I was still on that tricky traverse from black and white childhood to grey murky adulthood where nothing would ever be all good or all bad but a mix of both; a place where decisions could not be based entirely on what was right or what was wrong because nothing would ever be completely one or the other. All I knew was that I wanted to be a writer and nothing was going to stop me. That was all that mattered. Which is why, on my last day at school, my headmistress took me to one side and offered me some advice which began with a question.
'Do you know what a black-catter is?’ I shook my head. I had no idea what a black catter was.
‘Black-catters,’ she explained, ‘are not intentionally bad people. They are simply people who have a constant need to prove their cat is blacker than your cat. If you tell them of an illness you have had, they will tell you of an even worse illness they’ve had. If you tell them of a great adventure you’ve had, they will be forced to regale you at length with tales of their own, even greater adventures.’
I wasn’t sure where this advice was heading or what was intended by it, or why my headmistress thought it relevant to me in particular. She must have noticed something puzzling or confused in my expression. Whatever it was she saw, it brought a hint of a smile to her face which I had never seen before. She went on to explain further.
‘Gabby, there are people who, if shown any sign of intelligence, are helplessly driven to demonstrate in some way that their own intelligence is superior. They can’t help themselves and there is no point in engaging with them. They will only try to make you feel that whatever it is you have done or achieved cannot be any more than second best to their own achievements. The danger is, if you are subjected to black-catters for too long, you will eventually come to believe what they say. If you want to be a writer you would do well to be wary of them.’
Perhaps it was the shock of hearing her call me Gabby for the first time, like I was a friend and not some problematic teenager, that made me realise she was giving me a valuable gift; a tool intended to last a lifetime. So I took her advice to heart. Now whenever I suspect a black-catter is near, I remember her half-smile and nod politely to whoever is speaking, but I won’t be listening; I’ll be reminding myself that I am going to be a writer and nothing, not even a black-catter, is going to stop me.