Early in the morning, Nergal and I walk downstairs. I open the old, creaky door, and Nergal sits down on the stone step, looking out at the frozen garden. Her eyes are bright amber. Alert. Wary. Her tiny pink nose and white whiskers are twitching – tuning in to signs I am only dimly aware of. She lies down on the step, with her front paws crossed in front of her. It reminds me of the way a human might cross her arms, sleeves rolled up, ready to be busy. Cats don’t have sleeves. But they have fur. Nergal’s fur is fluffed up, on her paws and body and around her neck, to keep her warm.
I lean against the wall by the door. I’m still sleepy. It is very early. I’m enjoying breathing in the garden air: it’s icy cold, but sweet, like a childhood dream. I decide to try to hear and see whatever Nergal is hearing and seeing. So, I crouch down on the step beside her, and I listen to the sounds in the garden. Birds singing to each other. I can’t see them because they are well hidden in bushes, and the garden is dim because the sunlight is only starting to waken up. Nergal’s ears are upright and swivel towards one corner of the garden, and then towards another. I can’t swivel my ears, so I turn my head to one of the bushes where I think birds are hiding.
An invisible blackbird sings clarinet words in a language I don’t understand, but I love the sound. A robin, also hidden, sends out brief tinkling phrases, like a wind chime. And there are sparrows cheeping loudly: a whole bush full of sparrows, by the sound of it.
Sometimes, the hum and roar of cars and buses passing by obliterates the sound of birds, for a few seconds. It’s too early to happen often. The invisible traffic beyond the wall announces it is going away by the decibels getting smaller and smaller. And then we can hear the songs of birds again.
Nergal’s nose twitches. I doubt if I can smell half as many things as she can. I can’t smell the birds. I smell an early breakfast, wafting out from the higher window of a flat. It’s a fried something – maybe bacon. A faint drain smell also hits my nostrils. I screw up my face, as if I got pelted with mud.
As it becomes lighter in the garden, I notice more familiar things. Sheds, trees, bushes emerging out of the unravelling dimness. Patches of snow, and sad little islands of frozen grass. A tiny, ice-covered pond, with a metal cat standing guard, the stones around it covered in snow. It makes me think of vaster snow – covering huge fields. Snow stretching out to the horizon, somehow like a deep sleep. In my mind’s eye, I see my autistic grandson Marcus, stomping through the snow in his garden, in Sweden. He chuckles, his eyes shining more brightly than the snow.
When it feels too cold to be outside, I suggest to Nergal that it’s time to go back into the house. She agrees, uncurls herself from being a ball of fur, and bounds upstairs. I close the creaky door, shutting out the bird songs and the snow and a sky which was beginning to look vaguely but pleasantly blue. Only the sound of traffic now hums quietly through the thick wood of the door.
Upstairs, Nergal has fallen asleep on a chair, curled up in a ball again, her nose tucked under her tail. I know that in an hour or so, she will wake up and find me – so I can be her cushion, and she can purr. I don’t mind. I wonder if she dreams about birds singing or that moment in the garden when I saw her staring up at the big poplar tree, when a magpie erupted out of the dark green branches and flew up into the sky.
I potter around the house, listening to its’ comforting sounds. From the bedroom, I hear Isobel very briefly snoring. Not loudly, but loud enough to make me smile, and remind me it’s a weekend. I wander back to the room where the cat is sleeping. From outside somewhere, I hear faint music, perhaps a car radio. And the echoing call of seagulls. I slump into an armchair, intending to read a book, but instead find myself looking at sad news stories on my phone. It’s strange the way that reading silently, inside your head, sometimes blots out all the sounds around you. For a while, I couldn’t hear anything but my own thinking – about fascists rioting in America; and about that movie we’ve all got stuck in – the virus one. I eventually put my phone down. I am surprised at the loudness of my own deep sigh.
For the rest of the day, I try to pay attention to ordinary sounds and sights and sometimes smells. Walking down the Hilltown, as I have thousands of times, I see the river – flat grey, and beyond it, just visible in the mist, the hills of Fife, not quite real or present but like a long ago past, when there were very few people, or maybe none. Or, maybe that wasn’t what I was seeing, but it was more what I was feeling – because I knew, once I walked through the half empty shopping centre and through the half empty streets, where most shops are shut, it will seem that all the people have vanished.
I walk by the closed shops and see only occasional folk with masks going into the few shops which remain open. I walk near a café where I like to sit and write, and I smell coffee and hear laughter; and just for a moment, I think: “It’s open!” And it is, but only for takeaways.
I’m not sure exactly how, but I walk further through the town without becoming sadder. I look in the window of the closed Oxfam Books, which was so long a haunt of mine that I could be its’ ghost; and I walk past the big, closed museum, a haunt of mine for even longer; and then I walk up another steep hill to get home, and I do not feel too sad. Maybe it’s because I remember – that pandemics and fascists have been fought and defeated before. And we can fight and defeat them again. And maybe it has something to do with noticing ordinary things I hadn’t noticed before on a route I’ve walked many times. Noticing things like – how sunlight hits different windows differently: making comet flashes off large windows, and small, bright stars on other windows. Or, maybe, I am okay because today I crouched down with Nergal in the garden and I looked out and listened. A bit like a cat. Or a child. Or someone who writes.