The first animal I lived with was a terribly premature puppy; I was seven or eight. My mother’s then boyfriend, a vet, had brought it home to try to nurse it to health. I was enraptured by the appalling minuteness of its little claws and closed eyelids and abrupt snout. We fed him with a milk dropper and he slept in a shoebox inside the airing cupboard. Once, as I was crying on the stairs about something or other, my brother lifted the animal over and put it gently into my lap to cheer me up, and I cried even more because it moved me so much. The puppy died a few weeks later, having never gained any strength.
For my 11th birthday my mother got me a kitten we named Iggy – a glorious, arrogant big lad with a fox’s tail and cunning. He died on the road a few years later. That night I went out to the shed where his body was, in a crate and covered with a blanket until we could bury him, touched his cold, hard body and sobbed desolately.
There have been other animals in my life since then – my ex’s boisterous, goofy dog with whom I cohabited for a year in my early twenties; various house shares with pre-existing cats as part of the package – but I’ve never had an animal of my own. Actually, I’ve never committed to anything I couldn’t extricate myself from pretty quickly if I wished to.
The brevity of an animal’s life is melancholy but is also what makes having a pet a manageable prospect. You know from the beginning that you will see it die. That’s part of the bargain, and so is the fact you will protect it until it does. When you have a child, on the other hand, you know that, barring catastrophe, it will go on living after you’re gone, without you to protect it. This is an idea I find viscerally repellent: bringing children into the kind of world we live in and – in the very best case scenario! – dying without knowing how things will turn out for them. I find it amazing that anyone is brave enough to choose to do this.
I suppose the problem is that some part of me has stopped believing in the future. I can’t conjure up a version of 2100 that doesn’t terrify me – or really any version of it at all. This could be because I’m too self-involved to accept that the world will go on after I’m dead, or because the confluence of the climate crisis, rising fascism and disease that has characterised this year has depleted my capability for productive imagination.
I’m certainly not one of the anti-natalists who morally oppose reproducing while the climate crisis worsens. I find those arguments condescending and often racist and classist. I do, however, wonder at the emotional ability of parents who actively decide on reproducing against this backdrop, how they can steel themselves to do it. All of what I am writing here feels true, but I’m aware that it could be another wrong assumption on my part – like my old assumption that I didn’t want kids because I didn’t have any money and lived in sublet bedrooms, only to find that once I finally made some money and accrued a stable living situation, I didn’t want them any more than I did before.
These thoughts could also be another way to justify my extreme reluctance to tie myself to anything steady. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true that I find myself unable to promise much of anything to anyone. I can’t say what I’ll want in a year, or ten years, so I don’t do anything I couldn’t get out of. My evasiveness is, I’m sure, a strategy to stop me losing things: I’m too greedy for life, and can’t bear the idea of cutting off avenues. I’m aware, too, that by choosing to keep everything open to me I am also at risk of eventually choosing nothing at all.
I woke up several weeks ago in the throes of a frightened hangover – the kind I only get if I’ve forgotten to eat before the drinking begins. It was soon after the tier two restrictions were announced in London, and there was growing conviction that we would all be locked down again shortly. In my vulnerable state, dreading the lonely winter, I was suddenly certain that all I needed was to get a cat. Why not? I live by myself, I’m home all the time, and my outlets for affection are widely reduced.
My mother’s cat, Paul, is one of the best parts of visiting home. He is blindly affectionate and dopey like a dog, portly and ungainly, flopping down inelegantly on his side to greet you and lazily solicit your love. At Christmas I spend all my time on the couch with Paul merrily drooling into my lap.
Last year, as I beheld his stupid, happy little face, I had a thought. I thought about how fulfilled it made me to give him any pleasure, which I was able to do just by letting him sit with me and by paying him attention. It was a feeling I never experienced in my normal life, where providing or receiving care was always bound up in resentment and resulting loss. Maybe, I thought, if I could have an animal of my own and take good care of it for its whole life, from the beginning until its death, that would be something I could be proud to have done in my life. Making a living creature not only safe and healthy but actually happy – filled with visible pleasure as Paul was there on my body – well, that would be something. That would be an undeniable good to have contributed.
I spent a few days looking at rescue websites and Facebook adverts and chatting to my friends for advice, before reluctantly accepting that my flat is just too small – both for an animal to be comfortable and to bearably house a litter box. Next year, I told myself, when my lease ends and it’s time to move again, I’ll find somewhere bigger; I’ll get a cat then. Although this could, of course, be another lie, another indefinite deferral of making choices that can’t be slipped out of.
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump