||GIRL with CAT (Blue) by Sam Hawksmoor
Published Autumn 2017
*Kindle version on Amazon
Hammer & Tong (Print)
Review: 'Awesome book. Saska is fierce, a true heroine...'
1: Lundein - The Capital City - Inglund: Death in a Marketplace
There was no warning this time. The enemy bomber swept in from the east flying low, spilling its deadly guts of cluster bombs onto the street market.
Saska was running, heart in mouth, a hundred paces from the nearest underground shelter. Cat, her precious Blue Lynx was ahead of her, ears back, nearly sick with panic. Out of the corner of her eye Saska saw one bomb explode amongst a group of farmers who’d moments before been arguing about the price of potatoes. Now they were blown apart, their limbs and flesh shattered, their blood smeared on the walls, all arguments irrelevant.
Saska knew she wouldn’t reach the shelter in time, she shrieked for Cat as she rolled under an upturned vegetable cart and dove into an open drain hole.
Cat must have realised she wasn’t behind her and turned back, she appeared at the broken draincover and hissed, protesting at the evil stench coming from the sewer.
‘Jump down. Now, Cat!’
One second later, three bombs exploded – all set on delayed timers to cause maximum damage. Saska and Cat were blinded by the flashes; even down here in the deep sewer. Cat emitted a keening sound of pure terror. She hated the bombs, hated the noise. Their ears rang with sudden intense air pressure from the explosions.
Saska cursed the enemy – cursed her hunger. Normally she’d never go to the market, but she hadn’t eaten in two days and hunger tempted her.
Another explosion shook the sewer walls. Rats scurried away below their feet, but Cat didn’t move, she had lost her appetite down here in the stench.
The bomber would have gone. Climbed up out of reach now it had dropped its load. It had no fear of retaliation – they had no weapons left or anyone to fire them if they had. The daily bombing had destroyed everything.
There was a momentary quiet, then a wall of pain and shrieking as the injured began to call for help. There would be no help. There were no doctors, no hospitals, and no bandages. Nothing to stop their pain or, staunch their blood. It was all gone.
Saska counted to a hundred (in case of more delayed explosions). She knew their tricks. Some were timed to go off when help arrived.
‘We’re going up,’ she told Cat. Saska knew her duty. Help where she could, re-establish order, burn the dead. Disease prevention was critical now. Fresh water still existed in the city reservoir but the pipework to deliver it had been destroyed. The sewers were almost empty as a consequence, otherwise she and Cat would be swimming in it and it was bad enough standing in what was left.
She had to lift Cat up to get her out again. No easy task to heft such a large wild terrified creature. Somehow she got Cat out and then hauled herself up. Her clothes stank, her hair a mess, but she was alive. No comfort to those who lay there clutching at gaping wounds, begging for help.
Saska went to work, ripping cloth from a broken stall to make bandages.
‘I hate this war. I hate what they have done to my city.’ She turned to Cat who stared at the carnage in bewilderment. ‘One day we will make them pay, Cat. Upon my honour, they will pay.’
‘Help me,’ a boy was screaming, but Saska took one look at his little shattered body and knew she couldn’t. No one could. She turned to help his mother who was staring in shock, unable to move – blood oozing from an open gash in her head. A wound could be fixed. Many others wouldn’t be saved.
And tomorrow more planes would come and bomb them all over again.
2: LONDON: Girl with Cat (Blue)
Normally Jules hated being dragged to her mother’s charity events. But she had found herself transfixed by a huge photograph on the gallery wall, totally bewitched.
A girl with long auburn hair was standing in a headwind on ruined battlements, wearing a bloodied scarf, flying loose behind her like a kite. Yet, it was the enormous cat beside her that caught Jules’ eye. Who could possibly have a Blue Lynx as a pet? It stood beside her owner so calm and proud. Jules felt a fierce longing for that cat, as if she’d always loved it, yet how could that be possible? This was the first time she’d ever seen this cat.
Jules, at fifteen, was striking, with bright green eyes and deep copper hair, the Celtic look. She’d been raising funds alongside her mother for the best part of ten years already. She knew every cause there was to raise cash for and more seemed to crop up every day. Tonight, it was Refugee Artists.
She had been staring at the photograph for ages, hardly glanced at anything else. She sneaked a glass of wine from the drinks table. She really needed something strong if she had to suffer another hour in this place. She winced as she knocked the glass back – it tasted vile and acidic – why on earth did people drink white wine, what was the point exactly? She quickly swapped the empty glass for orange juice and hoped no one had noticed. She glanced back at her mother talking earnestly with a woman who twirled her pearl necklace as she listened. Her mother was no doubt volunteering her daughter to go on another mission to Africa like she did the previous year. (She had secretly enjoyed the experience, but hadn’t admitted that to her mother. Nor mentioned that she’d slept in a thatched hut with a machete under her pillow every night. Being the only girl in the volunteer group had risks in a remote tribal area and the group leader had insisted upon it and trained her how to use it.)
McReady would like this photograph, she was thinking. He was her most resolute friend. He had a sly sense of humour that helped keep Jules sane. The chance of an actual boyfriend? Well, when would she fit him in? Take a number. No boy would have the patience or, the necessary dedication, not to mention be brave enough to battle with her mother.
‘You’ve been staring at that painting for ages, you must like it a lot.’
Jules turned around and saw a small man with twinkling eyes and a sleek black moustache that was ridiculously large on his brown face. She didn’t know why she thought it, but he looked distinctly Egyptian. His left foot was heavily bandaged and he wore only one black leather shoe.
‘This painting. You find it so fascinating?’
Jules was embarrassed. She hated being noticed at these social gatherings and having to politely talk to strangers.
‘Painting?’ She queried. ‘This is a photograph.’
The man shook his head with a knowing smile.
‘It’s a painting. I know this, for it dropped on my foot this afternoon when it arrived.
Jules looked at his foot and said, ‘Ouch’. But clearly he was mistaken. It was obviously a photograph. She looked back at the image of the girl on the ramparts, her beautiful emaciated looks, the incredible detail of the blue fur on the cat; it had to be a photograph. She realised that there was something dreadfully familiar about this photograph, yet completely alien. She didn’t know what she was feeling but she sensed that she and that girl had a connection. How was that even possible?
‘You must have posed a long time, the cat is very rare, no?’ The man said.
‘It is you. I knew it was you the moment you came in with your mother. She never told us what a beautiful daughter she has. I love the hyper-real stance, one almost feels you are standing on the ramparts with her, don’t you think? Good to see that you are showing an interest in art, I shan’t despair of the younger generation quite yet.’
Jules, for one brief second considered the man was mad, then stared again at the girl in the photograph. The girl, now she considered it, did look a bit like her, but thinner with longer hair. Tougher, like she was a warrior. She was carrying a spear, the blood on her scarf meant she knew how to use it.
‘It isn’t me. But I wish I had a cat like that. It’s beautiful.’
‘Yes, it is. I am sorry the artist couldn’t come in today. Your mother is very wise to buy such a painting. He has great talent I think for a boy so young.’
‘She did? He’s young?’ Jules was astonished her mother had bought it.
‘And poor. Very poor. A refugee. Like all the other artists here tonight.’
Jules finally saw the red dot on the wall, which meant that it was sold. Behind her a commotion began and she realised that her mother was coming towards them with an entourage of rich ladies.
‘Jules, you met Dr Arzi.’
Dr Arzi, the Egyptian, bowed to Jules.
‘This is his gallery. Isn’t it nice of him to let us use it.’
Jules wished she could disappear into the picture. They were studying her intensely, instantly comparing her to her vivacious and smartly dressed mother. She was wearing her school uniform with an ink-stained blazer, how embarrassing was that?
‘Your daughter was admiring this painting.’ Dr Arzi told everyone.
‘I thought it was a photograph,’ Jules mumbled.
Someone laughed, but her mother rescued her.
‘No, so did I. It’s so real. It fooled quite a few people I think. Is the artist here yet, Dr Arzi?’
‘Too shy,’ he answered with a shrug. ‘But I know he will be happy you have bought his painting. For the record ladies, all the money paid for the paintings will go to the individual artists tonight, we will not take commission.’
Some people applauded Dr Arzi’s generosity. He waved that aside.
‘Come now my friends, there are other artists to support. We must sell more. There are too many starving artists in this world.’
‘We must meet this artist,’ Jules’ mother insisted, taking Dr Arzi’s arm. ‘We shall invite him to supper. Won’t we Jules? You can make him pasta. Jules is quite adept at pasta dishes now, aren’t you dear?’
The ground refused to swallow her. Jules had burned the dinner the night before. It had all gone disastrously wrong. Her mother was being supremely sarcastic.
‘Oh, invite me too,’ Dr Arzi said enthusiastically. ‘I am a great fan of pasta.’
‘I wouldn’t want to poison too many people at once,’ Jules managed to mutter, listening to their polite laughter and their protestations that she was being too modest.
‘That went well,’ her mother remarked when they drove home. The huge painting filled most of the Qashqai SUV behind the front seats. ‘I told you that people would like you. Ridiculous to be shy, Jules. You’re a beautiful and intelligent girl. It’s good to socialise.’
‘They aren’t my type of people.’
‘You mean, rich? We must mix with the people with money too, Jules, make sure they feel guilty and part with their cash. Besides, some of them were once refugees themselves. Came to this country with nothing, like Dr Arzi, and now they run successful businesses. Everyone deserves a second chance. Charity begins in your heart, my darling. Everything follows from that.’
Jules closed her eyes. She could hear the beginning of another lecture coming on. Her mother never knew when to stop.
‘I want you to have the painting. Time to take down some of those posters of yours and let some real art in…’
Jules was about to bitterly oppose the taking down of her old posters when she suddenly realised that yes… the picture was hers. She wanted it, needed to put it up that very night. It belonged in her room.
‘Thank you, mother. I love that painting. You think the blue cat is real?’
Her mother snatched a surprised glance at her daughter and frowned.
‘That you said thank you is gratefully recorded, but I rather suspect the cat is a metaphor.’
Jules nodded. No doubt. Wasn’t everything these days a metaphor?
‘It means a symbol that represents…’
‘I know what a metaphor is mother.’ Jules snapped back, rather too quickly.
‘Of course you do.’ She replied with a tight little smile.
It was a bit tense for a while when they got home and they didn’t speak again until Jules was ready for bed. She was leaving the bathroom in her pyjamas when her mother opened her bedroom door.
‘It’s settled. Dr Arzi is bringing the artist for dinner on Thursday.’
‘Thursday? This Thursday?’
‘It will give you time to practice boiling pasta. Night dear. Sleep well.’
Jules stood with her mouth open as her mother’s door closed with a decisive click. She made her mind up on the spot that if she ever had a daughter of her own she’d never ever humiliate her like this.
She angrily swept into her bedroom attempting to slam the door, but her old slippers got in the way ruining the moment. She sank down on the bed and stared at the painting, now filling the entire end wall. Was the girl with the blue cat as strong as she looked? What was her mother like? Why was her scarf covered in blood? What terrible thing had happened to her? Jules knew she’d dream of this girl and cat tonight.
Duff, her black cat jumped up onto her bed and began her nightly ritual of circling and kneading the duvet to find the right position. She began to purr contentedly. Jules rubbed her head and tickled her ears. She noticed her chin had some white whiskers. When had that happened? They’d been together since she was three, couldn’t imagine sleeping without her there guarding her.
‘Don’t worry, Duff. I’ll always love you.’
But she knew she’d definitely dream of the blue cat.
3: LUNDEIN: War Weary
The Ratkin stood in the shattered warehouse doorway watching the knife-grinder heap his meagre possessions onto his battered cart. Behind him on the damp cobbled street his heavily pregnant wife waited patiently, a bulging carpetbag on her narrow shoulders. This was happening every night now in the city. People fleeing in their hundreds to escape the bombing. The Ratkin didn’t know where they were going, it seemed to her that everywhere was in ruins. She’d been downriver to Midship point and seen the devastation of the docks – seen the dead dumped into the pits. She, a Ratkin; saw everything, but no one ever saw her, or cared.
She turned back to the warehouse, watched the rats greedily raiding a sack of molasses spilled inside. They were excited, frantic to gobble it down. She didn’t move. Her sharp knives could wait. Easier to kill a rat with a full stomach than a starving one; get a better price too. Although that too had changed recently. The city shelter would feed and provide a warm stable to sleep in for any Ratkin who could prove five rat kills. Used to be four rats and before that just three…
She always ate because she was the best at killing rats. Knew everything about ‘em and had the scars to prove it. No one was quicker than her with a knife. Even the Rat King, who’d trained her to kill vermin at the age of five, knew that. He was wary of her now. There was a rumour that he had fled the city – gone west, or to the Marshes. People were saying that they didn’t need Ratkins anymore. That the city was finished, let the rats have it. She didn’t know why the bombs fell – had no idea why everyone had to die. She didn’t know much of anything except killing rats and didn’t see the point of running. Where would she go? What would she do? The knife-grinder would always be in demand wherever he went. No one would want a Ratkin out there on the marshes. No one would want a Ratkin girl that was for sure.
She saw the big fat black one gorging on the sticky sweet stuff. Couldn’t help himself; had to gobble it all up until he was fit to burst. She threw with such accuracy and speed he didn’t have time to squeal. She speared two more as they started to panic – that’s three – just two more to go. They hid behind the empty sacks, no thought for their dead brothers and sisters. Just hoping she’d leave so they could get back to feeding. She moved further into the darkness, barely breathing, her last knife at the ready. Easy pickings. No more days spent hunting in the sewers for her. She knew all the rats’ favourite haunts, none were safe from her swift and deadly knife.
She left with six rats swinging from her belt, thoughts of hot soup and beans in her mind. She’d scooped up some molasses too, someone might trade it for some boots or shoes. The old boots she wore were worn through and hurting. A Ratkin without good boots was always at risk; she had enough bite scars to prove it.
The Ratkin boy was waiting by the old bridge. He only had three skinny rats on his belt. She felt sorry for him and gave him her spare. He shrugged. He hated charity as much as she did. They walked together in silence to the shelter, only the chill wind for company.
Saska turned the corner by the ruined Oast House and abruptly halted, placing a hand across her face to block the stench of blood. Six people lay in a crumpled heap, blown to bits, some limbs missing. Two women, four children. The women had fallen across the children to protect them from the falling bombs, but the force of the explosion had killed them all instantly. Cat was sniffing a severed limb. Saska turned away from the scene – sickened by the sight.
‘Leave it, Cat. Come, there’s nothing we can do for them.’
Saska closed her eyes for a few seconds. She was beyond sorrow now. Too many thousands had died to feel anything at all. She could have told them that sheltering in the Oast House was a mistake. Underground was the only safe place when the enemy bombers came. Six more wasted lives. Each day there were less people left to defend the capital. Most had fled – only Ratkins, the stubborn and plain foolish were left and Saska was more stubborn than most.
She moved on. A fire was burning in the distance and there was the pungent smell of flesh burning with it. She didn’t bother to investigate, better to burn than rot.
Cat was at her side in an instant, watching the street for any danger. Her job was to protect Saska and she was utterly devoted to the task.
Saska had found Cat when she was a kitten, before the bombing had started. Abandoned by her mother after a terrible storm, she had wandered into the Castle grounds and Saska quickly laid claim to her, despite all the warnings from her father that she’d be too wild and dangerous. She hand-reared her, bottle-feeding her warm milk and they had quickly bonded. She was the rarest of cats. At another time, she would have been some rich merchant’s prized possession to show off in a gilded cage or, worse, killed for her magnificent blue fur. At least she was spared that cruel fate.
Always hungry, semi-wild and feared by many, she was fiercely loyal to the girl who had shared every scrap of her food with her. Kept her safe when others ordered pets to be destroyed to save food supplies. Now fully grown, Cat protected Saska and together they were left well alone.
Together they entered the well-disguised underground bunker. An old man sporting a bloodied head bandage looked up from where he was cooking as she descended the makeshift stairs, he seemed pleased to see her. She frowned. He looked shaky, ill.
‘Chief. You’re wounded.’ She didn’t like to think of the Chief as mortal. He’d done his best to keep her and the rest of the city alive, but it had cost him his health. He looked exhausted, worn out by endless worry.
‘Flying glass. That last bombing was bad.’
Saska sighed, weary of this endless war. Still haunted by the bombs that had devastated the street market.
‘Why do they still come? There’s nothing left to destroy.’
‘There’s us, Saska. The living. We’re still here.’
‘Not so many now.’ She pointed out, noticing he was warming onion soup on the old iron range.
The Chief ran his scarred hands through his grey hair – trying to shake off the exhaustion that weighed him down. Few got more than an hour or two’s sleep anymore. He indicated to Saska to grab a bowl. ‘I heard you saved lives after the street market bombing.’
Saska shrugged. ‘Not many. They caught us by surprise.’
The Chief shrugged. ‘They not only want us dead but starved too.’
Saska remembered the bodies. ‘Six dead in the Oast House.’
‘Two women; four children. They must have thought it was safe.’
‘I’ll send the dead cart. You coming to the meeting tonight?’
Saska shook her head. She hated meetings and all that talk, useless talk.
‘They respect you, Saska. You’re the last of the Chancellors. One day you’ll be…’
‘One day Chief I’ll be dead, like my father. There’s no Chancellery now. Nothing left to fight for.’
‘Then why are you still here?’
‘My brother will return for me.’
The Chief said nothing more. He never doubted Saska’s bravery, her common sense on the other hand… He pushed a bowl of soup towards her.
Saska caught a glimpse of herself on a cracked mirror hanging skew on the wall. Tall, thin, tanned, her auburn hair tied back tight, her tunic stained with dried blood. The young girl in pretty party dresses with no cares in the world had disappeared nearly four years ago. She flopped down on a wooden chest by the table and picked up a spoon. Cat watched her from the corner, ever alert.
‘How was it my brother could find this tunnel so easily? I have searched for years and found nothing.’
The Chief drank his soup and said nothing. He knew how tightly she walked between horror and despair.
‘It’s just wishful thinking,’ Saska declared. ‘We want to think there’s somewhere safe to go to. Everyone we thought escaped are dead and rotting under the rubble; my brother Kye alongside them. People say he’s a coward, but I know you sent him away.’
‘I did,’ the Chief acknowledged. ‘Back then I believed the tunnel was real.’ He turned and immediately winced with pain, grabbing his neck.
‘I know I’m a fool for waiting, Chief. Kye’s never coming back for me like he promised. No one ever has. London doesn’t exist, has never existed and all those who say it does are liars.’
The Chief shrugged. He opened a small jar of green ointment and sniffed it. It made his eyes water and smelled strongly of tar. Saska wrinkled her nose at the smell. This was all they had for their wounds now and it stank. She quickly ate the soup before the smell of the ointment overwhelmed it.
‘Think on your future, not your brother’s, Saska.’ The Chief muttered.
Saska frowned. Yes, he believed she was a fool for wasting precious days looking for the tunnel. She sighed wistfully as she examined her left hand, a vivid scratch across the knuckles, still red raw. ‘I can’t believe I used to worry about my fingernails.’
She glanced up at the Chief as he rubbed the stinky salve into his neck wound. He winced again as he hit a sore spot, saying, ‘I can barely remember that spoiled little girl who threw a tantrum because she couldn’t use the library one day. Heaven knows what she would have made of a chipped nail.’
Saska laughed at the petty foolishness of her previous life. She rubbed her bare feet along Cat’s blue fur as she glanced up at her and blinked.
‘And I haven’t read a book since. This war will never end, Chief. Not until we’re all dead.’
The Chief glanced up at his charts pinned to the underground mud walls, beside them the racks of useless rifles that lacked ammunition. ‘Wars always end, Saska. Our numbers are falling fast now, it’s pointless staying here much longer. Look at you, defending us with spears and arrows. We are nothing more than a rabble.’ He pointed to a sketchbook on the table. ‘From the spy we caught yesterday. He’s been sketching our water supplies and open areas. Can only mean one thing.’
‘Invasion. They’re finally coming.’ Saska stated.
‘We’ve got nothing left to fight them with. We’ll be overwhelmed.’
‘There’s the Army of the West…’ Saska began, but the Chief angrily cut her off and swore.
‘Don’t talk to me about the Army. If they were worth a damn they’d be here, defending us, not hiding in the hills hoping the Gaul’s won’t flush them out. You’re my secret weapon, you and Cat. Without you out there keeping order I doubt many would have stayed at their posts. But we can’t remain much longer.’
‘My brother will return.’
The Chief shook his head and firmly fastened the lid on the jar.
‘No, he won’t, Saska. No one will. There is nothing but ruination here.’
Saska had resolved to stay to the bitter end. Besides where else would she go? This city was all she had ever known.
‘What did you do with the spy?’ Saska asked, thumbing through the crudely sketched pages he’d made of the city.
The Chief merely shrugged. ‘No one will miss a traitor.’
Saska stood up, slipped on her tattered sandals, adjusting the worn straps. Cat immediately stood and stretched her powerful limbs.
‘Time to patrol.’
The Chief nodded. ‘Be careful. There’s rumour of deserters and if there is one Gaul spy, there’ll be others.’
Saska took up her spear, then wrapped her long threadbare bloodied scarf around her shoulders. Kye’s parting gift – she wouldn’t go on patrol without it.
They left the Chief staring at his charts, muttering dark thoughts to himself.
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