Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Mrs Danby on the Utopia!





My Dear Sister Nellie,

You had every faith in me. You knew I would do it, didn’t you? Secretly I thought I would back out of this trip at the last moment. Too daunting for one such as I! However, I did not let my nerves get the better of me. And suddenly there I was, all alone, aboard the SS Utopia, in the dock at Southampton. Ready to sail the oceans at last and see the world. I don’t know how I had the courage to set off like that, but somehow I did.

If I’d known what was coming, would I still have done it? I had no idea how brave I was going to have to be.

When the steward manhandled my bags all the way to my First Class cabin, he was full of reassurances. Blandishments, I would call them. How the sea would be calm and as smooth as a newly-made bed; how no storms were expected during our seven-night journey. But then, I expect they are used to soothing the nerves of first-time passengers like myself. Only a year after the ghastly tragedy of the Titanic – God rest their souls – I suppose most travellers experience qualms as they set sail upon vessels such as the SS Utopia, no matter how luxurious.

Why did I ever think an Atlantic passage would be something I’d enjoy?

I was rather fretful, Nellie. I sat up in my nicely appointed room and I couldn’t sleep at all during my first night at sea. I listened to the ship’s groaning, and panicked at every slight movement. I couldn’t help wondering whether this trip of mine was such a good idea after all.

Only a month before, I had finally decided to throw caution to the wind. As you yourself pointed out, I’d hardly been anywhere in the world. Now that I found myself without employment or ties, it seemed the opportune moment for a lady of even my advanced years to sally forth into the wider world. Your enthusiastic goading worked, my  dear sister. And so I went off in search of the New World, all alone.

But at the outset I couldn’t help wondering: what if I had bitten off more than I could chew?


*

You will be glad to know that I ventured forth on the third day of sailing. What a thrill it was to be out on the deck once the wind had died down. How I marvelled at that blue expanse of sky and sea, with absolutely nothing to mar the view. I took a brisk walk all around the SS Utopia and suddenly started feeling very much more comfortable than I had at first.

I saw my friendly steward and he showed me where breakfast was being served. I nibbled on a crumpet and sipped some rather superior tea and felt quite content, sitting alone. Lovely silver, I must say. And the tablecloths were beautifully pressed.

Such luxury! Who would have thought I would be enjoying such riches? Only the generosity of my erstwhile employer could have brought me here. That dear man. Though, as you have rightly pointed out, sister, I deserved every penny of my severance pay. My years as his housekeeper were not uneventful, and sometimes they were downright terrifying. One never knew who would be turning up to consult with him in his sitting room. Traipsing muck up and down my stair carpet. Murderers and poisoners and suchlike. I was in far more danger than I think I ever knew about. But bless him, anyhow, and I hope he’s doing well tending his hornets and bees in Sussex. I had an extra spoonful of delicious honey on my last crumpet in honour of my ex-employer and his current charges.

Then I saw that I had attracted the attention of a gentleman at the next table. He, too, was eating alone, a clean-shaven, hawk-faced chap wearing evening dress for breakfast. He was peering at me over his pince-nez, so I shot him one of my basilisk stares – you know the ones, dear Nellie – and he disappeared once more behind his Times. Honestly!  A Peeping Tom. And in First Class, too.

I wondered who he was. Quite a dapper gent.

*

That night I attended a concert wearing my dressiest gown and, as you promised, I soon fell into  company. I was set upon by some women from the north country. Bradford, they informed me. The wives of some manufacturers of woollen garments. There was talk of mills and some such. I told them that I have a sister in North Yorkshire, on the very coast, and they made interested noises, all the way through the programme of light classics.

The small orchestra was tuneful and energetic, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the band that bravely played on as the Titanic went down to her ignominious end. A gloom crept over me. And it wasn’t helped by those fussy Yorkshire women and their urgent quizzing, which began during a medley of waltzes. As you know, Strauss always makes me queasy, and that feeling wasn’t helped by the realization that these blowsy types had learned from shipboard gossip of my name and previous occupation.

They were avid for details of what it must have been like, keeping house for “the Great Man himself”, as they styled him. Well, I could have told them a tale or two about the messy and dirty circumstances in which that Great Man liked to languish, given half a chance. I could have told them about gunshots and smashed windows in the early watches of the night. But I thought – why bother? I don’t need the friendship of this gaggle of nosey parkers. I am on this trip to find a new life. Not to dwell upon the vicissitudes of the old.

I slipped out during a break for refreshments and returned to my cabin. I got somewhat lost as I traipsed down those endless corridors, and that was when I came upon that man again. The one who had been staring as I broke my fast. Perhaps, I thought, he too knew of my connection to the Great Detective. It was galling, really, to have been nothing but an invisible helpmeet all my life and yet then, when I could have done with some peace, to be drawing unwanted attention like this.

I clapped eyes on him as he came creeping out of a door clearly marked ‘crew only’. The pointy-nosed cove was still in the same jacket as he had worn that very morning, and he had a suspicious look about him. Evidently he had been poking about down in the bowels of the Utopia, up to no good. In one hand he was clutching a fearsomely pointed stick. This he quickly hid behind his back as I coughed loudly and swept past him in my formal gown: my magenta with the whalebone support and the seed pearl embroidery. You admired it, Nellie, remember?

He bade me good evening and I gave him another of my stares.

He was, I thought then, not a very nice gentleman. I have a keen sense of villainy, of course, due to my many years in Balcomb Street. As you know, I can tell at a glance what’s lurking in the murkiness of a man’s soul. You, my dear sister, could do with some of that perspicacity yourself.

Do look after yourself, in that seaside resort of yours. I am so far away and feel uncomfortable because I can’t advise you if you start making a fool of yourself again. You were never very shrewd when it came to the male sex and their heinous desires.

I decided to take to my bed as the tossing sea turned rough and everything started to roll to the rhythm of awful Strauss.

*

There we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There was nothing to see, in whichever direction one looked. Never had I had so little to do, or had so few concerns. It was a strangely liberating feeling, marred only by the suspicion that the Titanic must have been hereabouts when disaster struck. Also, by the dread I felt for reaching our destination. Oh yes, indeed, I had dreamed about this holiday and experiencing the New World for a long time. But, really, what did I think would happen there? I was all alone, Nellie. With no one at all to share those new sights and experiences with. I found myself thinking about the years ahead – and wondering what I might fill them with. I am no longer needed, Nellie. I am redundant in every sense.





Well, obviously I came to my senses and saw that it was no good carrying on like that. Neither of us was brought up to wallow in feelings of desperation. And so it was that, determined to clear my head of all this foolish anguish, I took my daily constitutional, five times round the deck of our ship. I nodded and smiled to those passengers whose faces had become familiar in those past few days; I paused to examine the ship’s daily manifest; and I watched some elderly gentlemen playing a doddering game of quoits. And then, as I reached the very prow of our vessel, I was interrupted in my reverie by that same pale-faced chap with the pointed nose. That day he was in a green velvet smoking jacket, and I had the instant impression that he had planned this interception.

He opened his mouth to explain himself, but I wasn’t having any of it. I waved him off and tried to bustle past. I felt a bit foolish running away, but a woman alone can’t take too many chances. There he was, rabbiting on about why he’d been carrying that sharpened stick and sneaking about, and I tried to tell him I just didn’t care. But then he said it. He said it in such a sharp, commanding voice: ‘Mrs Martha Danby. Please let me explain.’

I turned round to look at him, amazed that he knew who I was. He was glaring at me with these steely grey eyes. Then I thought, well, anyone can look at the ship’s passenger list, can’t they?

He stepped forward and I was holding my breath. The sun was bright on his slicked-back white hair. I did think him a tad attractive, Nellie, for an older gent. But I didn’t want to let that show. He was burbling on about carrying pointed sticks and knives… Heavens! He opened up his jacket to show me that, stitched into the silk lining, he had a deadly array of hunting knives and more of those pointed sticks.

I boggled at him, Nellie. This was a very oddly-equipped gentleman. He was telling me that I had nothing to fear. His job was to protect ladies like myself. This was why he was armed so fearsomely. It was his role in this world to combat evil and the forces of darkness, wherever he was. Even aboard a luxury sailing vessel like this one.

Forces of darkness, I thought. Here we go again. Well, Nellie, I swiftly made my excuses and hastened to leave. I don’t know why he’d decided I needed to see his arsenal out there on the prow, but I wasn’t going to hang around.

‘Wait!’ he cried out. And then he asked me, urgently, whether I wasn’t in fact the very same Mrs Martha Danby who had worked for so many years as housekeeper to the esteemed Mr Nightshade Jones of 221b Balcomb Street.

Graciously, I gave the nod. ‘And Mr Wilson, too,’ I added. Folk tend to leave out the good doctor, but I was at his beck and call, as well. And this polite gentleman with the stakes and knives nodded thoughtfully. He’d come over all funny at the mere thought of Mr Jones. I wondered if he was an acquaintance or something… or worse… an enemy! A deadly enemy who had waited in the shadows until he could get this helpless female housekeeper alone…

He told me had conceived the greatest respect for my employers and myself. And then he introduced himself, rather charmingly, I thought. His name is Doctor Abraham Van Halfing. A Doctor, I thought, Nellie! A doctor of medicine and he’s got a PhD in ancient folklore and a Chair in Metaphysics to boot. Not that I know what a Chair in Metaphysics is, but it sounds rather grand.

I allowed him to take me in to lunch and we had a fine time of it, Nellie. He ate very little himself, but ordered all sorts of delicacies that he thought I ought to try. What a cultivated chap! Calling out for things in French without a qualm. Things that I didn’t even recognize. It was like Manna from Heaven, Nellie. It was like ambrosia or something. And all the while this dapper gentleman told me all about his scientific investigations. Not that I followed a word. Terribly well-groomed, he was.

He walked me back to my cabin and the sea was a little wilder, so I had a rolling gait as we made our way through the narrow corridors. Nothing to do with the crisp German wines he’d insisted I sample. However, I did feel slightly tipsy and perhaps over-stimulated by the company and the attention I’d received. I was much in need of my afternoon nap as we rounded the last corner before my door. I was fiddling in my clutch bag for my key just as that friendly steward I mentioned to you came walking past us.

The ship lurched, and I clutched the brass rail and dropped my key. At that very moment I saw that Doctor Van Halfing – my gallant companion – had produced, from inside his velvet jacket one of his sharpened sticks. I gave a shriek. I thought he was about to impale me, Nellie.

But he swung himself round and plunged that weapon straight into my steward. The stake went into the clean white breast of his jacket. Right into his heart. The sailor looked amazed and he gave a horrible, gurgling scream. And then POOF. He exploded into a shower of grey particles, which dropped to the carpet outside my cabin door.

Abraham Van Halfing was still holding his stake. He looked grimly satisfied. ‘These evil creatures are everywhere, Mrs Danby. And that is why I am always quiveringly alert.

‘What evil creatures?’ I asked him.

‘Why, vampires, Mrs Danby,’ said he.



Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Full List!







Okay – here’s my complete Advent list – all the windows hanging open! The best 24 books I read this year. Or, put better, the books I had the best time reading this year. That’s a much better way of saying it. There’s nothing absolute and final about these judgements. We can only say how books actually worked out for us, as we read them… But these were the real treats of 2014 for me:


Tolstoy and the Purple Chair – Nina Sankovitch
The Dr Who Annual 1980
Fan Girl – Rainbow Rowell
Adventures with the Wife in Space – Neil Perryman
The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
The Beach Reading Series – Mark Abramson
Man on the Run – Tom Doyle
The New Arrival – Sarah Beeson
Doctor Who: Engines of War – George Mann
The Collected Works of A.J Fikry – Gabrielle Levin
The Little Beach Street Bakery – Jenny Colgan
Until the End of Time – Danielle Steel
The Storyteller – Jodi Picoult
IQ84 Books 1&2 – Haruki Murakami
Love, Nina – Nina Stibbe
The Unpredictable Consequences of Love – Jill Mansell
The Voices – F.R Tallis
One Night in Italy – Lucy Diamond
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler
Jaunt! – Andy Davidson
The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe
There’s Something I’ve Been Dying to Tell You – Lynda Bellingham
The Hare with the Amber Eyes – Edmund De Waal

So… there’s my list of 24. Interesting to see that…

Nine are non-fiction,
Just over half are by women,
And only seven were read as actual books. That’s fewer than usual. The rest were all e-books, and one was on audio.

Memoirs and rom-coms won the day for me this year… though with Murakami, Tartt, Levin and Fowler I was scoring stuff I’d be inclined (if forced to) call ‘literary’ pretty highly. Fantasy / horror / sf were really quite low down on my list this year – with only George’s Daleks and Tallis’ ghostly voices creeping into my list.  Very little children’s fiction – old or new – stood out this year – except for two great Teen novels that made it into my list.

What’s most apparent is the fact that I took a decision early in the year to read mostly brand new books. It’s been a very illuminating business. There are some very readable blockbusters out there, and some of them are so marked down in price it would be rude to say no. While some are stonking reads… others are just piles of piss stacked as high as they can get.

Choose wisely what you read and what you spend your time with. Every one of the books on my ‘best’ list (out of more than 150 I’ve read in total this year) are the ones that I chose most advisedly – listening to that quiet, insistent inner voice that, if I’m lucky, guides me magically, intuitively, to the books that I know will be worth my time. I keep trying to listen to that voice – over and above the shouting of the dross.

Next year – and I mean it this time – I hope to make a go of really exploring the books from the Beach House, and the accumulated books that will return from storage when our house is rebuilt and redecorated at last…

Happy Christmas again – and I hope you get some time to devote to your reading!




Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Advent Day 24: The Hare with Amber Eyes



THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES by EDMUND DE WAAL

There are so many books I've had to leave out of my festive countdown! I'm sorry not to have included things like the spiffing Kate Bush biography I read in august (when everyone i knew was seeing her in concert!), or the 1960s Puffins I spent July reading in the Beach House... or an amazing 1970s horror novel about a giant murderous snake at large in New York called... 'The Snake'..! 

But, with one choice to go - it had to be this. Perhaps the best of the recent spate on non-fictions that I've been absorbed in. It's a book that came out a couple of years ago and had everyone hyperventilating with its brilliance back then. Well, I'm late to the party - and I loved it. Tracing the intricate life of a collection of 264 carved beasties, De Waal tells the long and complex story of his family since the mid-1800s, across continents and war zones, and right through the middle of history being made in the most hectic, baroque and destructive of fashions. Somehow we get a brilliant sense of all the characters from his family's past - they're all lovingly brought back to life. 

So that's it! That's my festive countdown complete! I'll pop the whole list up tomorrow so you can see what I'm recommending that you rush out and find, so you can read them for yourselves.

Happy Christmas, all! 



Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Book Advent Day 23: Lynda Bellingham



THERE'S SOMETHING I'VE BEEN DYING TO TELL YOU by LYNDA BELLINGHAM

Another memoir - and this one snatched from the jaws of death itself. It was published just before the writer's death, and I read it just afterwards. It's a lovely book - well-deserving of being as widely bought and read as it has been. You get a sense of Bellingham as this amazing force of nature - a bit bolshy, a bit full of herself and snobby (the chapter on stately homes is cringeworthy in that respect!) But what a woman. She is vividly and dynamically present on every page.


Monday, 22 December 2014

Advent Day 22: Will Schwalbe's Book Club


THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB by WILL SCHWALBE

My second memoir about reading in this list of favourites! The year was bookended by very personal mediations on how reading can heal and bring people back together. Here's what I wrote at the time:

"It's a lovely, warm meditation on how readers know that, when they read, they're taking part in the 'human conversation.' It's about how readers are never lonely, bored, or alone, and how they are always *included*. It's such a warm and loving book, too, and I've spent hours and hours with it in the past week - reading and rereading sections and whole paragraphs."


Sunday, 21 December 2014

Advent Day 21: Jaunt!


JAUNT! by ANDY DAVIDSON

In a year with so much wonderful non-fiction, there had to be an example of a great TV episode guide, and this year there was Andy Davidson's wonderful book on the Tomorrow People. Exhaustive, opinionated and intrinsically silly, this volume more than made up for the dishwater-coloured arsefest that was this year's US revival of the show.


Saturday, 20 December 2014

Advent Day 20: Karen Joy Fowler


WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES - by KAREN JOY FOWLER

I walked around in a daze for a whole weekend, listening to this on audio. It's harrowing, thought-provoking, moving and brilliantly told.


Friday, 19 December 2014

Fester and the Christmas Mouse


FESTER AND THE CHRISTMAS MOUSE

By Paul Magrs




1.

I suppose this is meant to be like a Christmas story kind of thing. Paul’s saying I should write one for his blog. Like, maybe think about some nice things that happened in the past and do a story about it. Probably to publicize his bloomin’ book. Well, it was my book, really, of course – The Story of Fester Cat. It’s all about me and I wrote all the words and there’d be no book without me, and no Christmas story either. So, here goes.

This is from when I first started realizing what Christmas was all about and stuff. When I saw that those two dafties who’d adopted me – Paul and Jeremy – made such a big fuss about Christmas and all. They put a big tree in the front room. Massive, and it was all cluttered up with decorations they brought down from the attic in big boxes. There were decorations going back years, from different houses they’d shared and places they’d lived in separately before they’d known each other. The tree was like all the Christmases they could remember and it was pretty good, yanking at the decorations and scritchy-scratching my claws on the trunk when they weren’t paying attention. Hoiking down that duck-wearing-a-headscarf or the robin made with real feathers and giving them a good mauling.

Not that I maul anything much with my one and a half teeth. But at least they aren’t sore these days, after all that dental work I had. There was a big operation, did you know? I went to the hairdressers on the Stockport Road and Mr Joe kept me in overnight in his strange cat hotel and when I woke up my mouth didn’t hurt like it used to and I could crunch up biscuits and stuff no bother.

There’s a lot of decent food around this place at Christmas. Part of the thing of looking forward to it is knowing there’ll be crispy bacon and slivers of smoked salmon and bits of roasted offal and, eventually, when they have their dinner, steaming cuts of succulent turkey flesh. They set me a place at their table and I sit there properly, with the fire blazing away, and that’s how we round out the day each Christmas, before they watch all the TV shows and I doze clutching my Santa mouse to my chest. (They bought me a toy mouse in a Santa hat. I kind of hugged it between my paws to look like I appreciated it and was caring for it, but I was planning to eviscerate it later, but maybe not on Christmas because ripping little animals to pieces isn’t very festive, apparently.)

Anyhow, the story is about a Christmas mouse. But it wasn’t a toy mouse. That Christmas it was a real mouse who was causing a fuss round at ours, and getting in the bloomin’ way and stuff.

*

2.

He wasn’t really any good at talking. I guess it was because he was just a baby mouse, but even if he could have made himself understood, he was so frightened all the time I don’t think I’d have known what he was on about. He kept going ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ the whole time I knew him.

Christmas that year was so cold and, as a result the basement mice had got a bit cocky. I’d been watching my feeding station in the kitchen pretty vigilantly. There were holes and knots in the wood of the floorboards and the little devils would come shinning up the pipes and the brick walls and stuff, just to get into our kitchen and the first thing they went for was my Smorgasbord of cat food. I suppose they must have been really starving to risk everything like that. Cos I was watching a lot of the time. I’d sit on the kitchen table, right on the corner with my shoulders hunched, hiding between the piles of papers and letters and books and the heaps of crockery and the vase of pink lilies. Waiting and watching and ready to pounce.

They must have been really starving down there in the cellar to send up the youngest one of the family. ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ he went in that tiny bloomin’ voice.

I first saw him on Christmas morning. I was bounding down the stairs with Paul at six a.m. It was our usual routine, of course. Every single morning I’d lead him round all the things he had to do to make the house properly habitable – putting on the lamps and opening the curtains on the darkness of the street and the garden. He’d open the front door and I’d sit patiently while he fetched in the milk and I’d sniff the air for the morning news. Those mornings were very fresh but through the clean frost I could smell the trains that had gone by in the night and the cars that had slithered past on the slushy road, and the pin-pricky footsteps showing that the family of foxes from the embankment had all been out hunting in the dark.

We went bounding down the stairs and Paul was telling me about the treats I’d be getting. Remember last Christmas? It’d be all the same marvelous stuff. I’d get the hot roasted heart of the turkey again, and I’d try not to let it roll away under the table this time. I was drooling with anticipation as we went downstairs and there, right at the bottom, I heard this ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ and Paul with his human hearing didn’t notice it, of course. Nor did he see that dark little huddled form, no bigger than one of my paws. It was crouching and panting in the muddle of shoes under the hat stand. Gleep was hoping to stay in the shadows and he would have gone unnoticed, but my eyes are pretty keen, and I spotted him at once, and I jumped on him.

‘Gleep!’

Paul saw straight away what was happening. ‘Fester, don’t!’

I think he thought I’d swallowed little Gleep down in one go.

Don’t think I hadn’t thought about it!

I might be thoroughly at home and domesticated and all that, but I still have the instincts of a hunter and a killer! Oh, yes. But I was looking forward to my salmon and stuff and I wasn’t going to spoil my appetite on a pesky little morsel like this. Also, he tasted a bit like the damp cellar did, kind of vegetably and dark.

He was going ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ inside my mouth, scared out of his wits, I reckon.

‘Fester, let him go! Spit him out!’ cried Paul, like a dafty, sounding scandalized I was doing something as horrible as what nature intended on Christmas morning.

He insisted I spat out the little mite, even though all I was doing was a bit of safekeeping and making sure he never ran away.

Pffftttt.

I relinquished Gleep and he shot across the floorboards, seeking shelter inside one of Jeremy’s leather shoes. Paul hurriedly picked it up and carried it like it was something special or precious to the front door, which he quickly unlocked.

‘Ungow!’ I shouted at him, because I realized what he was going to do. ‘Ungow!’ You can’t! You can’t just empty that shoe into the front drive. You can’t just shove that tiny gleeping thing into Chestnut Avenue at six in the morning on Christmas bloomin’ Day!

‘Sssh, Fester,’ he said to me – a bit tersely, I thought. ‘No, you can’t have him to chew on. I’m rescuing the poor little fella.’

I could hear Gleep shouting his own name, sounding all frantic and shrill. Paul emptied him out under the hedges and then he brought the shoe back inside.

‘Ungow!’

‘Shush, Fester. You’ve got fancy cat food and stuff for breakfast. I’m not letting you eat a little mouse like that on Christmas morning.’

‘Ungow!’

But I wasn’t shouting cos of that. He should have known that. I was shouting because Gleep was stuck out there now. I don’t think there was a way back into our cellar from the street outside. Not even for someone as tiny as he was.

He was stuck out there. He was separated from the rest of his family and he probably didn’t have the wits in his tiny head to think up a way to get back. So he was completely doomed. Unless I did something to bloomin’ well help him.


*

3.


This was in the days before I became a house cat and stopped going out so much. I was still youngish and I never thought twice about skipping out of doors and perambulating the whole neighbourhood. Up and down Chestnut Avenue checking out all our other local cats and seeing what was what.

So, a little after breakfast on Christmas morning I left Paul with his toast and a glass of Prosecco and I was off down the street. ‘Keep off that road, though,’ he warned me. He had been a bit funny about me and the road out front since he saw me rolling about on the warm tarmac one afternoon in the late summer, sunning myself.

Out I went, to hunt through the undergrowth between the hedges and the houses.

‘Gleep?’ I called. ‘Gleep…?’

It was such a bloomin’ foolish noise. That mouse was so tiny and insignificant and silly that he didn’t even have anything sensible to say.

‘What are you doing, Fester Cat?’

Suddenly I could hear the snarky, snickering voice of that old Bessy. I sighed. Of course she’d have to be there. Of course she’d have noticed I was up to something interesting and she’d start being all sarcastic about it.

‘Happy Christmas, Bessy,’ I said, carrying on about my business.

Bessy was once a member of our household. Paul and Jeremy let her move in for a while because the big old bruiser looked like she was beaten up and destitute. Once through the doors she proceeded to eat them out of house and home, and thought that she could call all the shots. She bullied me out of my favourite beds and perching spots and life wasn’t the same around ours until she decided one day – quite out of the blue – that it was time for her to move on.

Bessy with the great big bollocks. Bessy with the bad attitude.

‘If you’re looking for that mouse,’ said Bessy, chuckling, ‘Then you’re too late. I already found it.’

‘What?’

‘That damp-smelling baby mouse?’ She examined her claws and rolled her bright green eyes. ‘Is that what you’re looking for?’

I had to tell her that it was. ‘You haven’t eaten him, have you?’

‘Hardly! I’m not that hungry.’

You could never tell with Bessy. She was sly and liked causing bother. ‘Where have you taken him?’

She considered this. ‘I suppose you and those dafties round yours are having turkey for dinner, then?’

‘You could be, too,’ I burst out. ‘You’re the one who moved out. You were living with us last Christmas. You could have stayed…’

‘Nah,’ she shrugged her big shoulders like she was wearing a very luxurious coat instead of a ratty old thing. ‘I got itchy paws. I prefer living rough.’

‘Ungow,’ I said. I didn’t point out that when I lived rough, as one of Bessy’s street gang, it wasn’t just itchy paws we had – it was itchy bloomin’ everything. ‘Look, will you tell me where Gleep is?’

‘Why should you care about some little mouse? He’s not even a gobful. He’s just a scrap of a thing. Not really a living creature at all.’

‘I want to take him home,’ I burst out. ‘Down to the cellar.’ And I felt like biting my tongue. You should never tell Bessy what you really want because she’ll find some way of turning it against you.

‘Bring me the turkey’s heart,’ Bessy said. ‘And I’ll get you your stupid little mouse.’

‘But the turkey won’t be cooked for hours yet,’ I gasped. ‘Gleep can’t wait that long to go home. He’ll freeze out here!’

‘Gleep, is it?’ snickered Bessy. ‘Do you always go round naming animals?’

I frowned at her and felt my lip go up in a snarl round my single tooth.

‘Some salmon then,’ she said, salivating and looking stupid with hunger. ‘Bring me some of that lovely salmon. I know they’ll have some. I can wait for the heart. And then I’ll take you to your awful mouse.’


*

4.

Bessy was chuffed as muck. She wolfed down what I brought her and reeked of salmon all day because she had it all round her mush and didn’t clean it off. Her habits were as mucky as ever, it seemed.

We were stopped in the street by Whisper and Three-Legged Freddy from next door. ‘Who’s got the smoked salmon then?’ yowled the Siamese. I’ve never really liked her much. I’ve always found her a bit bloomin’ insinuating. She was weaving around like she wanted to mug us both.

‘I can smell something nice – huff huff,’ sighed Three-Legged Freddy. He was going round in circles on the frosty path. He’d been doing that a lot with his damaged leg and since his stroke. His fur was all in clumpy tatters and he looked like he’d been out drinking stagnant water or something.

I wished I’d brought them something from our fridge, too. It seemed unfair that only Bessy had got fed, when she didn’t deserve anything.

‘I’m on a rescue mission,’ I told them proudly.

‘He’s got it into his head he’s gonna rescue a cellar mouse and reunite it with its family,’ Bessy scoffed. ‘I think Fester’s gone a bit doo-lally in his old age.’

‘I wouldn’t mind a mouse as a pal, huff huff,’ mused Freddy. ‘It would be nice to have a pal you could just – you know, huff huff – eat, kind of thing, when you got bored with playing or having the same old conversation.’

‘Can we go past?’ I say, doing the ritual thing of asking if it’s okay to cut across their little span of the world in front of their house. Can we cross their front garden to next door? Freddy and Whisper are flattered by my lovely manners and stuff, and let me pass. They glare at Bessy. Actually, not many round here are that fond of Bessy. She keeps causing rows, is the problem.

‘Is this where you brought him?’ I ask Bessy, looking up at the minister’s tall house. It’s the next house in the terrace and here lives the oldest, most venerable cat in our avenue.

‘Might have,’ Bessy shrugs. She’s decided to be unhelpful again.




5.

Minutes later I’m in the back garden there, in the long grass and under the frozen hawthorn branches. I nod good morning to the cats from the last house in the terrace – Rowan and Scooby – who don’t appear to know much about my kidnapped Christmas mouse. I believe it when Scoob says he doesn’t know anything – he always looks as if his mind is on loftier things. But Rowan – through she’s sweet and sometimes affectionate – has a look about her that says, ‘I could have seen him, or I might not have done. I might have eaten him and forgotten all about it. Why would I tell you anything?’ I’ve seen Rowan go after birds and leap a mile into the trees after squirrels almost bigger than I am.

Off they go for their own Christmas breakfast indoors – they’ve got a cat flap. Bessy watches them with her usual slow, envious eyes.

But the person we’re out in the frosty garden to see is the king of cats round here. It’s Smokey. He sits regally, like a great mound of soft white and charcoal fur, beside a small pond. It’s frozen solid and he’s peering at the dim shapes of frogs and fish like he’s a human watching morning cartoons on the telly. Are they real frogs and fish frozen down there, I’m wondering? Or just the vague shadows and memories of fishy things from the summer?

‘Good morning, Fester Cat,’ he rumbles pleasantly. ‘Merry Christmas. Ungow.’ Those huge amber eyes look on me with fondness. I know Smokey’s always had a soft spot for me. He looks more askance at Bessy, who’s sucking on her claws and between her stinky toes and pretending like he isn’t even there, or she couldn’t care less. Her usual way.

I explain about Gleep, being as brief as I can.

And I tell Smokey something I haven’t told anyone yet.

‘Gleep was after food in our house because the mice are all desperate, down in the cellar. He’s too young to forage. He’s really tiny. It’s because his dad’s dead and – little as he is – he’s the best at climbing and getting through gaps and stuff.’

‘How do you know so much about his family circumstances?’ asks Smokey.

‘We found his dad’s body,’ I sigh. ‘Just a few weeks ago. It was under our boiler, in the kitchen, all curled up. He’d been there long enough to dry out completely. When Paul picked him up in a tissue he weighed nothing at all.’

‘Dessicated mouse,’ laughs Bessy. ‘Yum. Fry him up with breadcrumbs. Dip him in salsa. Cover him in sour cream and jalapenos and cheese.’

‘Ignore her,’ Smokey frowns.

‘The boys – my boys – put out some poison, a little while ago. I tried to tell them – ungow! Don’t! – it’s nasty stuff to have about the place. But I think they learned their lesson. Paul was upset when he found that tiny, dried-out mouse. It was the thought that, as he was dying, that mouse went to the boiler for warmth. He went right under the metal box that houses the flames – the pilot light kind of thing. It’s red hot down there. Too hot, really, but the father mouse must have been shivering and losing his sense of what was cold and hot as the poison went through him. He was all curled up like he was asleep.’

Bessy chortles. ‘Honestly, Fester. Christmas has made you all sentimental and stupid this year. Since when did you care about something like that? Don’t you hunt them? Don’t you crunch them up and swallow them in one slippery go?’ She eyes me nastily. ‘You’re the one who had all his gums fixed. Don’t you chomp them to death by the dozen?’

I have to admit that I don’t. I like to catch them, yes, of course, when instinct kicks in and when I see them gadding about the place. But I just pop them in my mouth and walk them about a bit, as a warning. Then I return them to the door at the top of the cellar steps. I nudge them through the little gap in the wood so they can make their journey home down the wonky stonework of the steps.

Smokey laughs to hear this. ‘You’re a soft-hearted thing, Fester Cat.’

This reminds Bessy of her hunger. ‘He’s promised me the turkey heart if I bring back his baby mouse alive and unharmed.’

‘Well then,’ says Smokey. ‘Then you better had, hadn’t you, Bessy dear?’

*

6.


But as usual Bessy leads me a merry dance. We hop over the garden fences and through the hedges.

‘Where are you taking me?’ I keep asking, jumping after her tail. She’s just enjoying herself, the mangy old besom. She’s pretending like it’s how it used to be, when she ruled our little gang and we all lived rough and I followed her around like this.

We pass by the back of my house, scooting over the Beach House roof and taking a breather. At the back window I can see a shape watching us. I’d know those sharp, black beady eyes anywhere. Panda never misses a trick. He knows I’m running about in the frosty morning. It’s still not even fully light and Panda can spot me from miles away, scampering about.

‘Ugh, the stupid Panda,’ Bessy snickers. ‘You know, I never believed he could really talk. I always thought it was one of the boys doing his snooty voice.’

‘Which just shows how much you bloomin’ know,’ I snap.

Then she’s got us tiptoeing along the fence. My balance isn’t as good as hers for this kind of thing. I had that ear infection and my fence-walking skills went to pot. It turns out we’re here to have a word with the squirrels.

‘Hellooooo!’ bellows Bessie, into the trees, eyeing the dark masses of the drays in the upper branches. The squirrels are there, listening – we can both sense it. Brave as they are, they sensibly keep their distance when Bessy’s abroad. I’ve seen her grab a squirrel or two in the past and it isn’t pretty.

‘Halloooooo!’ she tries again. ‘Have you seen Fester’s friend? He’s lost a mouse. A baby mouse. I had hold of him for a while, but I’m not sure where I put him… Have you seen him? He goes, ‘Gleep!’ It’s all the foolish thing can say.’

The bravest squirrel is the one with no tail. He lost it in a terrible scrap when he was much younger. He’s lean and angry and behaves like he’s got nothing left to lose.

‘I saw a mouse, yeah,’ he nods, wringing his hands together and cracking the knuckles, like he wouldn’t say no to a punch-up. ‘It wasn’t an outdoors mouse. He was all over the place. Didn’t know where he was, or who he was meant to be. It was at the front of your house, Fester. I said, come and live with us squirrels.’

‘With the squirrels?’ laughed Bessy. ‘Why would he want to do that?’

‘It’s not a bad life. Better than skulking about in corners and trying to get adopted by humans,’ Derek shrugged. ‘Anyway, he wouldn’t. He sat there quivering. He wanted to get back to the cellar.’

‘Of course he bloomin’ does,’ I sighed.

*



7.

As Christmas Day lightens briefly and all the scratchy hedges and bare trees are revealed along the embankment I realise how impossible this is. We’ll never find the tiny thing. I’m going along, sniffing stuff, trying to pick up the mildewy, widdly scent of a frightened cellar mouse. I’m even calling out, ‘Gleep! Gleep!’ which sounds so silly.

Bessy is amused by the whole thing.

We even approach the railway lines and take a look at the foxes, padding about. ‘They wouldn’t bother with a mouse,’ Bessy says. ‘Hardly worth their while.’

There are amazing smells coming from all the houses. Intermingled with the woody scents of open fires there comes all this reeking steam and smoke from the roasting flesh of birds. Different kinds of birds – geese and ducks and turkeys and chickens. It could fair drive you into a tizz. We spot the dirty orange fur of the foxes. They stop tumbling and playing their daft games and sit up, alert and keen and they make strange noises low in their throats. Yes, I think it’s best if Bessy and I back off through the crackling grass to Chestnut Avenue…

The boys will be wondering where I am. Their house is lit up – every window a different colour – pink and golden and green and blue. There’s disco music blaring out of the kitchen as Paul cooks dinner. He’ll be roasting the giblets and the heart and the turkey neck for gravy…

‘You know what you must do, Fester Cat,’ says Bessy, with solemn greed.

I nod, hurrying home. They let me in the back when I yowl at the step: ‘Ungow!’ (I’ve never felt comfortable with the cat flap.)

In the kitchen, as is traditional, Paul presents me with the heart. It’s a bit hot and yes, it ends up rolling about a bit on the bare boards. Cue much bloomin’ hilarity. But then I’ve got the grisly, gorgeous thing in my mouth and I’m running out of the kitchen and down the hall with it. ‘Unngoowww!’

It’s a huge sacrifice.

But here you are, Bessy. It’s the greatest gift I could ever give.

‘Thank you, Fester Cat,’ says she, looking moved. ‘I’ll enjoy that. And thank you, not just for that.’

I give her a suspicious look. ‘What else?’

‘For running about outside with me. For being in my gang again and following me around. It was a bit like old times, wasn’t it?’

Then Paul’s found us, chatting like this. ‘Bessy!’ he goes. ‘Have you come back for Christmas?’

But she grabs her heart and off she pops. ‘I’ll see you later, loser,’ she snickers at me, and is gone.

‘But what about bloomin’ Gleep?’ I shout, as she bounds away, back out the door.


*

8.

For the rest of the day I’m worried sick, though I pretend not to be for the sake of my boys. I pounce about the living room when we’re all together, jumping on the chairs and into their laps. I let them stroke me and pretend to fall asleep, even doing a bit of singing to show I’m content. They’ve bought me the most ridiculous bloomin’ present – it’s a furry blue snake on an elastic string that bounces and dances and thrashes about. It’s supposed to look as if it’s alive and I’m meant to go daft trying to catch it. But I can see it’s only a toy – it’s obvious what it is. But to make them happy I do some jumping and scampering, for a few minutes at least.

Then I flomp down in front of the fire, hugging last year’s toy mouse – the one in the Santa hat. Letting my dinner settle, contemplating the flames as they twerk about in the hearth.

‘He looks distant and thoughtful,’ Paul tells Jeremy. ‘He looks like he’s worried about something…’

Jeremy tells him he’s being daft. Paul’s always over-dramatizing things, especially when it comes to my world, he says.

The two of them drift off to the settee and all their human telly stuff, which I’m never all that interested in…

And after a little while, I reckon I can hear singing outside.

It’s not carolers or anything like that. The time for that is finished and Christmas has come and is on its way out again. No humans are traipsing about in all the cold and singing tonight…

I jump onto the dining table, tiptoeing through the rubble of blue china and glasses and tangled streamers and remains of crackers, and I poke my head through the curtains at the street beyond.

There’s a special cat passeggiata happening tonight.

I have to be out!

I hop down from the window sill and rush to the hall, and I’m doing a whole lot of scratching at the front door. The heavy purple curtains are pulled across to keep out the freezing drafts. I carry on shouting ‘Ungow!’ until the two dafties know that I need to be outside.

‘Are you sure, Fester Cat?’ Jeremy asks, unlocking and unbolting everything.

I’m bloomin’ sure.

Off I dash into the frost, down the front drive and into the Avenue.

They’re all waiting for me, under the trees. It’s rare that you ever see them altogether. If they are, it’s because there’s a fight on and everyone’s crowding to watch and spit. But here’s Smokey and Rowan and Scooby, and Three-Legged Freddie and Whisper, and even Ralph and a few others I don’t recognize, from further afield round our way.

They’re all singing together. It’s a proper cat jamboree for Christmas night.

It’s not a song like any of you humans would recognize, of course.

Bessy! Bessy’s with the rest of them, puffing out her impressively fluffy chest and singing with gusto. She winks one of her green eyes at me and looks as if she’s chewing something. Maybe she’s still got that roasted turkey heart, working it round like a gobstopper? Her manners were always bloomin’ awful.

‘Come and join us, Fester Cat!’ shouts the venerable Smokey, over the wobbly noise of the others. ‘Come and sing-sing-sing!’

And so I head over the road to join my fellow cats from Chestnut Avenue.

Peace on Levenshulme. Good will to all moggies.

I’ve just taken up my place amongst them and started to sing like mad, when Bessie turns to look down at me.

‘Got a present for you!’ she snickers and, before I can react, spits something at me.

A wet little hairy thing that lands at my paws. For one horrible moment I think she’s coughed a furball at me. It’s the kind of thing she’d do.

But then I look at what’s wriggling at my feet on the pavement.

Ungow!

‘Gleep!’ goes Gleep, looking deeply worried.

Bessy looks smug.

She’s been carrying him around in her mouth all day long. ‘He’s been warm, anyway,’ she shrugs. ‘He was in no danger.’

I can’t believe her.

I get to the end of the song and make my excuses to the others. I’ve got to get this mouse home to the rest of his family before he freezes in a coat of Bessy spit.

‘Happy Christmas!’ the others all go, as I hold Gleep tenderly in my toothless jaws and hurry home.

Much later that night, after I’ve snuck down into the basement and back, and there’s been a shrill reunion in the dark, between the boy, his siblings and his widowed mother, I return to the fire. It’s there that I realise Bessy only held him trapped in her huge mouth all Christmas so that she could spend most of the day with me. That’s all she got out of the whole thing. The poor old giant-bollocked dear must have been lonely.

Well, tonight no one’s lonely round our house, and that’s good. I can remember Christmases not so long ago when things were much less settled. Everything is better than ever tonight.

Ungow!




*