Here’s a not-so-little something that I wrote and submitted for a different charity project. It was written at the beginning of 2016 and the characters in it are based on those I meet weekly in the feral run at the cat rescue where I volunteer. Some of you may have read it already, but I’ve never published it here before. It’s a longer read than usual, and differs slightly from my usual style, (I also think it would benefit from the attention of a good editor) but I hope you will enjoy it anyway. Since I wrote it, Big George and shy Bonnie have crossed over the Bridge, and Rupert has found a home (never really feral, if truth be told). Dear old Norris and Henrietta are still with us and I visit them every Saturday, and I listen while they tell me their tales all over again….
He sat, crouched uncomfortably on his haunches, in a manner designed to facilitate a quick escape. All four of his feet were underneath him, paw pads to the floor, ready to provide lift and propulsion should he find himself threatened, but he had been sitting like that for many hours now and his joints were feeling stiff and sore. He doubted that he would be able to spring anywhere, even if a sudden fire were to break out right in front of him. His view of the world was small and arch-shaped, its edges defined by the small entrance hole in the front of the green plastic kennel in which he crouched. Outside his confined little world, he could hear the sounds of both cats and humans, all of them seemingly at peace with the world. But still Rupert crouched, afraid to put his nose outside, afraid of what – or who – lay beyond.
He had little idea of how he had come to be there – a scent, which he had followed, a tempting dish of food, which he had investigated, a clang, sudden darkness, movement, a strange pointy thing which had been inserted….well, never mind. And here he now was. Surrounded by cats he did not know and, to his horror, humans in close proximity. He had seen one wielding a long pole with what appeared to be a dead cat on the end and had watched, horrified, while the dead cat had been dunked headfirst into soapy water and pushed around the ground. So undignified! Such disrespect! He had sent a prayer up to the Moon for the poor dead cat’s soul before retreating back inside his green bolt-hole.
Hunger was becoming a problem. He could feel the familiar gnawing sensation starting up in his gut. Before, he would have waited until dark and then crept out of his barn, across the rubble-strewn yard and under the barbed wire fence to where the bins stood behind the noisy building. If the humans were still there, shouting to each other and making their usual racket, he would have crouched in the shadows until they had finally disappeared, before jumping on the tall bin with the ill-fitting lid. This was where the easiest pickings were to be had. If he was lucky, he would find the remains of a half-eaten meat pattie of some sort, or a morsel of sausage, maybe some sticky batter with some shreds of fish still attached. More often, though, he had to restrict himself to sad gobbets of damp bread or short, thin lengths of fried potato. However, it was better than nothing. He would drag whatever he could find into the bushes before the squirrels moved in. Once they arrived en masse, there was no chance for a cat alone to find a meal. If he was exceptionally hungry, he would lurk a little longer in the bushes until the foxes had left. They were stronger than he and worked as a team, so often they were able to tip the whole bin over to get to the treasures within and, if he was lucky, there would be some morsels left over for him.
It wasn’t much of a life, he knew that. Once, he had been part of a proper extended family and they had eked out a living of sorts in the run-down collection of sheds and huts behind the fish and chip shop. There was food to be scavenged and shelter to be had amongst the rusting hulks of old motors, empty tanks and upturned oildrums, but all too often one of them would go out to look for food and never return, or would quietly leave one day without saying goodbye….you know. Then the humans had moved in and the whole area was transformed. The sheds were torn down and the vehicles and other detritus were removed and large stacks of bricks began to appear. Worse than that, though, he had returned home one day, triumphantly dragging a brown paper bag of untouched fish nuggets to share, to find himself alone. The rest of the colony – such as it was – had disappeared. He spent several days trying to find them with no success until he had sadly resigned himself to a solitary life. It made the scavenging easier, with only his own needs to cater for, but he missed having someone to snuggle with at night or to hide with when danger lurked. And now he was here. And he was hungry.
As he sat, trying to screw up his courage to venture outside to look for food, a round face, black bisected by a broad white flash, appeared in the entrance hole. Curious round eyes peered at him from close range – slightly too close for comfort – and a chirpy voice said “Are you ever going to come out?”
Rupert growled defensively. “Oh per-lease” said the chirpy cat. “You can knock that off. There’s cats here who could squash you with a single paw, if they wanted. They won’t, of course. I’m Henrietta. And you are…?”
“Well, come out and be social. The others are dying to meet you. By which I mean they’re sort of vaguely curious – between naps, anyway.”
Cautiously, Rupert emerged, moving slowly and keeping low so as not to appear a threat to his new neighbours, and took a proper look around him for the first time. He was inside a large, paved space enclosed by a high fence. All around him were structures, shelves, seats and platforms all perfect for sitting and watching and contemplating. And on most of them, sitting and watching and contemplating him, were cats. Most of them were males and most were substantially larger than himself. Between them, they boasted the finest collection of scars, missing ears and eyes, bent tails and battered faces he had ever seen. He imagined they all had a story to tell, if they could be bothered – even cheerful Henrietta, who sported a red scar on her nose and whose eyes spoke of a long life lived close to the edge.
A large, copper-coloured tom cat stood up, stretched languidly and approached Rupert, sniffing him and studying him closely with his one good eye. The other eye was missing, as was part of one of his ears. He introduced himself as George, and his every movement and gesture exuded authority. “Trapped, were you?” asked George in a rich, fruity voice. “Came here via the vet’s, I bet – I can smell it on you. Pointy thing up the….you know…?” Rupert nodded and there was a general murmur of empathy from all the other cats. He imagined that it did not pay to upset George, so he asked the old cat how he had come to be in this place, hoping that his story would include how he came to lose his eye and ear. Rupert was in full possession of all his limbs and organs – well, almost – and the old boy’s battle scars fascinated him.
Henrietta sidled up to him and whispered in his ear “Grab a snack first. This could take some time.”
He didn’t take her advice, but instead settled down in front of the old red cat and tucked in his paws, eager to learn more about these cats with whom he would, he was now realising, spend the rest of his life. George made himself comfortable on a small wooden box, and began to speak.
“The ocean has been my life. Shanghaied as a kitten, I was taken aboard the Royal Navy Man O’ War “Rangoon” and put to work catching mice and rats to earn my keep. I was given a bunk in the cook’s stores, sleeping amongst the sacks of meal and dried goods, and there was plenty to keep me busy I can tell you, as the entire lower ship was alive with rodents. Everything I caught was mine to eat so I dined well and my boss, the ship’s cook, made sure I had fresh water from the limited supplies on board. When the water ran low, I was given wine just like the crew and I was even allowed my weekly tot of rum, for which I developed quite a taste. I always enjoyed my job on rum days, because the mice took to running around in pairs, so doubling the target. Oddly, there seemed to be fewer to eat at the end of the hunt, but I didn’t mind as I usually slept exceptionally well. As the months and years passed, I grew plump and glossy and well-muscled. My fur glistened the colour of the copper anchor lantern and my eyes shone the colour of the brass watch bell. I was, to be brutally frank, irrestistible. And so, the inevitable came to pass…
We called one August at the port of Havana to take on fresh water and supplies and some of the crew were allowed to disembark to enjoy a little leisure time in the town. Officially, I never took leave, but on this occasion the lights of the city beckoned to me and I slipped un-noticed down the gangplank and into the shadows of the dock buildings. I followed my shipmates towards an area of bustling taverns and cafes, dodging between the legs of the humans thronging the street, my nose twitching at the glorious scent of cooking fish. Ducking into an alleyway between two brightly-lit buildings, I came to an open area behind one of the cafes, where the fragrance was so intense it was almost visible, hanging in the hot night air. Light streamed from an open door and, inside, I could see two young humans, their faces damp with sweat, cooking over glowing coals. And then, I saw her. She stepped out of the shadows and stood before me, her paw to her lips. I took in her midnight-dark fur, her eyes like green fire, her fine-boned face and long, slim body. Also the large cooked prawn that she held between her teeth. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on. The prawn looked pretty good too. Smiling seductively, she beckoned me to join her behind the cafe and bade me stay quiet while she worked her considerable charms on the cooks in the kitchen. She stretched her pretty neck and gazed up at them with those emerald eyes and purred and murred in a voice like liquid gold and, without a second thought, they tossed her prawns and crab claws and fish heads and tails, all of which she surreptitiously rolled to me with her paw. What a night we had. We dined sumptuously, teasing the sweet meats from the bones and shells with our claws, lapping up the rich sauces and letting the warm butter and oils run over our chops and onto our paws. Not a word passed between us, but she smiled her sultry smile at me over a cod’s head and we both knew how this night would end. The meal over, we walked together across the walls and roofs towards the shore and, as the moon rose over the ocean, we danced a passionate dance to the music of the waves. As the dawn broke, and I had to take my leave of her, I promised that I would return and that I would bring her whatever her heart desired. Looking up at the clear sky, she said “Bring me the moon”. Then she slipped away, back into the shadows, and I rejoined my ship – a changed cat.
As the ship cast off and headed out of the harbour, I stood up at the ship’s rail, watching the lights of the city grow smaller and smaller, until they were no more than a twinkle on the horizon, then I went below to the stores to be alone with my thoughts and did not emerge on deck again. I applied myself diligently to my job and the cook remarked that my mousing skills had been improved by my short stay on dry land and he rewarded me with a little rind cut from our stores of salt pork. In other circumstances, I would have savoured the tasty meat, but my mind turned constantly to that seafood feast beneath a tropic moon with the most beautiful dinner companion in the world. I was determined that she and I would meet again and I turned over and over in my mind how I might go about catching the moon to bring to her.
About a week out of port, the ship was struck by a terrible storm. I usually rode out rough weather by tucking myself into a small void behind the timbers in the hold and hunkering down with the mice, having called a temporary truce. This storm, however, was different. The ship lurched and buffeted crazily and the barrels and sacks were thrown around the hold. Above me, I could hear terrible creaking and cracking sounds and water began to seep in, then it began to gush, then it came in a torrent. In a panic, I ran for the wooden ladder that connected the deck to my domain and, by the time I reached the top, the ship was listing so far over that the main mast was practically touching the ocean. With a huge crack that made my ears ring, it snapped and I knew that we were doomed. I found myself, along with my shipmates, floundering and flailing in the swell, water filling my ears and eyes and soaking my coat, weighing me down until I could no longer keep my head above water. I sent up a prayer to the moon, asking her to light my star in the sky to guide me across the bridge, and resigned myself to my watery fate when, by a miracle, my paw grasped something solid. A plank which had splintered off from the disintegrating hull was within my reach and, with the last of my strength, I pulled myself onto it and crouched there, shivering and terrified, while the mighty Rangoon sank beneath the waves.
For three whole days and nights, I was frozen to that plank, my claws dug deep into the soaked timber, my ears full of seawater, my eyes clogged with salt and my beautiful copper coat stiff and matted and seared by the relentless sun. Weak from hunger and thirst, I was finally jolted out of my torpor when my plank bumped against something solid. Opening my salt-crusted eyes, I beheld before me the hull of another ship. At first, I believed I was dreaming that I had found the Rangoon again, but no – this was a different ship entirely. Her hull seemed to be intact, but her mast was broken in two and her sails were spread across her deck and flapped pitifully in the wind like tethered ghosts. A rope ladder was swinging freely over the side of the ship only a few yards from me so I paddled my plank towards it and, slowly and somewhat painfully, I climbed up, pulling myself over the rail and onto the deserted deck.
I set to making a brief search of the ship, moving quickly and keeping to the places where I knew I would be out of sight, just in case I stumbled into a member of the crew driven mad by hunger and armed with a cutlass. There seemed to be nobody aboard at all. Happily, I did find a pool of slightly sour but nonetheless drinkable fresh water in the galley and there was food there too. I knew from my years on the Rangoon how to break through the seals on the barrels to reach the foodstuffs inside and, on my third try, I found salt pork, which I chewed on hungrily. Above the galley was the Captain’s cabin, with its soft bed and linen sheets. Here I finally slept. I was a cat, alone on what seemed to be a ghost ship, with no idea where in the world I was, nor if I would ever see dry land again. But, at that time, the only thing that mattered was to sleep, which I did – the longest, deepest and most peaceful sleep I had ever had.
I woke, refreshed, long after sun up and set to learning more about my situation. From the deck, I could see that we were drifting idly, making slow, lazy rotations in the now calm sea. I could also see that the anchor chain was paid out behind the stern and I concluded that this vessel had probably been preparing to sail when the storm struck, when it dragged its anchor and was carried into the open ocean. Satisfied that I was alone on the ship, I decided to explore, as much to keep my mind off the uncertainty of my future as anything else, and I headed below deck to sniff around the cabins and holds. Apart from the broken main mast, the ship seemed perfectly seaworthy and was appointed to carry a few wealthy passengers as well as cargo. And it was in one of the passenger state rooms that I found it.
Following the unmistakeable skittering sound made by a fleeing mouse, I dived under a bunk and was stopped in my tracks by something glinting softly in the farthest corner. I reached out my paw and hooked the object, drawing it towards me. It was a band of heavy gold, the size of a human finger and, set into it, was a stone – a stone so softly luminous it appeared to be lit from within. A stone which was shot through with red and gold and green fire. A stone of such curvaceous smoothness that I was tempted to sample its surface with my tongue. I stared at it for a long, long time, watching the coloured flames dance in the milky depths, so mesmerised by its beauty that I did not at first notice that it was surrounded by small, clear stones like crystals of ice, which twinkled and sparkled with their own tiny rainbows – the Lady Moon in her firmament, surrounded by her courtiers. I could have wept at the irony that I had actually found it – the earthly embodiment of the Moon herself – but I was unable to present it to my beautiful dark lady as I had promised. I could have wept, but instead I became aware of human voices, and the sound of footsteps moving through the ship. I remained perfectly still in my dark corner under the bed and listened as humans ranged through every part of the ship, opening cupboards and chests, gathering up loose objects, shouting to each other in a language which I could not understand. I remained hidden until dusk, when I decided to venture out to see what I could see. Fastening the gold band with its precious cargo around my paw, I slipped out of the state room and onto the deck. I was surprised to see that we were moving. The broken mast had been lashed to the side of the ship, the loose sails roped into rolls and we were under tow behind a handsome merchantman flying the flag of the Dutch East India Company. By daybreak, I could see the line of a distant shore and, by noon, we were approaching a familiar port. My heart leaped with joy. Providence had brought me back to Havana.
It was dusk by the time we dropped anchor a mile or so from the port and I was able to slip on board one of the small boats which took the skeleton crew off the stricken vessel and onto the shore. From there I darted into the shadows and made my way through the thronging streets, back towards the little cafe where I had first met my love. I approached the back of the building, where the same two humans still toiled over their hot coals. They flung me a few pieces of fish and, as I ate, I peered all around me, hoping to catch a glimpse of her emerald eyes or her black velvet coat somewhere in the gloom, but there was no sign of her. I was not ready to give up, though, so I made my way back to the busy street in the hope of finding someone who could give me news of her whereabouts.
In a narrow alleyway off the main street my prayers were answered, after a fashion, and I found myself face to face with three large, aggressive looking tom cats, each sporting scars across their cheeks and notches in their ears. The leader, a once-handsome Siamese, blocked my path and demanded to know where I thought I was going. I told him about my beautiful lady, describing to him her lustrous fur the colour of a midnight sky, her eyes the shape of an almond and the colour of an ocean after a storm, her elegant, sinuous body and her voice like liquid gold. The Siamese laughed and, on cue, so did his two henchmen. “She’s too good for the likes of you.” he hissed, baring some impressive teeth. “She lives up there…” he jerked his head towards an imposing looking house, high on a hill over the town, “…and she just slips out every now and again for a bit of excitement and to sample life on the wrong side of the tracks. She has no interest in tramps and rat-catchers like you.” His blue eyes looked me all over and, inevitably, they alighted on the jewel still hooked around my paw. “What is this…?” His two lackeys peered around them in all directions. “THIS, you idiots!” He pointed at the ring and I knew I needed to beat a hasty retreat, although a quick scan of my surroundings suggested that this would be easier said than done. The alleyway ran between high buildings and escape was only possible at either end. If I turned my back, these three would pounce me for sure, so I steeled myself to face them head on. I was strong, I was fit and I had cunning. I suspected the Siamese could match me on that score, but his two sidekicks had clearly been selected for their bulk rather than their brains. I sent up a brief prayer to the Moon – she had answered before, when I was floundering in the ocean, and I was hoping that my credit with her was still good – took a deep breath, and crouched, snarling.
As the three cats leapt towards me, I kept low, trying to protect my eyes and ears and, of course, the ring on my paw. A fight ensued the like of which Havana had never before seen. We rolled, tumbled, lashed, slashed, flailed and bit. One of the henchmen caught my ear in his teeth and chomped down hard. Another slashed my eye with his claw. Clumps of fur flew and so did the curses. Blood streaked the alley floor and smeared the walls as I fought for my very life. Then, suddenly, we were stopped in our tracks by a freezing cascade as a human emptied a bucket of cold water from a high window onto all four of us. As a sailor, I was inured to the effects of a sudden soaking and I was able to recover while my adversaries were still in shock, wondering what had hit them. I took the opportunity to run and I ran like the wind and did not stop until I reached the garden of the imposing house on the hill.
Many times I circled that impressive building, calling my lady love’s name, but to no avail. Despairing of ever seeing her again, I took a big risk and jumped up onto the sill of one of the large windows and there, inside, I saw her, as beautiful as ever, curled up on the lap of a young she-human. I scratched at the glass with my paw until she looked up and turned those magnificent green eyes on me, without the smallest hint of recognition in them. She was about to lower her head and resume her interrupted doze when I held up my paw and she caught a glimpse of the radiant jewel which glowed and glistened upon it. At last, she jumped up on the inside windowsill and spoke to me in a low voice. “Who are you?” she asked. Aghast that she could not remember me, I reminded her. “We met behind the cafe, we shared a seafood banquet then we danced on the beach by the light of the August moon. When we parted, I offered you whatever your heart desired and you asked for the moon. And here it is. How can you not remember me?” She sighed, a little regretfully. “But I meet cats like you all the time. Havana is a magnet for travellers, explorers, sailors, fugitives and drifters from all corners of the earth. I meet them often, they all fall in love with me and they all promise me whatever my heart desires. So, I always ask for the moon, because I know that it is an impossible request and so, unable to fulfil my wishes, they never return. Until now.”
I felt as if the bottom had dropped out of my world. I had lost my home, The Rangoon, my shipmates, including my best friend the cook, I had nearly drowned, drifted for days on a tiny plank, risked my life boarding a ghost ship then been assailed by three common street thugs just to bring her this….this trinket. I slipped it off my paw and left it on the windowsill. I saw no reason to keep it and I hoped that, somehow, it would bring her happiness. As I jumped down to begin my journey back to the town, I saw her place both her paws against the window pane. Her eyes were glassy with tears and she silently mouthed “I’m sorry” to me before blowing me a kiss and disappearing back into the bright room and the lap of her small she-human. As I walked away from the house, the earthly embodiment of the Moon shot out one last beam of pure, milky light before a twist in the path hid it from my view forever.
Demoralised, I decided that it was time to finally come home. The ocean-going life had lost its allure and I wanted nothing more than a place to settle with regular meals and a warm bed. So, I stowed away aboard a tramp steamer heading for Florida and, from there, I was able to work my passage hunting vermin aboard a packet ship bound for Southampton. I was offered a permanent position and, for a while, I was tempted, but instead I found a rusting old tub of a coastal freighter to take me east and my last leg was aboard a sailing barge hauling timber, which brought me up river to this inland port. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“So,” said Rupert, excitedly, “You lost your eye and ear in a street brawl in Havana?”
“No,” said George. “It was the other eye. But my ear certainly retained the shape of my adversary’s teeth.” He grinned with a certain amount of pride.
“So how did you lose the eye?”
“Infection.” said George. “Vet took it out. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to…erm…make myself comfortable.”
Rupert was a little disappointed about the eye, but he was thrilled by George’s tale and vowed to treat the old boy with the greatest respect from then on.
Plump Henrietta bustled into view once again. “Enjoy that?” she asked. Rupert nodded, his mind racing with images of ocean storms, tropic moons and beautiful femme fatales. “One more before dinner, then” she said, and dabbed with her paw at the sleeping face of a large, lugubrious tom, half white and half red, with weathered features and placid, yellow eyes. He woke up, a little reluctantly, and sat up, yawning. “Rupert, meet Norris”. Norris nodded at Rupert and began to settle back down again, when Henrietta said “He wants a story.”
“Which story?” asked Norris, in a dry, rasping voice that suggested a life spent in closed, smoky rooms doing unhealthy and illicit things.
“Yours, of course.” sighed Henrietta, and bustled off to do something probably very important.
Norris cleared his throat, which provoked a prolonged coughing fit, but finally he was ready and, in a cracked voice like claws on emery paper, he began.
“I was born on Midsummer’s night, or so my mother told me. She was a tortoiseshell cat of rare beauty who lived an itinerant life in a small, ornate wooden caravan which she shared with a couple who ran a travelling fair. I was one of a litter of four and my brother, my two sisters and I had an enchanted kittenhood. Our early days were spent safe and warm in a little packing case, lined with a wool blanket and tucked snug under one of the tiny bunks. Then, as we grew older and eager to explore, we were allowed outside during the day to run and play amongst the wagons, stalls and canvas tents of the fairground. Alas, we soon became too large and energetic to be housed altogether in that tiny van so, regretfully, we took our leave of our mother and the fairground boss and his wife. But we didn’t go far.
My sister Cissie had, since she was a tiny kitten, held a fascination for Gwendoline, the Bearded Lady [See the Amazing Bearded Woman! Raised by wolves in the wilderness of The North, she hunted with the pack – she howled at the moon – until she was trapped and tamed! See this amazing hybrid of human and lupine – but don’t get too close! You enter at your own risk! Entrance one penny]. Gwendoline was a large and warm-hearted woman with an ample lap and a well-stocked larder and there was never any doubt that Cissie would be safe, loved and well fed in her caravan. Cissie later confided to me that Gwendoline’s beard was actually false and that she stuck it to her face every morning with gum. In fact this seemed to be common knowledge amongst the fairground folk, although a rumour persisted that it was, in fact, made from the facial hair of a hirsuit former lover by whom Gwen had been jilted, and who had met an unspecified sticky end amongst her bright and cheery knick-knacks, but Cissie dismissed this as untrue. The beard, she declared, was made of ordinary horsehair and it doubled as a cosy bed on a chilly night.
My other sister, Hetty, was a shy little thing, although pretty as a picture. One day, when we were playing outdoors, she was frightened by a small terrier who barked at her and she fled in panic. For a long time, nobody could find her, but she was eventually located, mewing pathetically, inside the workings of the huge steam engine that was used to power the merry-go-rounds. Unable to find her own way out, she was eventually extricated by the long, sinuous arm of Nosmo the India Rubber Man [The Human Reef Knot! Is he a man? Is he a snake? Roll up, roll up and watch Nosmo roll up! Disclaimer: Do not try this at home. The Management cannot be held responsible for personal injury], who held her up in triumph to the applause of the relieved fairground folk, her fur all matted and black with grease. He took her home and bathed the dirt off her until she was once again as beautiful as a butterfly’s wing and she purred for him and snuggled in the crook of his arm and so her future, too, was assured.
My brother Sid, it’s fair to say, was not the sharpest tool in the box and inclined to laziness. If he felt tired, he would simply curl up wherever he happened to be and, one afternoon, the place he happened to be was in the red and gold canvas tent of The Mysterious Suraya [Eastern Mystic and Clairvoyant – Cross my palm with silver! Fortunes told, tuppence; The Dead contacted, sixpence; No reporters, clergy or scientists] who was better known to her friends and family as Sarah. Her clients seemed to be enchanted by the sight of a fat ginger kitten laying sound asleep with his legs in the air amongst the Tarot cards and, for the first time ever, a queue formed outside her tent and the silver coins clinked into her brass collecting pot. So, from that day on, Sid snoozed peacefully on her lap without a care in the world while The Mysterious Suraya waved her hands over her crystal ball and noisily channelled her Indian spirit guide.
And me? My future, as it turned out, lay in the noise, the heat and the sweat of the boxing booth.
THE MIGHTY MAXIMILLIAN: newly returned to these shores from the farthest corners of the Empire, his secret mission – to instruct the bodyguards of the Sultan of Ranjipoor in the art of hand-to-hand combat – completed, he is NOW READY to take on all comers. SEE the greatest pugilist in the Universe! Unbeaten in over 1,000 bouts! Try your hand if you dare! Generous cash prizes for any man who can best him! (Unsuitable for ladies or those of a delicate constitution)
In fact, Max was five feet five in his pumps and had never left these shores, except in his dreams. He was a showman to his very core. He had never known any other life, as his father had run the boxing booth before him, as had his father’s father. His mother had been the assistant to “The Great Stupendo”, conjuror and illusionist, and spent much of her working life vanishing from cabinets-of-mystery or being sawn in half whilst wearing little more than a scrap of sequined gauze and an ostrich feather. Max was born in his parents’ covered wagon, on the road between the towns of Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury, so he called the county of Somerset his home, even though we only visited the place a couple of times a year.
The kindest way to describe Max was “wiry”. He was a small man and almost comically thin, but his frail appearance disguised a physique which was one hundred per cent sinew and muscle. He was unusual amongst the fairground folk in that his bill matter was, in one small part, accurate. He genuinely was unbeaten in over 1,000 bouts. It’s true that his opponents varied wildly in size, shape and ability, and many were fuelled by the Dutch courage being purveyed from wooden barrels at the other end of the fairground, but some were genuinely formidable. Under the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, Max wouldn’t stand a chance against some of the burly farm hands and factory workers who queued up to try their hand at winning the day’s purse. But, the good Marquis’s rule book was torn to tiny shreds, stamped upon and buried in an unmarked grave in The Mighty Maximillian’s booth.
Max’s size, or lack of it, was the secret of his success. That, and his speed, athleticism and dancing skills. Oh yes! Outside of his nightly appearances in the booth, Max was an enthusiastic member of several Morris dancing troupes around the country and he could leap, wave his white handkerchiefs and brandish his ash stave with the best of them. He declared that it was the best fitness regime a fighter could follow, making no mention of the fact that Morris Men tended to be rewarded for their performance with free bread and cheese and a mug or two of the local ale. When he wasn’t dancing “Princes Royal” or “Maid-of-the-Mill”, he would practice his punching with the aid of a cloth-covered board held steady for him by Edgar “The Man-Mountain” Dixon, the fair’s strongman [See him bend iron girders! Watch him snap tree trunks in two!]. Often, he would employ a couple of the younger, fitter barkers to pretend to be challengers and jump around waving their fists in an effort to hit him, while Max practiced his best skill, which was evasion. He presented a small, fast target and he had a range of cheeky moves to get himself out of trouble, including the legendary “Maximillian Flip” which was a great crowd pleaser, but guaranteed to work his challengers up into a lather of frustration. Sooner or later, every opponent would try to floor him with an upper cut, a swift punch to the underside of his chin which, if it hit its mark, would surely knock him out cold. When he saw the punch coming – and he always saw it coming – he would leap into the air, twisting himself into an airborne back somersault, which would have the dual effect of throwing his opponent completely off guard and landing him several feet outside the danger zone.
It was my habit to attend every one of Max’s bouts as well as his training sessions – although I usually drew the line at the Morris Dancing. He considered me his lucky charm and would be reluctant to enter the booth unless he knew I was close by. When I wasn’t attending Max’s fights, I ran a little boxing booth of my own behind the tent, challenging the local tom cats to take me on. Nothing was at stake except our honour, but honour, as you know, is paramount to a tom cat in his prime. I had learned well from Max and my expertise at ducking, diving and dodging made me a legend amongst my kind – and beyond. I also took on – and bested – several dogs, a couple of foxes, a badger and – on one memorable occasion – a postman. This unwise gentleman had aimed a kick at me while I was sunning myself beside the path and he consequently spent several hours up a tree, until the fire brigade were summoned to bring him down with a long ladder. I felt a little guilty about that – wasting the time of the Fire Brigade, I mean. However, the legend that was Norris the prize fighter was cemented, and I was famed throughout the land.
And so, that was our life. For most of the year, we toured from village to village, town to town, setting up, packing up, travelling on. There were spring fairs, Mayday fairs, Midsummer fairs and Mop fairs in the autumn to celebrate the gathering-in of the harvest. But, come winter, the caravans were parked up near to a big town or city, the horses, donkeys and goats tucked up in rented barns and stables and the itinerant life ceased for a few months, although we stayed together. In the day, most of the performers, barkers and labourers went into the city to find whatever casual work they could pick up, as many had saleable skills. As for Max, he simply carried on as before, only now he challenged all comers in the back rooms of pubs at night or in market squares during the day. These winter fights were a whole lot more serious than the jolly affairs under the summer sun, and the atmosphere seemed more dangerous. Max did not encourage me to come with him, but I felt my place was by his side as his lucky charm, so every day I perched on his boney shoulder as we made our way through the narrow streets and alleys to whichever pub, lumber yard or brothel was hosting the fight.
So, one December night, when we were over-wintering in the East End of London, Max and I dodged our way past beggars, drunkards and street women as we threaded through the grimy, run-down streets of Wapping to our destination, a yard behind a brewery next to the docks where illegal bare-knuckle fights were frequently held. The punters would bet on the outcome, and the winners would take away a small share of the profits. When we arrived, the yard was full of people, mostly men, shouting, swearing and braying with course laughter. The air, though cold, was heavy with the smell of alcohol and tobacco, mixed with the smoke from several braziers which almost completely failed to give off any heat or light and, in the centre, a crude ring was marked out with lengths of rope slung between posts.
Max was one of three fighters due to compete that night. I jumped off his shoulder and tried to hide myself away from the crowd but, as a ginger and white cat, I didn’t exactly blend into the shadows. As I watched Max enter the ring and saw his opponent – twice his size and wearing studded wrist bands and two heavy leather bandoliers criss-crossed across his chest, I had a bad feeling about the outcome. These fights were no-holds-barred affairs and the crowd were baying for blood and I thought I could see several of the spectators carrying knives. I tried to push my way through the crowd to get closer to the ring but I heard a voice above the others yell “Oi! There’s a bleedin’ cat in ‘ere!”. I turned tail and ran, but many of the younger men decided it would be good sport to try to catch me and I was soon cornered behind a stack of barrels. Hands reached in and I was grabbed and lifted out. I writhed and lashed out with my claws and teeth but a coat was thrown over me so I could no longer see my target. I was carried some way before being set down on the ground and the coat was pulled off me. I found myself inside some sort of warehouse away from the boxing yard, standing in a sort of wooden pen, surrounded by four plank walls. Outside the pen stood many men, most of them young, all of them shouting and laughing and pointing at me. Inside the pen….four of the largest and heaviest dogs I had ever seen. Each dog was tethered to one of the corner posts of the pen, straining against their bonds, their dripping jaws gaping open, their lips curled back revealing teeth like sabres. The poor beasts were probably starving and I’m sure my only function was to get their bloodlust up so they could later be set against each other, but nonetheless, the crowd was determined to enjoy the spectacle of me being torn limb from limb. The dogs were untethered and I closed my eyes as they moved towards me, their stink and the heat from their breath enveloping me. I sent up a prayer to the Moon, asking her to light my star in the sky and to watch over Max, as I believed my time had surely come but, instead, a thought entered my mind, like a tiny river of silver amidst the black of my despair. All my years with Max – watching him train, watching him dance, watching him fight, was distilled into this one perfect thought, and I realised there was a way out. With the dogs only inches away, I took a deep breath, tensed every muscle in my body to nearly breaking point and, with every single ounce of my strength, I sprang straight upwards and turned in mid-air, executing a “Maximillian Flip” worthy of the man himself.
My leap landed me just outside the wooden fence and ran like I had never run before out of the warehouse. My ordeal was not yet over, though, as the dogs had broken free of the pen and were now in pursuit, desperate for the meal which they had been promised, but were now being denied. I ran away from the brewery and through the same streets and alleyways by which I had come, threading through the legs of the same beggars and street vendors, dodging under carts and over packing cases, the dogs never far behind. Unable to run much further, I came at last to a railway shunting yard close to the docks, where I spotted a small hole in the side of a wooden wagon which was large enough for me but too small for the dogs to follow, and I squeezed inside. The dogs pushed their noses through the hole and barked and whined for their lost meal and I could hear their claws scratching and scrabbling against the wooden walls for some time, until their owners finally caught up with them and pulled them away on their leashes. Exhausted, bruised and shaking I lay down on a pile of sacks in the corner of the wagon to regain my breath and – well, I didn’t mean to, but I fell fast asleep. When I awoke, the wagon was shaking and bouncing and the air was filled with unfamiliar clanking sounds and I realised that I was in motion, and moving away from my home, my family and my beloved Max. The wagon finally rolled to a halt several hours later and I emerged through the hole into the cold dawn, in a town completely unfamiliar to me. I wandered for several days, scavenging scraps wherever I could and trying to work out how I could get back to London and to Max – assuming he had survived the fight against the brute in the bandoliers, but I never could. I had been borne too far away and there was no scent trail to guide me back. Then one night, cold and hungry, I smelt food in the distance and, following the scent, I wandered into the trap that eventually brought me here.”
“How awful” said Rupert. “To lose everyone you loved like that. You must wonder about them all the time.”
“I miss them all, of course, especially Max, but I don’t have to wonder about them. Word gets around, you know, and a drifter passed through here a few years back who had heard that Max no longer had the heart for the boxing ring after he was separated from his lucky charm, and had given up the fairground life to see the world. He joined a merchantman heading for The Orient and swapped the Morris dance for the Sailor’s Hornpipe. I’m sure, wherever he is, he is doing fine and I like to believe he thinks of me from time to time. I also heard that the fairground disbanded after the boss and his wife decided to retire to a nice little cottage in Dorset with my mother, and that Gwendoline and the Mysterious Suraya took a little haberdashery shop together, so Cissie and Sid are sitting pretty amongst the yarns and laces. Sadly, Nosmo the India Rubber Man perished, and poor Hetty was bereft for a while, but was offered a home by two sisters who run the teashop next door to Cissie and Sid’s haberdashery, and I hear their meat paste sandwiches are second to none. And me? I get two good meals a day, all the biscuits I can eat, a choice of cosy beds, the attention of kind humans and – well, look around you. This is the best surrogate family a cat can wish for. I snooze away the days and remember the old times but, no, I don’t miss it so much any more. This is my home now and I am content.”
Norris yawned and put his head down on his paws and was soon snoring peacefully. While Norris had been speaking Rupert had noticed a slim tortoiseshell and white cat sitting close by, listening to the stories which she had probably heard a dozen times before. She had clearly seen better days and was a little ragged around the edges, but it was obvious that she had once been a beauty. She smiled coyly at him and introduced herself as Bonnie. Even though he had not spoken to her, she took the introduction as her cue to begin her own story.
“Me? I was a great and famous singer. My fans, all male, would journey from far and wide to attend one of my performances. And the humans too. They would open their doors and lean out of their windows and shout their praises. Often, they would throw gifts – whatever they could lay their hands on. Many of them didn’t have much, so I was flattered when they threw bottles or tin cans or boots, for I knew these things were valuable to them. Sometimes, they would throw flowers – or vegetables anyway – which, in the human world, is the ultimate compliment. I was especially flattered when they would throw their flowers still with the pots attached, so then I would give them the encore they so obviously desired and they would shout their praises all the more.
Ah…I can remember all of my greatest performances…on the Lightning Oak in the Seven-Acre Field, the red wall behind the Town Hall, the stone memorial in the Market Square under a Hunter’s Moon…
All my feline fans showed their appreciation in their own special way too and thus I created a whole generation of tiny songsmiths, destined to spread my music to the farthest reaches of this land. And then there was my beloved boy, Pan. He was born without sight and so stayed close to me long after all my other kittens had left to be independent. He was waiting for me to come home when I was trapped and brought here. I never had a chance to tell him…perhaps someone has been kind to him…or maybe he waits still…”
After a long silence, Bonnie closed her eyes and, swaying gently from side to side, she began to sing…
“When the autumn gales are howling
When the winter tempests moan
Leave a candle in your window
To light my journey home
When the midnight sky is starless
And the moon is hid from view
Leave a candle in your window
I will find my way to you
Put some food under the table
Lay my blanket by the hearth
Leave a candle in your window
So its glow may light my path
As, along the snowy highway
On silent feet I tread,
Leave a candle in your window
To show the road ahead
Like a point of purest starshine
Like a diamond in the night
Leave a candle in your window
I will see its blessed light
Though the lonely road seems hopeless
Though the night is full of fear
Leave a candle in your window
And I’ll know when I am near
I can see you in your doorway
I can hear your welcome song
And the candle in your window
Brings me home where I belong
So, when autumn gales are howling
And the winter trees are bare
Leave a candle in your window
To give light to those out there.”
When the verses ran out, she continued to hum the tune and sway gently, eyes still closed, lost in her own little world and Rupert suddenly felt his eyes sting, while his vision went a little misty.
A human voice shook Bonnie from her reverie and caused Rupert to flatten his ears and crouch down, prepared to flee if necessary. But, the voice was gentle and friendly.
“You’re in good voice today, Bonbon. Who are you singing to?”
The clatter of plates prompted a mass movement of cats from all corners of the enclosure. Rupert hung back, still unsure, until Henrietta’s cheerful face appeared, a little too close to his own.
“Dinner!” She said. “Come on, or someone else will eat it. Then you can tell us your story.”
Rupert looked alarmed. “I don’t really have one….”
“But you survived alone out there. You must’ve been a cunning hunter.” said Henrietta.
“No…I was afraid and lonely the whole time and I scavenged whatever the squirrels rejected from the bins. It doesn’t make a good story, not like George’s or Norris’s”.
Henrietta winked at him, grinning. “It’s not the story that’s important. It’s the way you tell it. Just apply a little imagination…now, eat!”
Rupert sniffed at the contents of the bowl in front of him, and a glorious waft of chicken hit his nose, then his palate, then the rest of his senses until nothing else was important. He lapped up the food, which was the best he had ever tasted in his life. After he had licked the bowl completely clean, he spotted a tempting patch of evening sunlight in the corner of the enclosure and stretched contentedly before flopping down on his side. He closed his eyes to doze, but sleep didn’t come instantly. Instead, his imagination began to work and pictures formed in his head.
In place of the broken-down buildings and rusting machinery of his former home, he saw a deep green forest, with mossy banks and a rushing stream and a startled deer springing away through the trees. He was slinking through the bracken, belly low, senses alert. Ahead of him, a large buck rabbit grazed on a patch of bright grass, its back turned towards him….
And, later that evening, when his new family gathered around, tucked in their paws and focused their eyes on him expectantly, he cleared his throat and began.
“I was once a mighty hunter…the scourge of the forest….”
* * *
POSTSCRIPT: You probably want to know what happened to Bonnie’s blind son. Well, the trappers already knew about him and were hoping to trap him at the same time as his mother, but in fact they caught him a couple of days later. After he was cleaned up, vaccinated, chipped and neutered, they decided he would not thrive in the environment of the feral run, so one of the veterinary nurses took him home, where he lives happily to this day.