|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.
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.
Where to next?
The Cat will return soon. But you can check out all his previous adventures here: