about at all those bloody stupid games involving hitting each other padded sticks - they should give them a cat and a comb each and see how quickly they change their names from "Fury" and "Warrior" to "A Bit Fed Up" and "Couldn't Pull The Fucking Skin Off A Milk Pudding".
As soon as I had back-combed one inch of tail the trouble started. Cat started hissing like a beast which would make Sigourney Weaver say "Oh balls to this, where's my knitting?" and the claws became unsheathed faster than a German's fork at a sausage factory open day.
I read recently in the newspaper about the tragedy of a zoo-keeper who had his arm bitten off by a tiger. I'm willing to bet that the arm in the tiger's stomach had a comb clutched tightly in the fingers.
The worst part of all of this was that our cat's brother was watching intently from the corner of room. Cats are certainly not stupid, and it was clear he was planning how what he was seeing was not going to happen to him.
Meanwhile there was a bit of a tussle going on with our first cat. I had claw marks on my eyelids, and my wife was trying to puff clouds of flea powder into the bits of fur I'd managed to comb up, but every squeeze of the bottle gave another asthmatic gasp and sent flea powder in every one of my uncovered bodily holes. Scene:
After about five minutes of blood and squirting I was able to release an angry, punk, whitish looking, furious cat from my arms. The room looked like a flour and explosives delivery van had driven into it. On the bottle of flea powder it said "Avoid contact with the skin" - about as realistic as toilet tissue instructions saying "Avoid contact with the bottom". My wife and I looked at each other, blinking - my wife looking like a geisha, except for the swearing.
A couple of specks had gone on the cat, but that would have to do.
Now we had to do the other one. My wife said "Pippin's stronger than Tog" which was not cheering.
Pippin had had chance to prepare his defence. His first gambit was to jump on to our fridge and from there on to the top of our beautiful ornamental oriental teapot on the shelf where I couldn't reach him. No matter how far I stretched my arms, I just couldn't get my hands to him. To cut a long and wearisome story short, the scene ended up with me sneezing grey powdery snotters all over our step ladder and saying "I bought that in China you furry twat".
But it was done. The two cats would now be flea-less for a few days. I made a cup of tea, sighed with relief, and flopped in front of the TV. A program came on about "Extreme Sports". A horrible, tanned aggressive youth with wealthy parents and no accumulated tax payments approached the camera, snowboard tucked between his dayglo Spandex knees and bungee rope snaked round his waist. He stuck out his tongue and screamed "YEEEEEAAAAA I know no fear".
I was going remain silent and dignified, and smile wryly to myself about how little he knew about fear. But instead I yelled "You kiss my big fucking hairy arse" at the television and spilled my tea.