Authors: Monica Dickens
‘There’s a cat in your bed!’
‘No, no-how could there be? No, Aunt Val, please!’ Carrie tried to hold the kitten quiet with her toes, but when Aunt Valentina thumped her fat hand on the covers, the kitten pounced. A tiny curved claw stuck up through the blanket, and Aunt Val pulled back her hand with a shriek like a train whistle.
‘It’s disgusting. A cat in a bed. I never heard of such a thing.’
‘Then you never heard of cats.’
‘You’re quite rude.’ Valentina herself, who was only an aunt by marriage, was always quite rude to Carrie. That was different.
‘I’m only telling you.’ Carrie Fielding had still not stopped trying to give grown-ups bits of information they did not want. ‘Ages ago, cats lived in caves. They always look for a cave. That’s why they go into brown paper bags, and in the drawers.’
‘Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know!’ Valentina turned up her eyes and put her hand where she thought her heart was - too low down, nearer where her supper was. ‘It’s too much. The four of you here - well, that’s my duty, with your father gone off like a pirate and your poor mother so badly hurt in the fire. But all these animals … this private zoo …’ She moved about the room in her
tight snakeskin boots, tweaking, muttering, making a face at Carrie’s underwear.
The white cat, Maud, stared at her from the top of the chest of drawers, with all her paws folded underneath and her furred hips sticking out
‘Get off there, you fat spoiled beast!’ Aunt Val shook her finger, with all the flashy rings.
‘She can’t hear you, you know.’
‘It hears all right.’
‘Don’t you know a white cat with blue eyes is always deaf?’
‘Blue, green, purple - I won’t have it on my runners.’ She took a swipe at Maud, who only had to open her mouth and hiss lazily to make Valentina jump back as if she had met a jungle lion.
To cheer her up, Carrie said from the bed, ‘Lucky for you I haven’t saved up enough for my horse yet.’ Her horse money was tied into a sock and hidden inside a leaking teddy bear, one of the few things she had saved from the fire. ‘A horse could have lived in your toolshed though. We could have cut the door, you see, so that the top half—’
‘It’s too much.’ Valentina said this every day. ‘I’m going mad.’ She spun towards the door on her tightly-booted legs for which two pythons had shed their skins, tripped over a dog that looked like a shaggy rug and stumbled out, calling to Carrie’s Uncle Rudolf, ‘I am going mad - mad I say!’
‘How can she go when she’s gone already?’ Carrie’s brother Tom came in, with a bowl full of bored fish.
‘Why did Uncle Rudolf marry her?’
‘No one else would.’ Tom was sixteen. He could make his voice very deep and gloomy. ‘And he had to marry
someone so he wouldn’t have to leave his money to poor relations like us.’
‘I can do without his money.’ Carrie sat up in bed and hugged her knees, hiding under a curtain of long sand-coloured hair. But she could have done with just a bit of it So far, the sock inside the teddy bear had only enough for one leg of a horse - from the knee down.
‘I can do without living in his house.’ Tom kicked the bed, and the kitten made a small earthquake under the covers.
‘Write to Dad.’
‘I don’t know where he is.’
‘Let’s tell Mum.’
‘She’s too ill. Be patient’ Tom strode about the room, knocking into things. He was tall and thin, with impatient arms and legs that could not keep still. ‘We must be patient’
Their younger sister Em came in from the bathroom, with her thick dark hair slicked down wet, carrying a large black cat in front of her like a tray.
‘Don’t carry Paul like that’ Carrie put back her hair to criticize.
‘He likes it.’ In a sentimental fit, Em had been christened Esmeralda, but she had called herself Em as soon as she found out what her name was. ‘He likes everything I do. He sits on the edge of my bath and drinks the water. Yesterday, he fell in.’ Em laughed. She had different ideas about animals. More tough and casual. But the cats understood her. She dropped the black cat from a height and he landed neatly on his four white feet and walked off with his tail up and his eyes round and green.
‘That’s cruel,’ Carrie said.
Em pushed out the bottom half of her face into a terrible insulting shape.
‘She’s getting very difficult, that child.’ Tom creased his forehead like a worried mother. He carried the fish through into the expensive tiled and carpeted bathroom and tipped them into Em’s bathwater for a swim.
Last week, a pair of guppies had gone down the overflow. The sewers of London would become populated with guppies, and they would come flopping into the sink when you turned on a tap. In New York, there were alligators thrashing about under the city. People bought tiny baby ones in Woolworths. When they began to grow, the people panicked and flushed them down the drains and the alligators went on growing in the sewers.
Michael, who was the youngest, came in like a bishop in a long towel bathrobe meant for a man. They had lost everything when their house caught fire, and although their aunt and uncle had bought clothes for them, Valentina’s patience had run out before she finished outfitting Michael.
‘Excuse me.’ He stirred the dog Charlie with a towelled toe. ‘
says you must go down to the cellar.’ Charlie thumped his tail without opening his eyes. He was a part poodle, part golden retriever, part hearthrug, who liked people better than dogs. ‘It is your duty,’ Michael told him. That was one of Valentina’s favourite sayings.
‘It’s worst for him,’ Carrie said. ‘
kicks him under the table.’
‘I kick her back,’ said Michael. ‘That’s
‘When we’re at school,’ Carrie said, ‘I think
ties him up, and the cats laugh at him.’
‘I don’t blame them.’ Em always sided with the cats.
‘They think he bit through that old electric wire and burned down our house.’
‘After the fire…’ Carrie said, looking through the wall at nothing. ‘Do you remember? There was just the spine of the chimney and bits of burned framework, like ribs, and our rubbish heap. I did a picture at school of the black broken ribs and the tin cans. Miss Peake called it morbid. I called it “After the Fire”.’
After the fire, after they had stood on the potato patch in the rain and watched the firemen finish off with axes and hoses the bits of their home that the flames had not destroyed, the Fielding children had been taken to Uncle Rudolf’s house in London.
Tom was not a child. The others, Carrie, Em and Michael, did not feel like children that night. They had stood shivering in the mud, with the dog and the cats and the fish and the box of the hibernating turtle. And nobody else. Their mother had been taken away to hospital in the ambulance, because a falling beam had broken her back. Their father was sailing round the world in a homemade boat. They did not know how far he had got. He had not come home for nearly a year. Now there was no home for him to come to.
Uncle Rudolf was his elder brother who had made good and made money and made his name in plumbing. ‘The Prince of Plumbers’, he was called in the trade. His brother Jerome, the children’s father, called him The Baron of Bathwater. He called the children’s father a Salted Seanut who had never provided for his wife and family. ‘And don’t come to me begging for a loan.’
When the house (which was only a glorified Army hut) had gone up in smoke, and Mum had been rushed off to hospital, and Tom, Carrie, Em and Michael and the
animals were standing in the mud of the potato patch, the people who had come to see the marvellous spectacle of someone else’s home going up in smoke began to say, ‘What’s to be done with the children? Where are the children to go?’ Looking at each other to see if someone else would say, ‘I’ll take them in.’
There were so many of them… and all those pets … and the little boy seemed to have something wrong with his leg. He walked up and down, as if he had one foot on the pavement and one in the gutter.
‘Where are your relations?’ one of the policemen asked Tom.
‘Haven’t got any.’ They hadn’t really, except miles away in America, some unknown cousins. Uncle Rudolf didn’t count. He had washed his hands of them when their father built the boat in the kitchen of the house where they used to live, and sailed away from Bristol. He had washed his hands again when their mother sold what was left of the house after knocking down walls to get the boat out, and moved the family to the old Army hut, and went out to work cooking and cleaning.
‘Everybody has relations.’ The policeman chewed on his shiny black chin strap. ‘Haven’t you got even
‘Well…’ Tom had looked at Carrie, squatting in the mud with the dog, her wet hair salty in her mouth. At Em, who was said to be ‘tough’, wearing a soaked cat on her shoulders like an old fur collar, trying to be tough, with her jaw stuck out like a chimpanzee and her hyacinth-blue eyes angry. At small Michael, who had given up, and was crying into the fish bowl. ‘Well … there is Uncle Rudolf.’
Uncle Rudolf did not want them, but when the policeman rang him up in the middle of the night, he
could not very well say, ‘I have washed my hands of them.’
So they had been taken to the big red brick house in North London that Uncle Rudolf had bought when he made his money. A fitting palace for the Prince of Plumbers. He had painted all the gutters and drainpipes silver, to show them off. There were stained-glass windows and turrets and pinnacles and pillars twisted like barley sugar, and balconies that were forbidden to the children, and a garden as tidy as a public park that was forbidden to the animals after Charlie dug up a bed of Bleeding Heart.
Uncle Rudolf was a tall cold man with marble fingers and a bald head and smooth face like the stone egg Dad had sent home from the Canary Islands.
‘If you can’t eat it, sit on it,’ Dad’s note had said. ‘You might hatch out a canary.’