Remembering an Unlikely Teacher

Remembering an Unlikely Teacher

He had a beautiful face, much like the Felix cat.

As humans, I have come to believe we possess two smiles — inner and outer. The outward smile would be the most common, not necessarily ‘fake,’ we may feel happy to a degree, but the clouds have by no means fully dispersed within. In that sense, it is somewhat of a mask. The inner smile is that which sees the sun emerge through dense nebulas and shine deep into the abyss. For centuries, this expressway penetrating to the depths of our very souls has self-evidently been despised, feared and suppressed by authority more than any opposing ideology … for it is the smile that liberates.

The outer smile is clearly what makes us vulnerable. Though it can make us feel good, its ephemerality is all too easily exploited — insidiously so, I would suggest, by our mass consumer culture. Be it festivals, bars, clubs, the Internet, social media, cars, holidays, smartphones, wealth, fame, alcohol, sex … such things are endlessly sold to us via clichés all obnoxiously vying to achieve the same thing: selling the promise to be a ‘better you.’ The catch? It’s only for as long as it takes to reach the next sign … and the next and the next, all offering something even better dotted along boulevards of a kind of ‘just buy stuff’ perpetuity, like an all-pervasive narcotic. In contrast, the inner smile tends to be that which costs us nothing (or relatively little), dwelling in much simpler things and where there are considerably less profits to be made.

Nevermore do we appreciate our pets than when they wholeheartedly immerse themselves in family life and Alfie was a fine example. An active participant in the day-to-day household, you noticed if he wasn’t around. If Mum was gardening, he’d be following her. When Mum and step-dad returned from shopping, he’d be waiting by the car. Unpacking, like a true Goonie he’d be sticking his nose in the bags, ever curious at what treasures may lie within. Making sandwiches in the morning, he’d be at the front of the queue demanding his share of the ham. The builder comes round to measure up the new fireplace and Mum finds herself having to inform him that a tape measure is a source of considerable intrigue. I also recall Alfie’s peculiar habit of tipping over my laundry basket … and if there was a box, or an open drawer, he could not resist the urge to investigate this mysterious new space. Alfie: eternally fascinated; to the end, he never stopped being curious.

Alongside boundless curiosity, Alfie was always playful. I lost count of the times he would chase you if you had a stick of some kind (pen, spoon, cardboard tube — anything!), seeming to adore the thrill of the pursuit, purring loudly as he leapt to grab the object in question. Curiosity and play were his defining characteristics, expressed purely through Alfie being Alfie. Interestingly, despite a penchant for endless play and curiosity, he never ventured far from home — once he found home that is. Alfie was originally a stray, just another unwanted feline from the Lane who turned up at Mum’s back door, circa 2009. We had no idea how old he was at the time, but it seems amazing to think such a character could be unloved, unwanted, to the point they should seek out a new home. Still, I feel fortunate this unique little fur ball should have felt the need to pack his bags and find his place elsewhere in the world.

Alongside boundless curiosity, eternal playfulness and knowing where home is, Alfie never failed to bring out the inner smile … quite a gift. My attachment to him stems from when I lived at Mum’s a number of years ago so I could afford to do some teaching courses while continuing to work part-time in mental health. Myself coping with anxiety, OCD and depression, I often felt too burned out to be around people, I.e. after working/studying with people all day, the last thing I felt like doing was going to a pub, club or whatever. At the same time, I didn’t want to be alone as such; rather, this was a mixture of burn out coupled with the growing realisation that I am somewhat of an introvert.

While living at Mum’s, Alfie, for whatever reason, became quite attached to me and remained so since moving out. Despite the fact he was ever the extrovert, there was a natural bond. He regularly slept in my room, always wanted to sit on me in the lounge and would get quite jealous if one of the other cats beat him to ‘his lap’! Likewise, I rather enjoyed his company; no matter how low I felt, he never failed to reach the inward sun. He was refreshingly comical — humour not at the expense of anyone or anything, something quite lost on what passes for much of today’s comedy.

Fast forward to June 2019. Alfie had become suddenly ill about a week prior to my Mum and step-dad going away for a few days on the Harley. Unsure what it was, Mum took him to the vet hospital. They thought possible lymphoma but weren’t certain without doing more tests. I don’t want to write too much about the moments leading up to his death, just that it was a heart-breaking couple of days. Mum had asked me to stay over and look after the cats while she was away. We were hoping the antibiotics would see him pull through. After nearly two days of unsuccessfully getting Alfie to eat very much, I phoned her for advice. She contacted the vet and made an appointment. My brother drove us there in the evening. Our worst fears confirmed; the vet felt the most humane thing would be to put Alfie to sleep, as he was very sick and weak. This was not the first time I had to witness a beloved pet put to sleep, but it was certainly the most upsetting.

We generally think of human deaths as automatically more upsetting than the loss of an animal. Indeed, there will no doubt be those who will scoff ‘It’s just a cat!’ and in one fell swoop demonstrate everything wrong with humankind. Earlier this year, my Nan passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Here, I must confess that bearing witness to Alfie parting this world was more heart-breaking to me than even the loss of an elderly family member. Not that I didn’t love my Nan, of course I did, but I had prepared myself for her departure. She had been ill for years and there’s much to be said for preparing yourself for the inevitable. It’s like the difference between stopping and not stopping a fall in time. To be sure, the former can still be painful, but it’s never likely to hurt as much as landing face first on the solid ground.

I remember hearing a faint thud in the hallway the night before Alfie’s passing. I went downstairs to investigate the noise and there he was, lying beside a box he’d tipped over, too exhausted to turf everything out and have a snoop inside, as he always liked to do. I tidied the box and sat by him in the hallway, gently stroking him, part smiling, part heartbroken — it was to be one last act of Alfie.

He had a beautiful face, much like the Felix cat. However, it is what shone from inside the unwanted stray from the Lane, which I’ll remember most: to be playful, to be endlessly curious, to be completely present in family life (a sentiment expressed by the great Lao Tzu himself) and to know that home is where Love is and that you needn’t wander too far from it to explore the world (indeed, it was in part through reflecting on the joy he brought to life that inspired me to start writing The Cycle Diaries shortly after).

The following evening bearing witness to Alfie’s passing felt like life face-planting me on the cold hard concrete — his final act as a teacher. R.I.P

Alfie (unknown — 19th June 2019)

June 2019

© Percival Alexander