by Tim Richards
22 January 2016
On the day I arrived back from a travel writing research trip to the USA, an existing digestive illness suddenly escalated into major kidney failure. A day later, my wife Narrelle and I had to face that awful decision that all pet owners hope is years away.
We were gutted by the loss. Petra, a good-natured tortoise-shell moggie, had lived with us for 12 years as a completely indoor cat in a compact apartment in central Melbourne.
Once she was gone, her loss was constantly marked by small things – the fact that I could now leave the windows open without closing the flyscreen, and didn’t have to remove a sitting animal to get at my iPad case.
A lot has been written in recent years about companion animals now being treated as members of the family. That’s true. But as a freelance writer, Petra was more than that.
She was my business associate.
We’d rescued her from North Melbourne’s Lort Smith Animal Hospital in the same week that I’d begun freelancing.
I can’t remember it being a conscious decision to tie those two events together. Perhaps it made sense – a kitten would need some attention as it adjusted to its new home, and I’d be on hand.
Whatever the reason, the cat soon became a trusted companion in my home office, and an essential part of my work routine. I had my duties – pitch stories to editors, write them up, chase invoices – and she had hers:
1. Occupational health.
I generally start the day with a coffee and a flick through social media at a local café. Then it’s back to the apartment, to sit for hours at the computer.
As we know from recent studies, however, being seated for long periods is an indicator of bad health. So every morning about 10am, Petra would give me some exercise by yowling and generally making herself noticed, until I got up and played with her. A session of chasey and mucking around with a toy mouse suspended on elastic, then it was back to work.
2. Client interaction.
I don’t make a lot of voice calls nowadays; most business interactions are handled electronically. But when I did phone an editor or a travel PR rep, the call would often take place to a backdrop of meows.
Dozing in another room, Petra would hear me talking and naturally assume I was speaking to her; hence the noise. The awkward thing is that meowing can sound a bit like a baby crying in the background. More than once I had to assure the business contact that no, I wasn’t neglecting an infant – it was just my cat. So professional.
Our apartment is on the fifth floor near the Melbourne GPO building, with a view over rooftops of old shops and warehouses. This presented ample scope for Petra to prop herself up on a sofa, stare out the window and examine the tiny humans way below and the birds flying past.
If a bird was foolhardy enough to perch on an adjacent ledge, there’d be an outbreak of a strange low chittering sound from the cat, alerting me that prey was near at hand. And she appreciated being lifted up so she could get a better angle on the view of the alleyway opposite.
4. Inventory control.
As a travel writer, I regularly have to pack. Aside from hauling down the backpack and piling up clothes, I also rifle through the “travel drawer” to extract my passport and other useful documents and gadgets.
The moment that drawer – actually any drawer – was opened, I would feel a cat squeeze past me and lodge herself within, looking for mice. And if I turned my back on the neatly folded clothes or backpack, I would turn around to find Petra nestled comfortably on either or both.
5. Staff morale.
Cats, of course, sleep a lot of the time. Aside from the morning play session and perhaps a pat at lunchtime, I wouldn’t see a lot of Petra during the workday. While I laboured at the computer, she preferred to doze on her favourite blue blanket on the bed.
However at 4pm, like clockwork, I would find her leaping onto the desk and crawling up into the crook of my left arm, to sit purring happily while I tried to continue work by operating mouse and keyboard with my right hand only. It was nice. Awkward, but nice.
It was, I like to think, a fruitful business relationship. She looked after her areas, I mine, and over twelve years I’ve made a reasonable go of this freelancing malarkey.
And I know I’m not the only freelance writer who benefits from a business associate in animal form, whether cat or dog or something else.
After Petra passed away I posted a message about her to FreelineOZ, a national forum for freelance writers and editors. It received 42 responses, all sympathetic, with many of my colleagues discussing the benefits they’ve gained from working at home with companion animals on the premises.
I appreciated the support. But now she’s gone. And my workspace is down to me on my own; with no enforced morning exercise or afternoon cuddle. It’s very still, and I can’t say I like it much. I miss my kitty colleague.
Have you got a furry business associate – or have you lost one? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.