‘Ah, this one’s awake,’ she said. ‘Hello, little one. Are you feeling better?’ She opened the cage and picked me up again. I struggled a bit, but when I saw she had the little tube thing in her hand and was going to give me some more milk, I relaxed. ‘That’s it, puss,’ she purred at me gently. ‘Drink up, you need all the nourishment you can get. I think this one’s going to make it,’ she called to another female standing behind her. And then she laughed. ‘He’s looking for more. That’s a really good sign – he’s nuzzling me for more milk. I think we’ll have to call him Oliver. The boy who asked for more!’
And they both laughed, and although I didn’t understand the joke, and although I was really too tired to care what they called me, I must admit I thought it was a very fine name.
* * *
I must have spent a long while like that, drifting in and out of sleep, being fed milk whenever I woke up, gradually feeling stronger and eventually managing to get up on my little legs again. When I was finally able to scamper around like a proper kitten, I was allowed out of my cage for short periods to run up and down the room. I still had no idea where I was, but I knew I was being looked after. Several of my baby teeth had come through, and as well as the milk, I was being given tiny mouthfuls of meat to try now. Because I knew how it felt to be starving, I promised myself I’d never refuse anything I was offered.
Day by day, I felt myself growing bigger and fitter. Just as I was getting used to my new routine, I was moved to a different cage. This one was bigger, with room to run around and with my own comfy bed and toilet facilities. The female human had taught me to use a litter box. She’d looked very sad as she told me this was something my mother would have taught me if I hadn’t been separated from her. The thought of my mother made me cry, and then I started wondering about my brothers and sisters. I hadn’t seen them since I’d been taken out of the sack. I wished I could find them and play with them, but nobody ever mentioned them. I still don’t know, to this day, what happened to them. But … I think I can guess. I’m not even sure whether the thing about us having nine lives is true, anyway.
Ah, sorry, little kitten. Don’t cry. Come on, we’re just coming to the nice part of the story. It gets more cheerful now. I’ll cut to the end. One day, when I woke up in my little bed, there was a new, strange, male human looking at me through the bars of my cage.
‘Hello, little Oliver,’ he said. I instantly shrunk back against the edge of the bed, my fur standing on end, and gave a little growl. Male humans were bad news. To be fair, this one was keeping his voice quieter and softer than the others, and his face looked smiley, but how could I trust him?
‘Would you like me to get him out for you?’ my friend, the female, asked him.
‘He’s had a very traumatic start,’ she said quietly as she unlatched my cage. ‘Abandoned before he was weaned – probably at about three weeks or so. We didn’t expect him to make it, but he’s done really well and he’s ready for his first vaccinations now.’
I struggled as she picked me up. I didn’t want the male to get me.
‘It’s all right, Oliver,’ she said. ‘Don’t be frightened. He’s a bit nervous of new people,’ she explained. ‘We think he was probably mistreated before he was dumped.’
‘Poor little fellow,’ the new human said. ‘He’s such a beautiful little thing, too.’ He seemed so different from the other males, with their loud shouting, and especially that first one with his big rough paws. He gave me a little stroke and although I flinched a bit, it was actually quite nice. ‘Would you like to come and live with me, Oliver? I promise you’ll never be mistreated again. We’ll be best mates, you and me. We’re both lonely boys who need a pal, aren’t we?’
And despite myself, I found myself purring. It would take me a little while to trust him completely, and when he moved me to my new home he let me live quietly upstairs in his private rooms until I was brave enough to face the customers downstairs. But from our first day together, when he sat me carefully on his lap and told me how his own female had died and left him all alone in the world, and that he’d gone to the Cats’ Protection home to find himself someone to keep him company, I knew that what he said was right. We were best mates, destined to spend our lives together and look after each other.
That, little kitten, was how I met my George.
OK, well now that I’ve told you all about my poor sad kittenhood, is it all right with you if I get back to my story about last year? Otherwise we’re never going to get to the end of it.
As you’ve probably gathered, it was starting to be winter by now, and I was never a cat for spending a lot of time outside in the winter. I was lucky to have my two cosy foster homes to sleep in, although it has to be said that Nicky and Daniel’s cottage was a bit draughty and they didn’t turn the heating on very often. However, I must admit there were times, when Sarah was working on her computer in the study, and the children were at school, when I felt a little bored, and needed to stretch my legs. So I’d have a run down the road and round the corner into the main street, and if I couldn’t find Tabby and the others to play with, I’d usually run straight back again.
Of course, if there was a dim-witted pigeon or starling to chase while I was out, so much the better. I’m not a bad hunter, little kitten – I’m small and quick enough to take some of the dozy creatures by surprise. I’ll give you some lessons when you’re a bit bigger. Usually, back at the pub, if I made a kill I’d take it home and leave it by the back door for George. He didn’t seem to like having the gifts taken indoors, for some reason. But obviously, I didn’t realise other humans shared this dislike. So the first time I caught a sparrow for Sarah and Martin, I carried it straight through the cat flap into the house. Nobody was around to present it to, so I thought the best thing would be to leave it in the middle of the lounge, by the coffee table, so they couldn’t miss it when they came in. But if I was expecting praise for my hunting skill, I was in for a disappointment.
‘What the hell?’ Sarah said when she saw the decapitated sparrow on the carpet. ‘Oh, Ollie! How could you? Poor bird! And we do not want things like this brought indoors, thank you very much.’
I slunk away, feeling very confused and upset. Sarah had sounded cross with me – and yet she’d ended up saying thank you very much, so I guessed she must have been pleased with the sparrow but, like George, would have preferred it left outside. And as for poor bird – well, it had been a fair fight, and he’d lost. What was wrong with that? I ended up deciding my offering might have been too small. She’d been disappointed. Next time, I’d bring her a bigger bird, but leave it on the front doorstep. She’d like that, for sure.
* * *
One day, when it wasn’t quite so cold, I was feeling more frisky and adventurous than usual. After setting off from the house, something made me keep on going – up to the top of the main street, where the road runs out of houses and pavements and starts to climb a steep hill. I’d never been up here before, so I slowed down to have a look and a sniff around. But apart from the occasional dollop of smelly horse poo (I’ve never understood why horses don’t clean up after themselves like we do), there wasn’t really much to see, until I rounded a bend, and there in front of me were a pair of enormous iron gates, with huge birds sitting on top of them. It took me a minute to realise the birds weren’t real. I peered through one of the holes that made up the pattern of the gates, and meowed to myself in surprise. There was a very, very long driveway, stretching away into the distance, and on either side of it were massive lawns of lovely grass, dotted with all sorts of shrubs and trees. Far off at the other end of the driveway was a big house, the biggest I’d ever seen. Feeling too curious to be scared, I squeezed through the gap in the gate and dashed across the lawn to the first little group of shrubs, where I lay quietly for a moment, hoping nobody had seen me. When you’re exploring somewhere new like this, little kitten, you have to remember there co
uld be a resident cat who will make short work of seeing you off his territory – or even, worst case scenario, an unstrapped dog. However, everything seemed quiet in this huge garden, so I decided to make the most of it, and spent a pleasant afternoon chasing sparrows and blackbirds and stupid woodpigeons all over the lawns, ducking behind trees and jumping out at them, wriggling under bushes and generally having an exhilarating time. I’d intended picking off one of the blackbirds to take home, but eventually I was almost too worn out by all the exercise to walk back and, as you can probably imagine, I fell straight asleep as soon as I was through the cat flap.
The next day, I happened to run into Tabby and his latest female, Suki. I couldn’t wait to tell them about my new discovery.
‘You’re talking about the grounds of the Big House,’ Tabby said at once, looking shocked. ‘You can’t go in there.’
‘Why not?’ I said. ‘I did, and it was lovely. You should try it. We’d have a great time together in there. Is it somebody’s territory?’
‘Yes, but not a cat’s. It belongs to the worst-tempered human in the whole village. I should know. I got chased out of there by him once, and he was waving a stick at me like he wanted to hit me with it. I’ve never been back and as you know I’m a very brave cat, so it’s madness for a timid little thing like you to risk it.’
If he hadn’t said that thing about me being timid, I’d probably have taken his advice and never gone back there. But it was so embarrassing, being patronised like that in front of Suki. She’d been purring away, rubbing her face against Tabby’s and making flirty eyes at him, and when she deigned to give me a glance, it was so disdainful, I’m afraid I snapped:
‘Actually I’m not timid at all. I’ll have you know I’m famous in the village these days for being as brave as a tiger.’
Tabby laughed. I was beginning to wonder why I was friends with him. He didn’t behave like this when Suki wasn’t around.
‘Oh, really?’ he said. ‘What did you do? Catch a mouse?’
‘No!’ I retorted crossly. ‘I frightened off a male human, if you must know. A very aggressive one.’
‘Yeah? What was he – a little human kitten?’ Tabby said, making Suki laugh and rub herself even more amorously against him.
I’d had enough. I turned and stalked away from them, waving my tail crossly as I went. So what if it was only a human kitten? I’d still been brave. I’d show that self-satisfied Tabby just how much braver I was than him – I’d go back to the Big House every day if I wanted to, and play there for as long as I liked. Huh! Timid, me? What did he know?
* * *
Up to a point, it was true that I was becoming famous in the village, but not necessarily for being brave. Everyone was now aware of my situation, that I was temporarily homeless and in foster care, and when I trotted along the road there was always someone who’d stop, bend down and stroke my head, asking how I was and whether I was missing George. George was very popular with everyone in Little Broomford and I got the feeling they felt a kind of collective responsibility towards me, as their pub cat. This made me feel quite proud, and also helped me realise that most of these people who had tried to stroke and pet me when they came to the pub, and whose advances I’d been afraid of, were actually kind and gentle after all.
It was interesting to see how various people in the village were starting to get together in each other’s houses now that the pub and the hall weren’t available. That same day, after talking to Tabby and Suki, I was going home past the shop when I noticed two women with prams who were laughing and chatting together as they went up the path of the house next door. One was Hayley, who had the baby called Jack. She caught sight of me and exclaimed to her friend:
‘Oh, look, it’s Oliver. Hello, Oliver!’
I went closer and did a circuit of her legs. There was a cold wind that day and I’d been in a hurry to get home to the warm, but I was so pleased to see the difference in Hayley, I didn’t like to rush off. Before, she’d been so quiet and sad, but now she was smiling and laughing out loud, and even little Jack in the pram sounded like he was making a happy gurgling noise instead of that pitiful mewing.
‘It’s because of Oliver that I’ve got some friends in the village now,’ she was telling the other female. ‘I’m sure he led me here deliberately one day when Louise was outside the shop, and left us to chat to each other. I know it sounds silly, but he seemed so anxious for me to walk this way…’ she said. She laughed, and shook her head. ‘Well, maybe I imagined it. But Louise was sorry too because of the mum-and-baby group not meeting, and we decided to start holding these afternoon get-togethers at each other’s houses. And now I’ve met you, and the others, and I can’t tell you how much difference it’s made, having friends to talk to about the sleepless nights and the crying and the nappies.’
‘Friends who understand,’ the other female said, smiling back at her. ‘We all need that. Well, Oliver, I’m very grateful to you too.’
And she gave me a little rub of my head and I went on my way, feeling happy and satisfied with myself. Perhaps I was getting a bit too pleased with myself, with all this flattery from everyone. But you see, I kept remembering that sneering look on Tabby’s face and the haughty way Suki dismissed me, and I was determined that one day they’d be jealous of me.
* * *
Of all my new friends in the village, it was Sarah’s family who were the most grateful to me, and I knew that was because of the change in little Rose. She was far more chatty and smiley these days, behaving like any human kitten should – running around the house, giggling at things with her sister, rushing home from the school bus excited about this or that. Apparently the young male called Michael Potts hadn’t said another single word to her about Sooty or the accident since I’d attacked him. I heard Grace say to her mother that some other boys from their class had seen the confrontation that day, and teased him afterwards about being frightened of a little ginger cat.
‘They said he was a coward because he only picked on little girls like Rose, and when a little cat hissed at him he ran away,’ she said. ‘He didn’t like being laughed at by his friends, so he stays away from Rose now and ignores me too.’
‘Good,’ Sarah said. ‘We have a lot to thank Ollie for, don’t we?’
‘Yes. And he’s going to help the Foxes tonight, too.’
Grace ran over to pick me up and give me a hug, but I was too alarmed by what she’d said, and I yowled and dug my claws into the cushion I was sitting on, refusing to be lifted.
‘What’s the matter, Ollie?’ she said, laughing at me. ‘Are you in a grumpy mood today?’
What could she expect, with all this talk about foxes? And, just as I’d feared, a bit later, when I’d been resting peacefully in my favourite chair, the doorbell rang and there was a shout from Grace:
‘That’ll be them. The Foxes!’
As you can imagine, I was instantly leaping out of the chair and making a dash for the cat flap.
‘No!’ Rose cried out, seeing me run past her. ‘Mummy, don’t let Ollie escape.’
I couldn’t believe it. The whole family seemed to be in on the plot to bring foxes into the house to eat me up – even Rose! Sarah rushed to lock the cat flap before I could get there, so I turned tail, thinking I could leg it out of the front door when they opened it to let the foxes in. But to my horror, Sarah then shut me in the kitchen, calling out to Grace:
‘OK, let them in now. I’ll keep Ollie in the kitchen until you’ve closed the front door and then he can come out.’
Meowing in distress, I crept under the kitchen table and tried to make myself as small as I could against the wall. I could hear children’s voices, but no foxes barking yet, although I knew they must be out there somewhere. After a few minutes Sarah came back in.
‘Oliver, what on earth’s the matter?’ she said, bending down and holding out her hand to me under the table. I was cowering on the floor, and low rumbling growls of fear were coming up out of my chest.
‘Come on, all the Foxes are here to see you.’
And before I could run again, she’d grabbed me in a paw-lock and carried me into the lounge. I closed my eyes and prepared to say goodbye to the world. How many lives was I down to, even if I believed in that piece of folklore? But all I heard was a chorus of children calling out to me:
‘Hello, Oliver!’ and ‘Oh, isn’t he lovely?’ and ‘Is he asleep?’
I opened one eye slowly, and then the other, and glanced round the room suspiciously. Where were the foxes? I decided to stay clinging onto Sarah until I knew.
The little girls were all laughing.
‘Is he scared of us?’ one asked.
‘He’s just a bit shy of strangers,’ Grace explained importantly. ‘He’ll be all right when he gets used to you. Just talk to him quietly but don’t rush him or try to stroke him straight away.’
One of the girls came a bit closer to me and bent down to look me in the eyes.
‘Hello, little shy Oliver-cat,’ she said softly. ‘I’m Alice.’
‘And I’m Olivia – my name’s like yours,’ said another. ‘I’m Evie.’
All the children were eagerly introducing themselves, even the couple I’d already met when they came to play before. And then Grace added:
‘And we’re all the Foxes – the best Six in Broomford Brownies!’
I did think it was strange that these nice children would want to call themselves foxes. But perhaps that was why they all dressed in brown. And at least, now I knew it was only them and not real foxes coming to play, I could relax.
‘We’re going to study you, Oliver,’ Grace said. ‘And you can help us to be the first Six to get our “Friend to Animals” badges.’
‘And I’m going to be helping you too, girls, with your work for the badge. I want to learn all about it because Brown Owl says I can start training to help lead the pack when the full meetings start again,’ said Sarah.
Oliver the Cat Who Saved Christmas Page 7