Charlie, an affectionate ginger tom, fathered most to the farm cats that inhabited our yard, along with many of the feral varieties that squealed in the scrub in the night. Charlie was the only pet allowed inside, and could be found sunning himself on a bed, bathed in a shaft of light thrown by half drawn curtains. The burnt orange fabric casting a glow about the room, making his ginger fur alight like the sun.
Of a winter, he would bask in the warmth of a crackling fire and he would lap up the endless stroking provided by my younger brother and I; content to hear him lulled into a melody of gentle purring.
He was my mother’s cat, but he surpassed my history, so I remember him as ‘ours’. It was my mother who found him that day.
‘Dead’, she said.
‘Old age’, she said.
I was six, and in the middle of my evening bath when she appeared in the doorway to tell me the sad news. It was the first death-of-a-loved-one I had experienced, and I suddenly felt more naked than I had been only moments before.
‘Charlie’s dead. He died of old age’; as simple as that.
She left me there to wallow and wail; exposed and alone. No comfort was offered; no hugs through shuddering tears. I was in the bath. What could she do? Her timing was like months old milk.
I remember calling for Charlie the next day. Shaking a carton of dry cat food like a maraca, I did so in the vain hope that a promised meal might lure him from hiding. It did not.
Charlie seemed, quite simply to have vanished. I had not seen him dead. We had not buried him together, and my mother did not think to talk to me about my understanding of death, despite my obvious distress. Neither did I seek her wisdom on the matter, although an independent wondering about the afterlife began to fester in me; a theme that would become a considerable fixation some decades on. A fixation stemming from that timelessly puzzling first question, ‘but where did Charlie go’?