Two strangers, and a black cat

A young girl – about 12 or 13 – stands in a garden proudly holding a cat. The cat is black, a little bit fluffy and has one paw curled in protectively towards the girl’s chest. A second paw rests gently on the girl’s arm. The cat stares right at the camera, its expression catlike, ie inscrutable. The girl’s grin is wide. She is happy. She looks like she’s in the middle of giving the cat a comforting scratch under its chin. Her brown hair is curly, and she wears glasses with the top rim darker than the bottom rim. Her cardigan is dark-coloured but her long check blouse is mostly white, and her pleated skirt is light-coloured too. She is probably wearing ankle socks and t-bar shoes, but the photograph doesn’t show us – so I imagine she does in absence of knowing the truth.

She is in the garden displaying the cat for whoever is taking the photo – someone I don’t know. I don’t know the girl either, as I found the black-and-white photograph at a car boot sale. It was among a pile of other forgotten photos, some bearing the sepia-stains of time. Images that promised me what I love: a glimpse into someone else’s life. If you leave the curtains of your front room windows open at night time I will not look away out of politeness. The yellow light is an invitation: take a peek at how we live our lives.

I can’t remember exactly where the car boot sale was, but I think it was Middleton. I was drawn to this photo because I believed it was taken somewhere in America. It’s most likely from the late 1940s or early 1950s, a postwar era that to me has always held an earthy glamour. As though I forget that this young girl may have lived through a terrible world war. She may barely remember it, perhaps she never paid any attention to the news reports or the radio bulletins. Or maybe her father fought in the war. Maybe her grandfather fought in the war. Maybe her family was forever scarred by it, by loss, by violence, by futility, by anger. Or maybe she knew no one who was connected to it, or she felt that the war was out there somewhere too far away to touch; too far away to be real.

War like this – doesn’t it always feel somewhat unreal? The wet mud of the battlefields, the death-cries, the geysers of earth as shells smash into the ground. The rattle of a tin cup attached to a dirty pack on a teenager’s back. These images all feel purely cinematic. Today I listened to a podcast about Iran and the US, and then another about the European Union, and the rips in the yellow-starred blue flag being torn by far-right groups. With the formation of the EU, out of the unthinkable came an attempt at unity, held together by the belief that if you wade past the anger and distrust you will find all humans want is to be united. But we know that is untrue. Some people fear the other and want to fear the other. They want to wrest power out of some people’s hands, want to inflict violence on their neighbours. Teach them a lesson: You are not like us and I am watching you.

The fact the girl in the photograph is holding a cat makes me wonder why I was so drawn to it that I was willing to spend money – a euro? 50 cent? – on it. I call myself a ‘dog person’, as if it is necessary to uphold a binary when it comes to my emotional attachment to furred creatures. But why do I say I dislike cats and call myself a dog person? I must think it says something about me if I prefer dogs to cats. That one group of four-legged animals is more dear to me than another. That dogs are kinder, softer, milder. More loyal. Not likely to eat my face off if I die in my house with just them locked inside with me. As though a dog would pick up the phone with his left paw and dial 999 and give the correct address.

I have chosen to believe that cats are not like dogs – that cats are cold, that they do not need me, that they will spurn my attempts to love them. That they are worthy of my distrust. But I do not really know what dogs or cats or like; I do know that much of my feelings towards them seem to be driven by how lovable the animal might think I am. By saying that I am a dog person, I am trying to say that I am loving and loyal and deserve an animal like that. That a dog is so pure it will still love me despite my many and varied flaws. Or I might just believe that dogs are stupid and ignore people’s faults and that cats are the smarter ones.

Even though I know all this is most likely bullshit, there’s still some comfort in believing it.

The copy of the photograph of the girl is in a white frame. It’s a copy because I wanted to make some postcard art for my friend V’s exhibition over a decade ago. I took four pieces of card – orange, pink, purple and gold glitter. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I did know one thing: I wanted to bring some colour to this black and white moment. To inject something fantastical into this ordinary shutter-snapped millisecond of the past. The sheets of card were sliced into small strips with a stanley knife, and the strips were laid down to surround the girl and her cat in this order: orange, pink, purple, gold glitter. Like a half-cut wonky rainbow they surround the girl. Rays of strange light shining on her – or emitting from her, take your pick.

A young girl with a multi-coloured aura.

I keep the image framed because I love looking at the stranger’s pose – her happiness, her simple joy. She holds the cat. She smiles. She does not know that this photograph will end up reconstructed by someone she would never meet in another country. And perhaps she would hate what I have done with it. She sits up there, on top of a cabinet I got in a charity shop, overlooking my front room. She smiles and holds the cat. We should have no connection yet we do. Two strangers, and a black cat.


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