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10 January 2024

I would never harm a spider, but a persistently miaowing cat…

My first night of the year was sleep-deprived torture. It was not the most auspicious start to 2024.

By Pippa Bailey

On the first night of 2024, I was tortured by a cat. Some former neighbours of mine are spending their Christmas break abroad, and wanted someone to look after their house – and cat – while they were away. I thought it might be nice to be back in my old neighbourhood, more specifically to be back within sensible walking distance of my two favourite bakeries. I also thought it might be nice to pretend to be rich for a few weeks, since the house is a four-floor Victorian terrace owned – and extensively renovated – by an architect. (The giveaways, for this architect’s daughter: a liberal smattering of the Artline pens my father won’t be without, and a print of the roof terrace at Marseille’s Hôtel Le Corbusier, to which we once paid a sort of family pilgrimage.)

The cat and I were getting on just fine, until, for reasons that will soon appear in a clickbait YouTube video about the world’s greatest mysteries, we weren’t. I took myself off to bed at 10pm on New Year’s Day, having been up until 3am that morning – thanks not to a wild party, but to it taking two hours to travel the seven miles between Kingston and Acton due to the shambolic efforts of TfL. The cat didn’t like this uncharacteristically early bedtime (I am more often to be found watching Criminal Minds until midnight), and took to miaowing outside the bedroom door. At 10.35pm I texted M—: “He’s got to give up and go downstairs at some point, right?” Reader, he did not.

It was quite exquisite torture. I cannot have slept more than three, significantly broken hours. The extensive renovations to the Victorian house, I now notice, involved removing all doors but those on bathrooms and bedrooms. Open-plan living means there is nowhere to shut away a cat that does not feel excessively punitive. (In effect, I shut away myself instead.) It also has an overly designed lighting system, which involves a panel of approximately 12 switches, each indistinguishable from the next, every three metres of wall. At one point, dragged from bed to check that the cat had enough food, that the cat-flap hadn’t somehow closed itself, to fruitlessly howl WHAT DO YOU WANT, and reluctant to begin another light switch battle, I felt my way down in the dark. Not even the rude impact of the inevitable fall that followed, nor the tears that immediately sprung forth, could shock The Demon Miaower into silence.

How strong the effects of oxytocin must be, I found myself wondering, that a parent can so completely love a baby amid such sleep deprivation, night after night. By 4am I had half a mind (the other half had long since shrivelled and died) to throw the cat from the window – though of course they are famously able to survive falls of great height. And also, I, a long-time vegetarian, cannot bring myself to harm a spider, let alone someone else’s cat. Still, I would have confessed to that crime, or any other, just to make it stop.

The following night the cat appeared to have forgotten the whole sorry experience. On the other hand it took me, rendered anxious by every solitary miaow, several hours to soothe myself to sleep. It was not the most auspicious start to 2024.

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I have never committed particularly enthusiastically to marking the new year by laying out hopes or resolutions. But this year my enthusiasm for making plans – once an energising prospect – seems much diminished. I wonder if this is because there is simply less that is new, and less time for what newness there is, as one grows older, or because I have become a hopelessly pessimistic person. The idea that this year might contain any of the milestones that mark the passing of time for many of my peers – home ownership, marriage, children – seems laughable. I hope, mostly, for subsistence, and perhaps fewer house moves.

My social media feeds are full of people sharing their “ins” and “outs” for the year ahead – what they want more of in 2024, and what they want to leave behind in 2023. I can only manage this: out, cats; in, sleep. The rest, I suppose, we will discover together.  

[See also: My reckoning with charismatic Christianity]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously