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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Seductiveness Of Cigarettes and Coffee - The Cat's Table

So in The Cat’s Table, is one of the memories that the narrator has about his younger self a memory of sexual awakening—the time when he got it on with his older cousin Emily?

When he was eleven, and she was seventeen?

Read on, you rascals.

Emily de Saram was Michael’s distant cousin and confidante who lived next door to Michael’s family in Sri Lanka. She was also traveling on the Oronsay to England in order to finish school but has kept away from the boyish Michael and his cohort.

“By the time Emily came on board the Oronsay, I had not seen her in two years…She was seventeen years old and school had, I thought, knocked some of the wildness out of her.”

We’ll see about that.

Michael the older fellow writes, very close to the younger Michael:

“I woke the next morning without the usual desire to meet with my friends…I tried to remember the cabin number for Emily, who was never an early riser, and I went there…I knocked a couple of times before she opened the door, clad in a dressing gown.

I stayed with her all morning. I do not know why I was confused about things. I was eleven. One doesn’t know much then…I was lying beside her on the bed, holding one of her unlit cigarettes, pretending to smoke, and she reached over and turned my head towards her.

Don’t,” she said. “I mean, don’t tell anyone about this—”

“So began a tradition between us. That I would at certain moments of my life tell Emily things that I would not tell others. And later in our lives, much later, she would talk to me about what she had been going through. All through my life, Emily would be distinct from everyone I knew…

“When the steward arrived, I met him at the door, and when he left I brought the tray over for her. She half sat up and then remembered the robe and reached for it. But what I saw hit me at the base of my heart. There was a tremor within me, something that would be natural for me later but at that moment was a mixture of thrill and vertigo. Suddenly there was a wide gulf between Emily’s existence and mine, and I would never be able to cross it.

If there was a desire of sorts in me, then where did it come from? Did it belong to another? Or was it part of me? It was as if a hand from the desert that surrounded us had reached in and touched me. For the rest of my life it would recur, but in Emily’s cabin it was the first brush with the long variety of it. Yet where had it come from? And was it a pleasure or a sadness, this life inside me? It was as if with its existence I was lacking something essential, like water. I put the tray down and climbed unto Emily’s high bed. I felt in that moment that I had been alone for years. I had existed too cautiously with my family, as though there had been shards of glass always around us.”

Michael asks Emily if he will see her in England, and she says no, that he’ll be with his mother. He reflects on not having seen his mother for four years.

“And now I was going to England where my mother had been living for three or four years. I don’t remember how long she had been there. Even now, all these years later, I have not remembered that quite significant detail, the period of separation, as if, as for an animal, there was a limited knowledge of the span of missing time.”

He is emotionally overwhelmed and gets physical comfort from Emily.

Physical comfort?

“I knelt on that bed on my hands and knees and shook. Emily leaned forward and embraced me, in so soft a gesture I felt barely touched, an envelope of loose air between us. My hot tears that had come from my darkness rubbed on her cool upper arm…I must have fallen asleep for a moment and woke when Emily, not moving away from me reached her other hand over her shoulder in a backstroke gesture for the cup of coffee. And soon I heard the quick swallows, my ear against her neck. Her other hand was still gripping mine as no one had ever done, convincing me of a security that probably did not exist.”

‘Kay. As I construct this scene, it reads like Michael is lying on top of Emily, who is naked under her robe. His ear is pressed against her neck, and she is holding one of his hands. Tightly.

That’s what I make of it, but of course, I have long since lost a child’s innocence.

It seems in this passage, which will continue, Michael is looking back (imagining/creating) a significant emotional episode and possible sexual connection with Emily. But he can’t remember exactly what occurred, maybe only the emotions. Maybe he didn’t really (and still doesn’t) have words to describe what occurred.

The situation is ambiguous to the reader though. Did the seventeen-year-old Emily have sex with the eleven-year-old Michael?

Whoa! It’s possible. Call the authorities!

The older Michael doesn’t remember well (?). However, Emily as seductress of youth doesn’t really fit with the way she’s presented in other parts of the book. She’s more of a mentor, a benevolent advisor. Perhaps the idea is that some meaningful intimacy did occur, almost accidently. It’s certainly significant to the older Michael.

Years later, Emily seeks Michael out, and he attempts to talk with her about what happened on the Oronsay (not just concerning their morning together in her cabin). But she refuses to say


She is mum!

Stop it!

The emotions Michael experiences with Emily are caught up with his feelings about his mother (as if things weren’t confusing enough!).

As noted, when he departs from Sri Lanka, his relatives explain that his mother, whom he has not seen for four years, will meet him in England. “It was not the magic or the scale of the journey that was of concern to me, but that detail of how my mother could know when exactly I would arrive in that other country.

And if she would be there.”

So, this is pretty central. Michael has been separated from his mother for years, and the reason isn’t explained. He’s being sent to her, but he approaches it in a sort of magical thinking way. He seeks out his alluring older cousin, and she seems quite willing to comfort him, perhaps in the way a mother might soothe an upset infant. But was it more than that? It does seem that the older Michael is saying the situation and memory are marvelously erotic and have affected him throughout life. It’s significant that the end of the book includes Emily, a position of significance. Was she Michael’s first sexual memory/encounter, and is the memory thus imbued with magic but not that reliable?


Till next time. Onward!

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