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.
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.
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.