Henry Wowler & the Cat of Christmas Past

Henry Wowler always liked a certain midwinter day when his Oomans fed him turkey, and treats, and gave him a fresh catnip mouse. But he preferred a day which came round a couple of weeks beforehand – a rare day when he could go UP. UP was Henry’s Most Special Place, right at the top of the house, under the roof. The Oomans worked in there sometimes, making it into a store for things they seldom needed but wanted to keep, like Christmas decorations. So they’d given UP a boarded floor covered with worn rugs and odd scraps of carpet, shelves along its sloping sides packed with boxes, books, games and old toys, and piled a great assortment of stuff, from electric drills to Henry’s outgrown cat-basket, on the floor underneath.

To Henry Wowler, UP was a magical kingdom, dark and mysterious despite its skylight window, full of hidden corners where mice might someday nest. Going UP to check for them was a rare treat which only happened when the Oomans decided to go UP themselves. And it was special because he’d made a nice comfy den there so secret that they could never find it, no matter how hard they looked. And so on a certain morning in early December he was excited to hear the tell-tale click of the loft-hatch being opened, a boinging of springs as the ladder unfolded, a creaking of rungs, then the sound of Ooman footsteps crossing the ceiling overhead.

Henry jumped down off the bed and went to watch from the doorway as his She-Ooman backed carefully down the ladder holding a box labelled CHRISTMAS, a string of fairy-lights round her neck and a roll of wrapping paper clamped under her chin. Then he darted past and quickly climbed the ladder.

“Oh no! Don’t do that, Henry Wowler! Oh, you bad cat!” She cried, putting down her load. Then, sighing, She followed him into the loft. Naughtily, Henry hid in the shadows while his Ooman dropped a giant carrier bag of gift-bags down the ladder, hung a sparkly bunch of tinsel over one arm, and collected a last box of trimmings. Then She called, “Henry Wowler? Come on down, there’s a good boy. It’s freezing up here.”

Snug in his thick furry coat, Henry Wowler didn’t care; and determined to stay and carry out his full mouse patrol, he crept behind the chimney-stack into the dark narrow gap beneath the eaves, hidden from view by a rolled-up mattress, and wriggled into the den he’d hollowed out in a heap of paint-spotted dust-sheets. His Ooman poked around uselessly, calling, pleading, growing impatient then angry. Then She stomped down the ladder, cursing Henry for making her leave the hatch open on such a cold day.

Meanwhile he set off happily to inspect UP’s every long-neglected nook and cranny. As usual, he didn’t find any mice; but he did find a big black hairy spider, which ran away when he poked it with his paw. Henry chased it out of the darkness and across the floor, swiping madly with his forepaw as it scurried up some bulky object draped in a dirty old sheet. His claws caught that instead of the spider, and dragged it down to reveal an ugly old mirror leaning against a stack of picture frames. It had a heavy dark frame, carved to look like twisted rope and dotted with woodworm holes, and dull, tarnished glass with big brown freckles where the silver had flaked off. Still, through a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, Henry could make out a dim, ghostly reflection.

“Hello?” he said, putting his face close to the glass, trying to see better. “MC? Is that you- achoo!” The dust, tickling his nose, made him sneeze violently, three, four times; and when Henry looked again, he saw he’d blown clear a circle just the right size for the Mirror-cat to peep through.

“Henry Wowler! How fortuitous!” MC exclaimed happily. “Do come over, my dear fellow. You’re arrived in the very nick of time.”

Henry frowned. “Nick of time for what?”

“No time to explain. Suffice to say you’ll enjoy it.”

The Mirror-cat didn’t sound quite like his normal self, thought Henry Wowler, more like a character from the old talking book his Oomans always listened to at Christmas. Feeling very curious, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and pressed slowly through to the Other Side. He immediately bumped into something warm and soft. “I beg your pardon, Henry Wowler,” it said, “but I felt obliged to stop you lest you step off the plank. For I fear the plaster would not bear your weight, and I should hate to see you fall through the ceiling.”

“Oh, er – thanks.” Henry opened his eyes and gazed round an UP very different to his own. Overhead, instead of neat white insulation boards there were only bare roof slates, with chinks of daylight showing and a cold wind whistling through. Underfoot were only bare wooden joists with strips of black sooty plaster in between, and several rough planks laid over them beside the hatchway. And this UP was completely empty but for cobwebs, wasps’ nests, and a few pieces of junk piled on its bit of makeshift floor – including the mirror, leaning against a wooden crate with a cat-shaped patch of dust missing from its surface.

“Brr.” Henry shivered. A cloud rose from his fur. “Achoo!” He shook himself to get rid of the rest, and sneezed again. “Achoo! Well, I’m not enjoying it so far. Please can we go somewhere else?”

“Yes, indeed,” said MC. “Permit me to conduct you to the parlour. You’ll find it far more agreeable – besides, our presence will be required there very shortly.”

He disappeared through a simple square hole with no trapdoor to close it, and bounced nimbly down a ladder; not a fixed, sturdy ladder like the one Henry was used to, with broad flat rungs and a thick carpet underneath to cushion his landing, but an ordinary stepladder propped on the hatch frame and standing on bare wooden floorboards. In fact the whole room below was very bare, Henry saw, peering nervously down. No carpet, no curtains, no paper on the cracked plaster walls. No cosy radiator, just a little black grate that didn’t look as if it had held a fire in years. No light fittings, even; and nothing in it but dusty suitcases, hat boxes, leather-bound trunks, and baskets and bags of every size and type stacked around the walls – and the Mirror-cat, of course, waiting expectantly.

Henry put a careful paw on the ladder. It wobbled. He gulped. Then gathering all his courage, he skittered down the first three rungs, took a flying leap from the fourth, and landed with a resounding thud on the hard floor.

Downstairs, a door opened. “Marmaduke?” a voice cried. “Master Carrot, is that you? Come here at once, you wicked cat!”

Marmaduke Carrot?” Henry tried not to laugh. “Seriously? Is that what MC really stands for?”

MC nodded. “It does here. Yes, indeed, Marmaduke Carrot, companion and assistant to the Widow Carrot – she’s a medium, you know – and honoured to be at your service, Master Wowler.” He bowed his head politely. “Now we really must go, or we’ll be late.”

Henry followed him out of the lumber-room onto a dark, gloomy landing with sludgy green walls, dark brown woodwork, and waxed floorboards with a strip of dull red carpet running down the middle and on down the stairs, fixed to each one by a shiny brass rod. At the foot of the stairs was a hall with black and white tiles on the floor, a red and white stained glass window in the front door, and six candles burning in a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Its furniture looked very strange to Henry: a coat-stand draped in black cloaks and bonnets next to a big grey wrinkly animal’s foot with enormous toenails, and a walking stick and two umbrellas poking weirdly out of it; a big floppy plant in a green enamelled planter on a spindle-legged stand; a huge wall-mirror with two more candles burning in holders on either side of its heavy oak frame; and lurking in the shadows under the stairs, a very tall clock in a dark wooden case with a long swinging brass pendulum and a very loud tick.

Bing-bong! it said as they passed, making Henry Wowler nearly jump out of his skin and MC exclaim aloud, “Oh, my – quarter to, already!” He speeded up to a trot. “Make haste, Henry Wowler! We must be ready to start on the hour.”

Waiting for them in the parlour doorway was a She-Ooman in a dress of floor-length black silk, with a black lace veil over her bun of silvery hair, and a black lace shawl around her shoulders, pinned with a black jet brooch. “Oh, there you are, Marmey! Thank goodness! I thought you were lost. What a bad pussy you are to worry me so.” She plainly didn’t see Henry Wowler trotting close behind. “I do hope you’ll behave better for the Circle.”

Medium? She looks pretty small for an Ooman to me, thought Henry. And I wonder what a Circle is? Keen to find out, he followed them into another strange room lit by oil-lamps and a crackling fire, the daylight shut out by thick red velvet curtains. Crammed within were a fat cushioned sofa, two matching armchairs and a footstool, a round polished table with six wooden chairs, a massive oak dresser laden with porcelain dogs, blue-patterned crockery, and Toby jugs shaped like little fat Oomans in old-fashioned clothes, a glass-fronted cabinet full of curios and trinkets, a piano with sheet music heaped on the stool, a big gilded concert harp, a music stand, several stands of potted plants, and three tall ornament stands; a stuffed raven stood on one, a crystal ball and a pack of Tarot cards on another, and a glass dome covering a bouquet of flowers made of sea-shells on the third. The carpet was patterned with red roses and the wallpaper with red and cream stripes, largely hidden by paintings in fancy gold frames, brown-tinted photos in silver frames, embroidered samplers in rustic wooden frames, stuffed fish and bright butterflies in glass cases, and colourful pictures made from pressed flowers in all sorts of frames, large and small.

Rather stunned by it all, Henry Wowler sat down on the tufted rag hearth-rug. “Tell me, MC, why’s everything so weird here? Why does your Ooman wear such funny clothes? Why does She have so much stuff? And what’s happened to your voice? You don’t sound like you.”

“Old mirrors show old reflections,” MC replied simply. “I’m afraid I haven’t time to explain more until after the game. Speaking of which, do join in when it starts. You’ll find it highly entertaining, I assure you.”

“But I don’t know how,” protested Henry. “You haven’t even told me what we’re playing!”

“Oh, an easy, teasy game. There are no rules, we just make it up as we go.” The Mirror-cat’s eyes glinted with mischief. “I recommend you sit under the table to begin with, Master Wowler, until you get the gist of how it works.”

Henry Wowler couldn’t imagine what this game might be. Extremely curious, he perched on the back of an armchair, his eyes following the Widow as She bustled about, fussing with the musical instruments, adjusting her chair, and bending to feel the carpet round its feet, all the while glancing over her shoulder as if she felt someone watching. Then She turned the lamps down low and put a screen in front of the fire, making the room very dark. Finally She sat down, breathed out a long breath, and laid her palms flat on the table. Seconds later, much to Henry’s surprise, the piano went plink-plonk and the harp went twing-twang.

“Do we have any evil spirits here among us?” She asked in an odd, high-pitched voice.

A sound came from under the table. Tip-tap!

“Do we have any good spirits among us?”

TAP! said the table.

Nodding in satisfaction, Widow Carrot chanced to look in Henry’s direction at the exact moment he jumped down from the chair and ran to inspect the still-quivering harp-string. She blinked rapidly. “What- what was that? Did I see-? Is there a good spirit present? Ernest, my love, is it you here with me?”

Henry froze. “MC!” he hissed. “She saw me! What shall I do?”

Jingle-jangle-jing! said the doorbell before MC could reply. Footsteps pattered across the tiles as Janey the maid went to answer it. A babble of excited voices broke out as five members of Ethel Carrot’s Spiritualist Circle came into the hall, and began taking off their outdoor things for Janey to hang up.

“Oh my goodness! My ladies!” Forgetting Henry, the Widow leapt to her feet, grabbed MC, tugged a black velvet ribbon from her pocket, and tied it in a bow round his neck. Then leaving him guarding her chair, She went to greet her guests.

“Here come today’s players,” whispered MC as three heavily-veiled figures filed into the parlour. “May I present the Misses Blewitt, Faith, Hope and Charity. Their father Reverend Blewitt doesn’t approve of mediums, so they’re obliged to attend incognito.”

“In-cog-what?”

“Nito. Incognito. Anonymous. Not known,” said MC, when Henry went on looking blank. “So that no-one can see their faces and report them to the Vicar. And now here’s Miss Lavinia Crabtree, whose great-grandfather died at Waterloo. The battle, that is, not the railway station.”

Henry Wowler crept under the table to escape from their long, swishing skirts as a fifth She-Ooman entered, dressed all in black like Widow Carrot.

“Ah,” said MC, “and lastly we have Mrs Victoria Makepeace, named after the Queen, who can’t get over losing her husband, either.”

Bong! The hall clock struck one. “The hour is upon us,” cried Widow Carrot. “Take your seats, Sisters!”

Henry Wowler, crouched under the table, found himself hemmed in by a rustling wall of silk skirts from which wafted a riot of smells he didn’t recognise, although MC could have told him what they were: lavender sachet, carbolic soap, laundry starch, mothballs, button polish, shoe polish for high-buttoned boots, and damp leather footwear, all mixed together with dusty carpet wool. It tickled his nostrils. He rubbed his nose hard with a forepaw, trying desperately not to-

“Achoo!”

“What was that?”

“What was what, Ethel dear?”

“That sound.” Henry froze as Widow Carrot’s face appeared under the table, peered around, frowned at him, then withdrew.

“I didn’t hear anything,” said the other voice. “Did you, Faith?”

“Not I. Or, well, maybe a coal hissing on the fire.”

“Or maybe the spirits are with us already!” Black skirts shook as Widow Makepeace bounced with excitement. “Maybe my Fred’s come at last! Oh, please, Ethel, can we get on and find out?”

“Hush, Vicky dear. Do try to remain calm and receptive.” Widow Carrot settled MC on her lap. “Yes, we should make a start – let’s join hands, Sisters. We meet in this holy Advent season in hopes of communing with the spirits of our dear departed… hopes which will surely be fulfilled today, for I feel blessed with a powerful sense of their presence! So remember, whatever might happen, do not be afraid – and above all, do not break the circle. The circle. Ooh,” she began crooning in unearthly tones, “ooh, yes, the eternal circle of life, death and rebirth, endlessly renew-ooh-oohed.”

“Oow-ow-oooow,” MC crooned along.

“Into our own Circle we invite any and all benign spirits, and from it we banish any and all that are evil.”

Henry Wowler heard a faint rustle, and saw Widow Carrot’s feet poke out from beneath her black hem, and ease off her black velvet slippers.

Are any evil spirits here among us today?”

Her right big toe in its black silk stocking pressed twice on the centre of a red carpet rose.

Tip-tap! Henry Wowler flinched as two raps sounded directly above his head. The Circle let out a chorus of “Oohs.” So did MC. “Oow-ow-oooow,” he yowled.

“No! Heaven be praised! Yet we do have a presence among us, as we have heard and Marmaduke Carrot plainly sees. So tell us, Spirit – are you a good soul?”

Widow’s Carrot’s toe moved again. Henry Wowler looked up, just in time to see a tiny metal hammer, painted black, jerk downward then spring back to strike the underside of the table with a loud, clear Tap! Squinting through the dim light, his cat-eyes made out a thin black wire running from the hammer to the edge of the table, down the leg nearest Widow Carrot’s chair, and across an inch of floor to disappear into the rose. He crept over and sniffed the place. It smelt of Ooman toes. And there was something round – a button? – poking through a little round hole in the carpet. And all of a sudden, Henry Wowler understood the game. It seemed cruel. His tail lashed back and forth. He liked cruel games. And if Oomans could be so easily fooled, he wanted to play Circle with them!

“In that case, Good Spirit, we bid you a hearty welcome! Have you come to speak to any particular person-”

Henry Wowler trod hard on the button. Tap!

Widow Carrot’s foot twitched in alarm. “Er- yes, it appears.”

“Oh!” cried Widow Makepeace. “Is it me? Is it a message from my Fred? Or is this him? Is it darling Freddie himself?”

“Hush, dear! Do leave the talking to me. The poor soul can’t be expected to answer when you molest it with so many questions at once.” Widow Carrot’s left big toe inched towards a red carpet rosebud. “So tell me, Good Spirit: what would you like to say to this particular person?” Her toe pressed the rosebud, again and again.

Twing-twang-twing-twang-twong,said the harp.

“Ah – a musical soul, choosing to speak through an angelic instrument-”

“Oh, no, Ethel!” interrupted Miss Charity Blewitt. “Angels don’t play the concert harp.”

“No, indeed,” Miss Hope agreed. “They’re normally depicted carrying something much smaller, like a Celtic harp. Or a lyre.”

“Yow-owl,” MC added helpfully.

“Be that as it may, a concert harp is still a harp and makes heavenly music!” snapped Widow Carrot.

Henry Wowler picked that moment to rear up high on his haunches, come down fast, and smash both forepaws together, as hard as he could, onto the rosebud. The resulting TWANG! didn’t sound heavenly at all. It made the whole Circle jump, and several cry out in alarm.

“Wow!” yowled MC. “Jolly well played, Master Wowler! A most timely contribution.”

Shocked rigid, Widow Carrot stammered, “H-hold tight, l-ladies! D-don’t break the circle. Our spirit sounds angry… perhaps it didn’t like hearing us argue.”

“Quite. And you started it, Char, interrupting like that,” said Miss Faith. “So perhaps you should apologise to Ethel and our Good Spirit.”

Twing.

“There, see? I was right, it wants you to say sorry,” She finished smugly. “That’s why it spoke softly again.”

“Oh, very well,” said Miss Charity. “I suppose it was rather rude of me. Please accept my humble apologies, Good Spirit – you too, Ethel dear.”

Henry Wowler pressed lightly again on the rosebud. Twing.

Goodness me – apologies accepted all round, by the sound of it,” Widow Carrot said faintly. “So, er, may we continue? We have with us a good, musical soul who speaks to us through the harp and dislikes argument.”

“It can’t be Great-grandpapa then,” sighed Miss Crabtree, “unless the afterlife has improved him. I’m told that in this life he was tone deaf and exceedingly contentious.”

“As I was saying,” resumed Widow Carrot, “does that mean anything to anyone?”

“Well,” Miss Hope began hopefully, “our late Mother adored harp music-”

“Yes!” Widow Makepeace said over her. “My Frederick was a musician, and very mild-mannered.”

“Your Frederick played the trombone, not the harp,” Miss Charity objected.

“He might’ve liked playing brass, but he liked listening to strings. The fiddle, mainly. But he was fond of harps, too. So I’m sure this must be Fred-”

Twing.

Yes! It is him! Oh, my. I feel quite overcome.” Widow Makepeace snatched her hands back from her neighbours, buried her face in them, and burst into noisy tears.

“Oh, you poor dear. I know what you need – a nice cup of hot, sweet tea for the shock,” said Miss Crabtree. “I’ll run and tell Janey to make some.”

A chair slid back and a gap opened up in the skirts. Henry Wowler wandered out and saw Widow Makepeace rocking backwards and forwards, sobbing uncontrollably. On her left sat Miss Faith, hugging her shoulder, patting her knee, and saying, “There, there.” On her right sat Miss Hope, offering fresh handkerchiefs. Opposite them sat a pale-faced Widow Carrot, clutching MC on her lap, staring dumbly at her harp, with Miss Charity beside her, twiddling her thumbs and biting her lip with impatience.

“Bravo, old chap!” MC greeted his appearance. “You play remarkably well for a novice, if you don’t mind me saying. Moves timed to perfection.”

“Thanks. And you were right,” Henry replied, “it’s a good game, I’m enjoying it. So, what happens now?”

Charity Blewitt snapped. “For heaven’s sake! Vicky doesn’t need tea, she needs something stronger. Then perhaps she can pull herself together, and we can get back to the Circle.” Shoving back her chair, She marched off to get brandy and smelling-salts. Unfortunately, on the way, She tripped over Henry Wowler and fell headlong into the table with the Tarot pack and crystal ball. It overturned. The cards scattered harmlessly, but the heavy crystal, flung like a cannonball, crashed into the curio cabinet, sending broken glass and china flying everywhere.

“Ee-ooo-ow!” screeched Henry. Fleeing blindly, he ran smack into a tall, top-heavy plant-stand. It fell over onto the glass dome, shattering it and the sea-shell bouquet, and cracking the glazed planter in half. He made a flying leap for the piano stool to escape the dangerous mess of sharp splinters, shell flowers and soil. The pile of sheet music shifted under his paws. Panicking, scrabbling, he leapt again, dislodging a dozen sheets which wafted to the floor like autumn leaves.

Plink-plink-plonk-plank, said the piano keys he landed on; and plonk-plonk-plank-plink as he moved; and a long, resounding ploooom as he sat down at one end to get his breath back and plan his next move.

Janey and Miss Crabtree returned with the tea things at the very moment the piano began to play itself – not any sort of tune, but a random collection of notes as if an invisible cat was jumping about on the keyboard. They froze in the doorway, gaping. Then with a loud shriek, the maid dropped her loaded tray, threw her long white apron over her face, and scurried away at top speed to lock herself in the laundry-room.

Miss Crabtree’s horrified gaze swung from the piano to the spilt tea steaming from the carpet. For a few seconds she swayed; then her eyes rolled upward, her knees gave way and She fainted, collapsing among the scattered sugar-lumps, saucers and spoons.

The piano fell silent as Henry Wowler stopped prancing to survey the damage and chaos. I can’t believe I did all this by accident, he thought. A delicious naughty feeling, a familiar madness, ran through him. No rules, eh? Then let’s see what I can do on purpose…

Widow Makepeace stopped crying to watch open-mouthed as the parlour came alive, with a great stirring of air as if an invisible demon was racing round in circles, screeching horribly as it went. The fire-screen toppled down onto the hearthrug. The fire-irons fell with a great clatter and clash onto the hearth tiles. A row of Christmas cards, flicked by an unseen tail, sailed off the mantelpiece. The stuffed raven flew one last time as his toppling stand threw him into the air to land in a potted aspidistra, which fell off its plant-stand and broke. Cloths to protect the upholstery from hair-oil crinkled and slid about on the backs of the sofa and armchairs, and dents appeared in their plump cushions. The music stand fell, hit the harp with a loud TWING-TWANG-TWONG and bounced onto the floor. Two china dogs and a particularly ugly Toby jug flew off the dresser and smashed on the wreckage below. Then the Widow stood up and screamed at the top of her voice.

STOP! Oh, please, Fred, please, please stop!”

Henry stopped.

“I know why you’re so angry, and I know it’s all my fault. And I’m so, so, sorry, my darling, and I’ve been so desperate to reach you and tell you how bitterly I regret what I did.”

“What did you do?” Recovering from her faint, Lavinia Crabtree sat up shakily. “What have I missed?”

“I killed my Freddie, same as if I’d murdered him deliberate.”

“Oh, no. No, Vicky dear,” said Miss Faith. “You didn’t kill him! Frederick died naturally. His heart failed.”

“Broke, you mean! With him home alone while I gossiped with the chemist’s wife instead of coming straight back with his medicine! If only I’d done that, he’d still be alive… that’s why he lost his temper, and why all this mess is my fault. I’m terribly sorry, Ethel. I should never have come – but I’ve been praying for a chance to say goodbye, and tell Fred how much I’ll always love and miss him, and beg him to forgive me.”

A sweet, rippling sound filled the room as Henry Wowler drew a gentle claw over the harp-strings.

“Well, dear, there’s your answer.” Ethel Carrot smiled. “Frederick forgives you most willingly – and asks in turn that you forgive, and cease to blame, yourself. Only then can he truly rest, knowing that his beloved wife has peace of mind.”

The Circle left an hour later, babbling with excitement. “Incredible experience… conclusive proof… eye witnesses… report for the newspapers… greatest medium in England… thank you so much, Ethel dearest… goodbye and God bless… Merry Christmas… goodbye!”

While the Widow and Janey, (brave on medicinal brandy), finished clearing up the ruined parlour, the cats crouched on a rag rug in front of the kitchen fire sharing Marmaduke Carrot’s wages, a dish of boiled cod cheeks in cream.

“I always hated those china dogs,” said MC as they sat washing their whiskers afterwards. “I shall be eternally grateful to you, Master Wowler, for ridding me of their silly grinning faces.”

“My pleasure,” said Henry. “Although I never planned to do so much damage. It started by accident when that Ooman fell over me, then the rest- well, you know, it just happened. Things worked out fine in the end though, didn’t they? Everyone seemed happy, in spite of all the cleaning up they had to do.”

MC nodded. “That’s why I play the game. It comforts other Oomans, and makes them feel better when they’re sad. It isn’t all trickery, either – Widow Carrot gives wise advice and She really does have a sixth sense. It’s just not very strong, because She can’t sense Him. Ernest. The Constant Presence.” He rubbed his cheek lovingly against a transparent, faintly glowing hand. “Ernie was devoted to Ethel, and a dear friend to me and Janey, and so happy living with us in this house, that He says Heaven’s right here in His own home and so here’s where He’ll jolly well stay. She’d be overjoyed to hear it, and I’ve tried to tell Her many, many times– alas, thus far to no avail.”

“Well, keep trying.” Henry Wowler looked up at Ernest Carrot, who smiled and stroked his ears with a feather-light touch. “If She believes She brought the spirit of Fred Makepeace here today, maybe She’ll believe She can bring Ernest too. Then they’ll both be comforted, won’t they?”

“Ah, yes. I perceive you grasp the essence of this sacred season, Master Wowler,” MC looked at him approvingly, “as well as of the game. And I feel privileged to have played it with such a natural talent.”

“Likewise,” said Henry. “Although I’m not sure I want to play it again. No… the past has been very interesting to visit, but I think I prefer my own time. And now I think it’s time I went back there. No offence, MC.”

“None taken, dear fellow. Come, then. Let us leave Ernie toasting his slippers by the fire, and I shall escort you back to the looking-glass portal.”

Five minutes later, Henry Wowler bounced thankfully down off his own solid, safe loft-ladder, landing with a dull thud on a soft carpet in a relatively warm, comfortable room. He heaved a sigh of relief, glad to be back here and now, feeling the warm, glowy feeling that for once he’d managed to do something good – if only by accident, and at the same time as doing something bad.

Then his She-Ooman came out of the bedroom next door. “Henry Wowler! At last! You wicked cat,” she softened the words with gentle hands, rubbing the special place on his back, “upstairs feels like a fridge, thanks to you.”

Henry only had time for a last wistful glance before she folded the ladder away, shut the trapdoor tight, and made UP disappear until next time. He sat for a minute picturing Marmaduke Carrot on the Other Side, sitting on the lumber-room’s cold hard floor. And even though cats don’t really celebrate it, he said the words aloud.

“Merry Christmas, MC.”

Straining his big ginger ears, he caught the faint, ghostly reply. “Merry Christmas, Master Wowler! God bless us, every one.”

Amazingly Fat Cat

This week saw our Henry Wowler’s least-favourite day of the year: the day he gets poked about by a stranger then jabbed in the neck. Yes, it’s annual medical time!

We heaved his cat-basket into the van with considerable effort, braced for a scolding about his heaviness; and in the vet’s waiting room I read a poster, ‘How to Tell if Your Cat’s Overweight.’ Can’t feel its ribs? Check. Saggy dewlap? Check. Lack of interest in playing? Check – sort of. As soon as Henry learnt to kill things, he went off toys, although he still enjoys savaging his Christmas catnip mouse, playing ‘knock on the patio window then run away when they open it,’ and chasing the odd leaf or twig round the garden; but on the whole, if it doesn’t bleed, he deems it not worth bothering with. Lazy and lethargic – um, how do you tell with a creature that spends 18 out of 24 hours asleep?

DSCN2654

With Wowler, it depends on the weather, (when it’s fine, he spends more time outdoors doing cat stuff ), and whether anyone’s at home, (Mummy and Daddy-cat’s arrival means dinner, irrespective of how early we finish work – cue for him to wake and start prowling round hassling for food). So no check here – I’d call him averagely active for a cat of his age and temperament. Hesitates before jumping up onto furniture? Check. Mind you, Henry does like to consider the pros and cons – often at some length – before he acts, to avoid any taint of slavish obedience when invited to jump on the bed or onto Mummy-cat’s lap for a cuddle. I’m not sure if that counts as ‘hesitation’ – he’s perfectly capable of jumping without it when the occasion demands, and agile enough to make a standing leap onto the kitchen worktops (attested by the trail of small muddy rosettes I find after rainy nights). And he still has a visible (if substantial) waist, and no problems with flexibility or grooming his hard-to-reach areas. How overweight can he be?

We soon find out – 6.9 kilos! Amazingly, despite receiving exactly the same diet all year – a half-tin of meat and two handfuls of biscuit a day, plus his ration of toothy-bics (ie the dental-care type) – he’s gained 500g since his last weigh-in. Oops. Henry Wowler is, once again, officially Too Heavy; although to my great relief, he hasn’t topped his highest weight of 7.2 kg, recorded three years ago. But despite being a big, solid cat, he should weigh nearer six than seven kilos; so we discuss his intake with the vet, who recommends that I weigh the handfuls and cut back to no more than 30g of dry food per day.

OK. Next morning I duly chuck two heaping handfuls onto the scale, nervously wondering how much we’ve been over-feeding him. It weighs 35g. In other words, the absolute maximum he’d get on the rare days he succeeds in whingeing extra breakfast out of Mummy-cat and conning his bedtime biscuits out of both cat-parents, is a paltry 5g more than the vet’s recommendation. I reduce it to 25g, which looks more like his average daily portion. Phew. I’m delighted that we generally give him less than the recommended 30g – but amazed that, notwithstanding, he’s still managed to put on a pound. How did that happen?

Um. I guiltily recall the odd scraps of Spam or chicken he gets off our plates; doesn’t happen often, but that’ll have to stop – as will giving him any chance to steal scraps I put out for the birds. Plus I suspect he recently went through a phase of pinching a feline neighbour’s food, because he kept coming home in the afternoon looking smug and suspiciously fat, (but still demanding his usual dinner). Luckily, if that was the case, I think the neighbour must’ve got wise and either stopped leaving food outside, or started locking the cat-flap when they feed their own cat. And we can’t control the number of rodents he pogs overnight, (or even necessarily know about it, unless he leaves bloody remnants in the kitchen) – but however good the hunting, it never stops him demanding his full daily ration of cat-food. (Perhaps he thinks mice contain no calories, like chocolate eaten in secret).

Whatever, the upshot for Henry Wowler is no more unscheduled treats, and no more than a measured 25g biscuit and 12 toothy-bics with his meat every day. I’ll also try to make him run about a bit more, (although that only seems to sharpen his appetite). Then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that when we take him to have his teeth cleaned in the New Year, the vet will find our amazingly fat cat has shed a few ounces…

A Happy Gardener

After my abrupt, unplanned career change in September 2017, (from freelance writer, Wars of the Roses interpreter/walk guide, funeral celebrant and general rent-a-gob  to full-time professional gardener), a friend and regular client told me, ‘You’re such a good public speaker, you’re wasted on gardening.’

I was extremely touched by his kind compliment – but explained that, although I’ll always enjoy doing speaking engagements, for many reasons I felt happy to let that part of my career come (largely) to a natural end. And here’s one of them…

I dare say my dear late friend Kate would’ve laughed like a drain (in a sympathetic way) to hear of the travails that preceded her funeral service this morning. As celebrant, I set off early enough to make the 50-odd minute journey to Doncaster’s Rose Hill Crematorium with a good half-hour in hand to compose myself, confirm final arrangements, meet Kate’s guitarist friend, Roy, who’d be playing her in with a heartfelt blues instrumental, and prepare myself in a suitably relaxed, respectful way.

On previous occasions when I – and Roy – have done services at Rose Hill, that’s pretty much what happened. But not today. Today, to my horror, I found the A638 out of Wakefield gridlocked, my lane blocked by a broken-down truck. Instant mega-stress. Map-less, sat-nav-less, (well, I thought I knew where I was going), I was too distracted and panicky to work out the obvious alternative: simply hang a left and take the M62 and A1 South. No, I queued for 20 agonising minutes, wringing my hands and muttering uselessly, ‘Please please please move,’ before I got round the obstruction and back on my road where, police or no police behind me, I floored it. At least, (barring further incident), I knew I’d be there to start the service on time; but as for arriving in a suitably composed and dignified fashion – it was way too late for that.

Unlike on previous occasions, I didn’t take a wrong turn or go to the wrong car-park. Arriving with a quarter-hour to spare, (phew!) it turned out I did have time to greet a few people, go to the loo, get a cup of water, and lay out my orders of service. And, luckily, to check the music running-order, because there’d been a slight mistake which we soon rectified. What I didn’t have, as the minutes ticked on, was a musician… Luckily the unflappable crematorium assistant stopped me having hysterics by substituting a terrific blues track; I was too flustered to mention it at the requisite point in the service, but if you were there and wondered about it, the song was ‘Sad Sad Day’ by Muddy Waters. I hope Kate would have approved.

Meanwhile her cortege had arrived, but still no Roy. So we went with his understudy Muddy, and kept Kate waiting at the gate while we fannied about with the sound system. From that point on, things settled down and resumed their expected order and pace. Then, part-way into the service, someone came in: tall, cowboy hat, dressed all in black. Even without seeing his Facebook photo I’d have recognised Roy – looking like that, he just had to be a musician. I later discovered he’d also been having the morning from hell, including breaking a guitar string shortly before he was due to set off – hence his failure to turn up as planned. He stood considerately at the back while I managed to get through the important bits without my voice breaking. It was a different matter the second I got out of the chapel – I clung onto and blubbed freely over friend, acquaintance and stranger alike if they said a kind word. But the tabby cat who wandered in as we were leaving cheered me up – cat-mad Kate would have liked that. (I hope she would’ve liked the service, too).

Maybe if I hadn’t had such a stressful start to the day I’d have enjoyed going on to Kate’s wake to give her an appropriate send-off (she loved a bevvy, did our Kate). But I was so drained I just Wanted To Go Home in the worst way, so I gave it a miss and headed straight back to Wakefield. And at first the drive was just fine, until I ran up against a new road closure on the A638 at Wragby and had to make a diversion…

I won’t bore you with further details; suffice to say, by the time I reached The Three Houses on Barnsley Road a couple of miles from home, I was screaming with frustration. So the first thing I did when I came in was to raise a very stiff drink to Kate in lieu of going to her wake, and neck it down PDQ; and several hours later, calmed down and half-cut on Hubcap’s Jagermeister, I can laugh – as Kate no doubt would – over these funeral farces. But it wasn’t very funny at the time… my pet hates are being late, stuck in unexpected traffic, and keeping people waiting, especially for something as important as a funeral.

So that’s partly the reason, dear reader, why I’m now such a happy gardener: it doesn’t much matter if I turn up a bit late, and the only thing I have to worry about is the weather.

Henry Hates Firework Nights

Now that Slack-jawed Selfish Morons’ Firework Season (run-up to Hallowe’en, Hallowe’en, run-up to Bonfire Night, Bonfire Night, numerous extra Bonfire Nights for people unable to celebrate on November 5th, run-up to Christmas, Christmas, post-Christmas, run-up to New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve, post-New Year’s Eve, plus random explosions in between times) is in full swing, Henry Wowler has to spend most evenings cowering in his safety box under our bed – and given the propensity of said selfish morons to continue letting off bangers till midnight, we don’t have the heart to evict the poor little chap.

On such occasions, when he eventually feels it’s safe to emerge and wants Mummy-cat to take him downstairs and administer bedtime biscuits, he usually sits at the foot of the bed whispering, ‘Mrrp? Mrrp?’ in a very small voice until I awake. But last night, he mrrped to no avail – both worn-out cat-parents were too fast asleep to hear him; so the first I knew of his wakefulness and desire for attention was when he jumped on the bed, landed on my feet and snuggled down in the space between our legs. I stroked him. He purred. I thought, ‘Aw. This is OK – I can cope if he settles there,’ and went back to sleep (after throwing back the bedspread and sticking one leg out from under the duvet to compensate for the extra heat generated by his large furry presence).

But he didn’t settle there, of course. Night is his time to do cat stuff; so shortly he got up, went out in the pouring rain for a while, then came back upstairs shouting, ‘Wet!’ I ignored him, and- aha! Instead of pestering on to be mopped dry, he dealt with the situation himself, allowing me to doze off again to the slight, soothing sound of a washing cat. But of course the peace didn’t last – soon Henry was wowling again, obliging me to arise before he woke Daddy-cat too, escort him downstairs, give him some fuss, then lure him into the kitchen with the usual biscuit bribe and shut the door firmly behind me.

All this took place between 10.30 pm and 1.40 am; and this, dear reader, is the reason why on normal nights, if Mr Wowler tries to evade the normal nightly routine of being confined to the kitchen by hiding under our bed, he gets prodded out with a longbow…

Feline Friends!

Henry Wowler doesn’t take kindly to strangers on his patch. If visitors are human, his normal response is to hide in his safety box under our bed and sulk until they go home. If they’re feline, he’ll caterwaul terrible songs of hate and retribution at them; and if that doesn’t work, he takes more positive action. Given that he’s twice the size of most of our neighbourhood moggies, seeing the feline equivalent of a Rottweiler (sixteen pounds of spectacularly fuzzed-out Wowler) charging towards them at high speed generally suffices to see them off the premises pretty damn quick – and if that fails, he won’t baulk at resorting to violence.

So it was with some trepidation that I noticed the new kid on the block – a sparky ginger tom-kitten – had taken to exploring our garden. Last week he got stuck on the roof of our wood-box, and was so over-excited, fighty and bitey when I tried to rescue him that I had to don heavy leather gardening gloves in order to pick him up. Yesterday afternoon GK (Ginger Kitten) was back again; and when I went upstairs I was surprised to find Henry sitting on the bedroom window-sill watching him potter about down below. Not fluffed up, or growling, or even lashing his tail – just watching with mild interest, which was extremely unusual.

At tea-time, with Wowler in his customary early-evening position on my lap, the young intruder returned. This time his reaction was what we’ve come to expect: he sat bolt upright, glaring; then dismounted and sat by the patio window, yowling.

“I’m not letting you out, Henry,” said Daddy-cat. “If you want to see him off you’ll have to use your cat-flap.” While Henry thought about this, the undaunted GK came up and inspected him through the glass, then began frolicking around the patio clearly wanting to play. Henry stopped yowling and watched. Intrigued, I took a jingly ball outside and entertained GK with it, wondering if Wowler would follow; but no, he just continued to watch.

I petted GK as he twined round my ankles, then went back indoors. “This is what he smells like,” I said to Henry. He sniffed my hand. Finally, as the kitten went on cavorting, he could stand it no longer. Hubcap and I looked at each other as the cat-flap clicked, expecting the usual mayhem and braced to rescue GK if the Wowler tried to savage him. But to our utter astonishment, he simply strolled up and held out his nose. So did GK. A mutual bottom inspection followed. “They’re greeting!” I gasped. Then came a slight laying back of ears and batting with forepaws; then Henry bounced away with his tail in the air, hotly pursued by the kitten; then the kitten came back into view, hotly pursued by Henry.

Hubcap and I watched entranced. The only other cat Wowler normally tolerates is the ginger tom from three doors down, who we’ve always jokingly referred to as Henry’s dad (as he may well be); but they don’t cosy up or play together, they just hang out in a companionable, blokey sort of way. So this was the first time in six years that we’ve ever seen Henry larking about with another feline, apparently enjoying its company, (admittedly, he did fetch GK one good clip round the ear that elicited a cry of protest, but it was no more than an uppity kitten deserved).

Delighted, I went out to fuss them both, and my amazement was complete when Henry flopped down on his back, giving the full social roll. Playful chasing then continued until Henry, in wild excitement, leapt into Hubcap’s wheelbarrow so forcefully that it overturned and scared him back into the house.

The episode was no fluke or one-off. This morning GK came back, peering in through the patio door obviously looking for his playmate. I let him in, entertained him with a piece of string, then led him to our bedroom where the Wow was asleep on the bed; and when he eventually woke and condescended to notice, another amicable meeting and greeting took place, followed by more outdoor play. It can’t just be down to GK’s youth and smallness – Henry has hated our opposite neighbour’s lovely lavender-grey pair, Boris and Doris, and chased them off with extreme prejudice ever since they were the same age as this little lad. So I can’t help but wonder whether they belong to some secret League of Red-headed Cats – whether Henry recognises GK as a fellow ginge and, like Tormund in Game of Thrones, finds him ‘kissed by fire’ and beautiful.

Whatever, at long last it seems our anti-social Wowler has a real cat-pal – and I’m chuffed to bits!

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Old School Days – and what a night!

If you went to a grammar school between the late 1950’s and early 70’s, the following speech may ring some bells: I had the privilege of delivering it at an amazing event on September 9th, and reproduce it here in the hope of entertaining members of the Final Forms 1A, 1B and 1C at Clee Girls’ Grammar who were unable to make it – as well as anyone else lucky enough to have fond memories of this sort of good old-fashioned education.

Well hello, Clementinas! Who’d have thought it, eh? 45 years later, almost to the day, and here we all are again – a whole classroom full, a third of the entire first year intake of 1972!

This is a very special occasion because we were a very special year – not just because we’re all so awesome, but because we were the last ever First Forms in the 46-year history of Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School.  So I’d like to start by thanking all of you for coming to this Big Reunion, and particularly those of you who made it happen. That’s primarily Carolyn Allison, Linda Dye and Kay Edwards – no offence to spouses, but to save confusion (not least my own) I’m going to stick to maiden names tonight. Those three did a sterling job in tracking so many of us down, although I know most people were able to add at least one contact to our burgeoning virtual First Form – so thanks to you, too. Thanks are also due to Carolyn and Kay for sorting out the venue and payments, to Carole Buckley for organising the music, and everyone who suggested songs for the playlist. I’d also like to say a particularly big personal thank-you to Carolyn for giving me the opportunity to make this speech. As some of you know, I work as a freelance speaker – basically, a gob-for-hire – and few things give me greater pleasure than the sound of my own voice and a captive audience to listen to it! So please charge your glasses for our first toast: Thanks, Everybody!

If I ever hear someone say, ‘Schooldays are the happiest days of your life,’ it’s always my year at the Girls’ Grammar I think of – it was certainly the best and happiest year I ever spent at school. For a swotty kid devoted to Enid Blyton’s Twins at St Clare’s stories, Clee Grammar was hog heaven and I was absolutely thrilled to go there… even though I was scared shitless too, because it all sounded so strict and formal, and I thought everyone except me would be terribly posh. I vividly remember that great long uniform list arriving, and Mum taking me to Lawson & Stockdale in Grimsby to buy everything… then being petrified that the metal eyelets on my plain black lace-up shoes made them too fancy and I’d get sent home! I don’t know whose bright idea it was to dress 400 adolescent girls entirely in petroleum by-products, but I’ll say one thing for that uniform – it was bloody hard-wearing (I still wore that hooded tracksuit top to go jogging when I was well into my twenties).

I also vividly remember my first day in 1A, surnames A to H: there we all were, 26 eleven and twelve year-olds in our white polo-necks and ankle-length navy gymslips turned up with about eighteen inches of hem – plenty of growing room so they’d last us right through to 5th form – with enormous sturdy blue knickers underneath. Dear Miss Hutton of the tweedy suits was our form mistress, and I remember the shock when she wrote that 6-day timetable on the board for us to copy – I thought, ‘God, does that mean we come to school on Saturdays?’ And I remember the first words I ever whispered across the aisle to Carole Buckley in my best attempt at a posh voice: ‘Excuse me, can you tell me what computation is?’ As you may recall, it turned out to be doing sums on those strange contraptions like bus conductors’ ticket machines, something I’d never encountered before – or, indeed, since – and I can’t say I’m sorry that the advent of the pocket calculator very soon rendered them obsolete!

They were such innocent days in a much simpler time, which seems so quaint and antiquated compared with 21st century schools – no such things as computers and smart-screens, classroom assistants, mobile phones or cyber-bullying. No, ours were the days of blackboard and chalk, Quink and fountain pens and blotting paper, slide rules and leather satchels…  Days of discipline and respect, when we expected to leap to our feet whenever a teacher came into the room, to do several hours of homework a night, and deliver it on time – for which we were rewarded by being treated as responsible secondary pupils and trusted to stay in at break times – a wonderful relief after all those junior years of being evicted to the playground! They were the days when we all read the same things: comics like Bunty and Judy, and of course Jackie magazine, poring over the Cathy & Clare problem page to see if it held any answers for us, and trading the free gifts of plastic jewellery and little pots of make-up. Days when we all watched Top of the Pops and the Partridge Family, Blue Peter and Magpie, listened to Ed Stewart and Kid Jensen, and cut out the pictures of favourites like Donny and David, and stuck them inside our desk lids.

Yes, it was an unforgettable year in so many ways. I never admitted to this at the time, but I was thrilled to discover that our science teacher would be one Mr Hunter, who wore a pale blue tweed jacket the same colour as his eyes – I’d had a secret crush on him ever since I saw him conducting a choir at an inter-schools choral performance when I was at Reynolds Street Juniors. So I later felt terribly guilty when I heard that our high-spirited antics – including POCTWA, the Prevention of Cruelty to Worms Association, founded by Debra Gray and Michelle Dobson – drove the poor man into a nervous breakdown. I remember going to our First Form ‘Cowboys & Indians’ themed fancy-dress Christmas party wearing a big black fuzzy fake moustache and dancing to Crocodile Rock – Kim Akrill was there sporting a real gun-belt, and lovely Mrs McCleary the English teacher in a black Stetson hat complete with a Western drawl and a cheroot stuck in the corner of her mouth. Then there was our school concert, when 1A’s song was ‘Lemon Tree,’ accompanied by Carole Buckley on guitar… I still remember the looks of consternation we exchanged as she struck up the first chords and her guitar was out of tune… and, ladies, I have a confession to make: that was My Bad. I’d been standing idly fiddling with her tuning knobs as we waited for our turn to perform. When the implications sank in, I tried desperately to put them back to their original position, but it didn’t quite work… so if we didn’t win I’m afraid it was All My Fault.

I remember hockey in winter, and tennis in summer; the horror of gym in that ghastly towelling jumpsuit, and making the wrap-around skirt to go over it in Needlework – an experience which seems to have left lasting scars on many of us. I remember cookery, which I adored: making scrambled egg in our first lesson, and later various different types of sponge cake, including a rather rubbery Swiss roll. I remember learning the recorder, with all of us sitting there in music class tootling the Skye Boat Song, Greensleeves and Turkey in the Straw – and that lovely occasion in the winter term when we were taken into Grimsby to sing carols with the Salvation Army under the big Christmas tree in St James’ Square. And of course, who could forget the redoubtable Dorothy Vallins, ‘the Dev,’ in her pink and purple check suit trilling to us in assembly that we were ‘la crème de la crème, girls – la crème de la crème!’ Although oddly enough, despite all these vivid memories, I’ve completely forgotten the tune and every word of our school song – so you may be relieved to hear I won’t be leading you in that tonight.

But I do remember many people who can’t be with us tonight, in some cases because they live too far away – and what an irony that Claire Draycott and Wendy Skerratt, who were good friends at school, both moved to the other side of the world and now live within striking distance of one another in Australia! In other cases, the reason is very sad. I suppose the law of averages makes it inevitable that some members of any given population will die prematurely through accident or illness, and unfortunately this is true of some of our form-mates including Kim Weed, maths whizz-kid Sharon Pearson, who I remember had a rather atypical crush on Eric Morecambe, and lovely Lynn Sutherland, with whom I used to twag off cross-country and go round to her house to drink coffee… and it’s on behalf of all these fellow pupils, living and passed on, that I’d now like to propose another toast: to absent friends.

I think it’s fair to say that none of us were so keen on what came after that year… although when our beloved Girls’ Grammar morphed into the Lower School of Lindsey Comprehensive, we still had some good times and went on to see each other through all the trials of puberty and adolescence. Spots. First dates. The utter self-conscious misery when spots and dates happened at the same time. The perennial question: ‘Have you started yet?’ Doing a certain exercise and chanting, ‘I must, I must, I must increase my bust.’ Trading nail varnish to mend ladders in the tights we were forever snagging on the old wooden benches and desks… not to mention the sort of embarrassing personal crisis that never seems to happen in adult life, like the sudden snapping of your bra strap or knicker elastic. Playing silly schoolgirl japes with fake ink-blots and the disappearing ink Nicky Fraser once squirted on Mr Smith’s shirt in maths – he wasn’t amused – or our 3rd year piece de resistance, hiding our chairs in the suspended ceiling during one lunch break. So perhaps this is a good time to raise a glass to our long-suffering teachers…

The Upper School brought us the serious growing up stuff, the swotting for exams, the decisions on which options to take and what to do next – and I like to think our old teachers would be proud of the women we’ve become, the things we’ve achieved, and the many and varied paths our lives have taken. Alas, I’d developed such a loathing of Lindsey by the time I finally wiped its dust off my shoes that I made no effort to keep in touch with school chums – unless I bumped into you in the pubs around Grimsby and Cleethorpes – and the idea of coming to any sort of school reunion made me shudder. That is, until Carolyn Allison emailed me out of the blue about 18 months ago… and then came the wonderful excitement of last spring when our virtual First Year started to re-form on Facebook. I still remember the buzz, the thrill of making contact again, of logging on obsessively to find out who else had joined, the fun of sharing our memories and photos – the sheer warmth and sense of fellowship that immediately sprang up between us again, and the plain simple delight I felt at rediscovering old friends and finding out what you’d all been up to. It was one of the best things ever to happen to me on social media, and it reminded me of something I’d lost sight of – to paraphrase Lou Reed: with such perfect days, I’m glad I spent them with you… and I’m very glad you’re all back in my life again now.

So three cheers for Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar School – and now, 45 years after our first meeting there, I’d like to close with another toast to all Clementina Clees past and present, to our Big Golden Reunion in five years’ time, and many smaller meetings in between – and  to staying in touch!

 

Marvels of Middle Age

Recently I found myself walking through town on my way back from a gardening job, just marching along swinging my arms and enjoying the fine autumn weather. This may sound like no big deal and certainly nothing worth blogging about – but on a personal level it’s miraculous, because this simple pleasure was often beyond me.

In recent years it was physically impossible: I’d become so crippled by osteoarthritis that eighteen months ago I’d have been crawling along with my stick, being overtaken by spry seventy-somethings; whereas now, thanks to my marvellous new titanium hip, I’m back to my habitual route-march pace and relish every single pain-free step.

But that wasn’t what made me grin wryly as I strode along; no, I’d just remembered that as a painfully self-conscious older child, teenager and young adult, marching so freely was equally out of the question. It was mainly a matter of hands – what to do with them, I mean. I was fine if I had a dog to walk, or something to carry, or the strap of a satchel or bag over my shoulder to hang onto. Failing that, stuffing them in my pockets usually sufficed – unless I was wearing my motorcycle jacket, that is. Its pockets were so high that my elbows would stick out as if I were playing, ‘I’m a Little Teapot,’ and so tight that I could only get my fingers inside them anyway – it looked too ludicrous. So it was sheer torture to walk round to my biker boyfriend’s house in it… I had to at least carry my crash helmet or find something else to tote with me, because without some manual purpose I felt like a shambling leather-clad ape. And even when I’d achieved my walking ideal, (one hand stuck deep in a pocket and the other occupied with carrying), I loathed entering glass-fronted buildings – being hyper-conscious of my gait, I found the sight of my approaching reflection quite excruciating.

So I felt rather sorry for my younger self as I savoured one of the great compensations of middle age: no longer giving a stuff about lots of stuff, like trying to look ‘cool,’ or what I think other people might be thinking of me. Yes, there I was striding through town, not only careless of my mud-spattered work-trousers and shabby old trainers, but blatantly sporting a fluorescent yellow high-vis coat AND gaily swinging my empty hands – I might as well have been waving a placard and shouting, ‘Look at me!’ Oh, what a delicious little triumph – that ghastly self-consciousness of youth has disappeared, and it’s bloody marvellous.

Henry Wowler has a Hissy-fit

Once upon a time, a long, long time (well, 18 months) ago, The Cigarette was the siren-song that lured Hubcap back to the house from wherever he happened to be. Yes, whatever time I chose to come down from the office for a fag-break, the minute I began rolling it he was guaranteed to turn up: on early/late lunch, to get changed/clean his teeth before a doctor/ dentist appointment, to pick up/drop off gear and have an unscheduled cuppa or loo-break while he was at it, or because he’d finished the day’s jobs/was rained off/had randomly decided to knock off early or take a half-holiday – thus obliging me to either wait for the fag until he cleared off again, or have it outdoors, or sit uncomfortably at the end of the kitchen, blowing smoke out of the window. I kid you not – it was like some weird psychic whistle calling him home.

But now I’ve given up (by and large), the lure has changed to Henry Wowler’s tea-time. No matter at what point in the cat-son’s permitted feeding window (any time after 3.30 pm; or 3 pm, at a push; or even 2.30, if his demands become too unbearably annoying) he wakes and decides that he’s hungry, the minute I dish his food out Hubcap’s van is sure to roll up – whereupon the trauma starts.

Mr Wowler dines in the kitchen, you see, not far from the back door – and like any cat, he dislikes being disturbed while he’s eating. Unfortunately, Henry finds Daddy-cat extremely disturbing – sometimes by his mere existence and proximity, especially when he’s dressed in his boiler-suit and big clumpy work-boots, which are clearly very dangerous for cats. Then there’s the noise factor as heavy feet tramp up and down the garden path unloading gear from the van to the shed, passing a bare metre away from Henry’s bowl; and the ultimate horror of the back door opening and shutting, often repeatedly depending on what needs bringing into the house – firewood, coal, shopping, armloads of soggy clothing etc – before Hubcap is finally finished and can divest himself of the scary work-wear and sit down for his own meal.

If Henry’s really hungry, he might dare to snatch a few mouthfuls while this is going on, tensed to spring away at any moment should the door open; but sometimes it’s simply too much for a cat to cope with. Like yesterday, for instance, when I was making dinner and (surprise surprise) the arrival of a soft pressure against my calf and a long orange tail curling round my leg coincided almost to the second with the sound of an engine drawing near. I dished Henry’s food out as he dashed into the living room, then followed to give him a reassuring stroke and encourage him to eat before Hubcap came in. He duly jumped down from the armchair only to halt dithering in the doorway, caught between the sounds of trundling lawnmower wheels and clumping boots ahead, and Mummy-cat’s urging from behind.

I should’ve known better. Henry Wowler does not like being told what to do; and when he’s in a Mood he does not like people dogging his paw-steps and invading his personal space. And of course, now he was in a Mood, baulked of the pleasure of stuffing his face in peace by his horrible, inconsiderate cat-parents. ‘Ssssssssss!’ he said to me crossly, ‘Wrow-row-row-row-row,’ then turned tail and fled upstairs.

None of my previous cats have ever hissed the way Henry does. But being a cat of decided character and voluble expression, the Sound of Extreme Wrath and Displeasure is quite a common part of his vocabulary; and he usually gets away with it with me, although Daddy-cat objects and has been known to swat his little ginger bum for using bad language. And I let it go this time because I felt quite sorry for the little chap – not to mention impressed by the admirable clarity with which he made his feelings known.

(For any reader concerned by Mr Wowler’s hungry plight, the story does end well – within half an hour he’d managed to fill his belly and curl up on Mummy-cat’s lap, and we all lived happily ever after – or at least until I had to get up and go for a pee…)

Superstore Superhell

I’m a supermarket fascist (hereafter ‘SF’). There, I’ve said it. The purgatory of the weekly shop has the power to transform me in seconds from my usual, easy-going, good-humoured (hah!) self into an intolerant, clench-jawed, white-knuckled Sweary Mary, chanting my mantra, ‘Ihatethisbloodyplace Ihatethisbloodyplace’ under my breath as I battle through the bovine hordes (sorry, I mean my fellow-shoppers). So I thought I’d share with you my Top Tips for making the supermarket experience as hellish as possible for SFs like me:

1. Get the stance right. Gob hanging open, slouched with elbows on the trolley handle and moving at Dead March pace (preferably two abreast with a mate to prevent overtaking). Simple, but with amazing power to infuriate – you can practically hear the SFs thinking, ‘For God’s sake stand up straight and get a bloody move on.’

2. Don’t look where you’re going. Cultivating the spatial awareness of a chemical toilet is as satisfying as driving a car blindfold. Suddenly change direction, make random emergency stops, broadside your trolley across the aisle and enjoy the clash and muted swearing as SFs cannon into each other behind you. Or ram them – never underestimate the bruising and gouging power of the average supermarket trolley – extra points if you succeed in drawing blood (easier in summer when the SFs are out in shorts and sandals).

3. Take baby. Never leave your partner at home babysitting and do the shopping alone. The ear-splitting, ultrasonic squeals of over-excited infants, the deafening tantrums of toddlers denied their blue fizzy pop, sugar-coated choc-dipped novelty cereal or other E-number-enriched tooth-decayers liven the place up no end.

4. Better still, take the whole family. A herd of hyperactive 8-year-olds constantly demanding, ‘CanIhave canIhave’, a couple of slack-jawed teens plugged into IPods and Blackberries, Gran on her mobility scooter, a lost-looking Grand-dad to stand in the way… fun for all, and guaranteed to send the SFs blood-pressure soaring. (For best results, stoke the youngsters up well on PopTarts and blue fizzy pop before you come out).

5. Congregate. Supermarkets are the perfect place to meet your chums and catch up on the latest gossip. Pick a busy aisle (bread and fruit/veg are reliable choices), or better still, the doorway, and settle down for a nice long natter. Remember to broadside those trolleys!

6. Buy clothes. Kit out your entire family for a fortnight’s holiday and pay for it all at the grocery checkouts, never the clothing department. Watch smugly as the assistant carefully de-hangers, folds and bags every item while the tutting, eye-rolling queue of SFs builds behind you.

7. Hang on to your cash. Never, but NEVER get your purse/wallet ready while the previous shopper goes through the till. Wait until all your goods are bagged than pat yourself down, search every compartment of your handbag then ‘realise’ you left it in one of the carriers… but you can’t remember which. Fumble through every bag of shopping, smiling apologetically at the long line of red-faced SFs just itching to bitch-slap you.

8. Prolong the agony. Have a nice chat with the checkout assistant while you dither about loading and re-arranging bags in your trolley, then move off VERY SLOWLY.

Following these few simple rules will greatly enhance your shopping experience, especially if you drive an an SF to tears, heart attack or fit of apoplexy. Guidance for supermarket employees will follow in a future blog.