Tim Dowling: the cat needs food. But whose turn is it to go?

It is late afternoon and I have carried the folding deckchair over to a small square of sunlight at the edge of the grass. The last warmth of the day is concentrated in this corner, and I intend to absorb it. I am settling into the chair with a book when the cat appears at the open back door, trying to catch my eye. I pretend not to notice.

The cat steps into the garden, crosses the lawn and sits down at my feet. I do not look up from my book.

“Niamh,” the cat says.

“I’m not Niamh,” I say.

“Muireann,” it says.

“These are girls’ names,” I say. The cat looks at the ground, and then at me.

“Hello,” it says. The sun disappears behind a cloud. I pull out my phone.

“It’s 5.30,” I say. “Cat food happens at 6.”

“Joan,” it says.

“Fine,” I say.

The cat follows me into the kitchen, where the oldest one is staring at his laptop screen in deep concentration. The cat and I take the long way round him, in case he’s in a meeting. I open the cupboard and we both stick our heads inside.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” I say.

“No,” the cat says.

“The bad news is we’re all out of the cat food you like,” I say.

“Uh-oh,” the oldest one says.

“The good news is we have plenty of the cat food you hate,” I say.

“Wren,” the cat says.

“No, I don’t suppose that is good news,” I say. The youngest one walks in, arms folded.

“What’s happening in here?” he says.

“Nothing,” I say, opening the fridge. “Were you just off to get cat food?”

“No,” he says.

“Sorry,” I say. “I mean cat food and milk and beer.”

“I went yesterday,” he says. I look at him.

“That’s your excuse?” I say. “That you left the house 24 hours ago?”

“When did you last leave the house?” he says.

“No comment,” I say, turning to the oldest one. “What about you?”

“I’m working,” he says.

“Face it,” the youngest says, looking at me. “It’s your turn.”

“It’s never my turn,” I say.

Ten minutes later, I find myself standing outside the beer shop. It’s really more of a beer emporium, with a bewildering variety of cans and bottles on offer, but also it’s a small space, and social distancing allows only one customer inside at a time. I can see the customer ahead of me through the window, having a long conversation about beer with the staff. I consider this a monstrous breach of pandemic etiquette. Save your recollections about that time you went to Belgium for a brighter, less restrictive future. Just buy some beer and get out.

Twenty minutes later, I am back home loading the fridge when my wife walks in.

“I thought Wednesday was a no-drinking day,” she says.

“Tuesday is a no-drinking day,” I say. “Wednesday is beer of many lands.”

“What did you get?” the oldest one says.

“I just grabbed from the cooler at random,” I say. “It’s uncool to ask questions when there’s a queue building up outside.”

“What about Thursday?” my wife says.

“Thursday is Thirsty Thursday,” I say.

“Sounds like your strict regime is disintegrating,” she says.

“It’s evolving,” I say. “I have it all written down somewhere.”

The youngest walks in and pulls a beer from the bag. “What’s this?” he says.

“It’s from Norway, that’s all I know,” I say.

“Can I have one?” the oldest says.

“Certainly,” I say, setting a can down in front of him. “Something with a brightly coloured label, perhaps?”

“How much did you spend?” my wife says.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I get loyalty points.”

“Does this have marshmallows in it?” the oldest says.

“I’m afraid that’s entirely possible,” I say. The cat jumps up on to the kitchen table and sits down next to the bag.

“Mare,” it says. I look at the cat, and then into the bag.

“I knew I’d forgotten something,” I say.