When I was 10 years old, we lived in a house with interesting neighbours.
I remember on the day we moved in, the mother walked into our new home and announced, “we mostly keep ourselves to ourselves”.
In my experience, people who describe themselves as an open book are no more open with their thoughts and feelings than those who call themselves private.
Or not with me at least.
The family next door had so many cats. One day we tried to count them. I think we got to sixteen.
One of the many kittens started coming into our house and before we knew it, she was ours.
I don’t know if the neighbours noticed or cared, but the little boys who lived there were not kind to the kittens, so we felt we were rescuing her.
We called her Mozart, mostly known as Mozzarella or Mozzy.
One day I was woken in the middle of the night by a cat wailing. It sounded like it was coming from the little yard out the back. I looked out the window, but I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t sleep, but I wouldn’t have woken my mother without a better reason than that.
The next day I was in a show at school so I stayed late and didn’t see my mum till after it finished.
In the car on the way home she told me “the cat had kittens”.
We had had no idea she had been pregnant. She was still so little, I don’t think my mum had thought about getting her spayed yet.
The first weeks of those three kittens’ lives was one of the most memorable periods of my childhood.
I remember the way they pawed at their mother as they fed, and the games we played with my brothers, pretending to race them, as if they knew which direction we wanted them to run in.
One went to live with my grandfather, one to a friend of my sister, and one to live in a magical place called Brighton, where we ourselves would move a couple of years later, taking Mozzy with us.
I never really wanted a pet so much as I wanted to say yes when my children asked for one.
My husband and I went as far as to ask our landlord whether we could get a cat, actually, way back when it was just the two of us.
We were going through a rough patch and I think my mum was worried that the mooted cat was some kind of weak gesture of commitment or attempt at saving the relationship.
She was probably right.
Our landlord said no.
The next year we got engaged, and the year after that we moved into our first house and had our first baby.
With the house renovations and baby years to come, pet ownership went off the agenda.
Eventually the kids started asking for a pet.
I have never been interested in keeping anything in a cage, so we said no to hamsters and guinea pigs.
A dog still felt like a hell of a commitment, eighteen years and two children deep.
And then lockdown loomed.
Eight months earlier my sister had given birth to twins, and we’re all very close, physically (she lives a few doors down) as well as emotionally.
One of the biggest devastations of the situation for me was the knowledge that these babies, who I had been holding since minutes after they were born, would barely remember me by the time the lockdown was over.
Separation anxiety would soon hit, and I would be a stranger.
So I was grieving that closeness, processing this impending lockdown and what it might mean for our children, and – let’s face it – probably ovulating, when I convinced my husband we should get a rescue cat.
I wanted to do it as soon as possible, knowing that the shelters would close to visitors at some point.
We were too late, but by early June adoptions had started up again.
My sisters-in-law had already mentioned the benefits of getting two, so when we arrived at the shelter and were asked “are you interested in a pair?” I saw my husband’s face and said “probably not,” but what can you do when the loveliest cat in the shelter comes with a sister?
What can you do when you have two little girls, and you miss your baby nieces, and one tortie greets you, “take me home!” while her sister cowers in a corner?
You can take them home. So you do.
I know there is nothing more quotidian than humans cohabiting with cats, but of course I had a moment of have-I-ruined-my-life panic, because that’s what comes with change.
We called them Jacinda, in the hope that we too might one day have a leader who makes us proud, and Nimene, after a presenter of one of our daughters’ favourite podcasts.
It’s impossible for me not to think of human beings in terms of their attachment style, and the first thing I learned was that I have the same problem with cats.
Actually no, the first thing I learned was that cats have no ambition, and creating a sense of purpose for our lives is only one way to cope with the pain of its meaninglessness.
(They are their needs. There is no bigger picture. I feel therefore I do.)
It is also an option to face (or ignore?) that existential dread, lie around doing nothing, and feel okay.
Alright, I knew that already. But they reminded me of it, and I appreciated them for that, for a little while.
Then I went back to working too hard, chasing the idea of there being a point to my existence.
What can I say? I’m not a cat.
So it was the second thing I noticed, their attachment style.
Nimene (Nims, Nimenina) is more anxiously attached; Jacinda (Cindy, Cinderella) more avoidant.
Nimene is a chatty cat, likes to be near us, follows me around like Lassie.
It took me weeks to realise that there’s nothing wrong, no emergency to attend to, that’s just how she is.
Nimene meows with an exclamation mark.
We didn’t know that Jacinda could make a sound until weeks in, when when she got stuck under the cupboard and we finally heard her voice.
She only speaks up when she can’t reach her sister.
Jacinda meows with a question mark.
I’ve been around a human distancer long enough to know that there’s no point pursuing one.
Slowly, very slowly, Jacinda is warming up.
She still lives under the sofa, but at dawn and dusk, and any time I’m up at night, she appears, headbutts me, rubs against my legs.
Two months after she came to live with us, she is yet to leave the building, and it’s hard to imagine her ever sitting in my lap like her sister does.
Nimine’s demands sound like criticisms, in classic pursuer style.
Jacinda’s aloofness feels like rejection, in classic distancer style.
And sometimes at night, they fight.
The pursuer starts it. The distancer holds her ground, but she doesn’t retaliate. She just wants it to be over.
“You love watching that cat,” my husband observed.
“Which one?” I asked.
“Cindy,” he said.
“She is fascinating,” I said.
Kind of like him.
A few weeks in, I fell for Nims.
She climbs into my lap and purrs.
If I’m already out of bed before she comes into my bedroom in the morning, she meows at me indignantly, as if to say “what about my cuddle?”
Gradually, I have learned what she likes: a good firm scratch with fingernails, along her back, over her head, but watch the ears.
But I have learned to be careful too – we all have – not to do anything that encourages batting, or makes them feel threatened in a small space.
Everything soft has teeth and claws.
Everything with teeth and claws has a softness.
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