|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…
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