“I was never really your lover,” he wrote her a week after they broke up, “I was your pet, in several senses.” Then, the eternal student in him made him add, “You might read Thomas Mann’s ‘A Man and his Dog’ once again. It will help you understand better what I’m saying here.” “Bojho thela!” she said to herself. (Once, while translating a Pheluda story, she had asked him, “What should ‘Bojho thela’ be in English?” “Understand the push,” he had suggested in a deadpan voice from deep inside the crossword. Those were the lighter days.)
Her tutor had once told her, after a second sherry at 10 am, “My dear, when in danger or in doubt, never run in circles, scream and shout. Just look up the OED.” So, with the beginnings of a gleam in her eyes, she looked up pet in that giant, two-volume mainstay-cum-murder-weapon. Sense 2a was “an indulged (and, usually, spoiled) child”, illustrated with an 1824 quote from someone called Mactaggart: “A pet is always a dangerous creature; thus, a child petted by his parents, plays the devil some day in the world; a sheep petted is apt to turn a duncher [= butter, one which butts].” Sense 2b drew this out a little more: “Any person who is indulged, fondled, or treated with special kindness or favour; a darling, a favourite. Also transf. of a thing.” The example came from none less than Dr Johnson, 1755: “Peat, a little fondling; a darling; a dear play-thing. It is now commonly called pet.” Ah, she thought, Edward II & Gaveston, Oscar & Bosie, Visconti & Helmut Berger, Silvana Mangano & Terence Stamp, Petra von Kant & Hanna Schygulla. The bittersweet politics of the ampersand, the conjunction that joins and divides. (Isn’t it Isolde who sings, in the interminable Act II of Tristan and Isolde, of “Dies süße Wörtlein: und [this sweet little word: and]”?)
It also struck her that all the famous elegists of human pet-keeping — Marlowe/ Jarman, Wilde, Visconti, Pasolini, Fassbinder — happened to be homosexual artists. Surely, this couldn’t be an exclusively gay male phenomenon. Honorary sugar-daddies like Dietrich or Garbo must have relished their pet peeves (of either sex). Then she remembered Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, and Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers — that delicious, but unfinished, tribute to the sugar-mummies of Sunset Boulevard and their deadly little darlings. And of course, there was Marilyn singing My Heart Belongs to Daddy, seemingly in nothing but black stockings and an oversize knitted jumper. Didn’t she call Arthur Miller daddy?
The word, little, kept cropping up in her petty thoughts, sickening her a bit. She remembered OED, 2b: “Also transf. of a thing.” Pet is a word, like one of those desolate-looking slides in a children’s park, from whose high perch the Human skids down the slope of the Animal to land on the hard ground of the Thing, with a sort of merry-grim inevitability. This is also a slide into diminution, into becoming a dear little or, better still, a poor little thing. And when she did, finally, get down to reading “A Man and his Dog”, she was struck — in the light of why she was reading it again — by how lovingly, ruthlessly and minutely Mann had recorded the perpetual swinging between tenderness and cruelty in the dog’s intimacy with its master. At the end of the story, which she read from her own copy, he had pencilled “See ‘Tobias Mindernickel’ in Little Herr Friedemann” (writing in the margins of her books was a pet’s prerogative). She read that story too. It was about a miserable little man and his miserable little dog. He kept wounding the dog because nursing its wounds was the only way he could care for it: “‘Does it hurt so much?’ he asked. ‘Yes, you are suffering a good deal, my poor friend. But we must be quiet, we must try to bear it.’ And the look on his face was one of gentle and melancholy happiness.” Enough, she said out loud.
In the afternoon, she went to meet her ancient friend, Lady Murasaki, at Flury’s, with a print-out of his email. Lady M read it with engaged detachment. “Dearest, might it not occur to you to wonder if you’d like to try a bit of…er…equality…for a change?” she asked at last with the gentlest emphasis, “Try it, my pet. It could be quite an adventure.”