’Tis the season to be jolly – or it was until recently. And indeed, at the Allen household this Christmas there was much to be jolly about. My three children did heartwarming things like make eco-friendly paper decorations – from my precious National Geographic back-numbers, as it transpired – and constructed a sort of postmodern (some might say brutalist) dwelling from gingerbread. Together we sought out a cut-price Christmas tree and together we toasted in the new year.
Afterwards we paused, sparing a moment to think of those less fortunate. Which was when someone pointed out that we ourselves are less fortunate than we used to be – because five years ago I’d felt inspired to move us all to the picturesque city of Prague. This turned out to mean exchanging a perfectly decent semi-detached residence in leafy Twickenham for a cramped flat in a district of grouchy chain-smokers – not to mention the 1950s-era local school. But, of course, things could be much, much worse. In fact, they very soon will be.
And to think, it could so easily have been different! But then, just last autumn, we drove off into the countryside to visit Vysocina, the so-called highlands of the Czech Republic. It’s like the Chilterns. The trip sounded especially rewarding because we’d heard that an enterprising villager had converted her garden into a petting zoo. This would be just the place for Beatrice, aged six. And so it turned out: they had donkeys, meerkats – always so adorable with their inquisitive, beady eyes (though from what I remember of the Kalahari they quite often – and without much excuse – resort to eating each other), a lost-looking tortoise, an enthusiastic emu, an owl that didn’t blink and a few other things.
Such as the cat. At first, I took him to be yet another zoo inmate because of his size, tufty ears – and cage. He was housed with those puma-type animals called caracals, which stalked back and forth behind their wire netting. This other cat, though, didn’t appear to mind much. Apparently a Maine Coon – a domestic breed intended for sorting out racoons – he just stared at Natalya, my teenage daughter, all too obviously trying to endear himself to her.
It was then that something quite terrible happened. Perhaps I was distracted by little Beatrice – now insisting on going back to look at the cute meerkat cannibals – but apparently I told Natalya that if ever a pet could cope with lockdown in our pokey flat, it’d be him.
How was I to know that the owner of this admirable menagerie had eight kittens she was trying to get rid of?
One of these is now living with us. My 11-year-old son Freddie (who still from time to time refers wistfully to the life he has foregone in “dear old Twickenham”) said we should name him Raffles, after the wonderful statesman who founded Singapore. But when I advised that actually, in today’s Britain, anyone 19th-century who was white, male and abroad was probably an imperialist, Beatrice suggested Fluffles instead.
In the end, it was Natalya who won out. She wasn’t allowed a horse and it was only fair that the cat had a horse’s name. Thus, as I write this, occasionally reaching for another glass of slivovice – it’s a Czech plumb brandy and Mrs A swears by it – “North” strides about the flat, marking his territory.
“Isn’t he magnificent?” Natalya sighs happily as North pulls down the curtains. Or: “Oh look! Northy is stripping another wall with his sweet little claws.”
“What’s to become of us?” Freddie will say. And Beatrice will add: “He’s already eaten the rug.”
As yet, “Northy” is only a kitten. God knows what will happen when he grows up. Start to demand fresh kills, I expect.
Well, a happy new year to you from a land faraway. And, if it pleases, spare a thought if not for us in 2022, then the neighbours immediately below. Once they only had to put up with me pacing about. Now, they hear the heavy pads of a cat creature as well. He too feels the call of the wild. He too needs more, not less, social distancing.
Time then, for me to go off on another adventure – you heard it here first. It’ll be another desperate lone trek into oblivion; probably someone will decide to rescue me again. But worth it, surely, just to get away. And, if you’re wondering where I’m heading, it won’t be North.
Benedict Allen’s latest book, Explorer, is published by Canongate in March.