Authors: Blake Jon
the last free cat
albert whitman & company
In loving memory of Floozie (1995â2008)
I kept one eye on Feela and one on the trap door. Down below I could make out the gruff voice of the Pets Inspector and Mum's faltering replies. Mum wasn't used to breaking the law. I felt guilty for putting her in this situation.
Muffled thuds. They were coming up the stairs. Mum's voice was getting louder as her anxiety grew. I reached to check the lock on the door and knocked over a bottle. Feela's eyes opened.
“Ssh!” I said stupidly. Feela stretched out her front feet for a big, bugeyed yawn.
“What's up there?” I heard.
“Just the attic,” replied Mum.
Feela stood up, stretched into a quivery arch, and padded to the edge of the bed. Quickly I reached over and tickled her chin. For the moment, she stayed put.
“I'm sorry to put you to this trouble,” said the Pets Inspector.
“I'm sorry too,” replied Mum.
“The cat was seen in your garden,” said the Pets Inspector.
“So you said,” replied Mum.
Feela's ear was cocked. She was recognizing Mum's voice. Suddenly she jumped. To my horror, she went straight over to the trap door and let out a tiny pinkmouthed cry.
Dead silence. The whole of my life hung in the balance. If the inspector came through that trap door, I wouldn't be seeing Mum for another five years. And I wouldn't be seeing Feela ever.
The voices rose again, this time farther away. Thank God. They were downstairs. Feela's cry hadn't carried.
The front door closed. He'd gone. Until now, I hadn't really felt afraidâjust focused, like a racing driver at full speed. But as the relief came over me, my hands started to tremble uncontrollably. I scrabbled at the trap door, pulled it open, and found myself looking down at Mum's face, flushed pink and ten years older than before.
,” she declared. “
Never, never again
“He's gone now,” I consoled her.
“Until the next time,” Mum replied.
“There won't be a next time,” I countered.
“Of course there'll be a next time!” snapped Mum. “We can't keep that cat hidden forever!”
As if in reply, Feela jumped down onto Mum's shoulder, then used her like a climbing frame to get to the floor. I lowered the ladder and followed. Mum dropped into a chair, one hand to her head, fighting for breath.
“You see what this has done to me?” she gasped.
I squatted down next to Mum and took her hand. She'd had a weak heart for a few years now, and it wasn't getting any better. There were drugs which could cure it, but none that we could afford.
Mum noticed my hand was trembling. “You're becoming like me,” she said, “a nervous wreck.”
So what? I thought. Everyone in this horrible neighborhood had nervous problems. It was inevitable, like getting older. But at least with Feela, I had something worth living for.
I replayed in my mind the night we found her. Of course, we had seen cats before, but only onscreen, or in the wide windows of the houses on the mount. To find one, real and alive, in our moonlit garden, was breathtaking. We watched, transfixed, as it tested the scents of the grass, offered its chin to a small branch, then began to scrape a hole in the earth. Everything about it was so focused, so sure, so lithe in movement. The smallest noise, and its head was up, its ears swiveling like radar screens, its almond eyes watching. I loved the sweep of its tail, as bushy as a squirrel's, and the close gloss of its black, ginger, and white coat. From the little smile that played on Mum's lips, I could tell she felt the same.
“Where do you think it came from?” I whispered in a religious hush.
“It should say on theâ”
Mum's sentence never ended. She had noticed something very wrong about the cat. It had no collar.
When GreatGrandma was alive, she told me stories of a time when almost everyone had a cat. Incredible as it may seem, you could answer an ad in a petshop window, knock on someone's door, then go home with a kitten. Just like that, and not pay a cent! What a world that must have been!
But that was before the flu scare. HN51, the new and deadly strain of cat flu, which was passed to a human in Surinam and without quick action would have spread around the world like wildfire. After HN51, there was a worldwide cull of infected cats and ownership of cats became strictly monitored. All cats had to be registered, and over a period of time two big companies, Viafara and Chen, took over the whole businessâbreeding, vaccinating, and putting them on the market.
There weren't enough cats to go around. So the price went higher and higher, till only the very rich could afford them.
There was one girl in our school who had a cat. At least, she
she had a cat. But when we asked her if it was a Viafara or a Chen, she didn't seem to know. I think she was just trying to make herself sound big. Anyway, it all rebounded back on her, because her house got burgled so many times her family had to leave the area.
It wasn't surprising, really. Every time you turned on the screen there was another advert showing some beautiful cat, strolling around the pool in some fantastic mansion. Then you'd see the price. Two million euros, some of them! Is it any wonder cat kidnapping became such a common crime? Mind you, they had that under control now. It was pretty much impossible to get into the private neighborhoods unless you had a minicopter, and they cost almost as much as a cat.
The new collars had also put off the cat kidnappers. They all had tracking devices built in. For a while you could jam the Chen ones, but then Viafara bought out Chen and put the same processors in them, and made them pretty much foolproof. And since it was impossible to get the collar off without lopping the cat's head off, the chances of a kidnapper getting caught were roughly a hundred percent.
But our cat, as I've said, had no collar. That was the excitingâand frighteningâthing about it.
“It's seen us,” I said. The cat was staring steadily in our direction, caught between fear and curiosity. Then, unbelievably, it started to move towards us. Mum began to panic.
“Don't touch it!” she warned.
“It might attack.”
The cat didn't look like it was about to attack. But then, maybe that was the way they worked. Maybe they jumped suddenly, without warning. The fact was, we knew practically nothing about them, other than what GreatGrandma had told us.
“We'd better go in,” said Mum.
Neither of us moved. Mum was as fascinated as I was. Everything about this creature cast a spell, and when it stood no more than a meter away, opened its needletoothed mouth, and cried, we knew we couldn't ignore it.
“Maybe it's hungry,” I said.
“Fetch some sardines,” said Mum.
I was right about the cat being hungry. As soon as the sardines were on the ground, it checked around, then set about its meal with total abandon. Even when the last trace was gone, it kept on licking. Then it looked back up at us with a new and powerful interest.
“Let's let it in,” I suggested, more in hope than expectation. Mum was horrified.
“It's a criminal offense!” she said.
“But it's lost!”
“Jade, it's an unregistered cat.”
“But look at its face, Mum.”
“It could be diseased!”
“It doesn't look diseased.”
“Looks can be deceptive.”
Mum said this with great weight, and a nodding of the head. When she spoke like this, out of grim experience, you didn't doubt her. But the pull of the cat was just as strong.
“If we took her in tonight, Mumâ”
“Just tonight, Mum! Then ring the authorities in the morning!”
going to ring the authorities?”
Mum viewed me doubtfully.
“On my mother's life, Mum!” I blurted, not realizing what I was saying.
“Exactly,” said Mum. “It
be on your mother's life.”
“Please, Mum,” I pleaded. “Just to have it in the house, for a few hours; just so we could say we had a cat once in our lives.”
Mum smiled at my dramatic little speech. I sensed a weakness and pressed home the advantage with a lostlamb look I had practiced all my childhood.
“On your head be it,” she said, but as we've already established, both our heads were on the block from that moment.
There was no way she'd let me touch her at first. Trust had to be built up slowly and painfully. I talked to her softly, offered her little treats, and took care not to make any sudden or threatening movements. Then, when Mum had gone to bed, I laid a trail of tuna flakes on the kitchen floor, got down flat to the ground, and arranged the last few morsels along my arm and on my back.
Time passed, maybe half an hour, then at last she crept out from her hideyhole and began to take the bait. I hardly dared breathe as she drew up alongside me, still with that quivery watchfulness, but growing more confident all the time. And then, in one sacred moment, she snaffled the tuna from my arm, and I felt just a tickle of contact.
Hardly daring to breathe, I silently urged her on. She laid one testing paw upon my elbow, craned her neck, and took the next treat.
Two paws next, and a snaffle from my backâbut that was as far as she could reach.
I closed my eyes, desperately tired, and resigned myself to trying again in the morning. But I would not have to wait that long. Again she tested my arm with her paws, then, without warning, sprang softly onto my back. I lay still and steady, in quiet satisfaction, as she went about her business, nibbling the last of the tuna. Then, when she'd had her fill, I laid another trail and did exactly the same thing again. This time, lying beneath her gentle weight, I fell fast asleep. I was still there next morning when Mum came down; so was my little cat.
“Look at you!” she said, with a broad smile. Once she had smiled and laughed a lot, but it didn't happen often now.
“I want to keep her, Mum,” I said. The words had escaped before I'd even thought about what I was saying.
“Jade, no,” said Mum.
“But Mum,” I protested, “what if they kill her?”
“They're not going to kill her,” replied Mum, then gave a nervous little laugh, betraying the fact that she wasn't so sure.
kill her,” I replied, much more sure of myself.
“I'll ring them when I come back from Afshan's,” asserted Mum.
Mum never did ring the authorities. By that evening I'd trained the cat to lie on my lap, and after tea she climbed onto Mum's, stretched her paw across like a baby, and closed her eyes. Mum absentmindedly stroked her head, and for the first time, the cat let out a purr.