Michael Harding: The General gripped a skewer of lamb between his teeth and sucked all the meat in

He didn’t want to hear about my sick cat. But, for me, animals are spiritual beings embodied in flesh

I met the General in Dublin. He was up for the Christmas shopping.

“I take the train from Mullingar,” he explained. “So I can come anytime with the travel pass.”

He’ll be in town again this week to attend a performance of the Messiah in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

“I love that building,” he declared. “Where Swift is buried. And of course he was aware of Handel, although the good doctor knew as much about music as a donkey.”


We were enjoying a platter of rolled vine leaves stuffed with rice in the Rotana City cafe on Parnell Street. And all I wanted to talk about was my cat.

“He’s sick,” I explained.

A minor irritation according to the General, but for me, who sees cats as precious companions, it was a huge issue.

The General swallowed a lump of pastry stuffed with spinach.

“Can we talk about something else?” he pleaded.

“But I love my cat,” I insisted. “When I was ill he sat on my lap and kneaded my wounded belly. When I was depressed he looked at me like he knew I was suffering and wanted to heal me.”

“So what’s wrong with him?”

“He’s bleeding from the anus,” I said.

The General spewed out flecks of spinach all over the table.

“For God’s sake man,” he said, “you need to have him put down.”

He lifted an olive with thumb and forefinger and dropped it on his tongue like he was George Ludvig of Hanover.

The previous week I had been reading Julian of Norwich, a woman mystic who loved cats, so I stood my ground. “We all have souls,” I argued, “including my pussy.” A declaration that caused the General to swallow an olive so suddenly that it went into his tubes and induced a ferocious fit. Even the waiter came over to inquire if he was okay.

“Are you entirely mad?” the General asked me. But there was no point in trying to share my worldview with him. He was splattering hummus with a knife on to his bread, on to the plate and on to the table – a sure sign of irritation.

For me, animals are spiritual beings embodied in flesh. Cats and all the wild badgers and birds around the house have their own space in my metaphysical world.

“Eat some hummus,” the General insisted, having regained his composure, although there was more hummus on the table than was left in the dish. Then he gripped a skewer of lamb between his teeth and sucked all the meat in as he pulled the skewer out like the bow of a violin.

“The beauty of a cat,” I told him, “is that behind his eyes is another kind of consciousness that we know nothing about. But it’s as complete to the cat as my conscious enjoyment of life is to me. And his gaze is comforting.”

“For Jesus’ sake,” the General hissed, “will you stop blathering!”

He threw down his napkin and went to the toilet.

“It’s all guff,” he declared when he returned. “Cats don’t have souls and there are no ghosts lurking in the corner of the room.”

The General’s head was always imposing – a dome not unlike the cranium of some great librarian, although at other times it just reminds me of a skull sitting on a phrenologist’s shelf.

“I had my hair cut last week by a Palestinian barber,” I said. “His father is a general in one of the camps in Lebanon.”

But he wasn’t listening. He mopped up the last few crumbs of a cake, swallowed a glass of tea in one gulp and made a final declaration.

“There is nothing in the universe with a soul. When we listen to music our brains are stimulated. That’s all. When I think of Swift buried in the cathedral, I think not of a ghost or spirit or any echo of divinity. I think of naught but the black bones of a man whose heart was lacerated by savage indignation. There is nothing else.”

And with that we ended our Christmas lunch.

That was two weeks ago. But this morning I thought about Jonathan Swift again, imagining him still haunting the vaulted elegance of the cathedral. A ghost perhaps among the flickering shadows tonight, when the choir heralds in Christmas with the music of angels.

Sadly I won’t be there. But I’ll be thinking of the General as I listen to the Messiah on Spotify, with my sick cat. Because I’ve heard that cats too are comforted by Handel’s music.