Mario lay in a long shaft of sunlight on the floor of the music room alcove in Windrush Hall. Using his paws, he pushed himself into a sitting position and gazed out of the French windows to the garden his mistress had created.
Those had been fun times. He’d followed her outside and as she spoke to the men digging in the ground, he chased the insects and the occasional vole they’d disturbed. He didn’t catch any of them. Why should he? They were a game to him, not food. His meals were specially prepared by Françoise, his mistress’s cook, and presented in a gold-rimmed, black porcelain bowl.
He glanced beyond the garden and his thick grey fur stiffened. The woods were there. Dark, with tall trees and strange creatures rooting about in the undergrowth. They were not for the likes of him. Not when he had the entire house to explore and so many rooms to choose where to sleep.
But he was lonely. He always felt dejected and abandoned when his mistress was away. When would she return? Would she return? Everything felt different now.
Nasty Serena had appeared a few days ago, shouting at Benson and Françoise as she filled cardboard boxes. She carried them outside and then she was gone. And he didn’t think he’d see her again.
Not that it mattered. He’d heard her talking on the phone and telling someone that the mistress was planning this, and wanted to build that, but he knew it wasn’t true. And she always shooed him away or roughly picked him up and carried him out of a room. But he would miss sinking his claws into her soft skin.
He felt jubilant as he sat up and lifted a paw to his mouth. He licked it thoughtfully.
He sensed something was wrong. Françoise had stopped making his favourite pate en croute, and Benson had even tried to feed him tinned cat food last night. Not the mashed together indescribable meat kind. The one with chunks of steak nestled in succulent jelly. But he’d refused to eat it. The mistress wasn’t here, but there were still standards to maintain. His standards.
What had happened to his mistress? He missed her warm hand as she stroked the top of his head and her long slender finger as she caressed beneath his chin.
Who had those people been in the dining room? Why had they come when his mistress was away? And why had Benson looked so sad? At least Benson had fed him some fresh chicken, but why was Françoise was in bed?
The door to the music room was flung open and Mrs Finch strode in. He didn’t like her. Where was Esme? She was kind. She never used the noisy vacuum cleaner if he was in a room, and she often smuggled him tasty morsels from the kitchen.
He had been curled up on an armchair in his mistress’s study one evening, before she left him and went away, and Esme had knocked on the door. She’d said something about love and a man. Why had his mistress been angry? She often sang about love in her wonderful, clear voice. Esme had been crying when she left the room and her mistress had forgotten to stroke him and had turned the lights out and left him alone.
He hadn’t seen Esme again. Where was she? And why was this bossy woman, with the harsh voice, shouting at him?
“Get up, you lazy beast. Aren’t there any mice for you to catch?”
Ow. How dare she poke him with her foot? But if she thought that was the way to treat him, she was wrong. He lay back down in the sunlight, but it disappeared as a cloud covered the sun.
“Get up. I’ve a job to do, and I need to finish cleaning this room and get home to Harold to make his dinner. He doesn’t like it if I’m late. Even if I am the only one bringing any money into the house these days. Get up.”
Ow. The second kick had hurt. He jumped up with his fur bristling and hissed at the rude woman.
“Mrs Finch,” said a calm, sedate voice. Benson rarely lost his composure, although he had taken to pacing the dining room recently.
“Mario is allowed to sleep wherever he chooses and do as he wants. After all, he is the reason we are all here. He is, in effect, our employer, so please refrain from using physical gestures and don’t raise your voice. Can I suggest that when he is in a room, you only dust and tidy, and leave the hoovering to another day. I know the noise of the machine worries him.”
Mrs Finch stomped across to a semi-circular mahogany table by the wall and picked up a silver photograph frame of his mistress with Luciano Pavarotti, after they had performed together in Verona. He knew that as she had often picked it up and told him exciting stories about her life in Italy.
“You and your wife treat him like a little prince, feeding him steak and fresh chicken. He eats better than my Harold. And what about this huge house? It’s no place for a cat. What a waste.”
“Even so, Mrs Finch,” replied Benson evenly, “That is the situation, so please follow my instructions.” He quietly left the room and Mrs Finch muttered under her breath.
Mario settled back down as the sunlight returned, but he felt a shape loom over him and a blast of cool air. His fur stood on end again as Mrs Finch flung the patio doors open.
“This room needs a good airing,” she announced before turning on the noisy vacuum cleaner.
Mario screwed up his eyes, trying to ignore the scary machine, but when the silver beast approached, and he felt its power as it sucked him towards it, he leapt up and out of the open patio doors. As he bounded down the gravel path, between the plump green bushes, he heard Mrs Finch’s malicious laugh. He quickened his pace, but it was too quick. The path finished, and he leapt up, high over the pretty white flowers, but he didn’t land on his feet. He rolled down the grassy bank, through a curtain of pink flowers, and came to a crashing stop against something hard.
For several minutes he lay there, panting and refusing to open his huge yellow eyes. He started to notice noises. The quiet chirp of birds, a buzzing above him and somewhere nearby, the rustle of something moving over fallen leaves. But he wasn’t frightened. The noises sounded … natural.
Opening his eyes, Mario found himself within a ring of narrow wooden stems which held up a dome of large, waxy green leaves through which large pink flowers were visible. He felt strangely safe, but also inquisitive.
Pushing his pink nose through the screen of leaves, he looked out into the woods beyond. They weren’t scary now. Sunlight filtered through the tree branches, creating patterns on the brown earth beside him. He stared at a wonderful purple flower whose stem was bent under the weight of its bell-shaped heads. And there were so many of them, stretching away as far as he could see. The brown earth formed a path, and he padded along it between the sea of blooms. A rich-yellow butterfly danced above his head and he lifted his paw to swat it, but it fluttered away above the path. He bounded after it, up the incline, and the purple flowers gave away to moss covered earth and some large plants with triangular shaped fronds.
The huge leaves covered the path and he couldn’t see. He must stop. His foot caught something, a tree root, and he flew into the air. Landing awkwardly on his back, he felt the breath rush from his body. And then he began to topple and roll, and roll, and roll.
Ow! His decent slowed, but sharp-edged stones jagged at his flesh. Splash. The cold water sunk into his confused brain, and he leapt out of the muddy puddle, onto an area of compacted brown earth dotted with chalk stones. A white van was parked beside the wood and he realised a track ran alongside the clearing.
A man, wearing black trousers with many pockets, and a grey polo shirt, emerged from the vehicle holding a stainless steel cup with the smell of stewed milky coffee.
“Look what the cat dragged in?” exclaimed the man, “Or rather you are the cat. What are you doing here?”
He felt the earth vibrate as the man cautiously approached him until he stopped and whistled.
“That’s an expensive collar. You belong to someone wealthy. But who? Nobody lives around here. Have you run away or did someone take you?”
Mario screwed his eyes tightly shut.
“I think whoever owns you would offer a handsome reward to get you back.”
The man’s footsteps retreated and Mario relaxed, but then he heard them return. Without warning, he was scooped up and plonked inside a box, and before he had time to react, the sunlight was blocked out as the lid of the box closed above him. He fell against its cardboard sides as the man roughly picked the box up and carried it. He fell again, painfully, as the box was dropped and pushed onto something hard. The inside of the man’s van?
The van’s engine started, and he was thrown from one side to another. He was moving. The van was moving. Out of the uneven parking area, onto the bumpy track, and then along a smoother road.
He was trapped. A prisoner. And all because of that horrid Mrs Finch. Why didn’t she listen to Benson? Why hadn’t she left him alone? Alone. His mistress could not help him now. There was no point meowing. There was nobody to hear him. He rested his head on his paws and tried to sleep.
The van stopped and started, and drove some more. When they stopped, he heard other boxes or the rustle of plastic packages being moved around and sometimes the man spoke to someone. Someone different each time.
He was thirsty and hungry. But there wouldn’t be any fresh chicken for him today, or even steak in jelly. If pushed, he’d even eat minced up meat. Just to have someone give him something and fill his belly.
The van stopped again and Mario meowed pitifully. Then he howled. He heard the now familiar screech as the rear doors opened and felt the rush of cooler air. It must be getting late. How long had he been inside this box?
“Quiet,” the man hissed.
Mario meowed once more and stopped.
“That’s better. Now I better remove that posh collar. It might be worth a bit. But I need to photograph it first. In case someone is looking for you.”
The man opened the lid of the box and reached inside. Mario batted him with a clawed paw as the man reached towards his neck.
“Ow! Come here, you miserable creature.” With both hands, the man roughly wrestled the collar off Mario.
Mario felt naked without it. And angry. He lept towards the man but he caught the top of the box and crashed to the floor of the van. As he the man’s hands reached towards him, he ran and leapt out of the van. He heard the man howl behind him.
Whoosh. He felt the rush of air and froze as a car passed. Panicking, he ran forward and heard the squeal of brakes. Safety. He needed somewhere safe. A bush. A wood. He’d be safe here. For now.
He stopped, shivering. But what if the man came looking for him? Crawling on his tummy and catching his soft flesh on spiky broken branches, he edged deeper into the wood.
The pungent smell was overpowering. It was like that of the French dishes Françoise liked to cook. Garlic. It came from the white flowers around him. Flowers which gave him no cover, no protection. He bounded across the clearing and into a grassy hollow covered by the fresh green leaves of a small bush.
Panting, he caught his breath and listened.
“Here, pussy, pussy,” he heard the man shout.
He curled up into a tight ball and waited.
He must have fallen asleep again, as it was dark when he woke and looked out.
A bushy tailed fox trotted along a narrow track and stopped, sniffing the air.
Mario remained motionless.
The fox trotted on.
His tummy rumbled. He’d never been so hungry. Would Françoise be fretting about not cooking his tea? Would Benson be searching the grounds of Windrush Hall with his torch, looking for him? But how could they find him? He had no idea where he was. Miles away. His tummy rumbled again. He needed food.
Through the trees, he spotted lights. Lights meant people. Cautiously, he padded along the soft earth path which the fox had used, moving cautiously towards the lights. The path finished at the edge of the woods by a road. The one he had crossed earlier? He waited, but there were no sounds of cars or wavering headlights. In front of him, on the far side of the road, the path and woods continued, but a footpath ran beside the road leading to some houses.
Mario chose the footpath and followed it to the wooden gate of the first house, set back from the road. He sat down, wondering what to do next.
All of a sudden there was a howl and a ball of orange fur threw itself at Mario. He screamed, trying to protect himself, but he was no match for this wily street fighter. He howled as his opponent’s claws tore the skin on his shoulder.
A door opened, and a woman shouted, “Alfie. Stop that.”
The cat hesitated and then swiped at Mario’s face. Just in time, Mario turned away and the two of them tumbled over.
Elsewhere, he heard a girl’s voice shout, “Mum, a cat’s being attacked!”
“Alfie, stop that.” The woman repeated.
Mario felt his opponent stiffen and slowly lift himself off Mario.
Mario felt defeated. He lay on the hard, cold ground.
He felt light running footsteps and a gentle hand stoke his head. The girl he had heard earlier whispered, “Are you alright?”
He could not move.
“Mum, he’s bleeding,” the girl cried.
Shadows fell across him.
“I hope he’s alright,” said the woman. “Poor Alfie thought he was invading his territory.”
“But the cat’s not on your property.” A second woman, with a soft, kind voice, said. “The poor thing was on the pavement when Alfie attacked it, and Tabby is right. It is bleeding. We can’t leave it out here.”
“I’ll pay for the vets, but I can’t have it. Alfie will attack it again. Can you take it to the vet?” The first woman asked.
“Not tonight. It’s nearly the kids’ bedtime, and Jonny is away this week.”
“But Mummy, he can’t stay here. He’s poorly. Please, can I look after him?”
There was silence.
“OK,” the kind woman conceded. “And I’ll take him to the vet’s tomorrow. But we can’t keep him. Despite his dishevelled appearance, he’s been well looked after. His owner will want him back.”
“But if they don’t, can I keep him?” insisted the girl.
“Good.” The girl picked Mario up. Ow! Pain shot through his shoulder, but somehow he didn’t mind. He felt safe in the girl’s arms. He felt her love.
“Come on Smokey Joe. I’ll take care of you.”