Next door my neighbour Hester is herding her cats, calling ‘Pirrup, pirrup’ in a low sweet voice, clucking and whistling. She has six or seven cats and they rush to her each time she moves, miouwing and purring like little engines. Cats rubbing against her ankles, cats watching her from the windowsill, cats preening themselves for her admiration, cats leaning down from tree branches to touch the top of her head with their paws. Every now and again one of her beloved cats dies of a feline illness or is killed by traffic on the main road, and Hester sews a memorial quilt for her lost cat. All around the house there are cat-motif designs quilted in felt and cotton and old wools, reading ‘Beloved Goshka, 2000 — 2005′ and ‘Go in peace, Pitta Pat’, ‘A Most Original and Superior Cat: Jemima Orphanpuss 1991 — 2002′ . I have a beautiful quilt she gave me that I put on on my bed in winter with dozens of small black and yellow cats dancing around bonfires and catching mice.
Before I joined AA I had never heard the expression ‘Organizing alcoholics is like herding cats’ and when I think of Hester, it doesn’t seem hard at all. Love is essential.
This weekend I have been rereading Amos Oz A Tale of Love & Darkness, sitting on the sofa with my legs tucked under me and a puppy or two nestled against me, reading a memoir of such depth and irony and nostalgia I feel as if I have knwon the author all my life. Like Oz in Israel after World War II, I grew up in a bare new pioneer country that was both idealistic and philistine, troubled by contradictions and political turbulence, questions of nationalism and identity and a future that might disappear. The adults I knew as a child had been shaped by the legacies of the 19th century and the triumphalism of the British Empire, the music of Beethoven and Mozart, the works of Shakespeare and Dickens and Wordsworth. As small children we were brought up on ‘great literature’ rather than children’s books and I remember puzzling over a passage in King Lear when I was about seven year’s old wondering just how sharp a serpent’s tooth might be and why an ungrateful child should have a as nasty a bite. But at the same time we were made to play rounders and hockey and get fresh air and exercise, were reminded that if we buried our heads in books we would go cross-eyed and round-shouldered and not be able to find a husband.
There was much talk about what would build character in children out in the colonies. I was sent to stay with my elderly Aunt Margaret during one of my mother’s worse drinking bouts. Aunt Margaret was my mother’s cousin and had been a matron in the East End of London during the Blitz. She walked like a large broody duck and brooked no nonsense. I arrived on her isolated farm and found that there was no electricity or running water. This delighted me because I had lived like this on the forest reserves up until a year or so before and it was an adventure. The farmhouse was a great shambles of a bungalow with walls of quarried stone and mismatching bricks. There were wide verandahs overhung with jade vines and purple bougainvillea, and bullnosed roofing in corrugated iron that rattled in a high wind. The older part of the bungalow was just a few wattle-and-daub rondavels linked by mudwall passages with thatched roofing and exposed poles for a ceiling.
In order to build character Aunt Margaret would send me off each night after supper to my bedroom on the far side of the bungalow with a little candle in a smoked glass holder stuck to an enamel saucer. She would tell me to blow out the candle once I left the dining room and find my way through the maze of passageways, steps and rondavels by touch. This was her way of building my fledgling character and she promised me that if I persisted, I would overcome my fear of the dark. She had been a young woman in the wartime black-outs in London and had lived through bombing raids crouched in pitch-dark bomb shelters. This was the rainy season on the lowveld and I would be sent off to bed amidst thunderstroms and the din of torrential rain.
It was eerie and frightening to feel my way down those narrow passages and through dark musty rooms with the thatch rustling overhead and sheet lightning breaking stark white through the windows, and I never quite found my way to bed confidently. But I did overcome my fear of the dark. And my childhood fears of spiders and snakes and ghosts. I began to think of my small nebulous uncertain self as a brave person. To this day when I see people suffering because they are unable to sleep without a night light or scared of noises at night, ‘nervous of their own shadow’ as Aunt Margaret would have put it, I am glad for that tough instilling of self-sufficiency in a small child. I sometimes wonder if that holiday spent with Aunt Margaret might not have helped me when it came to getting sober. Even in those early days of going drinkless, it seemed to me that this sobriety thing might be possible if I followed suggestions and if I only persisted, taking one step at a time into the unknown.