To Be A Cat: First Few Pages

Be careful what you wish for
– Old saying, said by miserable people everywhere

A Secret

Here is a secret I shouldn’t really tell you, but I will because I just can’t help it. It’s too big. Too good. OK, sit down, get ready, brace yourself, have some emergency chocolate handy. Squeeze a big cushion. Here it is:

Cats are magic.

That’s right.

Cats. They’re magic.

They have powers you and I can only dream of having.

Even as I tell you this I can see what you are thinking. You’re thinking, No, they don’t. Cats are just cute little pets who sleep next to radiators all day long.

To which I would say: That’s what they want you to think.

And now you’re thinking, These are just words in a story written by some author with a boring name, and authors aren’t to be trusted one bit because they tell lies for a living.

And you’re a little bit right.

But stories aren’t always lies. They are things stored in all our imaginations – hence the name, stories – and it is an author’s job to point them out. And some of the things we imagine are more true than the facts we learn in maths, it’s just a different kind of truth to 76 – 15 = 61.

So, yes, every cat who prowled the earth has the capability to do some very special things. Such as:

1. The ability to understand a thousand different animal languages (including gerbil, antelope and the ridiculously complicated goldfish).
2. Fence-balancing.
3. The capability of napping anywhere – laps, kitchen floors, on top of TVs when the theme tune to the news is blaring at full volume . . .
4. Smelling sardines from two miles away.
5. Purring. (Trust me, that is magic.)
6. The ability, via their whiskers, to sense approaching dogs.
7. *****–******* ***–*** *************.

Let’s stop here, at number seven. OK, one to six seem quite ordinary. You might know cats do some of these things, even if you’ve never understood it as magic before – if you see magic often enough it starts to look normal. And don’t get me wrong, this is by no means the end of the list. Indeed, the list is so long that it would fill ten whole books the size of this one, and your eyes would be bleeding by the time you got to 9,080,652: radiator radar.

But number seven is a good place to stop. This seventh cat-power is the most important one, at least for the tale I am about to tell you. (Although, if you want to read a book about radiator-detecting felines I highly recommend A. B. Crumb’s exceptional Warmpaws, which is by far the best of its type.)

Also, you might be wondering what *****–******* ***–*** ************* actually is. Well, we’ll get to that. Don’t be too greedy. You can have enough secrets in one chapter, you know. The truth is, number seven is quite a big deal. I had to put asterisks instead of the actual letters because I’ve got to be careful how I tell you this. If I just came out with it right now you’d either not believe me or you’d have too much understanding all at once and you wouldn’t understand the hidden dangers.

So don’t worry, I’ll tell you about it in good time. What I will say for now is that those humans who get to experience this magic come to understand its terrible and often deadly effects, and certainly never look at a cat in the same way again.

One of those poor souls was an unfortunate boy called Barney Willow, and he’s waiting for you on the very next page.

Barney Willow

Barney wasn’t the happiest boy in the world, but he wasn’t the unhappiest, either. There was a boy in New Zealand called Dirk Drudge who was even unhappier following a lighting strike, and a nasty accident involving a poisonous spider and a toilet, but this isn’t his story. Anyway, Barney lived with his mum in Blandford, Blandfordshire, which is such a boring place you definitely won’t have heard of it.

Looks-wise, Barney was about your height but with a few more freckles. His ears stuck out a bit, as though his head was a portable unit which required handles on either side. He also had slightly curly hair which never did as it was told, and the kind of face old ladies liked to pinch a little too hard, for some reason, as if he was five, not about to turn twelve. These same old ladies often used to ask him, ‘Are you lost?’ when he wasn’t. He just had that look about him.
Barney’s best – OK, only – friend, Rissa, was a girl, but they were on such good terms he never brought up the subject.

His parents were divorced.

‘It wouldn’t have been fair on you, Barney,’ his mum used to say, ‘if we’d have stayed together arguing like cats and dogs.’

But that’s not the horrible part. In fact, I’m going to go now and let the story tell you all that stuff. It’s just too emotional for an author sometimes.

The horrible part was this: two hundred and eleven days ago (Barney was counting) his dad disappeared altogether. He’d never seen him since, except in dreams.

Indeed, Barney dreamed about his dad a lot.

He was dreaming about him right now.

They were at a pizza restaurant, just him and Dad, exactly like they’d been the last time he’d seen him.

‘This is nice pizza,’ his dad said.

‘Dad, I don’t want to talk about the pizza. I want to talk about you.’

‘Really nice pizza.’

But then a giant tongue came down from the ceiling flicking the table and the pizzas over, and rubbing its roughness against Barney’s face.

And then Barney woke up. Vaguely remembered it was his birthday.

‘No, Guster, get off!’

Guster was his dog. A King Charles spaniel whom his dad had found at a rescue centre, and who had given Barney absolutely no hint of his plan to wake him up every morning by jumping on his bed and licking his whole face until it was sticky with dog saliva.

‘Guster, please! I’m still asleep!’

Of course, this wasn’t true. It was just wishful thinking. But Barney spent his whole life wishful thinking, which was his trouble, as you’ll soon find out.

Today was his twelfth birthday, but that wasn’t something he was too excited about. After all, this was the first birthday he’d had without his dad being there.

If that wasn’t bad enough it was also the first birthday he’d had at his rubbish new school. And school meant Miss Whipmire, the head teacher from hell. He didn’t know if that was her exact address, but it definitely shared the same postcode. Anyway, Miss Whipmire was horrible. And she hated every single pupil at Blandford High. ‘I see my job as a gardener,’ she’d once said in assembly. ‘And you are the weeds. My job is to cut you down and pull you up and make everything as quiet and perfect as it would be if the school had no horrible children in it.’ But while Miss Whipmire didn’t like any child, she seemed to hate Barney even more than the others.

Only last week he had got into trouble when he and Gavin Needle had been sent to her office.

Gavin Needle had stuck a drawing pin on Barney’s seat, and he had yelped in pain. Their geography teacher had told them both to go to Miss Whipmire’s office. But when they got there Miss Whipmire sent Gavin back to class and concentrated all her evilness on Barney. If it had been anyone else’s behind that had been pin-punctured then Miss Whipmire would have delighted in the opportunity to humiliate Gavin (or ‘Weedle’, as she called him), but not when that behind belonged to Barney.

Which meant Gavin was free to carry on sticking drawing pins on Barney’s chair. Or, if he had no drawing pins, just pulling back the chair seconds before Barney sat down. Oh yes, Gavin had read the ‘Chair Torture’ chapter in The Bully’s Handbook at least a hundred times.

So, between Miss Whipmire and Gavin Needle, Barney didn’t want to think about what lay in store today.

He just wanted to keep his eyes closed and pretend it was still night-time. Which was hard, given that his face was being licked by a rough, wet tongue.

Barney pulled the duvet over his head but even that didn’t stop the spaniel, whose narrow nose and long tongue nuzzled into the darkness to find him.

And then, as every morning, his mum urged him out of bed.

‘Come on, Barney! I know it’s your birthday but it’s time to get up. I’m going to be late for the library!’

So Barney got out of bed, watched his mum whirling about at her normal hyper-speed. Then he washed, brushed and dressed everything that needed washing, brushing and dressing, and went downstairs.

In the hallway Guster nudged against his knees. Barney looked down and saw his dog’s brown floppy ears and rather proud, upturned nose.

‘All right, boy. Walkies.’