Dear readers, as these two chapters are quite short so I thought I would bundle them up into one post. You lucky things.
In other news I’ve decided to publish print and e-book versions of the story, and have just commissioned new cover art. More on this later. Until then, read on…
Violet and Albert Smith looked up and down the street through the bay window of their front room. The sun had set and the street lights were on. A few stars twinkled in the gaps between the rain clouds. It was well past their normal bed time.
‘I don’t know where he’s gone.’ Violet defensively folded her arms.
Albert jingled the keys in his pockets. ‘You should have made him tell you.’
‘Oh, Albert, you know I can’t do that. If Derek doesn’t want to tell you something he just won’t. It’s always been difficult. Now he’s grown up half the time I don’t know what to do.’
Keys jingling, Albert stared silently out the window.
‘If you were around a bit more…?’
‘It’s not my fault the boy’s the way he is. I do have to work.’
A gap grew in the conversation, a distance that had grown familiar over time and reluctantly been accepted by them both. They had all the advice and help anyone could want while Derek grew up. People said they were being too protective, too smothering, but he was their son. Now he was grown, now that it was too late and they all lay in a bed of their own making, all they had left was doubt, and guilt, and wordless blame. It was easier to pretend everything was fine. Except that now it wasn’t.
Violet tentatively took her husband’s hand. ‘That’s not what I meant, Albert.’
Albert stood stiffly for a moment, then unfroze. His arm went around her shoulder. ‘I know, my love. And I didn’t mean to snap.’
‘So am I.’
Holding each other was like a balm. The tension between them faded, and was gone. For a while.
‘What do you think we should we do?’
Albert considered. ‘I think we should call the police.’
Mrs Woosencraft was not as young as she used to be but when it came to wrestling cats she was still up there with the greats. Her technique combined soothing words, dexterity, strong wrists, and callow deception.
It’s not easy to fool cats. They might not be as smart as you but they’re not daft either.
Over the years Mrs Woosencraft had come to believe the insouciant élan cats so effortlessly projected was little more than a cover for paranoia, suspicion, and anxiety. That said, the average cat also possessed distinctly unaverage levels of self-esteem and would try to maintain a worldly indifference to potential unpleasantness for as long as felinely possible. Especially if it thought another cat was watching.
Her standard opening move was a big hug, soothing words, ear-scritches and slow movements. All these encouraged even the most wary cat to believe the sink full of warm soapy water it was being carried towards had absolutely nothing to do with its own immediate future. Part of the wrestler’s art was allowing cats to deceive themselves. That, a firm and gentle grip, a stout coat and a pair of canvas gardening gloves.
The Way of Wrestling Cats can be summarised in two maxims:
- Win the match before it begins.
- Win the match before it begins.
Once you were locked into a tussle not only had you lost, but so had your jumper.
Mrs Woosencraft demonstrated her mastery with Pedwar. A balletic turn towards the sink resulted in Pedwar’s expected lunge for freedom. A reverse turn used the power of the animal’s own leap and she simply steered the cat through the air into the suds. Presented with total defeat and the weight of her hand on its neck it sulked.
Another thing about cats is that they look a lot smaller when they are wet. Considering the risks Mrs Woosencraft never felt any need to be magnanimous in victory. Laughing at soggy cats was one of life’s guilty pleasures. Right now she would take anything positive out of this disaster.
‘Out you come.’ Mrs Woosencraft lifted Pedwar out of the water and wrapped him in a towel warmed on the oven rail.
Pedwar yowled plaintively. Even his little stub of tail managed to appear forlorn. He gave Mrs Woosencraft a look that said ‘I trusted you,’ and sneezed. Three or four cats peered round the door from the safety of the sitting room, curious, worried, relieved it wasn’t them.
‘Poor little poppet,’ Mrs Woosencraft chuckled. ‘You shouldn’t chase bees round my glue pot.’
Regaining a little poise, Pedwar suffered himself to be patted dry. Especially under the chin.
Glue still matted Pedwar’s back and flanks. One ear appeared stuck down but he shook his head and it came free with a soft ‘plap’.
Pedwar trod the towel down and curled up. He watched Mrs Woosencraft with eyes filled with reproach.
‘What are we going to do with you? Brushing’s no good, so it’s either leave it or cut it.’
Pedwar gave a few tentative licks at his matted fur, then pulled at it with his teeth.
‘Right, then. I don’t want you swallowing that stuff, so scissors it is. I’ll be as careful as anything, don’t you worry.’
Mrs Woosencraft’s brow furrowed as she snipped away at the clumps of glue-ruined fur. It was a dratted inconvenience. Respect where it was due, however. Whoever had done this had known exactly what they were doing.
The thing about having nineteen cats, about using them to find the things and people nobody else could, was that they all needed to be in the right place at the right time. That in itself was only slightly less than impossible but the indivisible nineteen was a powerful tool. With Un Deg Naw missing and Pedwar thoroughly discombobulated it was sodding hopeless. Seventeen? There was no way she could do what she was trying with seventeen.
The glue had formed a layer on top of the fur. By cutting carefully Mrs Woosencraft found she could snip away just the ends of the hairs.
She thought about the bumblebee, stopped snipping fur and looked at the freesias Tim had brought her and counted nine aromatic, blossomy sprigs. Pedwar gave another plaintive yowl and she returned to her barbering until it was done.
‘A bit scruffy, but you’ll do. Off you go and try and be a bit more careful.’
Pedwar dropped off the table and trotted up the kitchen steps. The cats at the door trooped after him and although he did not acknowledge them his body language somehow became smug.
‘And you lot be careful too,’ Mrs Woosencraft scolded. ‘We’ve got a job to do and there can’t be any more distraction. Food on the plates, this is. We all need the work.’
She gave her attention back to the flowers. Nine pretty sprigs. Add herself, Tim, Pedwar, and the bee, and that made a very interesting number. Everything coming together in the right place at the right time wasn’t easy. Who could have done that? Who had the knowledge? And most importantly, why?
Ever since that slow Thursday afternoon when old Ethel Godwinsson said ‘Oh,’ like she had just remembered something nice, sat back in her armchair and died anything she had left to teach about the magic of Deg Naw Wyth was going to stay untaught. Ever since Mrs Woosencraft had taken up her quest to find others like herself and been drawn, first to the big smoke, then south and south again down to the sea and been recruited by her foreign employer, nothing like this had ever happened.
I didn’t bloody well think there was anyone left, she thought.
It was good to know, and a worry too. A worry and a challenge. And it had to have been deliberate because it was just too sodding inconvenient to be chance. Of all the things Mrs Woosencraft believed in, coincidence was not among them.
Someone was out there and they’d had a go. So be it, she was more than capable of having a pop back. They had come at her through the air, she would return the compliment with interest.
Mrs Woosencraft set to work. If she had her way somebody was going to go on a long and unexpected journey.
To be continued…