On the days when I’m not out at meetings I have a routine. I work in the house until around 11.00 and then walk the couple of hundred yards to Birnam Arts, the arts centre that sits at the heart of our village.
Remarkably for a place as small as Birnam (population around 500), the arts centre has a theatre, a library, gallery space, a pottery studio, a dance studio and a large airy café with lots of natural light which I welcome especially during the winter.
There I have a cup of good coffee and work until lunchtime. It can be noisy and there’s the constant prospect of bumping into friends and neighbours, but I always seem to manage to be productive. As so many other writers have observed over the years, there’s something about being in the swim of humanity yet not having to engage with it that allows one to make good, creative inner connections.
When I return, at least two days a week it’s to an empty house. Yet I’m not entirely without company. Elmo, so named as a kitten by my son after the red Muppet monster, is a three-legged cat of great character. His long thick fur is mottled in shades of gray, he has a huge white ruff around a tiny pink-nosed face, like a cross between a capuchin and a marmoset, a long and bushy tail which he swishes constantly for balance, and one enormously muscular hind leg with which he paddles himself along, the other having been amputated after an encounter with a car.
Cats are astonishingly adaptable creatures. Over time Elmo’s hind leg has shifted more and more towards the centre of his body and now it appears to be almost aligned with the axis of his spine, in the manner of a perfect tripod. What’s more his rear elbow (in human terms) has dropped to become his wrist, so to speak, so that the forearm and paw now function as one, greatly increasing the contact he has with the ground.
Elmo is now aged about eleven (I can’t remember exactly when we got him), but age and disability notwithstanding, he’s still as playful as he was when a kitten. Most mornings he paddles his way upstairs and into the bathroom when I’m shaving, where he nibbles at my ankles until I relent and massage his head and ears, then his spine, with my foot. He lies on the carpeted bathroom floor purring ecstatically, while I luxuriate in the feel of his soft warm fur against my bare sole. It’s as good a way to start the day as I can think of.
As I write now he’s curled up in the armchair I keep in a corner of my office. It has a mahogany frame and wickerwork panels for the back and arms, and it belonged to my grandfather. Elmo appropriated it once he realised that when I was feeling well disposed to him I would turn on the anglepoise lamp that stands beside the chair and direct it down onto him. Now he scrambles onto the chair most afternoons and stares at me till I switch on his personal sun lamp, at which point he wraps his tail around his nose and goes to sleep.
I look at him now, resembling nothing so much as a rather elegant fur hat, and ask myself the perennial question: what if anything do I mean to him? Were he a dog the answer would be simple: the object of his adoration and the subject of his dependency. But he’s a cat, and playful as he undoubtedly is, affectionate as he sometimes seems to me to be, he is ultimately inscrutable.
I know what he means to me though. He touches me with his spirit and courage. He tickles me with his incurable hedonism. And he’s a lesson to me in how it’s possible to love someone (and he is a ‘one’ in my book, not a ‘thing’) unreservedly and with no great hope of reciprocation.