Annus Horribilis


In her own judgment, the Queen Elizabeth II’s annus horribilis, horrible year, was 1992, the year of her ruby jubilee, marking 40 years on the throne. Those are a lot of years during which things could go wrong. Her service to her country, however, did not start with her ascension to the throne. Addressing the peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire in a radio speech on her 21st birthday, four years before she became queen, she said, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” It turned out to be a long life, and her annus horribilis in particular must have seemed very long. In that year, the marriages of three of her children ended; separate scandalous indiscretions of Charles, Diana, and Sarah, the Duchess of York, were published in the press with accompanying photos; the Andrew Morton biography of Diana came out and turned public sentiment against the royal family; and a fire extensively damaged Windsor Castle. These occurrences marred the Queen’s year as no accumulation of trouble had ever done in previous years. Thirty years were left to set things right and recover.

Since her use of the phrase annus horribilis in her jubilee speech that November, others have used it too. On Wikipedia you can now read about the horrible years of a politician, an international official, a Hollywood celebrity, and King Juan Carlos of Spain. And why not? Surely everyone can have a bad year, and can, apparently, have more than one, as suggests the naming of 2019 as the Queen’s second annus horribilis, with problems again at both the state and personal levels. But surely 2021, the year her husband Prince Philip died, after nearly 74 years of marriage, was horrible too. And the following year, bringing her own death, cannot be counted as anything but bad. With your death, away flashes all chance of setting right or mitigating any lingering ill effects of one year or another.

For King Juan Carlos and the Spanish royal family, the annus horribilis was 2007, with family tragedy and public controversies. Erika Ortiz, the sister of the Princess of Asturias (and now Queen Letizia), died from a drug overdose. A cartoon in the humor magazine El Jueves mocked Prince Filipe and satirized a government proposal—bad enough in itself but made worse when the magazine was banned, leading to a censorship controversy. More controversy arose over the trial of Catalan separatists who had burned photographs of the King and Queen at a rally. The King lost his calm at the Ibero-American Summit and told Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, to shut up. Finally, the King’s daughter, the Duchess of Lugo, and her husband separated.

Horrible years like these of the royals, on both public and private fronts, mere common folk can’t have. But troubles we can. This year of 2024 did not start well for me, and already by the second week of January, it felt as if it had stumbled and fallen into a pit, such as Philip Larkin intimates in “Aubade,” writing, “An only life can take so long to climb / Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never.” And then, on a cold, wet Thursday morning during the year’s second week, here was Charlie, my orange tabby, arriving home from his outdoor explorations with his front leg broken. I gaped in disbelief when he crawled in through the door sideways, dragging the leg after him. It wasn’t just a little bit broken, but, with blood coating his fur, seemed like a crushed popsicle inside its wrapper and oozing out, slick but sticky. I woke my vet with a call—it was around 7:30—and he said to bring Charlie in at 10, before the clinic opened, because the cat would probably need an X-ray.

An X-ray? The vet must have misunderstood my shock-garbled description. There was no doubt the leg was broken, and it would have to be amputated, I was quite sure. “Ten o’clock?” I questioned. “Won’t he be suffering?”

The vet said if the cat wasn’t hemorrhaging and was breathing easily, then he would be fine until 10. I looked at the cat, lying quietly in the carrier where I had put him, folding his broken limb around him. He hadn’t moved. Strangely, he’d purred when I pet him. His leg was a mangled mess, but he seemed happy to be home and out of the rain. Safe.

Okay, 10 at the clinic, I thought, glad to have my orders. I was agitated, worried, and fearing the worst. But, like a soldier in an upside-down world, it was still my duty to go on. You have to. You do, fearing horrible acts, witnessing them, and guilty of them. What’s next? you wonder. You’d rather not continue. You’d rather do like Charlie: curl up and try to disappear.

As Pa and Ma Ingalls say in the Little House books, “All’s well that ends well.” I just needed to focus on that good ending.

But does it ever end? I thought about Charlie. As a small kitten, Charlie had been discarded or abandoned along the river trail, far from any house, and for cover had hid under a bush, where he was discovered, seized, and dragged from safety by two excited dogs, mine. He survived that scare unscathed, and got a new home in the process, because what else could I do with a lost and soggy kitten? About six months later, a young cat now, he had a misadventure early one morning between the time he left the safety of the kitchen and when he returned an hour later, leaving bloody paw prints when he jumped in through the window, skin in shreds and bones exposed on three toes of his foot. That wound required an operation to sew the skin back together, three long weeks of dressing changing, and another week with a cone over his head to keep him from tearing out the sutures. But he bounced back fine. In the summer, when he was about a year old, he had a surprising lack of appetite, and during the course of two days, went from chowing down with his usual voracious appetite to eating nothing. I squirted liquid food in his mouth, thinking this was it. But he recovered, and seemed himself again, laid back, demanding, affectionate, appreciative, and, more than any of the other three cats, all of them with personality quirks, comfortable in his skin, content. One of the gang. And now this. And what, my mind jumped ahead, would be next?

For Charlie, there would be no next. The vet sedated him for the X-ray, which was necessary to determine the extent of the damage, and we saw that not only was his leg in pieces but his shoulder was also broken. I stood beside the vet and tried to make sense of what I saw on the screen. In his chest there seemed to be several parallel white pieces of a puzzle, such as in the children’s game Operation, where you remove various bits from different cavities in the body without setting off the alarm by touching the edges. These pieces in the X-ray were parts of his splintered shoulder. And look, said the vet, pointing: this is broken clear through, and this here is smashed.

The vet said he could do the amputation, leg and shoulder, and the cat, if an elderly, inside cat, could adjust. But an active, outdoor cat would not change his habits, he thought. The recuperation would be long. The cat would suffer. The vet made a sad face. Okay, I said, sacrifice him. It would be easy with the cat already sedated. He would feel no more pain, ever. Poor Charlie. But then, no, I changed my mind. And then, yes again, after we examined his mouth and found new signs of the ulcers that had plagued him in the summer and had recently returned, a lingering consequence of a respiratory virus. That, according to the vet, was a more serious problem than the leg. You can live without running and jumping (though you will not last long outside, where you are prey to any dog or even cat) but not without eating. And while I stroked the inert Charlie, still wondering if I was doing the right thing, and before I changed my mind again, the vet administered the drugs.

Charlie lies in a grave lined with grasses and fern. He reposes there on a red tea towel. I doubt I’ll visit him, but I will think of him. I will continue to hope that for him, anyway, no new year was necessary to right any old wrongs. He’d lived well. The good die young, though why I don’t know, unless it’s to keep from becoming old, cranky, and disillusioned. His death is not a tragedy of giving up or running out of time after many false starts but of being cut off. He didn’t win the race. But he was at the fore the whole time.

As for me, could this be the year when the lesson sinks in that misfortune comes not once in a lifetime, is not the worst of the worst, to be endured and then put behind you, but is recurring? I have three more cats and two dogs, two sons, parents, and siblings. We’re all getting older, cranky, and disillusioned. And this is the beginning of the year. What’s ahead?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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