My Life

Dan Jacobson

There are people, birds and mice, other cats, cars. There are trees, flowerbeds, the lawn, paths, fences. There are rooms, stairs, radiators.

It would be untrue to say that I have never known anything else. I can remember a place quite unlike this one. It had no shapes and names; it consisted only of a darkness that squirmed and moved about; it was part of me and I was part of it. Now wet, now dry, it would sometimes trample on me with many small feet. I would open my mouth, close my mouth, suck, suck, suck. What came into my mouth was not food but light.

At least, that’s how I remember it. I had no words then, and without them it is difficult to be sure of what you are experiencing. (It’s difficult enough even when you do have words!) A great deal of squeaking went on; often enough I must have contributed to it. Later on the light began: the real light, I mean, not the kind that seemed to come in through my mouth. That kind, my mother’s, the light I sucked, was hot and clear and ran so rapidly through me I shuddered as I took it in. But the other sort of light was so vague I did not even realise it was there until quite long after it had arrived. It did not shine or glimmer; it merely grew or expanded within the darkness itself, and as it grew it removed the darkness farther and farther from me, until it was like a shell or a horizon all around me, nothing more. Within the shell were my mother, and my brothers and sisters. And myself.

I don’t know what happened to my brothers and sisters, and to tell the truth I don’t much care. But I feel like howling whenever I think of my mother. Sometimes I do howl: then windows are opened and people clap their hands threateningly at me; once or twice hairbrushes and plastic mugs have been thrown at what people blindly suppose to be me. That’s the price of giving tongue and throat to the longings I still feel for her. It is as if nothing that I’ve been or become or have done since I was parted from her has had the reality she had for me; or the reality which she conferred on me. To remember her is to feel more deeply whatever I am than the rest of me can bear. Composed of darkness, she secreted light; her tongue was as rough as her teeth were tender; her purring made the world tremble with joy at its having life enough to tremble. As for her smell ... I can’t define it; I can say only that every breath carried it into every crevice of myself, too deeply to be reached now; I bear her smell within me and yet spend my life looking for it. I want nothing more than to be able to breathe it in again and again, never-endingly. But no such luck.

Well, I haven’t made much of a job of describing my mother; all I have done is to say something of my feelings about her. I doubt if it would be useful for me to speak about the colour and length of her fur, the markings of her face, the curl of her tail. Especially as I can’t really remember them. Sometimes I settle down to make up mothers and pretend that this one or that one is her. The truth is that they are all her, for she is everything I have lost and will never regain: unbegrudging love, constant protection, sustenance, warmth, licking, the perfect darkness which the light eroded from within.

Then I was snatched away from her and brought to this place, where I’ve lived ever since. That was my first experience of the power people have. Up to then they had hardly impinged on my life. Suddenly they took hold of me and I found myself alone in a box, in a corner which I now know to have been in the little cellar under the stairs. To one side of the box was a tray of sand, for purposes which were at once apparent to my infantile consciousness; on the other side was a saucer of milk which, oddly enough, was more of a puzzle to me. What was I supposed to do with it? It smelled quite good; it looked like nothing I’d ever seen before; it was quite motionless. How could I, my mother’s dearest, favourite son, the son of my dearest, favourite mother, conclude that I was to get sustenance from it? In the end, I managed.

If I am to relive or re-create my kittenish days, I must discover the living-room once again; try unavailingly to climb the stairs; have my paw trampled on in the kitchen; chase after pieces of string dangled in front of me; attempt to disembowel slippers and plastic balls with fierce slashings of my back legs; bristle and spit at non-existent terrors in shadowy corners of the hall; cock my head so and arch my tail thus and slither across the linoleum just like that. The usual stuff. Some of it I remember; some of it, like other autobiographers, I make up. One episode I do distinctly recall, however, is the first time I was taken out of doors. At least I think of it as the first time, even though I must have been taken outside when I was separated from my mother and brought to this house. But in the shock of separation I’d hardly noticed it; anyhow, I’d been carried in someone’s arms all the way. This time it was quite different. I was carefully put on the ground and left there, in the middle of a great expanse, under a swirling light, buffeted by a wind that made me totter where I stood. From all sides came a salutation of green things – I did not know what they were – some so high above me they seemed to have no connection with the place I was standing on; they all streamed and fluttered away in a frenzy, yet somehow remained where they were. There was no end to any of it: space, light, wind, growth, movement.

Later, when I had become familiar with the garden and was able to take for granted much that had terrified me the first time I had come across it, I investigated the road in front of the house. I never go there now. What is there about it, with its hard, flat, sharp-edged kerbs, and the black, humped expanse of tar that lies between them, to attract me? Not to mention the vehicles that storm along it, each one intent on its own murderous business. On the far side of the road are some black railings and a tilted expanse of grass; it goes up and up, with trees standing up from it and pathways lying flat upon it, until grass and trees and pathways together make up the horizon. Once, when I was more curious or hopeful about the world than I am now, I actually crossed the road and went into the park. Dogs and children were all over the place. I don’t know which I hated more. Then I was nearly killed by a lorry on the way back. It was huge beyond reckoning; but what I remember with especial terror about it was how it jangled and bounded as it came upon me, joyfully it seemed, as if it were playing a game it could never lose. Perhaps I have the same effect on the mice and birds I catch. None of us can help his own nature: that is the truth of the matter. It is in the nature of lorries to kill cats; in the nature of cats to catch mice and birds; the nature of mice and birds to be caught or to escape, depending on their luck and swiftness; and the nature of people to wear clothes, drive lorries and domesticate cats.

Witness the humiliation that was inflicted on me the next time I went out through the front gate. I had been put in a basket with bars. They swung the basket to and fro before setting it down on the back seat of a car. Doors slammed shut, first this one, then that, like a great pair of hands banging a carcass in the ribs. Then it was the turn of the car to swing to and fro. The basket was opened in a strange room filled with an evil, irresistibly seductive smell. A man in a white coat, with the smell strong on his fingertips, spoke kindly to me. The smell became overpowering. Literally so.

We are all adults now, and I know exactly what was done to me. Every tom who comes prowling around reminds me of it. Sometimes I see them; sometimes I know them to have been there by the reek they leave behind. When I come face to face with one of them, I flee. When I don’t see them, but smell them merely, it’s worse in some ways. Imagine being able to spray that stuff around! I hear them howling for their mates, and try to compare those howls with mine for my mother. There are females who howl, too, when they’re on heat. They ignore me when they come this way, and I pretend to ignore them. Sitting on someone’s lap, while a hand caresses me from the top of my head to the base of my tail, or lying on my back waiting for the tip of a leather-shod foot to tickle me in those delicate places where my legs meet my torso, I sometimes wonder whether the sensations I feel are comparable to those which toms and their ladies experience as they go in for their ferociously exact and exacting embraces; but I wouldn’t know. I just wouldn’t know.

There are of course other ex-males to whom the same thing was done as was done to me. And females on whom an equivalent operation was performed. We make up a society of our own: a rather shamefaced, mutually supportive and mutually contemptuous club of second-raters. We can’t bear to be reminded of what each of us reminds the rest; but we also can’t do without each other.

I turn now to the authors of that humiliation and a multitude of others. Daily humiliations, I mean, built-in humiliations, humiliations of which those who inflict them are not even aware. They arise inevitably from my position as a domestic pet; from my size relative to theirs; from their inability to understand my speech (let alone from their inability to conceive of the possibility that I might be able to understand their speech!); from the power they have to give me food and drink or withhold it, as they please, or to let me lie by the fire or drive me from it, again according to their whim; from the fact, to put it as broadly and simply as I can, that I am much more dependent on them than they are on me.

The paradox, of course, is that everything which I have described as an humiliation is a condition of my being so well-placed to observe what goes on among them. There is a lesson here, or at least a metaphor, but I shall refrain from pointing it. They say and do things in front of me which they would never permit any other witness to see or overhear. Indeed, while they frequently treat me like a toy or an imbecile, or simply ignore me, there are times when I’ll be dragged on to someone’s lap, fondled extravagantly, scratched behind the ears, and then favoured with confidences which are kept from all others. To these advantages as an observer add the fact that I have sharper hearing than they do, a keener sense of smell, incomparably better night vision ...

It is true that they get up and go, either on foot or in their hawking, roaring cars, and that what they do elsewhere is beyond my ken, except in so far as they will subsequently talk about it within my hearing. I know directly only what goes on under my nose or above it. No matter. There is enough happening here to keep me alert and interested, to amuse me, to puzzle me, occasionally to frighten me. In return I go through my modest repertoire of tricks and endearments: purrings, prancings, rubbings up against, etcetera.

For obvious reasons human feet are at least as important to me as human faces or voices. I spend a lot of my time inspecting them. Smelling them, too: an occupation which is more agreeable at some times than at others. It is amazing – at least I think it would amaze human beings to know – how much their feet reveal about them. Because of the way they carry themselves they don’t seem to set much store by their feet; they regard them as inexpressive, utilitarian, virtually interchangeable. They look into one another’s faces for minutes and even hours on end; they talk incessantly; they grip each other by the hands and around the shoulders; they press their lips together. But their feet? Lovers will use them surreptitiously under a table sometimes, or flagrantly when they are alone together. For the rest, however, their feet are virtually ignored, or are confused with shoes. Shoes! True, these bags of leather and plastic can tell one something about the feet inside them and the person above them. We all know the suffering look of the female foot crammed into a tiny shoe; the man who drags his heels down to one side drags his spirit to one side, too, you may be sure. But observations of that kind are really pretty rudimentary. How often do human beings smell one another’s feet, and how subtle are the conclusions they draw from the odours that every pair of feet produces? Have you ever known a human who has taken note of the relationship which any pair of feet have to one another: the angles at which they come to rest; the way they rub against one another; the manner in which one will seek to take the initiative in setting the person in motion, leaving the other to follow? All this quite apart from their shape and size when they are divested of their shoes and stockings, and you see how eloquently the toes splay out or remain bunched together, with each one giving the next its shape; how the nails curve or split or reach forward; how the hair grows or does not grow on the ridge that runs along the top; how the veins and tendons stand out and how thick they are; how yellow or white, soft or hard, the heels are.

Forgive me. I did not mean to launch myself on a disquisition of such length. Perhaps the length of it is a reflection of my own vanity. I mean, when I compare those feet of theirs with mine, with ours – with the delicacy and cunning of ours, the softness of which they’re capable, and the savagery – I just want to open my mouth in a great, curling grin of contempt. The funny thing, though, is that it is precisely the clumsiness and obtuseness of human feet which makes them so revelatory. They have no way of disguising themselves, poor things. Not to me, or to us, anyway.

Look at my mistress. By human standards her feet are rather fine – narrow, long-toed, with a clearly marked instep. They’re suspended from and in turn support slender ankles. By human standards, again, she’s rather foot-conscious: that is to say, she puts them on display when she sits in an armchair or when she advances across a room to greet a newcomer. But they’re shifty, too, those feet of hers: they like to nuzzle into one another (nose to instep) and stroke one another when she’s alone; they do it uncontrollably whenever she receives compliments, as well. As for her son, with the laces of his sneakers tied in great bows flopping in all directions, so that he clicks and flicks across a wooden floor in almost dog-like fashion: well, there you have him. He’s an enthusiast. He’s an eager shuffler and scuffler, a pawer of his soles against carpets, a grabber of his own ankles. He’s also a user of some kind of pharmaceutical foot-powder – the odour of it is unmistakable; so are the traces left behind in the bathroom – which is a clear indication that he suffers from one of those disagreeable diseases to which human feet are prone. And indeed, I’ve often seen him surreptitiously rubbing the top of one foot, at the base of the toes, with the heel of the other.

There is a third member of the household. Her name is Sophia. She shares the son’s bedroom. She arrived some time after I did, and has always been unenthusiastic about me. The most she will ever do for me is to give me a poke in the ribs with her foot. I am never allowed on to her rancid lap. She almost always wears openwork sandals, and the temptation which those naked toes of hers present to my claws and teeth is almost irresistible. But so far I have managed to resist it. She is a big woman and I’ve seen what she can do when she loses her temper. She once hit her lover with a ladle. They were alone in the kitchen at the time: alone, that is, but for me. He was quite stunned by the blow, and sat on the kitchen bench with his head in his hands. I’d already fled with a squawk through the open window; but looked back and saw him. I also once saw her hit herself across the side of the face with her open hand: a blow that you might have thought would dislocate her jaw. First her skin went pale, then it went dark; afterwards she cried. I do not know what was the occasion of the blow. She was in the hall; there must have been about a dozen people in the living-room, behind the closed door. It was one of my mistress’s ‘afternoons’. Cigarette smoke, perfume, tea, cake smells, voices, all behind a closed door – one of those afternoons. With the smells of gin and tonic and whiskey to follow, and the voices growing louder. For some reason my mistress keeps me out of the room during these affairs, though I have met most of the people who come regularly to them, and am not on bad terms with any of them.

Ordinarily I spend quite a lot of time in that room. The only thing I don’t like about it is the portrait of my mistress’s late husband which hangs on the wall. He was, it appears, a great man. The portrait is in modern, not to say lurid, shades of yellow, blue and orange, with some especially striking blue glints in the forehead. He wrote important books on philosophy and social affairs which, every summer, bring Americans to the house, where they rummage among the papers in the room which was once his study. They are always wooing my mistress for permission to write the authorised biography; as far as I can see, that is the only kind of wooing she encourages. In the three years I’ve been here (I was given to her as some kind of consolation, after the death of the philosopher) she has lived a chaste life. I sometimes see her son and his Sophia doing indelicate things to one another, and making the noises humans make at such times: my mistress never.

All in all, then, I can reasonably claim to be a member of quite a distinguished and interesting household. As for the difficulties which the members of it have with one another from time to time – believe me, compared with what my friends from neighbouring gardens tell me, we lead a pretty quiet life. Here I am, in the middle of a London suburb much favoured by philosophers, television presenters, publishers, social scientists, architects, journalists, and suchlike; pretty high-class folk, you might imagine. Yet it sometimes seems to me that all I hear from my friends is talk of fights, drunkenness, illness, incest, cruel children, neglect, unopened tins of food, saucers of milk left unchanged for days at a time, people going on holiday with no arrangements made for those left behind, and a host of similar horrors.

What have I to complain about, in comparison? Those unspeakable occasions when my mistress dons a smock and ties a handkerchief around her mouth, before dousing me in flea-powder from a plastic puffer? They are a torment, but they are also a symbol of the closeness of our relationship: a sign of how much she cares for us both. Fresh food appears regularly; access to my favourite armchair is permitted; strokings and fondlings take place regularly; my pleas to be let in when it is cold, and to be let out when I’m restless, are almost invariably heeded. I have much to be grateful for.

No, I take back what I’ve just said. They can go to hell, the lot of them, my mistress included. I thought my position was as well-founded as anyone’s could be; that the agreement between myself and my mistress was a settled and secure one, resting as it did on the basis of an exchange of benefits. Nothing of the kind! In a moment, quite as suddenly as when I was snatched away from my mother’s nest and breast, everything has changed, has been lost, torn from me; I find myself in this awful place, in a kind of cage, alongside a lot of cats I’ve never seen before. Wire, cement floors, straw, unpalatable rations, a yard devoid of trees to climb on or flowerbeds in which to couch myself: it’s a penitentiary, not a home.

What have I done? Why has this punishment been inflicted on me? Those are not difficult questions for me to answer. There is a short answer to them and a long one. The short answer is: Sophia. The woman with the sandals. And the corduroy trousers, and the checked, short-sleeved shirts, and the degree in social work – and, it appears, the allergic disposition. She’s to blame. She’s the one who began to close up at the eyes and go red in the nose and wheeze in the chest: all of which was initially a source of amusement to me, I admit. I should have known better. I was even more amused in some ways, by the looks of concern on her lover’s face and by the expressions of anxiety which crossed his lips. You didn’t need to be especially catty (as those vile humans say) to see how irritated he was by her ailment and how unattractive it made her appear in his eyes.

A week ago: that’s all. The next thing I know is that a suffocated series of disputes has broken out among the three of them. My mistress versus her son, her son versus Sophia, Sophia versus them both, separately and together. Incredibly enough, all of these are occasioned by myself, they are focused on my presence in the house, though I am not megalomaniac enough to claim that they are really about me. Sophia, I learn, has gone to consult a doctor, and that fool of a doctor has told her that she is suffering from an allergy – no, not to cats, not to me, not directly, but to the bites of the cat-flea. That’s his theory, anyway. Naturally I am accused of harbouring the fleas that bite her, and hence of being the prime source of the misery she is going through. What is to be done? More de-fleaings yet? No, no. Now that she has science to reinforce her native or instinctual dislike of me, this offer doesn’t begin to satisfy the remorselessly wheezing, eye-wiping, nose-blowing Sophia. Even if such de-fleaings took place regularly, she claims, if they took place daily, she’d still be anxious about me all the time. The doctor had said that she must at all costs try to avoid the congestion in her chest turning into asthma. As far as she’s concerned there’s only one thing to do. They must ‘get rid’ of me.

That was her proposal: as simple and brutal as the words she used. At first it seemed that the others would instantly obey her. However, after a day or two, another possibility began to emerge. They could get rid of Sophia. If she didn’t like the company she was keeping, then let her go. And beyond that there was yet another possibility: my mistress could get rid of them both. What were they doing in her house, anyway? If her beloved son was old enough to live with a woman, he was old enough to do so under a roof of his own. Let him take her and his never-to-be-finished PhD thesis elsewhere. And beyond that possibility, again, there appeared remotely but distinctly still another. They could get rid of my mistress. Let her take her cat and her memories and her portrait of the philosopher and go and live in a more modest place, leaving the younger generation (her son) to enjoy the residence he would sooner or later inherit.

Who loved whom more? Who feared whom? Who could bear the loss of what least well? Those were the issues at stake. Over me or about me or through me there came into conflict loyalties, greeds, animosities, anxieties and displays of will of a kind which were supposed to have been magicked away, talked away, understood away among such people. The result was tears, raised voices, lowered voices, closed doors, silences, long stares, averted gazes, deep breaths, people going out for solitary walks up the hill and down again.

In the end we know what happened. I went. Sophia stayed. Presumably I’m to remain here until another home (so-called) is found for me. However, I have learned more from this experience than those humans have perhaps realised. I’ve learned how bad was the bargain I unwittingly struck with them in my infancy, and subsequently, when I exchanged my freedom, my selfhood, my tomhood, my very nature, for the comforts they offered me. That is the real, the deep, the underlying reason for my being here, and for my feeling so shocked at what has happened. At the time the bargain was made, indeed all my life, it seemed to me that I had no alternative: I was born in one house and carried away to another, where I was fed, cosseted, played with, talked to, operated on ... until I myself became convinced that my dependence on them was complete, without qualification. So convinced was I of it that they and all their fellow humans became the prime objects of my attention and curiosity.

But now, when I look around me at this barren place, and remember the garden in which I used to roam, and over which I would pretend to rule, with its trees and shrubs and pathways, and the mice and birds I used to play with before bringing their corpses to the back door and abandoning them there, I know how great was the mistake I made. Yes, my roamings were all pretence and play and comfortable disdain; and what made them so was my attitude, nothing else. Admittedly, I couldn’t stand up to those fierce toms; but they weren’t there all the time, or even much of the time; I could have ruled over everything else. I could have gone after the birds and mice in all earnestness: not for sport, not as a diversion, not for the sheer pleasure of seeing what terror of my teeth and claws and gleaming eyes did to them, but to sink my teeth into them, to drink their blood, crush their bones, eat their flesh. It would have made no difference to them, I killed them anyway; but what a difference it would have made to me if I had hunted them in order to consume them, every last scrap of them, instead of simply putting them on display near the back step – those mice with their long rear legs and tails curled inwards like prawns; those birds with shoulders hunched up stiffly to their missing heads. Yet in actual fact, what did I do for my food? Hung about under the electric can-opener in the kitchen, waiting for someone to put it to work. And for whose benefit did I put out those displays of my trophies? The wielders of the can-opener.

Never again. When I get out of here, when they have found a new home for me, it’s going to be a different story. I am going to find a space for myself and make it my own. I’ll fend for myself, and for my fleas, if necessary, and ask nothing from people: not food, not drink, not shelter, not caresses. Never caresses. At last I am going to be the animal I should have been born to be: the one they know nothing about.

That’s my resolution and I shall not go back on it. I have only one misgiving, though. Sometimes, when the man who apparently runs this place comes out, I catch on his clothes and hands a smell I have encountered just once before in my life. It is unmistakable: once inhaled, never forgotten. I know that they can’t do to me a second time what they have already done. But perhaps they have something else in mind. If that is so, I wonder what it will turn out to be.