The author Garrison Keillor is rumoured to have said that ‘cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose’.
But on the loneliest nights, I reach past my knees to feel for the familiar curve of a spine, the fossil shapes of vertebrae beneath fur.
The cats like to sleep at our feet, suckers for the warmth on long winter nights.
Sometimes I wake from a nap to discover one of them curled nearby — pure coincidence, of course, that they happen to be in the same room as me at the same time yet again.
I read somewhere once it’s a sign of trust and affection when a cat looks you in the eye and pauses to blink. In the feline world, closing your eyes in the presence of another is the supreme gesture of confidence and vulnerability. I try to return their gaze steadily, play it cool, but there are days when it’s all I can do to resist burying my face in the whorls of the ginger cat’s belly, brush my lips across his sweet little head, run my fingers along the length of his plume-like tail.
The other one nests, perpetually grumpy, in our clean washing, knows the evening ritual of rooibos tea: the click of the kettle on our kitchen counter, the reassuring chink of the red ceramic cups, the inevitable splash of lactose-free milk in his dish.
‘I don’t like your manners,’ I scold, when the campaign for an early dinner escalates to his most frenzied repertoire of meows.
Deep down, though, I don’t mind.
To be chosen by a cat is one of life’s smallest but sweetest triumphs, I believe. ‘Dogs are too good and unselfish,’ Anne explains in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island. ‘They make me feel uncomfortable. But cats are gloriously human.’
And so we must endure and forgive the occasional patch of vomit on carpet, the errant strands of fur that fuzz an otherwise immaculate black work blouse.
I think of the French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, frequently ill following her divorce from first husband Willy (Henry Gauthier-Villars), who retained the copyright to her early novels and rendered her penniless, depressed, and desperately alone. ‘Our perfect companions,’ she insisted, ‘never have fewer than four feet.’
Charles Bukowski — having endured an adolescence marred by physical abuse from his father and the cruelty of Baltimore school kids who ridiculed his thick German accent and teenage acne — commented that ‘when I am feeling low, all I have to do is watch my cats and my courage returns’.
Perhaps this is the meaning of life, I wonder frequently these days. A nose briefly touches my tear-stained cheek.
I get out of bed to top up the biscuit bowl.