Of Animals and Me
IT’S RAINING CATS AND DOGS
Cornflour paste and newspaper strips were used to make masks in mid October. Grandfather was asked to give old clothes. Long john underwear was stitched to woolen jumpers and stuffed with straw and packed paper, and gloves and socks were sewn on the end of the limbs. Why? Because of the protestant festival of Guy Fawkes. For three weeks I took my guy on a wooden wheelbarrow to Royal Oak to collect coins from passers by with the traditional chant:
Please to remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason the gunpowder treason will ever be forgot.
Four and twenty barrels lying down below
To blow old England overflow.
Happy was the day, happy was the night
They met old Guy Fawkes going to his plight.
With a dark old candle and a lantern in his hand.
Get out, get out, you wicked old man.
God save the king. God save the king.
A penny for the Guy, a penny for the Guy,
If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God Bless You.
The chant was well worth 6 pence. Mrs. Powell, who had a small bookshop and private lending library, was my friend. When I was five and six she bought Biggles books for me. Captain Bigglesworth and Ginger were flying exciting sorties to biff the krauts. Then, when I was a little older, she would lend me books for two pennies a week or three pennies for two books. I was a two-book-a-week boy by the time I was eight. Thick books by Henry Rider Haggard like She, and Montezuma’s Daughter, and King Solomon’s Mine.
Two weeks before Guy Fawkes day, she sold fireworks. There were the noisy ones: throwdowns which worked without wicks, double happies which were two strands of woven crackers from China, mighty canons with a hard central tar-soaked wick. And the expensive jumping jacks (a snake of continuous gunpowder tube tied tightly top and bottom). There were beautiful ones that Mrs Powell encouraged boys to buy. Little pots of Mount Etnas showered out a volcano of red and silver sparks, Bengal Lancers with green feather-like plumes, and tall thin pipes known as Roman candles. There were the expensive sky rockets that had to be placed in bottles and had the instruction: light blue touch-paper and stand clear. But even more costly were twisted spirals that had to be nailed to posts. But the cheapest were wires covered with a metal powder, sparklers, but at night you could use them to write your name in continuous script in the dark air.
And on the afternoon of the fifth, Mrs. Powell gave a big bag of assorted fireworks to those who had made the best guys. A five year old got a bag, another for those under eight, under ten, under fourteen, over fourteen. In the last week before the Bonfire Night we piled up timber scraps, branches and old car tires. After Mrs. Powell had judged our guys, we pushed our wheelbarrows home and balanced the figure on top of the heap. Waiting for the dark to come made time seem endless. The whole festival commemorates the execution of Catholic rebels who had stacked barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the English Houses of Parliament to blow up the Protestant King James.
The bonfires were lit centuries later to remind us that traitors were hanged just a little, but lowered before they choked, then they were stretched by horses pulling ropes tied to ankles and wrists, revived to watch their intestines slowly drawn from a slit in the abdomen and burned in front of their eyes. Charming! But our neighbor, Mrs. Potter, although she was a Catholic, always allowed the children to come over to our backyard to watch the fire. Well... One year when I was about 6 years old Mr. Potter suggested that the bonfire could be in their back garden. We took our combustibles to their pyre and I provided my prize-winning stuffed guy. Mr. Potter was a cabinet maker with real skills who formed beautifully joined furniture. He got exotic timber via Hong Kong so he was able to buy a big tea chest packed full of the most special Chinese fireworks. The wooden box was held together by tin edges and had metal pads at each corner. Hundreds of crackers. Hundreds of everything pyrotechnic. Robert Potter, who was my age, was very proud of his cubic meter of explosive treasures. He took pleasure in telling me that my two little bags were probably ok, but his were especially special.
When it was dark my dad and Mr. Potter carefully lit the fire. It whooshed high and was bright and hot on our faces as we stepped back. Cats were attracted to the warmth and sat around in a circle at a safe distance while pet dogs walked in the dark beyond the bright flames’ reach. I opened a hard-earned bag of fireworks. Robert was dismissive until his dad said that there was plenty in the tea chest for everybody. But Robert had the honour of lighting the first one. He had already picked out a really, really big jumping jack. Mr. Potter showed him the bottle with the candle and cupped his hands to protect the flame as the blue paper wick was lit.
Robert looked at it as sparks flashed off the wick, but he’d held it a little too long. He dropped it. There was a thunderous bang, then another as it jumped towards a knoll of grown ups. They scattered. Dogs ran everywhere in panic. The damm jumping jack changed direction, and little girls screamed and ran to their mums. Their mums ran. Their dads ran. We all ran from it. It followed us with successive explosions. Then it turned and seemed to slow as it went towards the tea chest of treasures. We all drew our breaths in with the horror of its inevitability. It jumped in. Hell opened! Such thunder! Sky rockets whizzed around and through the crowd. And some dozen or so even went upwards. Catherine Wheels spiraled about our ears and ten Etnas roared and Bengal Lancers sent sulfurous green clouds among us. Cats leapt out of trees, dogs jumped into trees. The box jumped upwards and paused, and fell on its side before another unbelievable explosion blew out its wooden walls until the metal bindings glowed red then white hot.
At last, there were no more explosions, but the twisted metal still glowed in the dark... Somehow the bonfire was blown out. And the toppled guy smouldered on the ground. Then there was silence. The metal rims shone. They too dulled. Silence. Robert approached me and said quietly that I was his best friend and asked if he could please have a sparkler. We watched as he wrote ‘Robert’ in the night air. After that we all looked in stunned silence as each of Mrs. Powell’s pots were lit and had their time before another was taken out of the bags. Somehow the mighty canon and the strings of double happies and the bangers had lost their impact. Oh yes, Mr. Simms at number 32 went along Boyd Avenue for the next week looking for his cat.
THE THEOLOGY OF ANIMAL SOULS
In England an atheist had an unexpected spiritual experience and sensed the oneness of nature. He went to the Roman Catholic Cardinal for instruction in the doctrines of the faith. But the cardinal emphatically denied that animals had souls. As a dog owner he hoped to be reunited with his dead pets, so he was offended and couldn’t continue. He tried the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury was definitive. Yes, horses and dogs had souls. The archbishop himself looked forward to foxhunting with his beagle hounds in paradise!
As to the question of souls, well, I’ve been thinking of a terribly unaffectionate old cat I once had. She didn’t forgive me when I brought another delicate kitten into the house. For 3 months the poor kitten was scratched, spat at and bullied. I could not pick up or stroke the kitten because the reprisals on it were terrible. She had to wait until the older one ate its own meal, and had taken the best pieces of meat from hers before tentatively eating.
One morning they fought. Fur flew! The kitten was shaken by the throat. Suddenly it was free, racing towards a tall tree. In seconds it was quivering with pain and fear in the topmost branches. All day it cried. The fire brigade captain said to leave it for 24 hours as they often come down unassisted. But whenever it moved the twigs broke and it backed up to a forked branch. The cries of fear were piteous. The bigger cat had been frequently passing by looking up. Then, it too jumped into the tree, and climbed up to the highest twigs. It very carefully tested the branches. Meowing loudly, as if talking to the kitten, it backed down with the kitten fearfully putting its paws exactly where the bigger one had been.
They returned to earth. I won’t pretend that from then on they were friends, but they tolerated each other and shared my affection each according to their needs, without jealous battles. But they have souls.