Misty the cat, 1941
How many nights have I slept in the open? In the cold with rats nearby. How long is it since I lay on Mummy's knee, in front of her fire? I've lost count.
I'll never forget that terrible night. I was trotting home over tarmac, with semi detached houses on both sides. Home was a couple of streets away. There wasn't a single light anywhere until the moon slipped from behind a cloud and silvered roof tiles. I could smell our house clearly and looked forward to slices of fish, to light fingers on my neck.
Next I heard a siren, then those giant metal birds that Mummy was frightened of. I paused and lashed my tail. Black hairs rose all down my spine. People started running and shouting. I ran for home, back legs thrusting me forward as my spine flexed over and over. I was terrified. If only I could reach Mummy she would make things all right again, wouldn't she? Sweat oozed from my paw pads. Metal birds flew across the moon. I took a short cut across the wall of someone's back yard and over a shed roof.
There came a loud bang and a flash of light. For a moment I thought the moon had fallen and exploded. Shock waves surged through walls and paving stones, knocking me off the shed. I cried out, twisted in mid air and landed on my feet. Walls of smoke filled my field of view. They smelt of burning timber, and of something else that made me feel ill. Hot embers fell around me. Some hit my flanks and made me cry again. I spun round and ran back the way I'd come.
Some time later, I returned to where our home once was. Smoke poured from every window. Flames flickered in the night. I hurried to our back garden. When the metal birds came before, Mummy took me into a shelterdown there. It was half underground and had a roof of corrugated iron. I thought she'd be in there again.
Our shelter wasn't there any more. There was a crater of wounded earth where it used to be. I searched everywhere, but Mummy wasn't there any more.
Please Mummy, come and find me. Since that night I've eaten nothing but boney rats and I miss your gentle smile. Another cat scratched and bit me last night. Why has this happened? Where are you? Help me!
Chad Parry, four years later
Our editor summoned me to his office, and his expression looked grim. We disappeared behind frosted glass. My first thought was that Don wanted his job back. Sorry, I should explain. When he was called up it left a vacancy for a photographer. One of Dad's friends worked here and he persuaded them to hire me. I'm deaf and so didn't get called up. Now the war is over. If Don had been demobbed then they'd take back a hearing man and tell me to leave. That may seem odd when the magazine is called 'The Deaf Standard' but most of my colleagues can hear. I like this job. I don't know what I'd do without it, either for money or for a sense of purpose.
The editor told me Don wasn't coming back. A Japanese bullet had seen to that. I felt shocked and sorry for him, but then relieved and lastly guilty, very guilty, about that. The relief only lasted a moment, honestly, but I left that office feeling ashamed of myself. I only met him a couple of times but he was somebody's son.
I sat down near a roll top desk and its half dome reminded me of an air raid shelter. Then I smelt perfume, familiar but not reassuring. I twisted in my seat and saw Miss Murcott, a new recruit, approaching. She could hear but an uncle of her's was deaf. A brown pheasant feather stuck out of her hat, like a bronze dagger. She signed an instruction to me.
"Come along Mr Parry, we're going to report on the wonderful work of the W.V.S."
She referred to the Women's Voluntary Service and amongst other things, they provided meals for people who had lost their homes. They were still very busy. I donned my trilby and followed Miss Murcott out of the office, past dark oak panels. Holes from woodworm reminded me of bullet holes. We left the building and got into her car, then set off. I remember thinking "what a nice day to go fishing."
Before long we saw a que of people on a pavement. A van stood at the end of it, its bonnet short like the nose of a pug, and a woman leaned out of a hatch in the side of it. Those queng up looked worn out. One child started jumping up and down, clearly fed up with waiting. His mother smacked him and he cried. I couldn't hear him but you could see his tears. I felt sorry for them both. People left the van carrying bowls of soup and mugs of tea on trays. Terraced houses stood behind them. There were piles of rubble at the end of said row.
Miss Murcott parked her car and we got out. Odours of unwashed bodies greeted us. Miss Murcott approached the W.V.S. woman, pen and paper in hand. One boy, I think in his mid teens, pushed ahead and began shouting at the woman who was serving. She flinched. Miss Murcott stepped back a pace and drove a high heel into the youth's right foot. His mouth opened wide, he screwed up his eyes, reached down and clutched his foot. Then he hobbled back to his place in the lineup. I'm sure she did it deliberately. Miss Murcott interviewed the other woman as if nothing had happened. I couldn't help but laugh. I approached the boy who had thrown a tantrum and his mother. I pointed to my right ear, then at my camera. She understood and nodded. I lifted the camera and peered at them through its viewfinder. Aromas of soup made my mouth water.
A tap on my shoulder distracted me. Turning around I saw Miss Murcott glaring at me. What had I done wrong? She lifted gloved hands and signed.
"You're not here to photograph them. I shall take a tray and smile at the camera, then you will take pictures of me."
"Can I ask why?"
"Isn't it obvious? We need photographs that revive people's spirits. You musn't photograph just anyone or anything."
"What?" My thoughts spun like a whirling ice skater. Then I signed "no, I won't do it."
Her eyebrows drew closer together and her eyes narrowed. Then she said "Mr Parry, if we hadn't boosted morale we would now be under occupation. If Hitler had won, do you think we could've been any more truthful? Of course not! This isn't a dictatorship, its a temporary measure. One day you will be free to publish what you like. If the Nazis had won that day would never have come in a thousand years."
I knew she was right about Hitler but Germany had surrendered. I couldn't wait to be honest. What had the war been about? Defending a perfect world? Or defending a system where you could say everything wasn't always ideal? Surely it was the latter. What if we became so accustomed to churning out propoganda that we never stopped? I contemplated the future with trepidation.
Movement in the que distracted me. Glancing aside, I saw a girl of about three or four wetting herself. The long wait had proved too much for her. I told my colleague to wait, then marched round the van and got into it through double doors. Inside sat a tea urn and several cannasters full of soup. They reminded me of milk churns. The woman serving was broad and close to Mum's age. She turned to look as I came in. I indicated my ear again, then pointed to the tea urn. She smiled and nodded her head. Ripples of relief crossed her face. I noticed empty mugs, dropped a teabag into each one and inspected the urn. It didn't take long to work out how to use it. I made six drinks before Miss Murcott came storming in.
"What are you doing?" she asked, shouting with her hands.
"Something useful," I answered, more calmly than she. "If you've got a problem with that, perhaps you'd explain to desperate mothers why their children have to wait so long."
"One of the W.V.S. women is ill."
I went back to the tea urn and pulled leather camera straps over my head. I thrust the camera at Miss Murcott and signed "if you want a cheerful picture, snap me helping out here. I'll be happy if I'm doing something useful and it will show."
Without waiting for a reply I made another steaming drink. She hesitated, then lifted my camera and pressed the shutter button.
Several mugs of tea later, we stepped outside and discussed our next move.
"Shouldn't we interview some of these people in the que," I signed.
"Yes but I'm trying to think how to give an impression of life going on as..."
Miss Murcott broke off and peered over my shoulder, towards a heap of red bricks with timber beams sticking out.
"Mr Parry, I can hear a baby crying."
Alarmed I followed her gaze, taking in masses of roof tiles now scattered on the ground. Surely no one could've survived under all that. Miss Murcott went up to the heap and walked up a sloping plank. It bent a little but held. She crouched down by a lump of stone that had been part of a fireplace, then put her ear to it. She got up and tried to lift it, but it wouldn't budge.
I followed her, along springy timber. I nearly slipped but regained my balance and strode on. I came alongside her, then squatted and gripped cold, gritty stone. A bit of gravel dug into my palm. I brushed it aside and heaved. Veins stood out on my neck. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. The thing wouldn't move. I paused, took a deep breath and tried again. This time I lifted one end clear of its rubble bed, revealing a hole underneath. Both arms ached. Miss Murcott went down on her knees and peered into it. Her pheasant feather brushed heavy limestone. My biceps quivered and I thought "hurry up, I don't want to drop this on you."
Miss Murcott lifted something, then pulled away from the cavity. I lowered pale stone to fox coloured bricks, rubbed my biceps, then looked over to her.
Miss Murcott was holding a black cat. There was dried mud on its chest and a bald patch on its rump. You could see its ribs under that jet pelt. Its little body shook, presumably with fear. It stared up at her and then across to me, then lashed its tail like a panther's child. My first thought was "poor little mite, we'll have to abandon you." Then guilt over my reaction to Don came back, and I had to prove to myself that I wasn't getting desensitised.
"I mistook her meowing for crying," my colleague explained. "There wasn't a child under there."
I sighed with relief and we looked at each other with newfound respect. At a guess that poor cat had gone into the hole to sleep, then a lump of stone had shifted in the night thereby trapping her.
I arrived home that evening with the cat in my arms. As I entered our sitting room with her, Mum and Dad stopped and stared. She broke off from ironing and his hand froze on the crossword.
I put her down and signed "hello, this is Misty," then explained how I'd acquired her. "We asked everyone in the que if she belonged to them, or anyone they knew," I concluded, "but nobody claimed her. One woman had seen her scavenging from bins behind a tea room, so I think she's a stray."
There followed a moment of stillness, then Mum signed "you don't intend to keep her, do you? How are we goin' to feed her?"
Dad signed "I know you mean well Chad, but we've got to be practical. Tens of thousands of pets were put down when the war started; their owners couldn't feed them when rationing came in."
"Dad, I've thought about that," signed I. Pointing to a rod in the front porch I said "all I need is to catch more fish every Saturday, and that should be enough."
Mum folded her arms and lifted her chin.
"What about wintertime?" Dad enquired. "Fish don't bite then."
"I'll use that net I inherited from Uncle Charlie. I did before, when rations were cut."
Misty sat on our hearthrug and looked up at Dad. She opened her mouth and I think she meowed at him. Roses on the mantle piece scented the room and matched her eyes. My parents exchanged glances and both of their faces softened. My first impulse may have been to prove something to myself, but now I was forming a bond with that cat.
Oh my favourite, a big juicy slice of trout. Once I took it for granted but now I savour every bite. If only I could tell my Daddy how grateful I am. We cats can't make the expressions that dogs and people can, we don't have the right muscles round our eyes. Otherwise I'd signal how I feel about him.
As I swallow fish a figure appears at the window. Daddy gets up from an armchair, scratches me behind my ears, then goes to meet her. Peering into the front porch, past an umbrella stand, I see the woman who often gives him a lift. He used to call her Miss Murcott, but now its Pamela. He turns and smiles at me, then he's gone but he'll be back tonight. His mother puts the radio on, then starts moving ornaments and polishing her sideboard. I lick myself and feel my bald patch has nearly gone. Smells of polish bring back memories of my old home.
Mummy, I don't know where you are now, but wherever it is I hope you know someone's taking care of me.