The consensus was that 2016 had been a rotten year.
Nick’s compatriots has voted to leave the European Union, and all the signs were that whether it ended up being a “soft” Brexit or a “hard” Brexit it would certainly turn out to be a “rotten” Brexit.
The Americans had elected an idiot as president, an idiot who was right now surrounding himself with fellow billionaires ready to run the country (quite possibly into the ground) in 2017.
Tens of thousands had died in Aleppo while tens of thousands more had landed or washed up on Greek beaches to a worse than lacklustre welcome, and while no one seemed to have any fresh ideas how to make any of this stop, terrorists apparently had no trouble coming up with fresh ways to maim and kill people.
David Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood… the obituaries were full of people who once lit up the world with their songs, or their humour. So yes, it had been an annus horribilis. Pretty much everyone agreed on that.
Yet the thing that had made Nick cry the most had been the death of Paloma, his beloved cat. It seemed wrong, of course, brutally wrong in a way, that the loss of a simple cat had made him cry harder than any of the other horrors going on in the world, but there it was. The undeniable fact of that empty cushion next to his computer screen, the cushion where Paloma had once spent her days, seemed to somehow sum up everything that was wrong with 2016.
Paloma, when alive, had been an unusual cat. Full of quirks, extremely communicative through blinks and winks, and often suffocatingly present, she had above all been Nick’s trusty writing companion, watching him during the sometimes-painful process that had been the writing of thirteen novels.
When he groaned, occasionally, at a momentary lack of inspiration, Paloma had been there to reach out and gently touch his hand. “It’s OK,” she seemed to be saying. “I’m here.”
And when his love life had gone awry, as it frequently had, and he’d spent months, sometimes years, alone, Paloma had been there, too. She had quite literally licked the tears from his face on more than one occasion.
It had been a relationship that worked both ways, too. For when Paloma had vanished Nick had spent two sleepless nights hunting for her until, in the silence of three AM, he had manage to detect her distant crying and had followed the sound to find her, almost half a mile away, stuck up a tree. And when she had gone missing a second time, he had spent almost two months looking for her until miraculously she had reappeared. She had a broken rib and two missing teeth, but she had survived. Quite what she had survived, Nick never knew, of course, for Paloma could not tell.
But from the beginning of that horrible year, it had been clear that Paloma would not make it to see another Christmas.
So against the grim backdrop of wars and drownings, of Brexit and Bowie, those first months of the year had been choreographed also to the rhythm of Paloma’s decline. Her retreat to a drawer in the lounge; the new necessity for a litter tray when she could no longer make it outside; her failing appetite, her shaggy fur, her weeping eyes… there was no escaping the harsh reality of what was going on.
By February she was too tired even to play in the snow, and lord knows, Paloma liked snow. Ever hopeful of resuscitating a memory of Paloma’s more playful days, Nick had carried her outside and placed her gently in the softest snow he could find. But instead of shimmying around on her back as she had always done in the past, she had just looked sadly up at him. “You’re too old for this, you want to go back indoors,” Nick had said, and Paloma had blinked slowly, which had always been her sign language way of saying, “That is correct.”
Paloma had died in April, and even that hadn’t been the peaceful sending off Nick had hoped for. Clearly aware that something was amiss, she had been hysterical during the journey to the vet’s, clawing at the bars and screaming. By the time they arrived, she was having a heart attack and there had been nothing left to do other than to put her out of her misery as quickly as possible.
In his car, outside, once the deed had been done, Nick wept for an hour, before eventually, fitfully, driving home without her. He wrote an obituary for her, emptying his hurt onto the page. He sensed that his reactions were almost certainly disproportionate, especially compared to everything else that was going on in the world, but there was nothing else he could do. He was heartbroken.
In June, Nick’s partner, Lolo, came home with two kittens in a box. He thought they would help Nick get over the trauma of Paloma’s departure, he explained, but Nick’s initial reaction was one of anger.
“As if any old cat could replace winking, blinking, snow-loving Paloma!” Nick muttered as he attempted, but failed, to glare at the kittens. For who could glare at two tiny purring fur-balls wrapped around each other?
They nick-named one of the sisters Mangy (she had mango coloured eyes) and the other Patti (after one of Nick’s heroins, Patti Smith.)
They would, in theory, decide which of the cats could stay (to replace Paloma) and which would be given to their friend a few miles away, but of course, that task was hopeless from the outset. Mangy, being the softest most malleable, mild-mannered cat that ever existed, clearly had to stay. As for Patti, who was more angular, wily and independent, the truth was that Nick couldn’t quite get over just how much she looked like Paloma. The friend would have to be disappointed. Neither cat was going anywhere.
As the weeks went by, and as Nick worked on his new novel, Patti displayed a surprising number of Paloma-like traits. She liked to sleep on Nick’s pillow, next to his head, just as Paloma had done. She took to following him to his cabin, and sleeping as he worked, on Paloma’s old cushion. One time, when he groaned at a chapter-in-progress, she even reached out and touched, gently, his wrist. “It’s OK,” she seemed to be saying. “I’m here.”
The book got written and published, but the horrible year went on. The Donald got elected. Bad people continued to massacre other people, some good, some bad, in Aleppo. Good people donated money and collected container-loads of clothes and shipped them to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence, but everyone who helped, and everyone who didn’t, agreed that it wasn’t nearly enough.
Nick stopped watching the news entirely because the sense of helplessness, the sense of hopelessness, the sense of despair at the state of the world, was pushing him towards what psychiatrists call a “major depressive episode.” He took a break from Brexit, from Trump, from Aleppo, and felt better for it.
Winter arrived and with it icy winds and plummeting temperatures.
Patti and Mangy took to sleeping on the bed, cuddled up together, and sometimes, when Nick would wake, he would momentarily mistake Patti’s white-socked feet for Paloma’s, and then realise, with a mixture of sadness and relief, his mistake. Sadness at the ongoing loss. Relief that Patti was healthy, and would probably be around for another eighteen years.
And then, one day, on the 21st of December, it snowed.
Nick was sitting at his desk trying to write, and he turned and saw that it had started, the tiny white flakes fluttering down. He glanced at the photo of Paloma he kept on his bookshelf and thought, lump-in-throat, about the fact that she wasn’t there to frolic about in it this year. That she would never be around again. He reached out and stroked sleeping Patti and felt a tiny bit better.
He worked for three hours, writing a short, soppy Christmas story to share with his friends, glancing, only occasionally, at the lawn outside, as it turned from green, to grey, to pristine white. The flakes were bigger now, falling like a curtain, almost entirely hiding the mountains from view. Soon a thick layer of snow had hidden everything.
At three, he backed up his computer, switched everything off and scooped sleeping Patti up in his arms. “That’s it for this year,” he told her, nuzzling her fur. “No more writing or promoting or anything else until 2017.” And then he switched off the light and stepped out into the snow. It squeaked – like clean hair – beneath his feet, and at that sound, or more likely at the sudden drop in temperature, Patti woke up and looked around.
As Nick locked the cabin door, Patti squirmed in his arms, but he held her tight. “You won’t like it,” he explained, laughing. “It’s cold. And wet.”
But Patti, as ever, knew exactly what she wanted, and intended to get it. And eventually, Nick gave in and released the writhing, squirming mess that she had become into the soft whiteness of the snow, into which she sank, immediately, up to her chin.
And then the strangest thing happened: Patti began to roll around in the snow, slipping and sliding around on her back as she sunk deeper and deeper into the icy whiteness.
Nick stood and watched. “Wow,” he said, simply.
After a minute or so of this comical leaping, rolling and burrowing, Patti had had enough. She bounded up the path, leaping high, rabbit style, as she made her way to the house.
Indoors, the wood burner had been lit and Lolo, home from work, was making soup.
“Hey,” he said, smiling. “You OK?”
“Yep,” Nick replied. “All done. I’m on holiday now.”
“I’m so glad it snowed,” Lolo said. “I love a bit of snow at Christmas.”
“Me too,” Nick agreed.
“Mangy loves the fire,” Lolo said. “She hasn’t moved since I lit it. I tried to show her the snow but she wasn’t interested.”
“Well, Patti, believe it or not, loves the snow,” Nick replied. “She’s been rolling around in it and digging tunnels.”
“Like Paloma?” Lolo asked, and as he said this, Patti, who had been licking her paws, looked up.
“Yeah,” Nick said. “Exactly like Paloma. Do you believe in reincarnation?”
Lolo shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe. Why not?”
“It’s just…” Nick started.
“Oh, you mean Patti?” Lolo asked.
“Well, the dates would be right.”
“Yeah. Paloma died in April. We got these two in June. And they were eight weeks old. So…”
“Maybe,” Lolo said, grinning and shrugging. “I guess we’ll never know.”
As he turned his back to the room and started, noisily, to blend the soup, Nick crouched down so that his head was level with Patti, seated on the arm of the sofa. “Are you Paloma?” he asked, gently, not quite sure if he was joking, or, in fact, being serious.
Patti, who had resumed her paw-cleaning operation, paused once again and looked up at him.
“If you’re Paloma, give me a miaow,” Nick said.
Patti head-butted him then, bashing her nose against his. She also made a noise. It was the tiniest burrrp of a noise, not a miaow as such, but it was, all the same, a noise.
Nick frowned. “If you’re Paloma then… turn around,” he said, and seemingly ignoring him, Patti jumped from the arm down onto the seat of the sofa, where she turned once, a full 360 degrees, before curling into a perfect ying-yang circle.
“Hey,” Nick called over the noise of the liquidiser. “Hey!”
Lolo released the button and turned to face him. “Yeah?”
Lolo frowned and walked to join Nick in front of the sofa, drying his hands on a tea-towel as he did so. “Watch what?”
“Just watch.” Nick crouched down again. “If you’re Paloma, then turn around one more time.”
Patti nuzzled her nose beneath her tail, then raised one paw to cover her face more completely.
“What are you doing?” Lolo laughed.
“Nothing… I just. Hang on… If you’re Paloma, then miaow,” Nick said. “Just give me a tiny miaow.”
Patti opened one eye to look up at them, but remained otherwise stoic.
“Ha!” Lolo laughed. “That’s definitely Paloma then. She never did what you told her to do.” Then, thoughtfully, he added, “But, you know, if Paloma was going to be reincarnated, I’m pretty sure she’d try to find her way back to you. That cat only ever had eyes for you. No one else even existed as far as she was concerned.”
“Well, we lived through a lot together,” Nick said.
Lolo returned to the kitchen area and resumed blending the soup, and Nick scooped Patti from the sofa and took her place, reclining with her on his chest.
“I thought you could understand me for a moment there,” he murmured looking into her gaze.
Patti’s eyes flicked left and right between Nick’s own for a moment, and then, as she settled on his chest, she quite distinctly, almost exaggeratedly, closed one eye and then opened it again.
Nick laughed. “It’s our secret, huh?” he said. “Just you and me? You don’t want anyone else to know?”
And Patti, or Paloma, believe what you will, blinked very slowly at him and let out a deep, contented sigh.
Merry Christmas everyone.