The Kettle

A Dark Tale of Cats and Kettles

In the time of Covid, small adventures are the order of the day.  On Wednesday, I finally bought an electric kettle from Best Buy (in the U.S) and it arrived yesterday!  I had been using a traditional English kettle heated on the stove since 1995….and it finally got completely limed up, the whistle broke, and it became clear it was worn out.  It was my second such kettle.  I threw it away and decided to go all out with an electric kettle.  One might ask why I left it so long, but I prefer to buy good quality items in the first place and repair as needed, before throwing things out.  Further, it would have been difficult to budget for an electric kettle on the postdoc stipends of the 80s and 90s.  Faculty salaries were not much better.

My old kettle had a story.  In 1995, when I was on the faculty at The Lab, I had a roommate, J.H, a postdoc with L.M.  J was from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and she moved into one of my many spare bedrooms with her cat, Jake, a villain if ever there was one…..  She lived with me for about a year and we got along well. 

J was dark and quite overweight. She was a vegetarian, but like a lot of English people at that time, was not really good at surviving on vegetables as she didn’t know how to cook.  She would cover everything in piles of grated cheese as she needed the extra protein, but didn’t know how to cook eggs, dal, or bean curd in interesting or appetizing ways.  Consequently, she put on weight.  I grew up eating South Indian vegetarian food and am a good cook, but she didn’t learn anything useful from me.  

She was also messy because she would invariably slop tea on the staircase, taking her morning cuppa to her room, and left tomato sauce stains from pizza on the armchairs.  She refused to eat sitting at my table and preferred to do so watching TV in the living room.  I didn’t mind that much, but I had a hard time getting the tea and tomato sauce stains out of the woodwork and upholstery-which was new.  I often wondered whether dance lessons would have done J good as she didn’t seem to know where she ended and the world began.

I discovered we were BOTH graduates of the University of Leicester for our first degrees and we had BOTH even lived in the same dorm, College Hall, but ~ 10 years apart! How strange is that? In X.Y of all places!  It was a revelation comparing notes about our respective generations in College Hall.  J had scars and anger, but I could relate because I too have both, deeply gouged and unhealed.  While still in her late 20s, she had lost many friends to AIDS whereas I did not know anyone who had AIDS.  

My generation in dorm in the mid 1970s experimented with booze and sex – the topic of complaint among my girlfriends was STDs, because men are pigs.  We drank beer and did pub crawls but that was the extent of our turpitude.  

As an Indian, I was in any case a mere spectator.  Strictly brought up, I didn’t participate, I watched from the sidelines.  If was difficult for me to even enter a pub and order a port and lemon….  I was terrified my Mum might walk in at any moment and drag me away.  It took years to get over this feeling.

J’s friends, much to my horror, were shooting up in College Hall!  They did not use clean needles and that seems to be how they were exposed to HIV.  It was so sad, yet it cast an interesting light on the changes in student life between the mid 70s and the mid 80s.  I was amazed when I heard this.  I went to university to work hard, get my degree, and have a successful career, not shoot up illegal drugs.  To her credit J got a good degree and completed her PhD, ending up at The Lab.

J carried a great deal of anger and bitterness over her father’s death, which happened when she was a child.  He had died in an industrial accident – I think he may have been a coal miner – leaving her mother a single parent with two small children.  Times had been difficult, but Mrs. H consoled herself with the thought that surely, surely, she would receive some compensation for losing her husband in this way.  Compensation came – a meager four or five thousand pounds.  As J put it “That was what my Father’s life was worth in the eyes of his employer.  A few thousand pounds”.  I would have felt bitter too and I sympathized with her.

Jake the cat was a character in his own right.  A large black Tom, he loved only J and wasn’t terribly friendly to me.  We tolerated each other.  I referred to him as The Lodger.

Alas he didn’t pay rent….  Periodically J would feed him catnip and he had a bad reaction to it, going completely berserk, scratching and biting us, spreading the catnip around, rolling bodily in it, and tearing up my carpets.  He once got into a bag of it that she put on the downstairs bathroom floor and he spread it everywhere!  This annoyed me as it was my house and J didn’t offer to repair the damage.  I often think the animals we keep reflect who we are as people and Jake – I thought at the time and still do – Jake reflected some of J’s inner darkness around the subject of drugs.

After J completed her postdoc, she returned to England.  She found Jake a new home before she left.  Much as I love cats, I didn’t want one with a personality like that.  However, he was rumored to have turned over a new leaf and become a much more mellow and affectionate creature, probably because he was not given any catnip….. but maybe also because his new person was kinder and softer and that was what he now reflected.  J left a lot of other stuff behind, including her kettle, which I adopted and only finally threw out on Wednesday…..

I stayed in touch with her until the winter of 1997, when I was supposed to see her in London, but had to cancel our meeting at the last minute as it was on that trip that my Father died…  After that we lost touch.  I have often wondered what she is doing now but have failed to discover what.  I don’t think she is doing research any longer as she often talked about returning to university to study clinical psychology.  She was a perennial student.  A month or so ago, I asked the University of Leicester Alumni Association if they knew where she might be, but they couldn’t track her down either.  Sometimes people do not want to be found.  Sometimes they disappear into the darkness from which they emerged, for a while, in the light.  I like to stay in touch with everyone I have known, because I have moved a lot, am good at networking, very loyal, and love my friends, but not everyone feels the same way as I do.  It makes me sad.  So.  It was finally time for a new kettle.

Sandya Narayanswami – 2021

The Kettle
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