The Cat Bur­glar by Kim Fleet

Bella was a klep­to­ma­niac, and I didn’t know how to stop her!

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LIKE most blokes, I’m not big on house­work. I dust round things in­stead of lift­ing them up, and only vac­uum the vis­i­ble bits of the car­pet.

So when I dropped a cuff­link and moved the sofa to re­trieve it, I un­earthed a stash of hid­den trea­sure that had ev­i­dently been there for weeks.

I knew ex­actly who was re­spon­si­ble for the haul of a pink sock with a pom­pom, a black stock­ing, hair scrunchy and a thin elec­tri­cal lead that be­longed to a cam­era. “Bella!”

The mis­cre­ant merely blinked and af­fected an in­no­cent ex­pres­sion that didn’t fool me for a sec­ond.

Us­ing my fin­ger and thumb, I hooked an old crisp packet from the stash.

“That’s dis­gust­ing. You must have snaf­fled this out of the bin.”

The klep­to­ma­niac raised her paw and licked it del­i­cately, her white whiskers stark against her sleek jet fur.

I gath­ered up the hoard with a sink­ing heart. I knew ex­actly who Bella had pinched it all from, and the knowl­edge made me squirm with em­bar­rass­ment.

When a cute girl moves in next door, a chap wants to be known for open­ing stub­born jars, a warm smile and a friendly wave.

Gen­er­ally he wants to be known as an all-round good egg a girl can turn to to fix taps, re­place light­bulbs and jump-start cars. Not as the owner of a thiev­ing cat.

It was the cam­era lead that clinched it – it had to be­long to Holly. She was a pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher, as she’d told me when she moved in two months be­fore.

My old neigh­bour, Mrs Thomas, had gone to live with her daugh­ter. I was sorry to see her go, as she was a great neigh­bour: happy to take in parcels, gen­er­ous with her sloe gin, and a mean hand at poker.

But I was im­pressed by her re­place­ment – a slen­der blonde in her late twen­ties.

Nat­u­rally I’d gone over with a bot­tle of wine to in­tro­duce my­self, and found she was even pret­tier close up, with a heartshaped face and deep blue eyes.

“This is re­ally kind of you,” she’d said. “I’m Holly.”

“Finn,” I’d said, pleased when she in­vited me in to share the wine. Her place was im­mac­u­late and smelled of fresh laun­dry and cit­rus. “So what do you do?”

“I’m a pho­tog­ra­pher. Not peo­ple; things.”

I was in­trigued. “What sort of things?” “Gad­gets and tools mostly, for cat­a­logues.”

She asked me about my job – maths teacher – and I rec­om­mended which lo­cal take-aways were good and which ones to avoid, and af­ter that . . . noth­ing.

A friendly wave and chat if we bumped into each other, but if I was dream­ing of a girl-next-door ro­mance, my dreams weren’t com­ing true.

Now they were even fur­ther away, as I took the pur­loined items next door to con­fess and apol­o­gise.

“But how is she get­ting in?” Holly asked, be­wil­dered.

“You’ve not seen her in the house?”

“No, though I’ve seen her in the gar­den.” Holly frowned. “I’m not here half the time. I’m usu­ally with clients in the morn­ing, and I spend all af­ter­noon in my study en­hanc­ing the pho­tos.”

She gave a small laugh. “I get so en­grossed I prob­a­bly wouldn’t no­tice if an ele­phant came in.” She bit her lip. “I hope this doesn’t mean my house is in­se­cure.”

It seemed a mys­tery in­deed, un­til a clat­ter told me ex­actly how Bella was break­ing in.

“May I?” I asked, point­ing to­wards the util­ity room at the back of the kitchen.

Bella was in the mid­dle of the floor. The cat flap was al­most hid­den from view be­hind some un­packed boxes, and it rat­tled with the force of her en­try.

“Mrs Thomas who lived here be­fore you had a cat, and when it died Bella used to let her­self in through the flap,” I ex­plained. “It worked re­ally well. I was out at work all day so Bella kept Mrs Thomas com­pany and got spoiled.” “A time-share cat?” I shrugged.

“You know what cats are like.”

“No, ac­tu­ally. We moved around a lot when I was grow­ing up and didn’t have pets,” Holly told me.

“Well, I know how to stop your in­truder,” I said, fas­ten­ing the cat flap on both sides.

“I’m rather re­lieved to find out it’s only Bella,” Holly con­fessed. “When stuff got knocked over and went miss­ing, I started to think it was a ghost.”

“Noth­ing spooky in this house,” I as­sured her. Here was a chance to re­deem my­self. “But if you’re ever wor­ried, you only have to call.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Holly said, and showed us out.

“Thanks a bunch,” I scolded Bella. “First nice girl I’ve met for ages and you go and mess it up.”

Bella blinked her big eyes at me and I re­lented. She was used to hav­ing the run of both houses and wasn’t to un­der­stand it had all changed.

Over the next cou­ple of weeks, it seemed all had been for­given. Holly smiled when she saw me, and asked af­ter Bella.

It was all very cor­dial, and I started think­ing that as the even­ings got longer and warmer, I’d in­vite Holly over for a bar­be­cue.

I never got the chance. I was watch­ing the foot­ball on TV one Satur­day af­ter­noon when the door­bell rang fu­ri­ously.

Holly was on the doorstep, two pink splotches on her cheeks and her eyes blaz­ing. “Give it back!” she cried. I ran my hand through my hair, com­pletely at a loss. I fol­lowed Holly’s eyes and looked be­hind me as Bella marched into the room and de­posited a frog on the floor.

Holly squealed and rushed over to it. “Poor thing! Is it hurt?” I eye­balled Bella, who looked dis­tinctly miffed that some­one had mus­cled in on her catch.

Holly looked up.

“I saw Bella at the pond, then a sec­ond later she’d flicked out a frog and run off with it.”

Time to demon­strate my car­ing yet prac­ti­cal side. I fished an old card­board box out of the re­cy­cling, lined it with a sports mag­a­zine to cover the rough bits, and gen­tly scooped up the frog.

Holly and I re­leased it back into her pond and watched it swim away, for­tu­nately un­scathed by its ad­ven­ture.

“I hope Bella doesn’t catch any more,” Holly said, frown­ing. “Or catch any of the birds.”

Pri­vately I thought Bella was far too lazy to chase af­ter birds, but Holly was ob­vi­ously wor­ried.

“Just squirt her with a wa­ter pis­tol if you don’t want her in your gar­den. She’ll soon get the mes­sage. And I can put some net­ting over your pond to pro­tect it.”

“Thanks, but I can do it,” Holly said.

I had words with Bella later.

“Please don’t an­noy Holly,” I pleaded. “I want us to be friends. So keep your paws off her pond, OK?”

Bella stared back and I knew my pleas had gone in one ear and out the other.

Then a few days later, I came home to find a small knit­ted toy in the mid­dle of the floor.

I picked it up: it was a doll, with long brown strands of wool for hair, a knit­ted blue dress, and em­broi­dered eyes and mouth.

“Where did you get this?” I ac­cused Bella.

She cir­cled my legs and me­owed.

“Did you pinch this from Holly?” I stud­ied the doll for a mo­ment.

Holly’s house was clean, bright and tidy. She didn’t have clut­ter or knick­knacks all over the place, so if she’d kept this doll out on dis­play, it meant it was spe­cial.

It was a long time be­fore Holly an­swered the door, and when she did, I saw the rea­son for the de­lay. Her skin was grey, her eyes sunk in deep hol­lows, and she could barely move.

“Flu,” was all she said, be­fore she shuf­fled away.

“Back on the sofa with you,” I or­dered, thump­ing the cush­ions and re­ar­rang­ing the quilt she’d draped there.

Holly crawled back into her sofa nest and I went to the kitchen to knock up a hot lemon drink.

“Try this,” I said, set­ting down a cup be­side her.

A black shape on the quilt shifted and set­tled. “Bella! Off!”

“She’s all right,” Holly said. “It’s nice hav­ing her to snug­gle with.”

“She’s been here all day?”

“Pretty much. She came in through an open win­dow this morn­ing and made her­self comfy.” Holly’s voice scratched, and she paused to cough. “I didn’t have the en­ergy to chase her away.”

“I’m afraid she’s been steal­ing again.” I put the doll on the arm of the sofa.

“Trixie!” Holly smoothed back the doll’s wool hair. “She’s my poorly doll.”

I must have looked baf­fled be­cause she added, “When­ever I was ill as a child, I’d hold on to Trixie and al­ways feel bet­ter.

“This flu is so rot­ten I just wanted some­one to look af­ter me, so I tucked her up with me.”

A tear es­caped and trick­led down her cheek.

“Don’t cry,” I said, grab­bing a tis­sue from the box. “You’re not on your own. You’ve got me, and Bella seems to have made her­self at home.”

We both looked at Bella, who had pum­melled the quilt into a nest for her­self and was purring os­ten­ta­tiously.

“I was glad she was here.” Holly stroked Bella’s cheek and the purring in­ten­si­fied.

Bella flopped over so Holly could give her a chin rub. It hadn’t taken the lit­tle minx long to train Holly to do what she wanted, but I was pleased to see the tears had van­ished.

“Could you man­age some­thing to eat?” I said, then hes­i­tated, think­ing of the times she’d re­fused my help. “That is, if you don’t mind me help­ing.”

Holly shook her head. “I’m glad you’re here. And sorry for be­ing a bit stand­off­ish in the past.”

“You value your in­de­pen­dence,” I said, demon­strat­ing my un­der­stand­ing side.

“It’s more than that,” Holly said. “My dad used to han­dle all the prac­ti­cal stuff like bleed­ing the ra­di­a­tors, nail­ing the fence up and get­ting the car ser­viced. Mum didn’t know how to do any of it.

“Any­way,” she con­tin­ued, “Dad fell off a lad­der and was out of ac­tion for months, and Mum went to pieces be­cause the boiler wouldn’t light and the taps dripped and the door stuck and she just didn’t know what to do.”

“It never rains but it pours,” I added.

“The last straw was when she didn’t check the wa­ter in the car, and the en­gine over­heated and she was left stranded for hours,” Holly said.

“I was about ten at the time, but I swore to my­self that I’d al­ways be able to do things my­self.”

“And you can,” I said. “But right now you have a friend to rely on, too.”

“Thanks,” Holly replied, smil­ing. “And yes, I could man­age some­thing to eat.” “Com­ing up.”

I headed for the kitchen and she called me back.

“Please would you un­fas­ten the cat flap so Bella can come and go as she wants?” She ca­ressed the black fur. “I’m start­ing to like the idea of a time­share cat, even if she does pinch my stuff.”

But the funny thing was, af­ter that day, Bella didn’t steal any­thing else from Holly’s house.

When I came home from work, if Holly’s car was in her drive­way, I’d pop over and find her work­ing on that day’s pho­tos, Bella purring on the win­dow-sill nearby.

Some­times I in­vited Holly over for a bar­be­cue, and some­times she cooked for me, and Bella would look on with a smug ex­pres­sion as if to say, “Mis­sion ac­com­plished.”

I knew my pleas had gone in one ear and out the other

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