Pet Spotlight: Andrew Martin ‘s Pets He Nearly Had

When I was nine, my parents bought me a kitten for my birthday. It was a stunning surprise, and very touching, since my parents had divined that I wanted a kitten, even though I hadn’t gone on about it very much. It was not that I never whined, just that I never whined about that particular subject, since there was no history of pet-owning in my family, and my father especially gave the appearance of being anti-animal.

The arrangement of the surprise was perfectly executed, which was also uncharacteristic of our family, since we never went in for the sentimental theatricality even of candles on cakes. I had been subtly kept away from the house all morning. “I’m cleaning the carpets,” my mother said, “so I want you out.” When I came back at midday the kitten – a female tabby – was sitting proprietorially on the sofa, and my parents were debating whether it should be allowed to continue doing so. ‘Is it mine?’ I asked incredulously. My mother confirmed that it was, and my dad added, ‘So you’re looking after it.’

I called the kitten Henty for some good – but I’m afraid forgotten – reason, and I did look after her. After four weeks my interest in the kitten had outlasted any other recreation I’d taken up. The problem was that my younger sister would pull Henty’s tail, and in the fifth week, Henty turned on her, and scratched her near the eye. If Henty had scratched her anywhere else, we might have kept her, but my sister “could have been blinded” and so another stratagem was devised to keep me out of the house, and when I returned I was told a man had come and taken Henty “to live on a farm.”

After about half a day of tears, I began interrogating my parents. “Was the man who’d come to collect Henty actually a farmer?” (I pictured a man turning up at our suburban house in a tractor). “No,” I was told, but he “worked on a farm.” My parents were so shifty under my interrogation that I surmised Henty had not been taken to a farm, but had been put to sleep permanently for being dangerous. I could never bear to mention her again.

The news of my loss must have got out, because the mother of one of my friends offered me – via my own mother – a tortoise. It was currently in hibernation in their garden shed but would be roused from its slumber in April and presented to me. The father of the family was some sort of colonialist, involved in the administration of Bermuda, to which they would be returning in summer, and it would be impractical to take the tortoise.

In early April, however, the mother of the colonial family reported to my mother that the tortoise had been discovered to be dead when unpacked from its winter quarters. I can’t say I was devastated, never having been introduced to the animal, and I wondered quite coldly whether it had been alive or dead at the moment the offer was made. The whole conundrum was reminiscent, I would later discover, of the scenario known among quantum physicists as “Schrodinger’s Cat”.

We now jump forward 30 years. I had married a woman apparently as anti-animal as my father had been but, because he had relented, I hoped she might, especially if I persuaded her that a dog or cat would be beneficial to our two young sons.

We were vacationing in a rented country cottage that summer. The nearest house belonged to a man who was emphatically not on holiday. On the contrary, he was a grim-faced farmer who owned two Border Collies, one of which trespassed into our rented garden one day. I began throwing sticks for this dog to fetch. He was slow to catch on because, I suspected, no-one had ever tried to engage him in this kind of fun before. But, being a Border Collie, he was intelligent, so when he did catch on he progressed rapidly, and humorous nuances entered our game. For example, he would return the stick, then wander away, apparently bored of the game. But as soon as I picked up the stick, he would try to wrestle it – in a well-mannered way – from my hand.

Not to boast, but for the remainder of our holiday, the dog would wait for me on the doorstep of our cottage. One evening he followed me halfway to the pub along a country lane. I stopped and ordered him back home. The next night, I didn’t order him home, and we sat in perfect companionship in the pub garden as I drank a pint of beer and fed him half a bag of chips. Naturally, I had formulated a defense in case the farmer should be in the pub and emerge to accuse me of stealing his dog. “Nothing to do with me, mate,” I would say. “He followed me here.” I almost hoped the farmer would confront me, because then we would have it out. “Look here,” I would say, in a lordly sort of way. “This dog and I seem to have hit it off pretty well. How would be if I took him off your hands? Would 30 quid seal the deal?”

In the dogless months that followed, I regretted not having sought the fellow out to make such an offer, and I began looking on the internet for dogs for sale. I fancied a Bedlington Terrier. A friend of mine had one, and I’d looked after it for a day. I took it on Hampstead Heath and was alarmed when it ran away from me at about 30 miles an hour. The alarm was compensated for many times over when it ran back to me at the same speed.

I found a Bedlington seller on line and made an appointment to go to his house with my eldest son. He had talked of little else but dogs for some time, and we ought to have loped along the garden path to the front door in excited anticipation…but it was not that kind of garden. It seemed the householder sold wrecked cars as well as Bedlingtons. We passed the remains of an ornamental pond that not only contained no water, but had been smashed up in an apparently malicious way. The house itself was caked in grey pebble dash, and all the curtains were closed. When I rang the bell there was no answering noise from within. “Shall we try again?” I asked my son, with hand poised over the bell-push. He shook his head, and we walked away in silence.

Brooding on this, I thought at first the house had been a test of my resolve about getting a dog, but as the weeks and months passed and I made no further canine researches, I realized it had been something more: a reproof to my presumption. I was not meant to have a dog. My wife had been relieved when the Bedlington purchase fell through and there seemed almost complete unanimity among my friends that it was “so tying to have a dog.”

Gradually, my thoughts swiveled back in the direction of cats.

A couple of summers ago, a cat – a Ginger Tom – had begun hanging around our house. Sometimes I would let him in, and sometimes he would come in anyway. He was called Pumpkin, according the tag on its collar, and there was a number to call. So I phoned the owner to say that her cat was spending a lot of time at our place. She replied, without any bitterness, “Oh, that’s fine. You can have him if you want.” “But don’t you want him?” I asked, appalled. “It’s not a question of what we want,” she said. “It’s what he wants. A few months ago, we got a second cat. We hoped they’d get on, but Pumpkin decided to leave.” I said I’d think about it, but then Pumpkin deposited a large turd on the pillow of my son’s bed. I carried him smartly out of the house, and as a result I in turn became a victim of his froideur. He began frequenting other houses in the neighborhood and he eventually became the property of some people around the corner. Whenever I passed him in the street, he would run under a car or simply turn his back.

Obviously, Pumpkin knows the truth about me which is that, where pets are concerned, I’m merely a dabbler, not cut out for the long haul.


Andrew Martin is the author of twenty books, both fiction and non-fiction. He is best known for his series of crime novels set on the railways of early 20th Century Britain, and featuring the railway policeman, Jim Stringer. The first of these was The Necropolis Railway (2001). The ninth and most recent was Night Train to Jamalpur (2012). The series was twice nominated for British Crime Writers’ Association Awards, and the seventh in the series, The Somme Stations, won the CWA Ellis Peters Award for Historical Crime Fiction in 2011. His latest novel, The Yellow Diamond, is unrelated to the Stringer books. It concerns a small unit of the Metropolitan Police, established to keeps tabs on the international super-rich of London. The unit is based in rather cramped quarters at the ‘wrong’ end of what is nevertheless London’s most select district, Mayfair. At the outset of the story, the senior detective who founded the unit is rendered comatose by a bullet. His colleagues must discover the motivation for the attack while risking a similar, or worse, fate.

All of Andrew Martin’s fiction is published by Faber.