‘Look who’s here,’ she called to Daniel. ‘Ah, it’s lovely to see you again, Oliver. Have you had a good day?’
I wanted to tell her all about being a brave tiger, and cheering little Rose up, but I just had to make do with a lot of purring.
‘I’ll give him a saucer of milk. I’m sure that won’t strain the finances too much,’ she said, going to the fridge.
‘I get paid this week,’ Daniel said. ‘Maybe then we can help Martin and Sarah out a bit with feeding him.’
Just then, the phone started ringing and he answered it while I drank my lovely milk.
‘Yes, this is Daniel,’ he was saying. ‘Oh yes, hello, George. I know, I was here when Martin called you. Oh, well, of course not! You’ve had such a terrible shock, and such a lot to think about, I can understand that you wouldn’t have been able to think straight. Yes, it must have been a relief to know Oliver’s all right. He’s here in the kitchen with me right now, actually, drinking some milk! Yes, he’s absolutely fine, don’t worry.’ There was a long pause, and then: ‘Oh, no, George – no, it’s actually … no, look, it’s not us you need to give it to. No, listen, we’re not actually feeding him – Martin and Sarah are. We’re kind-of sharing looking after Oliver, you see, because Nicky and I are out at work all day, and Sarah and the kids are more company for him. Yes, and I know they’re happy to do it. Well, you’d need to ask them, really, but honestly, you mustn’t send us any money – he’s not costing us anything, you see. No, that’s just a drop of milk! Honestly, Sarah’s feeding him! OK, well you discuss it with them, then. Nice to speak to you. Hope you’re settling down all right with your sister. Bye.’
‘Was George offering to pay for Oliver’s keep?’ Nicky asked as I washed myself thoroughly after finishing the milk. She’d come to listen at the kitchen doorway.
I meowed at the sound of George’s name. He must have been thinking about me, missing me, to phone them like that.
‘Yes, he said he felt terrible for not suggesting it the other day. He’d been so overwhelmed with relief about Oliver being OK. And now he wanted to send us a cheque! Even when I explained that we weren’t the ones feeding him, he tried to argue that it must be costing us something to give him a drop of milk now and then.’
‘Ah, it was nice of him to offer. And that’s good if he’s going to send next door a bit of money to help with the food.’
‘Yes. I don’t feel quite so guilty about it now. It was pretty embarrassing having to admit to Martin that we’re so hard up we couldn’t even buy a few cans of cat food.’
‘Perhaps my parents were right, Dan.’ Nicky sounded sad. ‘We should have waited. Moving in together before we had enough money was stupid, wasn’t it. We can barely even pay the rent.’
‘But it was awful living with your parents. I’m sorry, Nick, it was good of them to let us, but we both know it wasn’t working out. They don’t really approve of me, and it’s affected your relationship with them.’ He sighed. ‘Maybe they were right. Maybe you should have found someone better, someone with more money who could support you properly.’
‘Don’t say that! You know I didn’t want anyone else.’ She put her arms round him and hugged him, and I felt so sorry for them both I joined in, walking round both their legs and stroking them with my head until they started to laugh.
‘At least Oliver doesn’t care whether we’re rich or poor,’ Daniel said.
‘I don’t care either. We’ll manage somehow, Dan. And when my parents see how we’ve made a go of it, they’ll change their minds, I know they will. They’re not unreasonable, and it’s not that they don’t like you. They just worry.’
Daniel nodded and gave her another hug, and went back into the living room to read the paper. Nicky stayed in the kitchen with me for a minute, watching me finishing my wash.
‘The trouble is, Ollie,’ she said to me in a soft little voice that wouldn’t carry into the other room, ‘he doesn’t know that they planned to come and see us at Christmas. They were going to stay overnight at the pub. It would’ve been the first time they’d made the effort to visit since we moved in. My two brothers were coming too. We can’t possibly put them up here – we’ve only got one bedroom and it’s tiny. They’re not going to be impressed when I tell them they can’t come.’
Oh dear. I didn’t really understand why her parents seemed to have made Nicky and Daniel unhappy. But it was pretty obvious that they weren’t going to be able to stay at the pub now. I was beginning to see that the fire was making a lot of difficulties for my new human friends, as well as for me and George. If only I could think of a way to help.
The next day when the children came home from school again, they had two other little girls with them.
‘Show us, then!’ one of them was saying to Grace as they walked in the door. ‘What sort of cat is he? Is he friendly?’
I was in my favourite chair in the lounge, having a little doze. I opened one eye and watched them standing in the doorway.
‘Yes, when he gets to know you,’ Grace replied. ‘But he’s a bit shy at first, so don’t crowd him, please.’ She sounded very proud and important to be showing me off. ‘Let Rose pick him up. He likes her best.’
I thought that was nice of her, and I could tell Rose did too, because she was smiling as she came over to me.
‘Hello, Oliver,’ she whispered. ‘We’ve brought some friends to meet you. Don’t be frightened, they’re very nice.’
It was probably the most I’d heard her speak. I let her pick me up, and she carried me to the sofa where she sat with me on her lap and beckoned the other girls to join us.
‘He’s lovely!’ squealed one of them. ‘Can we stroke him?’
‘Yes, but very gently,’ Grace said. ‘He’s still getting used to us. Daddy says he was always shy with strangers, when he lived in the pub, and didn’t like people touching him.’
The two friends put their little paws gently on my head and back and stroked me very carefully. It was nice. I didn’t mind them. Human kittens generally seemed kind, apart from that nasty big male the previous morning.
‘He’s purring,’ one of them said, excitedly. ‘He likes us!’
‘He’s not a bit like your other cat,’ the second girl said – and then she put her paw over her mouth and added, ‘Oh! Sorry, Rose. I didn’t say it to upset you.’
‘It’s all right,’ Rose said quietly.
‘It’s just that he’s different, isn’t he. Sooty was so big and black and, well, quite old, but Oliver’s a really pretty colour and he looks like he’s not much more than a kitten.’
What a nice child. I stretched my neck towards her appreciatively. She was obviously a connoisseur of cats.
‘I know.’ Rose gave a little smile. ‘I’m glad he’s different. I wouldn’t have liked it if he was like Sooty. It would have made me cry to look at him.’
I couldn’t get over how much Rose was talking. Sarah had come into the room behind the children and was listening to them, smiling.
‘Would you all like a glass of milk and some biscuits, girls?’ she said, and they scrambled off to the kitchen.
‘Can we play with Oliver afterwards?’
‘Can we give him some milk?’
‘Have you got any toys for him?’
They were chatting away excitedly, looking back at me as they went.
‘Is he yours forever now?’ I heard one of them say after they’d gone out of sight.
‘No.’ Grace sounded disappointed. ‘Mummy says we’re sharing him with next door, but only till his owner comes back from London. But it might be quite a long time.’
‘Maybe your mum and dad will get you another cat the same as him, after he goes.’
And it was Rose’s little voice that answered: ‘I hope so. I want one exactly like Oliver.’
* * *
Later on, after we’d all tired ourselves out with a game of jumping out at each other from behind the sofa, and another
one of rolling a ball of wool across the floor and pouncing after it, the friends got their coats on and waited for their parents to come and walk them home. It was dark outside, and raining, and I was wondering how much longer I could put off going out to empty my bladder. I’ve always been a very clean cat and it would have been unthinkable to me to have an accident indoors, especially when I was really a guest in the house. But the sound of the wind and rain was putting me off. I sat with my nose against the cat flap, thinking about it, and the children watched me, laughing.
‘We could study Oliver for our Brownies’ “Friend to Animals” badge,’ one of them said suddenly.
‘Oh, yes, that’s a good idea,’ Grace said. ‘All of us in our Six could work on the badge together!’ She sounded very excited. ‘As I’m Sixer of the Foxes, I think I should be the one to tell Brown Owl we want to do it.’
Foxes? I turned round and stared at them in horror. What was all this about foxes?
‘But we aren’t having any Brownie meetings, are we,’ the other friend said, sadly, ‘because of the village hall.’
‘So?’ Grace said. ‘I’ll ask Mummy if all the Foxes can come and meet here every week.’
I’d heard enough. I pushed the cat flap open and jumped out into the garden. It might have been cold and wet, but if they were going to start having foxes in the house, I was going to have to get used to making myself scarce.
* * *
I admit I was a coward where foxes were concerned. And yes, it was true, I’d always been a bit of a scaredy-cat about being touched by strange humans. But ever since the incident with the young male who was horrible to Rose, and especially after I’d been called a brave boy, and a tiger, because of it, I could actually feel myself becoming bolder and more adventurous. I did sometimes have bad dreams about the night the pub caught fire, and getting lost in the woods. And when the other nightmare – the one I’d been having since I was a little kitten – happened, I woke up shaking all over with my heart racing, just as I’d always done. But I was beginning to realise that most humans seemed to be all right, after all – that although George would always be my favourite, he wasn’t the only one who could be kind and gentle.
When I lived in the pub, I only ventured out into the village when George had to go out and I was bored of being on my own. There were a few other cats nearby and we sometimes met round the back of the shop, where the dustbins were. So a day or two later, when Sarah was out and I was alone in their house, I decided I’d recovered enough from the shock of the fire to risk a little walk around the village on my own.
I went straight to the shop and looked round the back, but just my luck, none of my cat friends were playing there that morning. I’d been looking forward to telling them all about my heroic rescue of George, to say nothing of the way I’d escaped the fox and seen off the aggressive young human. Me, a scaredy-cat? They’d soon change their opinion of me! But it seemed like I’d have to save my stories for another day.
I wandered back round to the street, and there in front of the shop were two human females, both pushing those wheeled contraptions they called prams, and trying to chat to each other over the mewing and meowing noises coming from inside them.
‘Oh look,’ said one of the women. ‘It’s Oliver, George’s cat from the pub. We were wondering what had happened to him. I hope he hasn’t just been living rough somewhere since the fire.’
‘He doesn’t look like he’s been living rough,’ the other one said.
‘No. Hopefully someone’s taken him in. Is someone looking after you, Oliver?’
‘Yes,’ I meowed. ‘I’ve got two nice foster homes, thank you.’ But of course, neither of them spoke Cat, so they just kept looking at me as they carried on their conversation together about how sad it was having no mother-and-baby group meetings.
I wandered off, further down the street to the village green in case my friend Tabby and the other cats were hanging out there instead. But instead of them, I found another human with a pram. It was Hayley, who’d been at Sarah’s house with the baby Jack, on the day of my heroic confrontation with Michael Potts. She was sitting on the bench, holding the handle of her pram, and just staring at the ground. She looked up when I trotted towards her, and said: ‘Oh, hello, Oliver.’ But she didn’t sound particularly happy.
I jumped up onto the other end of the bench and meowed a hello to her, but she just sighed and said, ‘Are you all on your own today too?’
I thought it was a strange thing to say, because obviously she wasn’t on her own – she had Jack with her. But apparently she just wanted to talk to me, even though I was only a cat, because she went on, ‘I wish I could still see the friends I had at work. I shouldn’t have given up my job, Oliver, but I couldn’t imagine how I’d manage, commuting and working and looking after a baby, or paying a child minder. Oh, I had no idea it was all going to be so hard. I feel so tired all the time, and I suppose I’m just lonely. I wish I had some friends in the village. Just some other mums I could talk to about things – it would make such a difference, but now there’s no mother-and-baby group.’
My ears pricked up at this. How strange, it was exactly what the other two females had been complaining about. I jumped down off the bench and meowed loudly at Hayley, walking backwards and forwards and twitching my tail urgently at her. If we went back now, we might be in time.
‘What is it, Ollie?’ she said, watching me curiously but not moving an inch.
Oh, come on! I meowed impatiently, and finally she seemed to get the message.
‘You want me to come with you? Back to Sarah’s house perhaps? What a clever boy you are – you must have understood every word I was saying. It’d be lovely to see Sarah again, but I can’t keep depending on her. She’s got her own worries, and her children are older. I need…’
I was ignoring her now, running ahead of her down the street without even waiting for her to keep up with me. Yes! As I rounded the corner, I could see the other two women still standing outside the shop with their prams, still talking away like yappy dogs. I walked round them three times one way, and twice the other way, making them laugh and wonder aloud what I was playing at. And finally, Hayley came into view pushing her own pram, and the three women looked at each other and started to laugh as if they were already old friends.
‘Anyone would think Oliver brought me here deliberately to meet you,’ I heard Hayley exclaiming after they’d introduced themselves and done a bit of Goo-goo-ing over each other’s prams. ‘Silly, I know – he’s not that clever.’
Well, honestly. Sometimes we cats don’t get any credit for our intelligence. I left them to it, and went back to Sarah and Martin’s house, feeling worn out and ready for a nap. It had turned out to be a busy day of helping people, but there was only so much I could do, after all. I figured that if eight- and nine-year-old girls could come up with the idea of holding their meetings in each other’s homes, hopefully three fully grown females could work it out for themselves too.
The following day, Sarah came home from a shopping trip accompanied by yet another female. They were chatting as they went into the kitchen and started making coffee, and it sounded like, once again, it was the closing of the pub and the village hall they were worrying about.
‘Anyway, Anne,’ Sarah said as they came into the lounge, where I was enjoying a sunny spot on the windowsill watching the birds, ‘I’m glad I bumped into you this morning. I wanted to talk to you about Brownies.’
‘Yes, you see, that’s another thing,’ the other woman said. She looked slightly older than Sarah, with a cheerful-looking round face and a booming voice. ‘I’ve tried everywhere to find a temporary venue for the meetings, but I’ve had no luck whatsoever. The school hall at Great Broomford is booked solidly every evening of the week for adult education classes, the folk dancing club and God knows what else. The community centre there is just the same, in fact they have a waiting list. And St Luke’s church hall did have a coup
le of slots free before the fire, but it seems the Scouts and the youth club have got in ahead of us.’
‘Oh. Well, at least they’re sorted, I suppose. And it’s probably easier for their age groups to get there, even if their parents don’t drive. A lot of them have bikes.’
‘That’s true. But, sadly, I’m sending a letter to all the Brownies’ parents, Sarah, explaining that unless anyone has any ideas for a venue, pack meetings are suspended indefinitely. It’s such a shame. Some of the girls will have grown out of Brownies by the time we can reopen.’
‘I have got one tiny little idea, though,’ Sarah said. ‘It’s come about because of Oliver, actually.’
They’d both been ignoring me completely up till now, but when Sarah pointed to me, Anne gave a little chuckle of surprise.
‘The pub cat? I didn’t realise he was staying with you.’
And Sarah had to explain all about my escape from the fire, and rescue from the tree, and then she described how the children and their friends wanted to study me for their Brownie badge and were going to meet at the house every week. I kept my ears pricked for any mention of foxes being invited.
‘That’s a nice idea,’ Anne said.
‘Well, at least it means their Six will still be having regular meetings. I can look up what they have to do for their badge, and give them some help, and when they’re ready perhaps you could come round and test them?’
‘Of course I will. In fact, as Brown Owl, I think I should pop round every couple of weeks to see how they’re getting on. It’ll be good to keep in touch with the Foxes, even if I don’t see the other children.’
There it was. Foxes were coming! I gave a little mew of anxiety but neither of the women seemed to notice.
‘Well, this is what I was wondering, Anne,’ Sarah said excitedly. ‘I can’t offer to hold meetings for the rest of the pack here, obviously – we wouldn’t have the room. But if the Foxes meet here, couldn’t the parents of some of the other girls host their own Six meetings? It would be better than nothing, and it would give them all some continuity.’
Oliver the Cat Who Saved Christmas Page 4