Some books are wonderful to listen to, and when the author is also the reader, it can be an exquisite experience. Such is the case of a beautifully written story by Michael Ondaatje titled The Cat’s Table. The cadence and deep voice of the author just adds to the ambiance and though I’m only halfway, I look for reasons to drive my car to hear more of the story.
The tale is of Michael, an eleven year old boy, who voyages from his old life in Sri Lanka to his new one in England in the 1950s. He is assigned to the Cat’s Table, which is at the other end of the spectrum from the Captain’s Table, but is also way more interesting. It is here that Michael befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, along with a motley group of eccentric adults. The boys, all traveling alone, spend the trip running wild throughout the ship causing all kinds of mischief and having one great adventure after another. It is a twenty one day interlude between the reality they came from and the one they are going to. There are also some poignant moments where, in the midst of things, Michael learns a little about the man he will become. The sea voyage is the beginning of a life-long journey to that adult.
What caught me was how Michael was not surprised to be traveling alone for three weeks but that he was surprised his family had actually seen him to the ship. He had fully expected that he was to take the bus there alone. I kind of understood that.
Between the ages of 9 and 11, I attended boarding school in a grand old villa perched high above the Hudson River. Though my family usually dropped me off Sunday evenings, I generally made my own way home each Friday. In my dress uniform and navy blue felt brimmed hat, I, along with the rest of the girls, would drag my suitcase down the steep hill to the station to catch the next train to the city. Then I’d make my way through Grand Central Station and hail a cab. It was the mid-sixties and expectations were such that I would know how to get home on my own; which I did.
Of course, like Michael and the boys, I’m sure there were times when my guardian angel was working a little overtime, like when I was crawling out on the rocks at the Hudson’s shoreline or teaching myself how to successfully strike a match. We are a bit fearless at that age, aren't we?
In Michael’s story, I felt the allure of exploring the ship. So many places to investigate and secrets to uncover: an indoor garden, a curious painting, breaking into first class cabins and so much more. Sure, they got into trouble a few times, but it seems that most of their escapades were worth it. Since I haven’t finished the book, maybe that will change.
The grounds at my boarding school were equally intriguing. There was one we called the haunted house among the ancient abandoned buildings. It was down the path from the main grounds and I’m not sure we were supposed to go there but who could resist? On a dare, I did make my way into the house once, but I only made it just past the entrance before I got too scared to go on. My adult self wishes I had gone a little further. Perhaps my partners in crime weren’t as fearless as Michael and his friends. Too many ghost stories, I guess.
Like those boys, we girls were also a bit mischievous. We even devised our own communication system where we’d throw wire hangers up to the dorm window above us or them to us below. I’ve often wondered what the nuns thought when they found all those hangers in the deep pit under the windows. Did they know?
Eleven is an age when you’re on the brink of adolescence. You’re not quite there yet but you’re just becoming aware that there’s more to come and that soon, life will change.
For Michael and his friends, there is this very distinct period, just 21 days long, where they have the freedom to explore, make foolish choices and be wild for just a bit longer. Soon, this will come to an end, like all journeys do, and they will have to grow up.
Yet, through them, for a short while, you can still be that impish child, full of wonder and curiosity, imagining what sort of trouble you might get into.
Have fun, at least until the book ends…