Cat, Gwen Jon, c.1904-8
by Jenny Diski
I’ve always thought of myself as an independent sort of woman. From around 1970 until the turn of the century, I had my own flats and mostly lived alone in them. Only twice did I share my space with a man, and then, in each case, not for more than a year or so before I decided I wasn’t much good at sharing. One was my ex-husband with whom I had my only child, and although living together proved unsatisfactory, he remained one of my best friends until his awful death in a drowning accident three years ago. The other was just a mistake. Mine.
At the turn of the century (I do enjoy writing that, as though my life spanned bustles and mini-skirts) all that changed. I met the Poet and within a year I had moved to Cambridge from my lifelong base in London, and then, shortly after that had a study built for myself in the attic of his house, and moved in. Some time after that, we even got married. None of that happened without considerable kicking and screaming on my part, although I think much of it was my surprise at myself. I wasn’t going to let my guard down without a battle. Now we’ve been together for fifteen years, which is longer than I lived with, or even knew, my mother. However, what I’m really wanting to write about, and find myself having to go through this preamble, is the fact that I don’t have a cat.
In truth, I haven’t lived alone most of my life, but only lived without a in-house lover. I almost always had a cat, and no one can say that living with a cat is living alone. I had my first cat when I was fifteen, Grey Cat. Since then, there have been a parade of them: Sniff, Mungo, Black Cat, Phoebe, Ruby, D’Arcy, Oscar, Bunty. All of them were long lived and died in old age, usually at the hand of the vet and in my arms, when to keep them alive would have been the more cruel act. Only Phobe had a brief time with me. She was the friendliest cat I’ve ever known, she had no reserve. Also, strangely, she always smelled of violets. She disappeared one day when she was about 18 months old, almost certainly taken home by someone who she nuzzled up to and who fell thievishly in love with her. At any rate, I hope that was what happened to her.
Bunty was my last cat. She stars in my book What I Don’t Know About Animals, and it was her picture at the back of the book where the author photo is supposed to be. She sits on my keyboard, glaring and daring me to try and get access to it. The relationship we built up over the fifteen years of knowing (about the same as knowing the Poet) each other was very one sided. I spoke but she never answered, and yet I always had the feeling that she was answering if I hadn’t been too stupid to understand. The conclusion I came to in the book, that we can’t possibly ever know how it is for an animal, only make anthropomorphic guesses which tell us more about us than about them, was partly my own thinking and partly the result of my one-sided conversations with Bunty on the subject. (When my daughter was very little, an adult friend was in her room and asked her about the poster on the wall of garden birds. Did she know their names? No, she said, my mummy knows their names. Then she paused. Actually, she said, my mummy doesn’t really know their names. Mungo knows their names, but he won’t tell us.’ The child had reached the conclusion of my book written thirty-four years later.)
Bunty was tiny and incredibly soft. She was the softest, tiniest cat I’ve ever known. We had an embattled sofa existence together. She spent hours on the sofa where I write. When I settled down at one end to do some work, she shuffled up to me and sat down, pushing hard against my arm, so that I had no more room than if I were sharing the sofa with three fat men. She took pleasure in inconveniencing me but no cat ever purred more loudly than Bunty. She was in some ways, quite a dependent cat. There were days when she followed me around the house as if she were a dog. Padding behind me, upstairs to the loo, then back downstairs to the kitchen, then up again to my study. But as soon as I was settled on the sofa, she’d go and stand by the door I closed behind me when I wanted to work, waiting to be let out. After I got up and let her out, she would sit on the threshold so I couldn’t shut the door. If I managed to, she’d want to come in. It was a game she liked to play for hours. I was up and down every five minutes opening and closing the door for her, and it wasn’t very conducive to getting work done. Sometimes I shut the door on her, and kept her outside my study, but she scratched up the carpet so badly and made such a outraged yowling noise that I couldn’t work anyway. Eventually I gave up and had a cat flap put in my study door, so that she could come and go as she please, and at least I didn’t have to get up every five minutes. Of course, she refused to use it.
She died about a few months before the book was published. She was very old and her kidneys had given out. I held her paw and stroked her, whispering to her what a wonderful cat she was, while the vet injected her. Even now, I can’t type that without tears coming to my eyes.
I didn’t get a new cat. It has been three years now since Bunty died. Somehow it seemed too much to begin again with a kitten. Life is really much easier without. No buying cat food, no cat hair on everything, no peeing on the door mat because it’s too wet to go outside, no mice half dead under the bed, no running to the vet with a screaming cat every year to get injections, and if I want to go away, I just close the door and leave, no making arrangements with neighbours, no guilt. Cats really are a burden. Like people, but more demanding because they don’t demand, they are simply exist as an obligation. Everyone likes to be relieved of obligations, don’t they? But the truth is that every time I go into my study, I mistake the cushion on the sofa for Bunty, lying curled up, waiting for me to sit down so that she can get me up to let her out. I really see her for a fraction of a second. Then I remember, and it surprises me that I have been living without a cat for so long. When the Poet is out, there is no other living breathing body in the house. It surprises me, too, to realise how much I depended on having a breathing, warm feline somewhere in the house, even if I didn’t know where. The Poet likes cats, but not in the way that I do. He really appreciates being cat-free and is especially pleased not to have his glorious garden turned into a cat’s lavatory. And after all, there he is, the Poet, loving and conversational. The love of my life. The companion of my life. I’m not lonely. And yet sometimes my lap feels empty and I miss distractedly scratching Bunty under her ear while I stare out of the window, as I would say, working. I could try it with the Poet, but I don’t think he’d appreciate it as much as Bunty did. He’s quite a restless person and couldn’t possibly sit still for hours while I stroke behind his ears. There are only practical reasons for not getting another cat. There are only emotional reasons for getting one. I’m always on the verge of demanding that we get another cat, and yet I don’t. I may be a little like Bunty, standing at the closed door waiting to be let out, only to wait on the other side to be let in again.
Piece crossposted with This and That Continued. Originally posted in Goteborgs-Posten.
I did demand another cat after I was diagnosed with lung cancer, but it was vetoed by the medics on the grounds that I would be too vulnerable to infection while having treatment. This means that after treatment I might demand again. But now there are other considerations beyond the convenience factor.