Copyright 1994, Sarah Hartwell

Most cat workers will be familiar with the scenario. You are at a party, making polite conversation with complete strangers with whom you have little in common. You are wearing the only dress to have escaped the attention of a fabric-eating feline and would feel much more comfortable in jeans - preferably the comfy ones that developed extra ventilation holes in the calf thanks to Mad Max the Tabby Terror of Pen B.

Within seconds you can feel the cold looks of the hostess's husband who works in the City and you know, deep down, that he will make sure that Joyce doesn't invite you to their next party. His be-suited colleagues have been giving you disdainful stares ever since noticing the contrasting cat hairs that not even an extra-strength sticky roller can remove. Inwardly you smirk, knowing they'd have a fit if they saw Joyce on a Tuesday morning with her hair tucked under a scarf (ex-Rummage Sale), a blob of cat food on her nose (where Attila the messy eater has kissed her) and shocking pink Marigold gloves (CPL standard issue, 1.39 a pair at the cash-and-carry, free when bought with 72 cans of Pilchard Yummy-Kat) on her manicured hands as she scrubs out litter trays.

Eventually the conversation leaves the subject of who is doing what behind whose back (marital indiscretions rather than Joyce's closet cat habit) and whether it has affected the price of shares and turns to the topic of hobbies.

"Henry goes shooting at the Estate most weekends," says one woman with a billowing bosom and three rows of cultured pearls.

You hope she doesn't mean the local council estate where the feline population is regularly peppered with air-rifle pellets by some pimply oik who lives on the first floor of Satanic Towers High Rise (dumping ground for all the problem families in the area).

"And what do you do, uhmm Susan?" she goes on to ask, her bosom heaving like the ocean swell.

"I work at the local Cat Sanctuary. And it's Sandra, actually."

One of two things can happen after admitting this fact. Either everyone goes in search of a refill and leaves you standing there like the one with terminal acne at a beauty queens disco (this in your experience being the preferable option), or they expect you to be a cross between a vet, an animal shrink, an expert in flea control and a trapeze artist willing to scale dizzy heights in pursuit of stranded cats and start firing questions at you.

"Oh. Maybe you could give me some advice about my cat."

Uh-oh, now it starts. Fluffy-wuffy is pregnant and Mrs Eau-de-Cologne can't understand how her precious blue-blooded 500 Persian, direct descendent of one of Queen Victoria's cats, can possibly have accepted the amorous advances of mangy-ginger-thing-from-down-the-road-oh-why-don't-they-get-the-awful-creature-done? And it's no good telling her that Fluffy-on-heat doesn't care which tom does the job. Mrs Eau-de-Cologne evidently believes that Fluffy-wuffy is a feline version of Lady Chatterly and prefers a bit of the rough (only mangy-ginger-thing isn't exactly the feline version of Sean Bean, having only one ear and half a tail).

"Is the half a tail hereditary? Perhaps we could say they are Manxes," she whispers, pearls quivering.

"Not unless playing chicken on the High Street is also hereditary," you retort, but sarcasm is lost on Mrs Eau-de-Cologne who looks as though she is going to have an attack of the vapours at the mere thought of Fluffy-wuffy doing 'that' with mangy-ginger-thing. "You could get Fluffy spayed, in the long run she'll be happier."

"Oh, but I was thinking of breeding from her. Mrs Simpson has a darling black Persian ..." then in hushed tones, "Will it ruin her for later, spoil her for proper litters?"

You point out that Mrs Simpson's darling black Persian now sings male castrato and assure her that Fluffy won't be ruined for later though since Fluffy's pedigree (currently being waved in front of your eyes) states "not to be bred from", Fluffy's breeders might have something to say about the matter.

"Oh," cries a shrill voice, "They should always have one litter first, shouldn't they Madge?" and you find yourself caught in the crossfire of an affronted owner of a mismated Persian, the pro-Life (feline division) lobby and the glares of the hostess's husband who thinks you're about to start the sort of riot more normally seen outside abortion clinics. Joyce smiles sympathetically, but being wife of an influential banker can't be seen to take sides against his friends.

Naturally your work with cats (and their owners, who are usually more of a problem than the cats themselves) means you can recite entire chapters from half-a-dozen cat-care books and the local bookshop keeps certain titles permanently in stock because 'the cat shelter lady recommended it to me' (after giving edited highlights of the section on housetraining/neutering/ claw-trimming). One December, autograph book in hand, you've even met one author at a cat show and been very tempted to ask if you can start referring cases to him. After all, cat owners seem reluctant to see the vet about certain problems ("why is Ebeneezer pooh-ing on top of the TV everytime the Coronation Street theme is played - not that we ever watch the wretched programme of course ..."), but divulge all to their local CPL Catbuster.

"According to," <insert name of author here> you begin, but the alarmingly short concentration span of Mrs Eau-de-Cologne and her friends means that conversation has already moved onto "where did Sophie get that darling cocktail dress, I love the sequin detail on the shoulders ...".

Heaving a sigh, you extricate yourself from between Madge and Mrs Eau-de-Cologne and excuse yourself from the party on the grounds that you have a pressing engagement at home (emptying three litter trays, refilling six foodbowls, clearing up one bad attack of diarrhoea, a monster hairball and a half-digested vole from the hall carpet). After an evening like that you're beginning to look forward to another round (two falls, two submissions or a knockout) with Mad Max in Pen B. In fact, you're thinking of taking him to the next dinner party with you.

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