Jasper

One month ago, my cat went missing. Spoiler: we found him again.

Jasper is a ten month old Norwegian forest cat. His interests include chasing bottle caps, biting arms and exploring outside. We’ve grown used to it, maybe out of necessity; the alternative involves one restless kitten and many destroyed curtains.

Curtains were the least of our worries the day he disappeared.

I returned home one evening to a missing person’s investigation. According to my family, Jasper hadn’t been seen since the morning. Not totally unusual – he disappears for hours at a time most days, in the afternoon squeezing back through his cat flap. It was only five o’clock, wouldn’t he skip back home later, fluffy orange tail aloft?

Nerves frayed as afternoon became evening. We scanned the area like a scouting party, but Jasper had indeed vanished. For a bright ginger cat, he was awfully good at it.

Our minds reached straight for the worst.

Was he just lost somewhere, otherwise perfectly fine? No, he was lying in a bloody mess with a broken leg, obscured by rough undergrowth and eternally hidden.

Or maybe, as a pedigree cat boasting luscious orange locks, he’d been stolen. His penchant for attacking arms should have prevented this possibility.

What if he’d been run over? It wasn’t inconceivable – one cat my parents owned before I was born suffered this fate on the same road. Jasper knew his green cross code…right? The anxiety was such that we struggled to eat dinner, sitting helpless knowing he was out there somewhere.

Under a darkening late winter sky, we continued searching. I must have walked the same route three or four times, certainly living up to one definition of insanity. I’m sure I looked pretty daft, carrying a tube of cat treats in one hand and a jangly rabbit toy in the other, shaking them while timidly calling his name into the icy air.

At least it was a familiar route, one I’d grown up with. But now something about it seemed odd, unnatural…profound.

Accidental profundity is something I’ve experienced several times. The sudden shifting of perspective into something which screams profound in some untouchable manner. What were those petty human problems you valued so much? Don’t they all seem so insignificant? You may have had this feeling yourself, and I’m sure I’ll experience it multiple times into the future as the spectre touting my own mortality and cosmic insignificance grows ever larger.

Maybe it’s a form of mid-life crisis.

It’s a watery, philosophical feeling, a less powerful cousin of the Overview Effect. The London Underground gives me this feeling. I know, it sounds weird.

The white, once ultramodern walls of the underground have grown grey with time, mouldy, taunting past generations’ hubris in thinking they could tame inherently disorganised phenomena. These were structures built to evoke a future still frustratingly out of reach.

Cynicism, wonder, despair and apathetic contentment all rolled into one. Plus part mid-life crisis.

I’ve had this intangible feeling before. Last year, my time at secondary school (high school for any Yanks reading) ended. As someone who fears change, leaving behind five years of my life destroyed me. My school held a “Last Day”, more ceremonious than anything since it would continue for several weeks after with revision lessons before exams.

The day was…eventful – everybody wrote good luck messages on each other’s shirts, I played my own arrangement of Life on Mars in an assembly (later refined and uploaded here), and some idiot let off a flare and was expelled. Following the assembly, we were released from the hall, trickling out of the school grounds for the “last time” (that wasn’t really the last time).

Students and teachers crowded outside the building, with tearful goodbyes and frequent photo-taking. I wanted my own, but – gasp! – I’d lost my phone. After rattling through my backpack in mounting levels of panic, I returned to the hall in case I’d dropped it there, and accidental profundity struck.

By that point, the hall was deserted save for my reverberating footsteps. Fervent chatter continued outside, though so muffled it felt like the other end of the universe.

I was alone. Sunlight floated inside through the windows I’d known for years, illuminating rows of seats which moments ago held the whole school year. Now they gone, years of their life reduced to memories as they moved onwards and upwards.

There was a beautiful if unnerving serenity to the scene, like something out of Life of Pi (excluding the tigers). Time, the demonic tyrant who had robbed me of this place, these people, these experiences, slowed. A rare act of temporal mercy.

Why was I here again? Ah yes, to find my phone. Man, how could I have ever gotten so worked up over an insignificant problem like that when the forces of the universe paid it no attention? Leaving school and moving on, that too was suddenly trivial.

The passage of time was the true ruler here. Every sensation and possession we hold dear could go extinct in an instant at the hands of a passing asteroid, and the universe would continue unaware that we’d ever existed, or ever felt the emotions we hold in such high esteem.

It could be this instant. Or this one. All our reality: poof, gone.

Oliver, you’re getting too grandiose. Stop it.

It was me and the school, alone, a final goodbye before the inevitable departure. Every moment spent in the hall, even the dreary parts, smashed into my mind at great speed. This wasn’t my last encounter with the hall, but it felt like it. Nothing could have prepared me for such an accidentally profound departure.

As it turned out, my phone wasn’t in the hall. It was of course my own stupidity – in all the chaos I’d forgotten stashing the phone in my pencil case during the assembly. So I did find it, and re-entered the ordinary world.

I would return to the hall a couple more times, mostly for exams, which don’t exactly carry the same intoxication. The last visit came in November at the exam certificate presentation for the previous year’s students.

And, what do you know, I played piano for that too. La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin that time. Yes, even as an ex-student they were roping me in for performances.

After the exams came the summer holiday (American translation: summer vacation): two and a bit months of nothing, punctuated by the odd college introductory day and a brief trip to California.

There was something else too…what am I forgetting?

Oh yeah, the worst day of my life.

Jasper is still a kitten (in nature if not in size), adopted in August. We used to have another cat before him.

Her name was Polly. She was lazy, demanding, unimpressed, all the feline stereotypes, but we loved her. She was a character, even as she grew old and decrepit. Sometimes she even loved us back. Sometimes.

Pet owners should skip a few paragraphs ahead.

Polly was in ill health for the second half of her life. She had a malfunctioning liver, suspected arthritis, a heart problem, and was blind in one eye. She soldiered on regardless. She spent most of her time sleeping, enjoying the sun whenever it cared to shine in drizzly England. She loved to sleep on our patio in bright weather, eyes closed as she listened to the world go by. And if it was raining, she’d sit outside the door, see us open it, wonder why on Earth we’d opened it, and continue sitting in the rain scowling at us for being so irritating. We named the dry patch she left the Polly patch.

In the weeks after I finished school, her health went further downhill. By then she was seventeen, a good age for a cat; though we never discussed it, all of us knew she didn’t have much longer.

I wasn’t prepared for the day she died.

She’d wanted to go outside to roll around the patio as usual earlier in the day. My struggle to find the door keys took too long for her short attention span and she waddled off. Neither of us knew it, but she’d never have that chance again.

Like every ordinary night, I was reading in bed. I remember the book: How Not to Write a Novel is an otherwise brilliant satire of amateur authors’ most common mistakes, now plagued by a terrible curse in my mind. Just look at the cover.

Late in the evening, my Dad walked in. He told me Polly wasn’t well.

After several failed attempts to mentally reconcile this statement without coming to the conclusion I didn’t want to, I followed him downstairs.

In the centre of the living room carpet, Polly lay breathing heavily in clear distress. It sounded like purring, but the tension of her body revealed pain. I wanted to stroke her one last time, but I was already too upset to have control of my actions. The greatest regret of my life is choosing not to.

My parents scooped her into her carrier box, where she started panicking, her breaths still sounding like purrs. I did have the sense to put my finger through the grating, which she rubbed against reverently. It was the last physical contact we’d ever have. With my sister and I doing everything we could not to bawl our eyes out, my parents left, taking Polly to the vets. My sister ran upstairs, leaving me alone in the pitch-black living room to which our cat would never return. Closing my eyes to escape did nothing – it just made everything even darker.

There was a chance she’d come home, but given her age and other ailments an operation would have killed her too. As the minutes ticked by, this last sliver of hope disintegrated.

We later discovered she’d died of a lung puncture, with fluid from the rest of her body filling her breathing apparatus to generate the “purring”. She was gone, and how I found sleep that night is one of the mysteries of the universe.

The next day was soul-destroying. Everywhere I looked I expected to see a brown furry lump curled up contentedly, but no, that wouldn’t happen anymore. I spent the day watching films. Pixar’s Up was a mistake. Life of Pi was even worse, for obvious reasons.

I still think about those two days every so often. I have to actively avoid media referencing the death of cats, and don’t get me started on Stephen King’s lung puncture story in On Writing (in fairness my response there was the product of squeamishness more than anything). A fit of remembered emotion hit me the morning of the day I got my exam results, the same day I found out we’d be getting a kitten.

That day was a ridiculous emotional rollercoaster, for those reasons and a load more. I should write about it sometime.

So what does any of this have to do with Jasper?

As I strode around town at night, ringing bells and calling for Jasper as my voice croaked, I remembered that day more vividly than ever. I was determined not to let it happen again.

I’d woken up early to watch the Australian Grand Prix the previous day. Jasper, confused by my presence at such a time in the morning, decided to jump on my lap and knead my chest, purring incessantly and rubbing his nose against my face. This memory too spun around my mind as I pleaded to the heavens not to leave me with only memories.

It was late now, about eight o’clock. Still I searched for him, losing hope. These familiar domains, so innocent and entrenched in my life in daylight, now held an aura of other-worldliness. This was accidental profundity. Every other problem in my life vanished in the overwhelming helplessness of it all. I just wanted Jasper back.

I grew irrational, searching beyond the usual routes. Mere metres from my house I found places I’d never been before. That messed with my head – all those known locations bordering the unknown, as if I’d stepped into a different country right beside my home.

I explored further, now surely known throughout the neighbourhood as the crazy treat-shaking, bell-ringing boy.

I made it to a bridge over the motorway. He’d never have gone so far, and there was little hope for him being safe if he had. Streaks of car headlights blurred past below, the lives of the world’s countless extras in the narrative of my life, and the protagonists in the countless stories where I’m merely an extra. I reached the other side of the bridge before I realised how stupid I was being, so turned back.

My body language must have reeked of indecision, for as I strode back over the bridge, a man on a bicycle careered past and told me not to jump.

I still don’t know whether he was being sincere or taking a thuggish jab at me. Since traffic on the motorway continued to flow as normal for the rest of the world, that man will know I didn’t, whatever his intention. I needed to get home.

At around ten o’clock, following hours of anxious waiting as my Dad conducted more expeditions into the wilderness of a largely middle-class town in Hampshire, we found hope. My Dad returned and said he could hear Jasper’s chirps but couldn’t pinpoint his location.

Was it him? Could it be?

Hope. How foreign it was to our shattered minds.

We didn’t know his situation at the time. He could have been lying in the foliage, crying for help with a fatal injury.

Another foray by my parents discovered his true location: a tree.

Not only that, I must have passed the tree at least four times that evening in various states of desperation. Had I thought to look, I might have seen an orange blob stuck in the branch of the far-off foliage from my bedroom window.

I was told to stay put as the rest of my family left with ladders and milk to tempt him down. When this failed, they decided to leave him up there and call the fire brigade in the morning. He was ok, that was what mattered.

I wanted to see for myself, to know beyond doubt it wasn’t a cruel illusionary trick by a malicious deity. I left the house and started down the road, with directions from my parents to his tree.

There was something at the end of the road. A trick of the eye, an impossible blur, a grey blob on grey tarmac in the grey night distinguishable only in the slightest of deviations from grey…orange.

Oh for God’s sake…

After spending at least four hours trapped in a tree, Jasper was now bounding down the road towards me five minutes after we’d abandoned him.

What a prick. What a beautiful, beautiful prick.

Night still obscured the buildings, the trees, everything; like a sentient alien world it stared inward, probing the depths of my mind. It didn’t matter, Jasper was back. He meowed at me, clean and high-pitched, and still I dared not believe it. Only when the familiar sight of a skipping cat with a tail gleefully held high approached did I fully comprehend the situation.

I struggled to contain my emotions as we strolled home, two insignificant silhouettes in the celestial interplay of night.

In one afternoon, I’d had my heart and head torn to pieces, my mind wracked by memories of old, and was told (not to) jump off a bridge by a random guy in an unfamiliar location. Coming so close to losing another victim of the inevitable passage of time was a harrowing experience, but life continued. The sun still rose and all that.

The next morning, I walked to the bus stop up the same road. Now in broad daylight it felt eerie, profound, important. The feeling has since waned, but it’s jarring to remember the same place as seen through a different perspective. Jasper, shaken by his torment, wisely decided to spend the day indoors.

Did anything really change? Accidental profundity is a harrowing but fleeting experience. In its wake you forget the impact it has on you, only to be rekindled the next time something flicks the switch in your brain. Though it does make you ask, and even attempt to answer, the big questions.

Someday, Jasper, you, me and the entire universe will be nothing more than a colossal mush of decayed particles and black holes. Unless the last question can be answered, the heat death will destroy everything we’ve ever held dear.

Or, you know, we could be wiped out by a passing asteroid.

The human condition is about worrying how best to spend the time until that happens. Is it all really pointless? Who knows, let’s watch Life of Pi and marvel at the beauty of all this pointlessness with our stupid monkey brains instead.

Invent your own reason to exist. The world can be amazing and horrifying. Appreciate the amazing parts, even the accidental spouts of minor profundity, and hopefully you’ll avoid a dull waltz through the cosmic doldrums.

And Jasper: never go missing again, you bloody nightmare.