Monday 28 February 2011

Talk To Tail Reading In London Tomorrow!

I will be reading from Talk To The Tail at the Waterstone's store in London's Notting Hill Gate tomorrow, March 1st, from 7pm. Do come along and join me! Tickets cost £3 though will be redeemable against a (signed) copy of the book.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Friday 11 February 2011

RIP Janet (1997-2011)

My cat Janet - my fluffiest cat, my most happy-go-lucky-cat, my cattest cat, my dumbest cat, my gender mix-up cat, the cat I'd known the longest, of all the cats I've known in my adult life - died on Friday morning. It's hard to say how old he was precisely, because my ex, Dee, didn't own him from early kittenhood, and was never great with dates, but I'd estimate that he was coming towards his fourteenth birthday. He'd had a heart condition for the last few years, coupled with an overactive thyroid gland, for which I'd had to dose him with two pills every day. Those who've read my latest book, Talk To The Tail, will know that he was very ill in 2009, to the point where I was worried he wouldn't survive. Nonetheless, his death came as a giant shock of the kind that I can still feel in my chest right now. As shocking, in its own way, as the last cat death I had to confront: that of Brewer, in 2002, who, at the age of only one, was run over by a speeding prison officer outside my house.

I've sat down to try to write this a few times already, then decided I wasn't ready. I'm probably not ready now, but I feel like by doing it, it might help in some small way. Over the last few days, I've done everything I can to not feel utterly desperate and desolate - spent a lot of time with friends, talked to the people closest to me, escaped to a field and sat on a stile for three quarters of an hour, doing nothing but listening to the trickle of a nearby stream - but the ache of knowing the pain Janet must have been in the end, knowing he's not going to be here again, has manifested itself physically.

It feels odd broadcasting something so personal on the Internet, but it would feel odd not to broadcast it too. I know that I've felt close to characters in books before, and, from the messages I've received from readers about Janet, a lot of you felt you knew him too, even though you hadn't had the privilege of being batted by one of his flailing paws. I also know, from the support I've received already via Twitter and email, that for many, he was the most entertaining feline character in Under The Paw and Talk To The Tail. That shouldn't surprise me - he constantly entertained me, from the early days when he would skate across the laminate floors of my and Dee's London flat in pursuit of loose polystyrene beads, right to the end - but in a way it does, just because Janet was the one of my cats who seemed most casually... there. That's not to say he was characterless - on the contrary - nor that he wasn't often the first cat to make friends with a house guest; just to say he had more uncomplicated approach to life than my other cats, and seemed less keen to impress his eccentricities and hang-ups on you. His was a ubiquity and steadfastness without too many dramatic ups and downs.

Regular readers of this blog will know the difficulty I've had pilling Janet, and the psychological games I've had to play in order to do so successfully. Sometimes, I'd think I'd got him to swallow the pills successfully, then a few minutes later find one of them stuck to my leg or a kitchen kickboard. I'd wrap them in ham and butter, secrete them inside a chunk of cat food, drop them into his mouth manually. Once, frustrated to see him spit them out for the fourth time in a row - and I can't believe I'm admitting this - I even spat into his mouth, in a (triumphant) attempt to get him to swallow. Each method would work for a while until he got wise to it, and then I would wish, as I so often have done with my cats, but perhaps now more so than ever, that I had the gift of being able to speak their language, and explain I was doing this for his own welfare, not out of spite.

My most recent method had been to push the pills into the centre of half a dog treat from a bag of them, kindly given to me by my vet in exchange for the sum of approximately seven hundred and twelve thousand pounds. This had been working quite well, but, even so, food time had become a stressful time for Janet, so when I saw him hanging back, at the bottom of the stairs on Friday morning, not coming to my call, while I fed the other cats, I didn't see it as too unusual. He'd done this a few times recently, so I thought nothing of it, other than that I would feed him separately a short while later. Thinking of ways I could make mealtimes more pleasant for him, a couple of days previously I'd been to the pet shop down the road and bought some Applaws - a cat food so upmarket it's a surprise it doesn't come with its own croutons and pre-grated parmesan. He'd wolfed this down the day before, and indulged in a subsequent celebratory padding session next to me on my bed, his purr so loud it almost seemed like an intimidation tactic. In other words, I wasn't worried, but now I wish that I'd been less distracted: that I hadn't been sidetracked by the Internet, or the TV I was reviewing, and had checked his heartbeat. He'd been to the vet over a week previously for his regular blood test, and had lost weight. The vet didn't seemed overly concerned, but I'd been trying to keep a closer eye on Janet than usual.

It was about an hour after I'd fed the cats, coming out of the bathroom, that I heard the noise. I would compare it to the sound of a too long-unoiled door being ripped from its hinges, yet it was too animal, too visceral, for that. I walked into the living room and saw Shipley standing up, alert, from his perch on a beanbag and looking in the direction of the staircase. I think, even then, I knew, because I approached the stairs in a wide, cautious circle: it might have looked, to a bystander, like I was preparing for the world's most apprehensive high jump. I wasn't thinking - perhaps there was part of me that wondered if the noise had come from an animal brought in by the cats, but Ralph and Shipley were in sleeping mode, and those are the cats who bring in other, less fortunate creatures - but I was afraid of what I might find. I turned the corner on the stairs and found Janet slumped awkwardly across two of them. He looked deflated and as I ran to him and held him I think I saw the last bit of life fading from his eye. I lifted his paw, with the thought that he might be in some kind of temporary paralysis, but I knew - even though I'd never been with one of my pets at its moment of death before - that he had gone. I assume he had a heart attack and the best thing I can say about it is that he clearly did not suffer whatever terrible pain had wrenched that noise from him for long.

When my second childhood cat, Tabs, was run over, when I was 11, my dad sprung into action and played protector to me: making sure I was locked inside the house as he took her body from the side of the road, then buried her in the garden. In a sense, as adults, when one of our animals dies, vets play a minor version of the role my dad played that day: they're a small parent, just for a few minutes. But when a cat dies at home, we're alone - even more so when we live alone, as I do, and have no life partner, as I do not. I can honestly say that in the next two hours I felt more isolated than I've ever done in my life. "Should I call the vet?" I thought. No. There would be no point. Vets don't employ paramedics. Should I call my mum? Yes, and I did, but she lives over a hundred miles away. Should I call Dee to tell her that the cat that had originally been hers had passed away? Yes, and I did, but she was on voicemail, unavailable, for several hours. Should I call my friends or my neighbour Deborah? No. They would be at work.

I've never been of a particularly melancholy disposition. I know, in fact, I have the potential to drive someone close to me to distraction with my deluded optimism. I get down, like all people, sometimes, particularly in the winter, but I'm never down for long. That said, it would be even more foolishly optimistic of me than ever to claim that this year had been a never-ending party so far: my tax bill has turned out to be far more expensive than I thought, my new book - despite a hugely reassuring reader response - has received zero newspaper coverage and no foreign sales, the next one is far from "in the bag" in any sense, it's never been harder to sell the kind of writing I do best to magazines and papers, I've never had so many close friends ill or out of work, it feels like such a gargantuan aeon since I've been in love I've started to wonder if it'll ever happen again, I've had a filling fall out twice in two weeks, and just the other week, I accidentally burnt a sizeable chunk of my hair off on a candle. However, in my wrapping of Janet's stiffening body in a sheet and moving it, then burying it under the apple tree in the garden, my mind became a piece of Terminator-style metal for those worries to bounce off. Even now, I feel like none of them can touch me. I am not happy - far from it. I have just never felt more conscious of what's important in life. I also feel painfully, tragically, like an adult, in a new way.

It's a cliche to say that bereavement is a time when you find out who your friends are, but it's true. Christina Hendricks, Thora Birch and Kat Dennings haven't called, but, that disappointment aside, I can honestly say that I feel the friends I have right now - those people I talk to most often - are the best I've ever had. They've confirmed that I have become good at something I wasn't very good at for a long long time: surrounding myself with warm, kind people. My ex-lodger, Katia, was particularly sad to hear of Janet's death, and shed a tear with me, as did others. Janet was a true People Cat. He was the cat who brought me back to moggy serfdom, after the one, anomalous, catless period of my life. In Of Mice And Men terms, he was the Lenny to The Bear's George. The other cats don't quite seem the same without their big dumb step-brother, and the house feels like it has a hole in it. I do not feel "relieved" that I no longer have to spend £100 a month on his vet bills, nor that I can now perhaps confidently go on holiday, maybe, for a couple of days, for the first time in what feels like forever. I just want him back, right here, headbutting me with his preternaturally cold nose, rolling over in response to my one note whistle, or mistiming a jump onto the stair-rail, and breaking yet another bit of 60s West German pottery. His pills are still in the cat food cupboard, and I can't bring myself to do anything with them. (They're expensive, and I'd like to give them to the owner of another hyperthyroid cat, but how do you make that offer: "Here - have my dead pet's medication! Fancy a Thorntons praline, too?"?)

Back when I first lived with him, in London, Janet befriended a neighbourhood fox: a fox so mangy, chickens probably barely thought twice before disrespecting it to its face in street patois. As I looked out of the back wind of my Blackheath flat, I'd see them together, sitting on the communal lawn, in companionable silence. One of the thoughts I've tried to focus on in the last few days is that Janet has been reunited with this fox. Another is that there are many, awful, lingering ways for a cat to die, and he did not suffer one of them. I succeed in zoning in on these thoughts for a while. But as I wander around the house, trying and failing to work, showering the other cats with attention - to their increasing annoyance - I keep feeling like I've forgotten something, or, rather, that I've left something behind. I know what it is, and that it's gone, but I can't shake the feeling that if I strain my tired brain enough, there's a way, somehow, I can get it back.

Thursday 3 February 2011