A Short Story by Barry Freeman
The bright morning sun shimmered on the mirror-topped tracks and a warm summer breeze dusted the pink and scarlet geraniums growing in old Gudgin’s flower beds by the station fence. King Cole the Tenton station cat lay on the warm earth among the flowers waiting for the arrival of the eleven forty-five.
The crossing gates were closed across the lane and a signal bounced to a new shape against the clear blue sky. Above the waiting room door a brass bell pinged, signaling the arrival of the train and prompting Gudgin to drag a heavy barrow piled high with trunks and cases onto the platform.
“The train’s running late today” mumbled Gudgin glancing at the station clock “Coo, Coo” replied the pigeons waiting patiently in their basket to be loaded into the guard’s van and taken on another mystery trip.
King Cole stirred and stretched his legs, thinking about the tin lid of milk that would be waiting for him on the engine, as well as the tickles behind his ears he expected from fireman Blakelock. The hiss of steam as the engine slid smoothly to a halt brought the station briefly back to life, slamming doors, excited voices and children darting this way and that among the parcels and cases.
Blakelock, the fireman, jumped from the cab carrying a billy-can and asked Gudgin for some fresh milk.
“Not to waste on that lazy cat I hope?” quipped Gudgin,” he does nothing all day but sleep, or roll about on my geraniums.”
King Cole was always being shouted at by Gudgin for being lazy. “What use are you?” he’d say. “Why don’t you catch some of those mice in the waiting room, or at least leave my flowers in peace.”
King Cole sauntered onto the platform and rolled on his back hoping to be stroked, but Blakelock walked straight past and climbed back onto the engine.
“No time for cat’s today lad!” he shouted, through a cloud of steam. “Got to make some time up!”
The pigeon basket was slid into the luggage van, and the carriage doors were slammed shut. King Cole sat gazing at the engine, feeling dejected and wondering what it must be like to ride on a train. He’d lived at Tenton station since he was a kitten. Some children had found him one cold winter’s day sitting on the buffer beam of a coal wagon in the sidings; just a tiny black bundle of fur with a pink nose. He was so cold he was shivering like a jelly so they wrapped him in a big woolly scarf and took him to the station where Gudgin fed him on scraps from his sandwiches. He let him sleep on the old rag rug in front of the big coal fire in his office.
He called him King Cole because of his dirty black fur and expected him to catch the mice that lived below the waiting room floor and frightened the old ladies into climbing onto the polished tables.
However, King Cole was much happier laying under the flowers or being on the platform, waiting for the next train to arrive, when the engine driver or the fireman would fuss him and give him some milk. But all too soon Gudgin would blow his whistle and wave his flag leaving King Cole to sit and watch as the train slowly disappeared into the distance.
Steam began to hiss mockingly from between the great green wheels of the engine as King Cole strolled reluctantly back across the platform to his favourite spot below the crimson geraniums. Gudgin blew his whistle and from behind a curtain of white steam a rosy faced driver gave life back to the restless engine. It angrily grappled with the six red and cream coaches until they began to run smoothly and swiftly past the deserted platform.
Why King Cole suddenly turned to watch the departing train instead of flopping down as usual into the hollow on the sunny flower bed, we may never know. It could have been the tales of exciting places the pigeons never tired of telling. Or perhaps he was fed up with being told to chase mice around the dark waiting room night after night just to please Gudgin. Did Blakelock fill a tin lid with milk for every station cat along the line and tickle their ears, he wondered?
All these thoughts were racing through King Cole’s head as he suddenly turned and sprinted after the departing train. The engine was panting loudly and pushing great plumes of white smoke from its tall chimney as it began to move faster and faster. King Cole caught up with the engine as it reached the place where the platform slopes down to the track and without hesitating, sprang onto the footplate as it sped passed. He landed with a grunt, snatching at the hard metal floor with his claws as he slid helplessly through the coal dust before crashing into the hot firebox door.
“What the heck!” shouted the fireman above the roar of steam issuing from the safety valves. “It’s that flipping station cat King Cole”
The driver glanced down disapprovingly as he wiped the glass on the pressure gauge. “Silly creature” he grumbled “we can’t stop and put him off now, he’ll just have to wait until we reach Tarrow Central.”
Blakelock nodded and putting down his shovel he lifted King Cole from the rolling pitching footplate, gently tickling him behind the ears. He sat him on a tool chest opposite the driver. Through the window King Cole could see the telegraph poles and the trees rushing past as the engine squeaked and groaned up the long gradient out of Tenton Station and he began to wonder if he’d done the right thing after all.
The fireman was too busy throwing heaped shovels of coal into the firebox to notice King Cole’s quivering whiskers and large anxious eyes as the wind tugged violently at his fur. It wasn’t very long before King Cole was nosing his way inside the oily black jacket laying on the tool chest, where it was dark and warm and the loud clanking of the engine seemed quieter and far away.
After a while the engine settled into a gentle swaying motion as it rushed through deep cuttings and over tall bridges and the steady beat of the iron wheels on the jointed track slowly calmed his racing heart. Quite soon, a pleasant, dreamy feeling began to slowly close King Cole’s anxious staring eyes. Then, as if by magic the world outside the window grew greener and brighter while the fearful sounds of the engine faded into the voices of children playing in the fields, waving and calling his name as the train sped past.
The driver stroked his shiny black coat and gave him a saucer of fresh cream, while fireman Blakelock, whistling a jolly tune, threw shovels full of glistening black coal onto the roaring fire. King Cole watched his handsome reflection dancing across the polished brass levers and the luminous copper pipes that wound around the driving cab and he wondered what Gudgin would think if he could see him now.
The whistle screamed into the bright morning air before the engine plunged into a long dark tunnel, where just a tiny disc of light in the distance seemed to be beckoning the flickering shadows cast on the tunnel walls back into the brilliant sunlight.
Then as they sped across a tall bridge standing proudly on slender fingers of red brick the driver removed a fine silver watch from his pocket, “we should run into Tarrow Central dead on time!” he shouted ” It must be this lucky black cat.”
King Cole purred contentedly as the speed fell away, smiling at the pigeons sitting by the track as the engine picked its way through the tangle of rails into the huge arched canopy of Tarrow station, and gently came to rest at the bright red buffers at the end of the line.
King Cole peered proudly from the cab window, puffing out his chest as the kids ran through the drifts of white steam to get a closer look at the great green engine, and stared in amazement at the sight of a beautiful black cat sitting in the driving seat. It wasn’t long before the Tarrow station cat wandered along to see him,
“Do you always ride on the engine?” she asked, “You must be a very brave cat.”
“I do if I choose too,” replied King Cole licking a speck of coal dust from his paw, “It stops me getting bored.”
“Have you come to watch the Mayor open the new waiting room,” said the pretty little Tarrow cat, “the Mayoress is sure to be with him, and the station master.”
“I suppose I should come and meet the Mayor,” replied King Cole, jumping from the engine and strolling along the platform with his tail held high in the air. “After all, he’s probably heard all about me by now.”
The Mayor cut the yellow silk ribbon with a huge pair of scissors declaring that the new waiting room was now open, “A haven to all weary travelers” he continued before the Mayoress dragged him inside by his gold chain to a ripple of clapping.
King Cole followed the crowd into the new waiting room were the tables were piled high with cream cakes and salmon rolls, while young ladies in with pretty lace bonnets handed the children tumblers of lemonade and glasses of fresh milk. People gazed in amazement at the sparkling crystal chandeliers hanging from the high vaulted ceiling, while the children ran and tumbled on the thick new carpet. High on the paneled wall in a golden frame was a portrait of Mr. Gudgin dressed in a bright blue jacket with polished brass buttons, and wearing a tall silk top hat.
“It’s the new station master” exclaimed the Mayoress waving her lunette at the picture as she grabbed another handful of cheese and onion crisps. But before she could utter another word a small boy with chocolate coloured fingers and lips shouted,
“Wow look at that great big mouse!”
“Mouse!” gasped the mayor swallowing an olive,
“Mouse!” screamed one of the waiting girls dropping a tray of cream cakes.
“A mouse!” shrieked the Mayoress leaping onto an empty table.
“Not a mouse!” boomed Gudgin “where is that confounded cat?” All eyes fell on the pretty little Tarrow station cat.
Gudgin could hardly believe his eyes, reclining on one of the long wooden bench below the stained glass window, devouring a salmon roll was the biggest, ugliest mouse he had ever seen.
“Tabby!” screamed Gudgin turning the colour of a crimson geranium, “catch that confounded mouse at once, I tell you.”
But the mouse just grinned and spat salmon bones onto the new carpet, while Tabby shook with fright and hid herself under a table, having never seen such an enormous mouse.
“What use is a cat that’s scared of mice” shouted the Mayor, peeping from behind a cake stand.
“Precisely” interrupted the Mayoress, hardly daring to open her eyes, “a cat that shivers like a jelly and will not catch a mouse isn’t much use to anybody.”
“Lazy animal!” shrieked Gudgin. “See! This beautiful cat King Cole, who’s just arrived from Tenton, he’d soon see it off I’m sure.”
But King Cole was not quite so sure. After all, it was a very angry looking mouse, and he did wondered if it may better to leave it to Tabby; after all, she was the Tarrow cat.
“Yes” shrieked the Mayoress, “he looks a fine strong cat. Let King Cole deal with it.”
The crowd cheered and clapped.
“Go on then King Cole, show the Mayoress what a tiger you are,” shouted a kid with a mouthful of cream cake, “you never know she may let you live at the Town Hall, there’s plenty of mice there.”
Whereupon all the ladies began clapping.
“Please King Cole,” began one old lady, pointing her walking stick at the mouse, “catch that horrible mouse.”
“If he dare,” snarled the Mayor, “or is he just another one of those lazy railway cats?”
Meanwhile the mouse had finished eating the salmon roll, and sat picking its teeth with a cocktail stick, when to every ones surprise King Cole suddenly sprang onto the bench, sliding from one end of the polished seat to the other, gouging deep ruts in the varnished top with his claws.
The horrified mouse instantly threw down the stick and sprang to the top of the great velvet drapes, followed by King Cole lashing wildly at its tail with his paws.
Then, quite suddenly and as if by magic the shrill, excited cries of the children dissolved into a piecing screech and before his staring eyes the great red curtain divided into fragile ribbons of scarlet tissue, sending King Cole tumbling helplessly towards the hot black floor of the driving cab, as the train screeched to a halt.
King Cole was dragged unceremoniously from inside the jacket which had slipped off the tool box, by the scruff of his neck, and handed to the guard.
“Can you see that this fellow gets back to Tenton Station were he belongs” said Blakelock, grinning from ear to ear,” he’s been asleep most of the way so he probably wonders where the heck he is.”
“He must have ideas above his station,” blurted the old guard, laughing out loud as he lowered King Cole into an empty pigeon basket and slammed the lid shut.
Peering through the mesh, King Cole could see several excited children skipping and shouting as they followed the barrow along the platform. Some were giggling and poking their fingers through the mesh. The old guard scribbled, TENTON STATION onto a label and tied it to the basket before sliding it into the freight van and closing the two large doors.
A warm darkness filled the wicker prison were King Cole was now feeling very lonely and afraid. Finally, after what seemed hours a whistle blew and a sudden jerk sent him tumbling across the straw and feathers at the bottom of the basket. Eerie squeaking and clanking noises echoed around the freight van as the engine picked its way through the tangle of points, prompting King Cole to crawl into a corner of the basket and wonder if Blakelock would still be his friend.
After a while the sound of the wheels became soft and rhythmic, but none of these melodies could make King Cole’s heart sing. Only the fleeting images of the great green engine and the pretty little cat that was so frightened of mice were able to do that.
Then for one brief moment he could see Gudgin in his tall silk hat telling the mayor how only the Tenton Station cat could catch such a huge greedy mouse, while there by his side sat the pretty little tabby shaking with fear and begging him to catch the mouse. Is that why he’d leapt like a tiger into the air? But the harder he tried to remember, the fainter the pictures became until he could only see Gudgin and hear his croaky voice shouting, “catch that confounded mouse you lazy cat.”
At last the train began to slow and King Cole crept cautiously from the corner of the basket and poked his nose through a hole in the wicker lid. As the train gently drew to a halt he could hear above the noise of escaping steam and excited voices, the familiar croaky sound of Gudgin shouting ‘Tenton Station!’, while carried on the soft breeze creeping below the freight van doors, making his nostrils twitch, was the faint, sweet scent of geraniums.
At this moment King Cole was feeling very unsure. Would Gudgin leave him in the basket, he wondered, and send him on down the line, no longer trusted to catch mice. He remembered the Mayoress saying, ‘A cat that shivers like a jelly and won’t catch mice is no use to anyone.’
He could imagine how the mice who lived behind the ventilator in the waiting room would laugh as they dragged him from the basket. He’d never be able to sleep on the rag rug in front of the roaring coal fire in Gudgin’s office, or enjoy the scraps from his sandwiches again.
He thought he could hear the pigeons on the lamp bracket sniggering as they heard how King Cole had been hauled by his scruff from the engine and dumped into a pigeon basket. But just then a loud clank as the bolt on the freight van doors was shot froze the wild thoughts that were racing round and round in his brain.
King Cole stared nervously as the doors swung open and the bright afternoon sun flooded through the mesh, he could see a crowd of people standing on the platform, and as the lid was opened he thought he could hear the pigeons cooing “good old King Cole.” As they grouped around the basket children squabbled about who should lift him out, until a girl in a red blazer swept him up and hugged him like a baby. King Cole wondered if it was all another dream, as the children and the old ladies fussed him and tickled his ears telling him what a silly cat he was running away like that.
Then he noticed Gudgin coming from his office carrying a saucer in one hand and a dish of red salmon in the other, “come along King Cole” he shouted in his usual croaky voice, “before Tabby eats it all.”
But King Cole could hardly believe what he was seeing, peeping from behind Blakelock’s oily boots was the prettiest little ginger tabby he had ever set eyes on, she had a snow white face and two large orange eyes.
“Come and meet your new friend” said Blakelock smiling and tickling Tabby behind her ears.
“Now you won’t get lonely” interrupted the driver.
“Or run away again I hope,” croaked Gudgin, as they stood watching the two cats devour the salmon and share the saucer of milk.
However, Gudgin couldn’t help tutting and shaking his head disapprovingly as King Cole and his new friend, after washing their faces and paws, slowly wondered over to the garden, and flopped down on the warm earth below the pink and scarlet geraniums.