CAT STORY AND OTHER TAILS

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THE MAJOR

His friends at home called him “the major” and he had began to think of himself like that. It was true he had been in the army for a short while but it hadn’t been for him. He was allowed to leave because the army also concurred that he wasn’t suitable. He didn’t like following the rules. It’s not that he was a rebel per se but if anyone tried to tell him what to do he’d instantly want to do the opposite whether it made any sense or not. Needless to say, this did not go down well with his commanding officers. Still , despite never having progressed a single rank in the army, his friends had nicknamed him the major and it had stuck.

The major was in Australia. He had been working hard back home in England for eighteen months and he’d managed to save up a healthy sum for this trip. He’d flown straight to Australia to escape the cold, wet and dreary English winter. He’d spent some time on the east coast and now, on a whim, he’d decided to take a bus all the way to Perth in Western Australia. Eight hours into the trip and he was starting to regret his decision. What had he been thinking? How could he have possibly thought that three days stuck on a coach would be an adventure? There hadn’t been a lot to look at out of the window. Mostly it was the same arid, flat landscape. Nothing like the images of Ayer’s Rock he had in his mind. Of course, that was thousands of miles away from here but the major hadn’t known what to expect and those were the only images he could picture of the outback when booking the ticket. The one saving grace so far was the gorgeous babe he was looking at right now. Tall and voluptuous with long blonde hair, she was a real stunner. He had managed to sit on the seat behind her on the coach but so far she hadn’t really engaged him when he had tried to make conversation. Maybe she was snobby. It was a long trip though, the major still held hopes of arranging to hook up with her when they got to Perth

Something crawled over his hand. He looked down at the tree stump he was sitting on whilst having his cigarette and waiting for the bus to set off again. Jesus , were those redbacks? A number of little red spiders were crawling out of hollows in the tree. The major jumped up and brushed himself off in a panic. He saw the girl and a couple of other passengers laughing at him as he did so. He tried to act cool and nonchalant as if he wasn’t really bothered but the truth was he was scared of insects and spiders. Especially here in Australia where everything seemed to want to kill you

The bus driver came back from his meal in the diner so they all got back on the coach as it drove off. The major was about to turn his music on, thank god he had that at least, when the blonde babe turned around and spoke to him

“Did you get bitten then?” she asked him, teasingly “looked like you were a bit freaked out back there”

“Oh haha” said the major “No, it’s cool. I didn’t know if they were poisonous that’s all. Do you know about spiders?” he finished lamely

“I know enough not to sit on a tree stump infested with them” she laughed “I can tell you’re new here” and with that she turned around and started listening to her own music

Cheeky bitch, thought the major . Just wants to take the piss out of me , is that it? The major started to get angry but then he told himself to cool it. Hey, at least she was talking to him. He decided it would be a long trip if he spent the whole time on his own so he tapped her on the shoulder. She turned down her music, not off but down, he noticed, and turned back round towards him. God , she was beautiful.

“How long have you been here then?” he asked “I gather you’re not Australian?”

“No , I’m Dutch but I work here. I’ve been here for three years”

“Do you work in Sydney?”

“No, Perth. That’s where I’m going now”

“What do you do?”

“I run a homeless day centre. We provide a space for homeless people to relax and be creative. Music, writing, acting, that sort of thing. It gives them a chance to forget about being homeless for a couple of hours”

“Sounds great!” said the major, not really knowing what to say

“What do you do?” asked the girl

“I was a soldier” he said “but that’s finished now. I guess I’m just travelling , having a good time, you know”

“By spending three days on a coach? Sounds like a great time” said the girl sarcastically

The major hadn’t expected this. He thought the girl would be vapid and maybe a bit shallow or unintelligent. He hadn’t expected a sarcastic and forthright personality. He decided to confront her a little.

“What’s wrong with you?” he said, not too harshly but with a bit of edge “why are you giving me a hard time?”

The girl laughed “I’m not meaning to. I like to put men on the back foot so they don’t think they can waste my time chatting me up and thinking I’m some dumb blonde”

“Fair enough” said the major “I won’t try and chat you up then. It IS a long trip though and a bit of conversation might make it go a little more quickly and smoothly”

“True” said the girl smiling “what’s your name, soldier?”

The major thought about telling her to call him so but it seemed too impersonal and a bit silly. “I’m Johnny” he told her “What’s yours?”

“I’m Hope. Nice to meet you” They shook hands through the gap between seats “Now, what do you want to talk about?”

“What music do you have there on your ipad?”

They found they shared similar tastes in music so they discussed that for a while and then they moved onto other subjects. Johnny found himself really enjoying the conversation. She was a very bright spirited girl, quick and intelligent with that sarcastic edge he had already discovered. He was disappointed when their conversation came to a close as the bus pulled up for yet another break stop

Over the next three days, Johnny and Hope developed a friendship. They talked about lots of things and were surprised how similar their view of the world was. As the bus finally pulled up in Perth, Hope gave Johnny her number and suggested they meet up one day that week

Johnny spent a couple of days exploring Perth and then decided to give Hope a ring in the morning. She answered but told him she was busy that day

“Hey , why don’t you come to the homeless centre? You can see what we’re all about”

Visiting a homeless centre wasn’t Johnny’s idea of a hot date but he didn’t know anyone in Perth and he did really want to see Hope again so he agreed to meet her at the centre at one p.m . When he arrived he saw a bunch of bedraggled looking men and women sitting on plastic chairs in the entrance hall . Hope opened the door to the main room and they all trudged in. Some of them were clearly only there to have a place to be but one particular young girl caught his eye. She must have been about eighteen years old and she had a scar on the left side of her face. There was something about her though - she looked approachable and less permanently homeless than some of the others. She had picked up an artist’s sketchpad and was busy concentrating as Johnny went over to see what she was working on. The girl looked up and smiled at him.

“Are you a new volunteer?” she asked

“Umm no , not really. Hope invited me to come and see what you do here, that’s all”

“Oh, Hope is an angel” the girl declared “I love this place . It makes me feel like a normal person for the afternoon before I have to go back to the streets and all that crap out there”

“Why are you homeless?” asked Johnny

“Long story” sighed the girl “abusive stepfather and weak mother who won’t let me go to the cops. I decided it was better to run away, so here I am”

“Sorry” said Johnny , not knowing what else to say “What are you drawing?”

“I watch the boats in the harbour a lot, so I try to draw them from memory when I’m here” and she lifted the picture to show Johnny her work so far

“That’s really good” said Johnny, meaning it. The picture was of a harbour scene with sparkling water and boats streaming by “Where did you learn to draw like that?”

“I’ve always loved drawing” she said “but I forgot all about it until I came here. Hard to think of much beyond survival when you’re sleeping rough”

“Yes, I can imagine” agreed Johnny “Glad you found this place then. What’s your name?”

“I’m Peace” said the girl, smiling “What’s yours?”

“I’m Johnny” They shook hands as Hope came over

“Glad you could make it Johnny. I see you’ve met Peace. She’s exactly what we had in mind when we started this centre. We see her nearly every day and we’re helping her to find her own place as well” Hope smiled

Afterwards, Johnny and Hope went for a late lunch in a nearby restaurant . They talked about the centre and about Johnny’s plans for his trip. Hope had to leave after lunch so they said good bye and made loose arrangements to meet up one evening this week.

Johnny had the rest of the afternoon to fill so he walked to the park overlooking the harbour. He sat on the grass and watched the boats slipping across the water under the blue sky adorned with little fluffy clouds and a light breeze blowing. It was such an idyllic scene. Nearby a young girl was flying a bright yellow kite. Suddenly,she let it slip from her hands and had to chase it while it threatened to blow away. Johnny decided to intervene and ran over to intercept the kite before it flew out of the little girl’s life forever . He managed to grab it’s tail and turned towards the little girl who was some way back, having given up the chase and trying to catch her breath. Johnny handed her the kite and she smiled at him

“What’s your name?” he asked, on impulse

“I’m called Patience” she told him in a sing song voice as she skipped off back to her mum who was sitting and watching the event from a blanket laying on the ground nearby

Johnny walked back to the hotel he had booked for the night. He liked this city. It had a vibrant atmosphere and the days were bright and sunny. He wondered if he should stick around for a while before heading off further on his travels. Truth was, he didn’t know what he wanted from life really

He entered the reception area and saw a woman crying. Her passport and money had been stolen and she didn’t know what to do. The receptionist was friendly and sympathetic but reluctantly insisted she couldn’t let the woman stay if she didn’t have any way to pay for the room. The woman looked around her desperately. She obviously didn’t want to leave the hotel not knowing where to go or what to do. Johnny took pity on her

“Is there anyway you can get sent some money?” he asked the woman

“Yes but I need to get in touch with someone from home” she said “and they aren’t answering their phone at the moment. Then they’ll have to go to the western union and wire me some money, I don’t know how long it will take” the woman looked like she was about to burst into tears again.

“I’ll tell you what” said Johnny decisively “I’ll pay for your room, it’s fine, and then when you manage to get sent the money you can pay me back”

The woman looked at Johnny hopefully “Would you really do that? That’s so kind”

“Of course” said Johnny “I can’t see you go out into the streets crying like that. I don’t mind” and he gestured to the receptionist to put the bill on his card

“Ok” said the receptionist “I can let you stay without your passport but I’ll need to fill in this form. First name?”

“Faith” said the woman

Later that night, Johnny thought of all the people he had met recently . He had come here to go travelling , get drunk , maybe get laid and have a few stories to tell. Not that he didn’t still want to do those things but he couldn’t help thinking the universe had rather different plans for him . First he had met Hope , the blonde babe who turned out to be intelligent and caring with a sarcastic wit to keep him on his toes. Then he had met Peace , the artistic girl who was unfortunately homeless but trying to improve her life and stay positive. Next the little girl called Patience who had let go of her kite and been happy when Johnny had rescued it for her. And finally Faith who had been in dire need and Johnny had helped her out of kindness. This wasn’t at all what he had expected when he had envisioned his trip many months before. He decided to give Hope a call to see if she was maybe free that evening.

“Actually I am free!” she exclaimed “I was going out with some girl friends but they’ve had to cancel. We can go out if you like” then she paused “on one condition though”

“What’s that?” asked Johnny with trepidation

“Well , Peace at the centre said she really liked you and one of our volunteers is ill at the moment. I wonder if you’d be willing to help us out in the centre for a while? If you’re staying around that is?”

Johnny thought about it and decided there wasn’t really any choice to be made. He could go anywhere he liked and do anything he wanted, so why not here? He had never envisioned himself working in a homeless centre but he thought he might just enjoy it. Plus, he would be helping out people in need and Hope would be there too

“Ok, count me in” he agreed “I’d love to help”

“I knew you were a good person” said Hope and he could hear the happiness in her voice “I knew it the day I met you”

“How did you know?” he asked , bewildered

“I could see it, behind that tough soldier exterior you were scared of the little spiders” she laughed “I knew you had a soft heart really”

“They were redbacks!” he exclaimed with mock indignation

“Haha, no they weren’t” she laughed “they were totally harmless! but it was fun watching you panic”

“Well you could have told me” said Johnny, feeling humiliated “I’ve had nightmares of those spiders ever since”

“Haha, see you tonight Johnny” Hope laughed as she hang up the phone

Yes, Johnny thought he might stay a while. Hope, peace, patience and faith was a powerful message he needed to explore

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