Brimful of Zoe

It’s been a week since that last very sad day with Zoe, and I finally feel able to pay tribute to her and celebrate her short life by sharing a few anecdotes. I suspect many people will think this is too much grief for a pet (I probably felt the same way before having her), but she was much more than that to me. I apologise to those who read my Twitter thread, for I will be repeating many of the same things, but Twitter is transient and I wanted a slightly more permanent way to commemorate her uniqueness.

She was my first pet and I had to wait over 40 years to get her. I had always loved cats, but my parents refused to allow any pets in the house. I would wander forlornly in the vacant lots behind our house and feed stray cats there in secret. When my friends got me a kitten for my 18th birthday, they made me return her to the owners of the mother cat. Once I left my parents’ house, I was either too broke, or living in student accommodation/ private rentals, moving every 6-12 months, often in-between countries, to even contemplate getting a pet. Once I got married and had children, I kept being told by parents, in-laws and husband how unhealthy it would be for babies to grow up in a house with cat hair and excrement. Plus, I was travelling a lot for work, my husband made it clear he would not look after an animal in my absence, and moving abroad continued to happen.

In the conservatory.

She became my symbol of ‘breaking free’ and not caring what other people thought. In January 2014 we were living in France and I had just ended an extremely busy year of travelling for work. I was cutting back on my professional obligations, partly for my own sanity, partly to spend more time with the children, but most of all because my husband had issued an ultimatum that he couldn’t bear to take over the childcare and household responsibilities any longer (needless to say, I was still doing most of these whenever I was at home, and organising with other mums and after-school clubs for the rest of the time). I was also starting to feel very lonely, resentful and sad in my marriage, but my husband kept telling me there were no problems, no need to do any counselling, and I should just snap out of my totally unjustified depression.

I decided it was now or never to get a cat and visited the local shelter, where I saw a shy tabby trying to avoid all the other cats. The people at the shelter told me her sad backstory and it took me just a couple of days to complete all the paperwork and adopt her on the 4th of February. As soon as I brought her home, my husband (who had hitherto served his usual ‘you do as you please, dear’ response) started complaining (this was his typical MO). He claimed he was allergic to cat hair, but luckily he was incapable of going for a doctor’s appointment without me in tow to translate for him, so we soon debunked this. He never fed or stroked her, but the boys were by now old enough to help and they fell as much in love with her as I did. In fact, they immediately composed a lullaby for her, which they used to sing till she fell asleep (it didn’t take too long, she loved napping). It always seemed to calm her down (maybe she just loved hearing her name repeated a lot), so I sang this song to her a lot during her final few days.

For the past eight years, our Christmas pictures have always featured all three ‘children’.

She knew exactly when to come onto my lap. For the first six months or so, she was friendly but cautious and slightly aloof. She took a while to sit on the sofa, and always only on a little green blanket that we put there for her. She allowed herself to be stroked, but hated being picked up and never came onto our laps.

All this changed on a single day. In mid-July, we took the boys to the airport to fly as unaccompanied minors to their grandparents in Greece. We paid quite a high sum for this service (we had done it before with other airlines/airports and it had worked beautifully), only to find that the Swiss made us queue with them (no Fast Access lane), take them through security, take them to the gate, wait there until their flight was airborne etc. I went to complain about this lack of service, which clearly embarrassed my husband, as he then proceeded to complain about me in the car on the way home, saying I was impossible to live with, and no wonder he had been having an affair for the past year.

I was so shocked and hurt by this sudden news, especially from someone claiming that my unhappiness in the marriage was illusory and everything was just fine, that I ran into the guest room (which was Zoe’s domain, as she was not allowed in our bedroom) and threw myself onto the bed, sobbing uncontrollably. After a while, I felt a little paw on my back. I turned, sat up and Zoe crawled onto my lap, and she has been there ever since. It was her favourite spot, but she seemed to have knack for knowing when I was especially sad or upset or ill in the many tricky years that followed, and she was always there for me.

I don’t have many pictures of the two of us together, but this one shows her doing ‘sucky-sucky’, i.e. kneading on my lap while also sucking her blanket. She would sometimes meow at me impatiently to get into position for her to do that

She was the best-behaved darling. The day after I brought her home, I already let her roam all over the house. I went cross-country skiing on the 5th of February with some friends, and they told me: ‘Oh, no, you’ll come back and all your furniture will be scratched, she’ll have peed on the sofa, jumped up on the counters, smashed your vases etc.’ But she didn’t do it that day – or ever. The most she ever did was climb up occasionally to sleep in my younger son’s bunkbed, and she would always jump down from it guiltily when we intoned: ‘Zoe? Are you being naughty again?’ That didn’t stop the boys or me, of course, from blaming her whenever something was missing in the house: ‘Zoe must have taken the nail clipper or my school tie or left the door to the garage open.’

She was starting to get a bit cheekier in the last year or so: jumping up on the kitchen counter if we forgot any food there. We would hear a telltale loud thump when we were in the living room, watching TV.

She was a bit of a hunter back in France, and would explore the garden and all the way to the end of the close. Once we moved to England, however, she became far more cautious (possibly because of the loud road at the back of our garden) and never again troubled the wildlife. In fact, she rejected the advances of two of our neighbours’ tomcats, who competed for her French demoiselle graces by bringing mice as offerings on our drive for the first few weeks after we returned to the UK.

She was Mummy’s Girl but also had a delightful complicity with the boys. Her preference for me was so marked that even the boys had to admit that it might be about more than just me feeding her. The boys often spoke in ‘her voice’, saying: ‘Maman est la meilleure.’ She even forgave me within a couple of minutes when I had to give her worming and tick liquids, or take her to the vet. As for when I had to put her in a cattery once when we went on holiday, she was utterly miserable there, and when we got back home, she brought in two mice, a bird and two lizards that day, as if to tell me: ‘See what a good provider I am? Please don’t put me in that awful place again.’ [It was the most expensive and exclusive Swiss cattery you can imagine, but hey- ho…].

She was a bit of a celebrity, since she was included in a colouring book Forty Real Cats From Around the World by Pamela Hodges, where she represented France, with her stripey pattern, a beret and chasing butterflies (she never caught on that it was impossible to catch them).

Watching TV – or should that be my eyes while watching TV.

In France, we would take the shortcut through a neighbour’s garden and an orchard to walk to school, and Zoe would often follow us there, but stop short of the road. She liked to pretend to be spying on us, but she was rubbish at hiding, so we could see her when we came back from school too, waiting just by the horses in the field. Aside from pretending to be James Bond, she also liked to pretend to be a dog: she would dash after the bouncy miniature toys that we threw, but just sat beside them instead of bringing them back.

Back in England, she knew what time the boys would be back from school and jump on the windowsill in my study, which overlooks the front door, to wait for them about five minutes before they arrived. She would then run downstairs to chat to them about her day, and try to trick them into feeding her: ‘Maman hasn’t fed me in years, look how skinny I am!’ [She was a plump little girl, who sometimes got stuck on her back like a beetle while rolling, and had to be put on a diet. Which made the last couple of months, when she lost more than half her body weight, particularly heartbreaking.]

She was a gifted linguist, an excellent reading companion and perfect for exam revision. Although she seemed to respond best to the French language, over the years she picked up English, Greek, German, Romanian, Japanese, Spanish and Italian as we either learnt or spoke those languages or during Family TV Time. She loved me reading to her in bed, I don’t think she’d have minded me sitting there all day. And she was always there to help the boys revise for their GCSEs and A Levels. Her particular areas of expertise were the Weimar Republic, Stalinist Russia and hot deserts, although she was starting to differentiate between Sartre and Camus recently.

My favourite example of her French bias came when we were watching Casablanca. She was (for once) not on my lap, but on the windowsill next to the TV and when the Marseillaise was sung, she jumped down and stood to attention in front of the TV. Alas, not captured on camera! She also tended to prefer the team dressed in blue whenever we watched football: ‘Allez les Bleues!’

And in case you are wondering where the title of the post comes from, it’s from this song by Cornershop, which was everywhere around the time I came to live in London and is a homage to the things you love and that made you what you are today (in this case the music from Bollywood films).

#YoungWriterAward: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

There are two ways in which I judge poetry.

First, if it it feels like the top of my head were taken off at first reading (to quote Emily Dickinson). In other words, does it produce a moment of epiphany, of feeling ‘that is what I’ve always thought but never quite found the words to express’ or ‘wow, I didn’t even realise that?’. There are quite a few timely, urgent, angry poems being written now which fulfil that first criteria.

Secondly, are these poems that I will return to again and again, reread, bathe in the sounds and colours, images and smells evoked, and find new meanings every time? Those poetry collections tend to be rarer – there may be one or two poems that I treasure in a collection, but not necessarily all of them.

Author photo copyright: Brid O’Donovan

Seán Hewitt’s debut collection meets both of my criteria. It is not a showy piece of work, but it’s not self-effacing either. Each poem releases little hooks at first reading, which then sink into you and never quite let you go, merely bury themselves deeper and deeper. Because of the beauty of the images, the closeness to nature and the musicality of the language, it is a pleasurable experience… and yet you realise there is a lot of grief, a lot of pain in this poetry as well.

The book is composed of three different parts: the first part is closer to what one might call ‘pure’ nature poetry, although the poet is always mindful how the natural cycle mimics the human life cycle. The natural landscape is also the landscape of the mind. The darkness and stillness of nature and then its rebirth in spring has strong parallels to sinking into disease and depression, and then finding hope and recovery.

I turn home, and all across the floor

the spiked white flowers

light the way. The world is dark

but the wood is full of stars.

Throughout, we also have parallels between the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human body, an exploration and celebration of sexuality, particularly queer sexuality, which has been considered ‘unnatural’ for so long.

The second part of the book is a retelling of the story of Suibhne (or Sweeney), a legendary Irish king, who was cursed, became a mad poet and was doomed to wander forevermore, never quite finding rest. This was a myth I was less familiar with, but the tension between transience and permanence, between loneliness and finding a place to call home with loved ones resonated with me, particularly in a year when we have all struggled with not seeing loved ones. Also, the recognition that to love is to open yourself up to the possibility of loss and of being hurt.

There was a time when I thought

the sound of a dove cooing and flitting

over a pond was sweeter than the voices

of friends. There was a time when

I preferred the blackbird and the boom

of a stag belling in a storm. I used to think

that the chanting of the mountain grouse

at dawn had more music than your voice,

but things are different now. Still,

it would be hard to say I wouldn’t rather

live above the bright lake, and eat watercress

in the wood, and be away from sorrow.

The poems in the final part of the book were written mainly in the last few months in the life of the poet’s father, who was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and died before the volume was published. There is so much tenderness here, as well as the feeling of being lost without a much loved person.

But hush. No one is coming.

We are handed our lives

by a fierce work. Onto which

blank space will I lock my gaze

when my father

is gone? How am I to wear

his love’s burning mantle?

The language feels very simple, unadorned, but always uncannily ‘right’ in context. There is a lot of restraint here, plenty of breathing space, which makes the impact all the more powerful. This might be called confessional poetry, and certainly there seems to be plenty of autobiographical detail in these poems, but it’s a delicate, elliptical emotion, recollected in tranquillity. The poet himself recognises that this quieter, more personal type of poetry may feel too much like a retreat to an ivory tower at this particular moment. In an interview with the Irish Times, he says:

The lyric poem – its patterning, its rhyme, its insistent “I” – has for me a beauty that is perhaps unfashionable, and might seem to make it isolated from the political imperative. But it is my wager that in speaking of ourselves, we will find readers who share something of that emotion, that experience, that flash of strange perspective. In other words, it is my contention that no poem is ever isolated, if it is done right.

I certainly agree with that. The cover of the book features a rust fungus (also called Tongues of Fire): it is basically a cancer eating at the heart of the juniper bush. Despite its yellow beauty, it is lethal. And that is precisely the effect this volume of poetry has had on me. At a time when so many people have died of a disease we barely see or understand, it feels like an elegy, a way of coping with the unspeakable.

I think you can tell that this was my favourite of the shortlisted titles for the Young Writer of the Year Award. But was it the favourite title overall of the Shadow Panel and did we pick it as our winner? Ah, well, you will have to wait and see…

For ever, and for ever, farewell, Barney!

If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;

If not, why, then this parting was well made. (Julius Caesar)

This Sunday we had to say goodbye to our dear Barney, the most sweet-natured and dignified of elderly gentlemen cats. I knew our time together might not be very long, but he seemed so alert, so lively, that we had hoped to get a few years at least. Sadly, it was not to be.

He was diagnosed with diabetes in August, and didn’t seem to mind the injections I was giving him twice daily. But then he stopped eating, his fur started getting scraggly, his urinary tract infection just wouldn’t go away. I was taking him to the vet every few days, adjusting his dosage, having him checked out, but towards the end of last week he barely had the energy to do anything other than sit under his favourite bush in the garden. Even Zoe, who has not been his greatest fan, was gentle towards him in his last few days.

It only takes a few seconds to fall in love, they say, and I fell in love with Barney’s sweet expression as soon as I saw it on Twitter. But it takes months and years to get to really know someone – and I wish we’d had that time to get to know each other fully. However, this is what we found out about him during the six months we had together.

He was a Zen master. Every couple of days, Zoe would make a run at him, and he never retaliated, merely lifted his paw on occasion in the gesture of a benign and wise Buddha.

He was a great helper for any cook. He would follow my every move in the kitchen with bright, intelligent eyes, as if asking: ‘What else can I do?’ (He would also search the floor very thoroughly for any fallen pieces of food.)

He didn’t come upstairs at all until the very last week before he got really ill. He had a deep miaow which he learnt to use most expressively when he wanted to be let out or some attention.

He was one of life’s natural philosophers. He loved sitting in the garden, breathing in the fresh air, stretching out in the shade.

He was a gentle giant, tall and thin, with big, manly back legs. He had a loping gait and was extremely agile for his age.

His favourite spots were: just in front of the fridge door or on the back of the sofa when we were all watching TV. Or sleeping on the sofa when we all wanted to sit on it.

He was extremely good at guilting you into giving him extra treats (although we desisted because of his health problems).

He had his favourite human: my younger son, who was 15, just like him.

He was not a lap cat, which made it all the more special when he honoured me with his presence.

He had the most beautiful, profound eyes, a gaze that you could just drown in.

The house is just not the same without his quiet presence.

 

 

 

#13Novembre2015: You Will Not Have My Hate

This is Remembrance Sunday and for me that means remembering both those who died in battle, but also those who died as civilians in a war which is no longer confined to professional soldiers or geographically limited battlefields.

hateYou Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris (transl. Sam Taylor) is a perfect way to commemorate the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015. Antoine’s wife Hélène had gone to the Bataclan concert that evening, while he stayed at home to babysit their 17 month old baby, Melvil. A day or so later, Antoine wrote a moving open letter on Facebook addressed to his wife’s killers, which quickly became viral.

This very slender volume builds on that open letter. It is a collection of diary entries and reflections, a poignant story of life after loss, of learning to cope in the face of tragedy, and refusing to be cowed or to descend to the level of hatred and vengeance.

Not many people understand how I can so quickly get over the circumstances in which Hélène was killed. People ask me if I’ve forgotten or forgiven. I forgive nothing, I forget nothing… of course, having a culprit, someone to take the brunt of your anger, is an open door, a chance to temporarily escape your suffering. And the more odious the crime, the more ideal the culprit, the more legitimate your hatred. You think about him in order not to think about yourself. You hate him in order not to hate what’s left of your life.

There are so many poignant little details about grief here. Losing oneself in the routine of feeding and bathing a child, so as not to have to think. The home-cooked baby meals prepared by the mothers at Melvil’s nursery, which he never eats, because he was used to supermarket meals. Learning to cut his son’s fingernails for the first time. Resenting the meter reader because he represents life going on. Choosing the clothes for his wife’s funeral. It is unadorned, heartfelt and full of love, and it made me weep.

Watching from a distance, you always have the impression that the person who survives a disaster is a hero. I know I am not. I was struck by the hand of fate, that’s all. It did not ask me what I thought first. It didn’t try to find out if I was ready. It came to take Hélène, and it forced me to wake up without her. Since then, I have been lost: I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know how to get there.

helenemuyalleirisThere is no egocentric posturing here, it’s a simple account of grief and learning to live, while fearing the possibility of forgetting. We don’t find out anything about their jobs or politics. All we hear about is their love for each other, for music and for their child. A story stripped to its bare bones and all the more beautiful for it.

As for why he wrote the book:

It will not heal me. No one can be healed of death. All they can do is tame it. Death is a wild animal, sharp-fanged. I am just trying to build a cage to keep it locked in. It is there, beside me, drooling as it waits to devour me. The bars of the cage that protect me are made of paper. When I turn off the computer, the beast is released.

Parenthood, Loss and Grief: Reading with a Theme

It’s typical of my reading: I have a higgledy-piggledy collection of books on my night-table, get distracted by someone’s urgent recommendation, read with a fine disregard for the original plan… and nevertheless find a pattern. This time, it’s about a parent learning to deal with the loss of a much-loved only child and finding ways of grieving and coping.

katehamerThe first book is Kate Hamer’s ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’, published by Faber and Faber today. You know how I’ve been objecting to ‘Girl’ titles, especially when they refer to mature women? Well, in this case it is not just annoying marketing to cash in on the ‘Gone Girl’ fever (with echoes of ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ thrown in for good measure). In this case, it is justified: the girl is just eight years old. Her name is Carmel and she is the daughter of Beth, a woman who is still trying to come to terms with single motherhood and her husband’s leaving her for another woman. Carmel and her mother have a very close relationship, but there is something slightly odd about Carmel’s dreaminess, her other-worldly charm and ability to understand what other people are feeling.  She sometimes blurts out funny little statements, mature beyond her age, which cast a chill on any mother’s heart. Hamer is excellent at playing on our most primitive fears as a parent, on our fierce protective instincts:

‘You realise, Mum, that I won’t always be with you,’ she said, her voice small and breathy in the fading light.

Maybe my heart should have frozen then. Maybe I should have turned and gathered her up and taken her home. Kept her shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow, so my stomach would have to be cut open before she could be found. But of course I thought it meant nothing, nothing at all.

Carmel has a tendency to fall into a daydream and wander off. Very near the start of the book, Beth loses her in a maze, so we are not surprised when the mother becomes overly anxious about letting the girl out of her sight. Luckily, the little girl likes red things, so when they go to a local storytelling festival, her mother is reassured that she can easily pick her daughter out in the crowd by her bright red coat. Unfortunately, so can others and very soon Beth’s worst fears are realised: Carmel disappears and is tricked into believing that she is not being kidnapped. Beth has to cope with her overwhelming sense of grief and guilt, her ex-husband’s accusations of not having looked after their daughter properly, the endless not knowing.

This is being marketed as a thriller, but, despite the ‘will they won’t they find the child’ element, the focus of the story is neither on the police investigation nor on actual crimes. The timeframe is much longer than the one to which crime fiction readers may be accustomed – a matter of years rather than days. This is very much a book about the process of grieving, coming to terms with all that has been lost and trying to find a reason to go on. We alternate between the points of view of Beth and Carmel and see how they both fight to keep hold of their identity and their memories of each other. They each find support and friendship in the most unlikely of places.

Written in a very oral, often breathless style, liberally sprinkled with lyrical passages, it’s a book you have to surrender to and just go with the flow. It starts out as a familiar British domestic thriller, and then morphs into a tale of poverty, miracle healings, deceit and a need to believe which seems to come out straight out of ‘True Detective’. Child narrators can be tricky to handle, but on the whole Carmel’s voice rings true: she is, after all, a very precocious eight-year-old. It is Beth, however, who is the most moving, whom  I can identify with, and she has pushed through her pain to become a philosopher and a poet:

I have a strange image of the two of us. That all these years we were tiny insects and the world was made of a huge beast – some kind of cattle. That we roamed and roamed across its back and even climbed up, one on the tip of each horn, and from there we tried to wave to each other. But being tiny we could not see, and the chasm was too great, and there wasn’t anything that could bridge that gap.

routeMingarelliIn the second book, Hubert Mingarelli’s ‘La route de Beit Zera’ (my translation: ‘The Road to Beit Zera’), set in present-day Israel, Stepan has lost his son Yankel because of a shooting at a border crossing into Palestine. He knows exactly where his son has fled to: New Zealand, and he writes to him every day, ruining his eyesight to make little boxes that he sells for a pittance, trying to save up enough money to visit his son. His only companion is his faithful dog, now grown old and incontinent, although he receives occasional visits from his old friend Samuelson, who used to be a border guard like him, and therefore understands the mix of shame, fear and compassion of his old life.  Israeli novels tend to avoid describing the Arab-Israeli conflict and mutual distrust, and it could be argued that Mingarelli is French and therefore not able to understand the complexity of the situation, but it seems to me he describes those ambiguous feelings very well:

…every night he’d fall asleep in the company of all those that he’d stopped and searched, on the street, at the barriers. He took with him in his sleep their empty gaze, disguising their hatred. And when he woke up, he was afraid of all these men and hated them just as much as they hated him. This fear grew, night after night, but whenever he had to search an Arab who was the same age as his father, he tried to impress upon him, with his hands, that he had no wish to humiliate him, and in patting him all along the body as cautiously as possible, he expected some kind of gesture, something impossible, a small flicker of gratitude in his eyes. But his gaze remained resolutely empty and later, in his sleep, turned murderous and full of hatred.

A young Arab boy comes into Stepan’s life. He appears wordlessly from the edge of the forest and forms a deep bond with Stepan’s dog, although the two of them barely exchange any words. He comes and slips away at night, doesn’t reappear for days, but gradually Stepan starts to look forward to his visits.  They are united in their suffering as they watch the decline of the dog, a decline they are powerless to stop. Perhaps the boy or the dog or both represent Stepan’s son, or maybe they are ways in which he can expiate his past.

Mingarelli has endless compassion for each one of his characters: we enter the cheerful world of the Palestinian man who is accidentally shot, as he returns from work, trying to find a name for his soon-to-be-born son; we see how Samuelson’s drunken stupor momentarily relieves his pain; towards the end of the book, we even become acquainted with the boy’s mother, who trembles with fear every time her son goes away she knows not where, yet learns not to ask questions; and, of course, the nameless dog, who can’t quite gambol through the forest anymore to enjoy her greatest pleasure in life: drinking water from the pools formed at the roots of trees.

From babelio.com
From babelio.com

Sadly, Mingarelli’s book is currently only available in French. His deceptively brief yet very moving novellas are ripe for translation, however, and I don’t just say that because he is practically a neighbour of mine, living in a tiny hamlet in the French Alps.  If you do want to try him in English, Portobello Books published ‘A Meal in Winter’ (transl. Sam Taylor) in 2013.