“…which brings me right up to now.”
Tom took a deep breath as he finished recalling his story. Puzzle listened to it all with intent. When he finished, she slowly washed herself: licking her paw and running it over her head and neck, deep in thought. Tom reluctantly did the same, but didn’t pull it off with the same ease as Puzzle did. Idly he wondered if he would ever be tempted to do what all cats did, and wash himself all over. With just his tongue! Ugh. But then, he hadn’t been fond of his drenching earlier…
“So you think Muezza turned you into a cat?” Puzzle asked at last.
“I don’t know,” Tom admitted, “But he’s definitely in on it. That drink – Cream of the Crop – he said it makes you feel like you’re the most important person on Earth. I drink it, and hey presto, I envision signs with my name on. Centre of attention.” He added bitterly.
“But why would that lead you to the Old Dairy?”
“I’m not sure…” Tom would stroke his chin ponderously if he could, “Cream of the Crop tasted milky, the signs led to the Old Dairy…there’s a link there, a bizarre one, but a link nonetheless.”
“Bizarre is the word, there,” Puzzle barely held back the amusement in her voice.
“This isn’t funny!” Tom snapped, “Can’t you see what’s happened? Muezza has turned me into a cat so I won’t be able to make it to that meeting on Tuesday. He wants his competition out of the way, the coward!”
“So?” Puzzle tilted her head.
“So?” Tom repeated with a gasp, “Puzzle, this deal means everything to me.”
“Because…because it’s the Park.” Tom said at last. “I have memories there. Good memories, when I still had friends. When I still had…” He trailed off. Puzzle stared at him with powerful eyes.
“The Park?” she asked, “As in the Big Green to the east?”
“Well, I wouldn’t call it green any more, but yes.”
Puzzle tensed, and suddenly looked ready to pounce on Tom. He instinctively backed away.
“What did I do this time?” he squeaked.
“I know what you do for a living, Tom,” Puzzle spat, “What you do as a human. Taking up old territory, nests of cats, many of them my friends: you’d wipe it clear, and put those hulking great human nests in their place. Poor old Malt from five yowls away has had to up and leave her home three times in as many moons, poor thing.”
Uh-oh. Tom could see where this was going, and it wasn’t a good place.
“Puzzle, I can expl–”
“So what do you plan to do with the Big Green, Tom?” Puzzle towered over him, teeth bared, “The whole of Leafy Clan are still clinging to what’s left of the trees and bushes there. If you plan to move even a loose twig from there, so help me, I’ll side with this Muezza character and do what I can to keep you a cat!”
“Puzzle, please!” Tom shrieked, feeling a desperate meow escape his throat, “You’ve got it wrong! I’m trying to save the park: I want to plant new trees, clean up the garbage – it’s Muezza who wants to bury it all under a slab of concrete and flashing lights, not me.” It was a lie, of course – Tom was sure his father has testing him to see if he could put aside his feelings for the Park – but Tom needed Puzzle on his side. He’d need all the help he could get.
Puzzle slid back her sharp teeth, but her fur remained on end.
“How can I believe you?” Puzzle growled, “I find it hard to trust the word of a human.”
“Take my word as a cat, then. Jacobsen Park means as much to me as it does to you or your friends,” Tom sighed, letting his flanks relax, “I want to save it…and I need your help.”
Tom felt horribly exposed: he was used to lying, of course: his day-to-day work had him using doublespeak all the time, saying one thing but meaning another and using tactful words. But to lie to someone like Puzzle made him feel all too vulnerable.
Slowly, Puzzle’s fur flattened, and she lowered herself down. “Well…okay, I believe you. But that doesn’t mean I forgive you for all you’ve done,” she licked a paw and stroked it across a fresh-looking gash behind her ear, “A lot of cats hate you for ruining their homes, and I’ve had to fight a fair few of them off to keep them from getting to you.”
Tom’s skin crawled. He envisioned his front garden full of wildcats, eyes shining in the moonlight, pushing through the cat flap while he slept…and there was Puzzle, clawing each and every one and sending them straight back out.
“You…you fight for me?” Tom said quietly, “But…why? Don’t you hate me too?”
“I don’t hate you,” Puzzle glared at him, “You just…I just you’re think stupid, that’s all. But you’re my pet, Tom, and a good friend – when you’re not tapping away on some noisy gadget, that is.”
“I’m your friend?”
Puzzle gave him a light cuff over the ear.
“Yes, friend,” she repeated, “Heard of those? And friends look out for each other.”
Tom felt a strange prickle of warmth through his fur, tingling all the way to his paws.
“So, what’s the plan?” asked Puzzle, walking back into the hallway. Tom chased after her, his short legs struggling to keep up with her sweeping stride.
“No idea,” Tom admitted, “I’d say I’d go after Muezza, but where does he live? He might not even be in the country by now.”
“Won’t your workplace have some sort of…what do you call those things…those thin shards of wood you scrawl those markings on…”
“Paper?” Tom put in, “Oh, you mean a file – perhaps, but I never made any contact with him myself until today. He pretty much kept his contact with my father only. Strange guy.”
“Why would he go through the trouble of turning you into a cat if he just wanted to get rid of you?” Puzzle watched the cat flap, as though expecting something to burst through it at any second.
“Looks less suspect, I guess,” Tom shrugged, “A cat being run over causes less of a fuss than a human being knocked down.”
“Sad but true,” Tom added, “That’s just the way things are.” Tom remembered those cat eyes glaring out from the darkness of the Old Dairy, cold and accusing. His fur prickled.
“Those cats must know something!” Tom hissed.
“The ones at the Old Dairy; I remember seeing one before I blacked out, then all those caterwauling cats…before the train came….” he shuddered. Puzzle stood back a step, her ears laid flat in fear and anger.
“I told you, Tom, that’s Smoky Clan territory!” Puzzle growled, “They’re dangerous!”
“Exactly,” Tom padded towards the cat flap, “That’s why I need to – ouch! What did you do that for?” Puzzle had headbutted him to the floor, sending him sliding across the laminate wood and into his reeking jogging trainers, “There’s other ways to get my attention apart than hitting me!”
“Try telling that to Smokies,” said Puzzle, “Maybe it’s because they chose a stinky, slimy factory land for territory, but they’re shifty felines, not be trusted with your leftover furballs.”
“All the more reason to go and have a word!”
“What do you plan to do, Tom?” Puzzle spat, “Waltz into their terrain, up to their Leader Billow, and ask politely if she’ll change you back? They’ll tear your ears off if they don’t laugh themselves to death first.”
“I can offer them things,” Tom retorted, shoving his reeking trainers aside, “I can give them food, land…whatever they want.”
“Shame you didn’t do that for us,” Puzzle muttered bitterly, “So what? They may be mad cats, Tom, but they’re still just cats. What makes you think they can turn people into cats when they like?”
“They might have info.”
Puzzle stood between him and the cat flap.
“I won’t let you go and get yourself killed,” she grunted, teeth bared as she glared down at him.
“Then come with me.”
“To that place? Never!”
Tom launched forward, skidding under her legs and bowling through the cat flap. The cold night air hit him before the colder, harder concrete slab. As he staggered to his feet, he heard the cat flap swing forward again, and claws closed around his neck.
“Get back in here!” Puzzle hissed, lifting him up by his scruff.
“Get…off!” With the noise of ripping fur and a jolt of sharp pain up his spine he broke free, and sped off down the drive, through the gap in the garden fence, and bolted down the night-swamped street, not daring to slow down or look back. He felt light-headed with what he thought was relief and exhilaration – he was free, and these legs could belt along at speeds he wouldn’t even manage at a human sprint. Then he felt a warm trickle down his neck, and realised he was bleeding where he’d torn free from Puzzle.
After turning a few more corners, he slowed, then came to a stop under a streetlamp, where two silent, dark suburban streets crossed. Ducking away into the nearby bush where he’d be less visible, he started licking his paw and rubbing it on his wound. Luckily, it didn’t feel deep, and already the bleeding was stopping, though he still felt giddy.
Stupid cat, he thought. And just when he thought they were getting along. She had told him they were friends, too! Well, some friend she turned out to be…she wouldn’t even help him. What was she so scared about? She was a big cat, and whether she was in another cat’s territory or not, he couldn’t imagine her having any trouble. Well, he wasn’t scared. Even if he was, it wouldn’t matter. When Tom Verbrisser is after something, he goes for it, and woe betide anyone that stands in his way.
He’d never forget the moment he turned into the man (or cat) he was today, he recalled with relish as he recognised the familiar street signs; what had turned him from the average loser to big-time winner, the award-winning toast of London, with the entire capital at his feet (or paws).
Recalling the street name and where it was, he mapped out a route to the Old Dairy in his head. Off he trotted into the amber-glowing darkness, losing himself in memories.
* * *
It was nearing the end of his first year in secondary school. Tom remembered his Mum and Dad getting into a big argument about what school to put him in, and his mother eventually won, wanting him to go to a local comprehensive to ‘keep his feet on the ground’, whatever that meant.
Tom had always been well turned-out at school. He always seemed to have uniform that fit when others had blazers hanging over their hands or trousers dangling around their ankles. He always seemed to have new stationery and bags while his classmates had pencils no longer than their thumbs and backpacks with one strap snapped off. But he’d never really paid it any mind, never appreciated why, until the day of his work experience.
That day, he awoke to find a suit tailor-fitted to his size hanging from his wardrobe, with a note stuck to the sleeve: Kitchen, 7:30. Tom checked his clock: 7:15. He swore, and had the most hurried shower he ever had, throwing on his suit before he was barely dry. He stumbled into the kitchen at 7:35, and his father peered at him from over his newspaper. Wordlessly, his farther laid down his paper, knelt in front of Tom, and carefully straightened his tie.
“First rule of work, son: never be late.” He said it without anger, but without warmth too.
Now his Dad smiled. “The second rule is: when you’re in charge, you make the rules. I think I’ll let you off this time. Come on, have some breakfast. We’ll leave in ten minutes.”
And right on time, they were out the door in at 7:45, and Tom climbed into the passenger seat of Dad’s vast car. He’d rarely been allowed in here: Mum usually dropped him off at school in the more modest family car. Dad’s car was for work and work only. Inside, everything smelled of that smell he came to associate with his Dad back then: that smell of newness, of money. It was the smell of importance.
Within an hour, they were pulling up to his father’s head office in central London. Looking back, Tom realised how comparatively modest his father’s earlier offices were, but to a twelve year old boy, they were nevertheless eye-opening: three floors of steel and glass, perched atop a set of stone steps leading to a frosted automatic door with the words Verbrisser Estate Agency pressed into the glass in bold, gold letters.
The inside was a hive of activity: smartly dressed men and women striding from one desk to another, clutching papers and folders. They passed a meeting room, and Tom caught a glimpse of a map of London covered in multi-coloured dots. But what impressed Tom the most was how everyone greeted his father: everyone he passed gave him a warm “Good morning Mr. Verbrisser,” and of the one-or-two that stopped to talk with him over something Tom didn’t understand, Tom could feel something radiating from his father. He couldn’t find the words for it then, but now he knew it all too well: power. The way he held himself, the way everyone greeting him with a respect with the tiniest hint of fear…Tom saw his father in a new light that day. He imagined the “Good morning, Mr. Verbrisser”s being aimed at him. It felt good.
Finally, they reached his father’s office on the top floor. It was spacious, with a busy but organised desk, a luxurious chair, a view overlooking the City of London, and that smell of importance.
Tom stood quietly while his father busied himself with taking off his jacket and checking his mail and answerphone. When Tom feared that he may get too engrossed in his work and forget Tom was there, he looked up, and considered him.
“I’m ready to work, Da…er, Mr. Verbrisser.” Tom spluttered.
His Dad gave a hearty laugh. “I’m not an army general, Tom! You go ahead and call me Dad. Hmmm, work, let’s see…”
His Dad set him to work doing menial tasks, taking papers from one person to another. He wasn’t surprised he wasn’t doing anything important. But still…the was meant to be work experience, and he didn’t feel as though he was experiencing a great deal. But he held his tongue. There was something about working in this office with these adults, striding from one room to the next with important papers under your arm. It gave Tom a buzz he’d never felt from school.
Later that day, as they were travelling back, Tom broke the silence in the car:
“Can I go again?”
His father didn’t answer. In fact he spent the rest of the journey home in silence. Tom wondered if he’d said anything wrong. He didn’t want to make things worse, so he shut up too. When they pulled into the driveway, however, his father turned to look at him. Well, it was more than simply look at him; he seemed to be sizing Tom up, considering every single aspect of his son carefully as though getting ready to draw him from memory. Tom didn’t budge. Finally his Dad broke the tension with a properly warm smile.
“Saturday. And remember the first rule of work.”