The pet I’ll never forget: Oscar the cat, who opened my eyes to the power of male friendship

<span>‘Oscar possessed the world-weariness of someone who had seen unspeakable things.’ (posed by feline model)</span><span>Photograph: Valery Kudryavtsev/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
‘Oscar possessed the world-weariness of someone who had seen unspeakable things.’ (posed by feline model)Photograph: Valery Kudryavtsev/Getty Images/iStockphoto

My dad is not a religious man – he goes to the pub when my mum goes to mass – but I’m sure that meeting Oscar was a spiritual experience for him. When they locked eyes across the scrubbed concrete floor of the shelter that Oscar presided over with mob-boss-like remove, an oath of loyalty was sworn. The other cats mewled in vain.

I had walked in hoping for a grey kitten akin to Berlioz from The Aristocats and walked out with an aloof ginger tomcat who looked like Brendan Gleeson and possessed the world-weariness of someone who had seen unspeakable things. If cats smoked, he would have been on 30 a day. Everybody loved Oscar. He deigned to tolerate only my dad.

We got him when we moved to the countryside. My dad – ever the pragmatist and not prone to superfluous bouts of sentimentality – had insisted we get an outside cat to ward off mice in the winter. He wanted an animal that was utilitarian, low-maintenance, stoical in the face of the abysmal Irish weather. He wanted, in short, himself in feline form. Oscar might as well have sauntered into his life, pulled up a bar stool and ordered a pint of stout.

Oscar lived in a wooden house lined with old fleeces, from where he spent hours watching the rain. Really, though, he lived in the garage, the mystery building at the end of the garden that swallowed my dad every evening after dinner. It’s anyone’s guess what went on in there. All I know is that Oscar ran in before him when he opened the door.

My mum was less keen on the cat. In an Irish Catholic household like ours, anything with the prefix “good” was shorthand for “probably not for children and definitely not for animals”. The good room, the good cutlery, my good Sunday coat. My dad fed Oscar the good ham. In the hierarchy of domestic crimes, this sits somewhere between dirtying the windows (which Oscar frequently did) and gratuitously putting on the heating. To call it the good ham is to imply that there was other ham, which is false. We ate our jam sandwiches in silence.

Male friendship is fascinating to me – I don’t mean that reductively. But, from what I have observed among my dad’s generation and class, it involves few words, an enviable frankness and a trailer. Someone is always borrowing someone else’s trailer. My dad communicated with Oscar in grunts – which is mostly, I should note, how he communicates with his family – but the cadence of the grunts was genial, jokey, two colleagues bonded by the familiar cynicism wrought by another day at the coalface.

There was tenderness: once, my dad accidentally clipped Oscar’s tail in the door when he came running over to greet him; I’ve seen less ashen-faced men in a morgue. He would hold him like a baby and rub his stomach. When Oscar died, the garage light stayed off for a week.

When I started writing this piece, I dispatched my mum to the attic to try to dig out a picture of Oscar. I knew there would be few; I didn’t know there wouldn’t be any. But knowing the man and knowing the animal, it makes perfect sense: to photograph them would be to put words to it. What they shared wasn’t for others to understand.