WHILE humans altered everything on the face of the world, these birds kept believing in a map that never changed (from Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, 2018)

One of the restorative parts of my daily exercise is bumping into elements of the natural world, which carry on as if nothing has happened. In the Botanical Gardens the abundant pink-and-whiteness of the magnolias is giving way to amazingly diverse colour-ways of tropical rhododendrons. Up at Forge Dam there are 19 or 18 ducklings, depending on who’s counting (all with the same mum?!). I’ve spotted heron senior on their same favourite branch (no ‘move along now’ going on there), and heron junior is striding around fishing and still providing photo opportunities in Endcliffe Park.

There’s a similar story going on at home.

Meet Lola (aka ‘Spud’), a crazy patchwork of tortoiseshell, ginger and white, now 14, sleeping loads, but still a feline Peter Pan. Maya, 8, is a cute small mackerel tabby, but feisty, hence the frequently used alternative ‘Little My’ (of Moomins fame).


Right now, Maya is trying to occupy the space between me and the laptop, a regular snuggling opportunity. Her most favourite place is the garden in warm sunshine. It’s even better being gardening assistant, when I’m pottering around out there. Lola’s usual request after breakfast is for a paddle and a drink in the bath, after which she sleeps all day. We connect again in the evenings when she joins me for TV entertainment, often apparently riveted by what’s on the screen. None of this is new.

Lockdown at the vets is a bit different though. Recently Lola was clearly in pain and I needed to seek advice. If possible, things are now sorted via a telephone consultation – lots of questions followed by guided examination; e.g. ‘hold up her lip and press on her gum, and count how many seconds it takes to change back from white to pink’, or ‘now please hold up her tail and tell me how healthy her rear end looks’. The consultation proved inconclusive so we needed to make a visit. It’s a less than five minute walk with a cat in a carrier, being very vocal about her unhappiness. I had to hand her over at the door, leave them to it, come home, and wait for the call. I felt even more of a traitor than usual, but when I picked her up discovered she’d been enchanting everyone. As I suspected it is osteoarthritis, and Lola is now on a regime of kitty ibuprofen and ‘joint supplements’, thankfully both added to food.

My four-legged house mates are the best in ‘normal’ times, and they are perfect in Covid times. If they are aware of any change they don’t show it; they are one part of my life that hasn’t changed a bit.


Penny the cat

A YEAR ago, a friend who had recently moved to London came back to visit. C had left his cat in the care of his old flatmate in Glasgow and, to keep a quite sad and complicated story short, was coming back up to Glasgow to move the cat from its current whereabouts to live with me. In C’s time of need I was more than happy to offer a home to the cat, having known her for several years, witnessed her aloofness, her dislike at being picked up, her glossy black and white coat like a tuxedo, her pink nose and her healthy appetite.

Penny moved in a day before my new flatmate B. Just a note here, and one that I always produce when introducing Penny to new friends, that C named the cat ‘Penny’ himself and I did not in fact name her after my mother (who you will have just heard from above). Anyway, P and B moved in and all of a sudden I went from living alone to a lovely party of three.

As already mentioned, P keeps to her own routine, she suffers no fools, she likes her comforts. You will find her in one of five spots – on my bed, on a chair in the living room, on a big cushion in the living room, on B’s bed or in the kitchen sat by her bowl. B always says that she and P are the same as they are both Sagittarius and hungry all the time. When it comes to food, P’s independent and cool exterior crumbles revealing the frantic kitten beneath. Unfortunately this happens every morning and a bit too early for my and B’s liking. P wails and scratches at B’s bedroom door knowing that she wakes earlier or is more likely to cave in and feed her. Quite rightly as the sound of P’s hungry meowing is blood curdling.

This week (after nearly six weeks of lockdown), we, along with my boyfriend M (who has joined us for lockdown) have grown tired of the morning wake-up calls and decided to change P’s feeding routine (also because she could do with losing a little weight). This must be very frustrating for her. ‘There are more of them and they are here ALL the time but they are feeding me less!?’ We have interrupted her routine in general, although I can’t imagine she is fussed as her time alone has been replaced with more potential laps for naps and snacks. We carry on all four together creating a new rhythm, skirting around each other, moving in a new synchronised routine of napping and snacking.

Finally, some things of recent note. P explores the little roof garden and sniffs the warm breeze full of new smells. P finds a bowl of tuna salad left unattended on the kitchen table and is berated by me (I also berate self for leaving tuna unattended). M reminds me of the new block of cheese also left unattended that was discovered half mauled and ‘the case of the yellow paw’, dyed by turmeric from a brief dip into some roast cauliflower. P decides to ignore her big cushion in the living room after she is sick on it because she nibbled on B’s avocado plant leaves. ‘I will wash it tomorrow,’ I tell her as she defers to the chair in the living room, curling up in a fluffy black ball for the third nap of the day.

Sallèles d’Aude

Nora in her youth

LAST Saturday, Nora began to look unwell. By Sunday morning she was definitely not well at all – she did not want to get out of bed and if we lifted her up and put her down, she fell over. She spent Sunday and Monday in her bed, not moving. She did not appear to be in pain but then she obviously did not want to move. Tuesday morning, we rang the vet and got an appointment for 16:00.

Nora has been our dog for 14 years and she was one or two years’ old when we got her – the rescue people (in Poland where we were living at the time) were not sure. So, she is old and a decline such as this made us wonder if the end times were coming. We were prepared for the worst when visiting the vet …

The other bit of context to this story is, of course, that we are in lockdown. So, on our ‘permission to move about forms’ we said we were visiting the shops (there isn’t a category for visiting the vet) and hoped we would be able to explain if stopped by the police. Then when we got to the vet, we had to phone in to say we were there so they could open the gate. We were only allowed into the vet’s building once the vet was ready to see us so the customary 15-minute wait (you always have to wait at least 15 minutes at the vet, whatever time you arrive, I still haven’t worked that out …) was in the car park.

Come our moment, only one person was allowed in with Nora (we always both go in). Jill went as she has the language to explain what is going on and I waited outside, wondering if Nora was going to come out again or was that my final goodbye. In fact, she had a blood test and an X-ray (which showed bruising on her spine) and came out with antibiotics. We drove home 150 euros lighter financially but mentally lighter in terms of Nora’s prospects. In the days since she has regained some mobility, still finds it hard to go down stairs (but not up), eats well, sleeps well and has short periods of exercise outside.

I know she is ‘only a dog’ but she has been with us a while and been a large part of our lives. At the vets, I felt something of what relatives of those in ICUs feel as their loved ones disappear, possibly to die alone, definitely without them. The agony is there whether we are losing human relatives or related animals.

As we have less contact at the moment with our fellow humans than we did, our dogs are now more important to us. They fill some of the void of social contact, they are our justification for going outside, and they give us something to care about, and that we can act upon, other than ourselves.

And, while she is dear to me and I have loved having her as my dog, I know I am more emotional and more emotionally vulnerable at the moment. I would have coped better with this in ‘normal’ times and it would not hurt so much. These are difficult times for us all, stressful times, and it hits us in unexpected ways.


Christmas as a young tree climber

SHE’S delighted there is no provision for paw sanitiser or a whisker mask, although she has been warned that she could get arrested if she strays from her own property. Christmas is now well over 11 years old, but flourishing under lockdown. In part this is because at the beginning of the year she was decidedly unwell and spent a day at the veterinary hospital for attention to her teeth and is now on a diet to help with ageing kidneys. So, by 26 March she was fully fit and ready to tackle this strange human condition called lockdown.

Ever since she arrived here in 2009 from the SPCA as a skinny little young cat, neglected but probably not maltreated, Christmas has been very loving and highly sociable – but only with us. She is thoroughly enjoying the gardening we have been doing on a daily basis and has been stimulated by all the activity. There are flurries of action with twigs or tufts of her favourite grass and even the occasional ascent of a tree before she settles in a shady spot to watch us at work.

And then there is the morning coffee and tea break. Christmas has quickly discovered that it now includes home-baked scones, which require jam – and butter. Much leg rubbing is invariably successful in producing a quick taste just as breakfast now includes a tiny amount of milk. Lockdown has extended her range of tastes in a dairy direction.

The writer and traveller, Patrick Leigh Fermor, was an acute observer of cats and their habits and nature. (His wife, Joan, was the great lover and collector of cats.) Christmas has clearly been reading what he had to say. He described their chair-scratching felines as ‘interior desecrators and natural downholsterers.’  In spite of many garden opportunities and a long-term scratch chair indoors, Christmas has decided to use lockdown to start on other furniture. Opportunism indeed seems to be the order of the day. Certain forbidden surfaces in the kitchen have suddenly become overwhelmingly attractive, probably in search of butter, or another favourite – cheese.

We remember well the day Christmas arrived here. It took about 15 minutes for her to join Christine on the bed and that night we had little sleep as Christmas decided to express gratitude for her new home by grooming our hair. This still happens on a regular basis, often at two in the morning: it’s like being rubbed down with fish-flavoured sandpaper. But in a time of such discontinuity, a world upside down and back to front, and with the future in total doubt, any reminder of past normality is reassurance.

Contributions from Sheffield by Penny Merrett, Glasgow by Caitlin Merrett King, Sallèles d’Aude by Jonathan Merrett and Pietermaritzburg by Christopher Merrett.