Saturday, 15 September 2018

Alma Meta

The Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

            ‘I’m not sure about…,’ started Jim.

            ‘About what?’ I asked.

            ‘Your change of direction.’

            ‘Ah. You mean the cat stories?’

            ‘Exactly. I preferred the … well, the more sci-fi stuff.’

            ‘You know I prefer to regard my stuff as SF. I don’t like the term Sci-Fi.’

            ‘Whatever. I preferred the stories about Space Lice. Psychic alien plants. And big fuck off space craft.’

            I sighed. It had been a while since I’d seen Jim. We were in a pub called The Mitre, one of our old university haunts. It hadn’t taken us long to make our way there – I’d timed the time it took from when the train arrived until we found the familiar seat in the pub’s window: less than 30 minutes. True to form, rather than browsing the library’s latest catalogue or singing in the choir, like some of the returning graduates did, we’d gone straight to the pub. Ostensibly we were there for a college dinner, but from years of experience they were dry stuffy affairs. During the halcyon years of university we’d become accustomed to pre-loading before these events, and old habits died hard.

            I looked up at his jowly and recently bearded features. His beard was full – much better than the wispy effort he used to occasionally sport in our salad days. ‘Well, I have lost a few Twitter followers…’

            ‘Twitter?’ he asked scathingly. ‘People still use that?’

            ‘It all started out as a bit of a joke.’

            ‘Twitter? I thought Jack Dorsey was serious about the whole thing.’

            ‘Who is he?’ I asked.

            ‘He invented Twitter,’ Jim explained, a touch of sarcasm in his tone. I think he was getting his own back for the SF versus Sci-Fi comment.

            ‘Right.’

            ‘I’m sorry. You were saying… The cat stories started as a joke.’

            ‘Yes. I’d been on this writers’ conference. The subject of writers’ familiars came up. The cat was of course mentioned. In fact, I’d included a piece for critiquing which contained a cat.’

            ‘Thrilling stuff, this,’ said Jim, managing to somehow simultaneously roll his eyes and drain his glass.

            ‘Anyway, one of my writer pals suggested that my cat was sitting at home, bashing out novel after novel and was far more successful than I was.’

            ‘You did call him Isaac. What kind of a name is that for a cat?’

            ‘He isn’t called Isaac.’

            ‘Really? Hang on, was it Arthur? Bradbury?’

            I ignored this and continued. ‘So I started writing these stories from the perspective of a cat who was famous in his own right. But at the same time, lived a double life as a house cat, tended to by his human owners, which he refers to as Slaves.’

            ‘I think I need another pint,’ remarked Jim. ‘Same again?’



            As Jim stood at the bar, I gazed out of the window, looking across to the flank of St John’s college. The street outside was busy with tourists, students, bikes and the occasional bus or taxi. I’d whiled away many hours in that same spot, often with a science fiction novel to hand, a pint in the other. Much had changed since then, but in some ways it hadn’t. The smoking ban meant that the air inside the establishment was actually breathable, unlike the toxic fog we used to have to contend with – but at the same time, I couldn’t shake the desire to step outside and spark up a ciggy. For old time’s sake. To feed the nostalgic beast inside.

            I wondered about the cat stories. Whether I was sabotaging my creative output by writing them rather than the more generic space opera I’d started with. Was my voice being stifled by The Cat’s feline miaows? Perhaps I should bring him to Cambridge, to where it all started. I imagined him walking down the street, looking at all the students pouring out of this very pub. Probably with disdain.

            ‘Toxoplasmosis,’ Jim muttered, settling a pint of Abbot in front of me on the wooden table. As I lifted it to meet Jim’s glass, I noticed it left a ring of wetness on the surface. I was sure they used to have coasters in this place, which I’d routinely tear to pieces over the course of the evening, my fingers needing something to worry at when they weren’t tapping out stories.

            ‘I recall learning something about that.’

            ‘You get it from cats. Causes cysts in the brain. You can catch it from cat faeces. Probably why you are coming out with all the cat shit. Because it has literally voided its bowels into your mindbox.’

            ‘Do you mind?’

            ‘I think we were referring to yours.’

            ‘Anyway, since when were you the expert on feline fiction? I thought you were only interested in rugby and kidneys?’

            ‘Much of what you say is true,’ Jim said, wiping some of the foamy beer from his moustache.

            ‘Perhaps you should combine the two. Make up a game with a kidney shaped ball.’



            After a few word games with this metaphorical ball, we set up Bridge Street towards the river. We battled against a tide of tourists, groups of which were lead by officious leaders brandishing selfie sticks. I’d always found the tourist side to the town frustrating as an undergraduate. They just got in the way of the purpose of the town: my purpose, I’d felt, grandiosely. But here I was, essentially a tourist, my ties to the college now withered with time.

            Jim stopped just before the bridge, looking inside the windows of an estate agent. There was a look of sadness in his eyes.

            ‘This was where–?’ I started.

            ‘Yes,’ Jim interrupted.

            ‘No more free poppadums,’ we said in unison.

            ‘I can’t believe, given the amount we used to spend in there, he couldn’t keep going,’ I remarked.

            ‘Maybe he died. Probably died,’ Jim replied.

            ‘Perhaps. Or set up somewhere else.’



            At the bridge, we hesitated, and stood watching the punts go buy. The river was busy with tourists: tidy groups of more elderly travellers competing with unruly packs of younger kids. Punts were strewn at odd angles across the river – someone had tried to turn, but failed, and was now causing a huge backlog. There was the dull clunk of wood on wood, as the punts collided.  Some of the European students shrieked. A young man tottered, trying to keep his balance, but couldn’t manage it and splashed into the water.

            ‘Woah,’ said Jim.

            ‘Yeah, he was lucky he wasn’t crushed between those punts…’

            ‘No, it wasn’t that.’

            ‘What was it then?’ I asked, looking at Jim’s face with concern. Abbot was a strong pint – perhaps it was having some adverse effects on my old friend.

            ‘I just blinked. And when I opened my eyes, the entire place was filled with cats. Cats on the riverbank, filling the punts… Everywhere. Like something out of your stories.’

            ‘Weird,’ I remarked.

            ‘You’ve never brought your Cat to Cambridge?’

            ‘No he’s at home in Bournemouth. Probably asleep on the bed.’

            ‘I meant your fictional Cat.’

            ‘No. Not yet. But there’s an idea…’



            Later, as we walked across Great Court, heading toward the drinks reception in the court beyond, it felt for a moment like we had never left. The setting sun cast long shadows over the court’s central fountain, lighting the great hall from the opposite side, giving the impression it was filled with fire. A light breeze caught the sound of evensong, which then capriciously danced away again. To our left a solitary don plodded across the grass, wearing his robes as if they were as heavy as lead, tired by the Atlas-like task of supporting the weight of his knowledge. Or, given the sway of his vestments, possibly the bottles of port cached within.
            ‘You know what I’ve always hated about cats?’ asked Jim.

            ‘Go on.’

            ‘I’m allergic.’

            ‘But you’re not allergic to spacecraft, right?’

            ‘No.’

            ‘But who knows, you could be allergic to aliens?’

            ‘Perhaps all cats are aliens. I wouldn’t put it past them.’

            ‘I’m just a facilitator, in that case.’

            ‘Just part of their greater plan,’ replied Jim.

            ‘Like we were part of this place’s greater plan?’ I suggested.

            We left Great court, passed the hustle and bustle of the buttery and great hall - the latter offering a glimpse of Holbein’s Henry the 8th through an open doorway. And then we were part of the crowd of familiar faces: some forgotten, some remembered, some even ignored. We went our separate ways, dancing through the crowd in the Brownian motion that is required of such events.

            And occasionally, I wondered about a group of cats doing the same, drinking pints of milk or even the bubbling fermented stuff, dancing through the shadowy cloisters. As I stepped away from the crowd of humans, they bore me away to the windows which offered a view of the backs. Offering a series of mournful miaows, they pointed at the sky. Something large was descending, something metallic and beautiful and strange. Something not of this world. It settled on the opposite side of the river, shrouded in a pall of steam or smoke.

            There was the peal of a gong, as the hatch beneath the craft opened. A gong struck again, bringing me back into reality: my fellow humans were pouring upwards into the great hall, following the call to dinner. I waved goodbye to the feline horde, then turned away to join my fellow alumni, leaving the cats and their giant spacecraft behind.



END


Author's note: This is a companion piece to the last two Caturday stories. But despite any misgivings suggested above, The Cat will return. Being a capricious creature by nature, exactly when is an entirely different matter...

Friday, 7 September 2018

Smilodon


Gordonasaurus by Matt Kidney


            The spiral staircase seemed to climb upwards forever, the cold stone leaching the heat from my paws. The steps were high, designed for human legs, so each one took extra effort. On each landing, I passed a number of closed doors, beside which were plaques bearing the immaculately hand-painted names of the room’s occupants. Which tense of occupant – past, present or future – was uncertain. The place was dimly lit, even for a cat’s eyes, but a wrought iron banister prevented any accidental descent.

            On the top landing, there was a single door, outside which stood a wooden chair. The chair was a simple structure, austere, without any of the ornate woodwork I’d seen as I’d walked past the great hall. On it sat a velvet cushion, tassels and trim in a rich gold colour; it had also been embroided with the college arms. I wondered about sitting on this, spreading my white fur over its rich purple surface. But, being a cat, I didn’t have these thoughts for long, and soon was kneading the surface with my claws.

            The time for my appointment came and passed. I started to wonder whether or not I should try and enter the room. It seemed to be the right place and the name S. Moriarty was painted next to the door, as expected. Here resided the cat who lead a mysterious double life: literary agent and university lecturer. I wondered about breaking and entering, but decided this probably wasn’t the best way to make a good impression.

            Some noise behind the wooden panelling assuaged the apprehensive feelings. Eventually the door creaked open and a number of student cats strolled out. They seemed to be sporting different kinds of hats and carried books in knapsacks strung over their shoulders. A few glanced at me without interest as they sauntered down into the gloom. One, a pedigree Siamese, stopped and began to spark up a cigarette before a booming voice behind him halted him in his tracks.

            ‘Not here, Master Greatorix. I suggest you withhold from satisfying your addictions until you are outside,’ spoke a moderately sized, chocolate brown-coloured Burmese, sporting a black collar.

            At this, Greatorix gave a louche shrug and slunk off down the stairs, following the others. Then the Burmese turned to me. ‘Ah, you must be the author from Dorset! Do come in…’

            I followed the tail into the room, watching it jump onto a comfy looking armchair near the fireplace. I jumped when I heard the door behind me click closed, but before I’d had time to work out how that had happened (a series of counterweights, it turned out), the Burmese was gesturing to the opposite chair.

            ‘Introductions, first! Well my name is Smilodon,’ he said.

            ‘Smilodon?’ I queried.

            ‘Yes. My Slave named me after a formidable and indeed celebrated extinct katze cat, more commonly known as a sabre-tooth tiger.’

            ‘Oh, right. My Slave named me after–‘

            ‘And I’m extremely fröhlich pleased you are here. I thought the novel was fantastic,’ Smilodon interrupted.

            I looked at the slightly pinched features, thrown by the interruption, and wondering what to say next. ‘Right–,’ I started eventually.

            ‘It is lustig funny isn’t it,’ he again interrupted. ‘These rooms are those occupied by my Slave in the other world we regularly inhabit. We are such creatures of habit. I just wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.’

            ‘I find–,’ I began again, only to be thwarted once more.

            ‘My Slave, the Deutscher German scholar Professor Moriarty, is such a fusspot. Has me on this special food. Well, the thing is I like exploring. Which takes me across the rooftops, into students’ rooms. And the treats on offer, let me tell you. But yes, ate a few too many of the wrong things. Had to make a trip to that green-gowned fellow you refer to… when was it, in teil chapter 7?’

            I stammered for a second, the German words which he instantly translated jarring my thoughts. ‘J-j-just before–,’ I started.

            ‘So, the book was Wunderschön wonderful! You see we have a little issue here, in Trinity. With a ghost. And given your experience, I was wondering if you could help?’ With this question, Smilodon finally stopped speaking and looked at me.

            ‘I’m a writer. I make this stuff up. From my head. I don’t actually have any experience exorcising spirits.’

            ‘I know, I know… And I’m sure this book is going to be a hit. But would you mind awfully?’ he asked, looking distractedly at one of his bookcases, which I noticed was bulging with tomes.



            Of course, since this moment, I have had countless requests for the same thing. From readers who, to put it delicately, have difficulty separating my fiction from real life. People who actually think I am the protagonist of my novels and can achieve the same lofty feats. In a similar manner to Conan Doyle receiving requests about unsolved crimes because people thought he was actually Holmes, I suspect. Incidentally, that Smilodon's Slave is a J. Moriarty is pure coincidence – these things can happen in literature, just as they can in life.

            So, being somewhat naïve, at the time, I was completely thrown by Smilodon’s request. I’d come expecting to talk about literature, potentially procuring an agent, and now I was being expected to try and perform some kind of exorcism? From my research about ghosts, I knew that some could be dangerous, particularly when they crossed multiple dimensions – the energy required to do that alone could be released suddenly with catastrophic effect.

            ‘I’m not sure this is such a good idea,’ I suggested.

            ‘Oh, come now, what harm can possibly be done?’ Smilodon replied.

            The clock outside then struck, its note reverberating around the court outside as it marked the half hour.

            ‘Zeit! Gosh, is that the time?’ Smilodon asked. ‘We’re going to be late.’

            ‘Late for an exorcism?’ I asked.

            ‘No, don’t be silly. Late for dinner! I assume you’ll accompany me to high table? We can deal with all that ghost nonsense later.’

            ‘Probably best on a full stomach?’ I suggested wryly.

            ‘Natürlich! Naturally!’



            High table was in the great hall I’d passed earlier, peeking in through the open doorway as cats rushed around with silver platters. I hadn’t expected I would be returning there to dine a few hours later. In the Master’s lodge for pre-dinner drinks, Smilodon furnished me with a gown, explaining, ‘You’ll need one of these for abendessen dinner.’ It was a ropy old thing, that reeked of cigar smoke and marked me out as a visitor to the college.

            As glasses of sparkling Kefir, a kind of fermented milk, were passed around, Smilodon helpfully introduced me to the older dons as ‘The Exorcist’. This seemed to garner a certain amount of interest, until I explained I was a writer, their curiosity waning somewhat.

            ‘But you are going to help us out with the little problem in New court?’ asked a grizzled old Tomcat called Confucius, all grey whiskers and jowls.

            ‘I’ll try my best,’ I said. ‘Might need a few more of these first,’ I quipped, gesturing at the Kefir.

            ‘Ah, a fortifier. Good stuff,’ drawled Confucius, before turning to speak to another member of the college about what sounded like the perennial problem of lighting the avenue, wherever that was.

            At the toll of a bell, we were ushered into the great hall. Large portraits of cats adorned the walls, standing proud like lions. Their likenesses had been captured in their finest poses, their intimidating immortal gazes passing over the heads of the less worthy below. Beneath the raised daïs, rows of the student cats sat, all respectfully silent as we entered.

            We then stood for a while as some words of the old language were muttered by an ancient grey cat at the top of the table, who barely seemed able to move. When this was done I settled down next to Smilodon, only to be instantly confused by the cutlery on the table. I was used to eating out of a bowl – the idea of incorporating implements into this necessary, albeit pleasurable, function had always seemed to me unnecessary - seemed too much like cats mimicking their Slaves. But, rather than make a show, I tried my best to carve up the starter of pigeon stuffed with quail, which I’d been deftly served.

            ‘Schau mal ober, see up there?’ asked Smilodon, raising his paw to the high rafters of the vaulted ceiling.

            I turned away from the bird which I had by now badly butchered and of which I had failed to consume a morsel. Eventually, following Smilodon’s gesture, my eyes lit upon a wooden duck: a mallard, attached to the one of the rafters, high above.

            ‘Looks like a duck,’ I said, squinting. ‘How did it get up there?’ I asked. Even for a cat, the distance between the rafters would be too much to jump, the walls either side too sheer to climb without assistance.

            ‘No-one knows. But the interesting thing is, die Ente, the duck, moves around from time to time.’

            ‘It really is a long way up. I wouldn’t trust my paws up there…’

            ‘Nicht viele, Not many would. It is, you’ll understand, unforgivable to be caught climbing up there. But yet the students move it around as a joke.’

            ‘Hilarious,’ I replied.

            ‘Ich glaube, I believe those who have moved it are inculcated into a special society. A snub against the college’s rules perhaps.’

            Out conversation was interrupted by one of the waiting staff. I watched the carcass of my butchered starter being removed, along with its requisite set of silver, with a sense of relief.

            ‘Komische…The odd thing is that the wooden bird up has its own rules of physics. I’m not sure I can describe it as well as some of my peers. I’m just a German scholar. But that duck seems to be an anchor point between the human and feline universes,’ Smilodon continued.

            ‘So when the duck moves there…’

            ‘It also moves here. Some boffin’s idea: one of the brighter students is reputed to have come up with the correct scientific formula. Clever trick, eh?’

            Thinking of this trick, I thought of that which I was expected to perform in this place called New Court. I was forced to reject the vintages which were being served, much to my regret. Whatever it was I’d got myself into here, I needed a clear head, not one fogged with the heady effects of my chosen poison.

            The rest of the dinner passed in something of a blur, perhaps on account of my nervousness regarding the after dinner activities. I suppose it was, in human parlance, a bit like having to do a speech, traditionally left until after dinner, so it is difficult to enjoy either food and wine on offer until this is done. The fish course passed by and I managed to lick morsels off the odd-shaped knife with which I was provided. And then the desert – some kind of creamy sweet thing – I barely touched.

            I do have some recollection of Smilodon asking me queries about the book: my book. But it seemed these were more for the benefit of my elderly neighbour who held a large metal cone to his ear, a so-called ‘ear trumpet’, to aid his hearing. I wondered if this codger even had a human Slave, or whether he spent all his time here, ensconced in this Ivory Tower. At least I didn’t stand a chance of such a fate happening to me.

            Soon another noise, this time a large gong, signalled dinner was over. As before, some more of the old language was muttered by one of the dons, which I tried to make sense of but couldn’t. Although this seemed a rushed job compared to the previous effort, as if they were eager to leave. Beside me, Smilodon nodded sagely, as if understanding every word, dabbing his whiskers delicately with a napkin.

            ‘And jetzt now we must return from whence we came, leave this student rabble to it,’ Smilodon explained. ‘It’ll take them a while to get out – the Meister master, the decrepit old bugger, is leading the charge to the after dinner drinks. So it’ll be less of a charge, more of a funereal dirge. This way,’ he said, hopping off the daïs, and walking confidently between the rows of students, tail raised high. A number raised their paws in greeting – he was clearly a well-liked member of college.

            I followed Smilodon out of the great hall, down some more stone steps to the court where I’d met him a few hours previously. Then we wound our way across the flagstones and through the cloisters into a vaguely square court, with an architecture that struck me as a mixture of human styles: some of which they refer to as Tudor, some Gothic. Crenellations adorned the tops of the sandy coloured blocks, with towers in each corner of the enclosure. And in the centre was a circle of grass, much of which was occupied by an expansive chestnut tree.

            I was led to one of the towers, up a few flights of a spiral staircase to a room, dimly lit by the outside light. Another cat stood there in the gloom – a priest of Bastet, who seemed to know Smilodon and had been expecting us. I was introduced to this beatific, peaceful figure, who went by the unlikely name of Tigger. (As an aside, this happens a lot in the cat world – our given names reflect our Slaves rather than our temperament. Although I am pretty content with mine.)

            I immediately sensed something wasn’t right in that room. I could see a tormented soul, locked in the substance of a universe parallel to ours. What was odd, however, was that the figure seemed to be human. As if something terrible had happened here to that person.

            ‘Do you know anything about this spirit?’ I asked Tigger.

            ‘Only what I overheard from my Human Slave, another member of college in the human world,’ the priest replied, his soft tones reassuring. 
            ‘This spirit is in torment. I’m not sure what I can do – it seems as if they are trapped between places,’ I remarked, gravely.

            ‘The spirit… She disappeared one day last term. No-one knew where. Her name was Charlotte.’

            ‘You mean is. She is still very much alive,’ I explained. ‘Somehow, she’s managed to her herself stuck. I scratched at the surface of spacetime, which roused the spirit into action. She sang at us, bitterly, angrily, before retreating. But in doing so, she’d revealed something to me: I’d seen the defect through which she had fallen.

            Now, attempting to wrangle spirits isn’t for the faint hearted. What I did next was not something I do regularly: the energy it takes out of me, the emotional cost is far too much. Such things are better left to professionals, rather than amateur dabblers like me.

            I flung myself again at the ghost of Charlotte, feeling spacetime warping again as I scratched at the defect between the worlds. There was a sucking sound and I suddenly felt myself falling. At the same time, I watched the spirit of the human female change into smoke and lengthen, her face one of confusion and shock. The smoke was sucked away, extracted from this plane of existence, her form returning to her own world, where she would once again take corporeal form.

            Then, when I tried to return, something had changed. I felt myself being pulled into this odd bubble universe between ours, and scratched with all my strength at the fabric of our universe. For a moment I felt like I was going under, destined to haunt students like Charlotte before me. But then, summoning all my strength, some field somewhere finally snapped and with a burst of light, I was flung across the room, crashing into the wall beyond and dislodging a picture frame which hung there. As I landed on the floor, the frame followed, but I darted out of its way just in time – as it hit the deck, both wooden frame and the pane of glass within splintered, large chunks of the structure embedding themselves in the wooden floorboards.

            Smilodon and Tigger stared at me aghast. It was only later, when I found a mirror, that I realised how dreadful I looked. My fur had been singed and my soft cream coloured fur was blackened. As was much of the room, its pristine white walls now bearing large smudges of black.

            ‘Well, I think I need to go home now,’ I muttered, staggering for the door.

            ‘That was… beyond the call of duty,’ Smilodon said, humbly. ‘I only wanted you to confirm the presence of the spirit. You know, like the character in your books does.’

            ‘Right… Well, anyway, I’ve had enough of this. I’m a cat and a writer, not some kind of performing monkey,’ I spoke bitterly.

            And with that, I left Smilodon behind, heading across the courts and back outside the college to All Saints Passage. Soon I was back in Bournemouth, my Slaves fussing over me, as they wondered what the heck had happened to their cat. Luckily, much of the burns were superficial, my undercoat spared, so the sooty stuff brushed out. I let them pamper me.



***



            A week or so later, I received a message from Smilodon. He apologised for what had happened, and assured me if I would still consider to let him represent me, he wouldn’t mess around with the spirit world any more. As a postscript, he also told me that Charlotte, the human I had managed to release from the limbo universe, was now back at college and studying. The police had interviewed her on a few occasions, trying to work out what had happened the weeks she’d been absent, but she couldn’t remember anything. Her boyfriend, who had been held under suspicion of murder, was eventually released from custody. In the years since, I gather Charlotte’s studies went well and she eventually graduated with a first in Anglo-Saxon.

            I kept Smilodon hanging on few a few more weeks, before I finally agreed to his terms. The next time I returned to Cambridge, his tone remained as humble as in the letter he’d sent. He took me to a fine restaurant on Midsummer common, where the Cambridge Caterati usually hung out. And thereafter, not only did I call him my agent, but we also became great friends.
            That fateful night was not mentioned again, until I felt compelled to use the events in one of my novels - with a fictional slant of course, a roman à clef if you like. Perhaps what you read above is the real thing, or perhaps it is my fictional account of what transpired – my memories have been so warped by the fiction I created around them, I can no longer remember the truth. Nevertheless, when I presented him with this manuscript, we had what you might call an interesting conversation.


END



Where to next?

The Cat will return soon. But you can check out all his previous adventures here: 

Friday, 31 August 2018

Blind Mice

Artwork by Zwutschk


            There are a number of ways to approach Cambridge: a vast network of ancient portals extends beneath the city. These pop up into hidden pockets around town. Some are to be found within public houses, others within college walls, sometimes they are even rumoured to terminate in the dons’ rooms. Many of these portals are for those in the know, the privileged, the elite. But for the layfeline, that is the likes of you and me, the most common way into town is via All Saint’s garden.

            During the week, this is a tranquil, triangular space, dotted with trees and benches; at weekends, it transforms into an arts and crafts market, filled with cats selling their wares. The location of this portal is pretty central, and was close to where I wanted to be: Trinity college Cambridge. In fact, the college’s great gate is only a few foot pads up the road.

            The Cambridge in our home universe is a bit different to that found in the universe we share with humans. Many of the edifices still exist, having been built by humans years before. But in this universe, there are no longer any humans to speak of – in fact, this world was empty of almost all life when we discovered it. Across the spread of the multiple layered universes, this phenomenon has been encountered a few times. As yet, no-one understands why.

            So, the buildings in this feline version of Cambridge share many similarities, although a number have fallen into parlous states. To my left, the walls of the once proud Whewell’s court were crumbling into dust, large cracks exposing overgrown gardens and rooms beyond. This isn’t to say that us cats don’t build anything new. These human buildings in the centre of town have been roughly kept as they were when we found them. In the distance, just visible in the sky between the façades of Trinity and John’s colleges, were the tapering curling pastel purple and green towers of something new. As these ascended into the empyrean, delicate wisps of cloud floated nearby, giving the impression they were an extension of these constructions. Dreaming Spires - you see, in this universe, we like to embody a metaphor in reality.

            I crossed the street, where I was almost run over by a number of maniacal student cats of bicycles. Once the chorus of annoyed bells had petered out, I paused outside Trinity great gate, looking up at the statue perched above the arch in the gothic entrance. Where once a human king had stood proud, now there was an effigy of the famous booted cat, holding a wooden chair leg as his staff. If I squinted, I could just about see the shape of the human king bleeding through into this reality, although maybe it was just my imagination.

            As I was contemplating this, a few gowned, bespectacled dons burst from the gate, speaking the ancient feline language, words of which I’d heard The Architect mutter occasionally. Hearing this ancient tongue flicked a switch inside me: the ghost-like shapes of the other worlds were instantly visible, as if precipitated by these archaic words. Amongst the felines, I saw the spectral shapes of human figures in their world, stepping across the threshold of the college, clustered in small groups as they caught up after lunch.

            I knew I should go in, but for some reason something stopped me. I considered the letter in the bag strapped to my belly, which contained within the invitation to this place, to meet a cat – someone who said they could help me with my book. But I suddenly felt a sense of misgiving. I felt alien to the students on their bikes and the dons in their gowns. Was I part of this world, a little cat from Bournemouth? I felt as if I wasn’t ready for this.

            I found myself moving away from the college, walking past a rank of public houses, already filled to the brim with revelling student felines. Numerous pints of the white stuff were being consumed, the slightly sour taste of certain varieties reaching my nose. I was tempted to dive in, knock back a few pints myself, and perhaps if the place hadn’t been so full I would have. Instead I wandered up to the river, and sat on the banks, watching the punts go by.

            The cats who were controlling the punts were big burly brutes, more weight than muscle. They guided the wooden boats by means of a large stick, the same stick which propelled them forward, pushed deep into the murky depths of the river. The pilots of these vessels reminded me of The Architect - in fact I became convinced that one of them was indeed my friend himself, when the creature winked at me as he passed, his cargo a swarming mass of fur. I waved but then he was gone, born away on the current, up past Magdalene college.

            I sat for some time, watching the traffic. There seemed no rhyme or reason to this – cats sprang on and off the punts when they liked. A few even jumped up onto the bridges, and one or two, having had a few pints of Holstein Freisian, Kefir or even Jersey, didn’t quite make it. There was always a ruckus when this happened, cats meowing in empathy, before the bedraggled creature was eventually landed. Soon, I decided to jump on one myself.

            The punt was called Blind Mice. Which immediately instilled fear into me. The mice were the only inhabitant of this universe when we’d discovered it, and had taken it on themselves to police it against other intruders. When we started arriving in large numbers, this immediately caused problems. The mice then weaponised themselves, being otherwise defenceless against our inherent hunting skills. They struck somewhat randomly, attacking the feline population. But my worries were amplified by my lack of exposure to the world. The mice police were mostly under control.

            I watched the colleges go by, passing under John’s bridge of Sighs, before the backs opened up. Trinity passed on my left, the imposing Wren library’s enormous windows glinting in the afternoon sun. Other Trinity punts passed me by: Wiseman, Harry Lime and Codon. I eventually hopped out near another college called Clare, jumping up onto the bridge. It was adorned with round balls of stone, spaced evenly along its length. One of the balls at the end had a slice taken out of it, like a cake. I sat here for a while, again contemplating the letter.

            The irony of the situation didn’t pass me by. When you are writing a story, your protagonist has to have some kind of conflict. This can be any number of things. The hero of the piece being thwarted by the villain, for example. Or the hero has to rail against the society he has been brought up in to achieve his ends. Some of the latter was a key component of my novel The Shadow Murder, which had brought me to this place. And in doing so, created a conflict within myself.

            As I sat there, I realised there were two options open to me. The first was to go home and spend the rest of my days slowly getting fat on the gourmet food my Slaves gave me. In other words, shy away from any conflict and make my life a form of unreadable prose. Or the other was to actually get a grip and go and meet the cat who had suggested he would be my agent.



To be continued…





More about the cat:

Or: