I write this in bed and I write it quickly, as a small black kitten has got into the habit of draping himself over the keyboard every time he sees my laptop open. A corner of my living room is consistently covered with scattered sand from the litter box and I can no longer sleep safe in the knowledge that my hair will not be munched on in the night.
Calum says I look much happier now.
Houdini’s entrance into our lives began with an hours-long operation to coax him out of a drainpipe. He’d been in there for at least 24 hours and the rescue mission involved, at various points in time, someone from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, residents of the condominium, five fine officers of the Singapore Police Force (who arrived in three separate squad cars) and three contractors, one armed with a circular saw. In the end it was the whir of the saw that convinced the tiny raggedy ball of fluff to ditch his hiding place.
Things weren’t easy when Houdini came into our lives. We were a year into our marriage, and still learning to function as a unit. Having Masters degrees turned out to mean a lot less in journalism than we would have liked. My decision to remain a freelance journalist in a country ranked 153rd in the Press Freedom Index was teaching me that job satisfaction can very quickly be dampened by the inability to pay rent.
As a born worrier I was constantly anxious about all manner of things. I often felt overloaded by competing concerns, from paying bills to doing laundry. I nagged Calum for a week to get ironing done, only to get annoyed with him for doing too little when he did help. Such episodes of unshakeable worry and restlesness made me very poor company, which meant we got into petty arguments that just made things feel worse.
I was attending a conference the night Houdini was rescued, but knew from the moment Calum rang me (with a terrified, mostly yowling kitten almost drowning him out) that we would be keeping him. Calum claims – and he’s most likely right – that I diplomatically made a show of saying we would consider keeping him, but all I remember of my taxi ride home from the conference venue was thinking, “I have a cat, I have a cat, I have a cat!”
I grew up with cats. My granddad used to feed all the strays around his home at five in the morning and five in the evening every day, like clockwork. I went with him sometimes; family photos show a four-year-old me in baby shorts sitting on the kerb surrounded by felines. But I hadn’t thought of getting a pet after getting married and moving out into a place of our own. It would be too much responsibility, I thought, too much expense. Who would take care of the cat when we were both working stupidly long hours? What if we had to travel? It just seemed easier to take on as little as possible; marriage and bills were more than enough.
A month on, I’ve never been so glad to be proved wrong. Having Houdini has made us feel less like two newlyweds struggling to find our way in a world hostile towards young journalists, and more like, well, a family.
Coming home feels different now. Every time I shove open the (old, warped and always stuck) front door I know I’ll be greeted by the patter of paws on wooden flooring as Houdini runs over to say hello. Knowing that someone is waiting makes returning to this dingy flat feel so much better, rather than a reminder of how this is all we can afford in a staggeringly expensive city; this flat – more like student accommodation than I would care to admit – is now much more of a home.
It’s also got easier to cut through the bullshit. A kitten crawling all over the keyboard? Well, do you really need to refresh Facebook for those updates? Will a new idea for a pitch really come faster if you’re clicking aimlessly through your multiple tabs? I’ve found myself taking more breaks from the screen, taking more time out just to enjoy the moment – even if the moment involves waving a cat wand about so Houdini can practice his pouncing skills. And as it turns out, that was time I needed away from everything, from depressing social media updates to even-more-depressing online bank statements, to take a deep breath and keep myself from burning out.
I used to worry all the time about money, about job prospects, about future calamities real and imagined. I used to feel frustrated that every teacher I’d known emphasised hard work and determination – ‘meritocracy’, as we call it in Singapore – but no one told me about capitalism, a system in which hard work is often rewarded by overtime and underpayment. I used to get worn out, feeling like freelancing as a writer was about as effective (and profitable) as banging my head against a brick wall.
Calum will tell you that I still worry about all these things, that I still feel frustrated and lost and that there are (many) days when I simply can’t be bothered to leave the house. But I’ve also got better at recognising little victories: waking up on a lazy Sunday afternoon to find myself snugly sandwiched between my husband and my cat because we’ve all fallen asleep on the same pillow, and feeling completely satisfied with my place in the world. Watching Houdini tuck into his food and feeling some small sense of pride for being able to provide. Having a kitten sit on my chest while I’m sprawled on the sofa reading a book, and knowing that no matter how many pitch rejections I get, at least one creature in the world thinks I’m awesome.
I’m 27 years old this year and adult life feels nothing like we were told it would be when we were in school. At this point in life our parents had homes – paid for through mortgages they could actually afford – and children and stability from knowing they weren’t going to have to leave the country because of visas or the lack of employment opportunities.
What we have is a paycheque-to-paycheque lifestyle in a flat that costs what is, on a quiet month, almost my entire income, and work in an industry that is more interested in clickbait than the urgent social justice issues that drew us to the job in the first place. In a global climate where developed nations all over the world are freaking out about immigration, my transnational marriage trembles in the hands of human resource and immigration officials reviewing tedious paperwork and painstakingly-filled forms. It’s the part of being a “millennial” that they don’t tell you about.
But we have a cat. He’s a small cat, all black with a white patch on his belly, eyes turning from blue to green to yellow. He climbs chairs like a monkey and chases his tail. He runs ahead and hides behind doors, just so he can pounce on you and give you a ‘surprise’ (you better act like it’s a surprise) when you enter the room.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever be an established, award-winning journalist. I don’t think my parents will be nominating me for Daughter of the Year any time soon. I’m pretty sure I’m not the best wife in the world, and I’m not totally confident I know how to be one. But I have a cat I know how to love, and he doesn’t have to but follows me from room to room like a shadow on a sugar-high. And just like how he himself was forced out of a drainpipe from which he was too bewildered to emerge, this small, cheeky thing was the one thing that pushed me out of my funk.