A stone for a pillow


The end arrived and left as suddenly as a swift rain shower with a shockwave that reverberated in our hearts for the whole weekend ; still, it rumbles.

Our little family have been lucky enough to become sometime Lords in the land of moggies. Two fine feline friends blessed us with their presence for a goodly amount of time. Custard, our ‘first born’ left his shadow behind last September, after battling severe diabetes for over two years.

We moved from Devon to Oxfordshire and had to leave him behind with our wonderful cattery people, since we were renting and his bladder could simply not be trusted, especially without a cat flap on hand. He was put to sleep whilst we were only available on the end of a phone line. It was daunting and we were inconsolable for a while but the sadness turned to happiness as we returned to grateful memories of his sincerely loving personality : he may have suffered from dodgy fish breath but craved hugs and licks all the live long day. To this end, we often referred to him as a ‘cog’ or ‘dat’, so cunningly canine was he with his affections.

Cookie, our white cat – Custard was almost pure black with a little grey splodge tucked under his chin – travelled with us and settled in well to life in leafy Oxfordshire. Unfortunately, due to old age (she was 16 and a 1/2 when we moved) she started to do her duties in the wrong places so, somewhat disconcertingly, we had to purchase ‘puppy pads’ – such are the vicissitudes of life, even for animals.

Meanwhile, she really found her voice and we would often be greeted with chirrups and lots of chat, no doubt vying for our attention. When she roamed the garden in rural Devon, she would bring us warm-blooded gifts on an almost daily basis, sometimes several times a day : small mice, voles, even moles and whole rabbits – one was as large as her, in fact slightly bigger and she was engaged the whole morning consuming it, entirely devoid of seasoning but loving every last piece. That was pretty much what she left – a bit of an ear or paw was all that remained to remind the casual onlooker of her prey’s former existence.

By the time we had arrived in our present domain, Cookie was already taking regular medication for hyperthyroidism. Her liver and kidney levels were up and down like a slow motion yo-yo for several months but she seemed to be coping pretty well. Then the fits started.

The first happened late one evening whilst she was consuming some of her dry food, medicated to prevent renal failure. My wife started exclaiming ‘I don’t know what to do!’ and I rushed into the kitchen. Our white princess was choking and writhing on the floor for what seemed like minutes but was probably only 20 or 30 seconds. It ended and she emitted two, deep-throated screeches of pure bewilderment and confusion. Thereafter, she wandered about in circles for a quarter of an hour before settling in for the night.

I was convinced we would find her sprawled out, comatose or even dead on the floor later in the morning. But no… she wandered up to our room at the allotted time – around 6am – and greeted us with a vigorous ‘bree – up’ sound, like a sped-up wood pigeon. We carried on as before.

My wife encountered the second fit and we still carried on. Then, about a week ago, she experienced the third incident in about six weeks. This was perhaps the worst of all. Again, she was thrashing about like the hare in that Ted Hughes poem, and we were helpless to stop it, apart from gentle strokes to her delicate scalp. Eventually, she stopped shaking and the plaintive, gut-wrenching cry reared its ugly claws that said ‘What is going on? What is wrong? This isn’t fair. Make it stop!!’

On GCSE results day, I popped to the vets and they booked her in for a blood test. I travelled back with my wife last Friday. We arrived at 5.30pm. By 7.00pm, our cat was asleep, destined to never wake again. Cookie was severely dehydrated and would need to have fluids for up to 48 hours, then an ultrasound , followed by a possible operation if the vets discovered a growth on her liver. Her results were shocking – the reading for the thyroid was close to double again compared to July. All her other results were raised to dangerous levels.

Even as we are talking about her, she lay very low in her cat basket, unwilling to move; it was almost as though she knew what was about to befall her. The vet explained carefully and sympathetically that Cookie’s seizures were most likely linked to all the bad stuff going on inside her tiny, reduced frame – she weighed only 2.7kg.

We had always said that we wouldn’t put a 17 year old animal through a series of tests and procedures with no real positive outcome likely for her. So, we made the decision to have her gently put to sleep. In any circumstance, that was a hard, if necessary decision. You have to be pragmatic when your soul is searching frantically for an alternative : there was none, not really.

So my wife softly stroked her fur and her paw, whilst I stood around feeling helpless and both of us inconsolable. This was it – it was really happening, in front of us. Five minutes later and it was all over.

That evening, the next morning and over the Bank Holiday weekend, we have been out and about to Blenheim, some Roman Ruins and Hidcote House. Those trips have made things easier to bear. I know I haven’t yet suffered the loss of a parent, as so eloquently and heart-rendingly depicted by the wonderful Claire Stoneman in her recent blog posts. You can’t compare a family pet to a human. Yet, we had loved and cared for Cookie for the best part of 18 years and it was ending so abruptly.

Later, my wife described this loss we had experienced as akin to a small but significant change in our family dynamic. A presence that once inhabited our lives had departed and the silence left behind felt like an ache larger than than the world itself, at that moment. It is hard to describe but now there are fragrant memories to pocket away and bring out to generate sunshine in future days.

Having an animal in one’s life perhaps makes us more empathetic, more human, I don’t know for sure. All I know, as I write this, is that our lives are a little emptier than they were last week.

[PS -The title – in case you were wondering – refers to Cookie’s innate ability to fall asleep with unusual accessories to hand that could double up as a head rest…]

Quotes can start a revolution

It started with a quote – at least that’s how I remember it…

Essay writing for English in my secondary school was an exercise in exploration and significance. My teachers would exhort us to locate a pertinent and memorable quote and then launch into a discussion about how it all related and interlinked with the thoughts and ideas of the given author : whether that be Milton, Shakespeare, Henry James, James Joyce, Turgenev or the poetry of Dryden.

We would have spent fruitful hours listening to each other ruminating on the relevant themes, structure, language and overall meaning of a text before plunging [in my case] headlong into a – hopefully – insightful analysis of the writer’s craft. In those days, the heady 1980’s, there were no assessment objectives (AOs) that I was aware of. We just, literally, got on with it. So what did come before the actual ‘writing’ that leads, inevitably to a comment, observation, sympathetic critique and a grade? It was letters in those days ; numbers were for Maths.

Whilst reading from Grayson Perry’s hugely enjoyable ‘Playing to the Gallery’, a funny and clear-sighted exposition on contemporary art and how it can be understood in myriad ways, I came across this intriguing quote: ‘Memory and understanding are not purely intellectual processes. They are also very much emotional.’ This had me thinking, ruminating in the way I used to at school and do even more now I am teacher of English myself.

We are encouraged to explain the GCSE and A level AOs to our students, so that they can fit their responses neatly into the marking rubric – to an extent setting aside individuality on the altar of progress and grade chasing. I was never taught HOW to write a grade A essay, whatever that amounts to. I remember, clearly still, that I adopted a very subjective outlook when writing, allowing myself to become entangled in the sheer beauty of language, wrapped up in the lives of the characters and twisted into the fabric of the plot until I almost lost my breath. This certainly applied to Joyce, influential to me even now, some 30 plus years later. I lived for reading, inhaled words like the smoke from a strong cigarette, returning to the page, heart aflame, searching for more meaning than was maybe permissible. Why, you may ask? Because I was fully immersed and the emotional side in me was reacting, perhaps over reacting.

This is where Perry’s quote takes hold. Teaching to the text or exam is all very well but there has to be more to it. There may not be time in every lesson to slow things down and focus on the minutiae of a paragraph or an opening line. What we, as humans and teachers, have to strive for is to enable students to engage in that ‘great debate’ : not necessarily about what is or isn’t worthy of canonical status but what sets our hearts on fire and makes us look at a text from a number of different and fascinating perspectives.

A twitter disciple was waxing lyrical about ‘inspiration’ the other day. I feel that this quality is so important. Infusing a text, a novel, a play, a poem with significance and deep meaning helps us to feel inspired and to inspire our students : to make their time within the four walls of our classrooms become more than just knowledge but to form memories that are gilt-edged and golden, because we, as their teachers, allowed our own emotional responses to channel furtively into their spoken and written responses.

When I encounter a poem for the first time, I might be taken in by one line, one word, one little gobbet of structure. I might become caught up in the headlong rush of emotion. It might take me three readings before I start to understand it all. When I hear a new song, it could be the bass line, the lyric, the purity of spine-tingling vocal tumbling around in my head that captures the moment. I could return to a song I haven’t heard for a decade and I will be taken back to the moment I first heard it – the magic is reborn, over and again.

Being a teacher of any subject is a distinct and incredible privilege. Instructing upon content, retrieval practice and interleaving are all, of course, vitally important to learning and knowledge retention but we need to keep blowing students away with our own abundant and sometimes outrageous passion for our subject, so that they can tap into that emotion not just ‘in the moment’ but when they reflect upon the stage directions in ‘An Inspector Calls’ or the use of oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet’s speeches about the overwhelming power of love. That way emotion and memory have the unique ability to knit and intertwine. And if a student retains that emotional connection, one can further hope that will, in time, lend itself to more memorable and invested responses that stand out on the page, like beacons and satellites.