First problem – I can’t find the cat. She’s gone off on one of her expeditions next door to retrieve dead leaves. We have leaves in our own garden, of course, but the ones next door are better: they are as long as she is, vaguely tropical looking, and obviously very cumbersome. She likes to go for the oxen-pulling-plough effect, holding one end of the leaf in her mouth and letting the other drag on the ground beside her.
I need the cat because I have the perfect idea for a header image for my blog: I’ll put a pile of books on the floor, encourage the cat to inspect them, then take a photo. I can just see it stretching across the top of the page: a jaunty stack of books on the periphery, the spines an artful combination of faded moroccos, gilt-embossed leather, and bold primary colours. A sprinkling of the perennial Penguin imprint, thus establishing my literary credentials. Fina with her plume-like tail extended and one paw daintily proffered, her dappled tawny coat and the red couch behind her giving the picture a richness and warmth. Genius…
While I wait for the cat to return I start assembling my pile of books. I calculate that around ten books should be about the right height. I comb my shelves, strategically selecting titles which are my favourites, but which also create an impression of erudition and taste. I deliberately choose a mixture of classics and contemporary fiction: Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, Anne Tyler. There are no Australian titles so I add ‘Prelude to Christopher’ and ‘The Man Who Loved Children.’ Then I realise they’re all written by women. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a rampant man-hater so I put in Dickens then change it to ‘Catcher in the Rye’. I also throw in a Nick Hornby to show I’m not a complete ponce. Lastly, I get down T.S. Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’. I feel this constitutes an amusing literary in-joke. (This is the type of gesture I hate myself for.)
I stack the books in a deliberately casual way and look at them through the camera lens: it just doesn’t work. There is far too much olive green. It looks drab and monochrome. I appraise the books again, side on this time. Fina pads in silently while I’m doing this and drops her leaf in front of me. It’s the fifth she’s brought me today and I don’t really have much use for it. ‘What a great leaf – good girl!’ I tell her enthusiastically, then put it in the bin.
I stare at the books a while longer. After a time, I begrudgingly change ‘To the Lighthouse’ for ‘Mrs Dalloway’, which has a crisper, more modern-looking cover. I exchange ‘Emma’ for ‘Sense and Sensibility’ for the same reason. I swap ‘Catcher’ and Dickens round again. Then, although ‘Middlemarch’ is my all-time favourite novel, I get rid of George Eliot altogether: the spines are all so worn and creased that it’s impossible to make out what they say. It still needs some dark tones to create contrast, I decide. I scan my shelves looking for an appropriately coloured spine and finally fix upon ‘The Secret History’ which provides a satisfying wedge of inky black. In the process, my eyes light upon Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’. I have to confess to never actually having finished the book: the spine, however, is gorgeous, with gleaming gold bands and a resplendent indigo coloured peacock. Although it feels like cheating, I put it on the pile too.
Finally, the combination is right. I arrange them all in front of the red sofa, slightly skewing a few of the books to create an impression of careless abandon. I decide the sofa cushions create a distracting line so I drape a decorative Indian shawl over it. Then I add a small brass owl to the top of the pile and a half empty wine glass beside it (I have to open a bottle of wine in order to do this.) The whole process has taken around two hours, but it looks just as I imagined.
But then the next obstacle arises: feline indifference. ‘Fina,’ I coo encouragingly, ‘go and see the lovely books. Aren’t they interesting?’ She disagrees, it seems. They are not interesting at all. In fact, they are boring. She shows no desire to look at them whatsoever and instead goes over to the bookshelf in search of more appropriate reading material. I try to coax her back with both Mousey and Krinkletoy. She feigns a complete lack of concern then charges the pile at the last minute. It falls to the ground and the glass of wine spills on the carpet.
I mop up the wine and carefully reassemble the books, starting to lose my patience. Just at that moment, a moth miraculously lights on ‘Great Expectations’ and Fina wanders over to investigate it. I rush into position, aim the camera – and it suddenly dies. I spend half an hour trying to ‘fix’ it, randomly pressing buttons, threatening it under my breath and slamming it in the kitchen door, when it abruptly flicks back to life. I call Fina over but she’s back at the bookshelf again, absorbed in ‘Crime and Punishment.’ ‘That’s not for cats,’ I tell her sternly, worried that she’s missing the finer subtleties of the plot. She refuses to relinquish it, however, so I give up and start on the bottle of wine instead. Never work with children or animals.