Colin, come home…

 A few nights ago I was doing my Wuthering Heights impression, running around the garden in my pyjamas, shouting and waving my arms, screaming into the darkness as a storm blazed overhead. Cracks of thunder rumbled in the hills as lightning split the skies: everything was illuminated white and then swallowed in shadow again. I yelled and yelled, raising my voice above the battering rain. ‘Colin! Colin! Where are you, Colin?’

Even my wonderful neighbours heard me two fields away as they sat outside in the warm air enjoying the thrill of the midnight thunder. I expect they thought I had lost my wits. In fact, I had lost my cat.

It’s a harsh world sometimes in the countryside. Life is fragile and often cut short – it’s a common sight to see a rabbit or a badger, a pheasant or a squirrel pounded into the gravel by a passing piece of farm machinery. I’d been living here for three months when a neighbour handed me the limp body of Pushkin, my best cat ever, who had just been killed. We all know that moment of stunned disbelief when a life suddenly slips away. She’d been sitting on my knee an hour before, watching my daughter unwrap her birthday presents. She was a real familiar, Pushkin – we had an understanding. Then all of a sudden, she was gone and there was a huge gap which couldn’t be filled, not even by my other cat, Colin, who has been with me for at least eight years and is a lovely cat, albeit a bit bonkers.

My daughter, ever practical and wise, told me to adopt another cat. I tried the ‘nothing can replace Pushkin’ thing and was reminded firmly that another cat needed a home. So eventually I contacted the local animal rescue sanctuary and brought home two cats: Monty, now nicknamed TC, and Murphy. They are brothers, inseparable, once feral and, when I agreed to adopt them, they were not more than two years old. Colin hated them, but they soon all settled to live their separate lives of grudging tolerance.

TC and Murphy follow me everywhere. We go for walks in the fields. Locals call them the feral peril. They hang around me constantly in case there is any food going spare. They steal my breakfast. They can’t forget their feral roots, although they are both affectionate and sweet. Colin still hates them. He’ll spit at them, sit on my knee, growl at them both and a battle for ownership is constantly wavering between the cat camps.

Colin has never been a normal cat. He does this weird thing. If I’m in the bath singing Country Roads by John Denver, which I’m sure we all do regularly, Colin will leap onto the edge of the bath and swipe me with his paw, gently but with a clear intention to shut me up. So I sing it again, louder, and he yells at me, pretends to try to bite me and won’t leave the room, clearly impassioned by my singing. It’s hilarious. We caterwaul together for the entire duration of my bath. Colin is weird, bonkers and loveable.

I haven’t seen him since Monday; he hasn’t been home for four days. He’s been missing before for a day or two but hunger always brings him back. He belongs here. He sleeps on my bed – some mornings I wake up and he’s under the sheets purring. He’s a nice cat, Colin.

Hence, there was a need for the Wuthering Heights scene during the midnight storm, me in my pyjamas, running round in the rain yelling his name. ‘Colin, come home to me, Colin.’ But he hasn’t come home. Not yet.

I’ve asked all my local friends if they’ve seen him, driven round the roads where the farm machinery goes, checked hedges, the garden, home, under beds. No Colin. Not yet.

The cat ownership yo-yo has been in the ‘up’ position since I adopted Monty (TC) and Murphy. They are adorable, as is Colin. Of course, I still miss Pushkin and you may know the tale of Magick Cat who, when I first moved house,  packed his bags and decided to move in with new people a couple of miles away because he felt like it. They love him and he is so settled. Rejection is hard to take, as is loss. And it’s not easy, simply not knowing where Colin is.

Colin the cat may be a little bit low in the IQ department but he’s my cat – he’s streetwise (country-wise, really,) and a bit antisocial: he takes care of himself, shunning people he doesn’t know and avoiding anything motorised with an audible engine. He has a healthy appetite too – four days away from home will leave him starving, although there are a lot of feral cats nearby who survive very well on wildlife.

It’s difficult, not knowing whether he’ll be back at any moment, whether he’s shut in a wood store somewhere or lying under a hedge, shot by someone aiming at rabbits. He could come back today and I’ll grab him and shout ‘Colin, you’re back,’ and shower him with kisses, which he’ll hate but grudgingly tolerate so that I’ll feed him.

It’s difficult not knowing whether to refer to him in the present tense or the past. TC and Murphy haven’t missed him. As long as there’s food available on demand, they are happy, and I suppose they think there is more for them with him gone, and more space on the top of the bed. But I miss Colin. The yo-yo of pet ownership has taken a plunge down again and it’s currently swinging in the balance, not sure whether to rise or to slacken. But I haven’t given up on Colin Feral coming back. Not yet.

 

Eight days later, Colin’s back – hungry, drenched but purring. And I’m hugging him and dancing round the room – he’s home!!

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Novelists and Tour de France riders have something in common…

Authors read a lot – it’s part of our continued professional development, if you like. But it’s more than that – reading’s an obsession. I learned to read at three years old– my mum taught me and I was a receptive learner – I would read everything from cereal boxes and advertising hoardings to any magazine or paperback I could get my hands on. I read the Bible, the Qur’an, the Reader’s Digest, The Daily Mirror – if it had words, I’d read it. By the time I was eight, my favourite novel was the Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I found it in the school library, a tatty old red book with crumpled covers but  the characters, the tension, the setting transported me to a place I’d never imagined could be and I was hooked.

In Primary school, I read novels by Blyton, Coolidge, Montgomery – all the stories my mum read in her childhood and thought I’d love because they had role models of imaginative, intelligent and sensitive girls. At that point, I was still developing my literary tastes and I knew no better. It was a book so I lapped it up, enjoying some stories more than others but devouring every word from start to finish.

As a teenager, I experienced what happens when the angel of literature spreads her wings wide. Books leapt towards me from libraries, from junk sales and charity shops. I read Salinger, Harper Lee, Bashevis Singer, the Brontës x3, Solzhenitsyn, Camus, Sartre, Donleavy, Kerouac.  I loved them all. And then I read Jane Austen and formed a strong opinion.

In my early twenties, I had a friend who adored Austen. She was a vibrant woman, a strong personality, from Puerto Rico, so she adored the eccentric Englishness of Austen. My friend loved to reflect on the role of women in British society at that point in time: their power, or lack of it, and the simple ways they could assert themselves. We had long conversations about it. She explained how she enjoyed Austen’s style, her pace, the language, the setting, the way the romances unfolded. I couldn’t see it at all. To me it was just a boring tale about privileged women with not much else to do except fuss over societal mores and wait around for a characterless man with a lot of money to pay attention to them.

Later, much later, I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I loved it. It was an exceptional novel and I enjoyed every moment. Particularly, I adored the character of Boris, who was unpredictable and funny. The story was well told, pacy and plausible. It was one of those books I couldn’t put down, a laugh-out-loud, glue- your-eyes to-each-page book. So I sought out two more books by Donna Tartt – The Secret History and The Little Friend. I wasn’t really motivated by one and the other I couldn’t finish. I pondered a long time on why I loved The Goldfinch and didn’t like the others and I decided, finally, that it was simply just me. Liking books is a subjective thing and while The Secret History might have been ideal for some readers, it was just not my type of book.

This led me to think about the huge respect I have for any writer, whatever their genre, whether they are published or still at the stage of writing a novel. It is a task of incredible resilience akin to running a marathon, cycling the Tour de France or climbing Everest. There are highs and lows, joys and trepidation. It takes stamina and guts to finish 100,000 words of A novel, then go back and rip loads of it out again to make it better in the hope that someone will read it and like it.

I was at a writers’ meeting last week. An experienced and intelligent woman, who writes historical stories was talking about her methodology, how she uses a flexible formula to make her style work. Another bubbly woman, a writer of popular romcoms, was explaining how piqued she felt when an editor was critical of her story. I said little and listened a lot. These writers were discussing the vagaries of creating a popular novel. The historical writer mentioned a trope she’d used in her first novel and her intention not to use it for the future because someone had said they didn’t like it in a review. This led me to think how many books I had read, loved and yet I’d never paused to say so in any forum the writer might read. There is a whole different blog post waiting to be written about reviews and how we should respond to them as writers.

Good reviews are wonderful and I’m so grateful for people from across the globe who have said wonderful things. The Swedish lady who wanted one of my novels to become a film and wrote to my publisher to say so was the highlight of my week not so long ago. I hope someone in a position of film-making decisions is listening! Of course, there are reviews that are less complimentary, some we can learn from and some that have little use. For example, someone once wrote in a review about the best-selling novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English Language. I doubt whether Gail Honeyman gives a monkey’s – I certainly wouldn’t, in her place. (And it’s a great book!)

Last week, I read a novel by an author I know, whom I like as a person. I loved it. It sat perfectly within its genre, the characters were well-drawn and it made me laugh out loud. But I wonder what I’d have said to her had I not liked it. I always feel a bit bad when I don’t like a book. It feels disrespectful to admit it to someone after they’ve put so much work into it that it hasn’t moved me at all. But there are some novels I really can’t get on with.  I read one ages ago, a romantic novel about a woman in her fifties who meets a new man: it was recommended to me. I hated it so much – I thought the main character was feeble, underdeveloped and the male romantic interest was a facile twit. The plot was banal and the setting unimaginative.

I felt so awful about being negative. I went back to my response to the novel and tried again. The plot was valid enough, the pace was ok, the characters inoffensive, but the outcome was still predictable and I couldn’t see any point in reading it: I’d gained nothing, finding no way of immersion in the story.

But the book had sold well, the author was quite popular. So I concluded from this that I was just not target audience. There are certainly a bunch of people out there who have bought and loved this book – it has given them that feel-good transportation to another person’s world and they have benefited from it. I should just shut up. Maybe the people who loved that book would hate stuff by novelists I adore – Dostoyevsky and Winterson, Shamsie and Doyle. My opinion is simply that – just an opinion, one person’s opinion amongst many others, and so I have to conclude that, although that book’s not for me, the novel would be a crowd-pleaser to someone in a different crowd. It would be wrong for me to dismiss a book on the grounds that I think my response is the right one or has the right to be prevalent over others who might actually enjoy it. It’s best to say nothing at all.

So I continue to read widely and enthusiastically: books I love are books that teach me something, or take me to a new place or introduce me to another way of thinking. Books I don’t like are still part of my education – I need to consider why I don’t like them and what sort of audience would relish every word. Alright, so I spend more time thinking about why I don’t like some books and less time on others – that’s natural. But I’ve now resolved never to be negative about a writer, to keep my opinions of books I don’t enjoy to myself. I don’t want to influence anyone else.

Writing a novel is hard work. It’s not in my nature to jeopardise someone’s accomplishment or spoil their pleasure.  I wouldn’t shove a stick into the spokes of a Tour De France rider while he or she was huffing and puffing up Mont Ventoux. I might even extend a hand and give them a helpful push along, or some words of encouragement: Allez, allez!  Or I might simply watch them go on their way to the finish line and hope they enjoy their journey. The going is hard enough for them – they may be a winner, achieve a strong finish or they may fall off onto hard gravel. So similarly it is with writers. I wish them all the best. There will be no harsh words from me.

 

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