In memoriam.

Fair warning: this is going to be a loaded post.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my precious friend Cate, who took her life just over a year ago. I miss her terribly and confess to having undergone a minor existential crisis in the months following her death. A year on, I suppose I must feel her absence a little less sharply; I no longer reach for my phone every time I think of something I need to tell her or require her opinion on. I’m slowly getting used to the idea that she’s really gone. To make this easier for me to digest, I sometimes tell myself that she’s gone travelling indefinitely and will come back one day. Eventually, I suppose, I’ll be able to tell myself she’s relocated permanently. Obviously I know the first part of this isn’t true, but it’s rather nice thinking of the adventures she could be having. More recently I’ve tried to reimagine this so that instead of gallivanting through this mortal realm, she’s in her own unique heaven.

Because this is a blog about books, I promise it all relates. Fear not; you won’t have to endure my angst through every single word.

It’s funny, I never really thought of heaven much until I started trying to picture Cate there. I don’t know if I even believe in the place, but I hope there is a heaven, and I hope that she is there. She’s not the first person I’ve been close to who’s died yet she certainly seems to be the first I’ve really tried to keep alive in this way. Anyway, in the absence of any knowledge of what heaven might actually be like, if it exists at all, I have inelegantly constructed my own ideas. Drawn from (you guessed it) books.

It’s been a long time since I read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I read it in my pre-note-taking days, and daren’t reread it in case what I can take from my memory of it isn’t there at all. I beg you not to correct me on this if I’m wrong. My memory tells me that the protagonist is in her own heaven, both separate and a part of every other souls’. You can run into other people who have died; the various heavens can intersect. But on the whole, her afterlife is completely her own. Drawing from this, I picture Cate in her own little world, which is possibly the best place for her. Her cat, Button, is there. She has a twelve-string guitar and a massive amp, the noise from which disturbs the neighbouring heavens, which she finds hilarious. And all of this is on a boat.

Not that Cate harboured a particular penchant for boats, you understand. (Please laugh at my pun; this post needs some comic relief.) In fact, I don’t know if she had ever been on a boat in her life. Anyway, she and I were both fans of the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. I remember spending an afternoon discussing it together, and my joy on discovering she was a note-taker too. She wrote down one of my favourite quotes in her little book. There was something particularly poignant in the fact that she wrote it out by hand when she had an iPad right next to her, and I knew then for sure that she was one of us.

Rosencrantz: We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is… not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no, no – what you’ve been is not on boats.

What a novel way to imagine death, and yet I realise I’ve created a paradox here: if death couldn’t possibly be a boat, and Cate is most definitely dead, then it stands to reason she’s not now living it up on an ethereal boat. If she could choose her own afterlife, I’m sure it would be vastly different to my description. At the end of the day, I think the point is that part of me needs to keep part of her alive, and that part of me is able to do so if she’s on a boat.

For all the note-taking she did, she liked to make unsolicited amendments to mine. Without invitation to read what I had written, much less alter it, she once took it upon herself to make her own adjustments to something I had written and carelessly left lying around. Ordinarily I would be pretty unimpressed for someone to do this, but I was heartened by it just this once. I was recently out of a troublesome relationship, and had written a page of disjointed thoughts that no one was ever meant to read. The last line was something like,

“They end. That’s what relationships do; they end.”

Just between “what” and “relationships” was now a caret (upwards arrow ^) and the word “ephemeral.” In purple ink and her familiar handwriting. I think she was telling me we’d be friends forever.

I don’t think either of us knew then how things would turn out. I certainly didn’t know she’d be dead within the year. While I was slightly mortified she had read my private papers, part of me was glad she did, and all of me now is grateful for it. I’m glad she told me our relationship to her was no fleeting thing. I always had the feeling she and I had some history together that just hadn’t happened yet, that there were bigger things in store for us. I really wish I hadn’t been wrong on that one.

Nevertheless, by her own admission, she and I were stuck with each other. Little though she may like it, to me she’s in a heaven based entirely on what I’ve pieced together from unlikely sources. My ideas on the afterlife will no doubt change with what I read in the future while continuing to look for answers, but this pastiche will do me for now. It keeps her alive, it keeps me sane, and if I ever needed any motivation, it keeps me reading.


Catherine Anne Kavanagh: 15 June 1984 – 22 April 2015

Goodbye and hello, beautiful soul. May you return in a longer and happier life.


Something you didn’t know you needed.

Have you ever come across something you were missing, but didn’t know it? This probably happens more often than we acknowledge. I have a particular acquaintance in my life who, for no particular reason, cracks me up. I’ve rarely spoken to her but one look is enough to do it for me; everything about her makes me laugh. Every now and then I take an innocuous photo of her and send it to the BF, and the last three times this has happened, she’s replied with something to the tune of, “Haha! I really needed that. You’re a good friend.” Without sending her the fruits of my covert photography, I doubt she’d know that this was just what she needed to cheer her up. What’s more, little am I to know that this is exactly what’s needed to fill a gap I was otherwise unaware existed. Perhaps it’s simply a combination of good timing and a similar sense of humour, but it makes my day to know I’ve made hers. Big things are sometimes just small things that are noticed, and I’m only too happy to be the conduit for big things that are small.

Most of the time, I find the things I need (but don’t know it) in books. A few years ago, I read When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman for the first time. I must’ve paid closer attention than I gave myself credit for, as it wasn’t until months later that one particular quote jumped out in my memory, and gave me something I was lacking, something I really needed, and may not have found anywhere else. This happens fairly early on in the book and doesn’t spoil anything, so feel free to read on with impunity. Also, it’s a relatively insignificant aside to the main narrative. Please don’t be put off reading my favourite book if violence and courtroom drama don’t do it for you. The scene describes a court case where a rape victim is testifying against her attacker. Despite what she has to say, and never mind what actually happened, the accused’s lawyer does such a good job of tripping up the witness, effectively doing away with any credibility she could previously claim. There was one little line in there that I cannot now quote exactly, but is something like, “by the time he was done with her, she wasn’t even sure of her own name.” Here we fast forward in real life to the first time I had to testify as a witness in a murder trial. (You read that correctly.) As I was compiling in my head a show reel of every episode of Law & Order and Judge Judy I’d seen so as to better prepare myself for testifying and cross-examination, this one quote flickered in a corner of my mind. And from that, I really understood that the defence lawyer was there to discredit me: he was going to try and confuse me on every single detail, so that by the end of my time in the stand, I wouldn’t be sure even of my own name, much less what happened on the night of the crime. Terrified as I was, I kept that line in my pocket, and held up under cross-examination with greater poise and eloquence than I have been afforded in any other situation. The Crown Prosecutor described me as “an awesome witness,” and I did my part in convicting two murderers and seeing them put away for a very long time.

I had no idea how important that quote would be to me until months after I first read it. By consequence, I’ve since made a habit of jotting down passages that make me think twice or evoke a feeling. This actually happens rather a lot, given how many thoughts I dismiss after the first, and the amount of feelings I do my best to ignore. I copied out this quote from Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts:

“Fate gives all of us three teachers, three friends, three enemies, and three great loves in our lives. But these twelve are always disguised, and we can never know which one is which until we’ve loved them, left them, or fought them.”

In this instance, I’m pretty sure I took note of this quote because it’s the kind of thing I wish I had come up with myself. In fact, this one reason doubtlessly goes a long way to explaining why my “little green book” is as full as it is. Regardless, I was feeling particularly despondent one night, regretting my poor taste in men and the subsequent heartache. Wishing I had never met the now-ex-boyfriend in the first place, considering how much happier and simpler my life had been before I ever met him, I thumbed across this quote. I chewed it over for a little while to see how it tasted. I swallowed it down to see how it felt. And by the time this passage had run its course, I realised there was something in there for me. Sure, I had made some pretty lousy decisions lately. Certainly I had done some loving, leaving and fighting. Maybe I could’ve foreseen how this was going to end, but it was in the loving, leaving and fighting that I learned to tell the enemy from the love, the teacher from the friend. Actually it was in the revisitation of the above quote, but it didn’t mean anything to me on its own. Good old Greg Dave Robs gave me exactly what I was missing. And again, he told it to me years before I heard it, long before I needed it.

However, like going into an op-shop and looking for a pair of size ten jeans, you’re never going to find it until you stop looking. I recently became convinced that there was something hidden inside The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence, something that would really speak to me, something I needed and just didn’t know it yet. I didn’t know what it was, but felt sure I’d know it when I saw it. I had a whole blog post in mind for it, I just needed this one crucial example, and I was sure I was about to find it. I have a perfectly logical explanation for this: my local library had a copy, and nobody knew where it was. It was allegedly on one of eight uncategorised spinning shelves, and every time I went to the library, I made sure to look for it. I checked every one of those spinners closely no fewer than four times, to no avail; the book didn’t want to be found. I chose to be philosophical about it rather than annoyed. Sure, I wanted to read this book, but the fact that I couldn’t must simply mean that there was something in there I wasn’t ready for, something I would fail to appreciate, something I was going to need, and if I came across it now would surely be missed. The book would present itself when I was ready, and not a moment sooner. After about a month I realised this philosophical attitude was but a thin veil over my impatience. Of course the universe wasn’t going to spring a gift on me when I was truly deserving. When has that ever happened? There are times when you have to sit back and wait for things to come to you, but in my experience these are few and far between, and generally take some requisite groundwork. Most of the time, I believe, you have to actually do something in order to get what you want. Philosophy was getting me nowhere.

Luckily for me, the price of said book had by now fallen enough for me to afford to buy it. Maybe this was the divine act of providence I had been waiting for? Either way, I bought and read it immediately, on the lookout all the way for something that would rock my little world. I reached the end with an unsettling sense of disappointment; like the size ten jeans, I hadn’t found it. And I had been all set to write a blog post about the universe providing personal literary game-changers! I began to think that maybe I had missed something, so went back to it. And what do you know, as I went over some of the quotes I had jotted down, a shape began to emerge. And I found it. It was small, but it was there (big things being small, and all that) and I refer now to an Extence quote I had taken down in the first reading: “Every so often the universe offers you a gift, and when that happens, you’d be a fool to refuse it.”

Want to know what it is?

Sorry guys, but I’m keeping this one to myself; suffice to say it’s like missing out on the size tens only to find you actually fit into an eight, and there’s a whole wrack of those. I hadn’t realised what I wanted to say until I read the post-script, which begins with, “You have a choice about what you put into the public domain.” As soon as I decided I wasn’t going to share this poignant little pearl with the internet, I realised what it was. Maybe I’ll tell you one day.

But only when you’re ready.


Postscript: Within hours of this post going live, I began rereading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows. What should I find but this little treasure:

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers… How delightful if that were true.”