It started with the chicken. Soon after came the rabbit, the pig, the goat, another chicken, another pig, two baby lambs — whom I would rock to sleep after feeding, one cradled in the crook of each arm as though I were holding the twins — followed by another pig, a couple more rabbits, which soon became a family, and then, finally, a horse. All of us in the two-story terrace in Wood Green that had once been my family home.
I was happy for a while. Well, happy is probably too strong a word, but at least I was still alive, which felt like a win. I couldn’t help but smile at the chickens bobbing and pecking around the lounge, the pigs snuffling away in the fridge, the goat giving birth on my bed. Sure the house stank of manure and rotting hay, but I showered before going to work and vacuum sealed my suit as soon as I got home. Sure, I thought about Susan and the twins pretty much all the time, but at least by thinking about them they were in some way still alive. Sure, I wept through every night and started each day with a vodka martini — sans olives after one of the pigs worked out how to open the jar; surprisingly dextrous, trotters — but the animals made me smile through it all. And isn’t that what life’s all about? Smiling through the pain?
Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t last. One blurry-eyed slip of a finger at work and I deleted the database for the PRT project. That wouldn’t have been too bad if I’d been doing my job properly and backing up said database at the end of each day. But I hadn’t and nearly two months’ work was gone. Along with the client. Along with my job.
The thing about animals is that they can sense your pain; they know when one of the herd is hurting. In their own way they tried to make me feel better: the chickens by pecking the sofa to pieces; the horse by whinnying and rubbing its big bony face on my shoulder; the rabbits by taking turns to mate with my shin. But nothing worked. I slipped deep into a funk and was in danger of drowning.
At that point, I thought things could get no worse.
I was wrong.
Animals need to eat. And when they don’t have any food… well, you can’t imagine the noise. My life became a waking hell of squeals and squawks. Neighbours complained. The police visited. I barricaded the front door. The animals devoured everything inside of the house — the carpets, the furniture, the television. I thought, this is it, Gary, your time is done. You have no family, no job, no possessions, just a house full of animals — and what good are animals? They’re no good, Gary. No good at all!
Soon enough autumn came to an end and winter pushed its chilly face into my smashed-up home. I felt saturated with despair. I considered ending it all, but it was so bloody cold in the house that there didn’t seem much point. I’d soon freeze to death.
Unable to take any more, I trooped up to my bedroom, where one of the lambs was lazily chewing the last of the underlay, its face fuzzy with fragments of felt. I shoved it out, lay on the bare floorboards, and waited to die.
The bedroom door crept open. I didn’t even have the energy to sit up. One by one, the animals entered the room and quietly surrounded me.
I presumed they had come to eat me, so closed my eyes and prayed for it to be over quick.
But instead, they began to lie down. One of the pig snuggled in front, pressing its broad warm back into my chest. The rabbits lay on my hands and ankles, the mother flopping like a stole over my neck. A chicken sat on my face, snuggling down, clucking softly, as though preparing to lay an egg. Even the horse clambered behind, placed a leg over my shoulder and huffed warm air onto the back of my head. I was suddenly warmer and cosier and more loved than I could ever recall. And in that moment, I knew, for the first time in a long time, that I would be okay, that everything would be okay, that I would get up in the morning and stop hating myself. After all, if these animals could love me so much, I couldn’t be that bad.
Dan Malakin has something like a hundred stories published online and in print, and has also been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, the Manchester literary prize, and twice for the Aeon Award. In the summer of 2013, he completed an MA in novel writing at Brunel, and is currently working on his first novel.