The Changing Face of Time

We have seen a lot of this river, you and I. We have watched people flow through our lives on the current; swirling eddies of faces and names that ripple away from our touch, forever moving onwards and away. A river must never stop moving, and we all must change with it. I often wonder how the river has formed us, and for how much longer we will call it home.

I nearly lost you last year to an illness that came on so suddenly and quickly that I was told to expect the worst. But you fought to stay. You will always bear the marks; a face changed and a body that moves slower. Through all the years, the illnesses, the scars, and the other subtle ways that time has meandered across us both, we will face what is to come together. We will always have these stories, and the boats, and the people who are as transient as water. Wherever there is the Thames, there will be you. We will have this island of time as you lay curled beside me and I write. We will ride these Thames waters together.

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Storm

I sit on the boat roof watching a storm come in from the south. Lightning casts shadows across midnight boats, but the air is warm and comforting so I am not afraid. My feet dangle over the edge above the dark Thames below, and I use the back of my heels to tap out the rhythm of the thunder onto the steel of the cabin side. In this manner I mark the storm’s progress, its steady march towards me. It will soon be here, and I will soon be forced to leave my vantage point. The pontoons are deserted at this late hour; it is just the storm, the river and I, or so I think. I often sense a presence in the night; eyes that follow and the soft tread of feet. The thunder and my beating drown out all other sounds but I begin to realise that you are near too. I turn my back on the thunderstorm and scan the roof of the boat moored beside me for any sign of life. It is here that I find you, sitting, watching me; a guardian against the night’s unknowns. I speak your name into the clamour from above and you leap the gap between the boats to join me. I hug you close as we turn our attention back to the approaching spectacle. The sky’s rumble is nearly constant now and the sudden gust of wind tells me it is time to prepare to move. A spear of lightning grounds somewhere beyond the houses in front of us but I wait until the first drops of rain clatter against steelwork before I give the sign. “INCOMING!” I yell, but my call is lost in the tumult as we dash for the safety of the deck below.

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The Big Snow

Floods you can handle; you are an old pro now. Snow, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. On the day of the Big Snow you woke us early as you clattered through the cat flap with enough speed for us to think that your tail was on fire. Even in the early morning darkness snowflakes stood stark against your black fur as you jumped onto the bed. We watched them melt as you snuggled into the blankets. We were swift to rise to our chores and with hushed voices, for we did not want to scare the snow away, we discussed what adventures the day might hold.

We did not rush out straight away. We know that too much eagerness would not pay dividends; snow is a wily creature like that, shy to show herself this far south. Give her time to feel comfortable and then,  perhaps, she will stay.

“Pretend the snow’s not there,” I said as I poked my head outside to check that the water in our tank had not frozen. I stuck my tongue out and caught a few flakes as they fell, regardless of my instruction.

“Pfft! Snow? Call that snow?” I heard Rob cheekily taunt as he checked that our firewood was sheltered and our coal bags accessible. He built up the fire in the stove to keep us toasty warm and we tried not to think about the many mornings we had woken to find the fire burning too low and ice creeping up the inside of the side hatch. You ignored the snow and hid under the blankets. We thought you played our game well.

Even before dawn our resolve started to crack and when we could contain our excitement no longer you crawled from the bed to watch, ears back against your head in disapproval, as we bundled on woollens to protect ourselves against the cold.

“Time to play!” I called to you as we headed out to meet the adventure-we-could-not-earlier-openly-discuss. You begrudgingly followed us, as you always do, picking your path carefully through the snow, afraid that we would get ourselves into the kind of trouble only a cat can rescue us from.

We built a snowcat in the park, following the tradition that if it snows we build a magnificent creature to overlook our neighbour’s boat, but this did not cheer you. Nor did our trek to the deserted play park to experience the snowy slides and the zip wire. Rob and I had a snowball fight under the orange gaze of the street lights and we made snow angels in the banks beside the lane; we did all the childish things snow makes thirty-somethings do when no one else is around to cast judgement. You silently brooded on yours before turning tail and giving us up for lost.

We found you later, once we were home, soggy, and exhausted. We curled up in front of the stove and watched you watching the world as the snow, against your obvious wishes, continued to fall.

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When the floods came.

The day the water rose and cut us off from the mainland we knew it was coming not because of the amount of rain (the Thames is fast flowing and able to cope with most weather events) but because you forewarned us of the impending danger. We have flooded only a handful of times over the last nine years and you have sensed the rising water each time, even before the Environment Agency, with all their data, issued us with their warnings. So famous were you during the 2007 floods that the local radio station asked after you. You became known as Lolly the Flood Predicting Cat!

Your first warning came in 2004. You led me to a puddle in the car park but I did not know what you wanted so I pointed at the puddle and said “yes, puddle. Well done,” before walking away. Again and again you led me back, and to the gate that leads from the premises, but still I did not understand what you were trying to tell me. Twenty-four hours later there was no car park and we were left watching cars wallow in the water. They were ruined. The river had risen four foot before dawn and there was nothing we could do.

We understand your ways better now. On 25th December last year you seemed agitated again, an unsettledness that only precedes flooding. When you tried to escort me from the premises I knew it was time to sound the alarm. In the post-Christmas-dinner darkness, I knocked on neighbouring boats and told the occupants that it was time to move their cars to higher ground. Those that know you were swift to act, but those new here seemed a little befuddled and insisted they waited until morning, that their vehicles would be safe until then. A cat, they argued, does not know the way of the river. “No,” I had urged them, “a flood is coming. You must move your car now,” and so they did, begrudgingly, wrapped up against the chilly night air. I think they secretly cursed us both for disturbing their Christmas revelry. By morning access to the site by road was lost, the water was too deep. You had got it right, yet again, much to the amazement of those that doubted.

For three months we waited for that water to recede. Three months of wading through river water that reached my thighs, of bringing groceries in by dinghy, and carrying you out so you could roam dry land. A day came at the beginning of March as the water was receding when a well-wisher phoned to enquire after us. “I think we’re going to be okay,” I said as I watched you play in the car park. “The water is only belly-high on a cat.”

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Season’s change.

The days are warm and bright, but as dusk approaches gulls will cross the sky on their migratory path northwards, indicating a change in the season. During the day, though, we enjoy the sunshine as we sit in the little office hut and watch the boats coming home from their summer of adventures. There are stories to be told, and we will hear them all as we greet their return. You will curl up on the filing cabinet and pretend not to listen but the swish of your tail or the twitch of an ear will give your game away. You know the friendly chatter of the regulars who will rub your belly and coo over you, and you listen for the unknown voices of winter moorers who you will later petition for morsels of their supper. Regulars know better than to feed you by now. You are not as fat as you once were because the sign on the office board warns against your charm offensive and lists the threats the veterinary nurse showered me with when last you saw her. We need you healthy and full of life because what would this little office hut be without you? What would we be without you? You are as part of boat life here as the rising and falling of the water levels, as the changing of the seasons, and the passing of gulls overhead.

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On the move.

We’re going on an adventure,” I tell you. “Do you remember those? It’s been a while.”

You look at me in horror to let me know you remember them only too well and don’t fancy another.

“Relax,” I say, “and watch the world pass. We’ll be there soon.”

And you sit on the roof of the boat and you watch. We pass a heron, motionless, as it watches the water for fish in the reeds to port-side, and red kites circle over sun-burnished fields as wheat is harvested by lumbering machines. The countryside slides by as the metropolis beckons. You watch it all, but I can tell this is not the type of adventure you had in mind for today.

It’s okay,” I try to reassure. “We’re staying on the edge of town. Stay close by and you’ll be fine.”

You glare at me, a look that hints at mutiny; eyes wild and green and unforgiving. We betrayed you this morning. The day started as it should; a cat asleep on the bed. But now, after slumber has been cruelly snatched from you by the convulsions of a home propelled by an engine, the day is going badly. There is no sleeping now.

We moor below Oxford and you snuggle against me and purr. All is forgiven because we are here safe, together, and I feel the pull of adventure tugging at your fur. There are new places to explore tonight under the cover of darkness…

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