I was in Sheffield to visit my friend, [P], a rather unusual young man who I had first encountered on the inaugural day of college. I hadn’t seen him for some time, but I had heard from mutual acquaintances that he had become increasingly isolated; that he was refusing nearly all social offers and instead chose to spend most of his time indoors with a newly acquired, and terribly expensive, cat.
[P] opened the front door with evident reluctance, maintaining a position in the shadows, and thrusting forward, in his stead, the pink nose and stern countenance of Pushkin, his white-haired Devon Rex. It was as though this was, in fact, the cat’s house and that he, Pushkin, wasn’t in the mood for visitors.
“What do you think of my friend?” [P] said. And I was unsure if he was asking me or Pushkin.
“Very nice,” I ventured.
“He ought to be, for the price. Come in.”
[P] withdrew the cat, which had been hovering at face-height, from the crack in the door and ushered me into the hall. Then, still holding Pushkin in front of him like a pot belly, he walked with me silently towards the living room, where he and I sat down. The cat, sensing, perhaps, the awkward atmosphere, wriggled wildly in order to free itself from both its master’s grip and the daunting prospect of the forthcoming conversation. [P], however, held on tight, letting the animal exhaust itself, until finally, with mute acceptance, it settled down on his lap.
I was struck, at this moment, by the nature of this relationship, between the man and the cat, and the disparity in their need for each other. [P] evidently needed the animal as some form of comfort, to divert my, and his, attention from what was really happening in the room, as a crutch during the conversation; the cat, however, did not reciprocate his feelings, it lived, as felines are wont to do, purely for itself, and in service to its own interests.
“Have you ever read The Pilgrim Hawk, [P]?” I asked my host in order to break the ice.
“No. What is it?”
“It’s a book. You read vociferously once.”
He waved his hand in the air, as though warding off evil spirits.
“It is only a slim novel,” I persevered.
“Gah, ok, so tell me about it.”
“There isn’t a lot to tell; I believe that is why some find it inconsequential. It is around 100 pages long. Not enough to get your teeth into, for some.”
“So, why are you mentioning it?”
I stared at the cat, whose brow, although I am sure it must have been an illusion, appeared to be furrowed, suggesting the same kind of irritation and impatience evident in my friend’s voice.
“At one time you wrote reviews for a website called Goodreads, do you remember?”
“Of course I do.”
“And you often included a personal anecdote, in order to illustrate your point.”
“Yes, yes. Get on with it.”
“Well, I would, if I were to write a review of The Pilgrim Hawk, include this, this situation right now; you and me and that cat.”
“The situations are by no means the same, of course. There is, as one would anticipate, not a cat but a hawk in Wescott’s novel.”
The cat was, by this time, staring out of the window, with apparent disinterest. And yet its ears twitched, almost imperceptibly, indicating that it was indeed listening.
“And you think this novel is like us, here, now, because it has a hawk in it?”
There was both triumph and confusion in his voice.
“No. Well, the action, such as it is, largely takes place in a living room, so there is that. I guess one could say in this sense it is more like a play, than a novel. There is a couple, the Cullens, who are the guests, and the narrator and a female friend. Mrs Cullen brings a hawk with her.”
“What about the Cullens?”
“Ah, there is a sense of dissatisfaction, perhaps. In the marriage. Mrs Cullen, you could say, uses the hawk as a way of creating distance, as a way of avoiding speaking to her husband directly. She speaks to him through it, if you know what I mean.”
“Is that all?”
There was that note of triumph and confusion again. The cat closed its eyes.
What I didn’t mention, of course, is that the hawk’s role in the novel was very much like the role played by my friend’s cat that afternoon. The hawk is, for Wescott, multi-functional. It exists as a topic of conversation for the characters; as a spectator, a witness to the uncomfortable events, and almost as a judge; and, ultimately, as a kind of cypher or symbol. The hawk is, in a way, all of the people in the room; it is humanity. Furthermore, it is, for the narrator especially, both a welcome distraction from the tense atmosphere and stilted conversation, and an eerie presence, and source of tension itself.
At this moment the cat began to struggle once again, hoping, one imagines, that he had been forgotten about. My friend, likewise, once more sedated him with vigorous half-strokes, which served, really, as some sort of wrestling hold. I suddenly felt sorry for the defeated animal. The cat, as a lone creature, is, one could say, psychologically, or biologically, stronger than we are, is superior to those of us who need a crutch like a cat, a partner, a friend, or any number of other things. And yet Pushkin’s glum face now betrayed that, at least physically, he did not have the upper hand, and would, so, be forced to suffer the entire afternoon. And I knew just how he felt.