I don’t associate cats with beaches. Dogs, yes, flappy ears and flappy paws, chasing balls and sticks, challenging the waves to a duel. But a domestic cat seems too self-contained a thing for a beach. A lion, or a tiger or a panther maybe, stalking the sand and staking its claim, I can see that. But a neighbourhood mog, with a smudge on its nose and suspicion in its eyes - no. What would a cat do with all that space?
But there it is, sitting on compacted wet sand left by the retreating tide, licking its left front paw.
Its head jerks up to fix me with a look and stop me in my tracks, the way cats do.
‘Hallo,’ I offer.
It’s about an hour after the summer sunrise and there’s a chill in the air. I’m surprised the beach is otherwise deserted. I expected a few people walking those flappy dogs, or hardy types taking a ridiculous o’clock constitutional, but ahead of me the sand curves unblemished under the crumbling masonry of a small cliff. The local council’s made an effort with a flimsy looking orange net straggled along the bottom and signs every couple of hundred yards - DANGER!! LOOSE ROCKS!! DO NOT CLIMB!! – a beacon for every self-respecting child in the neighbourhood.
I look along the sand to the rock wall at the other end of the bay. Probably no more than a ten minute walk, even for me. Above my head a feathering of cloud drifts calmly across the early morning blue. A gull wheels overhead, its plaintive cries unanswered by the sky. The sea idly sucks at the sand, sampling bric-a-brac to carry back on its retreat.
‘What do you think?’ I ask the cat. ‘Shall we go for it?’
It stretches from its claws to its arched back, yawns, and takes up position beside me.
‘All right, then.’
As we walk I think about those ancient footprints on beaches, preserved by some accident of nature, now pored over by anthropologists seeking significance in every step. What would their descendants make of this line of impressions, one side heavier than the other, accompanied by a meandering set of paw prints punctuated by small circular indentations? A human and a faithful and well trained feline companion? An old human, definitely, reliant upon a stick for balance.
You can’t always trust the evidence.
The cat weaves itself around me and my stick, rubbing against both each time I pause for breath. Marking it and me as property.
I suppose I should be flattered.
‘What are you doing out here all on your own, eh?’
The cat looks well cared for, slightly plump, a healthy gloss to its coat, finely tuned whiskers. Splodges of black form a map of islands in the white fur, complementing a bandit mask around the eyes and that smudge on its nose. Neither old nor young, it makes its own way beside me, stopping when I do, and looking out at the gentle foam pulling further and further away from the beach.
They said that one of the things I might find hard, in the future, was being in crowded places, but in fact it’s deserted places that worry me. If something happens to me here on this beach, for instance, there’s no-one to help. You might ask what could happen on a deserted beach, especially if you stay away from the crumbling cliff, but something can happen anywhere. It doesn’t have to be planned, or done with malicious intent, or spectacular in its form. I could trip over the cat. I could go in one direction and my stick could go in the other, and I wouldn’t be able to get up. I don’t know what time the tide turns, and I don’t know how high up it comes. I could crawl up to the cliff, but maybe the sea comes right up to there. One of those falling rocks might land on my head, and knock me out, and I would drown in the gentle foam. The cat would have long abandoned me.
Of course, if I could crawl up the beach I could crawl to my stick, but perhaps my prosthesis would have been damaged or dislodged and I wouldn’t be able to get up anyway.
I think that’s the thing I miss most. Carelessness. The ability to take safety for granted. The change from the assumption that it won’t happen to me to the assumption that it will.
Of course there’s other things I miss. My right leg below the knee. The hearing in my left ear. The way my eyebrow dipped just so above my left eye, now eradicated by the plastic surgery. But I can walk and I can still hear music and voices, and who gives a fuck about an eyebrow? And as for the rest, at least I’m still here to worry and meticulously plan every move and have nightmares.
But I do miss carelessness.
I miss being able to view the sea, sucking at the sand, as just water and foam, a piece of nature to be admired and treated with a healthy and practical caution, rather than, for a moment, the possible answer to every difficulty. Being able to imagine the feel of cold salt water on my skin as a recreation, rather than as a chill comfort blanket advancing up my body until it shuts out the blue sky and feathery clouds for ever. I miss being able to look up at the crumbling cliff without wondering how I could know, for certain, which would be the weakest point of the edge.
I miss feeling that life is mine for using as I wish. I miss knowing that my life belongs to me, and not to those others who never had the luxury of planning how, or whether, to save or end their lives.
We reach the rocks at the end of the bay. The cat investigates, hops up and looks out towards the horizon. Perhaps I’ll ask Mrs Denning at the pub, who owns the cottage, about it. Perhaps it’s a well-known local character, with a predilection for early morning strolls along the beach. Or perhaps it’s a stranger, lost or left behind, wondering what it should do when darkness comes and the waters rise again.
I tickle its ears and rub under its chin and ask it, ‘What do you think then? Shall we head back? Or not?’
I hear the sea, inhaling and exhaling, and see the feathered sky above the crumbling cliff, and the cat and I look at each other, trying to decide.