Esme and the Magic Cat

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“Why?”

Mrs Benson sighed! ‘Why’ was Esme’s favourite word. Why – this? Why – that? Why – the other Why?

The risk was that with Esme, one answer was never enough – it always led to another question and another and another.

In the kitchen, Mr Benson was stroking his chin and staring at the vacuum cleaner standing on the table. The machine had developed a nasty habit of blowing instead of sucking.

“Shouldn’t we take it to the shop dear?”

“And pay Jones a small fortune for a simple repair job? Just leave it to me!”

“Why doesn’t Daddy take it to Mr Jones?” Esme shouted from the lounge.

Luckily Daddy was too busy coughing, and spluttering. Esme turned away, shrugged, picked up her book and wandered to her favourite chair – which was also Edgar the spaniel’s favourite chair. Daddy told Esme to go into the lounge and read her book.

Esme liked to read. She opened the book and muttered to herself. “Why do I get told to read my book?”

“Because grown-ups like to tell you what not to do! That’s what they’re there for.…”

Esme nodded vigorously. Yes, that’s just what they did do. Esme suddenly jerked bolt upright like a jack-in-a-box. “Who said that?”

She looked around nervously. Through the open door, she could see Mummy and Daddy still in the kitchen. It couldn’t be them. She looked around the room. Nobody! Except – Edgar? No, it couldn’t have been Edgar. He had never said a word – ever! No. Dogs bark. Dogs don’t talk.

Esme stared around the room. Her mouth was still wide open – but she felt she couldn’t scream – even if she wanted to. A tail – a black furry tail – was sticking out of the television. It had a white tip which was wagging!

“For goodness sake! Get hold of my tail!”

“But where are you? I mean…the rest of you?”

Then she had a thought – what if there was no ‘rest’ – just a tail!

“It’s fairly obvious where I am?”

Are you behind the telly?”

“No!”

“Are you inside it?”

“My! You are a clever girl!”

“But it isn’t switched on!”

“If it was switched on, I wouldn’t be here! The electricity makes my hair curl. Now – if the questions are finished! Get hold!”

Esme balanced on the very tips of her toes and stretched out her arm. She almost overbalanced trying to keep as far as possible away from the swishing tail. Her long middle finger touched the very last hair on the white-tipped tail. What happened next, she could never remember. All she knew was that she was sitting on the grass underneath the wide spreading branches of a huge tree – both hands holding the tail of a large black cat.

The cat’s eyes – very big and very green, were just like the panthers’ in the zoo. They twinkled – they seemed to ripple – like the swimming pool at school. She had a strange feeling that she was in a dream – and that any moment she would wake up in her own bed with Teddy sitting on her pillow with his black eyes staring into hers. It was like that cosy mysterious time in bed – just between being awake and then being asleep. Esme could never remember the exact moment she fell asleep. Mummy would be reading the bedtime story – her voice would seem to come from further and further away – quiet and whisper – and the next thing it was morning.

Suddenly, Esme was very wide awake. She was sitting under the huge tree. The cat was straight in front of her – but he wasn’t black! His head – including every whisker – was bright red. The redness was spreading very quickly all the way down his body.

Girl and cat by a tree

Illustration by Samuel Batley

Esme was so startled – – she fell backwards onto the grass. A laugh came from the black – no – the bright red cat.

“I felt like a red day today,” he said.

Esme’s eyes gaped wide open.

“Keep your mouth wide open like that – you’ll swallow a bee – and he’ll buzz around your insides like a mad ping pong ball!”

Esme quickly shut her mouth – tight! She listened No! she could hear her heart beating – but…No! There was no buzzing.

“Why are you red?”

“That’s a silly question! Why not? You don’t wear the same colour clothes every day, do you?”

“No, I don’t”

“Course you don’t! Look around. The world is full of colour. See the trees and grass! Green! Flowers – orange, purple, white. A rainbow of colours.

Esme wondered what the right questions were but before she could ask the black – red – cat went on.

“Now, if you want to know why I wear black – – well – I only wear it when I go to the other side.”

“Other side?” said Esme puzzled.

“Other side!” said the cat impatiently, “Other side. I hope you brought your brains with you. Other side! Your side – of the telly!”

“Oh! Why?” That why slipped out before Esme could stop it.

“I’m beginning to see what your mother meant. Now imagine the shock – if someone on your side saw a yellow tail sticking out of the telly – or a pink one with green stripes. Rachel was the little girl who saw me. She was holding a large glass of blackcurrant juice. She saw me – screamed – and spilled her glass of juice. My favourite colour is…yellow. On a yellow day – I curl into a ball – go to sleep and allow myself to float anywhere the wind takes me.” Then the cat’s eyes become bigger.

“That pig! That silly pig!” said the cat suddenly. The cat’s fur was now a deep red. He was really cross.

Esme saw the fur around the great green eyes was no longer red – it was blue. A deep dark blue was spreading very quickly along the cat’s body and tail – Esme guessed that blue must be the cat’s angry colour. Esme remembered the times when her daddy got really annoyed. He didn’t turn blue – but Mummy said he had steam coming out of his ears. Esme looked at the cat’s ears – the whiskers growing out of them were trembling – but there was no steam.

“That pig is trouble for everybody!” the cat burst out loudly. Esme was ready with a question.

“Why don’t you just magic the trouble away? You are a magic cat, aren’t you?”

The cat thrust his head – and those great green eyes – almost into Esme’s face. His fur stuck out from his body as though a bicycle pump had blown him up to twice his size.

“I am not a magic cat!”

Esme knew that unless she was dreaming – that was wrong. Any cat who can go through television sets had to be a magic cat.

“I’m not just – a magic cat – any old magic moggy. I’m the magic cat. The one and only.”

What was he going to do? With his magic, he could do anything. Change her into a toad – or an orange – or a rice pudding – and she hated rice pudding. The cat did nothing more, it just shouted, “Quick! Stand back against the tree! You’ll be run down!”

Esme stared around. Nothing. She decided – magic or no magic it was her turn to be cross. Before she could speak a huge pig came bounding from somewhere behind the tree. She wondered how the cat had known the pig was coming. Of course – he was a – the – magic cat. The pig was enormous – many times larger than her. Esme had a sudden terrible thought. Where was the cat?

“Poor Mrs Porker. She’s got a lot on her mind!”

Esme looked all around – right left then left and right. All that was left of the cat was his voice.

“Up here! Girl!” the cat spoke with a laugh.

Esme did as he asked and looked up. There he was – sitting in mid-air legs crossed looking very comfortable. Mrs Porker was standing directly underneath the cat. She didn’t seem to be at all surprised to be talking to a bright red cat floating six feet about off the ground above her head.

“Oh, dear! Oh! Dear! Oh! Mr Cat, what am I going to do?”

The cat floated down until he was sitting on the grass next to Mrs Porker. She was panting heavily – shaking and trembling from head to foot. By her side the cat looked like a tiny fluffy red toy

“Keep calm, Mrs Porker! Is it Desmond again?”

Mrs Porker nodded. . “I know you can’t do anything Mr Cat – but it’s a relief just to talk. I’m all at sixes and sevens!”

“More like eights and nines, Mrs Porker,” The cat looked pleased with his little joke.

Mrs Porker calmed down – and said, “Well, it happened just now – as we were all having breakfast. The young rabbit from Northfield came by – you know the family…He’s very well-mannered.”

“I know them,” said the cat, “that was probably Benjamin.”

“Well – he looked through the kitchen window and said – ‘good morning’ – oh so polite. All that rabbit family are so polite!” Then Mrs Porker sniffed – and rubbed her large nose.

“I’ll bet your young son – barked at him”

“Yes! He did!” Mrs Porker’s said. “Then he jumped out of his chair. He leapt out of the kitchen window. Desmond is much bigger than Benjamin – so the scared young rabbit dashed off across the field. Desmond chasing after him barking all the time.”

“Goodness knows what he’ll do, he’s so big and Benjamin’s so small!”

“What’s the matter with Desmond?” asked Esme.

“You’ve probably guessed! Desmond pig thinks he’s a dog. He barks all the time – at anything or anybody and if he can’t see anything to bark at – he barks anyway! He won’t eat at Mrs Porker’s table – he had his meals served in a dish on the floor – and has a water bowl with his name on it.

Esme looked at the cat. Was he sad? She couldn’t tell. Esme knew a lot of cats that lived in the street around her house – none of them magic of course – and she was quite sure you can never tell what a cat is thinking. You can look into their faces and you can’t tell if they’re sad – happy – pleased or whatever. You can sometimes tell by their ears or their tails – but not their faces. But Esme was convinced that her friend – wasn’t it wonderful to be his friend – was sad and she didn’t know why because it seemed obvious what should be done.

“Why don’t you magic him back to be a pig?”

“Because there are some magic things you just can’t do. Desmond pig behaves like a dog – because he believes in his mind that he is a dog. Nothing anybody can say to him can change that. Oh – he’ll listen to advice from anybody – they’ll tell him he’s a pig – he listens carefully – then when they’ve finished, he barks at them. You see that’s the problem – he believes it. He really believes it!”

Esme listened, screwed up her face, stared at the cat, and then said, “But magic is magic isn’t it?”

“Magic doesn’t work like that!”

“I could change Desmond into a flea – or a toffee-apple –. But – but – I can’t change his mind. It was Desmond who decided he was a dog – and – it’s Desmond himself who must decide he’s really a pig. Just imagine if other animals behaved like Desmond – hedgehogs thought they were cows – an ant thought it was a rhinoceros!”

The idea was so shocking to the cat that his colour changed several times – flickering like the lights on a Christmas tree. He then became quiet and the red colour returned. The cat had its eyes on her. She was sure they twinkled.

“And that my young friend – Esme – is why you’re here!”

Esme had no idea what she could do – and couldn’t imagine what the cat thought she could do.
“Come on! We’ve got to catch him! A dog that size – I mean a pig that size who thinks he’s a dog – blundering about, could do a lot of damage. The cat seized Esme’s hand in a paw – and they skimmed along not a foot or a paw touching the ground. In a flash they were through the hole in the hedge and straight in front of them was a remarkable sight. An enormous crowd of animals. Mr and Mrs Porker and a variety of the small Porkers, the squirrel family, and three of the dormice from the hayfield. Mr Mole had appeared from a fresh mound of earth, and even Mr Badger – an unusual sight in the daytime – and many, many more.

“Everybody’s here!” said the cat.

The cat and Esme landed on the grass behind the crowd. Not a single animal turned his head – every pair of eyes were staring the other way – at something straight ahead.

“What’s going on?” asked the cat.

There was a long silence. The cat pointed to the line of crows on a nearby tree branch. “Even they’ve got nothing to say! Come on! Let’s get you to the front.”

He seized Esme’s hand again. She hadn’t a clue – what on earth was the cat talking about?
The crowd of animals parted silently to make a path for the cat and Esme to get to the front.

“That’s the backdoor to the Rabbit family warren,” said the cat.

But neither Esme nor the cat could see the door – because jammed in it was Desmond’s body and Desmond was stuck! Desmond’s bottom was sticking out of the door – the rest of him was somewhere inside. Esme could just hear his muffled bark.

Esme stared at him then said, “If he’s a dog – why does he have a tiny curly pig’s tail?”

Now several things happened at once. The cat patted Esme on the head and looked very pleased with himself, Esme started laughing. The animals one by one started laughing and Desmond’s white bottom stopped wriggling and he stopped barking.

Now that Desmond had stopped wriggling, he found he was unstuck and could back out of the hole. He looked around at all the laughing faces and went bright red with embarrassment.

“Take Desmond home Mrs Porker. I think Desmond will eat his meals at the table from now on!” said the cat. He patted Desmond on the head – who looked as sheepish as it was possible for a pig to look.

The animals laughing crowded around Esme. They all wanted to thank her. They seemed to believe that Esme’s magic was quite as powerful as the cats. Esme tried to tell them, “I didn’t do anything – I just said…”

But the crowd pressed closer – the cheering grew louder.

“Well,” said the cat taking her hand in his paw, “young Esme, it seems your magic is stronger than mine!”

Then it seemed to Esme that the cat’s eyes wrinkled – and that the deep purr became a laugh – a real laugh! A laugh that was ringing in her ears as she seemed to wake up. She was back sitting in her chair in the lounge – Edgar in his chair, Esme thought – it was all a dream – a pig called Desmond who barked, a great crowd of animals, a white bottom sticking out of a rabbit hole, and – and – a – no – the magic cat. All just a daydream.

Esme decided to read her book. As she opened it, she glanced at the telly. Sticking out from the screen was a wagging yellow tail.

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