Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Ray McGrath

Ray McGrath’s column ‘Notes from the Cocoon’, as he adjusts to a life in isolation


Day 78. Small things matter more now. And ordinary things are somehow richer. And gifts are more appreciated.

The other day, Cleo came home bearing a gift. I didn’t see what it was at first but then as I paid more attention it became clear. And it was clearer still, clearer than ever before that it wasn’t so much her offering that counted but the attention she courted. I should have seen that in the early days but I was drawn to her detachment; after all, her reputation of aloofness had preceded her. And this ability to be close but separate was something I thought I appreciated long before social distancing became part of our world.


‘After all I was a dog person, preferring to enjoy the company of a semi-dependent and faithful companion on walks. Or so I thought!’


How the old certitudes were to change, to morph so quickly into new questioning revealing needs we didn’t know existed, as a beloved poet friend wrote recently from Canada… “until denied, we do not know our need…” (Thanks, Chris)

By now you will have guessed that Cleo is my cat. She came into my life when my Panamanian granddaughters were with me for a year. “She’ll be great company, granddad. You won’t be lonely when we go home,” said Sophie on the way back from the Shelter. Not wanting to dilute the charm of her kindness I nodded as if in agreement. Loneliness! Not me! After all I was a dog person, preferring to enjoy the company of a semi-dependent and faithful companion on walks. Or so I thought! Perhaps deep down I needed a demonstration of loyalty, and dogs give you that, don’t they? And so silently acknowledging Sophie’s generosity of spirit I quietly thought of pattering noises in the attic… and the other benefit of my new housemate.

We changed her name from Rambo to Cleo. Really it was Clea after a character (and the title of the fourth book) in Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet but somehow it got changed to Cleo. Seeing the same events from four different perspectives as told by four different narrators, including Clea, fascinated me as an insight into understanding people. Durrell’s writing is a joy, rich and incestuously atmospheric descriptions of Alexandria in the 1940s and deeply perceptive insights into the full range of human emotions and self-justifications. And over time, especially the time of Covid, my cat, Cleo, and her behaviour offered me new perspectives into a range of feline and human emotions.

And so back to Cleo’s gift. I was in the garden relaxing with book and Irish whiskey (another kindness left on my doorstep) after battling against a strong ebb tide in my little sailboat, my first real breakout since cocooning started. By the way, and quite serendipitously, the book was Noël Browne’s Against the Tide, his superb autobiography. Particularly relevant when reading it now are his accounts of the ravages of another epidemic, the TB plague at the time of his coming of age in the 1930s. It carried away his parents and two of his siblings, he himself being laid low for a year and more. And yet life went on, people adjusting to the reality of a new normal until finally with him as Minister of Health driving implementation of the previous government’s strategy alongside his own vision, the disease was almost completely eliminated.

Cleo’s gift was a mouse. She dropped it at my feet, looked up as if to say ‘Look what I’ve brought you?’ She had my attention and that was enough. What happened next is another story, revelatory of the four core characteristics of cats and their psychology. And I returned to Noël Browne, pen in hand to jot down a few thoughts and find the words to describe what I was learning about small things in the lives of small creatures. From now on, with sharpened awareness of the ordinary, I will have some inkling of what a cat is feeling when I see its tail curl up to the vertical, hear its silent meow, or feel its steady stare. I will also think of another gift, that left by an Irish monk in a ninth century Austrian monastery, distracted for a moment or two from his painstaking work with the manuscript and penning in the margins his thoughts on how similar his life was to that of Pangur Bán, as he too went about his work.

I and Pangur Bán my cat

‘Tis a like task we are at

Hunting mice is his delight

Hunting words I sit all night.


From Cheekpoint, Waterford, Ray McGrath contributes regular columns to the Waterford News & Star, including his most recent series Gaultier Heritage Rambles.

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By Ray McGrath
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