“The Guest Cat”, by Takeshi Hiraide (2015)

My wife and I have lived with cats for twenty years now which is a shocking realisation. This book, an unexpected birthday present, is a meditation on how the relationships between ourselves and our cats (and neighbours) form and the ways in which we negotiate the fiddly, fussy social barriers defining the spaces and transitions between us.

A couple rent a property and find a cat begins to visit them regularly. She (the cat, Chibi), becomes more and more important as the narrator and his wife negotiate a major change in their lives, the Showa era ends and the Japanese property bubble of the late 80s begins to evaporate.

I suspect something of the flavour of this book has been lost in translation, though more through the unbreechable gap between the Western language of subject-object and that of Japanese (something the book explicitly addresses), where the distinction all but dissolves, rather than through any fault of of the translator. 

What we have, however, is still a touching mediation on loss and marriage and the kind of love that descends like snowflakes overnight. 

Milky Way

“Light is the fastest thing in the world,” announces little elf, my seven year-old daughter. I think of the Discworld where light pours over the edge of the world like Golden syrup each morning. I wonder when she’ll be old enough for the Tiffany Aching novels.

“That’s true,” I say.

“But even light can’t escape from a black hole! Did you know a black hole is a dead star?”

“Yes. I think that’s interesting – even stars die.”

She jumps conversational track slightly, the way we both do and my son and wife don’t.

“It’s a shame we can’t see our own Galaxy.”

“But we can. Mostly. It’s called the Milky Way.”

“Can we see a picture of it?”

“I don’t want to get out any screens right now.” (Because we’d never get off them.) “But I can tell you what it looks like.”

“What does it look like?”

Oops. Have I ever really seen seen it? I remember a glimpse of something on the rare night when camping, the countryside and the dark coincided with a cloudless sky.

“It’s…a sort of grey-silvery thing. You don’t realise your looking at it at first because the other stars are brighter. Then you realise there’s a kind of stream running across the sky, full of dim twinkly stars. It’s…”

She isn’t listening. I carry on trying to remember. Did I see  a stream of stars, full of myth and wonder? Or did I make it up? And does it matter? I still remember it.

Exhaustion and pattern recognition 

Exhaustion: There’s a William Gibson novel (Pattern Recognition?) where the main character wonders about whether jet lag is when your soul gets left behind you out in the middle of the Atlantic. I suspect it happens on train journeys and after long meetings. Today, I spent two hours talking and arguing and convincing and, most of all, acting, to a room of fifteen people. Work involves so much acting. To clients, to colleagues, to yourself.

Mum died. The Wheel turns.

Last Monday, my sister rang me at work.

“Mum’s in hospital. They think she’ll be going home by the end of the week so you should think about popping up to see her soon after.”

We both knew what she meant. 

“Are you sure I shouldn’t come up now?”

We discussed it for a minute or two and agreed that it would be potentially upsetting if I materialised in Mum’s hospital room like a harbinger of imminently expected death. I vaguely made plans to show up early in the New Year, possibly with the family in tow. My sister went back to our mother’s bedside. She’s been her carer for some years. I’ve been semi-detached from the family for as long as I can remember. Religion, life-style choices, freedom of speech – it’s complicated. My sister and I get on, my father and I were reconciled before he died but I’ve never really liked my mother for a long time. In return, she’s gradually erased me from the family history as her memory erodes, needing more and more prompting to bring me into focus.

Did I mention I was adopted?

The next day, my sister rang again.

“You might want to think about coming up tomorrow.”

I dropped everything, dashed up to Euston and got a train North. My sister lives in an industrial northern town dominated by Unilever’s chemical works and ringed by new-build estates. She lives on one with her husband and, until now, our mother. 

We sat by her bed together for a couple of hours. She was asleep. My sister was convinced she knew I’d come. I wasn’t. Every now and then, my sister would get up and wipe the stringy white strands of dried fluid that had gathered on my mother’s mouth and under her tongue. The nurses came in and turned her once. Their kindness was an almost physical presence. My sister’s kindness felt more like ownership.

We only ever seem to have meaningful conversations at the bedside of dying parents. 

“I only ever really got to know the real mum in the last few years, you know. Dad was a bully.”

I knew that.

“I never saw that. I know she was much more intelligent than he was.”

“But no-one was allowed to have a different opinion from him. That was was always your problem. But that’s just how it was. You did what you had to do for yourself.”

My sister’s fond of that line. I got up and left home. She didn’t. Eventually, she acquired a kind of ownership of our parents.

I got the train back down. The next morning, my sister rang and told me that mum had died overnight. We’d joked at her bedside about the closing window for a funeral before Christmas but the family Catholic Mafia closed ranks and made calls and the service happened yesterday, on the 23rd.

The service took place in slow motion. We followed the hearse out to the grave (her husband’s, opened up to to accommodate her) and the deacon went through the last rituals. Like everyone else, I dropped a clod of the sandy northern soil on the coffin. I noticed the railway sleepers lining the grave all the way down to hold the space open.

After the requiem, there was a “hot pot” lunch. I’d been dreading it.

Then something surprising happened. Half a dozen relatives – aunts, cousins, an uncle – I hadn’t spoken to in thirty to forty years approached me one after another. They wanted to talk. They wanted to know what I’d been doing. So I told them and asked what they’d been up to. It was astonishing – they’d been through entire careers, tragedies, raised families, lived lives of which I’d seen or heard nothing.

No-one mentioned my mother. Everyone seemed relieved and happy for me in an odd sort of way, and happy to see me. And I found I was happy to see them. I gave and received contact details and found I was genuinely intending to see people.

My sister dropped me at the station, having determinedly raced to get me to a particular train. Typically, it turned out to be the slow one so, as soon as she’d driven off, I wandered briefly into the town’s “Cultural Quarter” and found a vegan coffee shop covered in bright new age paintings and with didgeridoos hung on the walls. There was vegan chocolate cheese cake (surprising tasty) and alpaca hand warmers for sale. I had a coffee and heard about the owners’ plans for their new business (“We had our first vegan footballer in here yesterday! We should be able to get that in the papers.”) then caught the non-stop train south.

I woke up this morning feeling lighter and happier than I had in ages. Somehow, somewhere, the Wheel had turned, decisively. 

The Wheel, from the Druid Craft Tarot

The Wheel, from the Druid Craft Tarot. Click for source.


Character Hauntology

I’m a character driven sort of writer. I like to plot, I like to plan, I love to build worlds but the thing that gets me to the finish line is the sense of duty I have to my characters.

It feels like that, a literal duty of care. Like every writer, I have a small stack of unfinished novels and the characters in those abandoned wrecks of stories haunt me. They want to be told. They want to have their say the way their lucky brothers and sisters in my finished manuscripts got to have theirs.

Pirandello wrote an entire play about this – Six Characters In Search Of An Author – about the nightmare an author faces when half-a-dozen untold stories come round to visit. Another Italian writer, Italo Calvino, wrote a novel called The Non-Existent Knight about a suit of armour that sustains its non-existent self through pure willpower. My characters, the ones that stick around, aren’t dissimilar. They force themselves into being and pester me. They lurk at the back of my mind prodding me to tell them into being. It’s a kind of channeling but the spirits being summoned aren’t all-powerful gods and spooks; my spirits are ordinary men, women and children who stumble into extraordinary situations. They’re individuals struggling in the morass of whatever invented history I’ve plunged them into. And I can’t help them – they have to fend for themselves.

I always start with a character, a person, set down in a situation. It goes from there. The end is up to them. I just have to keep writing until it feels true. That’s what I’m chasing – something ‘true’. 

The truth is something you have to be told. You can’t, if you follow me, make it up.

Currently, I’m pushing and poking at the beginning of a second novel in a series (optimistic, given that I haven’t sold the first one and have a previous novel to deconstruct into a more coherent trilogy if I ever manage to clone myself). All I know is that someone is on a beach and they’ve made a choice. The choice has consequences which the character will have to muddle through as best he or she can, generating more consequences and more choices…It’ll be complicated but simultaneously very simple. The character will always need to decide – do I want to be this person or that person? And the choices will need to tell the truth or, at any rate a truth. 

And that’s how I write a novel, bar the swearing and coffee.


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