Today's Reading

I balanced him on my shoulder and made my way up the two flights of stairs to my bedroom, filling the kitten in on the minutiae of our lives.

"Dad lost his university job ages ago, and he's been trying to work out what to do with himself ever since," I said, tickling him under his chin as I ran up the second staircase, the tiny windy one that Dad was forever tripping up on. "He says we've moved here so he can paint instead of teach art. It's the summer holidays, and I'm going to be nine soon, and Dad says he might have to give me a painting instead of a real present for my birthday, but that's okay by me because his paintings are like stories made real. He says someone has to make some money, or we'll be living on bread crusts and moat water, so I thought I might sell some stuff outside the house. I found some nice pebbles and I tried to paint them, but I'm not very good at painting. So I wrote poems on them instead, but I'm not very good at poems either, so I dropped them in the moat. Here, this is us."

I pushed open the three-foot-high door that marked the entrance to my vast bedroom.

The kitten perked up as we climbed through into the huge, bright space. It was the shape of a tent, one of those old-fashioned tents—a huge triangle. And it felt like a tent too: when it was windy outside, the air caught beneath all the beams and vibrated until you felt like there was nothing but thin canvas between you and the sky.

When Dad had first shown me my room, I spent the entire day in there, not daring to believe all this space belonged to me. There were dust sheets over the furniture, and in the corner, a pretty parasol leaned against the wall as if the young lady it had belonged to had left it there only moments before. The first time I opened it, it showered dust all around me, and I walked the length of the room, holding it above my head in a sedate manner, pretending I was as posh as its previous owner.

I tipped the kitten onto the bed and studied him. "You look like someone important," I said, "and important people have long names. How about Captain Montgomery of the Second Regiment?" Montgomery seemed satisfied with his name and curled up happily on the quilt.

***

On that first night his mews pierced my dreams. He wrapped his pulsing little body about my head on the pillow, and I found him in my dreams too, popping into existence in the middle of a candy shop, then a flowery meadow, the little bell on his collar rattling shrilly, announcing his arrival and preceding his loud meow.

On waking the next morning, he followed me round the house, and Dad soon joined us, stooping to sketch us whenever we stopped, wiping his dark hair out of his eyes and grasping his stubby pencil, his knees creaking as he crouched down to get a better angle of us.

Dad's love of drawing had always been a part of him, but since we had moved to Braër it had become an obsession. His fingers, when they stroked the fringe from my face late at night, had the sharp tang of lead on them, and the skin of his face had echoes of paint and pastel, especially under his eyes, where he had rubbed them so often in frustration. I had the feeling that moving to such a ramshackle house had made Dad start to go ramshackle too. His sweaters, once smart, had started to become holey and smattered with the baked bean juice that he sipped straight from the tin.

It was only by the end of the second day of kitten ownership that I managed to shake Dad off, creeping back to hide in my bedroom, the little cat on my shoulder. I shut the door quietly so as not to let Dad know where we had gone. I needed to show Montgomery something secret. In the middle of my bedroom, concealed beneath my bed, was a special floorboard. Below it, in the small dark vacuum, were my favorite things: a musty snail's shell, a rusty bolt with a star-shaped end that I'd brought from our old house and my most treasured possession—a shiny yellow coin that I had found three days ago in the middle of the meadow, which might or might not be real gold. It had a funny-shaped man's head on one side, and he was wearing a crown a bit like Jesus. I put the coin between my teeth and bit down on it like I'd seen pirates do, but my tooth, which was a bit wobbly, shot with pain. I spat the coin back into the hole and sat, tonguing the tooth so that it spun-danced in my mouth. Montgomery, growing disinterested, squatted nearby, releasing a flurry of wee that trickled into the cracks between the floorboards.

Later, in the slumbering twilight hours of my bedtime, when my tired mouth could no longer accommodate the syllables of my new kitten's name, Montgomery was shortened down to Monty, and then just Mont. I held him close and inhaled his buttery smell.
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