We thought of a name for our new kitten before we went to collect him.
I’d wanted a male tabby; I’d had them when I was a child, and I decided I liked them best and believed maybe they liked me, too. My husband, daughter, and I felt that the kitten should have a simple name. An ordinary everyday name. Mike, or John, or Steve.
We all finally agreed on Alan. It was a name I could imagine calling from the back door when I was in the house on my own and then Alan would come running and curl around my ankles.
My daughter and I drove two hours to pick up the kitten from his foster family. We understood that he was the last of a litter being looked after on behalf of Cats Protection, the UK’s leading cat charity. When we got there, we were told that they had sexed the kitten incorrectly and she was female. It felt too late to change her name and, once we met her, impossible to say no, thanks. Cats Protection suggests an adoption fee of £85 to cover each cat’s neutering, vaccination, microchipping, worming, de-fleaing, and general health check. Despite Alan turning out to be a female tabby, I was happy to pay the fee.
I was 47 and wanted a cat after many years of being catless because I’d decided to give up the job I’d been doing for the previous 23 years in order to write fiction full time. My first novel had sold but hadn’t yet been published, and I was halfway through writing the next. I was excited by the idea of giving up my job, and also terrified. The financial risk was real; my husband’s wages alone wouldn’t be enough to keep us afloat, and although the money from the sale of my first novel would allow me the time to write the next, if that one didn’t sell, we were stuffed.
But more than that: I was apprehensive about working alone and being in the house all day by myself, with my children having reached late teenagehood and about to leave home and my husband commuting to work each 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 the HR and the finances. We had a number of employees and an office I walked to each morning. I had colleagues to chat to, a place of work outside the home, and a co-director with whom I could share the challenges and successes. Now I was facing the most radical change in my working life.
I’d given my co-director a whole year’s notice; it seemed only fair, although perhaps the excessive length of time I’d suggested was also because I needed to get used to the idea, or maybe even allow time for me to change my mind. But as that year went by I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to 12 months. I’d done something that I’d noticed with my own employees but hadn’t applied to myself: Once you’ve handed in your notice, your heart is no longer in the job. So, I renegotiated, and in the end I left after six months. There was a surprise leaving party with champagne, cake, and lots of messages from former staff, read out like telegrams at a wedding. I cried. I wondered if I was making a massive mistake.
As well as the finances of “giving up the day job,” I also worried that I might be too old to be starting again. I knew this was a concern among many people who switched careers in their 40s and 50s, but in the writing and publishing industry it felt as though most of the debut authors I saw being promoted were in their 20s. I made myself put that aside, saying that more life experience would help me write a better book. Another benefit of being older was having more self-confidence than I’d ever had in my 20s or 30s. I discarded the notion that I — especially as a woman — should acquiesce and people-please, and I was finally saying yes and no to work on my own terms.
Once she’d settled in, Alan the kitten was much like other kittens I’d known: playful and either wide-eyed and active or asleep. My husband had never owned a cat and confessed, shortly before we were due to collect her, that he wasn’t too bothered about cats; he could take them or leave them. That was okay — Alan was my cat.
But it took me a while to remember the lesson most cat owners have learned: that these picky animals will usually gravitate toward the human who is least impressed by them, and in our house, that was of course my husband. I began to know when my husband was due home from work because Alan would run to the door when she heard his key in the lock.
As I got down to writing full time, I tried not to be sad that Alan rarely allowed me to stroke her and never curled up on my lap under my desk. Instead, I focused on the positives of my new role, one of which was that I no longer had to deal with office politics. Being one of the bosses meant there were often employee issues to sort out: colleagues who didn’t get on, others who were miffed when someone else was promoted. Working on my own, I didn’t have to deal with any of that, but I missed having a peer group who shared the same frustrations and irritations, and who would be there to celebrate when things went right.
So I looked for them online. I became a member of the Prime Writers — a group of authors who were all first published over the age of 40. We share the ups and downs of writing, chatting online, and, when we can, meeting in person for lunches and for book launches. When I gave up the marketing job, I was already a member of a local writing group, and these people are also there for when one of us needs a glass of wine poured because of a rejection, or to toast a success. This group provides another thing that is missing when you work alone: people to look over your writing; the equivalent of the colleague at the desk across from yours who’ll check a critical email or presentation and give you honest feedback.
I know that many people change careers for a better work-life balance. And yes, I can schedule my days myself. If my husband has the day 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 do a late-night online event with my US publishers, then I can have a lie-in the next morning if I need to. But work does often slip into evening time and weekends, and there is nothing I can do about that. One good thing is that if I finish an event at 1 in the morning, my husband will have gone to bed, but Alan will still be waiting for me to turn out the light before she goes into the garden.
Just like dreaming about who a child might grow up to become, and her or him developing into entirely their own person, the adult cat Alan became didn’t behave as I had dreamed she would.
I had imagined her being with me in my writing room, sitting on my keyboard or lying on the daybed. But although it is usually the warmest room in the house, Alan mostly chooses to sleep elsewhere. She seeks me out when she is hungry, or sometimes just comes in to check I’m still at my desk and then leaves again. Instead, it is my husband she loves, and he has come to love her. She will lie in his arms like a baby; it is only his lap she sits on, and my husband she purrs for.
But still, when I’m in the house on my own, it is enormously reassuring that in some other room there is another living, breathing being. And I love my cat, even if she doesn’t love me.
Claire Fuller’s fourth novel, Unsettled Ground, is out from Tin House now, and has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.