We came up with a name for our new kitten before we went to pick him up.
I wanted a male tabby; I had had them as a kid and I decided I liked them best and believed that maybe they might like me too. My husband, daughter, and I felt that the kitten should have a simple name. A common everyday name. Mike or John or Steve.
We all agreed on Alan. It was a name I could imagine calling from the back door when I was alone in the house and then Alan came running and rolled around my ankles.
My daughter and I drove two hours to collect the kitten from its foster family. We understand that it was the last litter to be looked after on behalf of Cats Protection, the UK’s leading cat charity. When we got there we were told that they had wrong sexed the kitten and that she was female. It felt too late to change her name and when we met her it was impossible to say no thanks. Cats Protection proposes an adoption fee of £ 85 to cover neutering, vaccination, microchip, deworming, defleaving and general health check-up for each cat. Although Alan turned out to be a female tabby, I was happy to pay the fee.
I was 47 and wanted a cat after many years without a cat because I decided to quit the job I’d done for the past 23 years to write fiction all time. My first novel had sold but not yet published, and I was in the middle of writing the next. I was excited about the idea of quitting my job and was also scared. The financial risk was real; My husband’s wages alone wouldn’t be enough to keep us afloat, and while the money from selling my first novel would give me time to write the next, we were crammed if it didn’t sell.
But more than that: I was scared of working alone and being alone in the house all day. My kids were late in their teens wanting to leave the house, and my husband was commuting to work every day. I thought another living, breathing being in the house would keep me company. And so Alan came to live with us.
My job was co-director of a small marketing agency. I did the marketing for the company itself, as well as for HR and finance. We had a number of employees and an office that I went to every morning. I had colleagues to talk to, an off-site job and a co-director with whom I could share challenges and successes. Now I was facing the most radical change in my work life.
I had given my co-director a full year in advance. it only seemed fair, although the inordinate amount of time I’d suggested was also perhaps due to getting used to the idea or even taking the time to change my mind. But as that year went by, I knew I wouldn’t make it up to 12 months. I had done something that I noticed with my own co-workers but hadn’t suggested to myself: once you give up your resignation, your heart is no longer at work. So I renegotiated and ended up leaving after six months. There was a surprise party with champagne, cake and lots of messages from former employees, read like telegrams at a wedding. I cried. I wondered if I had made a massive mistake.
I wondered if I had made a massive mistake
Aside from the finances of “quitting the job,” I was also concerned that I might be too old to start all over again. I knew this was a problem for a lot of people switching careers in their forties and fifties, but in the writing and publishing industry it felt like most of the debut writers I saw promoted were in their twenties were. I put that aside and said that more life experience would help me write a better book. Another benefit of getting older was having more confidence than ever before in my 20s or 30s. I dismissed the idea that I should give in and please people, especially as a woman, and ended up saying yes and no to work on my own terms.
After she settled in, Alan the kitten was very much like other kittens I had known: playful and either big-eyed and active or asleep. My husband had never owned a cat and just before we were supposed to come pick them up he confessed that he didn’t care too much about cats; he could take it or leave it. That was okay – Alan was my cat.
But it took me a while to remember the lesson most cat owners have learned: these picky animals usually tend to go with the person who is least impressed with them, and in our house, of course, that was my husband. I started to know when my husband would be home from work because Alan would run to the door if she heard his key in the lock.
When I started writing full-time, I tried not to be sad that Alan rarely allowed me to stroke her, and I never curled up on my lap under my desk. Instead, I focused on the positive aspects of my new role. One of them was that I no longer had to deal with office politics. As one of the bosses, there were often problems with employees to solve: colleagues who didn’t get along, others who were upset when someone else was promoted. I worked alone and didn’t have to worry about it, but I missed a peer group that shared the same frustrations and irritations and that would be there to celebrate when things went well.
So I looked for them online. I became a member of the Prime Writers – a group of writers all over 40 years old. We share the ups and downs of writing, chatting online and, if we can, meeting in person for lunch and the book starts. I was already a member of a local writing group by the time I left the marketing job, and these people are there when one of us needs a glass of wine poured because of a rejection or to toast a success. This group provides one more thing that is lacking when you work alone: people looking over your writing; The equivalent of the colleague at the desk across from you pulling up a critical email or presentation and giving you honest feedback.
I know that many people change their careers to better balance their work and private life. And yes, I can plan my days myself. When my husband is off, I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to leave my desk and go for a walk with him. If I have to hold a late night online event with my US publishers, I can get some rest the next morning if I have to. But the work often falls in the evenings and on the weekends and there is nothing I can do about it. One good thing is that when I finish an event at 1am my husband went to bed but Alan is still waiting for me to turn off the lights before she goes into the garden.
Just like the dream of who could become a child and how they could develop into their very own person, the adult cat Alan did not behave as I had dreamed.
I had imagined that she was with me in my writing room, sitting on my keyboard, or lying on the day bed. But although it is usually the warmest room in the house, Alan usually sleeps elsewhere. She comes to me when she’s hungry or sometimes just comes in to check I’m still at my desk and then leaves. Instead, it is my husband she loves, and he came to love her. She will lie in his arms like a baby; It’s just his lap she sits on and my husband she purrs for.
But when I’m alone in the house, it’s tremendously comforting that there is another living, breathing being in another room. And I love my cat even if she doesn’t love me.
Claire Fuller’s fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, is now out of Tin House and was shortlisted for the Women’s Fiction Award.