Marshlands by Andre Gide

This is autofiction, a form of fictionalized autobiography. Autofiction combines two mutually inconsistent narrative forms, namely autobiography and fiction.

The protagonist of Marshlands is a writer who is writing a book called Marshlands about a reclusive character who lives in a tower and can fish out of his windows.

The narrator or protagonist is someone who is the opposite of reclusive, someone who has lots of acquaintances to whom he talks about Marshlands and other people behind the scenes are talking about Marshlands too and tell the narrator what they think about the book.

Even the reader can write part of the book by adding to the table of remarkable sentences on Page 88, making each reader’s version of the book unique. Isn’t that the idea, that each reader completes the book they’re reading almost always in a different way?

Our Cats in Amsterdam – Part 7

Our room is a lovely blue colour with sunlight coming through a window high on the wall, so we must be in a cellar somewhere. Four beds, two in a bunk bed, and two separate, round beds are present. There are two litter trays at opposite ends of the room, along with a large, round white bowl full of fresh, brown kibbles. There are photos of sunflowers on the walls and some fresh flowers in a vase lend a perfumed smell to the room.

Miep smiles at us as we admire our surroundings.

“Kitties, my understanding is that you can understand what I’m saying, somehow, so I live in there,” she pointed through the door into another room, “and I will be around most of the time to take care of you. A crow will tap on the window soon, so you can go outside and meet him as there’s a flap for a cat in the door.”

We both miaow in thanks. Miep leaves us be and we both use the facilities and eat a snack.

“It seems nice here,” I say after being respectful towards the Dutch kibbles.

“Yes, it does, and a cat flap is such a luxury,” replies Gemma who has reclined on the top bed of the bunk beds, “I wonder what that Euro Crow or whatever it’s called will give us for a first assignment?”

“Well, it should be a straightforward one, shouldn’t it, to ease us into our surroundings? As we are in unfamiliar surroundings,” I reply. I jump onto one of the round beds. It’s springy to the touch. I head to my carrier and pull out my books and the blue blanket, draping it over one corner so that it acts like a floppy roof. I can have some privacy when reading my books as though I’m reading under the couch at home.

I admire the bookshelf and see that our friends in Holland have been incredibly thoughtful regarding the books they’ve provided us.

“Gemma, come and see these books. They’ve provided us with some wonderful volumes.”

She jumps down and scampers over to the shelf.

“Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, all stoic philosophers, no Nietzsche that’s good, can’t stand him, Dante’s Inferno, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – I will read one of the philosophy books now. I will leave the books on the siege of Stalingrad and the battles of the Crusades until later.”

I was about to reply when there was a tapping at the window. A crow with a metallic tag on its claw was pecking at the glass and waving at the same time. Quite a feat of balance, if I say so myself, especially on a window ledge.

Gemma turns: “Well, that looks like the Euro Crow, Freddie, showing off for our benefit, providing a show as a welcome.”

“We should say hello. His name is Henk, so I’m going to say hello to Henk and not call him Euro Crow.”

I trot out of the room and down the sunrise yellow corridor to the red cat flap in the green door – someone in this house like bright colours – and then position myself to go through it. I’ve not done this before, so I head butt the flap gently and then push with my front and back paws at the same time. The flap shoots up and then hits me on the head on its way down, but I get through just the same. The flap swings a few times and then Gemma appears, looking at me with a squint.

“It’s better to use your paw, Freddie, not your head. You might hurt yourself if you’re not careful. You did it the dog way.”

When Gemma mentions me in connection with dogs, it’s not a compliment, so I smile ruefully and accept her advice.

The crow flies down to meet us. He looks at me.

“You are Freddie, yes?”

“Hello, yes, I’m Freddie. How are you?”

“I’m fine, as you say in England, unlike your weather, but I’m thrilled to meet you Freddie. I’ve seen many of your videos. And you must be Gemma.”

Gemma does quite a good job of appearing only a little icy, like a large ice cube or an icicle hanging from a gutter. “Yes, I’m Gemma. How many of my videos have you seen?”

I watch her quizzically, as I wasn’t aware she’d appeared in any.

“I have seen none of your videos. What videos do you do, exercise videos, you seem fit?”

A glacial stare appears on Gemma’s face, so I ask,

“Gemma was joking. It’s Henk, isn’t it? I’m curious which videos you’ve seen of mine because I wasn’t aware of appearing in any.”

“What? You’re joking, Freddie, you’re in the top 10 in Holland…”

Gemma puts a paw up to her mouth. I think to suppress a smirk – so that IS why I will have to be dyed another colour.

“…the one with the crows on the bench, the one on the swing, the one on the slide, and the one where you are encouraging a squirrel on a slide. He’s good, a genuine celebrity in the Vondelpark, because of the way he keeps landing on his face in the soil, but gets up again and has another go. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again and he does and lands on his face again. Amazing…persistence you refer to it as in England.”

“Or stupidity,” says Gemma, looking at the wall in the garden with a creeper clinging to it like it owned it.

“Is the squirrel here?” asks Henk.

“It’s not, no,” says Gemma. “It’s perfecting its flying technique daily in its local park.”

“Tell him to come here. We have a longer slide in one of our parks. He’d fly a lot further.”

“But still land on his face, though,” says Gemma, almost smiling.

“Right, well Henk,” I say, “what’s the plan for tomorrow?”

“Well, the plan for tomorrow is straightforward, orientation tour in the morning with you in the basket of Miep’s bicycle and then the first assignment in the afternoon, to follow a diamond courier who we suspect of giving diamonds to the mafia.”

“Oh mafia, straightaway, that’s a nice, easy start,” says Gemma, looking at me with slight concern, “are these the mafia who could make us an offer we can’t refuse?”

“The plan there,” says Henk, “is that no one will know you’re following anyone until the 2nd or 3rd day, so we should get some of the more sensitive targets out of the way first, as they won’t know they’re being followed by a pair of cats.”

“Makes sense, I suppose,” I say. “What information should we report back to you, the address, and what else?”

“The address and any other information, such as how long the meeting took, how many people were at the meeting or in the house, any names you overhear, we know you are very good at listening at windows Freddie, so we feel sure you’ll provide information that humans couldn’t provide as you operate by stealth, is that the right word?”

“Yes, stealth is a good word for that, but how do you know about me listening in at windows?” I ask.

“The word goes out around the crow network about things like this and we crows are good at listening, but we seem to be more conspicuous somehow and people notice us. Plus, we aren’t able to keep silent for as long as you English cats.”

“Yes, that’s right,” says Gemma. “We cats can lurk for hours, can’t we, Freddie?”

“We blend into surroundings well,” I say, “and our markings help, like a sort of camouflage, and as you say, people often see cats on window ledges and think very little of it.”

“That’s great,” says Henk, “I will leave you to rest after your journey and I will see you tomorrow.”

“How will we get back here from wherever we end up tomorrow?” asks Gemma.

“We will ask you to wear a collar with a locator on it and then come and pick you up and debrief you when we come back here. Or if you are very good at directions, you could come back here on your own.”

“It depends on the time,” I say, “and where we end up. Is it possible we could have to catch a train or a tram?”

“Well, a train I doubt, as we reckon all these diamonds stay in the city, but a tram is a possibility, so you might have to take that into consideration when following them. Stay close when there’s a stop nearby and always be aware of where the tramlines are.”

“Do these couriers ever use bicycles?” asks Gemma.

“We don’t believe they will,” says Henk, “but again you can’t rule it out in a city of bicycles, in which case you will have to follow as best you are able.”

“Yes, I’m sure we could scamper after them. It would just make it obvious that we were following them, at least I think it would,” says Gemma.

“But how many people think a cat is following them?” asks Henk. “You’d have to be paranoid to think that, plus most people wouldn’t notice, especially if they were carrying a valuable quantity of diamonds with them.”

“Yes, that’s true,” I reply. “If it was me carrying diamonds, I’d have them in front of me at all times on a bike, perhaps in the basket.”

“That would be very sensible, Freddie,” says Gemma, “and I suppose they wouldn’t be travelling far, these couriers. The other thing is that we’d see bikes outside their office, wouldn’t we?”

“We would, but there’s a free bike sharing system in Amsterdam, isn’t there Henk, so we’d have to watch out for these racks of bikes too.”

“Yes, Freddie, that’s right. Thank you for bringing up your concerns. You’ve obviously been studying things closely. It might be beneficial if we assign a parakeet to you who can show you where the courier goes to if you can’t keep up with them because they take a bike or a tram. You can then take over from the bird. Arnie would be best. He likes English football.”

“A parakeet?” says Gemma, “isn’t that a fancy name for a budgie?”

“The budgerigar is a species of parakeet,” I explain. “They came here as pets but settled in the wild as the city offered enough food for them to thrive, even during cold winters.”

 “Really?” says Gemma with a hint of irony.

 “Arnie sounds like a wonderful addition to the team, Henk,” I say without a hint of irony. “We might not need him, but he’ll add a different perspective to events.”

 “Credit to you two for coming up with these concerns,” replies Henk, “you are educating us already. Is there anything else you would like to talk about?”

“Not for me,” says Gemma. “I want to have a sleep now. It’s been a bit tiring today.”

“That’s everything for now, Henk,” I say. “We’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

“OK, sleep well, Freddie and Gemma and I feel sure you will enjoy the orientation tour tomorrow on Miep’s bicycle. She will go nice and slowly, so you get a good view of everything.”

With that, Henk flies off and we trot back inside with Gemma showing me how to negotiate the cat flap with a minimum of fuss and impact on my cranium, for which I thank her profusely.

Back in our room, more kibbles and books have appeared, and the litter trays have been cleaned. Gemma and I look at each other and are impressed. She jumps onto the bottom bunk and falls asleep almost immediately on top of the blue quilt. I carry the blanket from her carrier and place it over her so she won’t be cold. I am glad she is here, as I would feel vulnerable without her. 

I inspect the new books and admire the selection from Gogol to Alexander McCall Smith. This is exciting. First though, I must finish Whose Body by Dorothy L. I try to like books. I really do, and I try to have a good word to say about them. With this book, it’s a bit too much like Bertie Wooster being a detective, with a similar background of wealthy people, privilege, and well-connected friends. The actual murder is contrived, as is the way they placed the body where it’s found. I don’t understand why a murderer would go to all the trouble, carrying a dead body over rooftops, and placing it in someone’s bathroom via a window. Also, the murderer must have had superhuman strength and nimbleness to do this like an orangutan. The confession at the end just covers up the fact that no one could deduce how this murder was committed. Having the murderer explain their modus operandi is a lazy way of writing. This is my opinion. I’m pleased to say there are no mystery books in the bookcase, so I hope to provide more positive book reviews in two or three days, depending on how challenging our observations of the Amsterdam underworld turn out to be.

With this, I curl up under my new favourite blanket and fall asleep. 

Our Cats in Amsterdam – Part 6

As the train speeds up from Lille, the sun comes out, and it looks lovely outside.

“It looks lovely outside, Gemma,” I say, trying to engage her in conversation.

“I’m reading, Frederick,” she replies, “about state sponsored oppression in the Middle East. Did you enjoy your early lunch?”

“I did,” I reply. “I’ve saved half for later to celebrate entering the country of Belgium.”

“That’s nice,” she replies. “How will you work out when that happens?”

“The ground will change colour,” I reply, “and people will talk Flemish and wear different coloured football shirts.”

“It sounds like you’ve got it all worked out,” she says with a certain tone in her voice, which I can’t quite pinpoint. It probably isn’t important as she’s being influenced by what she’s reading and so I must recognise that and allow her to experience those feelings. The subject of her reading is making her angry and frustrated that such awful things can happen in the world, and I can understand why. It’s always better to know than not know and travel around with an inane grin on your face showing a blissful state based on nothing. Knowledge is good, but it should never control you and let it run your life and govern your actions. Those are my feelings based on my reading. The actions of the train mean we are heading into Belgium and the land has remained the same colour. Perhaps the farmers ploughed the colour into the soil? Anyway, I meditate some more and find myself asleep and dreaming about contemplating life from the top of The Atomium in Brussels, built for Expo 58.

Of course, it is a coincidence that I’m awoken by the train slowing down to enter the major station of the capital of Belgium. Mrs Elkins taps the top of our carriers:

“OK, kitties, Freddie, and Gemma, this is where we part for now. All being well, we’ll meet again in 10 days, back here in Brussels. I’m catching the train back to London and then to your house, to make sure everything is OK. I will wait until your escort arrives…here she is now, her name is Miep, and she will take you to Amsterdam via Rotterdam. You will be in expert hands. Bye kitties.”

We miaow our au revoir or saluu, depending on which part of Belgium you come from, and Miep takes Mrs Elkins’s place. She places her cheerful face in front of my little window and smiles at me. Her glasses are a nice shape that suits her face and are red. I miaow at her as that is the least I can do. She also says hello to Gemma, though I’m not sure whether Gemma responds. Gemma is not the best at making friends and getting along with people she’s never met – humans call it breaking the ice. Gemma herself is glacier-like or iceberg-like or Greenland-ice-sheet-like or even West-Antarctic-Ice-Shelf-like towards people she doesn’t know. I hope this conveys the coldness of her response and the icy demeanour she shows, though it’s possible she might thaw eventually, unlike the ice features I’ve mentioned, which will melt quickly if we don’t do something. The train starts up again on its way to Holland and Rotterdam before finishing its journey in Amsterdam. Miep pours some water into the small bowl in my carrier, and I lap up a couple of mouthfuls, as I’m a little thirsty.

“Miep seems nice,” I say to Gemma.

“Yes, she gave me some water, Freddie, which is good of her, isn’t it? I don’t want to drink too much as there doesn’t appear to be anywhere to pee in these carriers.”

“There isn’t, Gemma, so we should keep our moisture until the house in Amsterdam.”

“What have you been reading?” asks Gemma.

“It’s called Whose Body by Dorothy L Sayers and it’s OK, but nowhere near as good as say The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha. The characters in Whose Body are upper class and wealthy and what some people could call the idle rich.”

“Do they look down their noses at the poor people and those who work for a living in this book?”

“They do, yes, but it’s a strength of the writing that I can feel myself not liking these people even though they’re supposed to be the good people as they’re the ones who are trying to catch the killer.”

“I doubt I could read a book like that,” replies Gemma, “even if it’s well written.”

“Why ever not?” I ask.

“It would make me angry, too angry, that snooty people were being immortalised in this manner. Why are there never any books about coal miners being detectives or pet shop owners who are detectives, looking out through the mice and hamsters in the window to see crimes being committed by humans and solving them before the police?”

“Well, there’s a niche for you, Gemma, you could write a detective story about a pet shop owner who gets his pets to find out who did it by releasing them from the shop and then they ask lots of questions to the local cats and dogs, who will almost certainly know who did it.”

“Yes, but would the pet shop owner get all the credit, or would the animals?”

“Gemma, you’d be the writer, so you’d  decide, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, the female cat would get all the credit for her miraculous deductions and would point her paw at the person who did it, and then the police would arrest the murderer.”

“Point the paw. That sounds like a catchphrase, something repetitive that people would understand, and which would act as a hook so people would continue to read.”

“I shall ponder this, Freddie, a pet shop owner who sends his cats out to solve the local crimes, not all of them murders of course, who stole Mrs Winters’s ferret, who stole Louise Draycott’s bike, who keeps painting rude words on the community centre door.”

“You’ve an active imagination, Gemma,” I say. “This will do you a lot of good and give you a new hobby to do.”

“It will,” says Gemma. “I will ponder on this and ask my subconscious to come up with a plot line. I will have a sleep now Freddie and see what my mind can come up with.”

“Pleasant dreams,” I say, and go back to reading my book about Lord Peter Wimsey and his mystery of the body in the bath. I can see by the reflection in the window that Miep is reading a book too, and she seems to enjoy it. Everything is peaceful, which is good and reassuring. This calm atmosphere leads me to fall asleep just after Lord Peter decides who’s done it and I only wake up when we arrive at the central station in Amsterdam. I missed Rotterdam completely. It must have been quiet, and I’m disappointed as I was hoping to see something of Europoort, but I’ll catch it on the way back.

Three minutes after we arrive, Miep picks up the carriers and takes us outside, where it appears most of the people have already left the station. She walks along the platform and places the two cat carriers inside a people carrier. Gemma and I are whisked away and soon arrive somewhere. They take us down some stone steps and inside a house with a green front door. Miep lets us out of our accommodation. We are here.

Our Cats in Amsterdam – Part 5

At about 7pm, Mrs Elkins arrives with two cat carriers, two toys, and what looks like an overnight bag. The black cat carriers are rather luxurious and lined with material. There is a small window in the door but otherwise we can easily keep out of sight and maintain our undercover operation. The toys are not very flattering, and Gemma bats hers over the head with her right paw, indicating a certain displeasure with the resemblance. I try to calm her down by pointing out that she and her toy will never have to share the same space and she sees the validity of my argument, before kicking it forcefully in the stomach with her back paws. It seems as though the anger management classes still haven’t taken full effect.

Mrs Elkins allows us a last use of our litter trays and food bowls before we begin our trip. We will catch the first train in the morning from London to Amsterdam and our tickets are in Business Premium class, which seems right for two cats operating by stealth. She positions the two toys in places where they are discernible to anyone passing by and will move them each day. Mrs Elkins will accompany us only part of the way. The handover will take place in Brussels where hard green vegetables that are difficult to chew come from. Our Dutch handler will take us from there to Amsterdam and Mrs Elkins will come back to our home in time to be seen the following evening, so that the neighbours are comfortable with her being around the house.

I pack something for the trip, namely the books Whose Body and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Gemma sees that’s a good idea and takes two New Statesman magazines that John reads but won’t be needing as he’s in The Maldives. My cat carrier has a small light in the interior which operates by pushing a switch. There’s a slightly raised area which would count as a bed and a small blue blanket which I can snuggle under if I feel cold. The blanket feels soft, and I wonder whether I can keep it when I come back. I put Tom Sawyer under the blanket so it will be warm and leave Whose Body on top. I don’t investigate Gemma’s carrier as I know she likes to keep details of her personal things private.

Once we’ve familiarised ourselves with our temporary abodes, Mrs Elkins says we should be going. She closes and locks the doors, and we are picked up.

“How are you, Gemma?” I ask.

“I am fine, Freddie,” she replies, “how many channels does your television have?”

“I don’t have a TV,” I reply, “but that’s alright because I will be able to read instead.” I try to make the best of every situation, as my mum taught me when I was a growing kitten.

We are taken out into the cool night to begin our adventure in Holland. Our friends are asleep in their various homes around and I look forward to seeing them all when I return in a few days.  

Chapter 4 – Today

Everything goes well as we catch the train with plenty of time to spare at St Pancras International. Gemma says the Romans beheaded St Pancras at fourteen years of age for being a Christian. He is the patron saint of health, jobs, and children. Gemma claims to have found this information on the TV she has in her carrier, but I’m sceptical of this claim. I think she is taking the Michael as she knows I can’t verify this.

We seem to have a compartment to ourselves, although I can’t tell as Mrs Elkins has thoughtfully placed us towards the window, and I can only see the trees and fields speeding by. I try to count the cows, but it’s difficult and I content myself with reading about the efforts of Lord Peter Wimsey to find out who the killer is. Personally, I do not know who did it and as a station flashes past, I realise I don’t really care who did it. I don’t give up on books, not even those by Virginia Woolf, but I’m tempted to do so here. Dorothy L  isn’t as good as Agatha, not by a long way, but my curiosity means I will persevere until the end. I realise I should have brought Agatha’s Murder on the Orient Express with me or Stamboul Train by Graham. Still, I could read them on the way back as long as I remember to ask Henk to buy them for me. I fall into a slumber and meditate as we zoom under the waters of the English Channel and materialise in France, where the trees and fields appear similar to their English counterparts. The cows zip by all the way to Lille, our first stop.

Mrs Elkins gives us a small treat via a little drawer on the carrier’s side. At least she gives me a treat. I’m not sure whether Gemma gets one. I bow to the treat and then sniff it carefully before biting it in half. It’s quite chewy and sweet to the taste. I resolve to eat the other half in a different country, Belgium, which is coming up soon. According to the map in the atlas I checked before leaving, Belgium would be a light-brown colour and Holland would be green with a chaotic coastline, so it should be easy to tell when we cross the international borders as the ground will change colour.

Our Cats in Amsterdam – Part 4

By the time I wake up, John and Mary have already left for the airport. I walk around the house looking at how neat and tidy they’ve left everything. They did a lot of washing yesterday including their bed sheets and our cat blankets, so that Gemma and I would have clean bedding for the two weeks they’re away. This is very kind and considerate of them and shows me they love us and want what’s best for us. I go into each of their bedrooms and smell their scent on their clothes and belongings and find it very reassuring.

Mrs Elkins our cat carer arrives at 9am and it appears a normal visit. She feeds and cleans up after us and then departs but not before leaving two copies of a 3-page-long dossier all printed on one side of the page. We have to memorise this information and not bring it with us. Mrs Elkins will recycle the paper during our absence. She will be staying in our house for a few hours each day to make sure that no one breaks in and steals anything. She will also spend the occasional night there too for the same reason.

“They seem to think we live in an area of high crime,” says Gemma staring at the first page of the document, which explains Mrs Elkins’s role during our absence.

“They’re just covering themselves, Gemma,” I say, “it would be embarrassing if they had to explain to the police that someone had broken into the house and stolen us, but left two toy cats behind that look similar to us, wouldn’t it?”

“It would, Freddie, in the event that happened I’m sure we could get back quicker than the humans, so we’d be here when they arrived. Sometimes though I wonder what we’ll be up against in Amsterdam, what kind of organised crime it might be, because it appears they’re concerned that those people could find out where we live somehow and target the house.”

“I do hope not, I really do, because we might never be safe. Mary and John shouldn’t be placed in danger because of our escapades. Anyway, let’s not think like that, let’s look at the rest of the dossier and see what we’ll be doing in the city.”   

“It seems like we’ll get the exact details each morning from this Henk character who is a crow who works for the government, but it doesn’t say which government, but I presume it will be the Dutch government.” Gemma started to flick her tail slightly as she didn’t like not knowing things exactly.

“I think it’s more likely Henk will work for Europol, the European Police, who I presume will be able to work across borders without any issues, unlike government agents who aren’t supposed to operate on another nation’s territory.”

Gemma twitched her whiskers – “Yes, I think you’re right, I should have thought of that myself. I wonder if we’ll be inducted into the organisation and get paid a wage of some kind or are we working for free? Is there a union I wonder?”

“I don’t think humans regard cats as employees, Gemma, after we’ll be getting board and lodgings for free won’t we?”

Gemma flicks her tail a little more quickly – “We should receive some recompense for our labour. This stinks of the gig economy Frederick, we’ll be run into the ground if we’re not careful. We have to be organised and stand up for ourselves. We should let this Henk know we won’t be pushed around.”

“I wonder if we’ll get a badge to wear to show we’re working for a large organisation?”

Gemma almost gives me a Sneer Level 3 for being an Ignorant and Stupid Cat, but contents herself with banging her tail up and down on the floor – “You want a deputy badge like they have in the Western films?”

I smile because I suppose I did, but I’m not sure how they’d attach it to my fur especially if I were disguised as a ginger cat – “I suppose some recognition that I’m part of the Pussy Posse, yes, we’re after the bad guys.”

Gemma stops thumping her tail on the floor : “We’re going to be following people around from one address to another and making sure the crows know which house the person has gone to and that’s about it. I suppose it’s up to us to make the assignments more interesting, you know, stare in the window, and see what they’re up to without being seen.”

“We also have to talk to the local animals and see if they have any information about the places we’re going to.”

“It doesn’t say that in my dossier, Freddie” says Gemma, “have we got different versions?”

“No, it doesn’t say that in my dossier either Gemma, but it makes sense to do that, because I’m sure the animals will know. I think we should work to our strengths, don’t you?”

Gemma looks a little askance – “Freddie with all due respect that is more your strength than mine. I’m less at ease talking to creatures cats are normally expected to attack and eat for food. It still doesn’t feel right talking to squirrels without chasing them up trees where they belong.”

“Well, Gemma, who knows in the way of karma, you might have reason to thank a squirrel for an act of kindness sooner than you expect.”

“We’ll see about that; I mean what can a squirrel do for me that I can’t do for myself already?”

“Who knows what situations we’ll find ourselves in – let’s wait and see. Do you have any questions – it seems clear to me although I’m not sure why I’m the one who will have to undergo a change of fur colour?”

“Yes, perhaps your markings stand out more and are more likely to be observed by the people we’re following. Or perhaps they’ve heard about you and not about me?”

“Oh I wonder if it’s the videos from the park when I was on the swing and the slide. The city warden took pictures of me with her phone when I was going down the slide. I wonder if they’ve been shared with people?”

“Oh, now he says.” Gemma places a paw on her head. I look on the bright side, it’s a lot better than a sneer of any level, which shows things are continuing to progress.

All in all, I get the impression that our time in Amsterdam will be mainly trotting along by the canals under the elm trees as we keep someone in our sights. There won’t be much time for sight-seeing which will disappoint Gemma as she was hoping to go to The Anne Frank House and also the Van Gogh Museum as she likes his paintings a lot. There seems to be a common feature between her choices namely suffering during their lifetime.

“Is everything clear to you?” I ask.

“I think so,” says Gemma, moving one of her pieces of paper out of the sunlight which had crept through the half-lowered blinds onto the floor, “I’m more concerned about what they’re not telling us, Frederick, in terms of whether these people could be dangerous. Arms dealers and drug people could be rather nasty, don’t you think?”

“They’re more likely to be angry at humans than us,” I reply, “I doubt they’ll notice two cats trailing them, especially if we’re on different sides of the street.”

“Yes, but they’re already telling us that you’ll probably have to be stained ginger during our time away, almost as though when they see you, they’ll recognise you. Whereas with me, they’re not expecting that to happen. I’m a bit worried about you really.”

“Thank you, Gemma, that’s why I wanted you to come along with me, so you can look out for me and make sure I’m going to be OK.”

“Yes, well I will do my best, Freddie, I can do nothing against guns, bows and arrows, and knives.”

“But we’ll see those weapons before they use them, you can’t really hide them, can you? If we see them carrying something, we’ll scamper off and hide.”

“There might be snipers though or big dogs with sharp teeth.”

“I think you’re worrying too much, Gemma, you just have to accept what’s thrown your way. You can only deal with what you encounter at the time you encounter it. Fears are always about the future and not about the moment we’re in.”

“Right, thank you Freddie, I will try to remember that. Why will we be on opposite sides of the road, by the way, why not the same side, the side the person we’re following is on?”

I nod to myself as that’s a fair question – “I was thinking we should do that in case the person we’re trailing suddenly moves from one side of the street to the other to throw us off the trail.”

Gemma twitches her whiskers – “I hadn’t thought of that, again, you are quite cunning in your own way, aren’t you?”

“I try to do my best at all times, Gemma, I think through the problem and contemplate the best way to act that reduces the amount of suffering I inflict, both on myself and other sentient beings.”

“They have trams in Amsterdam, Freddie, do you think we can use those to tail people?”

“That’s a good point Gemma, we will have to know about the trams as someone could hop on the tram and leave us trying to catch up. I’m not sure if cats have to pay on trams, so we should ask Henk about that. We could lose someone that way.”

“Perhaps we should have communication devices?”

“Those could be tricky to operate. I presume you’re referring to times when one of us can get on the tram but the other can’t, so we arrange a rendezvous?

”Yes, something like that, Freddie,” replies Gemma, “we might have to adopt a ploy where we wait outside for someone, one of us on the left side of the entrance and the other one on the right side of the entrance and then we can follow them whichever way they go. It will involve a lot of scampering to catch up.”

“Yes, it will be a good exercise in teamwork, Gemma, we’ll have to cooperate in order to be a success. It should keep us fit and healthy and that’s something to look forward to.”

“Anyway, I’m going to have a sleep as I think we might be travelling for some part of the night, and I’d like to be awake and feeling refreshed when we arrive.”

“That’s a good idea, Gemma, I’ll have a snooze too until Mrs Elkins comes back for us.”  Gemma walks off and goes downstairs and I retire under the couch. I read some more of Whose Body. I have to say I find Lord Peter Wimsey difficult to understand as he misses the letter ‘g’ off the ends of words, for example gettin’ rather than getting and comin’ instead of coming. It’s a verbal tic, I think it’s called, but it’s affectin’ my understandin’ of the book I’m readin’. People who do that are really fake in my opinion even if they are fictional. Hercule and Jane didn’t do that in their books. Wimsey also has a servant and I thought slavery had been abolished before the 1920s. Still, when I reflect on these things, it’s better to know than not to know and that’s one of the reasons I read books, I find I like some authors and not others, and I don’t realise how good a particular author is until I read another author in the same genre who isn’t as good and then I appreciate the first author even more. Life is all about finding things out and understanding why things happen in certain ways. After 20 pages of high-falutin’ descriptions, I’m still not sure who committed the murder and why the naked body was dumped in someone’s bath, so being inquisitive by nature I want to find that out. Anyway, I fall asleep and dream about meditating on a tram as it rattles through Amsterdam by canals full of barges with windmills in the distance and people wearing clogs as they eat Edam and Gouda sandwiches. I hadn’t realised dreams could be so stereotyping, I thought they were always imaginative, but obviously not. That says a lot about my subconscious mind

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This just might be the best fiction book I read in 2022.

It’s utterly brilliant and yet I can’t work out why. In a way, it doesn’t matter.

It combines a heroine who has wisdom in dealing with people beyond her years together with a cast of support characters who might live quite close to Blandings Castle and be influenced by the pig-worshipping Lord Emsworth. Except the Starkadders live in rural Sussex not Shropshire.

Flora Poste is a privately educated young woman who descends on her relatives, the Starkadders and their close associates, at Cold Comfort Farm. The cast of characters is borderline believable and includes Judith alone with her grief, Amos the bible-bashing amateur preacher, the smouldering Seth who’s only really interested in talking films, Elfine the graceful, beautiful woman-in-waiting who bounds around The South Downs with wonderful abandon, and Aunt Ada Doom who saw “something nasty in the woodshed”.

By the end of the book, none of these characters still live at Cold Comfort Farm thanks to the brilliant observational skills and exemplary people skills of Flora Poste.

Does Flora find happiness for herself? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

Read the book. Recommended.

Our Cats in Amsterdam – Part 3

On the rest of this today, and the next today, the humans pack and unpack their bags several times each and change their suitcases twice. This suggests indecision to me, but they eventually settle on the right items to take and then, in the evening of the next today, there’s a knock on the front door.

=========

Gemma and I look at each other – this must be Mrs Elkins, our cat sitter, although she was going to have an easy time of it. Moving two stuffed toys around the house wouldn’t be too strenuous. Where she’d have to be clever is removing the right amount of food, both tins of wet and bags of dry, from the house regularly, even though we weren’t eating it. Mary walks to the front door and opens it and welcomes in a tall, fair-skinned woman with piercing blue eyes. She looks nice to me. Gemma looks at her with practised disdain.

“Yes, Mrs Elkins, welcome,” says Mary. “I’ll just get our flight information for you. Somewhat surprisingly, the two cats are here to meet you. Normally, they scamper off and we have to find them.”

Mary walks into the kitchen and Mrs Elkins looks at us with a smile. We look back at her with interest. Mary soon comes back clutching a neatly typed piece of paper which she hands to the lady visitor along with a front-door key.

“Oh, you’re going to The Maldives. How nice, I’ve always wanted to go there. Direct flights too. That’ll be nice.”

“Yes, we could have gone via Amsterdam,” says John, coming into the room clutching a toothbrush still in its wrapper, “but we decided to go direct, though we could change it I suppose and spend a day in the city.”

“I think direct flights are so much better,” says Mrs Elkins, “and then you don’t have to worry about what to do about your luggage or having it lying around the tarmac for hours unsupervised.”

Gemma and I stare at the humans, trying to transmit thoughts of direct flights into their minds.

“Yes, that’s true,” says Mary, “we’ve been to Amsterdam, and I thought the Anne Frank House was poignant and the Rijksmuseum quite overwhelming in terms of the amount of art. I don’t think we’ll want to change our flights once we’re there. We’ll want to enjoy ourselves and not want to think about coming home.”

“I think you’re right. Enjoy the sunshine and forget about coming home. Anyway, which of these kitties is which? I’d guess the male one is the kind one and Gemma is the one who’s been glaring at me.”

“She glares at everyone,” says John, “in fact, she normally glares at you and then runs off, so you’re quite honoured because she has stayed in your presence. She must really like you.”

I turn to stare at the wall for 10 seconds as I’m quite amused by what John has said and I can imagine Gemma is not pleased.

“I think she’s just inquisitive,” says Mrs Elkins, “anyway, I will see you two kitties tomorrow morning after your human parents have caught their rather early morning flight from the airport. Bye kitties and you two have a wonderful time in The Indian Ocean and don’t worry about your pets. I will look after them.”

With that, she turns around and Mary accompanies her out of the room. John goes into his bedroom to put his toothbrush somewhere and Gemma trots downstairs to kick the stuffing out of a toy dog with her back paws, one exercise she learned as part of an anger management course she took online. I retire under the newly covered blue chair where Whose Body is waiting. Before they go to bed, both John and Mary come over and stroke me, telling me they’ll miss me, and they’ll be back soon. I purr and miaow to show I will miss them too, which I will, as they are both kind people with their hearts in the right place. From what I’ve heard of The Maldives, they’ll soon be underwater because of Climate Change, and I hope that doesn’t happen when John and Mary are there.   

Our Cats in Amsterdam – Part 2

“Hello Freddie and Gemma, how are you, and who are your friends?” asks Rufus.

“Hello squirrel,” says Gemma, “to answer your question, those were our friends who were telling us what we would do when the humans are away in terms of the cat sitter and when they’d be coming.”

“Hello, Gemma,” replies Rufus, “that’s the first time you’ve ever spoken to me and the first time you’ve ever looked at me without giving me the impression you want to eat me.”

“Because, Rufus,” says Gemma, “it is the first time I’ve looked at you and not wanted to eat you. I’ve decided that raw flesh is uncouth and unnecessary.”

“Oh, I see, “ says Rufus.

I nod my head – “Yes, Rufus, Gemma is becoming quite refined in her eating habits. I’ve even caught her reading a cookbook.”

“It was for baked goods, Rufus, I’ve often wondered how they create those flapjacks that are rectangular, and I found my answer in a book, but I didn’t attempt the recipe as I wouldn’t be able to grip the measuring cups the humans have.”

“Humans overrate cooking,” replies Rufus. “I don’t believe I’ve ever eaten anything that humans have cooked.”

“Flapjacks would be difficult for us to chew,” I say, “because they’re full of grains and we don’t have the teeth to process that kind of food.”

“I think we should go, Freddie,” says Gemma, “I can see the male human walking along the street towards us and even from this distance, he looks a lot happier than normal.”

“We should go inside,” I say to Rufus, “and we’ll see you soon. I’m pretty sure the humans will close all the windows when they go on holiday and so we may not meet again for around 15 todays.”

“Yes,” replies Rufus, “I suspect you’re right, but your secret is safe with me. I won’t tell anyone.” With that, he runs up the tree trunk and disappears into the branches.

Gemma and I skedaddle into the house and make ourselves scarce, as we are sure the humans will pack their bags for their holidays over the next few hours and won’t want us to get under their feet. Gemma goes downstairs for a nap, and I read Whose Body by Dorothy L Sayers, a murder / mystery story not written by Agatha Christie. This had been a recent purchase by the male human who’d found the book on sale at the local bookshop and brandished it in the air when he arrived home as though he’d found a diamond at a cheap price.

Our Cats in Amsterdam – Part 1

…then there was Our Cats in Amsterdam – Freddie and Gemma have been recruited to help Europol in Amsterdam.

“Can I have some books, please?” I ask politely, “a nice variety of books, fiction, geography, comedies, business, that sort of thing.”

“Yes, we’ve heard you’re a devoted reader, Freddie,” says Arabella, “so that’s all arranged.”

“Good,” I reply, “and no Virginia Woolf or Joseph Conrad, as they’re not my favourites. Perhaps Brave New World as we’re going to be going on an adventure?”

“We’ll surprise you, Freddie,” says Aubrey, smiling, “you’ll have more books than you can possibly read.”

“I can read too,” says Gemma, “though I prefer military books myself, not the sort of books that Freddie enjoys reading.”

“You mean Sven Hassel?” asks Arabella.

“No, factual books about convoys across the Atlantic during WWII or about the Battle of Stalingrad, that sort of thing. Or about ancient battles such as Thermopylae, where the traitor Ephialtes of Trachis betrayed those brave Spartans.”

Aubrey looks at Arabella and nods his head.

“OK, factual military books for Gemma.”

“Yes, the more facts the better,” says Gemma. “Frederick doesn’t like facts as much as I do. He prefers fiction, though I must admit I’d like to read some George Orwell, and it doesn’t have to be 1984 or Animal Farm.”

“Well, that’s everything for now,” says Arabella, “it was wonderful to meet you and we’ll see you after you get back for a debrief. Mrs Elkins will be your cat sitter. She’ll share the details of your itinerary with you when she arrives.”

“How will we get to the destination?” I ask.

“Most of the time will be spent in cat carriers, but your minders will try to let you out on the train from London, if there are few humans around,” says Aubrey.

“I’m sure we’ll pretend to be asleep most of the time,” says Gemma, “especially when we’re in The Channel Tunnel and there’s not much to see. Can we make sure there are no dogs? I don’t like dogs. They’re so gullible and easily led.”

“The train sounds like a good time to meditate,” I say. “I’m looking forward to that already.”

“Right, we should go,” says Aubrey, “Good luck on your trip and Mrs Elkins will be here in two days. We’ll refer to you as our cats in Amsterdam.”

Aubrey and Arabella fly off. Rufus heads down from his tree and jumps onto the fence.

Diary of a Buddhist Cat

First there was the Diary of a Buddhist Cat.

Rufus stands still and looks at the human. I am closer to the window and observe Rufus is transfixed. I grab his tail and drag him across the table. He turns around and heads through the window, closely followed by me. I pick up the book and run as fast as I can round the library. The crows start another commotion near the entrance, and I jump over the fence into my garden undetected. I place the book under the front steps, out of sight of any human. Now, the only problem is that we need a rescue mission to get Holly, who is still in Egypt.

Jacqueline and Angela arrive, along with their cards, which I place with the book. Reg, Ron, and Rob soon join us.

“There is a problem,” I say. “Holly is still inside, and we need to rescue her as soon as possible, otherwise she might be captured.”

“What happened inside?” asks Angela.

“A human shouted at us,” says Rufus, “and we had to scarper otherwise we would have been trapped and captured and who knows what might have happened.”

“It would have been embarrassing to be captured,” I say, “but I shouldn’t leave Holly behind like that, she’ll be scared.”

“Here’s trouble,” says Rob, “your friend Gemma is out of the house.”

I turn around and sure enough, Gemma is walking slowly towards us. About 3 yards away, she stops and says, “There seems to be a problem. May I approach and try to help?”

“Yes, please come closer, Gemma,” I say. She approaches and sits upright, putting her tail over her paws. I explain the situation.

“We should get the rat out soon,” she says.

“She’s not a rat, she’s a hamster,” I say.

“Rat, hamster, rodent,” says Gemma, “Holly is a rodent. Right. What plan do you have, given they’ve closed all the windows, including the one you normally go through?”

“How do you know which window I go through?”

“Because I watch you from the window in the female human’s bedroom,” Gemma replies with refreshing honesty and no noticeable sneer.

“We’re stuck,” I say. “Poor Holly, I feel so guilty leaving her behind.”

“Don’t be sorry, Frederick,” says Gemma, “there’s only one thing to do. You say this Egypt place is on the first floor and you get there via the stairs at the back?”

“Yes, Gemma, that’s right.”

“In that case, Freddie, we do our impression of Otto Skorzeny in World War II, by that I am referring to his daring rescue of Benito Mussolini from confinement at Campo Imperatore in the Abruzzi mountains where Marshal Pietro Badoglio had imprisoned him. I’m sure you’re familiar with this rescue.”

“No, no, I’m not,” I say.

The crows shake their heads.

“Basically, Frederick, we go through the front doors – our combined weight should be enough to operate the pressure pads if we jump in the same place at the same time – and then run to the back, go up the stairs, get the rodent and return via the same route. Our advantage is our air cover with our crow friends here, who can dive bomb anyone who hinders our progress to the doors of the library. They are nature’s equivalent of the Stuka.”

“We are, you’re right there,” says Reg. “Should we get the park crows too, Stan, Sid, and Seb?”

“The more diversions the merrier,” says Gemma.

“I’ll get them,” says Ron and flies over to the park.

“How will we get Holly out of the library?” I ask.

“Well, we need to appear to be doing the library a favour, so I’m going to carry her out of the library in my mouth, as though I’m ridding the library of a rodent problem. The humans will approve because it means they don’t have to do anything, and that always makes them happy. Ah, reinforcements are arriving.”

A small flock of crows land nearby, looking a little nervously at Gemma.

“This should be more than enough,” says Gemma, “so we should go now on our rescue mission, because the longer we leave it the more worried the rodent will become.”

“OK, I’ll go first, I know the way,” I say, and scamper away, closely followed by Gemma. The crows hover above us, providing air cover and bomb anything that appears to be in the way. When we arrive at the doors, the crows land on the telephone lines overlooking the front door.

“The pressure pad is here, Freddie,” says Gemma, “3,2,1 jump.”

We land together and the door whooshes open.

“Now run,” says Gemma, and we sprint to the back of the library and although we hear gasps and comments of, “More cats?” we are up the stairs before people can really move.

“Egypt is over here,” I say, “and I hope Holly has stayed put.”

We jump onto the shelf, and I spy Holly.

“Holly, we should go. Gemma will carry you,” I say.

“Gemma? Really?” says Holly. “Where is she?”

“Here,” says Gemma. “Hello, rodent, don’t worry, I will make this look good.”

Gemma grabs Holly round the middle and we exit the way we came, with Holly squealing as we head towards the exit.

“The cat’s got a rat,” says someone. “Where did the cats come from?” says another. “Never mind that, where did the rat come from?” says a third.

“The pressure pad’s here,” I say, and we jump on it together and the doors open. The Stukas arrive and clear a path for us as we run around the fence and jump over the gate.

Gemma places Holly on the grass and takes a few deep breaths.

“Are you alright, Holly?” I ask.

“I am, actually,” says Holly, “that was quite exciting. Thank you, Gemma for not using your teeth.”

“You are welcome,” says Gemma, “and thank you for the air cover, ladies and gents of the crow force, I saw you scored one or two direct hits on the gardener and the woman with the dog.”

“Which woman with the dog?” I ask.

“The one who comes to our house for a drink or six,” says Gemma. “She was videoing, but Angela scored a direct hit on her phone, so that’s the end of that video.”

“That’s an excellent shot, Angela,” I say.

“That’s practice for you, Freddie,” says Angela. “I usually aim at the dog when she’s in the park.”

Everyone in the group falls about laughing as the dog is a Dalmatian puppy.

“So, what were you doing in the library?” asks Gemma.

“We were borrowing some cards that show squirrels and knives, so we can show them to the humans and then they’ll shave Rufus’s tail, so he’ll be able to jump further on the slide in the park.”