It was a Sunday afternoon and I was heavily pregnant when it crossed two lanes of traffic and ran straight at me. It was white and made the shape of Omega as it loped. I crouched down, the baby between my knees, and, without a cautionary pause, it leapt, hauled itself up onto my thigh and looked at me expectantly. I stood up slowly and it scrambled over my hip – long, dirty claws, scrabbling on denim – and settled on top of the bump, burrowing into my cardigan. A man walked towards us, quickly looking away, and I called out, “Hey! Is this yours? HEY!” but he just kept going. By the time I got home I was cradling it in my arms and promising dinner.
My husband was disgusted despite my avoidance of the f-word. He didn’t believe I could possibly have just found such a creature of rural gloaming walking down a city street in broad daylight. He told me to take it straight back to whatever shady figure had sold it to me. I ran a bath. The oily fur was thick with dirt and behind the ears fat, grey ticks pulsed. I lathered it as it stood in the warm water, looking up at me with eyes the colour of Valentines. After, with flailing limbs swaddled in a towel, I eased the ticks’ bloody mouth parts out of the skin and popped their swollen bodies in a candle flame. But even fluffy clean, there was still the reek of Billy goat. Close up the fur was nicotine yellow and between the legs two furry cobnuts kept it in season. My husband was adamant.
An hour later the SSPCA van pulled up and I reluctantly handed over a manicured and perfumed pet, “He’s not mine! I just found him in the middle of the road, honestly.” The inspector took in my imminent expectancy, my husband’s scowl, and looked sceptical.
When my son turned four, I decided he needed a pet. The yellow free ads paper was a pre-internet source of anything lightly-used you ever wanted to buy. It led to everyday terraced houses or tower block flats, barely containing the passions of individuals completely committed to an incongruous species. Incubators full of parrot eggs, floor to ceiling fish tanks or entire bedrooms converted into vivariums for eight-foot boa constrictors, all hidden behind residential front doors.
I took a bus out to the airport where a lady had filled her back garden with hutches stacked double and triple storey. She led me past dozens of rescued rabbits, thumping and gnashing, to a cage on its own, covered in a blanket. That smell again. “Someone handed her in,” she said, “Then this happened.” She lifted the corner of the blanket and the long body underneath was curled around ten silky, grey sausages, nursing furiously.
“I’ll take two,” I said, breathing through my mouth.
I turned a sideboard into a big cage with chicken wire, but Slinky and Ben(dy) grew bigger and crazier and before they were six months old I had given them the box room in our one-and-a-half bedroom flat. I slept on a futon in the kitchen/living room. Slinky was pointy and nippy with black-tipped fur and a bandit mask; her brother was caramel-coloured with a sweet disposition and a big, blunt head like a tiny bear. He got sick straight after being neutered and nobody could work out what was wrong with him.
One evening, after months of invasive medical tests and syringe feeding prescription food, my dad called and said, “Put him out of his misery.” I hung up, furious. That night the phone rang at 3 a.m. My father had suffered a fatal aneurism in bed. The next morning, I packed Slinky into a cat carrier for the long train journey to London but put Ben into a separate one. I had him put to sleep on the way to the station, weighing almost nothing. I cried for months.
After my divorce, I brought home a new man I had just started seeing. I had no doubts that he would be wonderful with children, but first he had to meet Slinky who was seven years old and had recently been diagnosed with adrenal disease, the symptoms of which included almost total baldness, aggression, and a protruding vulva. He didn’t even flinch.
It seemed there had been a lot of failure. It was hard to get up most days. My boyfriend and I had bought a house with a garden and started a pet cemetery. I wanted a dog to drag me out but it would bite someone or kill the neighbours’ cats or run away. I tried to find one with no teeth or legs and instead found a woman who entrusted me with an even rarer creature.
Despite an obvious inability to hunt rabbits, Rambo had been saved by a gamekeeper, two words you don’t always hear together, and looked after for years until the gamekeeper was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Take care of him,” he said to the woman from the rescue. We both cried.
He had a short, stunted body, a stump of a tail and a big, round head with a flat face and wide-set eyes, like a pug. The huge teeth his overshot lower jaw had sent up towards his eyes had been cut back, so he could only eat liquid food. He fitted in the palm of my hand. Or he would have done if he hadn’t been so furious. He moved like a tank, mowing down anything in his path, and he absolutely stank. The breathing problems caused by his squashed nose meant anaesthetic was too much of a risk to have him neutered. The vet, marvelling at him and carrying him gently like a precious treasure to show everyone in the surgery, suggested a hormone implant. I rechristened him Ewok.
Ewok became sort of famous. Fans came to visit him; an Italian magazine published an article on him. Even now I can find people discussing him in Russian. In my new capacity as Ewok’s adoptive mother, I started to crawl out of my burrow too. Slowly at first, blinking in the light, then bounding straight for it, covered in fur and smelling faintly of musk.