One day in late 2012, I found myself feeling ill and disinclined to leave the house. Too ill to go out or do anything strenuous, but not so ill that I couldn’t be bored and restless; I did what most people do in these situations, and turned to social media.
Like Sherlock Holmes, my mind rebels at stagnation. I says on Facebook, “Give me a brief,” I says. Here’s what I got:
Arron Fowler write a flash fiction. 500 words or less. include a cat, magic powers, set in a time other than present day. good luck
The first thing that came to mind regarding cats was my friend Eric‘s cat Collier, whom I had heard about but not actually met, and her unusual name had stuck in my memory. One of my favourite time periods is the Victorian era, and from there it pretty much wrote itself… I wrote the story in about an hour then decided it needed a sequel, which I also completed the same day. I then felt that it needed a third instalment, but this I struggled with and had to abandon. Months later I re-read the first two parts and my various unfinished drafts of the third, and finally managed to come up with an ending(?) that I was happy with.
Here are all three parts for your viewing pleasure! If you squint a bit, you can work out who The Men are (I’ve dropped a hint already), and the third part also opens with a little hat tip to another favourite story of mine.
The Collier Tales, Part 1
Collier stared out at the smoky, gas-lit street through the narrow window, fat raindrops rolling down the glass. It was quiet now, apart from the occasional hansom cab collecting the last unlucky few caught out in the downpour. Collier never could abide the rain.
She padded over to the fire, the previously roaring flames now reduced to little more than glowing red embers, casting the room in a rosy light. The fire would soon die, and it would get abominably cold in here – this happened regularly when The Lady was away and The Man was too occupied with other things to care. She glanced over at him. He had fallen asleep on the chair again, food untouched on the table (well, somewhat untouched – Collier had thought it a shame to let the ham go to waste), and the thing that makes the noises was resting precariously on his knees.
This was the first time she’d seen him sleep in two days, maybe more, and she was always amazed by his propensity to stay awake far longer than others of his kind normally did. Collier herself generally took short naps several times a day, but then she didn’t have much else to occupy her time. The Man was perpetually busying himself both in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night, to the point where he would forget to eat and sleep for days on end. It showed too, as his furless skin was gaunt and pale – cheekbones protruding, eyes ringed and hollow. Collier had no idea what could be so important that one would willingly deprive themselves of life’s bare necessities (and keenest pleasures), but then it was really none of her business.
Collier had started checking in at the house when The Other Man moved out – although he still came around often and The Lady always brought the food and endeavoured to keep things tidy (an unceasing task, as The Man who lived here seemed to be constantly surrounded by boxes and papers), The Man was mostly alone, and frequently forgot to tend the fire. Collier liked the old house and its comfy chairs, and there was always food to eat here because The Man ate so little… but yes, the fire was sadly neglected at times. It wouldn’t do.
Collier’s curious ability first manifested itself when some schoolboys were throwing paper aeroplanes in the street one day – one had sailed towards her and, as it approached, burst into flames. When first she had wandered into this house, coaxed by the smell of cooked meat, the grate was cold and empty. She’d seen enough fires to know that flames needed fuel, and when she had looked at some of the papers lying around they had floated up into the air like the little boys’ aeroplanes, drifted into the fireplace and ignited. She knew the papers were of some importance to The Man, but as he had so many, he surely wouldn’t miss a few.
The Collier Tales, Part 2
The Man seemed very agitated today, the room even messier than usual. When Collier walked in there were stacks of paper everywhere, and The Man was frantically rummaging around in his boxes, muttering to himself. Perhaps he was looking for food? But no, there was some on the table, half-eaten. Collier picked her way through the boxes and papers and leapt up on to the table for a closer look – there was some cold chicken left. She sniffed at it, eyeing The Man to see if he would object to her helping herself to his leftovers, but he had his back to her and was clearly preoccupied with other things.
While she was eating The Other Man walked in, starting at the chaos before him. The Man seemed annoyed, yet beckoned to him. He must have told The Other Man what he was looking for, as he too began to look through the boxes.
The Man always seemed happier when The Other Man was there – it seemed to mean that there was Something Going On and if there was one thing Collier had learned about The Man who lived in this house, it was that he was only ever content when there was Something Going On. When there was Nothing Going On and The Other Man hadn’t been around in a few days, The Man had to use the pointy thing with the liquid inside it, which seemed to make him feel better for a short time. He didn’t use it so much when The Other Man was around – it apparently made him cross. Collier had inspected the pointy thing once while The Man was asleep, but hadn’t liked the way it smelled.
Collier slept on the chair by the fire for a time while The Men searched through the papers. When she awoke, she saw The Other Man pulling something out of the grate – it was part of the paper she had used to start the fire last night. The two men seemed both fascinated and alarmed by this, and spent some time making noises at each other, looking back and forth between the charred paper and the fireplace. Collier watched these proceedings with interest. The Other Man pulled out a thick mass of paper covered in dark markings (she often saw them looking at these), pointing something out to The Man – they set it on the table next to the scrap of burnt paper from the grate, looking at them side by side. Then suddenly they reached for their coats and hats and rushed out of the house, the rapid movement sweeping several sheets of paper up into the air in their wake.
Collier hopped back up on to the table to eat the remaining scraps of chicken. She glanced at the papers nearby, and saw that the paper from the fireplace and part of the stack of paper The Other Man had brought had similar black markings on. She finished the chicken, and went back to sleep.
The Collier Tales, Part 3
The Man in Black ran across the street and Collier followed. She had been wandering for some time, giving up on waiting for the Men to return to the house (the Lady would not bring any food if they weren’t there) and opting to go out and look for her dinner instead. After a couple of hours (and a very meagre supper) she had spotted them, crouching by a wall as if they were watching something and did not want to be seen. So they are hunting too, thought Collier; they’re getting ready to pounce. She had padded up to them, peeping around the wall to determine the object of their interest. The Men had been looking at Another Man who was dressed in black and heading towards a house across the road from them. The building looked fine and well kept, it was one Collier had not been in before – perhaps there would be some food there. Collier darted after him, slipping through the door as it was closing.
However it seemed that she would find neither food nor peace here as the two Men burst through the door immediately after her, bounding up the stairs after the Man in Black. Alarmed by the commotion, Collier had already shot up the stairs on hearing the bang of the door flying open. Suddenly, the Man in Black entered the room that Collier was in, seeming agitated and hurriedly shutting the door behind him, which he then proceeded to bar by dragging a heavy chest of drawers in front of it. He opened up a little door in the wall and took a stack of papers from within, shoving them into his bag with great haste. Collier could hear the Men hammering on the door and trying to force it open. She recalled a time when she had spent some time chasing after a mouse, only for it to run into a small hole in the wall where she could not follow. Most annoying.
Disturbed by the Man in Black dashing about the room gathering up this object and that and almost stepping on her a couple of times, she hissed at him. The Man in Black made angry noises and kicked out with a sharply pointed boot, knocking her backwards. Collier ran and jumped onto the chest of drawers, cringing at the pain in her ribs and staring hard at the Man in Black. Bang bang, came the Mens’ fists on the door. Collier looked from the Man in Black to the window; the only way out. They were both as that mouse, in a hole where predators could not follow… but this time, there was also a predator within.
As the Man in Black made for the window, the curtains suddenly burst into bright flames. Startled, he jumped back and stumbled into the arms of the Men, who had finally forced their way in.
Collier felt pleased with her work, and wondered what food the Lady would bring tonight.
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