The Cat Burglar by Kim Fleet
Bella was a kleptomaniac, and I didn’t know how to stop her!
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