I returned to my home in London after travelling in India, Nepal and South East Asia for almost two and a half years. It was not the first time I had returned to London but it was the first time back in my own home which had been let out to tenants while I was away. It was some time at the beginning of November 2016 and the climate, though some degrees cooler than I had been used to in Northern Thailand was not unpleasant. It was good to be home again despite the fact that I had to force the front door as I did not have a key for the Yale lock. The lock had been replaced by the lettings agency, in my absence. The agency had not responded to my emails or phone calls asking them to meet me at the apartment but, fortunately, at least I did have a key for the mortice lock. Otherwise I would have been in real trouble. The flimsy Yale lock gave without too much pressure and suddenly, there I was, back in my own home again.
The scene that greeted me was quite familiar. The thick beige carpet in the livingroom which the carpet shop had described as champagne-coloured when they sold it to me. The funky abstract painting dominating the space just above where the fireplace had been. A friend had once jokingly described it as being like the imprint of an old rusty barrel on canvas with two lines drawn through it to make it interesting. it was actually called Equilibrium and I bought it with a windfall I received at work some years ago. It still held pride of place in my livingroom. The old furniture was beginning to look its age (a bit like myself) but with a warmth and familiarity that for a weary traveller like me was welcoming after a long journey. I was grateful to discover that the apartment was more or less intact and had not suffered any dire consequences as a result of the letting. I met the first tenants before I left and got on quite well with them. We have since stayed in touch on social media. Lorenzo was a well known tattoo artist and Barbara was a photographer. They were both from Brazil and got married while staying at my place. I knew very little about the second tenants except for the fact that they kicked up quite a stink when they first moved in, seemed to settle after a while and then kicked off again before they left. I let the Lettings agency deal with them, after all, that was what I was paying them for. But I was grateful that I did not have to face any major consequences of my decision to let.
I had travelled for quite some time and had slept in many different places. While my financial circumstances were reasonably good I was certainly not able to afford 5 star travel and accommodation. In fact there were more than a few occasions when I could delete all those stars and replace them with black holes as a more appropriate measure to describe the level of accommodation I stayed in. There was the rickety old overnight bus ride, manically driven up the Western Ghatt mountains in India. Not long into the trip I thought that I had signed my death warrant by travelling with what began to feel like the tour bus from hell. Whizzing round hairpin bends at full tilt while crazily beeping the horn and trying, at the same time, to overtake lorries. Steering right on the verge of the road so that I got a first class view of the drop down below me. Crazily lurching from side to side while barely avoiding the cars, trucks and buses coming in the other direction. Somehow I managed, eventually, to fall asleep, only to be wakened by the driver, at midnight, to inform us that we had reached our first rest stop and everyone had to get off and head for the roadside canteen. I slept on hard wooden boards in hostels while trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal. But after a full day’s trekking, ever upwards into the mountains, sleep on a hard surface was no problem. I was so weary and exhausted I could just about make it into the sleeping bag and then it was lights out. I slept in so many guest houses of varying quality that I can’t remember half of them but there were lots of garish colours, dodgy electrical wiring and a whole world of insects and lizards that, previously, I never knew existed. The breakfasts could at times be challenging, to say the least, but most of the time it was good fun and I shared the experience with so many new friends that I met along the way. On one occasion in Cambodia, I arrived at a hostel in Siem Reap after an overnight bus trip. I was so exhausted I just went out like a lamp on the bed. Some hours later I woke to the noise of people scurrying around in the hall and talking loudly to each other. At the same time I noticed an odd smell which I presumed was coming from somewhere in the hall. Still only half conscious I staggered out of bed and started looking around. I opened the window and just as I did so, the electrical socket on the wall burst into flames. I let the staff into the room and as they set about dealing with the fire, I collected my gear and headed for the hall. After some time the owner of the place emerged apologising profusely and explained that the fan had overheated the socket. He then said “Its ok you go back in now.” I politely declined and checked out thanking my lucky stars that I had escaped with my life.
So on entering my own home again, I felt a warmth about the place that, perhaps, I had probably not appreciated before. It was almost as if the old place was trying to reach out and give me a hug. I was more than happy to hug it back in return. For me there is a marked difference between the place that you come from and the place that you call home. My background and Nationality is Irish but I did not actually live there for very long. I am proud of my background and happy to call myself Irish but London is my home and has been for most of my life. It is often said that no matter where you travel in the world you will always want to return to London. I can understand why this is so, as it is a place so diverse in every aspect, from the very poor to the wealthy from colour, race, creed or religious belief and also those who choose not to practice religion or believe in a deity. London is a special place that you can only begin to understand if you live there. Hackney, where I live, was the place chosen by many Dissenters who fell foul of the 5 mile law introduced in 1665 by Charles 11 to prevent those who disagreed with the teaching of the Church of England from conducting their business from within the city walls. The long title of the Act describes it as an “An Act for restraining Non Conformists from inhabiting in Corporations.” As a result of this many Dissenters had to move 5 miles away from the city walls and Hackney became one of the preferred destinations. This part of London has provided homes for many refugees down through the ages from the Lacemakers from the Lowlands in Elizabethan times fleeing from the war with Spain to the Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. The nineteenth century saw many Jews from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine arrive as well as Irish fleeing famine in the mid nineteenth century. London has a long tradition of providing homes and work for refugees.
After a couple of days the agency finally got in touch and said they would like to come round and do a handover. I thought, well better late than never. When Ali arrived he was full of heartfelt apologies and excuses that seemed to include all manner of holocaust, fire and flood. I got him a coffee and sat him down and he spoke of all the checks they had done before the tenants vacated which sounded as if they could have been inspecting a Saturn 5 rocket. He asked me if I had noticed that the carpets had been professionally cleaned and I replied no. Having cleaned the carpets myself over the years I knew what they looked like when cleaned properly and it was very clear to me this had not been done. I said “Send me the receipt for tax purposes” and Ali started to scribble furiously in his notebook. He then changed the subject to the tenants and regaled me with a few anecdotes which, (to my horror), included mounting a giant movie screen from the celling. Thankfully there remained no evidence of this so I was not too bothered by the revelation. He then went on to talk about a black cat that kept coming into the flat and heading straight for the sofa. This seemed to be quite a common occurrence according to Ali. I remembered that various cats would hang out in the garden at times but I could not remember a black one. As neither I nor my neighbour had any pets the moggies would vie for the territory claiming different spots in the garden, on the walls or the extension rooves as their own. I had no idea who owned these cats but they obviously had homes in the neighbourhood somewhere. We also had a family of foxes that been there a long time, breeding and raising their young. They seemed to co-exist quite well with the cats. I saw a fox one morning saunter up past a cat, who was lounging on a low garden wall in the neighbouring property. The cat did not move or show any regard for the interloper who was only about a foot below. The fox, on his part, did not even turn his head in the cat’s direction but slowly went on his way. I figured they must have some kind of understanding between them that allowed them to co-exist in this way. Strange really, introduce a dog to the scene and all hell would probably break loose.
Apart from foxes and cats the other main residents that abound in the locale are squirrels. Its hard to know where to start with these amazing little creatures. They are endless fun to watch, cocky, mischievous, unbelievably acrobatic and as cute as hell with their little bushy tales flapping all over the place. It is hard to think of them as members of the rodent family as they epitomise everything that the rodent does not. The poor old sewer rats got a bad deal when the gene pool was being dished out. Destined to live out their lives universally despised while their little bushy-tailed cousins are adored. They live below ground or behind dark crevices constantly scurrying around like thieves in the night trying to avoid a whole host of lethal enemies. You won’t find Attenborough whimsically gushing about the poor old sewer rat and yet they can be found everywhere. I stayed in a hotel in Panjim, Goa, my first week in India. The restaurant was in a large area that was partially outdoors. I will never forget watching this massive rat slowly sauntering along the side wall of the restaurant. Partly surprised and partly panicked I drew the waiter’s attention to it. He was stoically non-plussed by its presence. As he watched it disappear into a void at the corner of the wall he turned to me with a roguish smile and said “he is gone now.” I couldn’t argue with his logic and realised that as all animal life is considered sacred in India they obviously have much greater tolerance of animals than we do in the West. Our attitude seems to be “let’s exterminate everything that isn’t us.” A Hindu lady once told me that eating a cow would be like eating her own mother. I guess that puts it all in its proper perspective.
The squirrels engage in a constant battle with the cats who sneak along the walls and fences in the vain hope that they will catch them. I have often watched this drama play out while sitting in my back garden. The cats use all their predatory guile like feline ninjas as they creep along. With each step they coil up like taut springs, patiently waiting for that one opportunity. But time after time it ends in failure as their nifty little adversaries are always that one leap ahead and their ability to climb up the tree with gravity-defying agility is breathtaking to watch with their combination of speed and strength. I always got the impression that the squirrels were playing with the cats. So often it was left to the last second before they took off and they would, sometimes, just sit a few feet up the trunk, in what appeared like an act of defiance, waiting for the cat to make one last, desperate leap before launching itself once more beyond its reach. Strangely enough, I never saw the black cat engage in this activity. It was as if he had figured out the futility of it all and decided it was not worth engaging. He was not prepared to subject his dignity to such an ignominious loss.
I was back in my home about three days when I first encountered The Dark Shadow wandering along the hallway as I came out of the livingroom. I live in is a raised ground floor apartment in a mid 19th century house in Clapton, Hackney. It is a reasonably large house containing 5 apartments, three above and one below me. My apartment has good sized rooms with 11′ ceilings. The houses were originally built for wealthy city workers who wanted to live in the countryside but also be able to commute to the City of London in reasonably quick time. They were built in the 1860s, shortly after the railway had arrived, on the edge of Hackney Marshes near the river Lea providing an ideal residence for the upwardly mobile city gents. Fortunately, the wide open spaces of Hackney Marshes still remain, but the metropolis has long since engulfed most of Hackney. The internal hallway in the apartment leads from the livingroom to the kitchen and as is a raised ground floor apartment. There is a stairway of approximately 12 steps down to the garden. While at home I often leave the kitchen door open to let the air in. Prior to my letting the apartment I was not aware of any animals ever wandering in. As the estate agent had told me about this black cat I knew immediately that this had to be the one that I had been warned of. At this point I should explain my relationship with animals and pets. I like most animals, birds and insects. In fact I tolerate spiders up to a point as I understand they serve a useful purpose and they are fascinating to watch. I don’t like mice around the place but will try and get rid of them humanely rather that kill them if I can. Growing up in Ireland we kept dogs and cats but they had to sleep outdoors or in the garage. The cats usually were able to find ways of sneaking back inside and hiding in the attic but the dog did not enjoy this luxury and had a bed in the garage. We were always around cattle and pigs and various other farm animals so I never had a problem with them. During my mid twenties I spent a couple of years on my uncle’s farm in the West of Ireland. I loved working with the cattle as they could, sometimes behave like domesticated pets. It was, however, a great shame knowing that they would be sold for slaughter at some point. Living in an apartment in London is a different matter. I have never kept a pet because of the long hours when they would be left alone. I know it is different for cats as they are happily independent and can get along quite nicely on their own. I would not want to leave a dog on its own for any length of time as they need company and rely on contact with their owner. I was at work most of the time and when on holidays I liked to travel so keeping a pet was never really an option for me.
As soon as we saw each other in the hallway there was a brief pause like you might see in an old Western movie when the protagonists in a gunfight finally come face to face having wandered the streets looking for each other for what might seem like an eternity. Our eyes briefly met and I could tell The Shadow was wondering who the hell this was until I let out a roar and charged ominously in his direction. This was like a reflex action on my part with its origins in the methodology used back in the old days in Ireland whenever a furry creature was seen loitering where it was not wanted. The Dark One did not need a second warning. He was off and gone legging it down the back stairway in a manner that would have drawn a standing ovation from the squirrels had they been watching. I did feel a bit guilty but not a lot. I was aware that he had apparently been coming into the flat at will and unless I wanted to acquire a pet by proxy I had to set some boundaries. So, over the next few weeks there were a number of encounters. Not always in the hallway but quite a few times in the bedroom as the window was often left open to let in a the air. This was sometimes a bit traumatic as The Shadow would panic when he saw me and make a mad rush for the window. It was obviously a lot easier for him to enter than to get back out again. He would get a bit flustered trying to leave at maximum speed. I did not shout or rush him as I did not want him to get frightened. I wanted him to know that he should not be there but that he had enough time to make his escape. I’m sure any pet lovers reading this might think I was a bit callous and maybe I was. But the way I saw it was that he was not my cat and someone, somewhere must be looking out for him despite the fact that I never saw anyone with him. I think he thought of my place as an extension of his territory and had obviously been welcomed by one of the previous tenants. Lets say I had him on a retraining programme. It certainly worked as, after a short time, there were less and less attempts to storm the ramparts.
I would encounter him from time to time. He seemed to enjoy mooching around the binsheds at the front of our property, sometimes lounging on top to catch the last rays of the fading sun or lurking about in the long grass chewing stems or scraping the woodwork of the binshed with his claws to sharpen them in preparation for his nocturnal excursions or the occasional combat with rivals from the locality. Every now and then he would appear on my windowsill, the huge green eyes with dark almond-shaped pupils peering in with what seemed like envy or perhaps it was just an expression of regret. I began to meet him from time to time on my way home. He made a point of avoiding me as soon as he saw me despite my occasional attempts to reconcile and make friends with him. I came to admire his haughty independence and respect the fact that he did not wish to make contact. He would disappear for long periods and re-appear, once again, as though he had never left. Around this time some South American neighbours, a mother and her daughter, moved in above me. The mother spoke no English but the daughter, who was in her early twenties spoke a little. They struggled to understand how their electricity meter worked and I tried to help them as best I could. There were other times when they had minor crises and they would knock on my door. I always tried to help as I knew how difficult it was to be in another country and not understand the language. Every small task takes on mammoth proportions and any offer of help can make a big difference. After a while the daughter acquired a couple of cats. I knew this because I started to hear miaowing and initially thought the noise was coming from within my apartment. I searched a couple of times thinking that a cat had got inside but then realised the noise was coming from above. They were never a problem as they did not make a lot of noise. When I finally saw them I was amazed at their size. This was partly due to the fact that they were neutered or speyed or whatever it is they do with cats to stop them breeding and partly due to the fact that they never left the confines of the small flat they lived in. They were very gentle and liked to be petted but were mostly kept indoors. Once or twice I had to go out on the flat roof to retrieve cat cushions and other cat related items that had somehow fallen out the window. Compared to The Shadow these two were almost like a different species. He was almost wild and definitely free, roaming as he wished among the gardens seemingly disinterested in human contact while the two eunuchs above me relied totally on their human keepers.
As time passed we went our separate paths. By that I mean, I no longer tried to befriend him and he cared even less about me. Then, in the Autumn of 2017, I was lounging on my sofa with earphones covering my ears, listening to Comfortably Numb when I heard a sound, that seemed to grow ever louder until I knew it was definitely not the album. I sat up and there he was just sauntering in to the livingroom, (like puss in boots), without a care in the world, giving me the feline version of the song. I probably sat up too quickly because it spooked him. I had intended to offer the olive branch but before I could do so he was off and gone like a runaway train down the track. I couldn’t help feeling regret that I had lost the opportunity to make friends. Not long after we were confronted with one of the worst Winters that I can remember. It didn’t help that I had just spent a couple of years in tropical climates. As age catches up with me, the cold sees to creep into my bones with much greater intensity reducing me to an near catatonic state as I try to keep myself warm. It is not always like that but when it hits hard I long for the balmy, intense heat of the tropics. Moving around is a chore and every part of me seems to creak. It is on those days that I really feel my age in every single part of my body. What distinguished the Winter of 2018 was its sheer relentlessness. It just went on and on. Most Winter’s you get an occasional break that gives, at least, a temporary relief from the worst ravages. This Winter gave no such respite and we had to endure the perfect union of The Beast from the East and Storm Emma as they combined to rock us back on our snow-covered heels. It was during this period that I happened to see the Shadow lying down in the garden. I did not give him much thought, as he and all the other cats would sit in the garden from time to time. But when I came back, after a few hours, he was still there. I went into the garden, slowly and careful not to spook him. He just lay there with the odd movement of his head, lifting it wearily to gaze up at me. I didn’t try to stroke him as he seemed quite weak and I thought it might cause him stress. I just talked soothingly but he seemed not to be too aware of me. He looked thin and emaciated which caused me some concern as I thought he may be suffering from some cat virus or perhaps he had eaten something that contained poison. I went back into the kitchen and got a bowl. I filled it with milk and got some bits of sausage and bacon and some butter. I laid it out in front of him and left him there in the hope that he would eat the food. He never did. It remained there on the plate for a couple of days until I finally removed it. He had recovered at some point and was nowhere to be seen. I was not sure if he refused my offering out of a sense of pride or whether it just didn’t take his fancy. I know that these days some pets will only eat a particular type of food and nothing else. It is a far cry from the cats we had at home that would eat anything that was offered and sometimes not offered. If left, unintentionally, on the table or sideboard, the cats would carry out a quick daring raid that would see a leg of chicken or a rainbow trout disappear from the kitchen table or larder as though it had never existed.
This was indeed a strange year. No sooner had the icy breath of Winter touched our cheeks for the last time than we were embraced in the arms of Helios by a Summer that would have us reaching for ever more magnificent superlatives to describe it. Finally a Summer to rival the blistering hot summer of 76 that some of us still remembered. I certainly did but with a lot of mixed feelings. Broke, more or less homeless, definitely rudderless and most probably gormless. It was to be the beginning of my long march back to sanity after the those drink and drug fuelled years of my late teens and early twenties. I guess you might call it a re-awakening on what would eventually become my path to normal living. But that summer was really hot and it went on forever. For those who might not understand, summers in Ireland and the U K are characterised by the amount of torrential rain that falls continuously throughout. Just as the sun seems to be readying itself to shine brightly through the clouds, a spot of grey will appear, it will grow and grow until all the white fluffy bits have been enveloped and then the clouds burst open and pour their contents down upon us poor, hopeless optimists who dared to think that maybe, just maybe, this year would be different. Occasionally, we might be gifted with a few days, or even a week or two of fine weather but this is usually the exception rather than the rule. More often the summer is characterised by a palette of dull grey which is why the inhabitants of these islands are so keen to head off and invade the beaches of Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and anywhere with a bit of Med where our pale bodies and red faces are an endless source of amusement to the locals . There are various versions of the term “Roast Beef” used to describe us sun-starved Northerners that have become an indelible fixture on beaches right across the Mediterranean. The Summer of 2018 will live long in the memories of those who donned their shorts and tees-shirts in early May and did not once have to consider a mac or an umbrella until the end of August. At first it was about getting out there at every opportunity. Walks in the country, trips to the seaside, furious work around the garden to get everything done before the rains came. But the sun shone, without a word of a lie, from early morning until late at night, getting ever more intense until, like all those people who live with the searing heat as a normal part of their day, we began to cover up and seek out the shade as the sun turned the landscape into a dry, burnt out wasteland previously unseen in these green and pleasant lands. People started to seriously consider the effect of global warming, worrying about the crops and rising prices of food because of the lack of rain. Forest fires and barbecue bans became regular news topics as we revelled in the sunshine while simultaneously worrying about the future of our planet. Such is the human condition, when we finally get something that we have longed so many years for, we find a reason to tear it all down again. Never happy with what we’ve got.
This was not a great time for the cats. Their furry coats do not wear well in the intense heat and this meant they were not seen very often as they were probably busy finding the shadiest and coolest area where they could lie down and doze until evening when they could re-emerge and pursue their nocturnal adventures. I barely caught anything but the odd glimpse of The Shadow during the summer. I probably spent more time in the garden that I had ever done before. I have never been a gardener. But this summer I got stuck in and started growing herbs, some in pots and others directly in the ground. This was reasonably successful and I enjoyed the whole process so much that I paid a couple of visits to Columbia Road and bought Honeysuckle, Jasmin and a Japanese maple to add to the various other plants that I had already grown. It was quite a lot of work to keep everything watered during the summer but I did so regularly and took great pride in the results. As the Summer progressed my focus turned to my upcoming trip to Chang Mai in Northern Thailand. I had been there, a couple of times, previously. I had made quite a few friends and kept in touch with them in my absence. I had booked the flight, one very cold morning in February, as a commitment to shortening my next Winter in London. I would go in early September and return at the beginning of December. As time grew closer I started getting back into travel mode. Travel opens up so many different possibilities. The different sights and smells, strange fruits that you have never seen or tasted before. The vibrant Sunday market in Chang Mai’s Old Town full of delicious food and drinks and the wonderful mix of cultures from Western backpackers to the more recently affluent and capricious Chinese. The Thais are more than happy to take money from allcomers for this is The Land of Smiles and the Thais, above all else, enjoy doing business. Over the centuries they have managed to adapt to circumstances as they arise and turn it to their advantage. They are the only country in South East Asia that was never colonised by Europeans and they managed to persuade the British and the French that Thai neutrality would be to both of their advantage. One has to admire their diplomatic skills in maintaining their independence in such a volatile region. Northern Thais are known to be laid back and that is the great attraction. Chang Mai is a nice sized city and this works to its advantage. It is a favourite stopover for backpackers and digital nomads. Like many South East Asian cities it is inundated with scooters and diesel-spewing vans and lorries but nothing quite as bad as Bangkok, Saigon or Hanoi. The locals are friendly and tolerant of the multitudes that descend upon them at various times. The local dish Kao Sau (chicken and fried noodles cooked in coconut milk) is just part of the delicious culinary array that is available on every street where restaurants abound and the street food will have you going back for more and more. Travel provides us with a vista beyond the dull and mundane horizons that can so easily imprison us in our own small worlds. Opening up to other people and places, that are outside of our normal experience, makes us better people, more tolerant, more accepting and less fearful of “the other.”
The last few days before leaving was busy. All those niggly little details. Do I need to do this before I go, do I need to speak to him or her, do I have copies of this or that. As all this was going on I was still fighting a war with a moth infestation that I had, unfortunately, acquired. At one point I thought I had got on top of it only to find they had somehow survived the intensely cold winter and were revelling and proliferating in the glorious Summer. I had visited a reign of terror down upon them having researched all I could on You Tube until I was one of Hackney’s leading experts on the species. I regret to say that I must have slain hundreds of them as well as seeking out their larvae and eggs and treating them to a tsunami of bleach. I don’t enjoy killing any living creature but I had no other alternative and when I discovered they had eaten my favourite Foxford scarf it was the last straw. It was either going to be me or them. There were still a few around at the time I left but certainly not very many. I packed away anything that I thought was remotely edible into plastic bags and any container that could be zipped up and hoped for the best.
I was about to lock up the kitchen door leading to the garden when I thought of one last task I had to do which was to conceal a set of keys somewhere in my back garden in case I ever needed to gain entry in an emergency. When I opened the back kitchen door who should I see standing near the bottom of the stairs but The Dark Shadow himself. I said “hello there” and proceeded down the steps expecting him to scurry back into the bushes. Instead he kept his distance but started to talk to me in that strange cat language that always makes me think that I should understand him because it sounds so familiar. I replied to him and he looked at me as if to say “that’s not what I was talking about mate, you obviously weren’t listening to a word I said.” I went about my business, which took me probably five or six minutes. When I turned around he was still there standing directly in my path as I walked back. This time there was no turning or running away. He miaowed and purred and came up to me and as I bent down he came over and started to nuzzle his head against my hand. This was the first physical contact that I had ever made with The Shadow. We had never been this close before and certainly never on such friendly terms. As I stroked him, he playfully bit my hand without hurting me and returned each time to allow me to stroke him again. I couldn’t help thinking that somehow he knew that I was going somewhere and had come to say goodbye. But how could that be. It was, surely, just a chance encounter after all. Strange that over these past two years we had not exactly been what you would describe as bosom buddies. I had grown to respect and admire this wonderfully independent creature who roamed the streets and gardens nearby. He had kept his distance from me and there had never been any desire on either part to change those arrangements. But perhaps that is what brought us together at that point. Despite all our differences we shared a deeper connection. Two weary pilgrims on the road to nowhere perhaps. Whatever the reason it was an encounter that touched and moved me in a way that didn’t really need an explanation. It was just pure and simple an exchange of mutual affection The Dark Shadow and I, first contact, peace and understanding.