As I write

Freedom Walk, Friends of Debora, George V Park, Bonnyrigg. Sat August 15th, 2020

As I write, in my head, I’m sitting at a window with a cat on my lap, trying to think about writing, but distracted every few seconds by soft purring and a small furry creature which thinks I am a pillow. It is, I admit, a pleasant job to be a pillow. I suppose, if you were to see us here, so peaceful, and if you heard what we hear – distant cars and, further away, seagulls calling – it would be difficult to imagine either cat or human in danger, or surrounded by louder noise or violence or struggle, of any kind.

When Nergal, the cat who uses me as a pillow, goes out every day into the garden, she is cautious, at first. She will stand or lie down at the edge of the grass and look out with eyes wide open and ears swivelling, whiskers twitching. I don’t have big, furry ears – well, I don’t think they’re big – but I find myself trying to hear what she hears when I watch her. Seagulls suddenly scratching the morning air with loud squealing; crows raucously mocking everyone else; pigeons fluttering up at a window where someone is throwing out breadcrumbs for them. And sometimes, a back-door rattles, and it may be the wind, but Nergal’s eyes dart in that direction and her small body tenses, ready to run, or fight, if she feels she has to.

I can only imagine what it would feel like to be a small cat suddenly confronted by a bigger cat, or a not-friendly dog, or a giant seagull.

In cat years, I’m perhaps a century old. The dangers and uncertainties which worry me, as I look out at the world, have changed many times over the years. None are really in the garden, although sometimes a few seem to creep out from the darker places, from behind trees or from under bushes or out of the hidden places under sheds. Memories, glimpses, echoes and ghosts. Like – standing at the front of a quarter of a million people in London, a steward, as police horses charge towards us. Or, stepping into a boxing ring the second time: remembering the first time and those sharp jabs that seemed to come out of nowhere. Or, walking up the Hilltown one very dark night and having to fight a few real monsters, proud of myself for a few minutes; and then I hit the ground and was kicked so much that doctors had to rebuild my nose. (I’ll never forget, lying in a hospital bed, and a surgeon showed me a picture of different nose shapes and asked me to pick the one I wanted him to make with plastic surgery. I couldn’t remember what my nose had looked like. I guessed.)  

Other scary things are less to do with physical danger than with what we might call – emotional danger. Things or days that batter our lives, until we wish there was plastic surgery for damaged feelings. Like this last decade, when I failed to see the bruises building up inside of me. When I tried and tried to help people who were starving, homeless, threatened by eviction, threatened by a violent ex, close to despair, or passing over that ridge of despair when I could not stop their pain and they vanished. And bits of my hope vanished too.

When Nergal finally let my pillow-shift come to an end, and I went to a laptop to write this, I thought about a young man, known as Wajdi, who tried to cross the Channel, from France to England, in a dinghy, using shovels for oars. He came from a corner of hell in Sudan; and all he wanted was peace. He did not make it. He drowned, a victim of racism.

Last weekend, me and Isobel travelled to Bonnyrigg and attended a wonderful demonstration in support of Debora Kayembe and her family, victims of racist harassment. Debora has helped many refugees in Scotland; she deserves respect. People came to the demo from all over Scotland to show our love, respect, and support. Speaker after speaker spoke about confronting the fears which racism create: confronting it with defiance, courage, and hope for peace and a better world. As I listened to Debora and all the other speakers, I felt bits of my old hopefulness returning to begin to repair the damage done in the past.

As I write, I think, and not for the first or the last time, that human solidarity and fighting for justice are a powerful answer to danger and fear. 

By the way, Nergal is asleep at the window. Snoring loudly. Everyone’s a critic.    

Harvey Duke

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