Chapter 37 – Monty’s Story, the Land between the Rivers
Right, let’s get a few things straight. We all realise that my species isn’t overwhelmingly loved by all members of the human race. One hundred per-cent get that. But it works both ways. Quite a few of my species hate humans with a vengeance. I know that we’ve only got ourselves to blame, because we do enjoy killing things and humans don’t always approve. Particularly when we bring our kills into human homes, simply to gain approval and show humans where they’re going wrong. You don’t mind us slotting mice and rats, but don’t really approve of us killing birds. But they are so bloody annoying to us. We are aloof, solitary and difficult to read because we don’t readily show emotion. We don’t appear to be very affectionate to humans, but you’re so used to the overt friendliness shown by dogs, that you miss the subtle signs we cats use to display out fondness of some of you.
But in the Middle Ages and later periods, we were linked with witchcraft, which is a stupid, human superstition anyway. More cats were burned alive than lonely old women who happened to upset the wrong person at the wrong time. You would smash our paws with iron hammers and roast us in wicker baskets. So if some of you don’t really like or approve of us, then you can all swivel on my extended digit… If I had one. And besides, you kill things to eat, you just lack the guts to do it yourselves. Sorry, rant over, but as you’ll understand, this may explain why I did what I did.
Moira Mother’s family home was a large house, set in extensive grounds. It had assorted outhouses, one of which we lived in, above garages and an extensive workshop. It had a paddock, an orchard of fine apple and pear trees and a meadow that swept down to the River Taw. I hated it, but I hated Moira Mother’s father even more. It was a mutual loathing because he associated me with Edge Father, and therefore the deflowerer of his daughter. I associated him with a psychopath who had tried to rape my Moira Mother the previous summer. That evil man was a frequent visitor to the house and he had deflowered Moira Mother long before Edge came into her life. Cats know these things because you constantly tell us, assuming we don’t understand a word. We are continually astonished at the selective memory of humans.
One lazy afternoon in the summer, I was prowling through the long grass at the edge of the river, where the motor mower didn’t reach because of the uneven ground. I came across a metal tent peg, with a length of chain leading from it into a clump of grass. I followed the chain and came across a mechanical contraption. It was as long as my body, with a set of serrated jaws with a metal plate located between the jaws. On the plate was cat food. Tuna flakes in jelly, my favourite. I moved forward to sniff the plate.
I wouldn’t go anywhere near that, if I were you.
I Looked up and saw a heron standing on a rock in the river. He was a handsome great bird with a streak of black feathers across the top of his head, ending in a plume. His dark eyes were looking straight at me.
It’s called a gin trap. If you touch the plate, those metal jaws will spring shut on your neck. And that would be the end of you, Mr Cat.
I backed away from it and sat down, bowing my thanks to the fine bird, who if anything was bigger than me.
Someone means you harm. There is another of those things over by the trees. There’s a dead badger in it. But it was meant for you.
I thought I could smell death in the air and felt sorrow tinged with anger.
Thank you, sir.
The heron stretched out his great wings and flew upwards with ungainly flaps, before skimming across to the other side of the river, in his favourite hunting spot under the trees. He had put himself out to warn me and now I suspected that someone was trying to kill me. I didn’t have to think too hard as to who it was.
While Moira Mother was at work and my human brother and sister were at school, her father would come home in his huge car, and prowl around the grounds of the house with a shotgun. I soon found out what he was trying to shoot and went into deep cover every time his big car drove into the grounds. He killed several rabbits an otter and wounded a stray dog, but the bastard never managed to find me.
The final straw came in the autumn just as the leaves were turning. My bed, food and water was downstairs in the workshop, where it was warm through the night because of the boiler. I came back from my morning patrol after Moira Mother had taken the children to school. Instead of a bowl of food, there was a bowl of a sweet, yellowish liquid that smelled incredibly alluring. I bent forward to sniff it and start to lap at the liquid. Suddenly there was a burst of light in my brain and Snowflake shouted in my mind.
Don’t touch it! It will kill you! It is called ‘anti-freeze’ and once you drink it, nothing can stop you dying. Everything inside you will stop working.
Your human mother’s father put it there and he means to kill you.
Why? What have I done?”
You’re Edge’s cat. He wouldn’t dare to go after Edge, so he’s going after you.
By the afternoon when Moira Mother came home, the anti-freeze had gone to be replaced with my normal food bowl. Much as I loved Moira Mother and my brother and sister, that night I decided to go home.
I had stuffed myself with food before setting off.
“Goodness me, Monty. You are a hungry boy.”
I had no idea how long it would take me to get home, or really which way to go. There was just something in my little walnut-sized brain that lay my world out like a grid. I was very frightened because I would have to cross the Land Between the two Rivers. It was reputed to be a wilderness full of unknown creatures.
I slipped out of the window when the three-quarter moon was getting higher in the cloudless sky. My heart was heavy, but my wish for survival outweighed the love I felt for my family. I padded south along the road that followed the big river and the railway line, running into cover every time I heard a car. It was getting near dawn when the road turned to cross the railway and river on a double bridge. This was the dangerous part because there was no cover on the bridges. I thought about waiting until the next night before crossing but decided to risk it. I ran across, stopping and crouching as a huge truck passed by. The sky was lightening as I dived into the undergrowth on the other side of the River. I was now in the Land Between the Two Rivers, so I slept.
That evening I tried to find something to eat, but the water voles were far too clever for me. It started to rain that evening (I hate rain), but I couldn’t afford to waste time waiting for it to stop. I was racing against distance and hunger and I was not used to walking such long expanses. The pads on my paws were aching. I skirted some hills to the north at a place they call the Ridge of Ash trees. It had been a miserable night, sodden underfoot and my fur was soaked through to my skin. Before it got light I went into a derelict farm and found I was sharing it with a pair of barn owls.
Piss off, cat. This is our barn, the male said from the rafters.
Piss of yourselves, you ghost-faced cretins. I’m cold, wet and tired. If you don’t like it, come down here and we’ll sort it out, cat to bird.
Rather spitefully, they kept me awake most of the day hooting and screeching at each other. One of them tried to hit me with an owl pellet. I was glad when it was nearly dark and I could be on my way again and I left with a parting shot.
I hope the humans turn this barn into a holiday home.
I had to eat something this night, otherwise I would never make it home. I turned south, following a broad, open valley of farmland. So humans did live here. There was a broad stream to the west, but no prey. The stream petered out into woodland. I decided to head into the woods to see if there were any mice or grey tails. I was so tired that I fell down a bank towards a depression
I was face to face with a vixen with three big cubs, who immediately scurried down into their earth. The vixen hissed angrily and I backed up, knowing I was in big trouble. Vixens with cubs should be left well alone. She bared her terrifying teeth.
Please ma’am, I mean no harm to you or your cubs. I am lost and apologise for disturbing you.
I turned to run, knowing that I could never outpace her, but she called out: Wait!
Terrified I turned round. She was a beautiful creature with a soft face, now that she wasn’t snarling.
Why are you, a house cat out here in this land of few humans?
I’m trying to get home to my human father. My human family have lost their togetherness and I was forced to choose.
Where are you heading?
The Fish Weir on the River.
At least two days away, she told me, You will never get there unless you feed. But you’re a house cat aren’t you? The odd mouse and shrew here and there, perhaps a stupid or young rat. But your food comes from the humans, doesn’t it?
I nodded and began to yowl.
Oh be quiet. Cats are so bloody hopeless. You’re lucky I feel sorry for you. Wait here.
She disappeared and returned a long time later with a large rabbit in her jaws.
This is for my young, so you will not touch it.
The cubs tucked in and when I looked round the vixen had gone again. I was tempted to steal some of the meat off them, but realised that would be suicidal, so I watched them eat with a growling belly. She returned with a small chicken in her mouth and I was shocked.
The feathers are a nuisance, but you can have some with me. She ate her fill. Leaving me with the carcass. The chicken’s blood was still warm and there was meat on the legs. It was delicious.
I went to groom her in gratitude.
Steady on, cat. Let’s not get too familiar. You’re just a human vassal, after all.
We all do what we need to in order to survive, I said huffily.
The vixen laughed, You cats are so pompous, it’s no wonder you spend so much time licking yourselves.
I decided to change the subject, Where is your mate?
The farmer killed him, which is why I decide to raid the bastard’s hen house.
I’m so sorry.
Yes, the humans killed a dear friend of mine, although we could never have been mates.
We fell asleep and the sun was high in the sky when I woke. The vixen had cleared the surrounds of the den of bones, feathers and fur. She was nowhere to be found so I whispered to the cubs in the earth.
Please tell your mother that I am grateful to her with all my heart. I will never forget her kindness and I wish you all well. May you all grow and prosper.
I left and headed south again. I could feel that I was getting closer to home and I had regained my strength. I decided to risk travelling in the daylight as it had stopped raining and the low sun on my back warmed my bones. The land ahead grew wilder and I could see that a large wooded valley lay ahead of me. In there should be the big stream that led to the river, my river. How did I know that? I don’t know because I had never been there before. I just knew.
I went down towards the stream that was more of a tributary to the river and there was a narrow strip of water meadow. The setting sun was turning the trees to golden fire and the tributary was like a ribbon of molten gold running from the crucible of the hills into the sprue of the river and on to the mould of the estuary. Where did I get that from? I don’t even know what a crucible is.
The Land between the Rivers is known as Tarka country, after a book written by a human called Henry Williamson, concerning the life and death of otters. I don’t know if it’s any good, because I’ve never read it. I am a cat! I believe that it is one of those stories that engender an ahhh ohhh, aren’t they nice feeling in humans. I’ve always regarded otters as rather difficult creatures to get on with, best left alone. Anyway, I needed a drink, so I went down to the water for a few gulps. Some distance upstream, an otter couple were twisting and writhing together in a pool. The male looked at me. Droplets of water running off his whiskers. I had my fill and turned away, jumping up the bank and heading towards the setting sun.
The male otter hit me from behind on my right, rear quarter. His teeth ripped my right ear open. The sudden ferocity was heart-stopping and instinctively I rolled on my back to rake him with my powerful hind legs. He was twisting between my front legs, his head and upper body squirming to bring his sharp incisors into action on my face. I swiped an eyelid away from his right eye with my claws, which he bit savagely. He was on top of me now, fast and furious and his incisors tore my face open from the corner of my right eye to my nose.
Blinded with pain and anger, I fastened my jaws on his neck and shook him like a rat, hissing with indignant anger. By now I was on top of him and tore at his vitals with my hind legs.
You bastard! I screamed and I went to tear out his throat.
Please don’t! The female otter cried.
I threw the male aside and turned on the female.
What is wrong with you? What has possessed you to attack me?
Blood was dripping down my face and into my mouth. I could taste it.
I don’t know. He’s never been like this before. I’m so sorry, Mr Cat.
You otters are fucking mental!
To this day I have no idea why the otter attacked me. I have heard that they can be a rather troubled species because of the humans. Perhaps he associated me with humans which to my mind is as stupid as associating mice with dogs. Whatever his reason, my gashed face was throbbing and as I pushed through a thicket of hawthorn, I picked up a thorn in the pad of my right front paw. As far as I was concerned, Henry Williamson could get hold of a bumper, illustrated copy of Tarka the Otter and cram it up his arse. And don’t get me started on Ring of Bright Water!
I followed the tributary down to where it met the river, but I was moving painfully slowly and my body ached. There were still hours of darkness left, but I decided that I was too exhausted and in too much pain to travel any further. I found a dry patch in old grass under a hedge and slept. I slept throughout the day and well into the following night. I was in so much pain that I decided I was too exhausted to carry on. My life was full of pain, anguish and unbearable loneliness and I decided as the first frost stiffened the leaves, that I would die here. I curled into myself and closed my eyes for ever.
Wake up you useless waste of fur!
I opened my eyes and the countryside was bathed in a silver glow. The near-full moon was close in the night sky and cobwebs sparkled in the Hedge. Snowflake hovered above me, her face was clear, but her body was indistinct and shimmering like the moon on the water. She looked very cross.
Do you intend to die here?
Yes, that’s the general idea. Then we can be together.
It doesn’t work like that, She scoffed at my stupidity, We don’t have souls.
So where are you?
I don’t understand.
Well understand this, Bernard Law Montgomery, First Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. If you die here, here is where you will stay and it is not your time yet. Get up and start walking. Take the pain, because I will be with you every step of the way. Do not stop until you reach your home. A man is waiting for you, and believe it or not, he needs you.
I shook off my stiffness and began to follow the river downstream to the sea. The pain was enveloping me and I hobbled through it. Every time I stopped I could hear Snowflake hissing in my brain:
I crossed the meadow in the late afternoon and dragged myself to the cottage, kitchen door. It was slightly open and I pushed it open with my body weight. Edge Father was slumped at the kitchen table, an empty assortment of glasses and paperwork scattered in front of him. The cottage interior was cold, untidy and lacking Moira Mother’s touch. I jumped on the table with a yowl. His slack face focused on me and a light seemed to come into his eyes. I am convinced that my human father had been in the process of drinking himself to death. I meowed at him to get a grip.
“Bloody hell, Monty. You look like shit.”
Have you had a look at yourself lately!
The lights went fully on behind his eyes and he regarded my battered little body. He stood up and went into the kitchen then the bathroom upstairs. He came back with kitchen roll, cotton wool buds and balls and white vinegar. I knew that this wasn’t going to be good and I was right. He cleaned my wounds with copious amounts of white vinegar, which was misery. He meant well, but it was agony, especially the laceration on my face, so I hissed, growled, tried to slash his face with my claws, and got in a couple of good bites. He took the thorn out of my paw and some pus came out with it.
“We’ll have to keep an eye on that, Monty,” he told me, pouring vinegar of the pads of my paw, then cleaning up the scratches and bites on his arms.
Edge Father lit the wood burner in the kitchen and set up a blanket in a cardboard box for me, in front of it. He opened a tin of tuna, but it would have hurt too much to eat it. He grumbled, but went out and came back with some packs of kitten food, which I could eat. That night as we sat together, soaking up the warmth of the burning wood, he looked at me with a sad expression.
“I don’t know why you came back, Monty. I’m a cuckold, a drunk and a fucking war criminal.”
I couldn’t comment on his committing of war crimes, because I’m a cat. The fact he was a drunk, no one could disagree with. But he had not been cuckolded and I told him so in no uncertain terms.
The next morning, Edge Farther gave up drinking, but he needed something to replace it. The old standby he used when he was away for long periods. He was sitting in the kitchen smoking a cigarette, inhaled deeply and coughed. I happened to come in at that point and registered my disapproval with a stare.
“Oh do fuck off, Monty.”
A change came over Edge Father and he seemed to be more driven and had a focus in his life. It’s a pity that he didn’t use his new purpose to get his family back. He would go down to the river in the darkness, across the meadow and hide various things in a huge, willow root system in a wood, which overhung the river bank.
An old lady who lived up the lane from us visited the house a couple of times. She was old before her years, but she had a kind disposition and took a shine to me, even when I went in her house on pilfering expeditions. I called her Cyn Grandmother. She liked Edge Father a lot, much more than liked as a matter of fact. They had a bond between them that he seemed totally unaware of, but that old woman felt a deep sense of love and gratitude to him that he would never understand. Humans are so stupid!
One night my human father was sipping cocoa that I suspected was laced with rum, but I didn’t mind because it was late and he hadn’t drunk anything all day. He wasn’t smoking either, thank goodness. I have never liked being picked up and mithered by humans, but I did enjoy their company. He was lying on a sofa in the sitting room, the wood burner cranked up and I was curled up next to him, close enough to reach out a paw and feel his leg. He gently ran a finger down between my ears to make them twitch.
“Monty, I have to do something. People will say it’s a bad thing, but I don’t think it is. I have to stop a man persecuting my brothers and sisters in arms, just for doing the job their country expected them to do. I’m going to kill a man. I think he is evil. Many people don’t, and he thinks he’s doing what’s right. But nevertheless, I will kill him.
“I will have to go away for a long time. Perhaps for ever. The old lady who you like up the lane will look after you. She really likes you and will see that you’re looked after. I’m so sorry. I’ll miss you, Monty.”
I raised my head and looked into his soul. To my endless sadness, I saw tears prickling in his eyes so I spoke slow and hard into him.
Why not expend all this time and effort you’re wasting in getting back together with Moira, Sarah and Francis, who love and miss you, you fucking stupid man.
He looked at me. It was one of the rare times I managed to make direct conscious-to-conscious contact with a human.
“Because it’s too late, Monty. I’ve crossed the start line and there’s no going back.”
* * *
She did look after me, but Cyn Grandmother wasn’t my family. I would spend long hours sitting next to Snowflake’s tree, but she never provided the reason or solace. For eight years I lived in my new house as other people had moved into my old house. Cyn Grandmother was pleased because they were paying her to live there. She had suddenly become an affluent old woman, who appreciated life and my company. We were growing old together, which makes what happened next even more tragic and heart-breaking for me.
On a late summer morning I woke up in the utility room. It was nice and comfy in there and the water boiler heated the little room when it came on in the morning. I had the run into the kitchen, but the two doors, the first into the pantry and the second into the hall and the rest of the house remained closed. I was slightly confused because the sun was pouring under the crack of the hallway door and normally Cyn Grandmother would wake me up. By late morning I was getting worried as to why she hadn’t come down and feed me, then let me out. I started to cry at the door, but the house remained silent and empty. It was the same the next day after I had a fitful sleep.
By the next morning I was very thirsty as well as hungry. I tended to get most moisture from the wet food, but because I hadn’t been fed, I had to resort to waiting for a drip to form on the kitchen tap, licking off the little sphere of water just as it formed. It was a long, laborious and boring process. I wondered if Cyn Grandmother had gone out and left me, which seemed so unlike her. By the hot afternoon, bluebottles were making their way under the door from the hall, transiting the kitchen to the pantry. There were a lot of them and I knew that I was in the shit.
After five days the house was stinking of corruption and I started to look for a way out. I tried jumping up to open the kitchen door, but as it was a round door knob, it was a pointless exercise. The kitchen window was locked but the small window in the utility room seemed more promising. It was an old fashioned bar closure with holes that fitted into a pin. The window hinged at the top and the bar could be put into the peg at any point, depending on how far it needed to be opened. Unfortunately, I lacked the strength in my front paws to pull the bar up off the peg. I couldn’t get my stronger hind legs under it, and I suddenly realised that I was going to be the second thing to die alone in this house.
That night Snowflake came to me again. She jumped up on the kitchen table without seeming to touch it. Her face was concerned but determined.
You’re on the right lines. The little window is your only chance of getting out, but don’t waste your time trying to pull the bar up. Look at the little metal plate for the peg. The wood around it is rotten and the screws holding it in place are short and loose. Dig away the wood around the screws, then push it out with your back legs.
That’s going to take for ever.
Have anything better to do, or are you happy to become an incubator for maggots?
Seeing as how you put it that way. Snowflake?
But she was gone.
It took me two more days to dig the fastener out of the soft, flaky wood of the window sill. By the end of it my front claws and paws were worn down and bloody. The fastening came out and the bar clattered on the window sill. Desperate by now, I flung my body weight against the window and it opened. I went out and landed in the herb garden, the window above shutting behind me. There was no going back into the house, whether I wanted to or not.
The cat that fell out of the utility room window was a different cat that had been bundled into a basket. The first priority was food and water. An obligingly stupid female rat made my acquaintance in the wood shed of my old home. I disposed of her and tracked down her litter of ratlets, which provided a well-needed top-up. Unsatisfying but necessary for survival. For the first few days I hung around Cyn Grandmother’s house, which was ghastly knowing that she lay dead upstairs. There were no kindly RSPCA ladies to come and collect me, which was just as well. I didn’t want to be put down.
Many weeks later, the police broke into the house and discovered the grisly remains of my carer and friend upstairs. By then I was practically feral anyway, and supplemented my food by going into other cats’ homes and bullying their food from their dishes. But the winter was on me and I took stock of my situation. I was sitting by Snowflake’s tree, but she never re-appeared to offer advice or wise council. I was now thirteen winters old, grey and stiff. Some of my molars had rotted away and I felt weary with age. So far the winter had been mild and kind, but I smelled snow. When the snows came, I would go out and lie down for ever.
As I headed back to my now empty first home, I saw a car in the opening by the locked gate. A man and a woman were looking at the cottage. The man was grey and favoured a stick as he moved with an awkward gait. The woman held his arm and as she turned towards him to speak, I saw…
MOIRA MOTHER! I screamed
They both turned round and looked at me.
“Monty? Could it be you?” the man said with amazement. He looked different, but the scar was still on his forehead, under his long fringe.
I limped up to them crying and wailing. Edge Father picked me up and wrapped me in his coat, so only my head showed. Moira Mother was rubbing gently between my ears. They had come home and we were all crying, apart from Edge Father who had something in his eye…
I don’t have many years left, but at last I am truly happy. Sarah Sister is at a place called University and Francis is nearly a man who is too busy for cats. Most of the time. He still throws a ping pong ball on the flagstones in the kitchen and I’m still imprudent enough to chase it. I don’t get out as much now but still pay my respects to Snowflake. I am happy to lie in my basket in front of the wood burner and glower at Edge Father, for all the years he wasted. Really and truly, it’s only to be expected, because humans are so incredibly stupid!
I gave this to Moira Mother in her dream and she produced this from it. She had no idea why.
© Blown Periphery 2020
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