I couldn’t think at first why the subject of pets had entered my head (which has a revolving door through which subjects push and pummel their way, ceaselessly). And then I realised that, worryingly, it was because I have to take the computer to the vet’s – I am sorry, the technician – on Tuesday. Plainly I have established a strong relationship with my screen, my keyboard, and my – yes, laugh, why don’t you? – mouse.
Although my computer is self-evidently a pet-substitute, I have actually had genuine pets in my life, although not for at least 12 years (this is because, although I like the indolent insolence of cats, I am not prepared to pick up the half-eaten debris they bring through the door in a miles-from-anywhere place like this). I have had three goldfish, a dog, a terrapin (a brief guest, when at university, and an escapologist, too – his name was Murphy, and he made it 300 yards before rescue, and this after a steep drop), and also three cats.
The goldfish taught me, at five, about death. I wrote a death-book about their successive habit of floating, starved, to the top of the globe in which they were intended, perpetually, to swim. My death book also included my head-teacher, a Mr. Joy; my grandfather; and Himmler. Spot the odd one out, and how out of date I was with current events. See if you are as quick as my father was in 1959.
The dog was a cat-substitute, and my seventh birthday present. I had asked for a cat; my father loathed cats; my father showed me a catapult used by his grandfather on cats, and assured me that his great-grandfather had carried stones to lob at them – knowledge handed down, since he was all of three months old when his great-grandfather died. So he alleged. He, on the other hand, liked dogs, and hadn’t had one for a good five years. He sprung the dog on me with the skill of a naval operation (he was an RN man). Try as I might to call it – it was a black labrador – after my favourite snack (‘Twiglet’, arguably a bad choice, I admit), he was ready with a better choice. Look away now. My dog was called Sambo. It was not a name my sister and brother and I admitted to, later in life, but the fact is that we stood at the gate many times, calling his name, when a Nigerian dentist lived in the opposite house. Room for misunderstanding. The fiction of his being mine evaporated even before my birthday (he arrived in advance). My father took over, and walked him out each night.
The first cat (Ribena) lived with me when I moved to Exeter. It made its escape, but it left me with a flat full of fleas when it vanished. This leaves the two cats of my first marriage, Digger (named after Diggory Venn, since I was teaching ‘The Return Of The Native’ every effing year, although Digger turned out to be female), and Fudge. You could reasonably stand at a door and shout ‘Digger’, but calling out ‘Fudge’ was a harder job. Luckily, Digger was the great escaper; Fudge clung on, and even survived the marriage. (Oddly enough, on one of Digger’s more incredible journeys, she made it to a Cat Sanctuary, where she was given the holding name, Rose. My daugher’s name-to-be. No connection.)
Since then, I have been a pet-free zone. The sheep in the neigbouring field break in occasionally, as did a bullock (see below), but I haven’t succumbed to their lure. Pets are too often a sign of moral weakness. I don’t mean that, really. I’m just damned if I’m prepared to fork out for their food.