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.

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Cats cultivate …

Cats cultivate the body and the mind,
Attracted both to silence and the dark;
(The nether world could have put them to work
As couriers, had they been so inclined.)

Bemused, their attitudes evoke the style
Of sphinxes lost in thought beside the Nile,
Absorbed into a dream that never ends.
Sparks coruscate all down their fertile thighs

And golden particles, like desert sands,
Scintillate in transcendental eyes…

Extract from ‘Cats’ by Charles Baudelaire, published in ‘Charles Baudelaire: The Complete Works’, translated by Walter Martin, p.133

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.