Thank you, dear readers, for your wonderful notes regarding your Certificates of Catology. You should all celebrate your expertise and take pride in your achievement. And yes, those little cat portraits on your certificates of appreciation are reproduced the same size that I painted them. And yes, they are all my cats — maybe you’ll recognize this fella, Taffy:You can’t tell from this photo, but it’s bucketing down. (Rain is very, very hard to photograph.) I am standing at the den window, looking out on the back patio. Taffy is sitting on the low bench that Top Cat built for the cats so they have a perch, under the eaves, out of the rain.
I tapped on the window and said to Taffy, “Wouldn’t you rather be inside with me?”
Taffy thought that was a good idea.
(This is Taffy, 15 minutes later.)
As I type this, it is Sunday August 14 2011. Something about today’s rain — the persistence of it, the warmth, and pallor, the Sunday-ness of it — reminds me of another kind of rain. Irish rain. The kind that falls on a traveler, far from home, who feels stymied by the weather, the ennui, the age (mine).
I was 29, alone and at odds-and-ends with myself, hitchiking around Ireland. It was the Summer of 1985.
In fact, it was August 14, 1985. I know exactly what I was doing on such a day as this, on this exact day in fact. (It was a Wednesday, but in a foreign country, every rainy day feels like a Sunday.)
On this certain rainy Sundayish-Wednesday in Ireland, I was in Derry (formerly known as Londonderry), in Northern Ireland. Bits of the city was still smoldering (yes: smoldering. I have photos. Of black smoke wafting up from the Catholic slum) from the annual riots that accompany the August 12 Apprentice Boys of Derry march that commemorates the 1689 Siege of Derry – which, like all marches in Northern Ireland, is really an excuse for the Catholics and the Protestants to beat the crap out of each other. But, to be fair, even in-between march days, Derry is not a happy place:
Derry is known to many as the cradle of the ‘troubles’, the civil rights movement that was reborn in 1969. Derry is also the location of Bloody Sunday when British Paratroopers shot dead 13 civil rights protesters on 31st Jan 1972.
Well. You can imagine that the smell and look of Derry is not enhanced by pouring rain. And I was not in the mood to pick sides, investigate the history, learn myself some culture. Nope. All I wanted was a warm dry place to sit and drink tea.
So I was wandering down one of Derry’s shopping streets (which were all open, not barricaded and patrolled by British tanks like they would be when I got to Belfast later that month) and I found a book shop. And in that book shop I found the book that changed the mood of the day for me.
I hasten to add that ever since I’d arrived in Galway four week earlier, I’d been buying up books about the Irish Renaissance as I moseyed to Dublin and back to Connaught and up the west coast– Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats, that Synge guy. But like I said, I was not interested in any of that on this particular day.
On this day, I found these books:
In the 1980s, the English writer-illustrator Graham Oakley produced a series of children’s books, 8 in all, each a 40-page paper back about an orange cat named Sampson
who lives in an fine old country church with a huge number of church mice friends.
The books cost 1.95 pounds each, about the same price as a room at the youth hostel; I bought my first Church Mice book on this day, August 14, 1985.
I bought The Church Mice in Action, and I scurried out the door and found a dumpy little tea cafe further down the road. I got a cup of tea (in those days, it cost 10 pence a cup, and a sugar doughnut cost 15p).
I liked that book so much that I returned to the shop the next day (it was still raining) and bought all the titles they had in stock. And, as you can see (above), I still have these books, despite all my travels, and moves, and huge purges that I’ve lived through these last 25 years.
Today, with the rain and these memories on my mind, I fetched The Church Mice in Action from my bookshelf and re-read it for the first time in, oh, five years. The story, and the art, still makes me laugh.
There is something extraordinary on every page of this book, but I’ll give you just a tiny taste of this story, about the time that the Church Mice hatched a scheme to raise money to fix the old church roof by entering Sampson in a cat show, whose jury they rigged.
The plot twist comes when two villains kidnap Sampson and hold him for ransom — they wanted the 10 pounds Sampson won at the cat show.
Of course, the Church Mice rescue Sampson, who is tied up in a show box:
Which the Church Mice ring leaders, Arthur and Humphrey, think is hilarious:
and a little girl on a bicycle picks them up and Sampson has the last laugh, sitting in the cat bird seat:
As for the leaky church roof, well,
It leaked more than ever but the verger kept the stove going day and night and with bits of the parish magazine stuffed in the cracks around the windows and a few hassocks along the bottom of the doors to keep out the draughts, the mice could doze cosily around the stove on winter evenings while Humphrey told them for the hundreth time about how he had outwitted the kidnappers.
You all know by now that this is my raison d’etre as a writer, capturing the lightest, least iconic, most unforgettable moments of life. Because it’s not as if I have much choice to be anything but a chronicler of life’s itty bitty, everlasting moments. Put me in a rainy Derry that is still on fire from a centuries-old quasi-religious civil rights feud when I am chasing some sense of importance in my numerically significant 29th year on Earth, and I come back with a cat book. (But it’s a swell cat, book, isn’t it?)
Today, now, after 12 hours of rain, it is still bucketing down here on Long Island, and it’s now tea time. I will probably make a cup of Irish Breakfast tea and read more of my 1985 diary and hatch a chapter in my new memoir about Everything I know About Rain, Home and Abroad. (Or not. I’m still mulling over the next project.)
And if you have a story about a rainy day far from home, do tell us about it. The smaller the better.