Joanna Munro


Joanna Munro

Joanna Munro is working part-time in Financial Services while studying Life Writing at Goldsmiths. She is currently writing a memoir about her relationship with her mentally ill mother. When she finishes that, Joanna plans to turn to her experience in the working world, as there seems to have been very little written about the life of an asset manager. Joanna also knits but no one will wear the hats she makes.
Contact: joanna.munro49 [at] gmail [dot] com

Cat Project


Sydenham, April 1974

Its almost the end of the Easter holidays and I havent finished my school project. I chose ‘Catsbecause I got the Observer Book of Catsfor Christmas but now I wish Id chosen something more interesting. I had to work on it the whole of last term and I really struggled with it each Friday afternoon in Topic Time: The Manx Cat is a cat with no tail.’ ‘The British Blue Cat has orange eyes.’ ‘The Persian Cat has a long coat and needs daily grooming.The writing did blot a bit because its hard not to smudge when youre left-handed. To try and fill up the page, I drew a picture for each breed - but the pictures were not very good because my colouring pencils are all blunt and we havent got a pencil sharpener.

Mrs Donnelly called me up to her desk on the last day of term.

Why dont I show you Cherrys folder,she said.

Cherry Mills topic was The Romansand her folder was designed to look like a pair of doors that opened to show the inside of a Roman home. Mrs Donnelly turned over the pages and I noticed that she had varnished her nails a bright orange-red, which didnt go with her pinky lipstick.

You see, Joanna. These are the sorts of things Cherrys included.

There were photos on some of the pages and neatly labelled coloured drawings of soldiers, citizens, emperors and slaves. Cherry had glued in leaflets from Bath and St Albans and shed even made a pop-up Roman Baths. Shed done the Contents Page like an illuminated manuscript and there were tabs for all the different sections – ‘A Day in the Life of a Roman Soldier, ‘Religion, ‘Roman Cookery, and so on.

And if we look at yours—’ Mrs Donnelly flicked through my eleven pages, can you see the difference?

I nodded. I didnt think there was any point explaining about the pencil sharpener.

‘Youve got the whole of the Easter holidays to make something of this. Im just showing you Cherrys folder to give you ideas about the kinds of things you might do. A bit of inspiration.

Yes, I see. Thank you very much.

I always try to be polite to teachers, even when I dont know quite what it is they want. Mrs Donnelly looked at me and she didnt look convinced.

So what do you think youll do, Joanna?

I could do A Day in the Life of a Cat,I said. ‘But probably not ‘Cat Religionor ‘Cat Cookery.

Mrs Donnelly gave me another look.

‘Im sure you think thats very funny, Joanna. But youre in the Senior School now and if you dont pull yourself together soon, youll find youve made a very poor start.

I didnt say anything because my throat was full of lumps and then I went down to the cloakroom under the Science Block and buried my face in my gym bag and breathed in its rubbery smell until my ears stopped buzzing. 


I did mean to get to work on the Cat Project but then I forgot about it and Ive just realized that school starts again next week. Its already halfway through Saturday and Im not feeling at all inspired. Daddys gone off sailing and Mummys still in bed. She doesnt get out of bed any more now. I take her up a coffee and find her sitting up, smoking and scribbling on her Oxford Pad. Shes listening to Radio 4.

Oh Em, how lovely. I was just thinking I could really do with a coffee. Poor old Nancy Mitfords pegged out at last.

They call me Em in the family, because Joanna is Mummys name. I asked her why she didnt give me a different name to start with but she said it was the only way she could stop Daddy naming me Tanagra or Samantha. I think Id quite like to have been a Samantha.

She pats the bedspread next to her:

Come and have a sittie next to me. Has the Dadsie gone out?

Whenever Daddys out, Mummy tries to have these talks with me. At first, I quite liked being treated like a grown-up and getting told all this secret stuff. But now, it gives me this uncomfortable feeling and Id much rather just go back to being a child again.

Can you lift up the carpet there, Em? 

She points at the corner of the room by the window.

The carpet peels back easily, the foam rubber underside of the carpet separating from the layer of pink underlay and the spiked edging battens that hold it down. Theres a fan of pink-brown ten pound notes on top of the underlay I count them. Twenty.

Mummy puts a yellowed forefinger to her lips:

Now, the Em, this is just a secret for you and me. The Dadsie doesnt know, nor does the old Moth. Its my private money for having a bit of fun with go on, take one. Take it and go out and have a bit of fun.

Ive never had ten pounds of my own. The most I get is a 50p postal order from the grannies on birthdays. I fold it into a small square and put it in my skirt pocket. I wonder what could I buy with ten pounds. How much do Jaffa Cakes cost? I expect I could buy packets and packets of Jaffa Cakes. But that would be a bit silly because once Id eaten them theyd all be gone and the money would be wasted. I could buy just a few packets of Jaffa Cakes and then a book theres a big hardback book called How to Paint and Drawin Smiths. Or I could buy some piano music because that is really expensive I could get the music for the theme from Love Story’ – they have it in that music shop in Beckenham.

Mummy seems tired she lies back on her pillows and smiles at me:

Don't tell the Dadsie about the Mumsies secret stash - now you know it's there in case you ever need it.

Its funny that after all the months of arguments and shouting at Daddy, shes softened towards him in the last few weeks.  When she calls him the Dadsie, she sounds quite fond of him.

Let me look at your arms, Em, before you go.

She takes hold of my right hand and pushes up the sleeve of my jumper so that shes looking at the fish belly underside of my forearm.

Yes, I thought so,she says. ‘Its not very noticeable if you arent looking for it, but your forearms are slightly out of proportion theyre about an inch shorter than they ought to be. Its nothing to worry about. Its all to do with the placenta. You didnt get the calcium you needed to grow properly when you were in the womb. But its better than the poor old Moth all the placenta problems rather did for his brain, Im afraid.

The poor old Mothis my brother Matthew. Hes ten and although he isnt as clever as me, he is at Dulwich College. Its true that hes only coming 21st out of 24 in the class, but I really dont think he is brain damaged.

She reaches out and takes both my hands in hers. Her big eyes are shining and shes smiling in a weird way.

Now, the Em, you remember what I told you about the diabetes?

Shes told me before that shes diabetic and thats why she needs three sugars in her coffee and why she gets so tired and has to sleep all the time.

Thats right,she says. And thats why I get so cold particularly around the hands and feet which is why the clever old Moley dog animals have an instinct about these things why Mole lies on my legs when Im sleeping to keep me warm. I had to look it all up in Britannica but she knew already.

‘Cant you just go and see a doctor?

‘Oh Em,she says, and I worry that Ive disappointed her. ‘Ive told you already that the jolly old medical profession isnt to be trusted theyre just a bunch of Male Chauvinist Pigs, convinced that any female who thinks she knows whats wrong with her is a hysteric.

She looks at me with the same weird smile – its kindly but distant.

Theres something else I need to show you – its important.

She pulls down the bedcovers and lifts the bottom of her nightie so that I can see what she calls her Chianti bottlecalves and her feet.

See that, the Em?

I don’t know what she means.

My poor old feet are going blue.

There are a lot of veins in her feet and they dont look very clean her toenails need cutting. Theyre thick and yellow and ridged and curved, the way I imagine camel toenails would look, if camels have toenails.

She tilts her right foot so that I can see the dirty sole.

These are whats known as stigmata. Theres one on my left foot as well and look, these are the ones on my hands.

She holds her hands, palms upwards. I squint really hard but I cant see anything shes got rough patches on the fleshy parts of her hands but thats probably because she never wears rubber gloves when she does the washing up. And there are lots of lines running across but everybody has those, even babies I think head lines and heart lines and life lines. Its funny looking at her hands because her fingers look like mine nothing else about Mummy looks like me but Ive got her fingers. Theyre the only thin bit of me.

What are stigmata?

‘Dont they teach you anything at that school, Em? Theyre the marks where Jesus was crucified, where they put nails through his hands and feet.

She seems awfully cheerful.

‘You do see, dont you, the clever old Em? Its going to be alright. I wont feel any pain. Ill just slip into a coma and I wont know whats happening to me. But the stigmata, that means its the will of God – like Christ.

I don’t understand this at all but she worries me. She holds up the pad shed been writing on when I came in:

See this, this is the message Ive been getting. Ive been writing it out as it comes through funny old God, it all comes through in Latin.

I sit there and the way shes speaking is so matter-of-fact, I cant quite take in what shes saying.

But if youre ill, so ill that youre dying, we need to call a doctor. Therell be something they can do. Medicine. You could have an operation.

Ive never had an operation but Im going to be a doctor when I grow up. Ive read Richard Gordons ‘Doctor in the Housebooks but you dont learn much about the medical side of things from them.

Mummy grabs my hands again, grins at me and then strokes my hair where its flicked back over my ears.

Poor old Em, I didnt mean to worry you. Im telling you this because youre the only one I can trust.

I take a deep breath and decide not to worry and then wonder if its a good time to ask for some help with my school project.

Her eyes light up:

Oh goody, goody. Your school project - yes, yes, let the Mumsie have a think. I’m sure I’ll have some jolly good ideas for you. What is it you need to do again?I explain how the Topic Projects work. Cats? Oh, the Em, what a silly subject to choose. Oh no, I dont think thats a good idea at all, at all.

She shakes her head but she isnt looking at me her eyes somehow seem to be looking inside her. She shivers and pulls the bedcovers up over her shoulders and the baked-bean smell of armpits wafts through the room. Daddy uses Brut 33 deodorant but Mummy says deodorant stains the clothes.

Shall I run you a bath, Mummy, while you finish your coffee?

Oh the Em, what a helpful child you are. I havent quite got the oomph for a bath right now but I might have one later. I think Ill just get flat now and have a bit more kip. Can you close the curtains for me?


In the end, I decide to do a Cat Survey like the 8 out of 10 housewives prefer Bold Automaticsurveys. I find a rectangle of warped hardboard, carefully tear twenty pages out of the middle of my Biology exercise book and attach them to the hardboard with a bulldog clip. It looks very professional and all I have to do is come up with ten cat-related questions.

Outside the sun glares off the tarmac and the pavement and the concrete drives and hurts my eyes. We live in Beaulieu Avenue, which means ‘beautiful placein French, but you pronounce it Byoo-leewhich suits the street better. The houses are modern, tight next to one another, but we live in one of the six houses that have balconies, which Daddy says means theyre more expensive than the other houses. All the houses have tiny square front gardens next to their drives.

Its not like where we used to live in Somerset. Our garden there had real trees in it my favourite was a bright orange maple tree that Mummy ordered from a nursery near Bristol. Beyond the garden were the beech woods with the footpath running down to the sea.

The South Circular runs behind this house. No-one puts anything proper in the gardens and there arent even any trees in the street, just lamp-posts. Opposite our house, the road bulges out to make space for what they call the greenbut the green is still trying to grow its trees right now theyre just sticks tied to posts.

The other children in the street play on the green but I dont – not since we first moved here and Alison Higgins wanted me to play ring and runand throw my apple core into the Boylesrose bushes. Alison Higgins is there now, playing football with the boys, so I dont walk in that direction. Instead I turn left, and that means the Cunninghams next door are first in my survey.

‘Oh hello, Joanna,Mrs Cunningham says. ‘Were just sitting down to lunch.She has a smooth grey-blonde helmet of hair and wide-apart grey eyes. Shes wearing a sleeveless olive green dress that matches the colour of her front door. Each house in the street has the garage and front doors painted a different colour but ours are egg-yolk yellow and I would look odd if I wore a dress that matched them.

‘Im doing a survey about Cats.

We don’t have any.

Thats alright. Thats the answer to Question One, How many cats have you got?

I wait, standing on one leg and scratching the back of my calf with the other one. Mrs Cunningham often has biscuits.

Is there anything else I can help you with?Mrs Cunningham asks.

Its rude to ask for food so I say ‘No, thank you,and head off to the next house.

A lot of houses dont answer the door and a lot of people who do answer the door, dont really want to speak to me. But whenever I hit on someone with cats, they seem to want to talk and talk.

I walk down the road opposite Sydenham Wells Park. This is much more of a proper street with old houses, separated, with gravel in the drives and trees and bushes. Its where I take Mole when I take her for walks. There are loads of cat people living here.

The worst is a lady in a big white-painted house with a black door and black window frames and weeds and flowers all over the drive. She answers the door with her cardigan buttoned all skew-whiff and her hall smells of cat wee. But the smell in the hall is nothing compared to the smell in the half-dark room she leads me into. Its cold like a larder. The chairs are draped in bits of multi-coloured crochet and its lucky I havent tried to sit down because when my eyes get used to the dark, I notice that there are real live cats asleep in all the chairs. There are framed pictures of cats on all the shelves and tables and on the mantelpiece and in the corner theres a glass cupboard full of silver cups and goblets and plaques.

The lady brings me a glass of orange squash and a Penguin biscuit.

Now, let me introduce you to my little family,she says. By which she means the cats. Theyre none of them called Fluffy or Tiddles theyve all got very grand names, like Brigadier Prime Buff the Second.

Thats a cat kiss,she says, when one of the Brigadiers blinks at me. He likes you.

It takes ages to get her to answer the survey questions, and when Im finally able to get away, she pats me on the head as if I was a little girl and says I can come back and visit the cats any time.

Thats very kind of you,I say, ‘but actually I prefer dogs. Im just doing this for a school project.