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Authors: George Mackay Brown

Six Lives of Fankle the Cat

BOOK: Six Lives of Fankle the Cat
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To Judith, David and Magnus

Contents

The Dreamer

Discovery

King of Pirates

The Cure

Little Thief with the Whiskers that eats Fish Fins

Roses and Moonlight

Revenge

Poetry and Prose

Snow

Poor River Girl

Moon Animals

The Dreamer

“Four pounds sugar, pot of raspberry jam, box of matches,
People's Friend
, pound tomatoes, six oranges, packet of washing powder,” said Mrs Thomson. “If there's any change you can buy a bar of chocolate for yourself. I don't know if there'll be any change. Things get dearer and dearer.”

It was a Saturday morning. Mrs Thomson was too busy to go to the store in the village; she had the weekend baking to do. She put two pound notes and the shopping list in the purse and gave the basket and purse to Jenny, her daughter.

Outside, the sun shone. There was a sea glitter in the croft kitchen.

“See that he marks the price opposite every item,” said Mrs Thomson. “Oh dear, I think I'm going to get asthma again. It was that ginger cat prowling about in the yard yesterday – I blame him.”

Jenny was glad to be out in the sun and wind, on the mile-long road to the village. Saturday morning was the most delightful time of the week; well, Friday after tea was almost as good. She whirled around on the road, she swung the shopping basket, the purse leapt into the ditch.

“Fancy,” said Jenny, “if I was to lose the purse! What trouble I would be in! Mam would have asthma all weekend ...” (Her mother always got asthma when she was worried or annoyed, or if she saw a cat on the garden wall.)

“I'd better behave myself,” said Jenny. “I will be a quiet gentle girl. I am a young lady living two hundred years ago. I only speak when I'm spoken to. I am modest and good. Soon a gentleman will drive in a coach to my father's estate. He will say, ‘Sir Jan Thomson, I have long admired, from a distance, your daughter Jenny. I am, as you may have guessed, Sir Algernon Smythe. I am a man of substance and broad acres. May I now respectfully ask for the hand of that charming girl, your daughter?'”

For four hundred yards or so Jenny was a demure eighteenth-century girl. She tripped along modestly, her eyes downcast. It was rash of a young lady, like her, being out on a public road alone. Fancy, if some stranger, to whom she had not been introduced, were to accost her!

“Well, Jenny,” said a deep voice, “you don't look much like a gangster's moll today, going along so mimsy-mamsy.” (Last Saturday Jenny had been Al Capone's girlfriend.)

It was old Sander Black. His wicked old head peered over the garden wall of Smedhurst at Jenny. He winked a wicked brandy-ball of an eye at Jenny. He wheezed with laughter.

Jenny smiled back. The eighteenth century faded like a Mozartian tune.

Sander Black and Jenny Thomson shared secrets. They lived in worlds unknown to the other islanders: San Francisco, Greenland, a Pacific island, a crystal fortress on the moon.

Sander Black had been a sailor when he was a young man. Then he had come home to run the croft of Smedhurst after the death of his father. He had been retired for five years now; his daughter and son-in-law looked after the fields and animals. He spoke to his daughter and son-in-law, of course, about such things as seed-potatoes and liquid manure; but the treasures of his experience he reserved for Jenny Thomson whenever he chanced to meet her. He remembered rare things for Jenny – how he had skipped ship in Wellington, New Zealand; the Pacific girl dressed all in flowers he had once been engaged to; the morning he had woken up in a prison hospital in Cádiz, Spain.

He discovered, to his joy, that Jenny had been to places even more remarkable. She had travelled not only in space but in time; she had been in Babylon at the time of Nebuchadnezzar; she had actually been in the theatre in Washington, DC, on the evening that President Lincoln had been shot!

For a young girl aged eleven, Jenny Thomson had had a remarkable life. Gravely she told her stories, sitting on the grassy verge beside the pipe-smoking old man, Sander Black.

“Well, now,” Sander Black would say, at the conclusion of one of Jenny's rare adventures, “if that wasn't a most remarkable thing to happen to you, Jenny! ...” He would smoke in silence for a while. Then he would say, “Did I tell you about the time I worked in a circus in Baltimore? I was the lion tamer's assistant ...”

Sometimes a whole Saturday morning would pass in this trading of stories. Then, reluctantly, Jenny would have to drag home, to a drab dinner of such common things as Scotch broth, boiled potatoes, fried haddocks ...

On this particular Saturday morning, Jenny said, “I'm sorry, Mr Black, I can't stay and talk to you today. My mam has sent me for messages to the village. I've to hurry, she says. She thinks she's going to have asthma again.”

“No more can I stop and talk to you, Jenny,” said Sander Black. “I go away today. Off to Leith for six months, maybe more. I'm staying with Albert, my son. Works on the railway. Goodbye, Jenny, I thought I might see you on the road.”

A pang of disappointment went through Jenny. How on earth could she exist without the stories she gave and received every Saturday? The truth is, Jenny was a lonely girl. There was nobody else in the island to share her visions and fantasies with.

“Wait a minute!” cried Jenny. “We'll have a little talk. Only ten minutes or so.”

But she was talking to herself. The wicked old head had disappeared. Sander's daughter Annabel would be packing his few things into his pasteboard case. In half an hour he would be on the ferryboat, well on the way to Kirkwall and the airport.

She would miss Sander Black!

A desolating thought came to her; it gave her a catch in the breath. Sander Black was old. Supposing he died in Leith, at Albert's house, and was buried with all his treasury of stories; and lay in the grave, his enchanted ear a cold shell!

Jenny was aware of a tear on her cheek. It glittered in the sun. It made a little dark spot in the dust.

“Goodbye, Mr Black,” she whispered.

She walked on towards the village.

She was a young queen – Queen Jenny the Third – whose prime minister, a sage infallible adviser, had been taken from her by a man in a long black coat whose name was Death. How was Queen Jenny to rule over her turbulent kingdom now, with that good old man gone forever? She walked with slow regal melancholy steps towards the village. How could a young queen like her deal with the bandits in the mountains? The other councillors were young fops – no more than the queen did they know what articles to tax, and how much. Ought she to tax sugar? There had never been a tax on raspberry jam before, or boxes of matches, or newspapers, or fruit and vegetables. The treasury of Queen Jenny might become quite rich, if she were to tax such things. On the other hand, the poor in the cities might starve. There might be revolution. Oh, how Queen Jenny wished that her prime minister Lord Black was still in the land of the living!

“Certainly, Jenny,” a voice was saying. “A pound pot of jam, is it? Would your mam be wanting a giant-size packet of washing powder – they come cheaper?”

She was, after all, standing in the richly odoured gloom of the general merchant's store in the village, and Tom Strynd the merchant was going through the shopping list item by item.

“I don't know,” she said. “Mam didn't say.”

When the last of the messages was in the shopping basket, and the account settled, and Jenny was eating her bar of chocolate, Tom Strynd said, “Well, Jenny, and what's new on the island today?”

“Sander Black's going away to Leith for a holiday,” said Jenny. “He's going to stay with his son. His son Albert works on the railway.”

“A good riddance,” said Tom Strynd. “It would be a blessing if that old thing were never to come back again.”

Jenny bit her lip. She ought to have rounded on the greedy little shopkeeper in a blaze of rage. (Indeed she would, later, in the solitude of her room, when she re-enacted the whole scene.) But in truth Jenny was a timid girl, who wouldn't say a cross word to a horsefly that had stung her.

“You've been crying,” said Tom Strynd. “What was wrong? Did your mam give you a row about something?”

“No, she didn't,” said Jenny.

“Poor Jenny,” said Tom Strynd. “Now let me see. Would you like to share a secret with me? I'll show you something to cheer you up. Come out into the yard with me, Jenny.”

Jenny followed Tom Strynd out into the yard, leaving her basket of messages on the counter.

Tom Strynd opened the back of his patched rusty van. There, on a sack, reposed a solitary black kitten. It was very young. It blinked smoky-blue eyes that were full of alarm, wonderment, mischief.

“Is it yours?” Jenny asked. “I didn't know you had a cat.”

“I don't,” said Tom Strynd.

“Then where did it come from?” said Jenny.

“There's the mystery,” said the general merchant. “I opened the back of my van three days ago, to get out some bags of potatoes and turnips, and there, in the corner, was
this
.”

“He's beautiful,” said Jenny.

“I don't like cats,” said Tom Strynd. “I never have done and I never will. Nasty stinking things. What a noise they make sometimes at night, like a troupe of fiddlers gone off their heads!”

“The little sweetheart,” said Jenny. She put out her hand and with the points of her fingers touched the kitten gently. Immediately the kitten responded – it became one breathing trembling purr, it closed its smoky-blue eyes in an excess of delight, it rose and rubbed its jet-black head against Jenny's knuckles.

“I tell you what,” said Tom Strynd, after he had considered for a time. “I like you, Jenny. Always have done. My folk always got on well with the Thomsons of Inquoy. Ask your father. Well, Jenny, I've grown very fond of this cat in the last day or two. It's going to break my heart to let him go. Funny that, isn't it, especially when I don't fancy cats all that much? But go he'll have to – I just don't have the time to look after him. You know the way it is with kittens, they need to be played with a lot, cuddled and stroked and fed. They have to be trained too. I've been thinking, Jenny. Yes, I spent all last night wondering what to do with this dear little beast. Finally a perfect solution occurred to me – ‘Jenny Thomson from Inquoy, she's the very girl to own him. She'd look after him well ...' So, Jenny, he's yours. I'm giving this valuable kitten to you. Pure-bred – I don't need to tell you that. You can see he'll be a good ratter, can't you? Just look at them claws! Have you felt his teeth? Like razors. Every farm on this island would give a lot for a kitten like this. But you know the way some farmers treat their cats – a kick every time they pass them. Coarse brutes! I'm not having anything like that, Jenny, not with this honey of a kitten. So, Jenny, I'm going to pick him up now and give him to you. It'll be a load off my mind ... Come, kittums, you're going home with Jenny.”

“I'm sorry, Mr Strynd,” said Jenny. “It's impossible.”

“You'll never see a kitten like this again,” said Tom Strynd.

“I won't,” said Jenny. “He's simply the loveliest kitten in the whole world.”

“He loves you already,” said Tom Strynd.

“I think so,” said Jenny. “Oh, I hope so.”

“He's yours then,” said Tom Strynd. “No trouble. Take him away at once.”

Jenny shook her head. “My mother would kill me. My mother hates cats. The very thought of them makes her ill.”

“A great pity that,” said Tom Strynd slowly. “Because, Jenny, do you know what I'll have to do tonight, as soon as I get back in my van from the farms?”

Jenny shook her head again.

The little bell attached to the top of the shop door pinged furiously three times. Tom Strynd had a customer, a customer who needed something urgently, a customer who was beginning to get impatient.

BOOK: Six Lives of Fankle the Cat
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