Maya, my white-pawed, chronically grumpy cat, is not good in a crisis.
She likes to play chase, but every time I chase her she panics, becomes paralysed by indecision, and finally runs into the nearest corner and flips onto her back.
I’ve explained to her plenty of times that in the wild, this would really be seen as less of a survival strategy and more of a suicidal strategy, but no amount of practice has made her any better at evading fake predators. Every. single. time. she is chased, she does the same thing. You can see it happen. The pupils dilate, her eyes flick madly from side to side as she considers her options, and by the time I’ve reached her it’s too late for her to escape and so she just flings herself into a corner, completely at my mercy.
At first, I thought it was hilarious. Thank God there are no large eagles about that might pick her off the balcony as a snowy snack. I’ve seen The Proposal and that’s the only part of it that has stuck in my mind. Eagles are a considerable hazard for small white pets, apparently.
Lately though, I don’t find it as funny because I’ve realised that we have a lot in common, Maya and I.
It’s been ages. I know. I missed you!
The truth is, I rang in 2019 with good food and great friends.
…And it was all downhill from there.
I got sick. I spent a full seven days of the first month of the year staring at the ceiling and punctuating the silence with a honking cough that made me sound like a forlorn (but still aggressive) Canadian goose. I curled myself into a comma and lay there, an entirely useless lump of humanity, as things piled up around me. Layers of clothes carelessly tossed on the ground became small hillocks. The work I didn’t feel well enough to do stacked up. The list of chores I had ambitiously made at the beginning of the year grew longer and longer and longer until it covered four or five pages spread across three different notebooks.
By the time I had mostly* recovered, I was faced by an incoming tsunami of Uns. Christmas presents ungiven. Friends uncontacted. Work unprepared. Tasks untaken-care-of. Shows unwatched. Food uneaten. E-mails unsent.
The list of Uns was very long.
Instead of diving under the wave like I should have, I made the mistake of letting it crash over me. Instead of bracing myself for the onslaught, I just… slipped under the surface.
In other words, I pulled a Maya.
I panicked. I found a corner, and I flipped belly up, paws outstretched, waiting to drown in a sea of Uns.
The past week and a half has been a string of all-nighters and wide-eyed, sleep-deprived flurries of frantic activity interspersed with many, many tea breaks. On Friday, I was in bed by 9pm, exhausted by my attempts to claw my way back to normality. My list is still long, I still have a lot to do, but today I feel capable, or at least prepared. I have my inflatable armbands on. I have decided not to run headfirst into any more corners.
Okay 2019, let’s be having you.
*I still have a cough but it now sounds like a small dog’s bark and comes on with hardly any warning at all, surprising both me and my cats.
I was buying 20 eggs and a bottle of spiced rum – a questionable grocery list at the best of times – when the young guy working the till stopped and looked at me expectantly. There were about five people waiting in line behind me, so as if looking for answers or permission I first glanced at them, and then back at him, and chewed the inside of my cheek nervously. Anytime I – for any reason – hold up the line at the checkout, I’m (I think not unreasonably) afraid that a riot will break out behind me and I will die, suddenly and ignominously, when somebody throws a bottle of Elderflower Cordial at my head.
After a pause that was probably only five seconds long but felt like the eternity of time compressed and squeezed into a matter of seconds, his mouth twisted at the corner and he said, “Sorry, but I’ll need to see your ID?”
As if it was obvious.
As if I pass for an 18 year old on any given Tuesday.
I can say with certainty that I don’t look 12 years younger than my age, so this came as a bit of a surprise. For a moment I wasn’t sure I even had any ID on me. I started to get preemptively annoyed about potentially being prevented from buying my bottle of rum.
The person behind me in the queue shifted his weight from one foot to the other and this tiny gesture (the first sign of the aforementioned riot; I’m sure of it) spurred me into action. I dug into my bag and pulled out my passport card, which I was only carrying by pure chance and have literally never used for any practical purpose.
I handed it over with a face that might have read ‘You have absolutely got to be kidding me‘ but might also have read ‘Please hurry up before someone lamps me with a turnip and I have to go to intensive care for the sake of two cartons of eggs and a bottle of rum.’
He took his time looking the card over. He tilted it to check the holographic shine, then scanned it for my date of birth. When he found it, his eyebrows shot up into his hairline and he looked at me and said, “OOooooooOOOOOOoooOOOOoooh!”
The man behind me shifted his weight again. I swear I could see his fingers twitching. He was probably having graphic, detailed fantasies of throttling the two of us.
My face started to burn and I turned an unnatural, almost-fluorescent hue that lit up the shop with a rosy glow. Unfortunately, not only do I flush red when I’m embarrassed, but I also find blushing to be absolutely mortifying, and so it becomes a cycle; I turn into a human traffic light stuck on red.
The guy still held my passport card, and was now grinning at me with one eyebrow raised. He slowly moved to hand it back to me, and although I itched to snatch it off him and sprint out the door, I forced myself to move at a normal pace. I took it back and busied myself burying it deep in my bag, hiding my face with my hair in an effort to get my skintone back to an earthly shade. He handed me my rum, still grinning, and I felt another wave of heat wash over me. I tapped my card on the machine and grabbed the receipt off him a moment sooner than might have been polite, and as I turned to walk away, he called after me:
“I hope you have a wonderful night!”
And then, when I didn’t reply straight away, he added (with a touch of innuendo):
Without turning, I lifted the bottle of rum in acknowledgement of his comment and continued out the door.
It’s cold in the Dublin evenings now, but not to worry; my flushed face kept me warm for a few minutes longer.
*I suspect he either thought I was a tiny alcoholic with a penchant for spiced rum and omelettes OR he thought I was on my way to get properly hammered and egg someone’s house**. Neither is particularly flattering.
I enjoy being with people, don’t get me wrong. I like spending time with people. People are great! I have a lovely time whether I’m out with friends or at home chatting over tea.
It drains me though, and it drains me fast. Fast like my Samsung S7 battery that runs down after a few hours of intense usage, not like ye olde Nokia 3210 battery that lasted five days if you played Snake on it constantly, and twenty-three days if you barely touched it at all. When I spend time with people, afterwards I need to retreat, relax, and recharge, and usually my recharging station is my home, where I work or study at the dining table next to the window.
This is how I first became aware of my neighbours.
My window overlooks their balcony, and every day out of the corner of my eye I would see a man and his dog – who we will call Frank for the purposes of this post – coming and going on their walks together.
I can’t fully explain my obsession with Frank. It started out as a pretty benign distraction from my day; I would see Frank (an English Bulldog) and Frankman (the name I gave his owner) exit the building, and then I would watch, amused, as Frank lay stubbornly down on the grass and refused to go anywhere.
Frankman would sigh, exasperated, and half-heartedly tug on the lead.
Frank would dig his barrel chest into the grass.
Frankman would grumble and pull with all his might.
Frank would duck his head and hunch his stocky shoulders, as immovable as a rock formation.
Frankman’s pleas would go from an exasperated, “Come on, Frank” to an increasingly desperate “FRANK! FRANK! COME ON! FRANK!”
Frank would stare implacably at his owner.
Frankman would yank on the lead in a sort of daily exercise in futility.
Frank would lie on the grass stoically refusing to go anywhere before he was ready. Then, as if he hadn’t just been making a scene for the past five minutes, he would calmly get up and trot off with a flustered Frankman in tow.
This would happen before almost every single walk. I would watch these scenes, and over time I grew fond of both Frank and Frankman. There was something really endearing about Frank, who made it clear that if he went anywhere at all it was only because he was allowing it, and there was also something endearing about Frankman, because he always looked so buttoned-up and serious but would lose all and any air of authority around Frank.
Frankman also has a wife (Frankwoman) and together the three of them were the Frankfamily. They brightened up my days considerably with their Frank-related antics. Even on his own, Frank would bring a smile to your face. Like a creep I would sometimes take photos of Frank’s more memorable moments. I have, for example, a video of Frank falling off a chair and quickly getting back up to look around and check if anybody witnessed it. He was a character.
And then one day, Frank was gone.
One week he was being his usual obstinate self, and the next there was no Frank, no walk, no tug-of-war happening in the garden. I barely saw Frankman or Frankwoman. Where was Frank? Considering I had never spoken to Frankfamily, there was nothing I could do but wonder. I rationalised it to myself coming up with a variety of reasons he wouldn’t be at home, but in three years Frank had never to my knowledge been apart from the Frankparents. If they were at home, so was Frank. The whole thing was worrying.
The following weekend, I watched as Frankman arrived home with a tiny bulldog puppy in his arms.
Frank was gone.
Since I never spoke to Frankman and Frankman never spoke to me, the mystery was unresolved until one day when my father dropped over for a visit. As I walked in with him, we met Frankman and the new addition walking out. Unaware of the delicate neighbourhood ecosystem in which nobody directly addressed anybody else, and instead only ever communicated through comments directed at each others’ pets, my father asked Frankman what had happened to “the big dog”. Frankman looked down at the ground and explained that Frank had had a heart attack while they were out for a walk. A congenital heart defect, undetectable until it was too late. He said it casually, scuffing the toe of his shoe into the grass as he spoke, but his voice was gruff with emotion.
The new addition was called (let’s just say) Ariadne.
Ariadne was adorable, but she wasn’t Frank. She was too small, too cute. She bounded out for her walks with great enthusiasm. She didn’t know Frank’s trick of standing up on the chair and placing both paws on the balcony railing to survey his domain. She didn’t bark as often. Her best moments came when she attacked Frankman’s shoes and when she waddled off with a leaf or a stick she’d found, proud as punch.
We switched Frankwoman’s name to Ariadnewoman, but Frankman remained Frankman.
You know, in memory of Frank.
A year on, Ariadne is almost Frank-size. Oscar and Maya are fascinated by the way her stocky little body romps around the garden. She’s a fan favourite. She still doesn’t know the trick of standing up on the chair to look out over the garden, but she has been starting to show sure signs of stubbornness. The other day I had to retreat to the back of the apartment laughing because she wriggled under a bush, sat down, and no amount of begging, shouting, pleading, threats, offers of treats or cajoling would coax her out. Ariadnewoman eventually sat, defeated, on a bench to wait out this episode of hard-headedness.
And now, Frankfamily are moving away.
Naturally, I didn’t get this information from the source – I still have never had an actual conversation with the couple – but the information is legitimate. They are leaving. When I first heard this, I was more upset than anybody should be about strangers moving house.
“They should have warned us,” I muttered darkly to Scrubs.
“Don’t be weird.” He said.
“Do you think we could start a petition for them to change their minds?”
“We should be able to lodge an objection. Do they not know Ariadne is essential to neighbourhood morale?*”
Scrubs sighed and eyed me with considerable alarm. “Please hide your obsession with their dog for just a little while longer.”
Of course, I couldn’t do that. How could I let Frankfam move without letting them know they would be missed? I decided to buy a card. I went into town and bought a card that said, “Sorry You’re Leaving” on the front and, “Wishing you all the best” on the inside. Perfect, I thought… But then the overthinking started.
Ariadne can’t read, I reasoned. A card won’t make her happy. I bought a dog toy – a white, fluffy alpaca – and a gift bag to put it in. I nodded, satisfied with myself.
Maybe I should add a dog treat, I thought.
I grabbed a pack of chicken twists from the shelf.
Maybe two, just to be sure she’ll like one of them.
I grabbed a Jumbone.
I turned towards the till, but it was too late.
I had lost the run of myself.
I can’t just address the whole thing to Ariadne… My brow furrowed. What about the humans? What about Frankman and Ariadnewoman? Is it rude to exclude them?
A couple of lollipops, a bag of fizzy sweets, a couple of chewy bars and a box of maltesers got swept into the basket.
When I got home, I wrote the card to Ariadne and her humans. I thanked Ariadne for brightening up the block, told them we (the humans and the cats) would miss seeing them around and good luck with the move. I threw everything into the gift bag, took the maltesers back out because they seemed like overkill, and left it on their balcony.
Then I went home, sat down, and realised that:
Having never had a conversation with them ever in my life, it might not have been the most reasonable thing to go so overboard with the goodbye present.
They probably wonder a) who I am and b) how on earth I even know they are moving.
I now have no choice but to avoid them until they leave because I am so embarrassed.
When I told Scrubs he groaned and asked why – WHY – I would have done such a thing without consulting with him first. He is naturally mortified by association, but at least he can claim ignorance since I am obviously the nutter who wrote the card.
I am still sad that they’re leaving our neighbourhood. They just seem so lovely and I like to think in another life they would have stayed another four years and eventually we might have worked up to greeting each other with actual words and eye contact. Who knows. Dream big!
On the other hand, at least once they leave I can stop feeling myself turn red with embarrassment every time I see them, now that they know without a shadow of a doubt that I am their number one fan.
Swings and roundabouts.
*Not complete hyperbole; for about a year somebody in our apartment block named their wifi ‘CAN WE PLAY WITH ARIADNE PLS”
I know people often say things like that. They laugh and say “Ooh, I’m such a klutz!” and it’s endearing in a kooky kind of way. Often what they mean is that they dropped their pen a couple of days ago, or they spilled coffee on the table when they put their mug down a little too vigorously.
I am not the endearing, kooky kind of clumsy. I am the full-on, disaster-waiting-to-happen, miracle-I-haven’t-broken-bones-yet, guaranteed-public-humiliation kind of clumsy.
Last month, I was in town chatting with a friend when I tripped. I didn’t trip on the pavement, or on a broken cobblestone. I didn’t even trip on the sneaky leg of an English spy in a bowler hat, hiding behind a newspaper, trying to keep me from accidentally stumbling onto the scene of an international investigation.
I tripped on my own foot.
The toe of my left boot managed to catch the heel of my right foot and I stumbled forward at an angle no human is capable of holding for very long. In an excruciatingly protracted series of movements, I tried valiantly to regain my footing. My friend, startled by my sudden lunge forward, put out her arms to catch me. I caught myself for a fraction of a second – and my friend sighed and pulled back, relieved – before barrelling forward for the second act. Finally, my feet admitted defeat and I hit the tarmac in a hard but almost graceful gliding motion.
Note I said almost.
Once I regained the breath that had been knocked out of me, I rolled over onto my back, laughing. A woman who had been passing by was standing over me with a hand pressed to her chest, her mouth a silent O of horror. My friend, eyes wide, was laughing with a hand over her mouth, which is generally accepted to be the polite way to show you’re concerned but also highly entertained.
The strange woman stepped forward, her handbag swinging from her elbow, and said, “Oh my God, are you alright?”
The last time a stranger asked that of me it was a different woman, with a different handbag, bending over me as I got sick in the gutter at 4am after having had several too many. I briefly considered the fact that strangers only ever use this particular phrase when they are appalled by what they are witnessing.
I thanked her and brushed myself off and reassured everybody that I was fine. I was! I was fine. Only my thigh and my elbow and my ego were grazed in the fall.
Fast forward to a couple of days ago as I sat at the LUAS stop.
As is my habit, I tucked one Adidas Superstar up underneath me on the bench as I waited, listening to music on my phone. As the LUAS pulled up, I took a stride towards it and immediately faceplanted in a perfect arc. This time there was no protracted slow-motion experience. This time I was sitting one moment, and face to the concrete the next.
The aglet of my shoelace had caught in one of the drainage holes of the bench.
Every passenger on the LUAS stared at me through the windows. A girl who had been waiting with me stepped forward before I even knew what had happened. She deftly unhooked me from the bench, leaving me feeling like a salmon who had just had a lucky interaction with a catch-and-release fisherman.
“There you go!” She said cheerfully as she popped the aglet out through the hole. “These things happen!”
“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t bother to explain that these things happen to me with alarming frequency.
I limped onto the LUAS and walked past the many silently staring passengers with my shoelace dragging behind me. No bruises this time. My immunity is building.
These things are bound to keep happening to me. I know it. I accept it.
I can only hope that eventually, I will stop feeling shame.