I have written before about wanting to know everything, a feeling which made me try to read everything. It is hard to think of a more doomed quest. After many years, I arrived at a compromise. I settled for reading only as much as I could, usually tied to things I needed to know. I read thousands of pages about benefits when I worked as a Welfare Rights Officer. I read many books on subjects I wrote about – spies, famous and obscure authors, Scotland, and other things. With some subjects, I got away with reading a few words online, often to answer some urgent question, like: what is a quagga?
In my library I have many books I think I need. I have a copy of Railways in the Years of Pre-Eminence, 1905-19, by O. S. Nock. I have read very little of this book, but I feel I need it. Did I get it because I needed to study the history of steam locomotives? Nope. It was simply because I loved the illustrations: detailed paintings of lots of shiny trains. Recently, I had a similar visual reason for buying an old book about trams. Strangely, I am neither a train spotter nor a tram spotter.
So, I feel I need to pay attention to different subjects for widely different reasons. The more I really need to understand a subject, the more I read. But, as anyone knows who has had to study for a course or a job, it can be hard to get enough time to read all that you need. There are shortcuts, like skimming or reading only key passages, but sometimes there’s no alternative but to read and read, until your eyes become book shaped, and your cat starts pawing at your nose, miaowing: “Oi! I need you to open the garden door.”
I dragged myself from the paperback I was reading: The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger.
“I needed to read that” I moaned at Nergal, as I followed her down the stone stairs to the garden. She glanced back at me and rolled her eyes, which I took to mean: “You do not need to read that.” I thought-beamed an instant response: “I do too!”
At the bottom of the stairs, I unbolted and opened the heavy back door, and watched Nergal-the-blur vanish into blazing sunshine. It took me a few moments of blinking before I could see outside. I was relieved that the sun had not actually fallen out of the sky into the garden, it just looked like that. The grass was saturated with luminous green, as if freshly dyed. Birds were twittering elaborate tunes, perhaps auditioning for a bird orchestra. The sky was a dazzling blue.
Living in Dundee, where the default weather setting is rain, sunshine can feel like a miracle. It’s not just gardens that are transformed when the sun comes out. Streets, parks, and the river Tay become other dimensions. I imagined the broad river with its special blend of colours: dancing shades of bluesilvergreen. Glowing white seagulls crying ecstatically high up in the sky.
High above myself and Nergal, real seagulls are wheeling around the sky and crying out. Nergal, sitting on a far wall, gazes up at them, oozing boredom. She is generally unimpressed by non-cat creatures. Humans are okay, as long as they feed or stroke her. Mostly, she likes to be left alone. She closes her eyes and holds her face up to bask in the sun.
I have long associated sunlight with good times, especially as a child. Somewhere in the Menzieshill housing estate, kicking a black and white ball against a huge white wall, over and over, and enjoying the thwack sound as the ball hits the wall, then the concrete ground, and then the ball rises to meet my shoe, and then I batter the ball back against the wall. Or, playing with a large crowd of boys down on grass near the waterfront in Broughty Ferry. I glance over at river, sky, and beach, and all seem impossibly huge. I jump up to try to head a ball but I end up heading air instead.
Beaches seem to belong in sunshine more than anywhere else. When it is cold and grey, a beach barely exists. In a blaze of sunshine, a beach becomes a new world. The ridges of thousands of white and brown seashells become individual ornaments. Ordinary sand glistens like a universe of tiny stars. Jellyfish washed up on the shore gleam like blobs of rainbow fallen out of the sky. Perhaps, it is only in a country where the weather makes the world shift so quickly from monotone to multicoloured that we see things in this magical way, when the sun comes out.
Nergal is still basking in the sunlight in the garden, so I close the garden door. I’ll come back downstairs later to check on her. As I walk up the stone steps, with recent and older memories of sunshine flashing in my mind, I think about ways that light and the weather influence our moods. I think maybe I should write something about that.
On my desk, illuminated with fresh squares of sunshine, I start scribbling notes. I start with: ‘I’ve written before about wanting to know everything, a feeling which made me want to read everything.’ Wait a minute, what’s that got to do with sunlight or changes in the weather? But I don’t score the words out, I keep going. Maybe, I need to think about things I have learned from living through them, and not just read about. For some things, perhaps that’s my only way to discover some truth.
There’s a plaintive miaow from outside the door of our flat. Neighbours must have let Nergal in when they went out to the garden to hang up washing. I opened the front door. Nergal trotted proudly into the house, wagging her tail, and looking up she briefly miaowed her latest demand. Cat treats, I think that’s what she wants. I poured a few treats from a packet onto a yellow saucer and put it down on the floor. Nergal began to crunch the treats with her sharp teeth. I stroke her and her fur feels warm from her brief time in the sun
Thinking more about weather and moods, I remember a different kind of day, years ago when I was alone in a ninth-floor flat in a multi-storey block, where I lived with my son and daughter, both then at school. It was pouring with rain outside, and misty. I looked out and down from the living room window. All the streets were flat, fuzzy, and grey. Many of the houses were half hidden in the mist, with only a floating window or door visible. It was like the rest of those houses were rubbed out. One woman was pushing a buggy along a wet path far below. She seemed incredibly tiny, but I could see her grey hoodie was drenched. She was bent down over the buggy, pushing it against the lashing rain. She looked like a miniature papier-mache figure, on the verge of disintegrating.
I left Nergal loudly crunching her treats, and I went back to my desk and scribbled notes. Greyness. Rain. Anxious. Sunshine. Happy. I looked at the words and heard myself say: “Hmm.” I do a lot of that when I’m writing. Nergal jumped up beside me onto the back of the green leather sofa. She started to lick her paws and run each paw over one ear and across her whiskers and pink nose. I thought – it must be great to have built-in sponges.
“Nergal”, I said
The cat looked at me from her perch on the sofa but kept on washing her face with one paw-sponge.
“I’m trying to write a blog post about sunlight and moods”, I told her. For a few moments, she paused her beauty routine and studied my face. I imagined her thinking: “Do or do not, there is no try.” I’m fond of Yoda wisdom, but it didn’t seem helpful today
“Yeah, I’ve heard that” I said. “It’s a good saying, but it doesn’t give me any blog-inspiration. Do you have any ideas?”
Nergal stared at me blankly and then returned to washing her face. If she had any ideas, she was not sharing them with me.
A cloud must have passed over the sun outside as the room suddenly lost all of its brightness. Gold lettering on the spines of books stopped shining. It was like new coins becoming old coins in a heartbeat. The reds, greens, blues, pinks, and oranges of bright book covers dimmed instantly. Even Nergal, who had looked as if every cat hair was sharply magnified, seemed smaller and hazy. She froze and gazed at me with a puzzled expression: a faded snapshot of her former bright self.
Then, just as quickly as it had gone, sunshine returned, and the room was reborn in fresh colours. All the books, even the very old ones, were more than new: they became the first books anyone had ever seen. And Nergal, re animated by the ultra-magnifying sunlight, was happily washing her face again with one bright paw, her brown and white fur glowing, and each of her long white whiskers suddenly as vivid against the multicoloured background as a conductor’s baton.
Nergal looked at me. Her amber eyes blazed with intelligence. A wordless kind of intelligence, but more perceptive than any word. I thought I read in her eyes or in the wider moment of sunshine a message. It said: write about this. Okay, I thought. And I turned back to the pen and paper in front of me on the desk, and I let the words in my head tell me what to say.