George went out to the car, then, and came back carrying two big bags.
‘Just a little token of my thanks,’ he said, putting them on the table.
‘But you’ve given us the money, George,’ Sarah said, staring open-mouthed at the bags.
‘These are just some things for Ollie, and some little bits for the kids – so you can’t say no,’ he said with a smile. ‘Now, it’s been great seeing you, and thanks for the lunch, but I’m going to have to get back as I’m working tonight.’
‘Good to see you too, mate,’ Martin said, shaking his hand. ‘Thanks for the cheque – and for all this, but you didn’t have to.’
‘I miss my boy,’ George said by way of a reply. He picked me up and gave me another quick cuddle, and I purred into his ear, wishing frantically that he didn’t have to go. ‘I’ll see you again soon, Ollie. Be good. It’ll probably be nearly Christmas before I can get back again,’ he added to Sarah and Martin as he walked to the door.
I meowed to myself sadly for ages after he’d gone. But when Sarah started unpacking the bags, she found so many exciting things for me, I almost forgot to be upset. There was a new blanket – soft and fluffy with a pattern of paw prints all over it – a toy mouse stuffed with catnip, just the right size for throwing in the air and catching with my claws, some sparkly little balls to play with, a bag of my favourite cat-treats and, best of all, a little hammock made of furry material that hooked over a radiator, for me to lie in. Sarah was laughing as she watched Martin fix it over the radiator in the lounge.
‘Look at that, Ollie,’ she said. ‘What a lovely warm, cosy bed for you, for the winter.’
I jumped straight into it, turned around a couple of times (although there wasn’t much room and I nearly fell out on the first attempt), did a bit of scraping at the furry surface the way we cats like to, and finally snuggled down, purring myself to sleep as I thought fondly of George choosing my presents. I was beginning to realise what a lucky little cat I was, after all.
* * *
When I woke up, there was another surprise. It was dark, the curtains had been drawn, the children must have gone to bed – and sitting on the sofa holding glasses of drink, like the ones people had in the pub, were Nicky and Daniel from next door. Normally I’d have had my dinner by now, and then gone in to see them, but I must have had a much deeper and longer nap than usual, in my new hammock.
‘It’s really nice of you both to ask us round,’ Nicky was saying.
‘Well,’ Sarah said, ‘we just thought that if you weren’t doing anything tonight, it’d make a change to get together for a chat. Would you like some crisps?’ She passed them a little bowl, and watching them crunching away, I realised how hungry I was. I jumped out of my hammock, yawning and stretching my legs.
‘Oh, look who’s finally woken up,’ Martin laughed. ‘I suppose you want some dinner, Ollie.’
Of course I did! I followed him out to the kitchen, purring with anticipation, and did a few circuits of the place where they normally put my dish, while I waited for him to open the tin. When I’d finally finished eating, been outside for a call of nature and then had a good wash, there seemed to be a serious conversation going on, back in the lounge.
‘We absolutely can’t accept it,’ Nicky was saying, looking a bit pink in the face. ‘We haven’t been feeding Ollie at all – only a spot of milk occasionally. It’s your money.’
‘Seriously, guys,’ Martin said, ‘George wanted you to have it. He wanted to show his appreciation to all of us for taking care of Ollie – making him comfortable and stopping him from being lonely. It’s not just about the food.’
‘Oh.’ Nicky gave Daniel an anxious look. ‘Well, I don’t know what to say. I mean, it’s very nice of him, but we love having Ollie popping in for visits anyway.’
‘If we accept the money,’ Daniel said firmly, ‘we’ll take over feeding him his evening meals. It’s not fair, otherwise.’
Martin shrugged. ‘Shall we just say that whoever’s house he’s in at the time can feed him?’
I pricked up my ears. If I was a crafty cat, I could do well out of this. I could have dinner in one house, and then nip next door and get a second helping. But then I remembered how worried Daniel and Nicky were about money. No, that wouldn’t be right. Maybe I’d let them feed me occasionally, so they didn’t feel unhappy about George’s money, but I wasn’t going to take advantage, tempting though it was.
‘OK, we’ll stock up on cat food with the money,’ Nicky said.
‘Only a few tins,’ Sarah suggested with a smile. ‘We don’t want Ollie getting greedy and cadging extra meals, do we?’
They all laughed then, and I felt so embarrassed I had to turn away and pretend to wash my face again. How had they guessed what I’d been thinking?
‘George has been far too generous with his cheque,’ Martin said. ‘We won’t need all our share either, to say nothing of the presents.’
‘Oh yes, I noticed the new bed on the radiator,’ Nicky said.
‘He loves it already. It must be so warm and cosy for him. But there were presents for the children, too – books, and games, and jigsaws – they thought Christmas had come early! So you see, we’ve had more than our fair share of George’s gratitude.’ She smiled at Nicky and added quietly, ‘Please don’t feel bad about accepting your share.’
That settled, the talk turned to Christmas.
‘To be honest,’ Nicky said, taking tiny sips of her drink, and finally putting the glass down as if she’d decided she didn’t like it, ‘I’m not looking forward to it.’
‘Oh, why not?’ Sarah asked.
Next thing I knew, the whole story was pouring out, about Nicky’s parents, and the arguments, and the Christmas visit that was supposed to be their opportunity to make up with them, until the fire in the pub put paid to their stay.
‘We’re going to have to cancel them,’ Daniel explained. ‘We haven’t got any room to put them up. Nicky’s two younger brothers would be coming too, as they’re only twelve and fourteen.’
I saw Sarah and Martin giving each other a look.
‘Well, there must be a way round it,’ Sarah said. ‘Let us have a think.’
‘I can’t see any way, other than cancelling the visit. There’s nowhere else in the village they can stay, and everywhere in Great Broomford and the other villages is fully booked.’ Nicky shrugged. ‘Dan says it’s pointless having them come for Christmas anyway while we can’t afford any luxuries.’
‘It’s going to be a disappointing Christmas for a lot of people here,’ Martin said. ‘Nowhere to hold the pensioners’ party or the children’s parties. No Christmas nights out at the pub…’
‘Not even for poor Ollie,’ Sarah said, smiling at me. They all laughed then, and I was glad really, because the conversation had been getting a bit sad.
‘Actually it might not have been all fun and games for Ollie at the pub at Christmas time,’ Martin said. ‘It always got so busy, with a lot of people coming into the pub who didn’t know him, and didn’t realise he didn’t like being stroked or petted by strangers – especially strange men.’
‘He seems to have got used to both of us now, though, doesn’t he,’ Daniel said.
‘Yes. We should be honoured.’
‘Do you know if there’s any reason for it? I mean, sometimes animals are scared of strangers if they’ve been ill-treated or something like that.’ Daniel was holding his hand out towards me as he spoke, and I walked towards him, purring, and let him stroke my head, to show him I trusted him now. ‘Has George had him ever since he was a kitten?’
‘Yes.’ Martin nodded. ‘But you’re right, he came with a history. George told me about it once. It’s very sad.’
When I realised he was going to tell the others about my horrible start in life, I decided it was time to go to bed. I didn’t want to hear it. It was bad enough having lived through it.
All right, little kitten – do I r
eally have to call you Kitty? – yes, I suppose it’s about time I told you what happened to me. You have to understand, I don’t find it easy to talk about. But perhaps it’ll be good for you to realise that not all little kittens have a nice start in life, like you have, with a kind family and plenty to eat right from the start, to say nothing of having a wise older friend like me to look after you and teach you the ways of the world.
So, where do I start? With my earliest memories, I suppose. I vaguely remember being nursed by my mother, but it’s only a dim, distant recollection of warmth and softness and lovely milkiness, lost to me so soon after I was born. I was one of five kittens, and my brothers and sisters were the first things I saw when my eyes started to open. My eyesight wasn’t very good at first – yours will have been the same – but I was aware of the others as we all clambered over each other, competing for our mother’s milk. Our little ears didn’t work at first either, but gradually I became aware of the sound of my mother purring as she groomed us, and the funny little squeaks my siblings made. Obviously we were too young to have any idea where we were, but it was dry and warm, and our bed was on some kind of rough material. There was nobody else in my little world at that time – just my mother, my two sisters and two brothers.
Then everything went badly wrong. One day, soon after my ears and eyes had started to work properly, we were all startled by a sudden loud noise, and a gust of cold fresh air. My mother jumped up, trying to hide us all under her body as we kittens scrambled around on the bed in fright. We were only just beginning to learn to walk and, I have to say, I was the best at it. I’d managed to stray off the bedding once or twice, but my legs were wobbly and I couldn’t wait to get back to my mother’s warmth. Now, though, I was cowering under her tummy, shaking with fear.
‘What the hell?’ someone shouted, and there were heavy footsteps coming towards us. ‘Bloody cat – how did you get in here? Bloody shed’s been locked up for weeks. Drat, should have fixed that damned window, might have known all the pesky strays in the neighbourhood would get in. Get out of it – go on, clear off, you manky old thing.’
He was looming over us now. I could feel my siblings shaking as hard as I was. My mother was hissing and spitting, her whole body taut, her tail suddenly twice its normal size. You have to remember I’d never seen a human before, and I had no idea what they were. But this one was big, loud, and very angry, and my mother was making him even angrier.
‘Get off me, you vicious brute,’ he shouted at her as she dug her claws and her teeth into his huge hairy front paws. ‘Ouch! Right, that’s it – I’m gonna get you in this sack and…’ There was a pause. His horrible red face and bulging eyes had come suddenly into focus. ‘Blimey,’ he exclaimed. ‘Bloody kittens too.’
By now we were all squeaking and mewing in distress. Our mother was trying frantically to hide us, but he made a grab for us, one at a time, by our tails, our necks, whatever he could get hold of as we tried desperately to crawl out of his reach.
‘You horrible little vermin can go in the sack first,’ he said, and he pulled our bedding out from under us all, shook it so that it opened into a kind of big bag, and started dropping us in it, one by one. All the time our mother was shrieking at him and attacking him with her claws, until he threw her onto the floor and held her down with one of his huge great back paws. I was the last kitten to be dropped into the sack, and as he grabbed me by the neck I was just in time to see him kick my poor mother so hard, she wailed in pain and shot of the shed door. I can’t tell you how hard I cried as I fell down into the darkness of that sack and joined my siblings in a heap at the bottom.
‘Come back ’ere, you,’ the human was shouting after my mother. I heard him run out of the shed, still shouting, but he was soon back, muttering about catching her next time he saw her. ‘Meanwhile, let’s get rid of this bag of vermin,’ he said, and the next thing we knew, we were being lifted up in the air and swung along, falling over each other and squeaking with fear.
* * *
I can see I’ve upset you already, little kitten, and you haven’t heard it all yet. Are you sure you want me to go on? I did warn you it wasn’t a nice story. You’re not going to have nightmares, are you? Look, I can promise you there’s a happy ending. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here with you now, curled up nice and cosy on this cushion together with the sunshine coming through the window, would I? But yes, you’re quite right, that was the last time I ever saw my mother. Well, we all have to leave our mothers, as you know, but I was still too young, and of course, the circumstances weren’t exactly ideal. But since I’ve grown up, I’ve always told myself I’m glad she got away from that horrible man. I know she wouldn’t have left us if she’d had any choice in the matter.
Well, there we all were in that dark sack and, of course, I don’t actually know how long we were in it, or where we were taken, but when we felt ourselves being dumped on the ground, we all started crying as loudly as we could – which wasn’t very loud – to be let out. For a long, long time we heard nothing outside the sack apart from birds singing. We were all hungry, and thirsty, and beginning to get weak. I had an instinctive feeling that we needed to keep still to conserve our energy, but my two brothers didn’t seem to understand this, and kept jumping around, looking for a way out. There wasn’t one, of course – the sack was tied up at the top – and they were just making themselves more and more tired and thirsty. It was hard to breathe, and the two girl kittens were both starting to struggle. Eventually we did all have to lie down quietly because we were too weak to do anything else, even to cry.
We lay there for a long time, maybe hours, maybe days, listening to each other’s shallow breathing getting fainter. And then there was a sound outside – a loud sniffing sound – and the sack was being nudged backwards and forwards. By now I was almost too weak and sick to care what happened, but suddenly a new human voice was calling out:
‘What have you got there, Rupert? Leave it alone, boy. Here! Sit! Stay!’
And then there was light, so sudden and so bright, I had to close my eyes, only for them to fly open again with fright at the terrible noise that came next. Have you met any dogs yet, little kitten? Believe me, you need to give them a wide berth. Some of them are quite friendly to cats, others are complete psychopaths who would kill us as soon as look at us. But the main problem with them is, they’re loud and excitable. Their humans have to tie them onto long straps just to keep them under control, and if they’re unstrapped, they go berserk, running around in circles, shouting their heads off, chasing anything that moves, even though they never seem to catch anything. Well, this was my first introduction to a dog, and it was terrifying. The minute his human had opened our sack, this dog got his nose right inside it and let out a cacophony of horrendous shouting. The human was shouting too, telling him to shut up and sit down, and eventually the dog’s face was replaced in the opening of the sack by the human’s face. After my experience with the first human I’d ever met, you can imagine how I felt about seeing another one – and this one’s voice was just as loud as the first.
‘Kittens!’ he yelled, staring down at us. I tried to give a little cry of fear, but nothing would come out, and I wasn’t the only one – none of my siblings seemed to be able to raise a squeak, either. ‘Half dead by the look of ’em. Poor little beggars. Who the hell would dump a bag of kittens in the middle of a field like that? Criminal, that’s what it is. Well, I’d better take ’em somewhere, though I reckon it’s probably too late to save ’em. Come on, Rupert – let’s go, boy. Back to the car. You’ll have to have your walk later.’
With that, we were hoisted up in the air again and I was tumbling on top of my poor sisters and brothers, all of us too weak to care. I was barely conscious as I felt the sack being put down again. But a few minutes later, there was an even louder noise, if possible, than the din the dog was still making, and I lay there quaking and shivering, sure it must be the end of the world. I’ve since worked out that we were in
a car, and the noise – I’ve heard it lots of times since, of course – was the car waking up. They roar at the top of their lungs at first, and then settle down to a kind of loud purr as they run along. It’s horrible being inside one, at the best of times – you can feel the vibrations of their tummies rumbling, and they make all sorts of horrible noises, stopping and starting and sometimes screeching. George plays music inside his car now if he has to take me out in it, and that helps a bit. But I shudder to think how scared I must have been back then, in the blackness of that sack, with no idea what was going on. It’s probably a good thing my memories of that part are quite dim now.
In fact I don’t remember anything else until I found myself being lifted out of the sack. I could hear the human who owned the dog, still talking, and another voice, higher and softer, but my brain couldn’t interpret what they were saying any more. As you know, we cats are born bilingual, able to understand Human as well as Cat, but apparently no humans have ever realised this because, of course, we can’t speak it. Didn’t you know that, little kitten? Didn’t you ever wonder why they don’t get annoyed when we completely ignore them? They’ve come to expect it, so it can be quite useful – we cats don’t have to do as we’re told, like they expect dogs to.
But by now, I think my brain had almost given up working. I didn’t like the high-voiced human picking me up, but she was a lot gentler than the horrible man in the shed. Her voice was comforting compared with the loud booming of the male and the shouting of the dog that was still going on. She gently felt me all over, and the next thing I knew she was dripping milk into my mouth from a little tube. It was heaven. I gasped and almost choked on it, I was so desperate to drink. And then I must have fallen asleep.
* * *
Well, the next thing I remember was waking up in a kind of cage, and I was all on my own. I tried to cry, and this time I managed a few pitiful little whimpers. The female human immediately came along and, to my relief, my brain was working again enough to understand her.
Oliver the Cat Who Saved Christmas Page 6