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.
Pink is secretly glad that Alleycat’s gone because she gets more attention in his absence and she often stands in the places where he put his feet, or where he sat, and claims them as her own (although they aren’t hers at all and never can be). By contrast Bamber stays close to the ground and feels for the thunder and listens to the wind and he doesn’t need to pretend he’s Alleycat or anyone except himself. He’s in charge and that’s why he’s down there, low to the ground, with a cat’s purpose, while Pink’s on high trying to be a monster. Bamber keeps marauders at bay, walks the limits, patrols the pathways, and any intruders are beaten back by him alone. Alleycat can’t help him because Alleycat’s far away; and if we see Alleycat crossing the railway line from a distance, or jumping the fences between the station and the tracks, that doesn’t mean that he sees us or needs to show himself; on the contrary, he’s on a mission all his own, a secret charge that doesn’t involve any of us. We know almost nothing of his new life, except that we know what he left behind, or think we do, and Bamber can never forget that once (not long ago at all) it was Alleycat who sat listening to the wind and Alleycat who felt the onset of the storm.
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 gone but he’s not forgotten. In Bugle Street they’re saying he drives his train too fast and overtakes on hills, ignores red lights and so on. Pink hopes it’s true. She’d like to sit next to him and hang out of the window while the fields rush by. Imagine that, the wind in her whiskers. Unfortunately, she’s fated to stay where she is and wait for Alleycat’s return, and while she sits on her strange, carved table and stares across the Six Foot, she invents all sorts of rumours and if you can believe it, she’s the source of all the Alleycat stories, even the slanders. As soon as she’s got a new one, she runs to tell Bertie and afterwards Bertie sits by the back door and waits for Alleycat to confirm it.
When Bertie arrived she was shy and unsure. She’d hide under the sofa or lie in the climbing ivy or under the fence because it felt safe.
But since then Alleycat’s instructed Bamber to keep Bertie safe and naturally that’s made her more confident than she used to be. She may be young but she senses Bamber’s presence and feels him watching over her, and that’s why she’s getting too big for her boots and dragging old Lucy around by the ear and biting her where she shouldn’t.
Pink misses Alleycat, but maybe she doesn’t know how much. When he left her to drive the trains she said she’d be able to cope without him and she’s sticking by that.
She adjusted fast to little Bertie’s arrival but Bertie’s surprised her by growing even faster. Pink still imagines she’s in charge of the establishment, and she expects Bertie to toe the line and obey her commands. That’s not going to happen fast, is it?