Full disclosure: I don't even like cats, those aloof, independent natured felines who act as though their owners are a mere inconvenience. I've always preferred dogs with their loyal, tail-wagging eagerness to please and I've long thought: one day I'll have a dog.
Sooo my recent adoption of a rescue cat was a surprise to everyone, including me. And, as with most things in life, the experience has taught me a few things...
Cats can be hard work too. I remember hearing this common phrase bandied about each winter as the festive season rolled around: 'Dogs are for life not just for Christmas!' The reminder being that while puppies might look cute, they're a big responsibility. I don't recall ever hearing anything about cats and I bought into that, 'cats are independent and do their own thing' narrative. I wanted a companion who would hang out with me when it suited me, not require me to take them on any walks and not have to live with my windows open all year round in an attempt to diffuse animal smells. Enter: cat. What I didn't realise though, was that as my cat is an indoor one, the dog smell would be replaced by smells from her litter tray, that is, when she decided to use the tray and not my Persian rug for the expelling of her expensive organic cat food. I didn't realise that cats have very individualistic characters so when I asked for an older cat I assumed she would be chilled out and sleep most of the day. My beautiful rescue passed the time chasing imaginary prey around my sitting room, racing from one room to another to try to get me involved in the "play" and jumping onto the highest surfaces she could find, even when she then couldn't get down. She didn't like being picked up and stroked, a lesson I learned when she gave me a warning bite on the finger. Any shut doors were immediately scratched to bits as the scratching board I bought went largely ignored.
I am not as easygoing as I might present. Friends know I love playing host and like nothing more than an excuse to dress up my home like a hotel for guests to come eat, drink, laugh and sleep. I made my space as welcoming for Cat but when I woke up to the poo-on-the-rug incident I lost it. I started keeping a close eye on wherever she went and kept my favourite rugs rolled up in a cupboard, away from her aim. I began to resent the fur that seemed to trail behind her, sticking to everything I own and vacuumed twice a day. I had started off wanting her to feel at home, 'this is your home now!' I told her when she first arrived. But that wasn't true. I kept my home neat and ready-for-visitors and I liked it that way and hadn't even considered the interruption a cat would bring into it; I wasn't ready for that. I'm now in possession of a red wine cleaning spray which means I can lift the ban on red wine (lol) when myf riends are gathered around my beautiful cream rug from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. I still ask everyone to remove their shoes but I no longer grimace when I see a stray crumb find its way onto the floor. I want my guests to feel comfortable and they won't be if I'm following them round with a dustpan and brush.
I need to underline anger with unconditional love. I arrived home one night to discover the cat had done a smelly poo right next to her new catnip toy inside a suitcase I'd set up with playthingsI was livid and she knew I would be because she was already in hiding. I couldn't find her but I yelled at her as I cleaned up the mess and it wasn't until she heard me pouring her next meal into a bowl that she rocked up ready for dinner. I was still annoyed with her but I suddenly realised that to her, the person who feeds her was the one who takes care of and therefore "loves" her. And no matter what she did or how angry she made me, I would never withhold food from her. As a child I often felt that I forfeited my parents' love if I did something wrong or disappointed them and I never want my children to feel like that. I want them to know that no matter how angry I am, I will always love them. Just as the cat knew my "love" for her when her bowl of food arrived, my unconditional love must be visible.
Everyone needs purpose. I watched a documentary on owners and their pets a while ago and the story of one man and his dog has stuck with me. The man had a labrador and said that he had suffered severe depression and loneliness for years having being struck with a more visible long-term illness. A social worker had suggested he get a dog and taking this advice had changed his life. He said he never used to leave the house but now he has to because the dog needs his walks and knowing he has the responsibility of another mouth to feed is a pride rather than a burden. Being needed has given him a reason to get up in the morning. On the days when I didn't have the drive to get out of bed; when I couldn't cope with the repetitious rejection from my pitches and applications - the cat was there waiting. I countered that it wouldn't matter to anyone if I stayed in bed all day with the curtains drawn and my knees pulled up against my chest in foetal position, but it mattered to her, because she needed her food and water. And so day after day I dragged myself out of bed to clean out her litter tray and replace her bowls and on the day it stopped being so hard to get up, I thanked her for needing me.
A pet will never replace my husband. My recent life changes have been empowering but hugely isolating and now more than ever I realise the value in human touch. There are days when I don't speak to or see anyone and I find that hugely debilitating. Writers are traditionally solitary creatures and there are times for sure when I need to shut the world out and spend wonderful hours immersed in literature but what wouldn't I give for a few beard hairs in the sink or some socks lying on the floor, left as they landed by their owner. Some people, lots of people, choose pets as companions and I tried to echo that to fill my own gap but I never wanted a cat. What I wanted was a life companion, someone to love, be loved by, and with whom to make love. Adopting a cat, for me, was just another way to try to push down the emotions I had been feeling about my relationship status but I've learned that nothing but another human being will fill that specifically shaped hole in my life.
I received a phone-call from a sanctuary outside London recently to let me know that the cat had arrived safely and was settling in really well. I wrote them a page-and-a-half of notes on her habits, medical history and health under my possession and sent her with some of her super-expensive vet-recommended organic food. I felt a huge sense of relief knowing she was in good hands and she will be with another family soon.
So one day I'll have a dog - or another cat - and that day will conveniently coincide with when I also have a garden for him or her to run around in...and a husband to take care of the poop.
PS: I did actually like my cat, but like parents who dislike all children except their own, this is not a general cat-liking consensus.