Dear Blog Readers and other visitors from cyberspace,
I am happy to be sharing one of the short stories from my new collection, The Astral Traveller’s Handbook & Other Tales.
This story is called If Only They Could Talk.
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I hope you enjoy the story.
If Only They Could Talk
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there lived a cat lover named Mavis Davis. Like most members of this species, Mavis wore her love of all things feline as a badge of pride.
The coffee mug on her desk at work was emblazoned with the words “Crazy Cat Lady” in pink capital letters. Visitors to her home would discover a door knocker in the image of a cartoon-like cat with an entirely unnatural grin. So many of her possessions bore the image of a cat that it would have been easier to catalogue those items that were entirely cat-free.
Cats had been part of Mavis’s life since she was a girl. But it was only after she and Hank got divorced, and their daughter, Daisy, had left home, that the volume of her ailurophilia—to give it its proper name—ramped right up.
Mavis Davis wasn’t some lonely, old crone who had no one on whom to lavish her considerable affection other than her three cats. On the contrary, she lived life to the brim! Her radio alarm would wake her up before six every morning in time for Zumba class at the local gym. She’d return home, charged with adrenalin, chattering volubly to her three fur babies as she bustled from shower to bedroom and from wardrobe to kitchen, where she’d catch the early morning news on TV while she and all three cats devoured their respective breakfasts with lip-smacking gusto.
Her job, as the head of accounting for a busy advertising agency, kept her more than occupied during the working day. And those evenings she wasn’t out at an agency do, or enjoying a meal with Daisy or one of the girls from the gym, or dating—yes she had an online profile and had enjoyed some quite delightful dal- liances—she spent at home with her cats. Typically, this involved a ready-made meal on a tray in front of the TV, a glass of Merlot, and her phone—those vital components of a pleasant evening home alone. Her phone was a necessary instrument not only for the myr- iad social media apps she would hop between—Mavis thought of herself as the consummate multi-tasker—but also in case one of the cats struck a particularly adorable pose, which she would capture, caption, and blast out to the world so that all could share in her fulsome appreciation.
Anyone acquainted with Mavis soon also became acquainted with Methuselah, an ancient tabby, and her first rescue cat from the local haven. The vet had estimated him to be at least 12 when she had adopted him 5 years earlier. Methuselah may be a senior, but of all three cats he was also the most generous with his affections, hopping on her lap as soon as she removed the dinner tray, and responding to her chatter and caresses by appreciatively revving up his outboard motor to full throttle.
She’d found Shrek, an off-white cat, starving and bedraggled in an alley behind work. While Shrek had soon bounced back to rude, good health under Mavis’s doting ministrations, she suffered from a chronic skin condition that mystified the vet. She lost fur constantly, sometimes in great chunks, especially around her face. At times she’d have so little fur on her head, or the fur that she had was so wispy, that she’d look like she was bald. “So ugly that she’s cute!” Mavis would show colleagues photos of the alien-like being on her phone. No doubt some of her co-workers didn’t think that Shrek was quite that ugly, but they indulged Mavis by keeping their own counsel on the subject.
Despite taking her in and giving her the most loving of homes, Mavis’s affections seemed rarely reciprocated by Shrek. In mornings and evenings, as soon as she had eaten, she would vanish into thin air, in the way that cats do. So low was her profile and so rarely seen, that Mavis even gave her the nickname Shrek The Invisible. Mavis tried her best not to feel disappointed by the cat’s seem-
ing lack of interest. Instead, she’d take solace from those random moments, usually in the middle of the night, when she’d become aware of the mostly bald form who had crept up onto the bed beside her and who, on becoming aware that she was no longer asleep, would softly purr.
Ninja, a young, formerly male ginger, brought up Mavis’s trio of little darlings. His full name, Ginger Ninja, gave an inkling into his particular character trait, which was to leap out unexpectedly from behind doors and on top of cupboards, and, having startled his prey, scamper away at full speed. Like Methuselah, he was a rescue cat whom Mavis had brought home after she’d fallen in love with him during a visit to the local cat haven—as spontaneous as one of Ninja’s own attacks. Opening the door to his rescue center condo, the moment she had encountered Ninja, he had walked towards her and, with the utmost gentleness, head butted her in the heart.
It was a habit that had continued ever since. She’d be sitting at the kitchen bench when Ninja would appear at her side. No matter what she was doing—checking through the mail, drinking a coffee, even eating a meal, he would slip between her and whatever engaged her attention, purring and smooching at her heart. Mavis thought this utterly delightful! Pushing away her mail, or coffee or plate of food, she’d caress her little Ninja and tell him how much she loved him, and adored having him in her life and was so pleased she had found her way to him on that spur of the moment trip to the rescue center.
There were times, in Mavis’s hellter-skellter life, when she’d sometimes reflect how she wished she could somehow bridge the human-feline divide. As besotted as she was with her three precious friends, and as much as she showered them with her affections, there was no escaping the feeling that even though they shared the same house, and even the same bed, they lived in different worlds. In the mornings, she’d sometimes come home from Zumba, bursting with energy and eager to share details of the class, and the day ahead, and what was going on at work with her little darlings, to find all three cats lined up, backs towards her, staring silently out the French doors to the patio. It almost seemed as if they were deliberately blanking her. Many evenings it was just Methuselah and her in front of the TV. What was it about her favorite sitcoms and dramas that Shrek and Ninja found so deeply off-putting?
Perversely, the only time that all three cats seemed actively to seek her out was the one moment that she sought complete privacy: in the bathroom. Soon learning to leave the bathroom door ajar, rather than closed—that would only provoke scratching—as she sat in silence, communing with nature, all three of them would form a procession to the opposite side of the room, where they’d sit, staring at her with sphinx-like inscrutability.
“If only they could talk!” she’d often say to friends, as she showed them a sample from the gazillions of cat pics she had on her phone.
“If only they could talk!” she’d conclude, after telling colleagues about Shrek’s most recent hair loss episode. Or Ninja’s disturbing new habit of not so much gently head butting her chest, as running full tilt into it like a steam train.
“I’m sure they’d have such interesting things to say.”
Mavis had never speculated on what these interesting things might be. On what subjects might one expect a cat to have a fresh and distinctive perspective? The rise of do-it-yourself terrorism? The implications of global warming? The impact of CPI on consum- ables? Come to think of it now, there are a few.
But as most people understood, the subjects Mavis would really have liked to have conversed to her cats about were of a more personal nature. Like the way they really felt about one another, feline quirks and eccentricities aside. Like what they really would have liked her to do for them. Even what they may have liked to do for her.
If only they could talk.
Mavis may very well have spent the rest of her life speculating on this very question, were it not for an entirely unexpected turn of events: one day, she dropped dead.
Well, slid dead, to be precise.There she was one minute, attending a weekly agency meeting. And the very next, she experienced two violent spasms in the chest, before slumping against her chair and sliding to the floor. Dead as a doornail.
The colleagues who knew, and for the most part were very fond of Mavis, observed this in a state of benumbed horror. Their disbelief at what they were witnessing seemed to prevent them from moving. Chief Executive Officer, Darius Drake, explaining the benefits of a new invoicing system, was mid-sentence when he saw Mavis flailing. Everyone followed his gaze. And collectively watched her die before their very eyes.
As it happened, an intern named Luke who had joined the agency staff just a few weeks earlier watched the middle-aged woman collapse in front of him without a scintilla of emotion to cloud his reactions. Getting up immediately, he went to the door, opened it, and yelled out, “Kathy! Meeting Room Three. Now!”
So imperative was his tone, that within seconds the agency’s First Aid Officer was hurrying to join them.
Although having a heart attack may not strike you, on any level, as being lucky, there were several lucky things about Mavis’s. To begin with, where she had it. If she’d been home alone, no matter how well intentioned her cats, she would have been beyond immediate help. It was also lucky that Luke just happened to be in the staff kitchen two days earlier when Kathy had been telling colleagues about the First Aid refresher course she had just attended. In par- ticular, the very handsome doctor from whom, she had quipped, she wouldn’t have minded receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Luke had been privately disgusted. Kathy couldn’t have been a day under forty! The idea that a woman of such an age could still harbor such instincts, much less express them, was something that made him recoil. It had certainly stuck in his mind. Which was why he had no doubt about who to summon when the subject of resusci- tation returned to the agenda with unexpected suddenness.
Kathy administered CPR. The Chief Executive Officer, unfro- zen, summoned an ambulance. Within half an hour, Mavis was at the city hospital, hooked up to an array of impressive technology, her every metabolic moment being monitored in multi-dimensional detail.
It wasn’t until the following day that the whole story emerged. How Mavis had been suffering from high blood pressure without realizing it. How it ran in the family. How the swift response to her situation meant she would suffer no major heart damage. How she would, nevertheless, need to make some lifestyle changes.
“We’ll soon have you back to work, and the gym,” Mavis’s car- diologist had reassured her, on his ward round. “The beta blockers will work their wonders. But we need to find a way for you to better manage stress.”
Sitting up in bed in the pajamas Daisy had brought from home, Mavis had felt almost fraudulent being in hospital. And at the same time, terrified. She felt no different from the way she usually did, and was bursting with impatience to be discharged. But on the other hand, an unknown and devastating vulnerability had been exposed. One she was frightened could arise unexpectedly at any moment. There was little she wouldn’t have considered to ensure she didn’t suffer a repeat of it.
“What do you recommend?” she asked the cardiologist. “Well, you’re not overweight. You’ve already got a good exercise
regime. Your diet could probably do with a bit of tweaking—but it’s not that bad either.” The cardiologist went through his checklist before studying her closely over the top of his spectacles. “I believe that calming practices like meditation can be helpful. Is that some- thing you would consider?”
“I’d consider anything.”
Feeling in the pocket of his white coat, he produced a card, which he handed her.
“‘Integrated Wellness Center’,” Mavis read aloud.
“They run six week meditation courses for beginners, amongst other things. You may like to give one a try.”
From the very first morning Mavis began practicing meditation at home, she noticed a difference. In a way she had never expected.
She felt self-conscious and slightly foolish sitting on her new meditation cushion in the spare room, gazing unfocused at the car- pet and trying to count her breaths in cycles of ten, the way Hannah at Integrated Wellness had shown the class. She’d keep losing count of her breath, long before reaching ten. Thoughts would bubble up in her mind. Before she even realized it, she’d be deeply engaged in some subject that was far, far away from breath-counting. Then she’d suddenly realize that she was no longer focused on her breath. For the first time she discovered how little control she had over her own mind.
For all that, something else went on that was unusual in the most delightful way. Within moments of sitting on her cushion, Methuselah appeared in the spare room. She tried to ignore the movement at the door—she was supposed to be focused sin- gle-pointedly on her breath—but she couldn’t help stealing a glance to where he sat, neat as a pin, staring at her intently.
A few moments passed, and she became aware of another move- ment. Ninja! He joined Methuselah, sitting upright and staring at his human with the same clear-eyed inscrutability.
Before her first session had ended, Shrek made her appearance too. Standing behind the other two cats and taking in the pro- ceedings, as the three of them looked on, from a distance, Mavis realized what was happening that morning was, quite simply, unprecedented. Apart from her visits to the bathroom, never had all three of her cats presented themselves, voluntarily, while she was wide awake.
She wondered if it was the novelty of it. There’s nothing more intriguing to a cat than a slight change to a familiar situation. A piece of furniture moved to a new room. A favorite blanket that has found its way to a different location. A cupboard door, left ajar, that has never been open before. After a few days of meditating, she wondered, would the cats have lost interest?
Next morning, she sat to meditate with an enthusiasm that was only partly to do with the anticipation of oceanic calm. Within moments, Methuselah had not only appeared at the door, but come halfway across the room towards her and settled on the carpet. Ninja and Shrek had soon followed suit, coming quite close to her before sitting, then lying on the carpet. Not wanting to jinx what was happening, Mavis did her best to keep her mind focused on her breath. Her reward, after a few moments, was to hear Methuselah begin to purr.
Mavis arrived at work that day on a high! She shared with colleagues her tale of the unprecedented feline attention she was getting at home. Such was her enthusiasm for the new meditation practice that over the lunch hour she downloaded a Zen chime to her mobile phone to replace the more imperative alarm she’d been using to end her fifteen minute sessions.
And things got only better. The next day, as soon as she was settled on her cushion, Methuselah walked up and helped himself to her lap. Not to be outdone, Ninja came to her side and lay, leaning again her left thigh. Shrek followed, lying directly on the carpet in front of her, at one point even rolling over and stretching out the curved baldness of her tummy.
Mavis had never known such intimacy with her beloved felines. As she sat, trying her very best to keep her mind focused on her breath, she was helped along by the soundtrack of at least two cats, gently purring.
Something was changing in a subtle, but significant way between her cats and her. Something that couldn’t easily be put into words. But there was a new closeness, of which physical proximity was the most obvious, but not only, manifestation. For the first time in her life, she experienced the uplifting and yet completely natural sensation that she and her cats were somehow in sync.
The following week at the Integrated Wellness Center she couldn’t wait for Hannah to invite questions.
“A kind of weird thing has been happening when I meditate,” she told Hannah and her fellow novices. “My cats are coming into the room to join me. A couple of them are usually stand-off-ish. What’s all that about?”
Hannah hadn’t seemed a bit surprised. “It’s by no means unusual,” she responded. “My dog waits to join me every morning as well. When we meditate, we deliberately change our mental state. Our body is relaxed but we are focusing our mind on just one thing. This is very different from our usual state of being. You could say that we create a shift in presence, in energy. Research shows how dramatically we change our whole psycho-physical state when we meditate. We produce endorphins instead of cortisol. Our brain waves move to far greater coherence. This is not just touchy-feely stuff—its scientifically measurable. And because animals are more sensitive to non-verbal changes than we are, they instantly pick up on what’s happening. Many of them are drawn to us.”
Mavis swallowed, humbled by the perceptiveness shown by her beloved cats. “I feel like I’m somehow on the same page as them. Almost as if they might speak.”
Hannah regarded her closely for a few moments before say- ing, “Animals use sound to communicate, but they routinely use more subtle signals … what we might call knowingness, intuition, telepathy. People who live close to nature do this too. My personal belief is that all humans used to communicate like this once, but our minds have become so busy that, for the most part, we’re incapable of picking up subtle signals any longer. We have so much noise in our lives—TV. Radio. Social media. It’s very interesting what happens when we step away from all that and learn to let go of cognitive chatter and simply be with our pets. Once the barriers go, communication flows.”
“You’re saying,” prompted another class member, “we can com- municate with animals this way?”
“Not verbally,” replied Hannah. “But when we quiet our minds and open up to what they may be trying to tell us through their actions, perhaps even through symbols—it’s amazing what we dis- cover. A lot of pet lovers say that they’re always talking to their ani- mals, but the reality is that it’s mostly one-way traffic.” She smiled. “Talking to our pets is one thing. But do we ever stop to listen?”
Mavis left her second meditation lesson in a state of deep unease. She was exactly the kind of pet lover that Hannah had been describ- ing. All these years it had been one-way traffic! Her chattering to the cats about her day at the office. Her dominating the sound waves with TV and online videos and noise without end. But the moment she had offered her beloved felines some peace and quiet, they had responded to it with unprecedented appreciation.
How could she have got it so very wrong for so many years? She, a cat lover of all people?!
That night, for the first time ever, she didn’t switch on the TV when she got home. Instead, she and the cats enjoyed their dinner in silence. And, was she imagining things, or did Ninja and Shrek hang around for longer before they did their usual vanishing act?
In the days that followed, Mavis tried to put her relationship with her cats onto a new footing. Their morning meditation sessions now an assumed part of their daily routine, Mavis added a short, session of contemplative silence before turning out the light each night—and the result was a full complement of cats on the duvet beside her. She made an effort to reduce the noise levels at home, investing in a set of headphones so she could watch TV without filling the place with sound. She was rewarded, very quickly, when Ninja and even Shrek proved to be less elusive.
But, as important as any of this, she began to listen. To pay attention. To ask her cats if there was anything they wished to tell her, and then to simply wait, patiently, to see what turned up.
Her first discovery was both shocking and embarrassing. And it wasn’t even an intentional act of communication, as far as she could tell. One evening, she called each one of the cats by name. Ninja and Shrek turned around the moment they heard her. Methuselah, further away, didn’t react at all.
That got her thinking—and setting up a few tests that quickly confirmed her gathering suspicions: Methuselah was profoundly deaf. He could hardly hear a thing, unless the sound was right beside him.
Mavis mused about all those evenings on the sofa, just her and Methuselah. Was the reason he had joined her because he, alone among the cats, was inured to the sound of canned laughter, TV drama sirens and the incessant, bellowing retail advertising? How long had he been as deaf as this? And what did it say about the kind of attention she paid him, that she had missed it?
A trip to the vet established that the cause of his deafness wasn’t purely on account of his old age. A judicious de-waxing of the ears helped him regain some of his hearing.
A week or two later, Mavis was sitting at the kitchen bench, eating dinner, when Ninja hopped onto the counter, strode over towards her, rubbing his face affectionately against her arm.
“That’s very nice, little Ninj.” Mavis stroked him. “I love you too.”
After more head rubbing and gentle purring, he hopped down onto a stool and began to wash his face.
More sensitive to her cat’s behavior, and free of other distrac- tions, Mavis watched him for a few seconds before saying, “It’s a while since you head butted me. Not since hospital, in fact. Before I went in, you always used to …”
Which is when it suddenly struck. Only recently had she read about the ability of some animals to detect symptoms of illness among humans. Cats had prodded the abdomens of owners who had stomach cancer. Dogs alerted their diabetic owners to plum- meting sugar levels. Horses were able to help veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—all without a word being spoken.
Mavis remembered her visit to the cat haven. How Ninja’s first act had been to head butt her heart. Gently. How he’d continued doing so, with increasing vigor. But, because she hadn’t been lis- tening, his warnings had been to no avail. If she had listened, and taken herself off for a simple blood pressure check, was it possible she could have avoided the heart attack altogether?!
The idea that Ninja had been patiently persisting for all these years, to give her a message about her own physical wellbeing, a message that had been in her own, imperative self interest, and that she had been so utterly self-absorbed that she’d been impervious to it, shook her to the core.
There was also transformation in the life of Shrek, albeit of a slower growing variety. After Mavis cut down the noise levels when she was home, Shrek became a more constant presence. Yes, she had been fleeing TV! She was not only physically present, but in a way Mavis couldn’t put into words, more emotionally available too. There were encounters, purrs, glances that confirmed things were somehow different.
There was fur, too. At first so few wisps that Mavis didn’t dare hope too much. But as the wisps burgeoned into tufts, and tufts started joining together, there could be no further room for doubt. Previously, following exhaustive tests, the vet had once told her that Shrek’s baldness may be a stress reaction, but to exactly what he couldn’t say. As Shrek became a gorgeously fluffy white cat, with a full head of hair, there was no question in Mavis’s mind about the cause of her hair loss. She was a sensitive cat. And a quiet one. Not for her the hyper-stimulation of twenty-first century life. Offered the simple things—nourishing food; a safe, quiet home; the love of a crazy cat lady—and she flourished.
How frustrating, Mavis began to think, to be a pet. To try telling people things when their capacity to listen was so limited. To suffer, right in front of the eyes of those who loved you, because they were oblivious to even your basic needs. To try drawing atten- tion of those you cared for to something that threatened their very existence, but despite your repeated efforts, to do so in vain.
One day, Mavis emerged from her shower to find the cats lined up at the French door, backs towards her, staring into the patio. Their meaning, she recognized now, could hardly be plainer.
She opened the door to the courtyard, and all four of them stepped into a spring morning. Usually, she meditated in the spare room, but that morning she brought a chair outside, and sat in her bathrobe, and was simply present to her senses.
It was one of those delightful, pristine moments when the world felt as though it had been freshly minted. A morning breeze carried with it scents of crocuses and freesias. Birds trilled mellifluously from trees in the park nearby. The sun felt warm in Mavis’s face as she sat, being here and now.
Methuselah didn’t sit on her lap that morning, but rather perched on a small step, bathed in the sunlight. Beside her on the pavers, Shrek sprawled out, getting maximum exposure to the warmth along the full stretch of her white, furry tummy. Ninja prowled through the small flower bed nearby, like a jungle beast.
It didn’t matter where they all were that morning, physically. In a more important way, they were all exactly where they wanted to be, and in those peaceful moments of radiant wellbeing, they had never felt closer.
All of it, the cats’ idea.
A few weeks later, a colleague of Mavis’s in the graphic design team approached her in the lunch room to show her images of the kitties she had just adopted from her local rescue center. Like everyone else in the office, Cathy knew that Mavis was a cat tragic, as Darius Drake ironically termed it.
A group of colleagues were soon clustered round Cathy’s phone as she flicked through images of her two adopted kitties. The cats were already displaying markedly different personalities as well as enigmatic quirks, such as a lust for buttered toast.
“If only they could talk,” said a woman from accounts, to mur- murs of agreement. “Isn’t that what you always say, Mavis?”
“Used to.” Mavis nodded. “But, you know, I’ve completely changed my mind about that. Cat’s do talk. They are communicat- ing with us the whole time. The more important question is, do we ever listen?”
That night, as Mavis lay in bed waiting for sleep, she recalled her conversation with Cathy. She thought of all the years, while claiming to be besotted with her cats, she had unwittingly ignored them, being deaf to their pleas for peace, their wish for contact with nature. She had been closed off to the possibility of the silent but profound communion she had only just begun to experience, but which had already transformed things between them.
She thought of all the other pets around the world whose lives were similarly constrained by the tragic unawareness of their owners. All those missed opportunities for the freedom and the profound well-being she had only recently discovered. For the experience of wordless acceptance, and of love. And as she reflected, a rush of such deep sadness welled up inside her that she let out an involuntary sob.
Lying on her side, she wondered how things could ever be changed? How was it possible to share with every pet lover the full significance of the relationships they could enjoy with their companions, if only they could quieten their minds?
As she lay there, she sensed a stirring on the bed, and the shadow of a once-bald but now luxuriantly fluffy cat fell over her. And, in the next moment, the sandpapery quality of a small, pink tongue licking her cheek.
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