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.
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.
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?
Nothing much has happened in the Six Foot recently, except for the kestrel. It was seen hovering two days ago, and yesterday, all in a rush, it swooped down and took a pigeon from next door’s garden. Everyone heard the screams. Alleycat doesn’t mind kestrels, or hawks, unless they get too big for their boots and start to trespass on his territory. Some folk say that cats are the villains of the piece where Mother Nature is concerned (they’re always on the hunt, apparently, looking out for prey) but Alleycat isn’t like that. He’s a sage, a meditative sort. He says that it’s Mother Nature who’s responsible and everyone (cats and humans too) have to treat her with respect and understand that She contains them and gave them all their lives (nine if you’re a cat). If a hawk kills a pigeon, or takes a vole, well, that’s Mother Nature for you, red in tooth and claw. There’s nothing to be done about that sort of thing. It’s life. But Alleycat won’t tolerate conflict on his lawns. His lawns are private, sacred to his clan , and he maintains a careful watch on his fences and Bamber’s out all hours (he has his orders) patrolling the Five Streets and putting down markers, while Alleycat remains indoors and sleeps and thinks and lays his plans. When Pink saw the kestrel she was pretty scared, I can tell you. But Alleycat sent Bamber on to the roof of the car-port, to keep watch on the perimeters, and that hawk hasn’t been seen since. He’s probably heard of Alleycat’s great power and understands there are better (meaning safer) places to hunt and trespass than Alleycat’s private lawns.
It’s ages since we posted (sorry) but we’ve had a bit of trouble with Pink. First off, she started pulling out her fur and we couldn’t stop it happening. She was nearly bald in the end. Then she stopped eating and we couldn’t make her start again. Alleycat and Bamber were worried, but there was nothing they could do and they expected us humans to put everything right. Pink was so low she wouldn’t let us take her photo, but she agreed once that we could photograph her shadow (it’s up there at the top). Little by little she got better. We brought her heaters, but that was no good, we purchased costly blankets, and she rejected them all, the fleeces, the silks, and even the mousseline. Then, one way or another, she gave us to understand that she required flowers, soft, scented flowers, so flowers were purchased, and after the flowers we had to supply her with golden saucers of full fat milk every other hour. Little by little she started to improve, but her hair didn’t grow back until we sourced (at her explicit request) a reptile lamp, the sort of thing that snakes and other sorts of cold blooded critters love to bask beneath. Once we’d provided her with all these things; the flowers, the full fat milk in endless supply and the reptile lamp she started to improve and now, I’m happy to report, she’s totally recovered.
Yesterday evening there was a knock on the front door. No one knocks on our front door, they always come in via the kitchen, so that was strange right away. I never receive unexpected callers either and everyone knows it, so I was more than surprised when the knocking continued and didn’t stop, and I was more than annoyed when the dogs didn’t bark at all. I hate to think of my dogs being cowed, so I ran to investigate and flung the door wide open. There on the other side of the threshold was an old, thin-looking woman with a gipsy ring on her outstretched hand and a hooky nose on her narrow face. Yet she wasn’t thin exactly, more wiry than anything, and she had big bones, and steely muscles, and if I thought she was thin I didn’t think she looked puny. Far from it. This was a formidable woman, you understand. Here! she said, and I stood my ground and said nothing because I was amazed and disconcerted. Here, she repeated. Here, you! Do you want your fortune reading! Now, for all that I would love to have my fortune read, I am afraid to see into the future, so I held out my hand in front of me and opened the palm in her face to show her what I thought of her question. The grim old woman didn’t speak again, but she stared through me and fixed her gaze on something behind me. She crooked a finger and beckoned it to come and when I turned I saw bears, dozens of bears, crawling along the tiled floor of the hall towards me (or rather towards her). Alleycat! I cried. Alleycat, where are you!