A Cat and Mouse Game

One of the many realisations you discover upon becoming the owner of a young, wild cat is that your conscience will never be the same again. Every night you become, indirectly accessory to some crime or other. These vary in their degree and type; sometime it is the indignity of discovering a poor, blind baby mouse trodden into your carpet, or the entrails of some anonymous prey cast onto your companion lid, or, as has been the case most recently, finding the carcasses of small, glaucose, white-bellied frogs delivered propitiously onto your bathroom floor.

When Behemoth is embracing the wilder side of her nature, she enjoys returning home with trophies. This is not unusual, and almost every cat owner will have similar semi-tragic stories to tell: of the mouse cadeaux; of the little bird corpse left turgid, feet-upright on the doorstep or on the kitchen floor. But Behemoth is not as good a hunter as she might like to believe; often her prey are not yet dead. Whether this is because – like a maliciously playful Roman emperor – she desires to draw out and the moment of death till its excruciatingly climax, or whether she is simply ineffectual, is impossible to know.

A few times Behemoth has jumped through the hatch with a tiny mouse wriggling in her jaws. Comic scenes have ensued. The cat drops the mouse, I jump onto a chair, Gideon tries to pounce on the mouse to stop it from disappearing in the boat – the cat is in hot pursuit. Funnily enough, both times this has happened Gideon has proved himself to be the better hunter, catching the mouse before Behemoth has even had a look-in.

So Behemoth, being the fiendish and nefarious creature that she is, has little regard for the animal and reptilian populations that depend so fragilely upon life on the river-bank. Night-time for her, is hunting time, and it has not been uncommon to discover her leaping across our sleeping bodies from the cottage window, with an as-yet live victim throbbing in her small, clenched jaw.

During winter we could contain the problem, and as we have no cat-flap (expensive, tricky and insecure to install as it is), we clamped the windows shut and thereby doomed Behemoth to prowl belligerently indoors. But now, come Summer, when the boat becomes dusty and stifling at night, we have no choice but to leave windows open, and so our small demon-Diana has been able to feast as gluttonously upon the lesser mammals as she wishes, roaming about the precincts adjacent to the boat.

Being responsible for the life of a small cat has entailed many shifts in the habits and patterns of our boat life. For example, when we choose a mooring we do not only have our own wishes to consider, a secondary question is always would Behemoth like it here? I scan to see that a mooring meets our requirements: is there space for her to play and roam? Are there trees for her to climb and shrubbery to conceal herself in if she desires to hide from the incessant tow-path traffic of intrepid bicycles and large, inquisitive dogs? But often her needs coincide with ours, as it is always pleasanter to moor beside the green spaces of Victoria Park or Hackney Marshes than the more crowded thoroughfares of Kings Cross and Camden Town.

Frogs are her new fascination. Last night, while Gideon was away in Sheffield and I was lying in bed, on a night which would transpire to be my last as a teacher, I was wakened several times by her plaintive mewing. In my half-delirious, somnolent state, I found it difficult to locate where she was, unsure at first if she was baying by the cottage window in the prow (as she was wont to do in winter, as a signal that she wished to retire for the night and be let back in), or if she was beside the small window by our wardrobe. When I peeled back the light duvet, and groped my way out of bed I discovered her in the bathroom – an uncommon place for a cat. Her glittering gold-green eyes looked piteously up at me, so that when I spied the prone body of a small, white-bellied frog at her feet, I was unsure if she was proud of her kill or heartily ashamed of it. The dear, small frog was dead but not mutilated, he had been brought back to the boat as an offering – a token. But Behemoth, her expression so unreadable and at odds with her act, looked as confounded by her position as I was. It was a dumb, primordial act of killing: a reflex for a creature who loves the rush of pursuit and capture; killing more in the spirit of play than material necessity.

Three times that night I awoke, three times deposited the small, limp cadavers of white-bellied frogs from out of my bathroom window. Behemoth would not cease.

Over the months, Gideon and I have become quite expert at capturing mice, sometimes Gideon joked, more effective than Behemoth herself. Often she would bring live-specimens back to the boat, and Gideon and I afraid of an infestation on our small living container would exercise all our ingenuity to catch it, before it had eluded the cat and sought refuge in some small, inaccessible space beneath the floorboards or in the tool cupboard.

On one memorable occasion in the winter, I remember unconsciously reaching for a piece of wood behind me as I stacked the fire. Instead of the expected rough, hard texture of wooden off-cuts, I scooped up the body of a small, soft mouse in a state of partial bodily decomposition. It was not a nice surprise! On another occasion, during one of Behemoth’s sprightly leaps across the bed in the sleeping cabin from the cottage window we discovered the body of a small, squirming mouse on the pillow beside us – fallen from her jaws mid-flight.

But for all these bloody incidents, my love and respect for the small, tenacious creature has not diminished one jot. Her feline instincts, her beguiling, beautiful face; her stripy flank and slinking manner elicit a daily joy in me, that feed and nourish me my spirits when they are low or are in need of some comic, absurd or wonderful distraction.

Time Passes – The Islington Tunnel

I haven’t written an entry for a long time. I have no real excuse – except I’ve been working on other projects.

Since I last wrote the season has changed – from winter to late spring. We have stripped down the insulating film from the windows and Hawisia has emerged from the long winter, covered in dust and scratches. From the outside at least, she is no longer the beautiful boat we first bought, though that will change when the paint pots are lined up and the summer’s hard work begins. We have also changed our course and left behind the gorgeous Lea River, our home for the winter and my what my heart will always consider our one true home on water. Now we are performing a reverse horizon-line, streaming back along the track that brought us east – due west.  Perhaps this is the last time that we will do this arc – before we leave the boat and the river-life and return, atavistically, like defeated cavemen, or the sorrowful Icarus, back to land…

I feel very wistful and divided about the thought of selling the boat. On one hand I am sad to say goodbye to a craft whose internal life and necessities have determined the rhythms and paths of the past year – on the other hand, I feel worn down and tired at last. I long for a fridge, a shower, the very trappings of civilisation that I disdained to live this life. The dampness is so intrinsic to our sleeping berth that Gideon now has trouble breathing at night; pillows of moss grow up in the cracks of our windows; we have not pumped out our toilet for months and the economy of shits and wees now occurs to me as a inconvenience I would rather live without.

Then there are the other concerns, CART and boat-dwellers are at constant logger-heads. Meetings are held, but privatisation threatens the very stretch of river that is most native and congenial to boaters in London – the majestic Lea. Can this fragile society upon London’s waterways last for long? Its very survival is imperilled by the capitalistic system which has identified it as a threat and an anomaly. There are places in Europe where counter-cultures can exist, and are protected by the people. This is the case in Berlin, but not in London. So that is my reluctant verdict: it will not last for long.

Even now I feel the magic name Provence tugging at my heart and urging me away, to begin a new home, a new life, beside new, less familiar waters in the deep, lazy heat of the South of France.

However, now I want to leave these sad and pensive meditations to one side. Let me tell a story.

Two weeks ago Hawisia was moored by the Islington Tunnel on the Kings Cross side. For those who have never experienced it, a fifteen minute boat-ride through London’s longest tunnel is one of the most engrossing and exhilarating experiences that London’s inland water-ways have to offer. In this narrow, subterranean, shadowy conduit that flows beneath Upper Street, the old Victorian brickwork is thick with lichen and moss. Delicate streams of water trickle down the porous walls, which ooze and glitter beneath the pale light of boater’s navigation torches. Dickens himself would have delighted in the dark, mildewed underbelly of the Islington tunnel, especially as it represents a key structural position between west and east London. For the river-pilgrims and party seekers it is the emblem and gateway to East London, Hackney and the Lea.

Our first crossing through the tunnel was the most memorable; as our excitement and trepidity were heightened and sharpened by a fear of the unknown. Tunnel etiquette for boaters is rather simple. You must have your headlight on to warn boaters on the other side of your approach and if you cannot see a boat on the approach, then you are clear to go. We later learnt that the tunnel was just wide enough to allow two narrow boats to pass each other side by side, if it should come to that, but we did not know it then, and with traffic on the waterways being what it is and given the length of the passage, we could not discount the possibility that we might meet another boat in the darkness. Adding to the drama of the crossing is the uncertain and deceptive nature of the light at the end of the tunnel itself. As it is so long and dark, the cynosure of light that you can see as you enter – that eventually becomes a round, golden coin and then a rotunda of colour –  looks uncannily, at first, like an approaching headlight.

On that memorable first occasion when we piloted into the darkness with a small crew of three (myself, Gideon and a friend from university Mike), we were convinced for at least 5 minutes that we were doomed to a collision, before we realised that we had become victim to the mirage of the tunnel and our own paranoia. But this was only one of the distempers of the mind that the tunnel can induce as you pass through it. Equidistant from Angel and King’s Cross, in the most drear and dim heart of the passage, a quiet and meditative mood descended upon all of us. I had heard before, in Russia, of hermits and religious recluses who seek the utter solitude and darkness of caves in which to think and meditate. There and then, in the Islington Tunnel, I could suddenly see why. It is not only that the tunnel’s peacefulness and quietude is conducive to thought and reflection, and at a deeper level that the darkness returns one, instinctively to thoughts of death; but that there is something in the visceral appreciation of the raw elements of time, darkness, linearity and motion which uncannily allows the mind, the thing that thinks, to see its own reflection. A tunnel is like a metaphor made real of the mind itself, and in its abyssal darkness, conscious momentarily glimpses the unconscious.

But let us return to that summer’s day, many months later, when we had already bypassed the tunnel and were moored, happily on the King’s Cross side.  Gideon and I were just preparing to go out, when we suddenly stopped on the stern, arrested by the alarming sight of clouds of thunderous smoke pouring out of the mouth of the tunnel. A few minutes later a craft emerged, a narrow boat, with two noticeably harried owners running alongside the gunnels in a race to moor up. A few minutes later, when the tunnel has disgorged its contents of smoke, another craft churned out – one of the boats carrying tourists and sight-seers. A large party of boisterous men were gathered in the fore-deck around a large table drinking larger and jeering at passers-by.

I wondered what had happened in the Islington Tunnel to cause such an emission of smoke. A few minutes later we were to find out, as the first boat, seeking a semi-temporary mooring, roped up alongside Hawisia. Her owners were  a full-bodied Englishman with a very friendly manner and steaks of grey in his tousled black hair, and a wild-looking woman with skin tanned naturally to the colour of hide, long tresses of blonde hair and  a thick cockney accent. Their story perfectly illustrates the danger that tunnel can still pose, even to very experienced boaters.

They explained that they started the long journey through the tunnel on a boat they both knew well. They noticed a few minutes later that another boat – the tourist boat – was following quick on their heels and rapidly catching up with them. Unwilling to hold up the line of traffic building behind them, the man decided to rev up the engine, pushing the boat to exert her maximum speed, against his will and better judgement. Five minutes later the exhausted engine, unused to the pressure put upon it, gave up and started pouring out large quantities of smoke from the exhaust. Deep in the tunnel the smoke had no-where to go, but swirled about the heads of those in the tourist boat behind them. Being too narrow for the tourist boat to pass them and give them a tow, the unlucky couple had no choice but to manually push their boat through the tunnel using only their hands clawing against the slimy, ancient walls. After a Herculean effort and many minutes later, they had managed it, but were understandably a little shaken up.

Mixed with my admiration for this extraordinary effort, was my sense of how the couple had that day garnered the kind of intimate understanding and close knowledge of that tunnel, that few could claim. The image of their soft pink hands pressing against the sea-weed green walls of the austere black tunnel, was to occur to me many times afterwards – long after they had left Hawisia, fixed their engine and softly chugged off to continue their journey west.