A Failure to Communicate

I went downstairs on Saturday evening and found Penny having what was admittedly a quite light-hearted Zoom call with some friends about how our house, being predominantly open-plan and ground-floor and with several bedrooms, could easily be converted to accommodate a live-in carer when the time came when we could no longer look after ourselves. I checked my pulse and I poured a glass of wine – two things, which, I immediately discovered, are best done separately. Everything seemed normal: not, I reflected, that a slow and steady pulse rules out every medical condition. At least I could remember why I had come down and opened the fridge in the first place.

Her plan would involve commandeering one or both of of our younger sons’ bedrooms. As both are sort of still living here when they aren’t at uni, this seemed premature. Of course, one never knows when The Reaper or his Advance Guard are going to Make a Pounce. If life were organised equitably, this would happen after the young men had moved out. Toby had recently said he was probably going to do an MA after his finals. I felt pleased with his ambition but now realise my delight had another, less altruistic cause: by the illogical thought process of room utility, this seemed to give me an extra year, and more if he couldn’t immediately find somewhere else to live after graduating.

Penny’s conversation was perhaps because we had just returned from seeing the excellent Notes From a Small Island at the Watermill. We had taken Penny’s elderly aunt, whose short-term memory now seems to operate on a roughly six-minute cycle. This means that, even during a short meal or journey, one might hear the same story two or three times. Each version is slightly shorter than the one before which suggests subliminal editing. The effect, though, is of listening to a writer reading, at quite short intervals, different versions of a paragraph which they are cutting down from 150 to 60 words. Sometimes the reductive creative process is best kept secret.

My mild annoyance at this (which I hope I was polite and considerate enough to conceal) is, however, as nothing compared to the anguish and confusion she surely feels. It must be beyond awful to sense the daylight fading around you and only have the distant horizon of your past clearly in focus. I have written many articles in the last few years about events which took place in the first thirty years of my life. I see now this might be due to more than just a search for self-effacing and humorous raw material or a desire to set down my own versions. Could the real reason be that this time seems, with each passing year, more real and accessible to me than does the present or recent past?

It’s also possible that Penny’s care-provision conversation was inspired by Marmite.

Marmite is the oldest of our three cats. He’s 13, which in cat years (10 for the first and five for each one thereafter, or so I’m told) makes him about 75. He’s still in good physical nick, sleek and dark of coat and svelte of figure, regularly bringing in mice and able effortlessly to jump onto the top of our six-foot fridge. None of these attainments are ones I can match. I must also concede that none provide, any more than did my steady pulse, much in the way of evidence of positive mental health.

The thing is that he’s started to miaow loudly, normally for about a minute. There seems to be no physical pain involved. These fits of oratory generally take place at two times of day. One, probably connected with a desire for both affection and food, is round about eight in the morning, when we’re getting up anyway. Any healthy four-year-old human, as I remember all too well, would do much the same.

The other time, more spookily, is about six hours earlier, in the deep, dark dead of night, when any noise is five times more inexplicable and twenty times more alarming than in daylight. Sometimes I get up and pad round the house after him, half expecting to be led to a scene of carnage or catastrophe: in short, treating him as if he’s a dog, programmed by millennia of human service to act as an early-warning system. No carnage or catastrophe is ever discovered. I return to bed and, often infused with a sense of unease. What’s going on here? I sometimes half-convince myself this is not a random expression of age-related confusion but an earnest and logical desire to tell me something which I cannot understand. What we’re dealing with here is, just possibly, a failure to communicate.

Perhaps he is taking his lead from me. I won’t deny that when I’m alone in the house, and sometimes when I’m not, I talk or even sing to the cats, or to myself. I might be attempting to deal with an ear worm or trying out something I’m trying to write or compose. It might also be complete rubbish that, like a belch or a fart, arises unbidden and demands immediate release. Marmite may have a different view and could think I’m trying, and failing, to communicate something vital to him.

After all, what can cats possibly make of the sounds of speech? Ours know their names and, probably more by intonation, other words, mostly connected with feeding time. They must know we communicate verbally with each other and, however inexactly, with them. Perhaps he’s just trying to give something back. I might, while waiting for the kettle to boil, be singing some half-completed lyric; or, as it were, trying on for size different versions of a final sentence of an article; or maybe just spouting some half-remembered rhyme which had somehow caught my fancy. Why should he not feel that, at times of the day or night which might be strange to us but not to him, he should not do the same? I’m often guilty of being anthropomorphic, probably more so as I’ve got older. Maybe, now Marmite has reached a certain cat-year age not too far in advance of my own, he feels that way too.

There is a darker conclusion. Perhaps we are – and none too quietly – growing old together. Our utterances are not stabs at communication but final attempts to rage against the dying of the light. It’s convenient for both of us to believe all these noises mean something, rather than merely providing fleeting proof we’re still alive and moderately sentient. It may be that the conversion of Toby’s room and the six-minute memory cycle of Penny’s aunt are looming up more quickly in the rear-view mirror than I would like to believe.

Marmite may sense this too. If so, he and I are closely joined. This could be why we find ourselves miaowing and babbling to each other at odd times of the day or night; convincing ourselves that we are still communicating while, in reality, we are sliding together down the final and ever-steepening path towards oblivion.

Brian Quinn

• For further stories and articles, please click here
• For songs, please click here
• For three of these songs relevant to this article, try This Life, Waiting for the Wolf or Not Crazy



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