Author Lynne Barrett-Lee’s novel is based on a true story, and written from the point-of-view of a cat!

Able Seacat Simon
Buy Simon the Able Seacat by Lynne Barrett-Lee for £8.99

Simon was no ordinary cat. He started out as a young orphaned kitten struggling to survive on the docks of Hong Kong.

Alone, bereft and scared, the kitten had a tough and terrifying life with minimal hunting skills. A young soldier took pity on the helpless creature and began to feed him with scraps.

He named the kitten Simon and when his ship, H. M. S. Amethyst, a British warship, was ready to set said again, he smuggled his pet onboard. 

So begins the adventures and heroics of the feline that would become a hero of the high seas.

 

Excerpt

Seacat Simon
Image via Maritime Quest

The stars, when at sea, looked magnificent. They’d be magnificent anywhere, because stars can’t help but sparkle, but when viewed from the ocean, many miles away from the land, they have a brightness and depth and complexity and beauty that is beyond anything that exists on the earth.

They were also a constant—a reminder that no matter how far I travelled, I could look up and see the same sky above me as I had as a kitten in Hong Kong. And it was comforting to think that, no matter where my new life as a ship’s cat might now take me, my mother could—and, I hoped, did—still watch over me.

On board ship, though, every aspect of my life was now different—so much so that I sometimes had to stop and take stock of quite how much it had changed since the day George had smuggled me aboard.

For starters, I was living on the sea rather than the land, which was a very strange business for a cat, not least because my mother had been quite right about water, and how much I disliked being ‘wet through’. Curiously, though, it was a much drier world than the one I’d left on dry land. Yes, there were times when it was necessary to keep away from mops and buckets, but there was never any issue of having to hunt in teeming rain, to leap puddles, or to pad through muddy gloop.

Neither did I now have to defend my ‘territory’—something I’d only just begun to understand as a concept when George had taken me from the harbour, and one that, as a young kitten, had always loomed rather threateningly. Having a territory might be necessary, but there was nothing nice about it, as it seemed mostly to comprise a non-stop round of boundary-patrolling, invariably involving lots of angry confrontations, facing up to cats with bigger expansion plans than I had.

But all that—to my great joy—was a thing of the past now. Here there would be no such confrontations to have to deal with. Well, bar perhaps the odd one with Peggy. But as it had quickly become obvious that Peggy’s idea of ‘confrontation’ was to greet you as if she loved you more than anything in the world, the only worry there was the foulness of her well-meaning tongue, dogs not being so particular as cats in matters of personal hygiene.

Though I did, I supposed, still have a kind of territory to patrol. No longer one of trees, sand and blossoms, and things that roosted, cawed and crawled, but one of steel and salty spray, enamel, oil and engines, of machines and the materials of men. A territory of ladders, too, which I had finally found the means to negotiate, and which had turned out to be not quite so terrifying as I’d supposed. No, it wasn’t easy to go down a ladder, and at first I’d made laborious diversions to avoid doing so. But when there was no option but to descend one, I had no choice but to be courageous and, bit by bit—to my great delight—I managed to conquer my fear.

Moreover, it was a territory I found myself sharing very willingly—an occurrence that never ceased to amaze me, not least because of how natural it had quickly come to feel.

Should it have? On this point I was still very baffled, because adult cats (as far as I knew) shunned company and lived alone, and that was supposedly the way they preferred it.

Yet here I was sharing my territory, very happily, with some one hundred and seventy humans and a dog, name of Peggy. A dog. A real, living, breathing, actual dog. Sometimes I’d wake up from a nap in the captain’s cap, then see or hear Peggy, and think I must surely still be dreaming.

Most pleasing and surprising was how much I loved my human family, and no less was the revelation of how much they seemed to love me too.

Yes, I’d come on board with George, but he’d laid no particular claim to me, clear from the outset that I (together with the good luck I would apparently confer on their endeavours) was to be there for them all. Though I reported to Captain Griffiths, I was very much there for everyone, and though they couldn’t possibly know just how much I understood of them (that human thing again) it quickly seemed I had another role to play aboard the Amethyst—to be the official recipient of sailors’ secrets.

Whether I was in one of the officers’ cabins, or somewhere in the packed after-mess, every sailor seemed to have things in his head that he kept to himself. So it was that my role began not just as a rat catcher, but as a confidant as well, hearing all about the things they seemed to find it difficult to share with one another—the same sorts of things, in the main, that I would share with the moon when sitting on the end of my jetty. I heard about crushes and sweethearts, fiancées and wives. About their families, about the children and animals whose images danced across various bulkheads; about the babies a few of my friends had apparently fathered, but, heartbreakingly, had yet to even meet. I heard of memories and musings, regrets and resolutions, recriminations, and sometimes, when days at sea became rain-sodden and endless, it was my job to curl up close while one of my friends had a cry, which was sometimes upsetting for them, but at other times, also a blessing. ‘You’re a good listener, Blackie,’ they’d whisper, furiously drying their eyes. ‘And I know you’ll keep mum.’

Keeping ‘mum’, I soon learned, was a very important thing. And having responsibility for keeping it (and the men’s faith that I could be trusted to, of course) always made me feel close to my own mother.

None of this was a part of my mother’s plan for me, however. Far from it. I’d catch myself (as likely when cuddled up in a sleeping sailor’s hammock as when presenting a lifeless rat to the captain) in a state of bemused wonder. Specially at those times when the stars were at their brightest—at three or four or five in the morning, perhaps while I was sitting on some sheltered part of the upper deck, watching flying fish skim the water, perhaps sitting in the humming warmth of the wireless room, perhaps curled up on my favourite spot up on the bridge. I’d be sitting companionably with the captain, or Lieutenant Weston (or even Lieutenant Berger, however much he kept declaring himself not to be ‘a cat person’) and wishing so hard that my mother could see for herself that humans—at least the ones on His Majesty’s Ship Amethyst—were not the monsters she’d supposed.

 

Author Lynne Barrett-Lee discusses her book with us

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