I don’t believe in déjà vu, but I like the theory. One of my aunties who enjoyed being the centre of attention was being shown around a Scottish country house; she pointed at a portrait of Arabella Stuart and exclaimed That’s me! She was half way up the stairs at the time and had to be caught in mid-faint by the rest of the tour party. I don’t believe in time travel either, or reincarnation, though if I did they’d be the same boring old thing, like remembering yesterday. Alleycat knows more about the hidden kingdom than I do, but he only knows the theory. We talk of these matters often, usually at midday, when he’s at his most sleepy-headed and leisurely. But Pink’s the only one of us who’s ever (so she claims) been to and fro in time, and she doesn’t know how she did it and can’t repeat the experience, so that’s no good. Alleycat says that if time flows just one way you can’t expect to travel to and fro in it independent of the moment in which you happen to exist. He has lots more to say, about stretching time out and making it flat or round like a loaf of dough, but all of these things are far beyond me and I just pretend to understand and nod my head when he’s talking. Apparently his idea is to pop time in the oven, bake it a bit, then eat it and know everything there is to know about every possible instant. Whatever he pretends to believe, Pink’s the only one of us who’s ever accomplished the deed of travelling beyond the present, and this is her version of the story (at least it’s chapter 4 of it).
Pink thinks everything becomes her. Some animals change colour to match their surroundings, but Pink’s surroundings change texture and hue according to her whim and fancy. In her youth she was abject and easy to upset. I found her once on the worktop in the utility room, crying because one of the local cats had been nasty to her. She slept on my pillow that night, and for many nights afterwards, and sometimes I think I may have given her too much confidence and paid her too much attention for her own good, because now it’s all so different and instead of being a shrinking violet she’s a little tyrant. In the old days even Bamber used to bully her a bit, because that’s what boys are like. Alleycat used to wonder if she could really be one of us (meaning one of the Ginge Club) and when she went out of doors we worried that she’d never come back – she was that weak and puny. But now the Ginge Club are all at her command and she’s their Queen and even Alleycat does her bidding and makes way for her. Her glass might have started off empty but it didn’t stay empty for long, and these days it only takes one look from her for her cup to fill up with her favourite liqueur just simply because she wills it so.
Even our kitchen is PINK!
And our glassware is PINK TOO!
In the temples of Old Egypt cats were trained to accompany the priest and assist him in the rituals, and because a cat can see in the dark, the priest would take his cat with him when he went on sorties into the spirit world. Both cat and priest would fall into a trance and off they’d go; the cat would precede the priest and be a sort of spiritual guide. We humans lose our sight when faced with trance and mystery; but a cat well, a cat is almost as comfortable in the spirit world as he is in this, and that’s why the Egyptians revered them so and treated them like gods. Alleycat knows the truth of this better than most and he sometimes goes on journeys of his own into the Hidden Kingdom, although he never actually moves at all; these are spiritual journeys, and it’s like he’s walking in the eye of the mind, exploring it, and although he never leaves the house he sometimes vanishes from sight for hours at a time and when he reappears he’s discovered in a drawer that’s always locked or at the back of a cupboard that’s never opened. Once we found him in the attic, and that’s a place we never go apart from once a year when we get the Christmas decorations out. This is why cats will stay in one place and never move a muscle and seem to sleep for hours on end; it’s because they’re walking an invisible country and this process requires them to be as motionless as possible in a physical sense. Naturally Pink can’t observe this discipline. She’s more like a playful human child than a cat and although she sleeps a lot she walks in the invisible kingdom barely at all.
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.
Over the years Alleycat’s got younger and thinner. He used to be so fat that his head was invisible amongst his folds of fat and back then he spent his days sleeping and dreaming like a little Buddha while Bamber did his dirty work for him and trained the neighbourhood cats to stay in line and keep off the lawns of Wayside Cottage. In those days he would occasionally climb on the tallest available fence post and stare up and down the Six Foot to make certain that Bamber was doing his bidding, but then fate intervened and he was poisoned by a neighbour, and the poison worked into him and ate through his fat and melted away his gargantuan bulk, and as well as eating into his body it burned time away too and turned him into a young energetic cat. This process was protracted. He spent whole days on my lap, losing weight and shedding the years. He seldom moved a muscle or stirred a whisker, because his entire feline power was concentrated on the impossible act of turning back time. He concentrated everything on getting lean and young again and now he’s as wiry and strong as he’s ever been, and he lords it over the Six Foot and sits on the tallest fence post and looks both ways and all around to make certain that his wishes are being observed.
This morning Alleycat was nowhere to be seen and even Bamber was a bit worried and kept going in and out to look for him. It’s so cold at the moment that the cats barely go out at all unless they have to, but there was no sign of Alleycat anywhere and that wasn’t right. It was a horrible feeling, to think he might be lost or in danger and all on his own. He doesn’t have any particular hiding places, he’s always exactly where he wants to be, and yet this morning he wasn’t anywhere to be found. I fetched a flashlight and looked under all the chairs. I lifted the cushions. I opened the cupboards and the wardrobes. I unrolled all the blankets and I looked under all the beds. No sign of him anywhere! To cut a long story short, when the clock struck one I called for Bernie and Lucy and said we’d better mount a search of the nearby gardens. Bamber was already out looking, but I knew that if anyone could pick up Alleycat’s trail it would be my cocker spaniels. I don’t mind telling you I was terribly worried, but Bernie gave a sharp little bark, to tell me none of that would be necessary, and I ran into the sitting room and there he was, Alleycat as ever was, stretching and yawning on the hearthrug. From the way he acted I knew he’d just woken up and I’m sure he’d been in the house all the time, invisible and secure. Going invisible is one of Alleycat’s special talents and he can do it at the drop of a hat and stay that way for hours, even days, so I guess that explains what happened this morning. He must have wanted a bit of privacy, so obviously he made himself look like the air and he slept all night and all the morning and no one knew anything about it. He likes to pretend he’s just an ordinary cat, but it’s pretty clear from this little episode there’s more to him than meets the eye, even when he’s invisible. Of course Pink snored through the whole thing. She knew it was all a lot of fuss about nothing and yet I don’t mind telling you that when Alleycat showed himself the whole day changed for me and the dark clouds lifted and everyone’s mood lightened just like casting a spell.
This post is late because I’ve had a bad case of influenza,but even so I’ve got something unusual to tell you. On my way home from work, the day before I fell ill, I saw a cat on the train in the guard’s cabin. I was at the end of the carriage, facing towards the back with the guard’s little office right in front of me. The train stopped a bit too suddenly as we were pulling in to Dimchurch and the door to the guard’s compartment jolted open. Through that door I glimpsed a small, stubby man; he was dressed in old fashioned clothes, like they wear on the heritage railways, and there was a cat on his lap staring up at him. But that wasn’t all; the human lifted a thin glass phial to the cat’s lips and tipped a green liqueur out of it into the animal’s throat. And you know, the weirdest thing of all was that the potion (or whatever it was) smoked when it made contact with the air. It actually smoked! And the cat gulped it down greedily. Obviously I told Alleycat all about it when I got home and although he pretended to be interested, I don’t think he was particularly impressed at all. He’s far too old and dignified to let anything take him by surprise.