I know, as soon as I step into the bright, sunlit room, that it isn’t going to go well. I have been booked to read at a lunchtime gig designed to give creative women with caring responsibilities a space to share work they’ve created with the event’s headline poet. Not to feel excluded by the pressures of parenthood, parents have been encouraged to bring their children along. I thought the premise sounded great. I could remember all too well the endless interruptions – the impossibility of finishing a thought, a conversation, or a cup of tea – of being a new parent. This was an idea I could get behind. I thought of Joyce Carol Oates saying that interruption is the great enemy of writing, whether the interruption came from technology or the demands of family.
The room smells milky and sweet. Young mothers and a smattering of young fathers fill the rows of chairs, chatting to each other, nursing babies, feeding carrot sticks to tousle-haired toddlers scrambling for toys on the play mats. My heart thumps and my mouth grows dry as I think of the carefully printed poems in my satchel; quiet, contemplative, ringed with darkness and danger. I look around the room that resembles, and sounds like, a toddler group. What I am about to say is probably not what these sleep-deprived, overstretched people need to hear. They needed distracting, not focussing, on the abyss. Nope, this wasn’t going to go well.
A relative newcomer to sharing my work with an audience, and certainly new to the arts scene in a new city, I have been learning the lie of the land. A friend and I have set up a poetry/spoken word open mic night and I perform at open mics and readings around the region. I know what it takes to share your work – it’s like teetering, naked, at the edge of a cliff and letting yourself fall while shouting out your most intimate secrets to a sea of strangers. That’s what it’s like for me, anyway. You have to trust the audience to catch you – to become your people, even if only for that moment. I am mindful of this when I attend or host an evening – it costs nothing to be kind and, in my experience, makes all the difference to a reader.
Earlier, catching sight of the headline poet across the bar I’d gone over excitedly, stretching out my hand. ‘Hi, I’m Ysella’, I said, ‘I’m your support.’
‘Oh, hi,’ they said, and turned away.
All new situations and places take navigating. Poetryland, it turns out, is not all pastoral scenes and fluffy kittens. Just like life, it is a competition. I’m not keen on competitions.
Back in the studio the hosts tell the audience that tempers and tantrums are not things to be shy of – my kind of crowd – so I take a deep breath and tell myself I’ve got this. I chat with the audience as I wrangle to set up the mic and latecomers brush past, the volume rising in the room, children breaking free from their parent’s grasp. The mic doesn’t sound great, but I go on with my set, focussing, with all I’ve got, on remembering my words. It feels like trying to recite the alphabet backwards while somebody repeatedly taps my head and somebody else calls my name from another room.
The headliner bounces onto the stage after me, with a cheerful, ‘Shall I use the mic?’, and is answered with a resounding and emphatic ‘NO!’ by the audience. I feel crushed. Afterwards a poetry friend explains that the reverb on the mic had made me inaudible, or at the least, not pleasant to listen to. Why had nobody caught me? I was learning and learning fast – next time I would catch myself.
I sat and listened to the women share their work – it was moving and sometimes challenging – one young mother cradled her newborn in a sling, rocking in that instinctive motion that, once learned as a mother, is picked up again at the slightest provocation – and cries as she reads her poems about miscarriage and abortion. She is red-faced, tear-streaked, and troublingly vulnerable and I want desperately to go over and hug her. Another young mother has written and memorized an epic ode to tandem breastfeeding which she delivers – word perfect – whilst juggling a toddler at her breast who cries each time that he loses his latch.
I find it difficult to escape the sense of competition, even here. Perhaps there is no getting away from it. Perhaps, after all, it is what life is. The headliner closes with a rallying cry to keep going and to find a way to be creative, at any cost – ‘There’s always a way’, they say. As I get up to leave, I’m not sure that I agree.
Meanwhile, back at the house, progress has slowed as Glen has settled in to a new job, and we have wrestled with illness, family crises and January. The house feels perpetually grubby and, in truth, a bit smelly – the ancient brown sink smells, the overflow needs regular emptying of putrid water redolent of stink bombs in school corridors. No matter how much wiping down I do (and to be honest, I’ve pretty much given up) the surfaces remain lined with a layer of dirt that falls, I can only imagine, from between the holes in the ceilings.
It is a hard-work-house; everything is a long way away and awkward. Nothing fits, or works properly, or stays open, or shut. Buckets of water need emptying, logs and coal and shopping need barrowing uphill from the back of the car. The house is dark, cold and a bit gloomy. A sea of cables snakes around the kitchen and lounge, trying to compensate, mostly ineffectually, for the dearth in sockets. My enthusiasm is waning.
We are however, researching replacement windows (we are currently at quote number five) and starting to think about replacing the kitchen and bathroom. We have found someone to help us reduce the hedges – leylandii and laurel, to a manageable height, though what to do with the mountain of chippings or how to get the chipper up here now our neighbour’s wall has collapsed, spilling earth and stones across the footpath, I don’t know. Everywhere I go people seem to have stories about the houses they’ve been working on for years that never seem to get finished. My heart sinks with every telling. I want to air the house, throw open the windows, and spring clean like Moley. It feels like living in the ‘before’ version of a TV reality show.
But then there is a light in the gloom – a surprise email to tell me that a 6 years lost member of our animal family, a cat called Hicks, has been handed in to an RSPCA rescue centre back up in Surrey. I read and re-read it and, hand shaking, pick up the phone to call them. Could it really be her? It is – ‘Hicks is well’, Oreana tells me – when would you like to collect her?’
When I call Glen, who is standing on the platform at Exeter Central, he sobs. Since we have been together we have each experienced a diminishing of our families, so this feels like a gift, a return, a blessing.
Two days later and we are standing in the cattery at Chobham, holding Hicks. The unit is clean and bright. It is facilitated by a team of women, all powdered faces, latex gloves and comforting efficiency, busily loading washing machines and tumble driers, taking time to notice and fuss the animals. A kindly woman takes the carrier off me as I wrestle with the catch, carefully unfastening it to line with newspaper and fetching Hick’s blanket and toys to reassure her on her journey to her new, old life. ‘I’d thought to go back to her this morning,’ she says, ‘she came over to me when I went in and rubbed around me and I thought how lovely she was’. She seemed like the same Hicks to me – just bigger. She certainly hasn’t been underfed in her wanderings.
It was 2014 when we moved house and Hicks disappeared. Claud managed to stick with us through every house move but Hicks voted with her feet the very first time. As kittens they used to follow us on walks round the fields and woods in Abinger Common, their feet drumming as they careered after us, hurling themselves at tree trunks like the rubber men that as kids we threw at windows and stuck with a satisfying ‘splat’! On one occasion we met a boisterous dog on a walk and Claude took refuge in a tree while Hicks disappeared. I found her later that night, her yellow eyes illuminated in the torchlight, hiding and meowing, down a rabbit hole in the bank.
I think that when she left us in 2014 she must have found an older person to live with who cuddled her endlessly and fed her on a diet of sardines and double cream. I can only imagine that some kind of change of circumstance – perhaps the sardines and cream dried up – meant that she was back on the hoof again. And so, for 6 weeks or so a kind lady, back in Shere, the same village we’d lost her, had been feeding her when she’d appeared at her back door. Hicks had made a bed under a bush in her garden until the kindly lady’s concern, combined with her own cat’s disdain, meant that she had taken her to the RSPCA for rehoming. I am grateful for all the acts of kindness and the wonders of microchipping, that have led to us having her home with us again.
She has settled brilliantly, quickly making friends of both Cooper and the sofa. To begin with she wouldn’t venture further than the kitchen and lounge but in the last few days she has ventured further, finding the beds and starting to sit on windowsills to contemplate the outside world. Yesterday I got the sunny day I had longed for and left the back door open. Hicks followed, hackles up, rubbing and sniffing at things tentatively. She climbed the steps to explore the woodshed with its micey smells, climbing on up to the sunny lawn and then round the corner to the wooded bit. Cooper barked, suddenly, at his ball and she was a black flash, running back to the safety of the house.
For a few days there was a mini southwest media storm around her return. I found myself signing off press releases and negotiating a radio interview and photoshoot. People got in touch from Surrey and Devon to tell us that they had heard or read about Hick’s return. At work people stopped me in corridors or mentioned in the kitchen that they had heard about her. A photographer visited – the most stressful hour of my life – to wrangle some photos of me holding what was a very cross cat (see photo above) with a view to selling the story to the nationals – a Women’s mag was interested too. As the photographer left he said he wasn’t sure of our chances – they’d had another RSPCA story on the same day about a woman who had her cat returned to her after twelve years.
In the end our story didn’t run in the nationals or the Women’s mag and Emily tells me she saw the story of the twelve years cat on the TV. And so, as it turns out, it is all a competition, in the end. I think I’ll adopt the Hicks philosophy and take myself off quietly to be hugged and fed on a diet of sardines and cream.