Kimba is dying. Our last Siamese. Her bones want to escape her skin and yet she is still here, still mewing for us, still loving us. She lies warming herself in front of the fire, and when I lift my eyes beyond her, there is the garden and the water. Her younger, stronger self runs across the grass. Fetches mice and voles and slow worms that I rescue if I can.
She is readying to move on, and when she does, one more stitch will come undone from this place.
My nana’s house, the jetty down to the water, the lights of Portsmouth and the birds, the birds, the birds. I would be lying if I said I knew what I had, as a child. John and I wasted far too many days lying on the sofas watching Cartoon Network. The outdoors had to sneak itself in – there was a bird that I often heard, never saw or never looked for, that gave a rising song. Like the voice of the mud. Years before I realised it was a curlew, and that in most other places in England, you were lucky to hear it.
The brief summer was for crabbing. Orange plastic wound with a length of black nylon, which had a small heavy metal ring tied to the end. The surest bet to catch a crab was to toss the ring into the half-sunken car tyre beside the jetty. Sometimes, now, my foot finds it as I wade in to swim. We caught quite a few little crabs, John and I (okay, mostly John). We gawped as they held aloft their pincers in silent outrage, then let them go. Once I announced that I would sit on the jetty and use my feet as bait, and the universe must have been in a humouring mood that day because one of them actually did crawl out of the water to seize upon my toe.
When John got interested in fishing for bass instead, our reign of terror over the crabs ended. We gave the jetty to the swans who brought their cygnets every year, with the cats staring wide-eyed at birds bigger than them. The bone-yellow-white reeds scuttled in the wind. The moored boats turned towards the incoming tide, and turned their backs on the sea when it left.
Nana left too.
Chichester became a weekend home, though still Nana’s home, still scented with her. I can’t remember when I moved to her old bedroom, but it must have been the summer my dad, her son, almost died. A boat propeller in Majorca. If a life is a thread whose fine line occasionally scribbles into giant knots, then that summer is one of them. For all of us. My weekend bedroom became Daddy’s convalescing room. Nurses came every day to change the dressings on his torn-apart-put-back-together arm. Something they used – I don’t know what, some ointment or antiseptic – left a smell, a kind of absence-smell, that I’ve never met since, hope I never will. The house belonged to that smell, that summer. The garden was our escape. Sun pouring down on the rosebushes and the lavender, gratefully buzzing with bees. Cut grass, Spitfires from Goodwood barrel-rolling overhead. In the far left corner of the lawn is where The Daily Telegraph took a photo of us four, Daddy and John and Maman and I, for their feature on his accident and recovery, surgeon’s arm almost cut off, saved by his son… Simba’s in that one, clutched in John’s arms – a lovely boy Siamese we lost way too soon, even though his death led to us getting Kimba.
Daddy ran marathons. The accident dropped him to the depths. He clawed his way back up. He took long walks along the waterside, and sometimes he dragged me along, which I complained about. A lot. The universe is funny. A charity trek to Everest Base Camp about eight years later was my epiphany, converting me to the outdoors. Off the sofa, onto the muddy fields in trainers, muscles reshaping with their newfound power. The universe is a bit of a shit. I got diagnosed with arthritis, gradually my body denied me the joy of running.
Walking. I walked. I cried as I walked, sometimes, because the pain was getting worse. Until it got a bit better. Right now we’re in a ceasefire, the disease and I. I don’t know for how long, but I will walk until I can’t anymore. Might be five years. Might be fifty.
I hope Chichester will keep its treasures till then, and longer. Most of what I know about nature, I learned here. The woodpecker’s idiosyncratic bobbing as it flies. The way a kestrel pins itself to the lower sky. The gossipy burbling of starlings. The seals, returning.
The mudflats stage twice-daily dramas, bird feet tattooing their skins until the next tide. Brent geese, shelducks, the curlews, sift and pluck. When crows are walking the long communal jetty, the one after ours, watch them – if they jump into the air, hover, and fall back down, check with your binoculars. See them release small shells from their beaks, alternating the heights at which they drop them, experimenting. I hope they do it for years to come. I hope this place is still full of life a century on from now, after the Greenland ice sheets are gone.
Saturday 14th December, 2019. Twilight. I walk to the marina, to see which yachts have Christmas lights stringing their masts. On the way back, when the sky is letting go of its last blue glow, I stop under a big oak tree. Many years ago an au-pair had to yank me out of the mud at its feet, can’t remember if I got the wellie back.
I look up into the tree, branches almost fully bare. In the gentle wind, each of those branches pulse, wave, sway in their own private rhythm. Like I’m looking at them through water. Like the oak is in the sea.
A rustle. A movement. I drop my gaze. A quite-large shape hovers by the hedge. A second more, and it dashes away. Fox or roe deer – either is a gift.
I go home. I go back to watching the small rise and fall of Kimba’s chest. In, out, in, out. For now, she is still here. Still loving us.