I cannot begin to write about the beginning of 2017 without writing about Phoebe. I could just put down a few sentences about spiraea and daffodils and be done with it, I suppose - they would match the photographs afterall. But life isn't all flowers and sometimes it is important to tell the rough with the smooth. Indeed, when I told my mother I was struggling to come to terms with what happened, finding it hard to let her go, she looked at me and said 'write about her', as though that, for me, would be the obvious thing to do. But my heart was too heavy then. I didn't have the words.
Phoebe, for those of you didn't know her, was our very beloved Bengal cat. She has featured on our blog on and off over the years, and occasionally crept into the odd Instagram post, amongst the flowers or asleep in the centre of a wreath. On the afternoon of Monday 16th January she disappeared from our family home in Oxford. My parents, I later learned, searched high and low for her for two days, leaving early in the morning, trudging the streets, talking to neighbours, putting posters up on lampposts, coming home to eat, going out again, and again. They didn't tell us at the time, not wanting to worry us; they said they didn't want to ruin our holiday. That Thursday, a resident of the flats opposite found her, hidden behind some bins in the yard, barely 50 metres from our front door. We will never know exactly what transpired but it seems likely that she was hit by a car very soon after she left; she had probably then dragged herself to the closest secluded place, and there, who knows when, she had died.
Mostly, I think what happened came as a terrible shock. Unlike her adventurous, bolshy and intrepid brother, Phoebe had barely ever left the house. She was timid, she never showed the slightest interest in things that most other cats do - garden-hopping, hunting, brawling. Her world was with us, lived in consecutive rooms on three floors. She was clingy, not in an annoying way, but she was always there - she slept tight beside my father, every night, and wherever something was happening in the house - a meal in the dining room, or if my mother was doing some sewing or cooking, or we were reading or chatting in the living room, she'd be there, trotting around, or asleep, or perched to one side watching us, part of the gang.
Nothing could have prepared us for the grief we felt. All the stages of that ugly emotion ran through us at different rates in the days that followed. I felt initially a surge of anger - with the driver who hadn't stopped to tell us or perhaps hadn't even known, with the road, with cars in general, which seemed to me suddenly malicious contraptions of metal full of cruelty, with her even, for foolishly choosing, just that once, on that cold, wet, dark winter's night, to run out on us, depriving us of her forever. Then guilt; we had let her down. Morbidity, too. I imagined it all, in an attempt to understand, imagined that she was spooked by a bird, by a passing dog and that in fear and confusion she had lost her bearings and blindly ran. I imagined the moment of impact, the pain, the loneliness of it. I thought of her broken body and cried myself to sleep for a week, cried until my teeth ached.
This may all seem very over the top. She was an animal after all, not a sibling, not a mother or a father. Unless you have been through the same - and so many people have - it may seem that I am being unduly sentimental. Indeed the other day someone said to me 'that's a shame', as if I had merely mislaid a scarf. I don't think they were saying this to be unkind, or unfeeling, maybe they just hadn't experienced how an animal can get under your skin and into your heart. The truth is, and I realise this now, I haven't had a lot of suffering in my life; I have had the privilege, perhaps the luck if you believe in that, of avoiding much tragedy so far. As a child and a teenager I lost my grandparents, most young people do, and pets of course - dogs, cats, rabbits, a guinea pig that I had for the grand total of one week before it copped it and I came out one morning to find it on its back with its legs in the air, poor mite. Call it the selfishness of youth - I was sad, briefly, but each time that passed, probably quicker than it should. With Phoebe it was different. My heart broke. She may have been just a cat, just a pet, but she was one of us, she was our little shadow. Without her, our home felt bereft. Everywhere you looked she wasn't.
It's hard to explain why it was such a loss without telling you a bit about her. Now that weeks have passed, though she is still the last thing I think about before I fall asleep and, usually, the first when I wake, too, and although I still have a light ache in my stomach that won't subside, the dissolving darkness of that week has lifted, and I am able to remember.
Phoebe, otherwise known as 'beeb', or 'raisin danish', on account of her spots, was the runt of the litter. My parents (blissfully ignorant then of the notorious vocals of the Bengal breed) chose her brother, a healthy kitten with a gleaming golden coat divided by black stripes. As they left, my mother took pity on the unwanted cat remaining, who was tiny and pathetic with unattractively gammy eyes, sure to be put down if no-one wanted her. My father reluctantly agreed to have her too. They had no way of knowing, then, that her size defied an impossibly strong and resilient character; she grew, but was always a small cat, so that she never really lost the look of a kitten. She had the strangest voice - less of miaow, more of a high-pitched jungle bird chirrup, that she used regularly, often you could 'converse' backwards and forwards, as if you were having an animated chat. This could go on for quite some time. She would show affection, sometimes, by very lightly biting you on the knee or the shoulder - or when lying in bed, your hair. Only very gently, the slightest nips. She developed strong habits, particularly with regards to play. When at home, for example, when Jess or I had a bath, she would almost always come along, enthusiastically squeaking, who knows why. It was a 'thing', one or other of us would be in the bath, the other would sit on the loo seat and chat and play with her until it was the other's turn. She liked to be brushed. She liked to be pushed over and have raspberries blown on her belly, after which she would 'mock' escape, but not too far, and call you to chase after her and do the same again. She liked catching things and chasing things - feathers, a leaf - and was fast and lethal; when she lowered herself to pounce her eyes went black and you knew to draw your hand away as quickly as possible. She loved laps and boxes. She loved little objects that she could pick up with her teeth and hide. She adored bedtime. Bedtime was by far the most exciting time of the day and an elaborate ritual developed whereby she would routinely dash around the house, sprinting from room to room, leaping onto each of the beds and chirruping, hiding and pouncing. Whenever we stayed the night a lengthy, mad game before bed would ensue until we were all exhausted.
When we started out in Oxford she became our little floral assistant. She loved all the activity - the comings and goings, the boxes, the dust sheets. She'd curl up and sleep in the baskets under the work bench, or she'd steal the snipped ends of branches or leap onto the sideboard and stomp across the laptop keyboard while we were writing emails. Most of all I think she just liked being around us. We always said she was Jess' 'spirit animal' - indeed Jess was the only one of us who could pick her up and hold her for more than 30 seconds at a time before she wriggled down.
I miss her so much it hurts. I miss the humour of her presence, I miss the vaguely shortbread-y smell of her fur, I miss her wriggling, muscular body. All the ridiculous, sweet things that she would do. And daily, still, I feel a sharp spike of unfairness, that she, the gentlest of creatures, should come to such an end, and before her time, while she was still fit and healthy and bright-eyed.
But days and weeks have gone by and we've lived on through them. I've been to Somerset and Wales, walked and driven, drunk wine, cooked pasta, albiet without tasting much. I am beginning to appreciate - and marvel, too - at the sheer amount of joy she brought to our lives for so many years. And how much we loved her.
I was relieved, in a way, when our holiday was over. I was eager to get back to work, to take my mind off it all. Work, particularly repetitive, mindless work, is important, I think. Emails, paperwork, bill paying, orders, that kind of thing. But a strange thing - I was nervous about getting back to flowers. I hadn't arranged flowers in a few weeks and not one creative impulse had taken me since it happened. Flowers are usually such a natural, instinctive form of artistic expression for me but loss and the void that followed had numbed me - I wasn't sure I felt it anymore. Flower arranging as a profession seemed a silly, insubstantial thing to be doing with my life; I thought briefly, wildly, of giving it all up to go and do something more meaningful.
Our first day back we taught a private class for a lovely lady, Kara, who was visiting from New York. I liked her very much immediately. We made bouquets in the morning, Jess cooked a delicious lunch and afterwards we worked on footed bowl arrangements. It was the spiraea that won me over. Spiraea, if you are into flowers, cannot fail to make the heart flutter. The movement - scratchy and sculptural, but intricate, the tiny little flowers, the detail. Working on the demo piece I became aware that the numbness was receding; I felt lighter than I had in weeks.
It is February. The first, and I sincerely hope the hardest, month of the year is passed. Spring is ahead and already the camellia are blooming. Yesterday I walked for miles. I love walking in London; I find it very cathartic - I find that I can walk a long way and not think of very much. It was a beautiful day and I walked through crowds of weekenders shopping, on their way to brunch. I walked along the river and the sun was strong on my face. I thought of our tiny seedlings in Hampshire, what they will become, who they are for. What a miracle it is for those that survive, despite all the odds. How lucky we are, how extraordinary and unlikely it is, that any of us are even here at all.
Rest in peace, our mad, spirited, darling girl.