The other day I was at the station wailing for the eight oh five, and Alleycat was in the cabin of the train. I didn’t disturb him, passengers aren’t meant to distract the driver while the train’s in motion, and within a few seconds we were off. I waited, hoping that Alleycat would come to find me; but he didn’t and that seemed very strange because usually when I’m around he can’t wait to jump in my lap or wrap himself around my neck. Eventually, after I’d waited for ten minutes or so, I went to the front of the train and listened at the door of the driver’s cabin and that’s when I heard the music. There was a band in there, a three-piece I think, and I could hear someone on the pipes, someone strumming a guitar, and I don’t know what Alleycat was doing if he wasn’t singing along. You’ll realize that the trains in my neck of the woods are crewed by unusual individuals. One of them’s tall, as big as a giant nearly, and he can hardly get along the carriage when it’s packed and he needs to check our tickets. The giant has a pal, who’s maybe half his height, and the pair of them manage the train together. Once I saw them at the side of the tracks, walking along rapidly, the giant taking immense strides, with his pointed cheeks and sharp nose in front of him, and he wasn’t going to wait for the little chap and made him run after him, and he didn’t care if the little fellow had difficulty keeping pace. I could see the little fellow didn’t care either. Obviously, when I got back home I told Bamber and Pink what I’d seen and heard, and Bamber wasn’t impressed at all and listened to my tale from behind the garden gate, and Pink was more interested in her bowl of milk. Only Bertie was amazed by it all and afterwards she sat on her own in the raised beds and thought it all carefully through.
Alleycat knew what he wanted and simply did it – he left to drive trains and let the old life go. One day he was sunning himself on the porch and the next he was far, far away, walking in his footprints. He was as old as the hills or older, but as young as a leveret too, and everyone knows or ought to know that a leveret’s never alone and even if he seems alone he isn’t; his parents are always near at hand and keeping an eye on him no matter how lonely he looks to be.
Pink of course is secretly glad he’s gone because now she doesn’t have to compete with anyone to be the centre of attention.That’s how self-centred she is! Me! Me! Me!
Of course it’s Alleycat who drives the train, and he acts like he can take her anywhere, even to the moon maybe. I see him in the mornings, at the station. He’s up in the cabin, his paws on the levers. Some people (the other commuters) think he’s a pet, but those folk know nothing of cats. In reality every cat’s in charge of himself and goes where he pleases, and does what he wants, and he’s no one’s pet. If he chooses to drive trains you just have to let him. And the humans that ride with him, the stoker, the ticket collector, and the train manager, they might seem to be in charge, but actually it’s Alleycat who calls the shots. No one knows that better than me.
Another thing I know is that every cat has exactly two sides, no more and no less, and nine lives don’t come into it. So, you see, Alleycat might think he’s driving the train, but there’s another side to it because whatever he’s doing he’s definitely doing it for us, for the folks back at Six Foot Way, me and the Looking Glass Lady, Pink, Bamber and the dogs. So in a way, we drive that locomotive from afar and we feel the air in Alleycat’s whiskers when he leans his head out far enough.
Alleycat’s been away for a long while, driving trains, but he pops home occasionally, to prove he still exists. The last time he showed his face he had a little friend with him.
He found Bertie in the overhead luggage racks on the eight oh five to Paddington and whiskered her to us in Six Foot way in a few shakes of his tail.
No one knows where Bertie’s from, but she’s settled in perfectly, just as Alleycat anticipated.
Pink’s taken over her education, which means she’s clear that cats are the most important beings on the planet and much the best role models for a small but promising little spaniel dog.
A fat cat thin or a thin cat fat? When Alleycat was young he was thin, but suddenly one day he became enormously fat, like a bear getting ready to hibernate, or like a cat leviathan. But there was method and purpose behind his bulking-up. He was building his physical power in the knowledge that soon he’d be poisoned (and he was) but he got himself through his ordeal and burned off the poison by burning away his fat. He came near the Door of Death, and he saw through it, and who knows what arcane knowledge he glimpsed out of the edge of his cat’s eyes in those days when the poison was attacking him. But now the poison’s gone and he’s as thin and fit as he was when he was young, and as for me I’m a little bit fatter than I’d like to be, so Alleycat and I have started running together. We jog together along the disused railway line near my house, and sometimes we stop and listen for the ghostly whistling of the old-time trains. By the way, it’s Alleycat in both of the photos, fat and young at the top, old and thin at the side.
A hundred years ago there were so many railways in Dimchurch that it wasn’t possible to leave town without crossing one of them, but they fell into disuse and they’re all closed now. That’s where we found ourselves this morning, in an old cutting, with a rusty rail stretching ahead of us, and we hadn’t been there five seconds when we heard a shrill whistle from right behind us and jumped to the side to make way for the train. Only the train didn’t appear. The whistle came again, closer this time, and raced past and died away, and a minute or so later one of those old hand-operated pump trolleys came rattling along with two burly old men working the seesaw. There was a little grey cat on the apex of the seesaw and he miaowed to the men and told them to slow down. The trolley stopped next to us and the man at the front saluted and said: Begging your pardon, Sir, but did the Dimchurch Thunderbolt pass this way, and if so, did anyone get on or off it? We said we might have heard it whistle, but that was all, and the man nodded, and took his cap off and fanned himself with it. He was dressed like an Edwardian station porter, and looked like something to do with the heritage railway. I was just about to ask him if that’s why he was there, when the little grey cat miaowed in his ear and looked along the track, just as if he’d seen a bird and wanted to kill it. The Porterman replaced his cap pronto and set off again, pumping the seesaw, and believe it or not the cat jumped on his head and sat there looking to the front just as if the cat was in charge of the man. I told Pink all about it when I got home, but she wasn’t interested and I couldn’t make Alleycat spill the beans either. Of course, they know what it was all about. They just won’t say. Pink likes me to mind my own business. That’s her in the photo, telling me to watch it.
It snowed my first day back at work after the flu, and while I was waiting for the 08:05 at Dimchurch I saw a strange sight. I was in my usual place, at the end of the platform where there’s a sign to say that passengers aren’t allowed. The snow was pristine, no footmarks at all except for mine, and yet there were a few cat-prints, just one pair, and the odd thing was that these prints started at the edge of the platform next to the tracks and went a few steps, then vanished abruptly. I stared at the prints and wondered who had made them and why. At first I thought that someone must have picked the cat up and carried it off, but that wasn’t it because there were no human prints. Then I wondered if the cat had taken to the air and flown away, but that was a silly thought because pigs may fly, but cats can’t. After a bit I realized what it was. The early train had stopped there and a cat had stepped down from the guard’s van, walked a few steps, looked up and down the platform, then climbed back on board, just like the human train guards do. I should have known that that’s what it was, because the sign that tells the humans they can’t go any further along the platform doesn’t apply to cats and they don’t pay any attention to it; so obviously that’s where all the felines climb aboard. I told Pink about it when I got back home but the only thing she’s really interested in at the moment is the woodburner.