"Here," says my dad, handing me his gun. "Take this." It's only a water pistol, but it's the biggest one I've ever handled, and the moment feels like something of a rite of passage: a tame, rural British version of the kind of handover that might happen in American hill country. My dad's claim is that he bought the gun, which is the size of a small badger and has "AK-47" written near its trigger, to see off the large black cat that, a year or two ago, was terrorizing his kitten, Floyd. My own suspicion --particularly after he spent the whole of our 2012 Christmas family party either brandishing it or squirting it at people -- is that he just wanted a really big gun.
Whatever the case, I'm grateful for the loan. A large, muscular tabby has been bullying my own cats recently, and, since my shouts of "Hey! Go back to your patch!" and "Piss off, fur face!" don't seem to be working, I'm starting to think a more drastic approach might be in order.
We walk from my mum and dad's kitchen into their living room, where the now fully-grown Floyd -- a keen mouser with a black and white Rorschach face -- is curled up on the sofa. "Whatever you do, don't bite that cat's neck," my dad tells me. "He's just had his flea treatment." I've never displayed any interest in biting Floyd's neck, but because my dad has grown enthusiastic about that sort of thing, he assumes everyone wants a go.
Even after a year and a half, getting cat advice from my dad feels odd. For a long time, my cats were inconsequential furry specks in the periphery of his vision. "Is that the one alzheimer's?" he would ask, mistaking the middle-aged black one for the old black one, but that was about as far as his interest went. Since the arrival of Floyd two summers ago, however, all that has changed: my dad is now enthusiastic about all cats, and their welfare.
Much of this, I suspect, is down to the fact that in Floyd my dad has found his cat parallel: an excitable, boisterous, inquisitive creature who only has two modes -- "on" or "off" -- and will always go the extra mile for a piece of meat. During his early days of living with my parents, it was not uncommon to find Floyd happily curled up on my dad's neck or in his armpit. "I've solved the mystery of why we have under arm hair," he told me during my first visit to see Floyd. "It's there so kittens can nest in it." Long before Floyd was old enough to go out, my mum caught my dad carrying him around the garden in the pocket of his fleece, giving him a guided tour. "There's an amazing wasp's nest in this shed," he announced. "You'll probably want to avoid that. And this is the compost heap. I sometimes sleep in here."
After I've successfully resisted biting Floyd's neck, my mum and dad and I head out for a walk. "Do you choose your outfits to get the most derision possible from passers-by?" my dad says, inspecting my wide-brimmed hat, flares and pea coat. "I'd call the police if I saw you dressed like that. You look like you sleep rough and steal chickens. You want to get some proper outdoor clothes?" He's probably got a point -- dressing like a member of the band Pentangle circa 1970 is not a practical option for a muddy December walk in North Nottinghamshire -- but I'm rattled, and I retaliate. "At least I don't see a small dog and act like I've just been attacked by a black rhino," I say, referring to the cheery-looking spaniel we'd encountered on the footpath a few minutes earlier. "You don't know what you're talking about," says my dad. "Give that thing an inch and it would have bitten your face off."
My dad's belief that all dogs are out to get him makes little sense to me, since, on the whole, he will tend to gravitate towards a confident, non-neurotic animal. Bulls, in particular, are a big favorite. My dad once got so enraptured watching a bull in a nearby field that he drove our old Morris Minor into a ditch, dictating that he had to call the AA and get them to winch us out. He never really saw eye to eye with my mum's last cat, Daisy, a mixed up ball of tortoiseshell angst who would growl when she was happy and purr when she was furious. One of the reasons he gets on so well with Floyd is that Floyd is a cat apparently completely without hang-ups. "You're a good lad," I have heard him telling Floyd, after a glass or two of whisky. "You've never caused any of us trouble. We did well with you."
Floyd is not my first surrogate brother. Before him, there was my dad's last-but-one VW Golf, and an electric tooth flosser he was particularly fond of, but I don't think I've ever seen him lavish quite so much love on another object or creature, other than my mum or me. I'm not jealous of Floyd, though I am slightly jealous of my dad for living with a cat so assured of his place in the world. I'm in temporary rented accommodation right now, and my own cats are angsty and unsettled, with a noisy council depot just beyond the back door and the tabby bruiser patrolling outside. I like to think I love all cats, but this one really is a dickhead: the kind of cat who probably goes to a cat gym, overuses Lynx deodorant in the changing rooms and talks constantly to other cats about his pecs. "Go out there and twat him one," I recently told Shipley, the second hardest of my four,but he only seemed interested in staying inside and watching Countryfile. Even the toughest, Ralph, who looks like Jim Morrison, has lost his easy, self-assured air recently. Just before Christmas, my girlfriend and I found him up the chimney. I want to think he was just looking for Cat Santa, but it seems more likely that he was searching for the magic portal leading back to the relatively carefree land where he used to live.