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In Which We Go Knitting And Breed Some Bacteria

"I want to knit you a cat," said Robin.

"Haven't we got enough cats?" I asked. "Remember, more than three cats and you are officially eccentric."

"No, no." She shook her head irritably. "I've got this book called Beastly Knits. It's got patterns for jumpers with animals integrated into the pattern. I want to knit you a jumper with a cat just like Porgy draped across your shoulder. What do you think?"

"Hey," said Porgy, quite taken with the idea, "how about you knit me a jumper instead, with Alan draped over my shoulder?"

"Don't be silly," said his sister Bess. "Cats don't wear jumpers. We prance around completely naked." She lay on her back and waved her legs in the air to prove it. She has no shame.

"Do we?" asked Porgy, puzzled. "What's all this furry stuff then?" He held a paw out. "I thought it was a woolly jumper, just like Alan wears."

Suddenly he noticed the paw he was holding out and got distracted. He gave it a tentative lick. "Hey! That feels good." He licked it some more and then worked his way up the leg and down his body. Then he concentrated on licking his bottom. "If I wore a jumper," he said, his voice slightly muffled, "I wouldn't be able to do this." He thought about it for a moment. "On balance, I think I'd rather lick my bottom than wear a woolly jumper. It's much more fun. So why don't you just go ahead and knit a jumper for Alan. But do make sure that the cat draped over his shoulder looks exactly like me."

"Definitely," said Robin. "Alan wouldn't have it any other way." She armed herself with a tape measure and prepared to record dimensions. I regarded this with some trepidation – she's not all that clear about sizes and she tends to measure them in pounds, shillings and ounces, in the same way that her hero Winnie Ther Pooh once measured Tigger. Most of what Robin knows she learned from Winnie Ther Pooh (she even knows what "ther" means). On balance, I approve. There are worse teachers.

"Raise your left hand," she ordered.

I raised my left hand, and she took careful measurements, writing them down on a piece of paper in degrees Fahrenheit. Then she lost the piece of paper.

"OK," she said, "raise your right hand."

I raised my right hand.

"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?" asked Robin.

"I do."

"What's the meaning of econometrics? I've always wanted to know."

"Ah, the easy ones first. Econometrics is pedagogic play-therapy. I thought everybody knew that."

"Well I do now!"

She settled down to knit and slowly the jumper grew Every so often she measured me again, writing down the results in rods, poles and perches. Once she took a chest measurement and wrote it down in hundredweights. Then she corrected herself and converted it to drachms with a remainder in scruples. She made me stand on the kitchen scales and measured my height in furlongs. Slowly the jumper gained weight. It began to look very jumper-like. But one thing puzzled me.

"What's the amorphous white blob?"

"That's Porgy," said Robin. "Don't you recognise him?"

"Now that you mention it, no I don't."

She took out a needle and threaded some dark wool into it. Then she stitched carefully into and around the amorphous white blob. All of a sudden it leaped into shape – it had eyes and ears and a nose, whiskers, teeth and claws. My goodness me! Porgy smiled up at me from the jumper. I looked back to the sofa – there he was, sound asleep, exhausted after his bottom washing marathon. And yet, there he was as well, bright eyed and bushy tailed on my jumper. It was uncanny. I was very impressed.

"Now all I have to do," said Robin, "is attach the sleeves and then you can wear it."

She sewed and sewed and sewed and then it was done. I put it on. Hmmm...

Mostly it was perfect. But there was something not quite right about the sleeves. They dangled about a foot beyond the end of my fingers. When I stood up straight, the ends of the sleeves brushed my kneecaps. It appeared as though Robin had been knitting a jumper for an orang utan.

"You measured these sleeves in firkins, didn't you?" I asked.

"What's a firkin?" asked Robin.

"The standard British measure of excess," I said. "As in these sleeves are too firkin long."

I rolled the sleeves up and examined myself in the mirror. Porgy, draped woollenly over my shoulder, looked happy.

"It's magnificent!" I said to Robin.

My problems began, as so many of these things do, with a tickle in the back of Robin's throat and a sniffle in her nostrils.

"I feel like there's a ton of quick drying cement in my nasal cavity," she said gloomily.

"That's your own fault," I said. "I told you it wasn't cocaine, but you paid no attention."

She coughed, sneezed and blew her nose; sounds I would become very familiar with over the next few days and weeks. Gloomily she examined the contents of her tissue, looking for traces of brain.

"Oysters!" she announced.


"Perhaps I could save all the bogies, dry them out and build a pyramid," she said musingly.

"What's the difference between bogies and broccoli?" I asked her.

"I don't know."

"You can't persuade children to eat broccoli," I said. "Boom-boom!"

"I think I might have a cold," she said.

"Nonsense!" I declared. "Having a cold is only a state of mind."

She blew her nose again and narrowed her eyes at me. I knew this look of old. It meant that the rest of my life would be nasty, brutal and short.

Two days later she got her carefully planned revenge. I awoke with a sore throat. I felt somewhat light-headed, but I had no problem coping with it – I just wore a heavier hat. Somewhere deep inside my chest, clouds of bacteria clustered and fed, like maggots on a dead mouse. Soon I began to cough up interesting slimy things. Something the size and shape of a green shrew shot out of my mouth and ran, howling with fear, across the room with Harpo the Cat in hot pursuit. It hid under the sofa. During quiet intervals in the television sound track, we could hear it whimpering.

The next day the bacteria moved into my nose and I began to leak like Niagara Falls.

"I think I've got a cold," I said.

"Nonsense!" said Robin triumphantly. "Having a cold is only a state of mind."

"You don't understand," I said. "This is a man cold. They're the worst kind, utterly debilitating. They require fevered brows to be soothed and unending cups of coffee to be delivered to the sick bed where I writhe and moan."

"No," Robin explained.

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