The Cat, 24.10.2013

Behemoth came to us like a gift from heaven. It was both totally unexpected, yet, not that I think about it, neatly arranged by fate in a number of small , visible tokens.  Now we have a house boat cat, and I could not have asked for a kinder or more beautiful one. Here’s how it happened.

Last Friday I was in the doldrums. Protracted joblessness was beginning to make me feel queasy. I felt like yet another young person kicking my heels, on the hopeless mission to find that illusive ‘one’. Though I had taken the day off sick from work, and was indeed still very sick from a violent cold that I had caught a few days before, I decided to set out and try and find a new job that day.

After traipsing around the Kingsland Road and finding no success in retail stores, cinemas or cafes I received a call from Harry. ‘Come quickly’, he said, ‘I think I’ve found you a cat and a job.’

The cat story really dates back to a drizzly night in Edinburgh last year. I was walking back home, drunk and late from a night out with Harry. It was December and we had just crossed the meadows into Marchmont. Suddenly in the darkness I saw a little form crouching underneath a car ahead of me. His head poked out suddenly from underneath the body of the car and a pair of luminous eyes shone  in silver halos at me in the darkness. He was small and soft, a beautiful black cat. I cradled it in my arms and named the cat Fortnight. I can’t remember why, but I was reading rather a lot of Baudelaire at that point and I remember how much he loved his cat, and what a feline poet he was in general. Ever since that night of drunken happiness I have always wanted a little black cat called fortnight.

My birthday just passed and cat broodiness seized me again. I joked with Harry that what I really wanted for my birthday present was a cat. And he would joke back saying that the cat was waiting in the bedroom wardrobe and would appear the morning of my birthday. A real cat did not appear, but a symbolic one did, painted onto the front of my birthday card, grey with thick, black, tiger-like stripes across his back.

Two weeks passed by and then I received the call from Harry on the Kingsland Road. I dashed across Dalston on my bicycle to Harry’s bike workshop in Hackney Downs.

The job is another story, as my subject now is the cat. The story of how we came into possession of Behemoth – for that is now her name – is actually rather a tragic one. It so happened that that morning a young couple were being evicted from their flat in one of the Hackney Downs studios. They were temporarily homeless and no longer felt that they could care for their cats. They had a beautifully grey tabby and a black kitten. I said that I was happy to take on both as the girl didn’t want them to be separated. However, two other girls in the crowd that gathered round the hapless creature wanted the little black kitten too.

I wanted her to make an impartial decision and felt it was unfair to be present while she was making up her mind. I stepped back from the small crowd of friends and acquaintances that had gathered in the open front yards of the studios. Soon a vintage shop-owner called Jess approached and told me the verdict: we mere to have the mother cat, the grey tabby.

I was overjoyed though a little sad that the cats were to be separated. The thought of this clearly distressed Stephanie – the girl – too. It was a very emotional time for her and I made it clear that she could take the cat back whenever she wanted. She pressed me tightly as she hugged me and kissed the cat before she left the yard – canvas bag slung over her shoulders, the bun of her platinum blonde hair bouncing ever so slightly as she walked away from me, up the mews.

I felt much disorientated by all the events which had whirled me into the spotlight, making me temporarily queen of the mews. The boys from the bike shop were out, as were some people from The Russet. Friends of Stephanie and Chris’ were standing around too. Jess ushered me into her shop. She was tall, with a wiry, yet strong frame. A kind expressiveness animated every part of her face. She had a nose piercing, her hair was a tousled, dyed-red mess, and her eyes were charcoaled with eyeliner. She was wearing a frock with gold detail that could have been from Nepal or Pakistan.

There had been some confusion about how I was to get the cat back to the boat, then moored in Mile End. Jess very kindly offered to lend me her cat basket from her home in Clapton. I waited in her shop for her to return with the basket. To pass time, I looked into the small glass display cases of jewellery; at the miniature, enamelled broaches, cameos and little ornamented pins. A diamonte dragonfly caught my attention. All the while the cat, timidly cowered in the corner by Jess’ counter. I couldn’t’ extricate her, So I waited beside racks of chintz and chamois, nylon blouses, silk undergarments, woollen dresses and corduroy trousers, for Jess to come back.

Jess soon returned with a wicker cat basket in excellent working order. We managed to pluck ‘Princess’ – as she was then called – from her corner and bundle her inside. I had my first good look at her. She was tiny, and hardly seemed her age, a year and a half. She still seemed so like a kitten, yet she was already a mother. She was grey with black stripes splashed across her back. She had a delicate face and vast green eyes.

I left in a rush as it was now late – around eight o’ clock and dark. I had my bicycle in one hand and the cat in its cat basket in the other. I left ambitiously declaring that I would walk all the way home. But I had not walked 500 yards before the weight bearing down on my wrists and outstretched arms started to take its toll. Then I devised a system which involved balancing the cat basket on the top tube of the bike. I walked most of the way home like this, but the going was slow. After forty minutes I had only just reached the canal.

Behemoth

To begin with the cat had hidden from view in the golden hive of her cat basket. But as I wheeled her along the Kingsland Road, past hipsters smoking outside bars and Turkish kebab shops, she became more inquisitive. Curled up in her perfectly soft tail she sat in an aspic attitude of rapt attention. Her eyes flashed with the lights of passing traffic. Passerbys ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ at her as we passed by. She was excited, and seemed to know that tonight marked the first step in a big adventure.

I walked to avoid the extortionate taxi fees levied by East End cabbies, but eventually I gave in. I thought the walk was distressing the cat too much. After a slight to-do we were whisked away from the office of a taxi company to the Mile End road, deposited by the now closed New Globe pub which marks the gloomy stairwell descent towards the canal. The eyes of the curious taxi man followed me as a made my way down the steps.

I will never forget the moment, alone, cold, in the darkness, that I climbed on board Hawisia with the cat basket, lowered her down into the boat and let her out to explore. It was a landmark moment in my life. New life had come miraculously and spontaneously into my hands, and I had no idea what to do with her as I had never had a cat before. I swiftly went to the local shop to buy some cat food and litter tray pellets and soon returned. To my delight the cat wasn’t hissy or scratchy or bad natured in the least. She was just very timid.

I remember once when I was dealing with the puma in Bolivia, someone telling me that cats will not eat in front of you if they are unhappy or uncomfortable with you. So I was not surprised when Princess, recently renamed Behemoth, didn’t touch the food I put before her. But I waited, and within an hour she started eating from her bowl. My joy at this sight and at the sensation of her seeming contented and well provided for was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I felt, momentarily and ludicrously, what it must feel to be a mother and glow at the sight of your child looking nourished and happy.

Soon Harry returned from work and to celebrate we got a takeaway and some beers. We sat together and played with the cat, letting her get to know us. It felt suddenly, like we were a family.

behemoth

***

It was an eventful night. Now almost a week has passed since that Thursday evening and Behemoth is settling in very well. We have christened part of our desk Behemoth’s corner, as she likes to sit there, sleep there and watch us from there during the day. It is her look-out post and Harry put on old brown towel down for padding. She is not so scared anymore and doesn’t hide in the shoe cupboard every time a pedestrian on the towpath makes a noise or we open our latch. She is sprightly and energetic and has already learned how to jump between every possible surface. Every night she sits at the bottom of the bed while we sleep and every morning she climbs up on us and pads uncertainly across the soft bedding of our duvet. She is a source of joy and constant, changing beauty. Like a little fairy or house elf, she has transformed Hawisia, suddenly and unmistakeably, into a home.

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Have nothing in…

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

William Morris, Designer and Illustrator

Naming, 14.10.2013

Legend has it that you cannot re-name a boat until you have taken it out of water. I cannot remember where I first heard this, but it is one of those things that’s impossible to erase from your memory once you have heard it. Most boats, or narrowboats, should be taken out of water once every three years, to be repainted. Then the boats are taken to dry-docks and lifted out of water so their undersides and hull can be cleaned, stripped and re-painted with thick, durable bitumen paint.

Our boat’s name is Hawisia. But, like her previous owner, we haven’t found the time to paint her name of the outside of the boat yet. For now she is still waiting to ‘come out’, like a young confederate débutante.  Somehow it feels as though this neglect is more meaningful than it really is – as if we’re denying her true nature, or embarrassed of it. As it is, it’s pure coincidence that we have not painted her outside yet. It is a question of money, and the season. As winter creeps upon us, doing outside painting jobs seems like an increasingly bad idea.

And I am not ashamed of her name. Though it sounds rather florid, the etymology of ‘Hawisia’ tells a different tale. The name’s origins are English and Germanic. I remember from studying Anglo-Saxon at university. Hathu from ‘battle’ – and vid for ‘wide’, she is a wide battle maiden. So the Old Germanic name is ‘Hadewidis’, Latinised to Hawisia from the English name Hawise. And then I think of that exquisite poem, by the faceless poet known simply as The Wanderer-poet, steaming silently along the ‘paths of exile’. So to my mind, this Anglo-Saxon etymology is highly significant. They were a people whose lives were dictated by water. It represented the site of their loneliness, exile, wonder and enterprise – and also, given the immanent and constant threat of violence from the Vikings – fear.

A name seems like one of the few truly irrefutable, inviolable facts of life. You can change your name but you will always remember your original one. And then I think of my name, katya that it has taken me literally years to grow into. As a girl, I too, disliked its floridness, preferring the abbreviation ‘kat’. Now I grow to love it and understand it more each day. I am proud of its Slavic difference, its strange, rare ‘k’ and slim ‘y’.

But sometimes I fantasize. Most recently I came across the name Maud in quite a different context. But then it immediately stuck. I became fixated on the idea. A beautiful old, English name. Its strikes deep. I remember Tennyson, his Idylls of the Kings. In my mind Maud is the name of an evil sorceress – perhaps the witch who betrayed Merlin, or an evil spirit in Malory’s Arthurian tales. (It is also, glibly, a nautical pun).

So I will set this fantasy of names, and life-giving to paper now. In my dreams our boat is called Maud, and she sails at night, her search-light angled into the darkness. Maud –

Boat-names

Inspired by my topic I thought that readers might be interested to read a list of boat names that I have collected from the rambles along the canals, some of these are hidden (written in small print on boat licenses), some are revealed (clearly embellished on the outsides of boats).

Lillypad, Goldilocks, Miss Behaven, Firefly, Wildwood, Foxley, Iona, Kathryn, Sheffield, Genesis, Pride of Slough, Jenny Bee, Dragon Fly I, Quite Content, Pineapple, Hackney Wick, Verity, Armistice, Mayflower, Sharpness, Vince Regent, Dokkum, Finlandia, Boomer, Ivy, Sprokkel, Jenny May, Narrow Escape, Greenfinch

The Fire, 10.10.2013

It’s nearly 8 o’ clock. I have a lovely hot fire crackling beside me. It reminds me of something lovely that Roger Deakin once wrote:

“I really do want people to come home to a real fire. A nation without the flames of fire in the hearth, and birds singing outside the        open window, has lost its soul. To have an ancient carboniferous fire brought to life at the centre of your home, its flames budding and shooting up like young trees, is a work of magic.”

     Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, p. 155

Our wood burning stove is right in the middle of the boat. It heats up the surrounding air like an agar oven. The other night, just as we prepared to go to bed Gideon and I were suddenly worried that something had caught on fire. There was a peculiar smell in the air. It didn’t smell like wood smoke… There were still some coals smouldering in the grate, but it seemed surprising that the smell was so distinctive and acute.

Gideon scampered outside in his underwear to check that the chimney wasn’t on fire. Silly us. It turned out that it was the coals after all. Gideon had loaded the hearth up with them. The smell they produce after a while is very different to the smell of wood smoke. It is deeper, richer, more oaken.

Jobo said that during the winter he has become so expert as setting up fires that he could make up exactly the right sort of fire in the morning to last the rest of the day – even if he left the boat. That way, when he returns, the boat is snug and warm in the evening for his arrival.

The wood and coal in the intensity of their heat have broken down into a kind of piping hot orange stew. Their skin is petrified by the heat and brakes off in scales or crusts of heat. They have become like crackling spines. When I nudge them with my brass poker the scaly crust breaks apart tenderly or yawns open like segments of an orange. I think of the recipe I wrote up for the charity earlier, or perhaps that marvellous description of summer heat in Bruno Scholtz’s lovely collection Cinnamon Shops.

A cold wind has blown through England over the past few days. Gideon has left to go to Sheffield so I have no company to keep me warm in the evenings. I spend most of my time reading and writing, and occasionally watching something online. I have been watching Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series recently. That, and with Harry, Jeremy Brett’s wonderful adaptation of Conan Doyle’s novels.

Recycling, 09.10.2013

I have had a very frustrating morning engaged in the mundane and highly unglamorous task of disposing of our recycling. Normally this is not a difficult job, especially with those lucky enough to have doorstep recycling. But recycling is yet another aspect of daily life that is considerably more difficult for water-dwellers than land-lubbers.

The downward bent began before midday. I had a good morning dealing with some perfunctory work tasks and rescuing a lost ring (though I did rifle through the whole of this week’s rubbish to find it). As you can imagine, after the party, there was a lot of recycling to do. I had binned it up into black bin bags and smaller bags and it was awaiting me on the deck. Initially I tried compressing it all into my panniers. But the sodden, heavy bags in their cheap and ineffectual black bin bags did not fit inside. So, with my hands covered in an unpalatable confluence of muck, old beer and filth – the alluvial deposits of the weekend fun – I wheeled my bicycle with its haphazard castle of black bin bags along the Mile End section of towpath to the Victoria Park boat facility. After twenty minutes of awkward pushing and messy readjustment I made it. But there was no recycling there, only domestic waste disposal. There were directions to a recycling spot 0.2 miles away.

It would not have been far for the average human being, but the weakened bags were beginning to belch out their contents. There were oozing and sagging like my spirits. Another twenty minutes of bicycle pushing ensued. At last I reached Victoria’s Crown Gate by the Old Ford Roundabout. I saw the small fuchsia-coloured recycling bins and dashed across the pelican crossing. As I dropped Bellissimo (my bicycle), at last the contents of the bags which had threatened to fall out all afternoon, avalanched onto the ground. Smelly tin-cans moistened with beer, misted bottles of Prosecco, plastic brownie-bite boxes, sodden Amber Leaf packets and rancid milk cartons were disarticulated from their wet bin-skins and popped into the open mouth of the recycling point one by one. But I was happy.

I think Harry is right. The next thing on the list is to build a trailer, a beautiful bicycle trailer. I think I want to name it Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.

The Birthday Party, 07.10.2013

I had my birthday on the weekend so Hawisia became, for a time, transformed into a party boat. But she was not one bit like the steamboatsand paddlewheelers that used to plough up and down the ‘chocolate’ brown Mississippi. There were no proud steam funnels piping out smoke or paddles churning the water round. She remained very much moored to her posting by Victoria Park.

I chose that place for my birthday party because it’s lovely spot. Oak and ash trees from Victoria Park splay their branches out above the canal, from behind the fence, like a ceiling. The colours of the bank and the gardens of the semi-detached Victorian houses which back onto the canal are soft and green. The boats tethered along this strip of canal are very pretty and well maintained; their occupants tend to be younger and more fashionable than those of the boats in central London, on the Paddington Branch of the Grand Union Canal.

As we boated past today I peered into the windows of the wide-beams and barges that didn’t have their curtains drawn. (You see boaters normally keep their curtains drawn on port, or by the bank, but wide open on theirstarboard. So you can play peeping-tom best when you are on the move.) One wide-beam owned by a robust looking young man with a blonde beard, had a tall, mahogany dresser in the main galley of the boat. The day before I had spotted a cluster of apples spread out on his kitchen table on a nice piece of white cotton.

The party went well, though the boat rocked a little under the weight of so many strange feet. I had spent all morning cleaning and scrubbing her so that new guests were sure to see her in her best light. Happily a boat does not take as long to clean as a house. In fact, altogether it is probably the size of one large room in a London townhouse, stretched out narrowly across 60 ft.

After the party ended and the last of my friends had jumped off the deck into the dead of night, Gideon and I went to bed. We were warmed by the hearty beams of our wood-burning stove and Gideon’s delicious beetroot and fennel dips.

We woke up the next morning – the morning of the sixth of October, my birthday, to the most beautiful day of the autumn so far. It was a day of summer snatched by October – bright blue skies and warm wind. I don’t think I have ever had a more pleasant birthday morning as I had that day with Gideon, cycling along the Hertford Union Canal and up the Lea Valley, fleeing from the stale smell of post-party and problematic red-wine stains. We cycled along the glorious Lea River Valley, passed the spiked peaks of the Olympic stadium by Hackney Wick,  passed Fish Island  and through Hackney Marshes and Wick Wood in the direction of Clapton and eventually Stoke Newington.

The Lea glittered and gleamed – it seemed to be the Promised Land. My heart swelled with joy at the thought that we were finally – at long last – approaching our destination. The mythic lea river valley – the boater’s valle d’orado.

The weekend is the chosen day for moving. For now we moved on a little to Mile End to fill up our tank. There is sadly a little leak somewhere, although we have no idea where. But somehow the bilge is filling with water, and it is certainly from the tank. Poor Gideon is so weary with drilling out two layers of floorboards and fiddling around with plastic piping. It is not easy work. But we have water! The kitchen utensils haven’t smelled so clean for many weeks.

Tonight we have the wood-burning stove on and watched an episode of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. Soon we will sleep. I have work in the morning.