Walking With Mr Smaug.
He waits for me in the brightness near the open back door with his tail a kinked exclamation mark. He occupies the space, lean body angled across the hall, pointing. As I step towards him he is already in motion, skipping lightly down the back steps on balled feet.
He waits for me two paces away as I slip on old leather shoes, the ones without their laces. Then we decide if it is the sort of day that we will push through the black currant canes behind the old wooden shed, or head left towards the carport. He leads. It is a wooden shed day, and I feel the stiff brush of canes past my right shoulder, and the drag of sunny boards on my left.
He takes a more direct route, ducking under the veranda, and floor, and matches my pace as I struggle round the side. He emerges at the back of the shed and rakes his claws down the warty bark of a nearby elderberry bush that has been let grow to the height of a tree; he bends his back, reaches high with his arms and holds the position like an athlete stretching hamstrings. Sunlight makes his claws flash.
We play Pooh Sticks in an open storm water drain that is more graciously referred to as “The Stream”. He waits beside the drain like a held breath, still, balanced and focussed. Ears swivel as I snap off a short length of willow, and send it on its short voyage. His gaze follows the twig’s every lunge and undulation as it hurdles ripples, and shoots small rapids.
Then, as it nears, he is tense, waiting his moment. He strikes like a snake. Bam!
One long front arm up to its elbow in the water, paw patting, treading, claws hooking. He has it now, bites it dead, and scoops the twig onto the bank beside him, to join the others piled there.
He has vaulted the drain and is twenty feet up an evergreen tree before I have registered his absence. Near the top the foliage parts like a theatre curtain and a large bird exits stage left with stuttering whoops of wings scooping air. I push through bushes and get to where I can see cat against sky. He has wrapped arms and legs around a slender trunk that is no more than 6 inches broad, and has reached the point where the usual laws of gravity have started to apply. The top third of the tree sways as he adjusts his hold. He is slipping now, thin twigs are cracking and breaking all around him and he lets go of the trunk with his arms and starts to thrash around with his front paws, desperate to find something solid to hang onto. He twists, the tree shakes, and his eyes meet mine. He lets out a puzzled and despairing “Ohh!” sound, and tries to work towards me. The tree lurches, he slips lower. He begins to spiral round the trunk, snapping twigs and bending branches. This is better. He gains some control.
He completes the last third of the descent full of confident swagger, looking pleased with himself.
He wraps himself around my legs, he is black that is brindled red-brown in sunlight. We examine new grass, dead leaves, and pounce on things that rustle.
He rolls against the sunny buttressed base of an alder. The air is refrigerator cold, my breath makes diaphanous curtains of mist that hang and drift, he puffs little grey speech bubbles.