They couldn’t have children so they asked their neighbours if they would consider having one for them and sharing it. But the idea was immediately rejected. So they got a pair of kittens instead, two female kittens. Each kitten quickly became pregnant and produced its own set of kittens, which they admitted to each other one night in bed after switching off the reading lamp made them feel a little bit like grandparents and a little less anxious about their own failure to reproduce. Each kitten was allowed to keep one kitten, so they then had four. But the feline family didn’t get on that well. At night, they fought, screaming and scratching out of the cat-flap into the garden. The other cats, the neighbours’ cats, watched from surrounding fences, garden sheds and the school wall. The noise of the brawls even drew cats from other streets, all coming to watch the scrapping family. One day, one of the kittens, one of the older ones, both an aunt and mother, began to withdraw. She started straying further from home and took to spending time with the neighbours instead, the ones who’d said they did not want to have a baby or share it. They liked the kitten that had become a cat, and the cat liked them because their home was empty of other animals. They liked having a free furry pet that they didn’t have to pay any vets’ bills for, or feed. They never fed it, that was their rule. It didn’t mind, it didn’t want food. It wanted peace and quiet and a bit of stroking. Its daughter missed it but its nephew was pleased to see the tail of it, as was its sister, the nephew’s mother. The neighbours laughed about how jealous their neighbours must be, the neighbours who wanted to share a baby with them but bought two kittens instead and ended up with four. They laughed because they liked the idea that their neighbours got distressed because one of their cats was missing. They loved the fact they hadn’t even had to ask or pay for the cat, which they cuddled and chuckled at and talked to in detail about how much it must love being with them, free and happy and without the hassles of its sister and nephew to irritate it. Occasionally they heard the cat’s owners calling it from the garden and they relished watching it return from their side of the fence. They liked the idea that the cat only used its owners for food but preferred to spend all of its time with them, who loved it, who imitated its purr, the way it stretched and kicked its back legs into the air, the way it miaowed. They lay on the bed with it, stroking it and reading it the news from the weekend papers.
As the weeks went by, the cat spent more and more time with them such that they began to worry about it and call for it when it didn’t come to their backdoor the moment they returned from work. If they hadn’t seen it for a few hours they would imagine it run over or snatched by another neighbour or attacked by one of the many other cats in the area. Eventually they started to think of ways to keep the cat, to make it theirs. Over cups of tea, they discussed what sort of food bowl they would buy it and whether they would get a litter-tray. They talked about getting it its own cat basket with a soft wool blanket to sleep on. They even suggested getting it a special scratching board to discourage it from tearing their furniture to shreds. One weekend, they walked to the pet shop and looked at all the toys and pet paraphernalia they could buy for the cat. They agreed that things were expensive but they were sure it was worthwhile. They argued about colours and which size of bowl was most appropriate. They spent twenty minutes fingering a tray of claw clippers before agreeing that they could just as easily use their own nail clippers. In the end, they agreed on an expensive brush that the pet shop assistant said was perfect for pulling out loose cat hair and conditioning the skin. They told the assistant they didn’t need a bag and took the brush as it was, touching it and talking about it on the way home. It felt good, they both agreed, to hold the wooden handle and feel the rubber grip in the palm of the hand.
The following morning, shortly after breakfast, a crowd of few familiar faces gathered in front of their neighbours’ house. They pulled back the curtain to see a woman walking from one side of the road to the other, unravelling plastic tape which she had knotted around a cherry tree. A small queue of cars had formed and one of the drivers wouldn’t take his hand off the horn. Some of the people in the crowd were holding up banners, but they couldn’t quite read from their bedroom window what they said.