Sunday, October 16, 2011


This is another story taken from "Collected Cat Stories" by Stella Whitelaw.

It was so undignified and that's what really got Herbie about living with the ever-expanding Robinson family. Sometimes he felt he must have been delivered in a Christmas stocking, gift-warapped, but far more durable than the other playthings.

He knew if he saw six-year-old Katy donning her nurse's outfit then he was due for a blanket bath, and that meant being swathed in towels and ignominiously anointed with water. It meant having his face and ears washed which he particularly detested, but for the sake of Katy's gentle crooning and cuddling, he put up with these atrocities.

Eight-year old Jane had thought up a torture of a different kind. He suffered being dressed in a matinee jacket, long nightie and bootees with a satin-ribboned bonner flattening his ears. He endured being ridden up and down the road in the basket on the front of her bicycle. This was far worse than being pushed in the pram, because at least in the pram he could take a nose a nose drive down to the foot of the cover and leave only his tail showing, whipping the pillow.

But in the bicycle basket, he was exposed to public glare and comment. He could not even have a good scratch. At the first sign of a slackening of Jane's attention, he would leap out on to the pavement, fly through gardes and across the fields to a secret place where he would hide long enough to divest himself of the hated garments.

This went on until Jane ran out of baby clothes.

Thomas, two years her senior and lanky with it, had a habit of putting Herbie on the top of doors. Just why, Herbie did not have the slightest idea. One minute he would be curled up happily on some abandoned school blazer, then...whoop s! He would find himself being born aloft by Thomas and deposited on the top edge of an open door, scratching and clawing to gain a balance. Once there he could remain lying along the edge with complete indifference until rescued by some adult Robinson.

Herbie was a Bi-coloured Shorthair. He could be described as a black cat with white splodges or a white cat with black splodges. It depended on the angle of viewing which colour was predominant. He had a small, alert face with intelligent eyes and neat ears. No one was quite sure of his age. He came sort of before Katy and after Jane. His birthday was celebrated on the date of the Battle of Waterloo, 18 June, when he was encouraged in vain to blow out the candles on a nice piece of cod fillet and all day it was cream, cream, cream in his saucer.

He ate well with the Robinsons. They were always saying he was the only cat in Great Britain who got meals on wheels. This was because Grandma Robinson was to old to have new teeth fitted, and anything she fancied but couldn't manage went into his bowl. Herbie was game to try anything from trifle to spaghetti bolognese. He was not fussy.

Herbie loved boxes. They were his all-consuming passion. He would get into any box, trying it out for size. He would investigate the depths of paper bags, plastic carriers, handbags, suitcases, typewriter name it, he would get into it.

When the crates arrived he was delighted and curious. But when he made a few tentative forays, there were immediate shrieks of 'Mind the china!' 'Off that linen!' 'Help, that one's full of glasses!' and eventually, 'Will someone put Herbie out, please?'

So Herbie sat in the garden and watched. There were no blanket baths and bicycle rides these days. Everyone was so busy. He did not quite understand what was going on.

One morning the Robinsons assembled outside with bags and parcels and he was being passed round for hugs and wet kisses. It was all very messy and he still did not understand what was happening. He hoped it didn't mean that he was going down the road. Several of his elderly friends had told him that hugs and wet kisses meant going down the road and not coming back.

So Herbie was quite relieved when it was evident that the Robinsons were not intending to put him in the car as well as all their family and their mountain of luggage. He rubbed his head against Katy's new ankle socks to show that he forgave her all the medical ministrations.

'We don't really want to leave him behind, but what else can we do?' said Mrs Robinson. 'One is always hearing about cats that walk back to their old homes and how could Herbie cope with all that ocean? We're so grateful for your kind offer.'

'Shall I have a new kitten in Australia?' asked the fickle Jane.

'Of course, darling.'

'Don't worry, Mrs Robinson. I'll look after Herbie for you,' said a new, sweet young voice. 'He'll be perfectly all right with us. I'm sure he'll soon get used to us and we'll take great care of him.'

Katy wept more water all over Herbie's ears. 'Goodbye, darling Herbie,' she whispered. 'I'll never forget you, never, never, never...'

It was very disturbing, and then amid a great deal of noise the Robinsons drove off, leaving Herbie and he sweet voiced young woman on the front lawn. He looked at her, wondering what was going to happen next. She was very young and quite tall. He hoped she was not going to put him on top of doors. She regarded him a little uncertainly , her fairish hair brushing her cheek like a breeze stirring a cobweb in the moonlight.

'Come along,' she said, trying to sound brisk. 'You live next door now.'

He did not move for two reasons. Firstly he did not know what next door meant, and secondly h was a mite worried about th door bit. Chrissie picked him up carefully and gave him a few little pats. 'Come along,' she said, again, more cheerfully. ' This way...'

The net door house was joined on to the Robinson's house and it was exactly the same, except that it was all the other way around. He discovered that Chrissie and Alan Marshall were newly-weds, that they lived in empty rooms and went out all day. It was very strange. Sometime Herbie thought he had gone deaf.

It was an odd house. There was nothing to jump on, knock over, hid behind, sit on, scratch at, sniff at, trample on or investigate. Most of the time Herbie sat in the middle of the kitchen floor, polite and distance, grooming himself and slightly nauseated by the pervading smell of paint. He missed the Robinsons and all the noise and activity. He missed being talked to and included as part of the family.

'Herbie doesn't seem very happy,' said Chrissie for the hundredth time. 'He behaves like a visitor.'

'Perhaps we ought to show him around,' Alan suggested. 'That might make him feel at home.'

'It's very difficult when you've never had a cat before,' said Chrissie. 'I never know what to do.'

'Don't worry, darling. They are very independent creatures, aloof and stand-offish. It's probably just his way.'

Alan hoisted Herbie off the floor and carried him up the stairs. He flung open the first door with a flourish.

'Now, this is the spare room,' he announced, putting Herbie down on the lino. Herbie was amazed. It had been impossible to move in the Robinson's spare room when they had one. It had always looked like a central sorting depot for Oxfam. But this spare room was totally without interest... he prodded the two tennis rackets with some apprehension.

'Careful, old chap,' admonished Alan. He steered Herbie out of the spare room and into the next room. 'And this is our bedroom. We sleep here,' he added unnecessarily.

Herbie made a flying leap on to the rose-patterned duvet. It sank most satisfyingly, but before he had even done half a turn, Chrissie had whisked him off again.

'Sorry,' he said. 'Not on the bed.'

'He was not allowed on the two armchairs either, or on the draining board, or in Chrissie's shopping basket, or in the linen cupboard or under the television set. So he took to staying in the middle of the kitchen floor, quiet and withdrawn, sometimes pretending to be asleep or watching a bee buzz against a window-pane trying to get in.

The garden was immaculate and everything was in measured rows. Herbie learned to tread carefully. He found it hard to stalk tigers in an organised jungle of Tom Thumb lettuces, or scare birds who were already wary of all the flapping labels.

The best spot was the greenhouse, baking warm and out of the draught. But Alan was growing grass in trays and kept shutting Herbie out.

'Shoo... mind the cuttings. Off my seedlings, old boy.'

Herbie lost weight despite the fact that the Marshalls were kind to him and fed him. But Herbie's heart began to fail when he saw Chrissie reaching yet again for the tin opener. He longed for a bit of fruit cake and some cold cocoa.

He made one visit to the Robinson's old house but never again. A horrible sloppy dog with ears hanging down like soup plates had moved in. Herbie shuddered and kept to his side of the fence.

Sometimes he sat on the pavement outside and watched people go by on bicycles and in cars. One young woman with red-streaked hair always stopped and stroked him, knowing the special place under his chin just above where his purr started.

Sometimes he followed children along the road, but he was afraid to go far. He was less trusting than he used to be. Especially after the field-mouse episode. He had only meant it as a gift for Chrissie. It was such a tiny thing and was paralysed with terror. Yet Chrissie had shrieked as if being attacked by a rampaging bull elephant. Herbie simply did not understand her and brought no more gifts.

The situation improved somewhat when Chrissie stopped going out every day. She started to sing around the house and that was rather nice. However, although she sat around quite a lot Herbie was never invited on to her lap. He now learned that he must not sit on her sewing or try to get into her knitting bag. The tennis rackets were moved into the back of the broom cupboard and some furniture was delivered for the spare room. Alan began hammering in the evenings and Herbie watched the shelves going up with interest.

'Off you come, Herbie. They won't take your weight,' said Alan, lifting him down.

'He's just testing,' said Chrissie with new perception.

Alan kissed her tenderly.

'Funny girl,' he said, ruffling her hair.

One day a new smell arrived in the house. Herbie recognised it immediately. It was the thin, sweet smell of milk. Something stirred and breathed in the pram parked in the hallway, and made small mewing sounds.

Herbie pricked up his ears. Surely it was not another cat? He stood up on his back legs and peered in, but the mesh of the cat-net obscured whatever lay under the mound of blankets.

'Say hello to Timmy,' said Chrissie, picking Herbie up with a growing confidence. It was the first time that Herbie had felt safe and not about to be dropped. He trembled slightly with a small rush of emotion.

Now the improvements began to accelerate at a rate of knots. Chrissie left things on the floor and was far too busy to notice if Herbie sat on them. All sorts of boxes and pails and bins began to appear in the kitchen.

'What on earth shall I do with this cereal?' Chrissie wailed one breakfast time. 'Timmy won't touch it.'

'Give it to the cat,' said Alan.

Baby cereal! One of Herbie's favourites. His rough little tongue could hardly lap it up for purring. Then at teatime it was marmite soldiers dropped all over the floor in various stages of squashed disintegration.

'Oh, you are a messy baby,' said Chrissie, hurrying to clear up, but Herbie was there before her. It seemed like years since he'd had a marmite soldier.

The baby soon began to crawl and then there wasn't a thing Chrissie could do about life at floor level. It became a glorious landscape of wooden bricks, round-eyed ducks, chewed crusts, lost shoes, sticky spoons and a fat yellow teddy bear who kept falling. Herbie sat amid the chaos, keeping an eye on the baby, keeping his claws sheathed an never getting in the way. He was still rather like a visitor.

One afternoon Chrissie was sewing while her baby played on the floor with some empty cotton reels. Herbie was sunning himself by the window when through half an eye he saw the baby reaching up towards the flex of a reading lamp.

No one really knew whether he remembered the occasion when Katy Robinson did the same thing and brought the whole contraption crashing down on her head, but in a split second Herbie leaped off the windowsill and sent the baby back on his bottom on the carpet. The baby howled in surprise and one chubby fist shot out and grabbed at Herbie's long waving tail.

It hurt. It hurt very much. Herbie was almost transfixed with pain. He dug his claws into the carpet.

Then Chrissie was down on her knee, scolding the baby, hugging Herbie. Or was it hugging the baby and scolding Herbie? It did not really matter for Herbie's heart was leaping up into a joyful rumble of happiness.

For in that moment Herbie had looked into Timmy's eyes, and had seen a faint but unmistakable vision of blanket baths, and bicycle rides and door tops, and perhaps even worse. But it meant Herbie had a home. The move was complete. Next door had become home. At last.