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Read an extract of Chrissie Manby’s Falling Leaves and Fireworks

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Falling Leaves and Fireworks

Chapter One

Ronnie Benson, Mark Edwards and their toddler daughter, Sophie, had not long moved into their new house on Three Spires Close when the little black cat first came calling. It was a scraggy wisp of a thing. Thin and mangy with very visible fleas. Whenever Ronnie saw it, especially when she was out with Sophie in the pushchair, she would do her best not to make contact with its big yellow-green eyes. She didn’t want to encourage the poor creature. The last thing she wanted was for her daughter to pick up cat germs. Though she was an animal lover at heart, Ronnie’s determination to keep her daughter safe trumped everything.

‘It must belong to someone,’ she told Mark when he mentioned it was hanging around again. They’d seen it almost every day for a fortnight by this point. Every time someone came to the door it would run up the garden path full of heart-breaking hope that this might be its chance. Someone would let it in. ‘It looks well cared for,’ Ronnie insisted.

Both of them knew that wasn’t true.

‘If it’s still here on Saturday, I’ll call the cat shelter,’ said Mark. ‘They’ll have a space for it. Maybe its owner is looking for it right now.’

Ronnie nodded. It was all they could do. Call the shelter. They couldn’t take it in themselves. Sophie was still so small. The cat might scratch her. Add to that the fact they were skint. Mark had been working all the hours he could at the joinery firm so they could move out of Ronnie’s parents’ place and rent their little house. Ronnie had to feed the three of them on a painfully small budget. They were stretched to the absolute limit. There was no money for anything but the necessities. Cat food and vets’ bills were out of the question. Still, Ronnie felt guilty as the cat attempted to endear itself to her. Every time she stepped out of the house, it would be there, mewing and sidling up and trying to wrap itself around her legs.

‘You’ve come to the wrong place,’ Ronnie said firmly. ‘There’s nothing for you here. Shoo! Find someone else to bother.’

But Sophie had other ideas.

Earlier that week, Ronnie had taken her twenty-month-old daughter for a check-up. She was worried that Sophie wasn’t hitting all the developmental milestones she should be. She was growing. She was actually quite tall for her age. She was steady on her feet. But she still wasn’t saying much. No matter how much time Ronnie spent chatting to her little girl, Sophie remained resolutely silent. Until . . .

‘Cat!’

Ronnie was so surprised by her daughter’s sudden utterance that she assumed it must have come from someone else. But no, they were alone on the street. No one was hiding in the bushes. Ronnie crouched to fasten Sophie into her pushchair and she said it again.

‘Cat!’ This time she pointed for emphasis.

‘Cat! Cat! Cat!’

Now she had started, there was no stopping her.

The little black cat ventured closer, sensing its chance. Sophie beamed. ‘Cat!’ she said again. ‘Cat!’

Ronnie was ready to cry with tears of utter relief. Sophie ‘cat, cat, catted’ all the way to the shops. Where Ronnie bought a tin of cat food. By the time they got home again – to find the cat sitting right on the doorstep with an air of expectation – Ronnie knew what would happen next. Mark came in from work to discover that his little family had expanded from three to four. The tiny black cat had given Sophie something she felt worth talking about, how could they possibly refuse her a home?

 

Chapter Two

Ronnie decided she would forego her long-anticipated and much-needed birthday present of a new pair of jeans to pay for the cat to be treated for fleas and mange. A local animal charity helped them to get the cat spayed. Now that she was eating properly, the cat soon started to put on weight and her scruffy-looking coat became glossy. Meanwhile, Sophie’s vocabulary came on apace, as though she had been saving her words up for the cunning feline’s arrival. It seemed impossible that Sophie had been pretty much silent for so long as she launched straight into short sentences and soon left her peers open-mouthed with astonishment behind her. Most of those early sentences had ‘cat’ in them.

It was Sophie who chose the cat’s name.

‘Fishy!’ she complained, when puss came in for a cuddle, smelling of supermarket own-brand cat food. It seemed appropriate and it stuck. Fishy Benson-Edwards had found her place in the world at last.

***

Sixteen years on, it was hard to believe that Sophie, who now had an answer for everything, had ever been worryingly quiet. It was equally hard to remember a time before Fishy had been in the house. In the years since Fishy wheedled her way into number six Three Spires Close, Mark, Ronnie and Sophie had moved down the street to a bigger house at number twelve and another child – Jack– had swelled the Benson-Edwards family to five. Ronnie remembered fondly how instinctively careful Fishy had been around Jack the newborn.

Now Jack was eight and he and Fishy were the best of friends. Jack included Fishy in as many of his games as she would let him. She had remarkable patience until he got dangerously boisterous. She’d even allowed herself to be dressed up as, variously, a princess (to be rescued), an Ewok (to be an ally) and a lion (to be run away from, while she sat licking her paws). And when no one else would listen, Jack could always tell Fishy the plot of the latest episode of Doctor Who. Fishy would feign interest in just about anything in exchange for a couple of cat treats. Even the new updates to Minecraft.

Fishy was quite simply part of the family. Ronnie might grumble when Fishy climbed up on the sofa to sit with her, leaving a trail of hairs in her wake, but she was always secretly pleased when the cat chose her over her husband. Meanwhile, Mark sometimes carried Fishy around like a baby, flipping her onto her back, tickling her under her delicate greying cat chin and cooing as he cradled her. Even Sophie, who, like most teenagers, was bored of pretty much everything most of the time, always had a moment to give the old mog an affectionate scratch between the ears. There was always a gift for Fishy beneath the Benson-Edwards’ family Christmas tree.

Fishy’s birthday was celebrated on the anniversary of Sophie’s first proper word, but the truth was that no one really knew how old Fishy was. Though she was small, she was already fully grown when she chose the Benson-Edwards gang as her family. In fact, Jacqui, Ronnie’s mother, suspected that Fishy was at least five when she turned up. The vet thought she might have had kittens at some point. She had good manners around food and was easily persuaded to use a litter tray. Perhaps she’d been the pet of someone who died without making provision for her, leaving her to fend for herself.

Whatever, there was no doubt that nearly sixteen years after she first arrived in Three Spires Close, Fishy was getting old. Rather than head out into the garden to give the birds a quick scare, she was now content just to watch them through the patio doors. Likewise, when the local squirrels, whose antics had once driven Fishy wild, came to tease her, she barely batted a paw. She was spending more and more time asleep. The vet warned she might have to have some teeth out – an operation that would likely be dangerous for such an elderly feline. Her fur was more and more grey. Yet, sometimes, the old kitten was still there. Sometimes she would perk up and want to play for a while.

Ronnie refused to engage in the conversation when Mark reminded her that the true price one pays for having a beloved pet is that, more likely than not, you’ll be the one who has to make the decision to help them on their way to that so-called better place.

***

As it happened, in the end Fishy spared Ronnie that terrible dilemma. One night in mid-October Fishy died in her sleep, tucked up in her basket, while eight-year-old Jack, thankfully, was having a sleepover at his grandparents’ house. She looked very peaceful, thought Ronnie as she knelt beside the basket and ruffled Fishy’s grey-flecked fur one last time. There was almost a smile upon the cat’s face. Ronnie half expected her to purr.

‘Thank you for being our cat,’ Ronnie told her. Then she burst into big noisy tears that brought Mark running down the stairs. When he saw what had happened, Mark pulled Ronnie into his arms and he cried too because Fishy Benson-Edwards was the best cat in the world.

 

Chapter Three

‘We’ve got to sort this out before Jack comes home,’ Ronnie told Mark as they sat at the breakfast table, unable to eat for their grief. Mark agreed. Abandoning the breakfast they couldn’t eat, they carefully lifted Fishy out of her basket, wrapped her in an old tea towel – printed with pictures of herring – and took her out into the garden. They buried her in the shade of her favourite tree. Mark dug the hole and Ronnie said a prayer as he filled it back in. Though neither of them was particularly religious, they wanted to know that Fishy was going ‘upstairs’.

‘What are we going to tell Jack?’ asked Sophie as her parents shared the news with her when she finally came downstairs at eleven. ‘We can’t pretend Fishy’s just wandered off. It’s going to be obvious something’s happened.’

It was true. They were all red-eyed from crying. Especially Mark. And Jack generally took his cue from his father when deciding whether to freak out. Seeing Mark with tears in his eyes would definitely be a ‘freak-out’ signal.

‘We’ve got to tell him the truth,’ said Ronnie firmly. ‘He’ll understand.’

Indeed, poor little Jack had had a crash course in mortality that year. His great-grandfather, known to the family as Granddad Bill, had passed away on New Year’s Day. Jack had taken Bill’s passing surprisingly well. He seemed to understand that his great-grandfather was very old and ill with dementia and that his last few months had sometimes been frightening and painful. Ronnie and Mark hoped he would be equally sanguine about Fishy.

But Jack was not at all sanguine about the loss of the cat he called his own. Not in the least.

 ***

Jack called Fishy’s name as soon as he burst through the door when his grandparents Dave and Jacqui brought him home that afternoon. He was carrying a bag of sardine-flavoured treats that he’d begged Jacqui to buy as they browsed the aisles at Aldi. Jack was so excited at having bagged such a good gift for his furry friend. There could not have been a worse moment for him to discover that she was gone for ever.

Afterwards, Jacqui cursed herself for not having taken her phone to the supermarket. Had she got any one of Ronnie’s increasingly frantic texts, Jacqui could have prepared Jack for the awful news to come. She could have made a plan. Ronnie’s heart broke again when Jack heard the worst and threw himself at his grandmother’s waist and sobbed into the folds of her coat.

‘Oh, Jack,’ said Jacqui, as she stroked Jack’s head. ‘Fishy wouldn’t want you to cry. You know how much she loved you.’

‘You were her best friend,’ said Dave.

That only made him cry harder.

Of course Jack wanted to know where Fishy was buried. The whole family gathered beneath the tree in the garden and they did the prayers all over again. After that, Jack ran inside and refused to come out of his bedroom while the adults sat downstairs and worried.

‘He just needs a bit of time,’ said Jacqui. ‘He’s shocked. He’s lost a friend. He’ll be better once he’s at school tomorrow and he’s got lots to do to take his mind of it.’

‘I hope so,’ said Ronnie.

She knew she herself would take some time to get used to Fishy’s absence. It was very strange to stand at the kitchen counter, waiting for the kettle to boil, and not have Fishy brushing herself against the back of her legs in the hope that Ronnie was going to open a tin of cat food while she was there.

***

At teatime that horrible day, the Benson-Edwards family had a visitor. Their immediate neighbour, Cathy Wigmore, known to everyone at number twelve as Cathy-Next-Door, had seen Ronnie and Mark burying the cat when she looked out of her bedroom window that morning. She came round at five to offer her condolences. She brought with her a box of chocolates from Thorntons. It was nearly new. Only two of the champagne truffles had been eaten.

‘Couldn’t get to the shops today,’ she explained. ‘I was sanding some chairs in the garage.’ She was still wearing the protective mask around her neck. ‘I got these for my birthday. I’ve hardly touched them.’

Ronnie accepted the gift in the spirit in which it was given. It was only later that she realised it was actually the box of chocolates she herself had given Cathy as a gift two weeks earlier.

‘Thanks, Cathy.’

‘I’m sorry about Fishy. She was a good cat,’ said Cathy. ‘And I know you’re all going to miss her but you can rest assured she’s safely with Satan now.’

‘Cathy! Don’t say that! She was lovely!’

For just a second Ronnie was horrified. Then she remembered that Satan was the name of Cathy’s old dog, a bad-tempered and toothless Yorkshire terrier, who had died before Jack was even born. Satan had been Fishy’s nemesis for a while. One of Fishy’s favourite things had been to stretch out along the fence between numbers 12 and 14, keeping just out of reach while the Yorkie bounced up and down like a yo-yo, driven wild with doggy frustration. Cathy hadn’t owned a pet since Satan met his fate under the wheels of a surprisingly fast mobility scooter in Coventry city centre. She said she couldn’t bear the inevitable pain of parting.

‘You never get over it,’ she said now. ‘It’s just like having a human die. Worse, in fact, because when they’re alive, animals don’t piss you off nearly half so much as people do.’

Ronnie didn’t entirely disagree with that but she mimed a throat-slitting motion in an attempt to get Cathy to change the subject before Jack came into the room. Jack entered listlessly, carrying a Doctor Who book.

‘Evening, soldier,’ said Cathy, giving him a salute.

‘Fishy’s dead,’ Jack sighed.

‘I know. That’s why I brought you these.’

She indicated the chocolates. ‘There’s a couple missing but we saved your favourites.’

Jack said he didn’t want them.

Cathy and Ronnie shared a look. Jack off chocolate was a very bad sign indeed.

***

The next morning, Jack went to school. Ronnie was nervous as she walked him there. He barely said a word, when he was usually so hard to shut up. Perhaps she should have let him stay home? Just for one day. But Ronnie herself had to go straight to work after she dropped him off. She worked at a funeral parlour of all places. She wished she were going to a job where she could be guaranteed a laugh.

Ronnie waved Jack off at the school gates and watched until he walked into the building. His little shoulders were slumped. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him quite so sad and it made her heart squeeze in her chest. When she finally got to the funeral parlour, she had to walk around the block before she went in, to make sure she didn’t bring a cloud of unhappiness into the place. It wasn’t fair on the customers. They had enough worries of their own.

All the same, Ronnie’s boss, Mr Furniss, noticed she wasn’t her usual self.

‘Our cat died,’ she admitted.

‘Oh, Ronnie,’ Mr Furniss frowned. ‘That is horrible news. I’ll never forget the day we lost our Siamese, Shere Kahn.’ As he told Ronnie that story, he had to dab away a tear. ‘I didn’t even like cats before my wife brought that kitten home. Five years since he passed and the thought of it can still make me cry. Bloody pets,’ Mr Furniss concluded. ‘They get right under your skin.’

‘They do,’ Ronnie agreed.

Later that day, when he came back from his lunch-break, Mr Furniss brought Ronnie a red Bounty. He placed it on her desk with a respectful nod.

Falling Leaves and Fireworks is available as ebook only for the bargain price of only 99p. So what are you waiting for?!