A letter arrives, inviting me to adopt a donkey for Christmas. This new addition to my family would have fresh straw and carrots for life. A festive thought – have vegetarian tendencies too – but, no.
I’m not wild about animals. Maybe it’s because childhood pets came to sticky ends. The golden spaniel I once tried to ride ran in front of a truck. Then, in a broken Berlin, one post-war winter, someone ate my cat. When Pushti disappeared, my nanny – a Nazi for sure – smiled and said she’d been stolen, for food.
And yet, when in early December the heating failed and the house grew cold, I went to bed with a hot water bottle – and a faux cat or two for company. In the morning, the radiators came alive with the sound of hissing. The gratitude! But I rang the boiler man, to be on the safe side. He couldn’t understand it; he’d only done the annual service in November. (He’d talked of hydraulic valves and pressure vessels and the relationship between the thermostat on the stairs and the dials in the cupboard…he’d drained this and adjusted that, all with a kind of brisk tenderness.) It must have re-set itself, he said.
Then the watch that worked one day went slow the next. The new smartphone set me another challenge. The computer soon joined in – not connected to a network – web page expired – then, in its own time – diagnosed the problem….
There are forces out there far older and stronger than any of these, it’s true. Like wind and fire. While in the north, floodwater invaded the homes of others, a midland wind arose to attack my garden fence and flatten it. Later, in mid-December, the lights went out – even the lamps in the street outside. The radio fell silent. No heat, no kettle, no cup of tea. So I went to bed again, with no hot water bottle. Up to the cubs on the duvet – the tiger, the bear and the snow leopard. A power cut. Like London in the 7o’s. The blackout lasted till the early hours, the result of a massive fire at a local sub-station.
No substitute, ever, for another human being to hold, for the loving, living eye. In the meantime, a menagerie. The comfort of an inanimate animal, of an undifficult presence – that doesn’t, God-like, work in mysterious ways. With no hard edges or moving parts, that doesn’t turn on or off. With fur and a face, but – unlike the boiler – no inner life. Inexpensive. Immortal.