First two chapters of a book for the young and young at heart. Set near the end of the Second World War.
THE GIRL WHO TALKED TO CATS
He strutted down the country lane with no care in the world. The midday sun made his fur coat glisten. Every now and then he’d stop and roll over amongst some freshly growing flowers, or even weeds. It didn’t make a lot of difference to this cat. He just loved the smell of the countryside.
A passing butterfly would fly tantalisingly close encouraging the cat to make darting strikes with his paws. If he really tried he may have been able to catch it. But not today. Today was a resting, leisurely day. Another quick roll in some buttercups allowed his white underneath to feel the warmth of the summer sun, a colour much in contrast to his top of dark chocolate. Apart from his neck, that too had a base of white as well as the very tip of his tale.
A flock of sparrows chattered merrily and then went quiet as the cat regained his upright position. He gave them a casual glance as they nervously sat in the hedgerows. Another day, maybe tomorrow, he’d give chase and send them scattering into the sky. Today however was a resting, leisurely, strolling and rolling day.
Crossing the meadow gave him a sort of treat. He would walk in a zigzag fashion, (because cats never ever choose to move in straight lines) allowing the tall grass to swish past his body. He could eat one or two bits or allow clumps of it to caress his fur. The feeling always felt good. Every now and then he’d sit, hidden from view of prying eyes, and scratch away the disturbed pollen seeds that had become attached to his back. Oh, the gentle rub of countryside followed by the satisfying scratch of his own claws against his skin. Today was a resting, leisurely, strolling, rolling and scratching day.
Crossing Farmer Gregg’s meadow, in his own good time of course, would once again take him to the ten or so cottages that he’d wandered across last week.
The tiny village of Calder consisted of a handful of cottages, two small shops, a disused barn and Mrs Herbert’s Tea Emporium. Nobody really knew what an emporium exactly was but it sounded quite elegant. The quaint meandering river at the side of her shop was crossed by a wooden bridge which took you into the next hamlet of Tewksly, maybe a mile or so away, (or four if you walk like a cat.)
This day in the end cottage, found seven years old Bridget in the back garden watering some plastic flowers with her own plastic watering can. Her nine years old brother Jacob mocked her.
“They’ll never grow, you need to have them in proper soil.”
She ignored the intrusion, and stayed squatting on the ground, pulling absent-mindedly on her blond tangled hair. Her dolls house lay to one side; minute tables and chairs perched on the lawn.
“That one needs cleaning,” said Jacob, eyeing the rather dilapidated orange table, the one with the scratched top. Bridget ignored him, thinking only of last week, when a gust of wind had unceremoniously lifted the doll’s table in the air and whisked it over the garden gate into the nearby stream. She remembered running to the fence and watched helplessly as the water threatened to carry her favourite table down stream. Then of course came the Knight in shining armour. Well, cat really. She had watched the big tubby cat bound after the table and jump into the cold waters. He scooped it out with his paws and then swished his body triumphantly side to side tossing a flurry of spray into the air.
Jacob had never believed her story, telling his sister that cats hate water. But she had seen it, seen it with her own eyes. And there was another thing. She’d thanked the cat as he wandered away and he’d said, “your welcome.” As sure as eggs are eggs and Mrs Herbert’s Emporium sells tea, the cat had actually spoken to her. Again, Jacob dismissed this whimsical story. Those extra years of his seemed to bow to superior knowledge.
Bridget continued her chores on the dolls house, preferring to rearrange the tiny furniture than listen to the callings from her brother who was now leaning over the garden fence. His faint shouts brought her out of her daydreams as she turned to see what all the fuss was about.
“Is that him?”
“That cat that you’ve been on about. Come down here.”
Bridget carefully placed the miniature radio in the corner room and strolled to the garden fence.
“Look, over there at the end of the field.”
She couldn’t see anything. Today’s midday sun shone too sharply across her face.
“Looks like the one you described.”
She shielded her eyes with her hand and peered to the wooden poles that stood along the edge of Farmer Gregg’s meadow.
“It might be,” she said, he certainly looks big enough.”
“Hey, Tubby, come over here.”
“That’s not nice Jacob, don’t call him that, he’s probably got a proper name like…well, I don’t know.”
“Hey, Fat cat, Fat cat, come here.”
The cat plodded onwards, not really looking towards the garden.
“Maybe he’s deaf,” said Jacob.
“I don’t think so, he heard me say thanks to him last week when he jumped in the stream.”
Jacob scoffed slightly, then got bored and turned and walked back up the garden to the house.
“Anyway, I’m off to make a diary, do something useful whilst we’re stranded over here at Aunt Jenny’s.”
Bridget positioned herself on the gate; both legs straddled lazily either side. She fondled the small cloth badge that had been hastily sewn onto her cardigan. Her fingers traced over the letters. E.V.A.C.U.E.E. Mother had told her it was necessary for all children to have this kind of identification away from home. This war that the grownups talked about in hushed tones didn’t really mean much to her, only that her father was away fighting the enemy. She couldn’t really imagine him fighting. Not at all. Didn’t father always hug and kiss her and swirl her around in his thickset arms?
Maybe Jacob could explain more. He had told her that he had waved goodbye to father two months ago at the station. He’d told her the moist eyes were from the wind whipping across his face.
The summer breeze gently blew away her thoughts as her eyes focussed back on Fat cat. Oh dear, now that name had stuck in her head. Still, he was kind of fat, although tubby sounded a lot better if she ever had to address him. Some white clouds lessoned the glare of the sun and she stayed watching as he rested for a while, rolling slowly onto his back on the dusty track that led a few yards from the gate. The dust made him sneeze slightly. He enjoyed the occasional sneeze, the scent spewing across his nostrils. Today was indeed a good day he thought. A resting, leisurely, strolling, rolling, scratching and sneezing day.
Bridget gazed at his antics and then waved slowly towards him. Then to her amazement he sat on his backside in an upright position and waved a paw back at her. She nearly fell off the gate. She jumped off and ran to find Jacob.
“Jacob, Jacob, he’s just waved at me,” she shouted excitedly.
“Fat Cat, Fat Cat,” she squealed with delight, also cursing herself for calling him that. She dragged him down to the bottom of the garden again.
“He’s probably just pawing flies in the air,” said Jacob, not being too happy with his sister pulling at his shirt.
“There he is, look.”
The command lost a little of its authority as they both watched the cat try and catch some flies that were irritating his peaceful day.
“Told you, catching flies. That’s what cats do,” said Jacob, again underlining his extra years.
Bridget watched, and then decided to leave the cat to his own world and catch up with her brother who was duly fed up of everything. Then as she turned to go, Fat Cat looked her way and winked. She could honestly see the wink. Then he waved.
“Jacob,” she shouted. But it was too late; he was back up at the house. She shrugged her shoulders, turned and gave a halfhearted wave to the cat. As she started to walk away she could hear the faint voice of “Bye.” She turned back to look at Farmer Gregg’s meadow. Fat Cat had gone.
Bridget sighed heavily as she watched the faint raindrops start to trickle down the back window. Her dolls house had been left out over night and she knew Aunt Jenny would shout at her. Jacob watched, happy that his red and grey soldiers were safe and sound in the small roofed area at the bottom of the garden. Soldiers need a fort, but they also needed to look after themselves in emergencies. That’s why they were down guarding the gate entrance. Who knows what mischief lies in farmer Gregg’s meadow after sunset?
There was a paved path that wound to the bottom of the garden. It glistened with the quick pitter-patter of rain. Bridget pulled her cardigan across her head and ventured out into the garden, her mission to pull the dolls house from the grass and into the safety of the soldier’s retreat. Jacob watched again, probably thinking that at least he wouldn’t get a telling off from Auntie. Wet cardigans, dolls house in the rain; it all added up to an early bed for Bridget. He’d been down that road himself…or path, he thought, as he saw the rain begin to get heavier.
She slid, as one of her sandals became loose. Jacob smiled to himself at the problems like only an older brother would. He moved from the window and went to find his train set in the upstairs of the house.
Bridget pulled her footwear back on and then tugged at the dolls house, trying quickly to find the dryness of the soldier’s camp. Aunt Jenny must have built the little roof ages ago to try and shield some of the potted plants from the wind and rain of winter. The last few weeks they had made it their den, adding bracken and twigs to the side. It had worked well. So well, in fact, that both Bridget and Jacob used it as a retreat for their pastimes. In here, you could actually snuggle up against the sometimes-harsh wind that blew from Farmer Gregg’s field, or even find shade from the summer sun. Today it would offer protection from the rain.
She puffed and panted, but eventually made it to the dry floor, pushing some of Jacob’s soldiers to one side. The space wasn’t very big, maybe big enough to hold three dolls houses. But right now it was just right. She positioned her house to one side, allowing the soldiers to remain on sentry duty at the far end. The rain got heavier. A trickle of water ran outside, following the path to the gate at the bottom of the garden. She could imagine it flowing down the gentle slope outside the fencing and into the tiny stream below.
She stared as the rain became heavier, turning her mind to other places. That’s what rain does if you look long enough into it; it carries your mind away. This time it took her thoughts back to her house in the middle of London. The place didn’t really have good thoughts. Those awful sirens in the middle of the night; then the terrifying crashing of bombs somewhere in the distance. And after that, the smell of burning and fire engines going at full speed through the streets. Whatever Jacob said, this war was not a good thing. He could march up and down the house, shout orders at invisible people, fire his toy wooden gun at her or even play dead but her real memories made her shudder.
“You’ll both be safer with Aunt Jenny in the country side,” had said mother. Her words echoed inside the tiny shelter as the rain pounded downwards. She remembered the hissing of the steam engine and slamming of carriage doors at the station as mother tearfully said goodbye. An old tablecloth wrapped around her dolls house and Jacobs train set were all the thing that was needed. So said mother.
This didn’t mean that she was totally unhappy with Aunt Jenny’s. Far from it. You couldn’t wish for a nicer house or place to live. In London the air was always thick with smoke from all the chimneys and in winter the fogs filled the air with an awful fowl smell. At Aunt Jenny’s even the rain had a smell of freshness, but it was no compensation for being without mother and father. Why didn’t Jacob feel like this?
She recited her name and address to herself. Information that had been told over and over again by mother. Her date of birth. “Twenty first of July nineteen hundred and thirty seven,” she said out loud proudly. “Twenty first of July nineteen hundred and thirty…”
“Seven” came the lone voice.
Bridget swirled round just in time to see Fat cat pounce swiftly into the refuge of the den. He shook his coat, depositing rainwater here and there. “Oops sorry, manners.”
“Fat cat…” she stopped herself instantly, “I mean…” She made room, pushing her dolls house to the side where the bracken was thickest.
“Where have you been?”
“Certainly not anywhere dry that’s for sure.” He carried on licking his fur and awkwardly placing one of his back legs into a position where he could pull at the wettest of his fur. “Can’t believe I didn’t see this rain storm coming. There I was chasing the odd field mouse about and I completely forgot about those damn clouds.”
Bridget wasn’t sure whether or not the word damn was a swear word or not. She was pretty certain it wouldn’t have been allowed in her London house. Maybe it was a country word that was used out here she thought. She watched intently as he recovered his posture.
“Would you like me to brush you with my dolls hand brush?” she said somewhat hesitantly, not knowing if this was an intrusion on his privacy. Fat cat eyed the ivory handled brush and nodded. Bridget gently pulled the small teeth of the brush backwards and forwards. Fat cat arched his back as the tingling sensation delighted him, reminding him of crawling under Farmer Gregg’s low wire fence. The purring sound grew louder, signifying his obvious satisfaction.
“I think that’s you done Fat cat…” Again she stopped herself.
He nuzzled up to her as an appreciation of thanks.
“Is that what you call me…Fat cat?”
“Er, no, or rather yes. It’s just a name that came up, I’m ever so sorry.”
“Sorry?” He said. “Why ever should you be sorry? I’ve never actually had a name before and I suppose I am on the rather biggish side aren’t I?” Bridget thought it best to say nothing. “Fat cat…Fat cat,” he said to himself, “yes, I think it is quite a grand name, and Fat cat I will be. Thank you. And what can I call you?” He looked at her badge. “Evacueeeee?” That’s rather strange isn’t it?” Bridget laughed, more at the long sounding eeee bit at the end. “No, that just means people will know I’m away from home, you know, because of the war thing.”
“Oh, that load of nonsense.”
“I’m actually Bridget, named after my grandmother.”
“That sounds like a posh name as well. I wish us cats had got the idea of naming ourselves.”
“Didn’t your mum and dad give you a name when you were young?”
“Me?” Fat cat tweaked his whiskers slightly in a kind of smile. “Goodness me no. We just go about our business as cats. No need for names. It’s only the house cats that get anything like that, the ones that actually get food from people on a daily basis.”
“You mean the cats that people have as pets?”
“Pets, pets?!” Fat cat nearly jumped up to the roof of the den. “Pets indeed. It’s us cats that adopt the humans. We’re a very proud race I’ll have you know. Pets indeed. Always independent, that’s us. I think you’ll find it’s only the lazy ones that stay at home and accept the soft life. Not for me.” He caught sight of his wagging tail and tried to stamp on it with his paw.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” said Bridget feeling a little uncomfortable. The tail wagging stopped. He slowly blinked his eyes, then twitched his nose from side to side and wiped a paw across his face. He moved round in a circle then slowly nestled himself into the lap of his new friend. Being independent is okay some of the time, but every now and then it’s nice to be spoilt, especially when someone tickles you under the chin like Bridget was doing now.