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The World According to Bob
The Further Adventures of One Man and His Streetwise Cat
By James Bowen
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 James & Bob Limited and Connected Content Limited
All rights reserved.
It had been one of those days, the type where anything that could go wrong had gone wrong.
It had begun when my alarm had failed to go off and I'd overslept which meant that my cat, Bob, and I were already running late when we set off to catch the bus near my flat in Tottenham, north London on our way to Islington, where I sold the homeless magazine The Big Issue. We were barely five minutes into our journey when things went from bad to worse.
Bob was sitting in his usual position, half-asleep on the seat next to me when he suddenly lifted his head, looking around suspiciously. In the two years since I'd met him, Bob's ability to sniff trouble had been pretty near infallible. Within moments the bus was filled with an acrid, burning smell and the panicked driver was announcing that our journey was being 'terminated' and we all had to get off. 'Immediately.'
It wasn't quite the evacuation of the Titanic, but the bus was three quarters full so there was a lot of chaotic pushing and jostling. Bob didn't seem in a rush so we left them to it and were among the last to get off, which, as it turned out, was a wise decision. The bus may have smelled awful, but at least it was warm.
We had come to a halt opposite a new building site from where icy winds were whipping in at a rate of knots. I was glad that, while dashing out of my flat, I'd hurriedly wrapped a particularly thick, woollen scarf around Bob's neck.
The crisis turned out to be nothing more serious than an overheated engine but the driver had to wait for a bus company mechanic to fix it. So, amid much grumbling and complaining, about two dozen of us were left standing on the freezing cold pavement for almost half an hour while we waited for a replacement bus.
The late morning traffic was terrible, so by the time Bob and I hopped off at our destination, Islington Green, we had been on the road for more than an hour and a half. We were now seriously late. I was going to miss the lunchtime rush, one of the most lucrative times for selling the magazine.
As usual, the five minute walk to our pitch at Angel tube station was a stop-start affair. It always was when I had Bob with me. Sometimes I walked with him on a leather lead, but more often than not we travelled with him perched on my shoulders, gazing curiously out at the world, like the lookout on the prow of a ship. It wasn't something people were used to seeing every day of the week, so we could never walk more than ten yards without someone wanting to say hello and stroke him, or take a photograph. That didn't bother me at all. He was a charismatic, striking-looking fellow and I knew he relished the attention, provided it was friendly. Unfortunately, that wasn't something that could be guaranteed.
The first person to stop us today was a little Russian lady who clearly knew as much about handling cats as I did about reciting Russian poetry.
'Oh, koschka, so pretty,' she said, collaring us in Camden Passage, the alleyway of restaurants, bars and antique shops that runs along the southern part of Islington Green. I stopped to let her say hello properly, but she immediately reached up to Bob and tried to touch him on the nose. Not a clever move.
Bob's instant reaction was to lash out, fending her off with a wild wave of his paw and a very loud and emphatic eeeeeeow. Fortunately he didn't scratch the lady, but he did leave her a little shaken so I had to spend a few minutes making sure she was all right.
'It OK, it OK. I only want to be friend,' she said, looking as white as a sheet. She was quite elderly and I was worried that she might keel over from a heart attack. 'You should never do that to an animal, Madam,' I told her, smiling and being as polite as possible. 'How would you react if someone tried to put their hands on your face? You're lucky he didn't scratch you.'
'I no mean to upset him,' she said.
I felt a bit sorry for her.
'Come on you two, let's be friends,' I said, trying to act as the peacemaker.
Bob was reluctant at first. He'd made his mind up. But he eventually relented, allowing her to run her hand, very gently, along the back of his neck. The lady was very apologetic – and very hard to shake off.
'I very sorry, very sorry,' she kept saying.
'No problem,' I said, by now desperate to get going.
When we finally extricated ourselves and got to the tube station I put my rucksack on the pavement so that Bob could spread out on it – our regular routine – then started laying out the stack of magazines I'd bought from the local The Big Issue co-ordinator on Islington Green the previous day. I'd set myself a target of selling at least a couple of dozen today because, as usual, I needed the money.
I was soon being frustrated again.
Ominous, steely clouds had been hovering above London since mid-morning and before I'd managed to sell a single magazine the heavens opened, forcing Bob and me to take shelter a few yards away from our pitch, in an underpass near a bank and some office buildings.
Bob is a resilient creature, but he really hates the rain, especially when it was of the freezing cold variety like today. He almost seemed to shrink in it. His bright marmalade coloured coat also seemed to turn a little bit greyer and less noticeable. Unsurprisingly, fewer people than usual stopped to make a fuss over him so I sold fewer magazines than usual too.
With the rain showing no sign of relenting, Bob was soon making it clear that he didn't want to hang around. He kept shooting me withering looks and, like some kind of ginger hedgehog, scrunched himself up into a ball. I got the message, but knew the reality. The weekend was approaching and I needed to make enough money to keep us both going. But my stack of magazines was still as thick as when I'd arrived.
As if the day wasn't going badly enough, midway through the afternoon a young, uniformed police officer started giving me grief. It wasn't the first time and I knew it wouldn't be the last, but I really didn't need the hassle today. I knew the law; I was perfectly entitled to sell magazines here. I had my registered vendor ID and unless I was causing a public nuisance, I could sell magazines at this spot from dawn 'til dusk. Sadly, he didn't seem to have anything better to do with his day and insisted on searching me. I had no idea what he was frisking me for, presumably drugs or a dangerous weapon, but he found neither.
He wasn't too pleased about that so he resorted to asking questions about Bob. I explained that he was legally registered to me and was micro-chipped. That seemed to worsen his mood even more and he walked off with a look almost as grim as the weather.
* * *
I'd persevered for a few more hours but by early evening, when the office workers had gone home and the streets were beginning to fill with drinkers and kids looking for trouble, I decided to call it quits.
I felt deflated; I'd barely sold ten magazines and collected only a fraction of what I'd normally expect to make. I'd spent long enough living off tins of reduced price beans and even cheaper loaves of bread to know that I wouldn't starve. I had enough money to top up the gas and electric meters and buy a meal or two for Bob as well. But it meant I'd probably need to head out to work again over the weekend, something I really hadn't wanted to do, mainly because there was more rain forecast and I'd been feeling under the weather myself.
As I sat on the bus home, I could feel the first signs of flu seeping into my bones. I was aching and having hot flushes. Great, that's all I need, I thought, easing myself deep into my bus seat and settling down to a nap.
By now the sky had turned an inky black and the streetlights were on full blaze. There was something about London at night that fascinated Bob. As I drifted in and out of sleep, he sat there staring out of the window, lost in his own world.
The traffic back to Tottenham was just as bad as it had been in the morning and the bus could only crawl along at a snail's pace. Somewhere past Newington Green, I must have dropped off to sleep completely.
I was woken by the sensation of something lightly tapping me on the leg and the feeling of whiskers brushing against my cheek. I opened my eyes to see Bob with his face close to mine, patting me on the knee with his paw.
'What is it?', I said, slightly grumpily.
He just tilted his head as if pointing towards the front of the bus. He then started making a move off the seat towards the aisle, throwing me slightly concerned glances as he did so.
'Where are you off to?', I was about to ask, but then I looked out on to the street and realised where we were.
'Oh, sh*t,' I said, jumping up out of my seat immediately.
I grabbed my rucksack and hit the stop button just in the nick of time. Thirty seconds later and it would have been too late. If it hadn't been for my little nightwatchman, we'd have flown past our bus stop.
On the way home I popped into the convenience store on the corner of our road and bought myself some cheap flu remedy tablets. I also got Bob some nibbles and a pouch of his favourite chicken dinner – it was the least I could do, after all. It had been a miserable day and it would have been easy to feel sorry for myself. But, back in the warmth of my little, one-bedroomed flat, watching Bob wolfing down his food, I realised that, actually, I had no real cause to complain. If I'd stayed asleep on the bus much longer I could easily have ended up miles away. Looking out the window, I could see that the weather was, if anything, getting worse. If I'd been out in this rain I could easily have developed something a lot worse than mild flu. I'd had a fortunate escape.
I knew I was lucky in a more profound way, as well. There's an old saying that a wise man is someone who doesn't grieve for the things which he doesn't have but is grateful for the good things that he does have.
After dinner, I sat on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket sipping a hot toddy of honey, lemon and hot water topped up with a tiny shot of whisky from an old miniature I had lying around. I looked at Bob snoozing contentedly in his favourite spot near the radiator, the troubles of earlier in the day long forgotten. In that moment he couldn't have been happier. I told myself that I should view the world the same way. At this moment in my life, there were so many good things for which I had to be grateful.
* * *
It was now a little over two years since I had found Bob, lying injured on the ground floor of this same block of flats. When I'd spotted him in the dingy light of the hallway, he'd looked like he'd been attacked by another animal. He had wounds on the back of his legs and on his body.
At first I'd imagined he belonged to someone else, but – after seeing him in the same place for a few days – I'd taken him up to my flat and nursed him back to health. I'd had to fork out almost every penny I had to buy him medication, but it had been worth it. I'd really enjoyed his company and we'd formed an instant bond.
I'd assumed that it would be a short-lived relationship. He appeared to be a stray so I just naturally assumed that he'd return to the streets. But he'd refused to leave my side. Each day I'd put him outside and try to send him on his way and each day he'd follow me down the road or pop up in the hallway in the evening, inviting himself in for the night. They say that cats choose you, not the other way around. I realised he'd chosen me when he followed me to the bus stop a mile or so away on Tottenham High Road one day. We were far from home so when I'd shooed him away and watched him disappear into the busy crowds, I'd imagined that was the last I'd see of him. But as the bus was pulling away he appeared out of nowhere, leaping on board in a blur of ginger, plonking himself down on the seat next to me. And that had been that.
Ever since then we'd been inseparable, a pair of lost souls eking out an existence on the streets of London.
I suspected that we were actually kindred spirits, each of us helping the other to heal the wounds of our troubled pasts. I had given Bob companionship, food and somewhere warm to lay his head at night and in return he'd given me a new hope and purpose in life. He'd blessed my life with loyalty, love and humour as well as a sense of responsibility I'd never felt before. He'd also given me some goals and helped me see the world more clearly than I had done for a long, long time.
For more than a decade I'd been a drug addict, sleeping rough in doorways and homeless shelters or in basic accommodation around London. For large chunks of those lost years I was oblivious to the world, out of it on heroin, anaesthetised from the loneliness and pain of my everyday life.
As a homeless person I'd become invisible as far as most people were concerned. So as a result, I'd forgotten how to function in the real world and how to interact with people in a lot of situations. In a way I'd been dehumanised. I'd been dead to the world. With Bob's help, I was slowly coming back to life. I'd made huge strides in kicking my drug habit, weaning myself off heroin and then methadone. I was still on medication but could see the light at the end of the tunnel and hoped to be completely clean soon.
It wasn't plain sailing, far from it. It never is for a recovering addict. I still had a habit of taking two steps forward and one step back, and working on the streets didn't help in that respect. It wasn't an environment that was exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness. Trouble was always around the corner, or it seemed to be for me, at least. I had a knack for attracting it. I always had done.
The truth was that I desperately longed to get off those streets and put that life behind me. I had no idea when or how that was going to be possible, but I was determined to try.
For now, the important thing was to appreciate what I had. By most people's standards, it didn't seem like much. I never had a lot of money and I didn't live in a flashy apartment or have a car. But my life was in a much better place than it had been in the recent past. I had my flat and my job selling The Big Issue. For the first time in years I was heading in the right direction – and I had Bob to offer me friendship and to guide me on my way.
As I picked myself up and headed to bed for an early night, I leaned over and gave him a gentle ruffle on the back of his neck.
'Where the hell would I be without you little fella?'CHAPTER 2
We are all creatures of habit, and Bob and I are no different to anyone else. Our days together begin with a familiar routine. Some people start their mornings listening to the radio, others with their exercises or a cup of tea or coffee. Bob and I start ours by playing games together.
The moment I wake and sit up, he shuffles out of his bed in the corner of the bedroom, walks over to my side of the bed and starts staring at me inquisitively. Soon after that he starts making a chirruping noise, a bit like a phone. Brrrr, brrrr.
If that doesn't gain my full attention he starts making another noise, a slightly more plaintive and pleading noise, a kind of waaaah. Sometimes he places his paws on the side of the mattress and hauls himself up so that he is almost at eye-level with me.
He then dabs a paw in my direction, almost as if to nudge me into recognising his message: 'don't ignore me! I've been awake for ages and I'm hungry, so where's my breakfast?' If my response is too slow, he sometimes steps up the charm offensive and does what I call a 'Puss in Boots'. Like the character in the Shrek movies, he stands there on the mattress staring at me wide-eyed with his piercing green eyes. It is heartbreakingly cute – and totally irresistible. It always makes me smile. And it always works.
I always keep a packet of his favourite snacks in a drawer by the side of the bed. Depending on how I am feeling, I might let him come up on the bed for a cuddle and a couple of treats or, if I am in a more playful mood, I'll throw them on to the carpet for him to chase around. I often spend the first few minutes of the day lobbing mini treats around, watching him hunt them down. Cats are amazingly agile creatures and Bob often intercepts them in mid-flight, like a cricketer or baseball player fielding a ball in the outfield. He leaps up and catches them in his paws. He has even caught them in his mouth a couple of times. It is quite a spectacle.
On other occasions, if I am tired or not in the mood for playing, he'll entertain himself.
One summer's morning, for instance, I was lying on my bed watching breakfast television. It was shaping up to be a really warm day and it was especially hot up on the fifth floor of our tower block. Bob was curled up in a shady spot in the bedroom, seemingly fast asleep. Or so I'd assumed.
Suddenly he sat up, jumped on the bed and, almost using it as a trampoline, threw himself at the wall behind me, hitting it quite hard with his paws.
'Bob, what the hell?' I said, gobsmacked. I looked at the duvet and saw a little millipede lying there. Bob was eyeing it and was clearly ready to crunch it in his mouth.
Excerpted from The World According to Bob by James Bowen. Copyright © 2013 James & Bob Limited and Connected Content Limited. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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