Where was I?

‘If cats could understand the human search for meaning they would purr with delight at its absurdity.’

John Gray, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life

Indeed they would. But, by God, after 2020’s brickbats of the bizarre a little meaning – at the least a little closure – wouldn’t go amiss. They say you should never laugh at a cat, but in exchange for a sliver of meaning, I’d happily be the butt of a cat’s laughter for a time.

Cats don’t laugh though, do they? Imagine doing a stand-up routine in front of an audience of cats (imagine cats deigning to be such a thing as an audience). I guess they would purr instead of laugh. And I guess jokes wouldn’t really cut it: unless jokes could warm you, feed you and manifest in you a feeling of contentment.

Right now I am content. As I type I am sitting on a sofa and I can see the twinkling of a Christmas tree’s lighting display in the periphery of my vision. I can also see my eldest daughter chatting away with her thumbs – with her friends (not chatting with her thumbs) – on her phone. My wife is leaning against the fridge. On Twitter (more than me, these days). My youngest daughter is rehearsing for an online play that we’ll all be watching in the next couple of hours.

To be here; to be here right now. To be here and to have the mental space, stillness and capacity to frame this moment and just begin to frame the past year – well, that is a fine, fine thing. With a bellyful of salted almonds and a slosh of black tea, I type. Happy isn’t the word. Content. Purring.

Don’t let me sully this moment with that word, that hyphen, that number – so let’s call it Hovis-5000. We received our positive test results on the 16th of September.

“We’ve passed!” I said, smiling to my eldest daughter, very much mired in her world of online exams, Teams assignments and breakout rooms. And then I convulsed and cried for a bit, letting go of months of carefully wiping internet grocery items with Dettol wipes; letting go of months of inwardly singing ‘Happy Birthday’; letting go of months of anticipation and a mild, protracted dread. It had roosted, redly and side-eyed, among us: a great fat cock of mindless self-duplication:

Hovis-5000.

The symptoms?

Youngest: nothing but a fleeting headache.

Eldest: lost her sense of smell for a day.

Mrs Whats: a week of headaches and no sense of smell.

I plumped for man Hovis-5000: 10 days of heaving breaths in the dead of night; normal mornings, knackered by 3; and no sense of smell. And three months’ later? Still no sense of smell. Each morning I take a cod-liver oil tablet and spend a minute sniffing essential oils: eucalyptus, clover, lemon and rose. They each have some subtle distinction, but are overpowered by the ash of inflammation. Hovis has burned parts of me: great fat cock of mindless, flame-throwing self-duplication that it is.

Cats can get it too, you know. Unlike me, they don’t make a fuss. Maybe the purrs are a little fewer and further between; maybe the purrs are a little more labored – a little bit Lambert; a little bit Butler. But my cats and me, we made it through to this side of things.

And on this side of things, there are salted almonds; there are books that can be read from start to finish without drifting into an anxious wavering; there’s the space to indulge in a staring competition with a student; there’s the space to name the neighbours’ cats. I call the fat-headed one ‘Rushmore’; the one that comes to our window and we let in from the cold, I call him ‘Pringle’.

There’s the space to think of you, for a start. The great, shared aching. The revelation that certainty had always cloaked the unknown.

Ah, but it’s good not to know. Cats don’t know.

And they know everything.

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