The boy sat at the small table in the kitchen, ruminatively eating his cornflakes whilst reading the list of ingredients on the back of the packet. Making a mental note to Google “thiamine” and “niacin”, to find out what they heck they actually were and whether their presence in his breakfast cereal was beneficial to his health and well being, he put down his spoon and reached for his tea mug. He liked to survey his domain over the rim of his red mug – the small, neat kitchen, his mother making his lunchtime sandwich and, in the corner of the room, two young cats tucking into their own breakfasts.
At least, one of them was tucking in. The fluffy tabby ate with gusto, her eyes closed in pleasure, a soft purr trying to make itself heard over the sound of her smacking lips. Her elegant companion looked sideways at her, one eyebrow raised, then continued with his mission to fastidiously remove every last scrap of sauce from the bowl without disturbing any of the meaty chunks.
“Honestly, Peter,” said Honey, between mouthfuls, “I don’t know how you became such a picky eater. The chunks are the best bit – the bit that gives you energy!”
“I’ll come back to them later.” said Peter. “I subscribe to the theory that grazing is a healthier dietary choice than just scarfing it down.”
“They’ll go all dry.” said Honey, her tongue making a rasping noise as she licked clean the bottom of her plate.
“I like them like that,” he lied.
The boy, having finished his breakfast, pushed back his chair and stood up. He took his school bag and coat off the peg on the wall, collected his packed lunch from the counter and headed for the front door. In accordance with what had become their daily routine, Honey sat on the windowsill washing the detritus of her meal off her paws and face, while Peter trotted at the boy’s heels to the front door, where the pair exchanged nose kisses before he left the house to run to the bus stop. A few minutes later, the ritual was repeated, but this time it was Honey who followed the mother to the door and kissed her goodbye as she left to go to work.
Peter and Honey had learned a lot in the months since they’d arrived at their forever home. They had learned that they couldn’t both fit through the cat door at the same time, that the lady next door liked kittens, that the lady at the other next door didn’t, that a sheep cannot be reasoned with, that the meadow behind the house reminded them of somewhere….
They had also learned that some things that are broken cannot be mended. The jar with the mayonnaise, for instance, and the wine glass which Honey knocked onto the kitchen tiles with one swish of her magnificent tail. Also, the green vase, the pile of empty plant pots, next door’s hideous plaster gnome, the blue vase and the big sponge cake – although the creamy bits still tasted good even when licked off the door of the fridge. All of these infractions had been tolerated with good grace by their humans. Except for the picture. Honey hadn’t meant to do it. She was just playing at “the floor is lava” with Peter and the picture – a framed photograph of a good-looking young man dressed in uniform – fell from the mantlepiece onto the hearth and the glass cracked. The mother shouted in anger and jumped up so suddenly that Honey took fright and ran out of the room to hide under the bed. Much later, the mother coaxed her out with a treat and picked her up and held her tight, burying her face into Honey’s fur. Honey could feel a touch of damp on the back of her neck – not for the first time – and knew what she had to do.
For sometimes, the kittens had learned, human hearts could be broken too, and there was a hole in this home which, at times, threatened to suck all of the light and air and joy so far down into it that it could never return. They sincerely believed, however, that it was possible to mend a home and a human heart, one piece at a time. What’s more, they believed that this was their mission, so they set about it with a will.
Whenever the mother was alone in the house, and she would put down her book, or her whisk, or her needle and retreat to her bedroom and curl up on her bed, Honey would make it her job to jump up beside her and to trill in her prettiest voice and roll onto her back and make air biscuits and to purr and to purr until, instead of weeping bitter tears into her pillow, the mother would run her hands over Honey’s fur and lay her head next to the woolly belly and doze off listening to the safe, comforting rumble, and the mother would remember a little what contentment felt like.
And whenever the boy sat alone in his room on a fine day, instead of joining his friends outdoors, Peter would make it his job to push his way in through the door and to pounce at the sunbeams and jump at the dust motes and to stalk imaginary prey and to chase his own tail until, instead of sitting and staring aimlessly into space, the boy would reach for the feather stick and the two of them would leap and spin and run and laugh, and the boy would remember a little what fun felt like.
One piece at a time.
* * * * *
It was early spring when the subject of birthdays came up.
“What do you want this year?” his mother asked.
There were plenty of things he needed, and a few things he wanted, but he knew money was tight and he had to keep his expectations low.
“I don’t really know. I’ll have to think about it.” He really needed, and also wanted, new trainers, but the ones he’d set his heart on were hideously expensive and, let’s be honest, better no trainers at all than the wrong ones. So, he didn’t mention them and asked for time to consider instead.
“Maybe we can go out somewhere this year,” she ventured.
“We don’t have a car. It failed its MOT.”
“Tom has a car….”
She knew even as she said it what his reaction would be. The boy’s face reddened, he jumped to his feet and stomped off to his bedroom, slamming the door.
Peter instinctively followed, sensing that his services would be needed. Honey, likewise, moved to sit beside the mother’s feet, ready to jump into her lap should things escalate. Finding the boy’s door closed, Peter mewed quietly. It opened a crack, and he quickly snaked through the gap before it was slammed shut again.
The boy lay on his back on the bed, with Peter sitting on his chest, paws tucked in, in a tidy loaf position. He kept his steady, cornflower blue gaze on the boy’s face as he ranted, through gritted teeth.
“I don’t want him at my birthday…he’s always here…hanging around mum…crashing about the place…him and that lolloping dog…you don’t like the dog either.”
Peter inclined his head. Actually, the dog was pretty civilised, considering. She’d always been polite to him and Honey, anyway. However, her body language was unpredictable, so both cats tended to keep out of her way.
“…and his stupid red sports car and his stupid green Landrover and his filthy gumboots and his beard and his stupid posh voice…”
He tailed off, temporarily devoid of any more things to hate about “The Man”. The Man had begun to show up about a month previously. Firstly, he had called in with a trailer load of firewood for their wood burning stove, then he had called in with packets of chops and sausages for their freezer and mum had invited him to stay for coffee, then he had called in with some bottles of his home-made elderflower cordial and mum had made him lunch, then after that he had just begun to call in. The boy would sometimes come home from school and there would be The Man, sitting at the kitchen table like he belonged, with that lolloping dog laying on the floor and the kittens nowhere to be seen.
“If he thinks he can replace dad, he’s got another think coming!” The boy spat out the words, teeth still gritted, face still red. “He’s not my dad…what does he even do?” He pushed his balled up fists into his eye sockets, in a vain attempt to stop the tears from flowing.
“My dad was a soldier….” he told Peter, who already knew this. “He was always away, but it didn’t matter ‘cos he always came home, and then it was brilliant. He’d bring loads of presents and we’d have a big welcome home party and after that we’d go for bike rides and play football and go to the beach and play chess and we’d talk and talk…. and then…he didn’t come home.” The boy opened his eyes to find himself gazing into the blue depths of Peter’s. “I named you after him, Peter. I don’t want a new dad…if I can’t have the old one, I’d rather have no dad at all.”
Peter extended his claws in a gesture intended to offer comfort. “Ow! That hurts!” The boy brushed Peter onto the floor and turned on his side, facing the wall. Peter, finding the bedroom door shut, exited via the open window.
“He hates him!” said Peter, later that evening. “We have to get rid of him!”
“No,” said Honey. “She likes him and he helps her. We can’t just get rid of him.”
“But you always run under the bed when he arrives.”
“So do you…”
“Hmmm…. more research needed.” The kittens agreed.
* * * * *
The Man came again the following day. He arrived in the late afternoon in the stupid red sports car, carrying a large box of tools, which he used to make various unpleasantly loud and unwarranted noises by hitting and scraping them against parts of the mother’s car. To get a better view, Honey screwed up her courage and jumped onto the bonnet of the stupid sports car – which was toasty warm and very comfortable. She was unable to resist the urge to lay down and gently grill first one side, then the other, all the while keeping one eye (if that) on The Man and his activities.
“There you go, cat.” She awoke from her doze to find him speaking directly to her. “New brake shoes and some filler for the hole in the exhaust – what do you think?” His hand came towards her and her ears flattened automatically. She couldn’t help it – that fur on his face startled her every time. His hand kept on coming, and it tickled her behind the ears. She was surprised at his gentleness. She noted it down.
The man came again the following day, this time in the stupid green Landrover. From out of the back, he extracted a large orange machine which began to roar and clank and judder, sending Honey flying through the cat door to the safety of the kitchen. Peter was feeling brave that day, but he retreated underneath a dense shrub, from which vantage point he could observe in relative safety. Up and down, up and down the man marched, pushing the noisy machine before him. Once, he paused, bent down and waggled his finger in the grass just in front of the machine’s fearsome blades. A tiny mouse shot across the lawn and disappeared into a flower bed. Then, he continued until he had pushed the machine over every inch of the grass. “There you go, cat.” His face appeared, upside down, in front of Peter. “Could be Versailles, eh?” He reached in and tickled Peter under the chin in a friendly fashion. Peter made a note.
By the end of a week, Peter and Honey had plenty of notes to compare.
“He fixed the car,” said Honey
“He saved the mousie,” said Peter
“He dug in the flower bed to make it easy for the robin to find insects,”
“He cut a hole in the fence so the hedgehogs can get through,”
“He made a little house out of wood just for the bees,”
“He planted catnip in pots, just for us,”
“He did? Where?” demanded Honey.
“So, what’s our conclusion?” asked Peter
Both of them agreed that The Man was probably not so bad and at least deserved a chance. They would spring into action immediately. After dinner…and a nap.
* * * * *
The weekend of the boy’s birthday dawned bright and clear. Spring was very much in the air and both he and his mother sat in the garden – she on the bench at the bottom end, he on an upturned bucket outside the kitchen door. It had been a difficult week. There had been arguments, prolonged silences, slammed doors and tears on both sides. The kittens had been busy, offering comfort to both their humans and, occasionally, taking refuge under the bed when the arguing threatened to get out of hand, but still no agreement had been reached. The boy didn’t want The Man spoiling his birthday. The mother insisted that The Man was coming anyway. The kittens had formulated their strategy, which was simple.
“You take the dog, I’ll take the him…” Peter had said. Honey had grimaced a little, but accepted that this was the way it had to be.
The Man duly arrived, driving the stupid green Landrover, and strode into the garden. The boy kept his head down, refusing to meet his eyes. The lolloping dog – actually a mostly-white Staffie with bright button eyes and a cheery demeanour, followed at his heels and rolled comically onto her back on the grass as he sat down next to the mother. Peter watched as Honey approached the dog. He saw her plant her nose on the dog’s exposed pink belly, causing the dog to roll onto her front, startled. The two animals were nose to nose….Peter hoped for the best. Meanwhile, he approached his young human, rubbed himself round his ankles, then jumped up onto his lap as he sat morosely on his bucket. In the way that only Peter could, he gazed into the boy’s eyes. Deep into them. A thought entered unbidden into the boy’s head and, despite his determination to ignore The Man at all costs, he felt compelled to look across the garden to where Honey was happily licking the white dog’s ear, while the mother and The Man giggled at the sight.
Peter hopped off the boy’s lap and walked down the garden. The mother reached down to caress his ears as she often did but, to her surprise, Peter walked straight past her and sprang instead onto the lap of The Man. The boy watched, taken aback and somewhat jealous, as his cat blatently nose-kissed and scent marked this most unwelcome of visitors. Peter turned in his direction again and a new thought popped uninvited into the boy’s head. He got up from his bucket and found himself walking down the garden, towards the bench, the dog, Honey, Peter, his mother and The Man.
“Hi. Happy Birthday,” said The Man.
“Thanks,” said the boy. He sat down on the bench alongside his mother and Peter immediately moved in to make himself comfortable on his lap. Briefly, boy and cat locked eyes once more. For some reason, the boy felt a little less hostile to The Man – he wasn’t sure why.
“I’ve got some errands to run,” said The Man. “Would you like to come with me?”
“Why?” asked the boy.
“I think you’ll enjoy them.”
His mother smiled and nodded. “Er…OK.” He was rather dubious about this.
He climbed reluctantly into the passenger seat of the stupid green Landrover. The lolloping dog, whose name he learned was Sally, jumped into her compartment behind the seats and they drove off.
“I remember this place!” the boy said, as they arrived at the gate of a forested area a few miles outside the village. “We came on a nature walk when I was at junior school.” He didn’t remember much about it, except that it had been cold, his feet had got wet, but it had been fun to escape the classroom for a couple of hours.
“It’s a nature reserve,” said The Man. “I’m the warden here – that’s my job.”
“Wow!” said the boy. “I thought you were a builder or something.”
“Never assume….” The Man laughed. “Come on – I’ll introduce you to some of my neighbours.”
For the next two hours, boy and man walked around the woods, Sally at their heels, stopping at a rickety looking barn to check on the barn owl who was nesting in a special box near the roof, then peering underneath it with a flashlight to spot the vixen who lay under there, calm but watchful, awaiting the birth of her cubs, then inside the hollow tree, where the light revealed a cluster of what appeared to be small leather drawstring purses stuck to the wood by their strings.
“Horseshoe bats,” The Man explained. “They’re a secret – you must promise never to tell anybody they are there.”
“They’re a protected species. You need a special licence even to view them, let alone handle them. I have to count them regularly to check that the colony is thriving.”
“Wow! What a great job.” said the boy, genuinely impressed.
They carried on with their walk, taking in the badger sett (no badgers to be seen at this time of day) the wooden nesting boxes nailed high up in the trees, a magnificent stag beetle hidden under some damp leaves and plenty of squirrels scuttling about on the forest floor. “Trying to remember where they hid their nuts…” said The Man, laughing.
The boy returned home much happier than when he left. His mother and the cats were still in the garden, but now there was also a big cake and a parcel wrapped in fancy paper on the garden table. The cake turned out to be chocolate, while the parcel contained the longed-for trainers.
“It’s OK,” whispered his mother. “I just moved a few things around…we can manage. How was the nature reserve?”
“Brilliant!” he said. “I’d love to go again some time and see if the barn owl has her chicks and the fox has her cubs and…”
“I hope you will come again,” said the man. “And, to make it a little easier for you…”. He disappeared round the side of the house and returned, wheeling a sturdy looking bicycle. “Look, it’s not new, but I’ve fixed it up and put heavy duty tyres on it and decent gears. It should make a good off-roader.”
The boy was genuinely lost for words. He had long since outgrown his old bike, and there hadn’t been enough money for a new one. His dad had promised to buy him one, of course, but….
Peter hopped up onto the boy’s lap and they touched noses, causing a sharp snap of static.
“Look,” said the man, quietly. “I’m not trying to replace your dad. I can never do that. But, well, grown ups get lonely sometimes and me and your mum – we’re both on our own, so we’re just keeping each other company. And you and me…I reckon we could be good mates. That’s all. Think about it.”
The boy’s vision misted up and he gave a small sniffle. “Thanks for the bike, Tom.”
“You’re very welcome, David.”
* * * * *
The sky was changing from pink to purple as the kittens sat on a small mound of soft grass in the meadow behind the house. They loved to sit here at dusk whenever they could, watching the stars appear one by one in the darkening sky.
“They say that the stars are the eyes of our ancestors.” said Honey, not for the first time.
“Not just our ancestors,” added Peter, “but of all the cats and kittens who have crossed over the bridge.”
They were waiting for their favourite stars to appear.
“Do you think we did good today?” asked Peter.
“Yes, pretty good.” replied Honey. “It wasn’t all us, of course, The Man and his lolloping dog helped..”
“Sally. Her name is Sally.”
The kittens fell silent as familiar stars began to peep through the velvety blueness. They watched for these every night because, fanciful though it probably was, they had the feeling that, somehow, these stars were watching them back. There was the small one that shone with an emerald light and, close by, its larger companion, amber like the flare of a match (the kittens believed that these two were close friends, never to be separated), the tiny twin stars like fiery ruby chips, the glittering diamonds that seemed to dance around each other, full of joy, the cluster of soft pearls that seemed to be the centre of things (wise lady cats, Honey thought)…
“Look,” said Honey, “there’s one more lady cat tonight” and, sure enough, a new star glowed with an inner fire, like an opal. “I wonder who she was….”
The lights were on in the house and the lure of a meal and a comfy spot on the sofa was strong. The muffled sound of laughter drifted through the dusk as the kittens pushed through the gap in the fence and trotted across the garden to their cat door. Far away, just for a moment, the stars seemed to burn a little brighter.
* * * * *
“There you are,” said Tuffy, as they leaned over the edge. “Yes, it’s true that we can leave broken hearts behind us when we leave, but it’s also true that we can help to mend them while we are there. That family still has a long journey ahead of them, but they will have good companions along the road.”
“One piece at a time….” said Peaches, and the two old cats turned their backs on the bridge and walked together through the twilight to the meadow.