On the unseasonal death of a pet

the runt of the litter
Click to follow
The Independent Online
My eight-year-old son had always wanted a pet, and the plan had been in the works for more than a year, ever since we knew we would be returning from America. Obviously, given Britain's savage quarantine laws, it was pointless to do anything before we got here. But once established in a new home, we would bow to the ceaseless pressure and buy him one. He plumped for a kitten - and what better present to mark his first Christmas in England ? But this is a most unChristmassy tale of a plan which went tragically wrong.

Now kittens are not that easy to find in mid-December. Nature's ancestral mechanisms, apparently, arrange things so that cats tend not to give birth when the weather is cold. But a pet shop in Bromley did have some for sale. And so last Wednesday my wife and son returned from a short expedition to suburban Kent with the required paraphernalia of cat ownership: a cosy padded basket, pet food, litter boxes, a scratching pole and, most important one tiny, adorable kitten. She was seven weeks old and the runt of the litter, scarcely longer than the outstretched palm of a hand. No modish names for her. Fluffy, the little boy insisted, and Fluffy she was called. And that should have been that. A child's wish comes true, and a little furry creature, scarcely longer than an outstretched hand, lives happily ever after.

And for a couple of days everything was fine. Fluffy did exactly what kittens are supposed to do. She crawled all over us, played with bits of string, and chased her own shadow. She purred louder than a buzzsaw and flopped her way up the steps of a staircase just like the puppies in Lady and The Tramp. My son was in seventh heaven. But then the problems started.

First she wouldn't eat. Then she would - only to develop diarrhoea. We called the vet. Put her on water for a day, he advised. We did, and Fluffy seemed to regain her spirits. By Sunday evening she was weak, but once more eager for food. A good sign, we thought, and went to bed relieved. Overnight however, she was struck down. The next morning she was so feeble could not stand, her four legs splaying out beneath her each time she tried. So my son held her on his lap and stroked her, as we tried on the vet's advice to at least get some water down her. But it was plainly too late. By now Fluffy was emitting rasping coughs that made her tiny body shudder. If there's such a thing as a death rattle, that was it.

Nor was there anything to be done at the vet's. Fluffy was too small to take a drip. My wife and son went home to go through the motions of preparing for Christmas, while waiting for the inevitable news. In mid- afternoon the phone rang. Fluffy had not made it. The vet did not know what she had died of, but told us we could have an autopsy carried out if we wanted. We did not. He then asked if we wanted the body. We did.

And so on a dank and dark winter's evening, Fluffy was buried at the bottom of a muddy garden in south London. Four feet deep, the vet had recommended, otherwise the foxes common to those parts might get to her. But try digging a four foot hole. My wife managed but half of that, before laying the tiny cadaver to rest in a biscuit box. Prayers were said. My son phoned me in the office to instruct me to bring some flowers when I came home that evening. I returned armed with a bunch of chrysanthemums from the garage over the road. Later, in a second ceremony, we solemnly laid them on the grave.

From the conventional perspective of Christmas, I suppose, it was better that if she was going to die, she went quickly. What would more comprehensively wreck the season of merrymaking, than an extended deathbed agony that might have lasted until Christmas Day itself ? Wasn't Christmas meant to be about children being happy?

A couple of days on however, I have to admit, this domestic calamity has acquired a not unwelcome astringency. It's more than 20 years since I spent Christmas in England, and I'd forgotten how, more than any nation on earth, we've turned Christianity's second festival into a saccharine- clad suspension of reality. Fluffy's brief existence chez the Cornwells began as part of the illusion. By the end though, she was a reminder of how even in this week life goes on. We have constructed a three-week carnival of self-indulgence around the tale of an infant's miraculous birth 2,000 years ago. In the real world however, people and pets not only are born over Christmas. They also die then. But enough of moralising. My son said it was the saddest moment of his life. For a couple of adults too, it came close. One way and another, we won't quickly forget this first Christmas back.