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Well now, I hope you’re not picking up this book thinking it’s all cute and furry and about sweet little puddycats. If you are thinking that, you should put the book down immediately and go and put on a nappy. Because this is not a sweet little story. It’s a terrifying tale about rough characters and rougher places. It’s scary and spooky, exciting and kooky. Just don’t come crying to me when the whole thing gives you goose bumps, laughing fits, and nightmares about giant rats.
It’s not like I didn’t warn you.
Once upon a time, not that long ago, there was a farm deep in the middle of the countryside. This farm lay in a hollow called Dingleberry Bottom and bordered a great dark forest called The Great Dark Forest. The farm had been abandoned many years before and now its fences were mostly collapsed. Its fields, once grazed by fat dairy cows, were overgrown and full of weeds. The main gate hung at a strange angle from just one hinge and, in the night when the wind blew, its eerie creaks echoed across the yard.
Cripes, what a sight! If you or I had looked at this farm we might have thought, ‘Goodness, what a desolate, dilapidated and downright decrepit dead-dairy dump.’ At least I’d have thought that, because I’m learning lots of long words and I’m up to ‘D’ in the dictionary. But maybe you’re ahead of me? Maybe you’d have thought, ‘Far out, that flipping farm is fairly forlorn, fully forgotten and frankly forever forsaken.’ And that would have been a fair conclusion. But it would have been a wrong one. Because on this farm lived three cats.
How the cats came to live on the farm is another adventure altogether. What I will tell you is that there had once been four cats living on the farm: a big ginger cat called Ginger (think you can remember that?), an athletic black cat called Tuck, a mild and mellow old mouser called Major, and a rather precious and very furry cat called Minnie. Don’t worry, you’ll get to meet them all in good time, and then you’ll learn who is who. At least, you’ll get to meet three of them but, alas, you will not meet Major. For cool, calm, collected Major departed for Purrvana before this story begins. This, I suppose, was a happy ending for him, because Purrvana is the lovely place where dead cats go to await the ones they love. And who did Major love? Major loved Ginger. But whilst many gruesome, gruelling and grievous things were yet to happen to Ginger, at the start of this story she was still very much alive.
Ginger was an extremely experienced cat. She’d travelled all over the world and wherever she’d travelled she’d had adventures. She’d chopped chillies with children in the chillier parts of Chile. She’d played a pongy bongo wrongly in the Congo. She’d used a loudhailer to bail a whaler in Venezuela, and she’d had a seizure of amnesia in breezy Indonesia. She’d even been a world-famous street fighter. In fact, when she wasn’t pining for her lost love Major, or counting all her bellies (she had a total of six), Ginger spent a lot of her time being amazed at how clever and experienced she was. The trouble was, as well as making her a bit arrogant, this also made her think of all the adventures she was now missing out on. Ginger liked life on the farm—most of the time—but it was rather quiet and boring for such an adventurous cat as herself. Unfortunately, for reasons which will soon become clear, she felt she couldn’t leave.
Tuck, on the other hand, absolutely loved living on the farm. He was a very handsome black cat and could run faster than any other cat you’ve ever seen in your life anywhere in the world ever. As a result, he was an amazing hunter. Tuck’s ability to catch food had helped him and Ginger survive previous adventures and—no matter what Ginger might say—it was thanks to his talents that the two cats had once crossed the Great Dark Forest and arrived at the farm in the first place.
Unfortunately, though, Tuck wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box, if you know what I mean. For example, Tuck was convinced he’d been to the moon, although because he couldn’t spell, he normally thought, ‘Woww, I’ve beeeen to the moooon.’ Also, it has to be said, Tuck (with all due respect) was the biggest scaredy-cat you’ve ever met. He would have loved to have been a brave hero, but he was afraid of his own shadow, afraid of the dark, and even afraid of his own poo (really!). Tuck believed in King Rat, the Bogeyman and the Cookie Monster and he was terrified of all three of them.
Nowzen, Tuck’s girlfriend, Minnie, couldn’t have been more different, either in looks or in personality. Whereas Tuck was a model of manly monochrome magnificence, Minnie was a crazy confusion of all the colours a cat can be. Her mixed cultural heritage was reflected in the countless tones of her extremely long hair. If you met Minnie in the mall you might think, ‘Far out sister, that’s one brave choice of highlights!’ unless of course you were thinking, ‘Goodness, what inappropriately long hair!!!’ For Minnie’s fur did lead to a lot of exclamation marks. It was long all over, not only on her body, but also coming out of her ears, protruding from between her toes and sticking out all along her tail. And don’t start me on the length of her whiskers. They were so long they drooped, so long they—No, I said don’t start me!
Minnie had four favourite things she loved to do, and the most favourite of all of these in the world ever was eating. Oh boy, was this a cat that liked a snack! Minnie didn’t just eat all the normal things cats like to eat, like fish and milk and cream and cat food. Oh confusing culinary concoctions, no! Minnie liked to eat anyfink. At least anyfink which could be eaten, plus a few extra things besides. She liked lime leaves and liquorice, peanuts and periwinkles, eels and erasers and, once, she even ate a piece of Tuck’s tail, but we won’t go into that.
Minnie’s second most favourite thing to do in the world ever was watching television. The farmhouse had no front wall left and gaped open to the elements like a doll’s house. But what it did have, amongst the dusty and dirty furniture on its open-fronted second storey, was an ancient black-and-white television. Oh, how Minnie loved that television! You didn’t want to get between her and the screen when the Press Paws Network was showing I’m A Cougar, Get Me Out Of Here, or if Cattyday Night Live was on the Feline Broadcatting Company. But most of all, you didn’t want to make a sound when Minnie was watching Kitten’s Got Talent. For Kitten’s Got Talent was the highpoint of Minnie’s week. Oh, how she loved that show! She would watch it avidly, shuddering her bottom jaw at the screen and pointing out all the performers’ mistakes. In fact, the nights on which Minnie watched Kitten’s Got Talent were the quietest on the farm. Can you imagine the scene? The only noise or light for miles around coming from a black-and-white screen flickering high in the open-fronted farmhouse, making the ferrets flee and the weasels worry and the bunnies in the fields wonder what was on the sports channel.
Minnie’s third most favourite thing to do in the world ever was taking care of her long and lustrous fur. She plaited it and braided it and cleaned it and licked it and flattened it and admired it all day long (when she wasn’t sleeping or eating or watching television). It was extremely unlikely that Minnie was a princess, for she had been born under a house in a horribly rough town, but that didn’t stop her behaving like one when she was doing her hair.
‘Ooh, Tucky,’ she might miaow in a very girly tone, ‘I want some mossy mouse mousse to muss up my messy mane.’
Or, ‘Tuck, darl, run and fetch me a pine cone to use as a curler.’
Or, ‘Tuck, baby, I need a bit of broken mirror to check out this weave.’
It was, ‘I want this,’ and, ‘I want that,’ all day long.
And Minnie’s fourth most favourite thing in the world to do ever was sleeping. And why did she love to sleep? Minnie loved to sleep because she loved to dream. It was the same dream every time she slept: a dream of herself as an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment superstar. Fame! Glory! Mirrors with light bulbs around them! Sometimes Minnie dreamed so hard she sang and danced in her sleep, imagining crowds screaming her name and begging for a pawtograph. Oh, poor Minnie. Every day she awoke to find herself on a dirty, deserted and derelict dairy farm was a dreadful and dreary disappointment.
As you can see, the three cats who lived on the farm each had very different personalities and, as a result, they didn’t always get along. In fact, on the day this story starts, Minnie and Ginger had the most terrible fight. Soon afterwards they forgot all about it, what with all the other craziness going on. Later, however, when they looked back, they realised this fight was the start of all the adventures that followed.
Now, before I tell you about Minnie and Ginger’s big fight, I have to explain to you the importance of the smokehouse. The smokehouse was Ginger’s idea, and she had it during the first winter the cats spent on the farm. Oh dicey icicles, what a terrible time that had been! It was a horribly long and cold winter with deep, deep snow and the cats had all gone very hungry. Tuck might be the best of hunters, but when winter comes and the ground is covered in snow, a black cat is not at an advantage. He knew where the squirrels hid their winter stores, but, being a polite cat, he knew never to touch anyone else’s nuts. So that winter, the poor pussies had to resort to dreadful measures to survive. They took turns licking an old can of cooking oil they found in the barn. They nibbled on a dead bat that had fallen to the floor of the stables. They even lived off the whiff of an oily rag for a few days. But, on other days, there was nothing at all and the cats had to satisfy themselves with sniffing each other’s bums.
‘Next winter,’ Ginger had promised them, when even Minnie was as skinny as a long, thin thingy, ‘we’ll be better prepared.’
As ever, Ginger was true to her word. She realised that every winter would be as bad unless they found a way of preserving some of the food they caught over the warmer months. There was no freezer on the farm, and so the cats couldn’t preserve their food that way. But did you know that smoke, if handled carefully, preserves meat just as well?
Ginger got the idea of what to do from sniffing around the only building on the farm that wasn’t a ruin. It was a small round brick building with a slate-grey roof, and it stood on the edge of the farmyard beside the stables. Ginger could tell by its smell it had once been used for smoking meat and—bingo!—that’s when she had her idea. As soon as spring came, she convinced some hard-rocking fireflies to hold a party over some kindling she’d prepared inside the little building. And boy, did those fireflies like to party! They were mad, bad, and dangerous to glow. They buzzed and shone and sparked until the whole place was smoking. From that day on, the ‘funny, round brick building’ became ‘the smokehouse’, always chuffing away and leaking a thin trail of smoke into the sky. All Ginger had to do after that was make sure every time any of the cats caught some food, there was always a portion put aside and preserved for winter. All through spring and summer the system worked well, but in the last days of autumn, Ginger began to grow suspicious. Every so often, she would hear a noise from inside the smokehouse which sounded like someone moving around in there. Who else would it be, she thought, but Minnie? She could just imagine Minnie mooching for a munch of mouse mortadella, or rustling away a rabbit rarebit. She had even discovered a loose brick in the smokehouse wall. The only trouble was, by the time Ginger had ever trotted her six bellies over and opened the door, there was never anything to see. Nothing, but all the food stored for winter, smoking nicely and sending off a lovely aroma which even she found difficult to resist.
But then, on the day this story starts (which—thank you for your patience—is right now!), Ginger figured she’d caught Minnie red-pawed. Or, as cats like to say, with her head stuck in the cat-food tin.
It was the very last day of autumn, when a cold wind was blowing, and all but the stubbornest leaves had fallen from the trees. Late in the afternoon, Ginger was walking between the smokehouse and the ruined stables when she heard, yet again, a noise from the round brick building. This time there was no doubt about it. That noise was Minnie.
‘Mm, push, two, three, four,’ Ginger heard. ‘Mm, push, six, seven, eight.’
‘Jumping junipers,’ thought Ginger. ‘I’ve caught her at it at last!’
And without a second thought (which is always the better one in my experience), she ran around the building. There, on the other side, she found Minnie, leaning with her two front paws against the warm brick wall.
‘Gotcha!’ shouted Ginger. ‘I knew you were nipping in and nicking num-nums. Just try and deny it!’
‘You what?’ gasped Minnie, who was clearly out of breath. ‘Deny what?’
Well, the innocent look on Minnie’s face would have befuddled almost anyone who thought they’d caught her doing something naughty. Unless, of course, they’d met her before. For, as anyone who has met Minnie will tell you, the wide-eyed innocent look is her speciality: ‘Me? Lick that trifle? Oh no, officer.’ Ginger was unimpressed.
‘You’ve been stealing from the winter stores,’ she growled.
‘How dare you?!’ said Minnie. ‘I haven’t been takin’ any food, akcherly.’
As you will have noticed, Minnie’s spelling became somewhat haphazard when she was upset.
‘Oo put you in charge, any’ow?’ she continued. ‘You’re such an arrogant, ‘orrible old moggy, I’m surprised any of us ever listens to you at all.’
Ginger flicked her tail and stared at Minnie.
‘So what were you doing, then?’ she asked with a gingery smirk on her face. She was looking forward to Minnie trying to talk her way out of this one.
‘I was exercising, innit? Working out. Unlike you, Ginge, I take pride in my appearance. This might surprise you, but I was Miss Junior Slums 2014, the bestest-looking cat in my school.’
‘What surprises me,’ growled Ginger, ‘is that you went to school at all. Do you really expect me to believe you ever do any exercise? Is that the best you can come up with?’
‘Aggh!’ screamed Minnie, with the ‘G’ pronounced. ‘Nag, nag, nag, you make me want to gag, you craggy old scrag-bag. You’re just a sad saggy dag, like a hag in raggedy-drag.’
Across the farmyard, in the open-fronted farmhouse, Tuck was cleaning the television for that night’s viewing of Minnie’s favourite show.
‘Uh-oh,’ he thought, as the noise of the argument reached him. ‘I better go and break that up.’
And he wasn’t wrong. By the time he had taken off his apron, gone downstairs, remembered what he was hurrying off to do, started hurrying again, crossed the farmyard, gone past the stables and remembered where the smokehouse was, Ginger and Minnie were having a proper old catfight, spitting and scratching and tumbling through the windblown leaves in a screaming furry ball.
‘Stop it,’ said Tuck quietly.
He was, after all, a rather unassuming cat. Minnie and Ginger ignored him.
‘That food's for the winter,’ Ginger screeched as she and Minnie tumbled past Tuck one way.
‘Please stop it,’ said Tuck a little louder.
But he was drowned out by Minnie snarling, ‘’Oo made you the boss?’ as she and Ginger tumbled back the other way.
‘Stop it now!’ Tuck said a little louder still.
‘I could be off travelling and having adventures if I didn’t have to make sure your ugly face got fed over winter,’ Ginger spat as she and Minnie tumbled back the first way again.
‘I could be a star if I didn’t have to live on this boring farm with boring you and your boring rules,’ miaowed Minnie as she and Ginger tumbled back towards Tuck again.
‘STOP IT!!!’ Tuck yelled.
Well, that surprised all three of them. It wasn’t often you heard Tuck yell anything, let alone in capital letters. Minnie and Ginger stopped fighting and, panting and feeling grotty all over, sat glowering at each other.
‘Enough,’ said Tuck. Then he couldn’t think of anything else to say, so he said ‘Enough,’ again because it had sounded quite good the first time.
‘It’s ‘er fault,’ said Minnie. ‘Accusing me of all sorts.’
But Ginger never finished her sentence. Instead she put her head on one side, pricked up her ears and listened carefully. Then she sat up straight, the wind blowing her fur up from behind as she stared down the overgrown driveway. Tuck followed her stare and gasped. And, then, last of all, Minnie also turned and saw what had left Ginger lost for words.
Old MacDonald had a farm, ee-ay ee-ay oh!
Then Old MacDonald lost an arm, ee-ay, ee-ay, eugh!
With a spurt-spurt here,
And a spurt-spurt there,
Old MacDonald died of blood loss, ee-ay ee—aw, that’s sad.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’ve lost the plot and started making up gruesome versions of nursery rhymes instead. But fear not, dear reader. The plot is still exactly where I left it (unless it’s down the back of the sofa again), and it wasn’t I who changed the nursery rhyme, it was the nasty children who, years before, had lived near the farm. And why did they do this? Because what they described in their horribly insensitive manner was the truth.
The farmer who had once farmed the farm was, indeed, called MacDonald and he was, indeed, old. But he was not old and wise. Oh dimming dementia, no! Old MacDonald was a bit stupid actually, and he believed you could operate farm machinery without taking due precautions. This is how he lost his arm, and it is also—I hasten to add—how he came to die. I’d love to tell you all the gory details, but it’s a long and gruesome tale which we really don’t have time for. You’ll just have to make do with the moral of the story: never keep your phone in a pocket you can only reach with one hand.
Anyhoo, once Old MacDonald died, the farm—as I may have mentioned—fell into wrack and ruin. The old milking shed crumbled and became overgrown with weeds; holes formed in the sides and the roof of the stables, and the farmhouse lost its entire front wall. Only the smokehouse survived intact. No one ever visited, not even the postman. No one ever popped in, for few people knew the farm still existed. And almost no one ever drove by, for the nearest road to the farm was a quiet road with nothing much else of interest on it. In fact, the farm was so incredibly quiet and forlorn that it was easy for a cat living there to forget human beings and cars and cities even existed.
So, can you imagine Minnie and Ginger and Tuck’s surprise as they now watched a very large, high-sided truck driving towards them down the overgrown driveway? At first they stood dumbstruck, failing to believe their eyes. Then they all spoke at the same time.
‘Run!’ miaowed Minnie.
‘Hide!’ hissed Ginger.
‘Mummy!’ squealed Tuck.
Then the three of them bumped into each other as they got confused about which way to run and hide and cry for their mummies.
‘Quick!’ said Minnie. ‘Let’s get inside the smokehouse. Ginger, where’s the key?’
‘I don’t have it on me,’ said Ginger slyly. ‘Maybe there’s another way in?’
‘What about the stables?’ said Tuck. ‘Let’s run in there instead!’
Well, Minnie and Ginger didn’t even respond. Instead they both turned and bolted for the nearest hole in the stables’ wall. The hole was the shape and size of a cat holding a bazooka, and first Ginger and then Minnie jumped through as quickly as they could. But what’s faster than a fat and a fearful cat? An athletic and fearful Tuck, that’s what. He’d got inside the stables so quickly I didn’t even have time to describe it.
‘Ooh, ooh, ooh,’ he said to Ginger and Minnie as they landed either side of him. ‘What if it’s King Rat come to eat us all?’
Ginger rolled her eyes and licked her chest coolly, as if she too hadn’t just bolted in.
‘Tuck,’ she said. ‘King Rat doesn’t exist, and, even if he did, I doubt he’d drive a human-size truck. Come on, let’s go up to the gable window and see what this is all about.’
‘Don’t want to!’ Tuck miaowed sadly. ‘I want to run and hide and be safe.’
‘Safe all alone?’ said Minnie. ‘Good luck with that. We’re going upstairs.’
Aw, bad luck Tuck. The only thing he hated more than Minnie and Ginger fighting was when Minnie and Ginger ganged up on him. He looked around fearfully at the stables and thought they had never looked less safe. High above he could see the huge hole in the roof, and high above that the top of the giant oak tree that stood outside, its branches whipping back and forth in the late autumn wind. All around him, dead leaves rustled in the shadows, like creatures waiting to bite him on the bum. Unsure of what to do, he looked back at Ginger and Minnie and saw they’d started climbing up an old plank to the remains of the attic above.
‘Wait for me!’ he yowled. ‘I want to go up to the gable window and see what this is all about!’
Well, needless to say, Tuck was first to arrive at the little round window built into the wall facing the farmyard. As he stared through it, fearful of how high up he now was, the gigantic human-sized truck pulled up below him. Pumping pistons, it was loud! Chugger, chugger, chugger it went, belching black smoke out its two huge exhaust pipes and vibrating like a giant metal jelly.
‘Ooh,’ said Tuck. ‘It’s so big.’
‘Let me see,’ said Minnie coming up behind him and pushing in on his right for a look through the window.
‘I need to see it too,’ said Ginger, squeezing in on his left to get the best view.
Minnie pushed in harder on the right and Ginger pushed in harder on the left and soon poor Tuck found himself unable to move at all. Which was probably quite fortunate for otherwise he would have soon run away from the horrible sight unfolding in the farmyard below.
‘Ooh, eugh, eek,’ he said. ‘It’s so horrible and ugly!’
Tuck had not seen many humans in his life, so the sight of the tall, pale, skinny man who now climbed out of the giant truck’s cabin was quite a shock to him. As I’m sure it would be to you too if you were used to cute and furry animals about the same size as you.
‘Agh!’ he said. ‘It is King Rat!’
‘Oh shush, Tucky, it’s just a human,’ said Minnie.
‘It’s a man,’ said Ginger, keen to show her expertise. ‘And that is a woman.’
She was talking about the short and dumpy person who was climbing her way down from the driver’s door of the truck, scratching her ribs and, once she’d arrived safely on the ground, rubbing her nose on the sleeve of her pullover.
‘Humans normally find me perfectly adorable,’ said Minnie. ‘Maybe they’ll take me in and love me and let me share their bed.’
‘Ssh,’ said Ginger. ‘Watch.’
For the two humans had opened a door in the trailer behind the truck’s cabin and were now pulling out long pieces of wood. They were clearly chatting and laughing as they did this, but their voices were inaudible over the chugging of the truck’s engine. The wind blew its exhaust fumes towards the stables until the three cats’ noses were full of nothing but its stink. Tuck, with better eyes than either Ginger or Minnie, was fascinated by what he’d seen inside the trailer. For past the pieces of wood, attached to the far wall, he thought he’d seen a row of cages. And for a split second he thought he saw a shadow inside the cage opposite the door. A black shadow with four legs.
Once the humans had taken all the wood, a ladder, and a toolbox out of the truck, they slammed the door shut and started hammering the pieces of wood together into a huge wooden structure. When it got too tall for them to work on from the ground, the man held the ladder for the woman to climb to the very top of the construction so she could bang with a hammer up there too. Thud, thud, thud went the hammer; chug, chug, chug went the big truck’s engine, on and on and on for so long that Tuck began to feel quite sleepy. It was, after all, rather warm and cosy with Ginger on one side and Minnie on the other. He even closed his eyes for a second and thought maybe this wasn’t so scary after all—unless he’d suddenly become extremely brave and no one had thought to tell him. Then he opened his eyes again and was amazed to see the humans had stopped hammering and building and banging and were now unfurling an enormous roll of paper between them. As Tuck watched, the woman climbed the ladder again and stuck the piece of paper to the front of the wooden frame. Then, without so much as a cursory look at the farm, the two humans gave each other a high five, jumped back into the truck, reversed it over the brick-paved farmyard, turned and chug, chug, chugged up the driveway and away towards the road. The silence they left behind them was such a sudden surprise that, for a while, even the leaves forgot to rustle in the wind.
It was ten minutes before Ginger and Minnie dared to leave the stables, and another ten minutes after that before Tuck dared to join them. He found them sitting side by side, staring up at the huge wooden structure the humans had left behind. It was shaped like a flat screen on giant wooden legs.
‘Is it a cinema?’ said Tuck. ‘Just for us?’
‘It’s a billboard,’ said Ginger, her lips moving slowly as she read the human writing.
Tuck asked Minnie what the billboard said, but Minnie was silent for a while before admitting she’d skipped school the day they learned to read as there had been an important beauty contest on. Now, both Tuck and Ginger knew this was a complete lie. Minnie was a very good reader, but she was far too vain to ever wear her glasses. Ginger rolled her eyes, then read aloud what was written on the sign:
Dingleberry Bottom Farm has been acquired on behalf of Pong’s Pet Products
Construction work to start next week
No trespassers, no hawkers, no poppers-in and absolutely no animals!
‘No animals!’ said Tuck. ‘But what about the poor bunnies in the fields?’
‘Bother the bunnies,’ said Minnie. ‘What about us?
‘Ooh, ooh,’ said Tuck, running around in a circle. ‘What about us? What about us!! Ginger, what are we going to do?’
‘What we are not going to do is panic,’ said Ginger calmly. ‘It looks like we’re going to have company, and human company at that. But that could be a good thing.’
‘Hang on!’ said Minnie. ‘Pong’s Pet Products? They make those new Pongs Party Pies for Pets? You know, like the adverts on the telly?’
Much to Ginger and Tuck’s surprise, Minnie burst into song:
‘Put down a Pong pie for your pussy or pooch,
And they will thank you very, very mooch!’
‘Oh, this is fabulous news,’ she said. ‘Humans with pet food. Oh, they’re going to love me so mooch!’
‘But on the other paw,’ said Ginger, narrowing her eyes, ‘it does say “no animals”.’
Well, that shut Minnie up, which at least had the effect of improving Ginger’s mood.
‘Come on,’ said Ginger, ‘let’s get inside. It’s getting dark and there’s nothing we can do about it now.’
‘Getting dark?!’ said Minnie, noticing the fading sky above them. ‘Flippin ‘eck, what’s the time?! Oh no! Oh no, no, no, no. I mustn’t miss Kitten’s Got Talent, not tonight of all bloomin’ nights!’
And with that she ran towards the house, even faster than she’d run for the stables. Oh, Minnie in flight—what a fur-filled and magnificent sight.
Watching her go, Ginger shook her head, sighed and padded back to the smokehouse. But Tuck sat where he was as the evening grew dark around him, staring up at the sign and wondering why a pet food company wouldn’t like animals.
Minnie stared anxiously at the tiny white dot in the middle of the television screen. As I may have mentioned, the television set was pretty ancient and—as you may or may not know—in the old days (when your grandparents were young and everything was in black-and-white), televisions didn’t click on instantly like they do today. Oh woeful wait-times, no! You had to sit around picking your nose until they’d warmed up. Yes, really! And, as there were no cables or satellite dishes; to get a picture you had to keep rearranging the metal aerial that stuck out the top of the television set. Oh yes, you did! If you don’t believe me, ask an old person—quickly before they die.
Bennyway, while the television was warming up, Minnie herself was cooling down. As darkness had fallen, the wind that had blown across the countryside through the Great Dark Forest and into the farm all day had grown even stronger and even colder. Minnie bristled her thick fur and stared at the screen as at last it came to life.
‘That’s right, toms and queens,’ said a voice from the television, ‘you’ll want to make a beeline for this feline, for it’s time to meet the host who can boast the most. Put your paws together because heeeeeeeeeeere’s Mickey!’
The screen blurred as the camera panned across an audience of screaming young cats to the host of Kitten’s Got Talent, a Manx cat called Mickey Manx. Now, Manx cats have ridiculously short tails and are very rare outside the Isle of Man. Maybe it was this exoticism that explained Mickey Manx’s appeal, or maybe it was his perfect grey stripes and his glittering white teeth. He was very popular with a lot of cats, particularly female cats, and especially particularly with female cats who watched television.
‘Hello Mickey,’ Minnie purred under her breath.
‘Hello out there,’ Mickey Manx said to the camera and Minnie felt the same little thrill she felt every week. As if Mickey Manx were talking to no other cat in the world but her.
‘And let’s not forget folks,’ Micky Manx was saying in his dank accent, ‘tonight is a big, big night for some of you out there …’
‘Yes, it is!’ said Minnie.
‘… because tonight’s the night when we—’
Just then a gust of wind blew through the room, bringing with it big crunchy leaves and even a few fair-sized twigs from the oak tree that stood over by the stables. Most of these rattled onto the floor in front of the television set, but one of them smashed into the aerial on top of it. Minnie held her breath as the screen went blank, then exhaled loudly as it came back to life again, although in a furrier and fuzzier version than before.
‘But first,’ Mickey Manx was saying, ‘let’s meet our opening act. All the way from the coast, it’s a trapeze act with a difference, it’s—’
Again the screen went blank. Only this time—as Minnie stared in disbelief—it stayed blank.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever visited the Chinese opera, or set off a car alarm, or put an accordion in a blender, but if you can imagine a combination of all three of those things, then you can imagine the noise which now came out of Minnie.
‘Miiiaaaoooouuuueeeeewwww! Agh! Help!’ she screamed. ‘Tuck, help, help, help!!!’
Tuck was still near the bottom of the driveway staring up at the sign, but when he heard Minnie’s horrendous scream, he bolted for the farmhouse, shot up the stairs and tore into the television room. For although Tuck was a very cowardly cat, he always forgot his fear if others were in danger.
‘What is it?’ he asked Minnie. ‘Are the leaves getting dangerous? Did King Rat decide he does exist after all? Are you having a nervous breakdance?’
‘It’s worse than all them fings combined,’ cried Minnie. ‘The telly’s not working.’
Then, thinking Tuck looked relieved, she started to sob loudly, struggling to speak through her tears.
‘Most important … sniff … night of the year … my big chance … sniff … nobody loves me or ever has … sniff …if only we could get the aerial working … sniff …’
‘I love you,’ said Tuck. ‘You know I do.’
‘Oh good,’ said Minnie, suddenly not crying or sniffing at all. ‘Well ‘urry up and fix the aerial then. C’mon, darl, look lively! Just jump up there, that’s it. Then hold it up, that’s it! Yes! Yes!!!’
As Tuck jumped up and rearranged the aerial, the television screen once again flickered to life. Immediately Minnie was transfixed, the screen’s black-and-white images reflected in her eyes.
‘Can I stop now?’ Tuck asked after a few minutes. He was balanced on three legs, his fourth one hooked around the base of the aerial whilst his tail pushed against it to stop it from toppling.
‘No!’ said Minnie gruffly. ‘Look at this double act, they’re dreadful. I don’t know what they did to their hair stylist but, OMG, the revenge is ‘orrible. Gasp! They’re so off-key!’
Tuck said nothing for another minute or two, listening to the singing from the television below him. Then he said, ‘This isn’t very comfortable, actually. Can I stop please? The wind’s blowing up my bum and it makes me want to sneeze.’
Minnie ignored him. She was giggling at the caterwauls from the Kitten’s Got Talent studio audience as it responded to the act on stage. Suddenly the audience was interrupted by Mickey Manx’s Isle of Man accent.
‘Ho, ho, ho, dearie me, I think that’s a resounding ‘No’ from the audience. I did warn you, they’re a catty bunch! But, anyway folks, this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for. This is the moment when we tell all of you out there in your dull and dreary little world, if you’ll be joining us in the glamorous exciting fun-filled world of show business. Here comes the list. We’re ready to—’
‘Achoo!’ sneezed Tuck.
And then, because he never sneezed once, ‘Achoo! Achoo!’
Tuck heard a strange rattling noise and looked down to see that he’d dropped the aerial onto the floor.
‘NOOOOOO!!! No, Tuck, go back to ‘ow you were, go back to ‘ow you were! Why are you ruining my life?’
‘You have to say “Bless you”,’ said Tuck. ‘It’s only polite.’
‘Fix the furballing aerial, you moron!’ screamed Minnie, which – you have to admit – doesn’t sound like ‘Bless you’ in any language. But then Minnie must have seen something in Tuck’s face, because she quickly said, ‘I mean bless you, bless you, bless you times a thousand. Oh, Tuck, please, you’re not a moron, I am. But please, please, pretty-please with cheese on top, please fix the aerial.’
Well, Tuck might hate being called stupid—or dumb, or an idiot, or a moron—or anything which implied he was nearly as academically ungifted as he really was, but he did also really adore Minnie. So he jumped down from the television set, picked up the aerial in his teeth, and jumped back up again.
‘Even better!’ said Minnie. ‘The picture’s perfect now. Whatever you do, don’t blooming move!’
Bad luck Tuck! Now he had to stand with the aerial clutched between his teeth, looking like a rather tacky cat-shaped aerial you might find in a novelty television accessory store.
‘Oh, oh, oh!’ said Minnie, popping the reading glasses she was normally too vain to wear onto the end of her nose. ‘Sssh!!’
Tuck stared down at her and saw, reflected in her lenses, a long list of writing scrolling on the television screen.
‘Mmf,’ he said, the aerial clutched between his teeth.
‘Ssshhh!’ said Minnie. ‘I’m reading … oh, they’re up to ‘R’ already. Tiddles Ridell, Fluffy Rifferty, Felix Rimmington. Here it comes … wait … YES!!!!! OH MY COD!!! Oh, did you see, did you see?’
Tuck thought Minnie was talking to him, but he wasn’t completely sure. For one thing, there was no way she could expect him to have seen anything on the television screen very well. And, for another, she knew he couldn’t read. And for yet another on top of that, she was dancing around the room, with her glasses fallen to the floor, and leaves flying up into the air around her. Maybe she was having a nervous breakdance after all?
‘Whoopee!’ she was screaming. ‘Woohoo! Oh, Tucky, Tucky, I did it!’
‘Mmf,’ said Tuck, and he said it again and again until at last Minnie calmed down and told him he could drop the aerial now.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said as she danced him around the room, closer to the open front of the house than he was comfortable with. ‘What happened?’
‘Oh, it’s so exciting!’ said Minnie, twirling him around and around, closer and closer to the drop to the farmyard. Then she stopped suddenly, and a strange glow appeared in her eyes.
‘Oh, let’s go and tell Ginger!’ she said. ‘I can’t wait to see the look on her face.’
Without another word she turned on her heels and ran to the top of the staircase.
‘Come on,’ she said mischievously. ‘I want an audience for this.’
Outside the open-fronted farmhouse, the wind was bolder and colder than ever. Tuck realised the heat from the old black-and-white television set had been keeping him warm while he held the aerial for Minnie. He also realised the brightness of the television screen had disguised what an inky-black night it was outside. There was only a slither of moon high above.
‘Ooh, what a nasty night,’ he miaowed after Minnie. ‘Let’s go back inside and be snuggly.’
Minnie turned and narrowed her eyes at him. With the violent wind blowing her fur in all directions, she looked like a tangle of tights in a tumble dryer.
‘Don’t be silly, Tuck,’ she said. ‘It’s only a bit of wind. Let’s go and see if Ginge is in the stables.’
But it wasn’t only a bit of wind; at least, Tuck didn’t think so. For one thing, it was full of all the smells of the Great Dark Forest. It smelled of foxes and wild dogs and snakes and badgers and ferrets and weasels and all sorts of cat-eating monsters. And it was full of leaves and twigs too, not to mention grit, which got into Tuck’s eyes and made them sting. Things weren’t much better when he and Minnie reached the stables, for although there was less wind between the broken stable walls, there were far more leaves and—worst of all—thousands of shadows that danced and leapt as the huge oak tree overhead bent back and forth in the wind.
‘Ginge!’ called Minnie. ‘Ere, Ginge, want to ‘ear somefink exciting?’
But Ginger wasn’t in the stables. Not downstairs in the stalls—which still smelled of horses after all these years—nor upstairs in the creaking attic where she normally liked to sleep at night.
‘Maybe she’s gone to a nightclub,’ said Tuck. ‘Let’s go back to the farmhouse and tell her in the morning.’
‘Nah,’ said Minnie. ‘She’ll be in the barn.’
The barn was the largest building still standing on Dingleberry Bottom Farm. It stood across the farmyard from the stables, but was so riddled with woodworm and damp and damage that it leant backwards at a steep angle, like it was waiting for one good push to topple it over. The cats generally avoided going inside in case it fell over and squashed them.
‘Oh, do we have to go to the barn?’ said Tuck. ‘Isn’t she more likely to be at the smokehouse?’
‘Of course!’ said Minnie. ‘The smokehouse! I’ll bet she’s guarding the blooming stores, marching back and forth with a gun on her shoulder like it’s the crown jewels or somefink. Come on!’
Poor Tuck! He was totally terrified by the storm blowing around them, but had no choice other than to follow Minnie even further away from the farmhouse and into the grassy shadows south of the stables. He’d forgotten about the visit by the humans, and when he saw the huge wooden structure they had left behind, he screamed out loud.
‘It’s a giant monster!’ he yelled. ‘It’s a—
‘Billboard,’ said Minnie. ‘Remember? Try and keep up, darl, you’ll miss the show.’
But when they arrived at the smokehouse, there was no show to be had. For although they both walked all the way around the little brick building, Ginger was nowhere in sight.
‘That’s strange,’ said Tuck, forgetting his fear for a second. ‘Normally I’m out hunting by now, and Ginger always waits for me to bring the food here first. Oh, I’m not supposed to tell you that.’
But Minnie wasn’t listening. She was staring at the smokehouse door with a huge grin on her face.
‘I know where Ginger is,’ she said. ‘Look!’
As we all know, the door to the smokehouse was normally kept tightly locked, but not on this windswept and inky-black night. When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar.
It was Tuck who called this time. He couldn’t explain how he knew it, but he knew something was wrong. It was as if he could smell it, or—he suddenly realised—not smell it.
He walked over and pulled the door open, the noise of its rusty hinges competing with the creaking of the oak tree over the stables. As he did so, there was a gap in the clouds crossing the moon, and both he and Minnie gasped at the moonlit sight which met their eyes.