They’d been walking for about half an hour, sneaking through gardens, past the local shops and through wooded alleys. They met cats here and there, and the group stopped for chit-chat and Clan gossip, before Tips eagerly introduced Tom to them.
“H-hi,” Tom would stammer in a small voice, “I’m T…Tick.”
“Tick?” One fat old cat sitting on a garden table roared with laughter, “Oh my, how terrible! Your pets must really hate you!”
“Yeah, really hate me,” Tom mumbled as they moved on.
After pushing their way through a coppice thick with thorns and bracken, they emerged at the top of a grassy embankment, overlooking a roundabout. Every morning, it was thick with rush-hour traffic, but it was late, and the tarmac was clear, bathed under the glow of the streetlamps, the lights snaking away down the branching routes.
“Why do humans even bother?” Apples sighed, “I mean, I know their rumbler’s paths take up a lot of room, but this is just greedy.”
“Humans are just strange creatures,” Tips replied, as they scampered down the slope towards the roundabout, “Don’t try to make sense of them. I mean, these are the species which don’t speak a word to each other all day, but put one of those funny gadgets up to their ears, and they’ll chatter ‘til their throats are hoarse.” Tips shrugged. “I just can’t take them seriously.”
“You don’t take anything seriously,” Apples teased.
“And proud of it!” Tips declared, “Come on, race you to the rumblepath edge!”
Tips and Apples charged away, leaving Tom and Puzzle alone, padding at a pace Tom felt more comfortable with.
“They don’t hate humans,” Puzzle explained, “Can’t you see? Tips and Apples have pet collars, as do I.”
It was true: Tom had picked out a fine leather collar with a twenty-four carat gold name tag for her the moment he gave her a name.
“We’re all fond of humans in fact. On the whole, anyway,” she added, eyeing Tom, “We just find them…bizarre. They’re lovable idiots, basically.”
“No argument here,” Tom said dryly, thinking of some of the people he’d worked with in the past, though he missed the glint in Puzzle’s eye as she said it.
“What’s a rumbler?” he asked, though he could guess the answer.
“You call them cars,” Puzzle explained, “And a rumblepath is a road.”
“Rumbler? Huh,” Tom snorted, “My Porsche doesn’t rumble; it purrs.”
“Tom, I’m a cat; I know what a purr sounds like,” said Puzzle curtly, “Your Porsche doesn’t purr. When you bring it to life every morning, it sounds like it has the mother of all furballs stuck in it’s throat.”
“You know, I don’t get it,” Tom frowned, “How come you cats have your own words for things, yet you know some words humans use? You know ‘cars’, and ‘throat’, and you mentioned ‘office’ at my place.”
“Just listening to humans talk, I guess,” Puzzle shrugged, “It’s just another language, and we spend a lot of time around them. We share a lot of words, too: maybe cats and humans had more in common in the past than we do now.”
Before he knew it he was at the edge of the roundabout, where Apples and Tips stood arguing and swatting each other playfully.
“I was first!”
“Nuh-uh! You cheated, you tripped me up!”
“Only because you pushed me out the way!”
“Quiet, you two!” Puzzle snapped, “It’s time to focus. Pay attention to the rumblepath.”
Apples and Tips scrambled to attention, their ears pricked. Tom did the same, straining for the sound of cars. He could hear the distant hum of the dual carriageway, but nearby, all was still.”
“Clear,” Puzzle whispered, “Cross to the island.”
The cats stepped cautiously out onto the tarmac. Tom could feel the heat of the road stinging the pads on his paws. They sped across to the roundabout island, well before a car’s headlights blazed into view and made its way past. They walked carefully across the arranged flowerbeds, heading for the other side.
“I can’t see the other side,” Puzzle squinted at the far verge, shrouded in darkness, “Tips, scout it out, will you? Make sure we’re not walking into a deep puddle or marsh.”
“Will do,” said Tips. His ears swivelled left and right, and he darted across, the shadows swallowing him up until only his white paws, nose and tail tip could be seen.
“All fine here,” he called, “Bit of human trash, but apart from – AAAGH!”
“Tips? Tips!” Apples ran out into the road.
“Look out!” Tom yelled, as Apples’ dusty pelt was illuminated by headlights fast racing towards her. She froze, her eyes wide in horror. The horn of the car wailed –
Tom leapt out into the road and barrelled into her flank. With a meow of shock she bolted away. Tom looked into the rushing headlights, bringing back memories of the oncoming train. He ducked, paws over his head, waiting for the strike…
It didn’t come. The car’s raging horn and engine rattled his ears, then faded away. He dared to open one eye – then clamped it shut again, as the swirl of fumes made his eyes water. He spluttered as he staggered to his feet. Teeth clamped around the scruff of his neck and lifted him up. Next moment his paws found solid ground on cool, dewy grass. He coughed vigorously and licked his paw, rubbing it in his sore eyes. Suddenly he felt a tongue licking the old wound on his neck, as well as another on the grazes along his left flank. He opened his eyes, blinking away the sore tears. It was Tips and Puzzle.
“That was a very stupid thing you did back there,” Puzzle said between licks, “Stupid…but brave. Apples would certainly have been killed by that rumbler, but you were small enough to slide underneath it.”
“It’s all my fault!” Tips said breathlessly, rubbing his head against Tom’s, “I only yelled because I stumbled into a ditch. I’ll never get promoted to Bigtail if I carry on being such a kit.”
“Is Apples okay?” Tom croaked.
“I’m…fine,” said Apples, as she came limping towards him, “Just sprained my leg, that’s all. It…it would’ve been a lot worse, had it not been for you. Thank…thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Tom managed a weak smile, then looked at Puzzle, “Any cat would do it.”
Apples gave Tom a few affectionate licks on the muzzle, which Tom awkwardly returned.
“Got to hand it to you Puzzle, he’s won me over,” said Apples, drawing herself up and licking her paw, “He’s already a Cobby cat in my book.”
“Not until Odd-Eye says so,” said Puzzle, “But I’ll be sure to mention this to her when she decides.”
After taking a moment to recover and shake the smell of smoke from their fur, they headed up the nearest street. It zigzagged up a steep hill, where the houses seemed to stand on top of each other like layers of wild mushrooms. Slipping through the rungs of a spiked iron fence, they crossed a playing field, dark and silent, heading for a quaint little house on the corner. Tom recognised it as the caretaker’s house: the gnarled old man tended to the football and rugby pitches, trimming the grass and repainting the white lines back when Tom was at school, and Tom half-suspected he was still at it even now. The house was a red-brick bungalow, with a bright porch-light shining alone, like a lighthouse. The stopped short of the garden fence, and Puzzle leapt up onto a flat part, her neck arching forward.
“Malt?” she called, “You here? It’s Puzzle.”
“Maybe she’s already left for the farm,” Tips suggested.
Apples was about to say something, when they heard a muffled meow, and a scratching on the inside of the front door. Somebody gave an exasperated moan, then there were footsteps, and with the chinking of keys the door creaked open.
“Your friends here?” A creaky, friendly voice croaked, as a dark shape slipped out the door, “Okay then, see you later, my dear.”
A cat leapt up to the garden fence, and touched noses with Puzzle in greeting. Her thick, rhinestone covered collar flashed under her fur like half-buried diamonds.
“Good evening Malt,” said Puzzle, “How’s the prey?”
“Plentiful, thank you,” said Malt. She was a Siamese cat, with a chirpy voice and bright blue eyes to match.
“It’s a good thing your pet let you out,” said Apples as Malt and Puzzle leapt down, “This meeting sounds like it could be important, for once.”
“Nah, he’s quite sweet, really,” said Malt, exchanging greetings with Tips and Apples, “I’ve always wondered what he’s saying when I leave the nest: I wonder if he’s calling me back.”
Tom felt a chill creep down his neck. Did the other cats not understand human speech? It seemed obvious, when he thought about it, and his ability to understand human talk was no different than his ability to read it, but this really drilled it home. He felt excited and scared by it: it would surely prove useful at some point, but would revealing it to the other cats reveal the human side of him? He’d have to talk to Puzzle alone when he could get the chance, to see what she thought.
“And who’s this?”
Malt’s nearby voice snapped him out of his thought. She was looking straight at him with inquisitive eyes.
“Hi, I’m Tick,” Tom said automatically, “I’m Puzzle’s half-brother; she’s taking me to see the Cobby Leader. And you’re Malt? Pleased to meet –
“Aww, he’s so cute!” Malt squealed ecstatically, and she muzzled Tom’s forehead so hard he tumbled backwards, “I want to eat him up!”
Tom stood up again, trying to maintain some kind of dignity, but already he could see the rest of the group barely holding back the urge to descend into fits of laughter. He may have had a layer of fur, but underneath Tom knew his skin was burning a hot red. Thankfully Tips came to his rescue.
“So Malt, he seems nice, your new pet. You settling in well, then?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Malt hung her head, “I miss my old home though. My old owners wanted to take me with them, but…I couldn’t leave the Cobbies.”
With a pang of guilt Tom remembered Malt was the cat Puzzle had told him about, the one who had to uproot and find a new home three times in three months. Had he been told that as a human, he wouldn’t have cared less. But being here, on the cat’s eye level, made it seem all the more real. And she thought he was cute…if only she knew.
“We’re glad you didn’t,” said Puzzle, laying her tail on Malt’s shoulder, “You may only be a Smalltail, Malt, but you’re too valuable an asset to the team. And far too nice.”
“You’re too kind, really,” said Malt, picking up her head and looking up at the moon, “Anyway, let’s get shifting: the night isn’t going to wait for us!”
Off they trotted again. Tips, Malt, Apples and Puzzle weaved through the streets with ease, while Tom wheezed along at the back. He didn’t want to hold up the group, but he wasn’t sure how much more running he could take: now he was ten times smaller, the distance to the farm seemed ten times more.
Finally, though, the houses began to thin away, the streetlights becoming sparser and unveiling more of the stars above. The sprawl of narrow streets converged into one larger road, where they trekked along its edge in single file. Tom dreaded to imagine what would happen if a car came along…when it did, roaring up from behind, lights and thumping music blazing.
“Dive!” Puzzle yelled.
The other cats leapt into the nearby bushes lining the roads, and Tom quickly followed suit before he was squished into a cat pancake. The car whooshed past, swaying the bushes with a blast of wind. One by one, the travellers crawled out of the bushes, thorns and clumps of sticky weeds clinging to their fur. They barely had time to clean themselves when they had to leap in again.
After five more leaps into thorny safety with brief intervals of running along the road, they reached a level crossing. Tom felt his fur prickle as he looked along the dark, straight railway. Images of lights rushing towards him flashed in his mind, and he quickly scuttled on.
The paved road after the crossing soon turned gravelly, the bushes on either side giving way to wild grass and flowers. Rusty, half-open gates led onto vast rolling fields, some with fields of corn thrice as high as he was, and some fields with slumbering sheep, scattered across the field like tiny rainclouds.
The hill rounded off and led downwards, revealing the gentle valley below. The vast dual-carriageway glittered in the distance like a string of diamonds. Nestled at the head of the valley, sheltered by big oak trees, was Cobby Farm. The farmhouse’s windows glowed red and gold in the night, surrounded by the dark shapes of a grain silo, a new, upstanding barn, and further away, an older, neglected barn. Half of its roof was gone, leaving behind a skeleton of beams, and part of one wall seemed to be crumbling away, bricks slumped in a mass underneath.
“That’s our headquarters,” Puzzle whispered, pointed her tail at the old barn, “The heart of the Cobby Clan. Odd-Eye and Sir Paws will be there, and many other cats. Stay close, stay calm, and don’t do anything reckless.”
Tom was too nervous to even think of a retort: he nodded, and legs shaking, he followed the group down the hill.
On the long and hard journey here, he’d kind of been looking forward to arriving at the farm, and get to rest and relax a bit. Now, it seemed, his troubles had barely started.