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Feather's Miscellany: Two Cats, Two Cousins And A Catch

John Waddington-Feather tells of a dreamy, work-shy lad who caught the eye of two wealthy cousins.

There weren’t many idle folk in Keighworth. Money and the weather saw to that. Earning money was a prime aim for most Keighworthians and they had to work to earn it. The weather also kept them on the move, because most of the year it was cold and raw. Yet there a handful of idle folk and Billy Slackenby was one of them.

Billy hung around the centre of town all day after he’d got up – always near mid-day. He’d wander into town and lounge the day away on the Library steps, his hands dug deep in his pockets, leaning against the library wall dreamily watching the world go by. One day a stranger asked him the way to the Town Hall, just across the way. “Excuse me,” said the stranger. “Can you direct me to the Town Hall?” Instead of taking his hands out of his pockets and pointing the way, Billy nodded in the general direction.

“You go over there,” he began, nodding across the Square. “Then you turn right, and it’s just round the corner.” The stranger followed his gaze then turned and looked oddly at Billy, thanked him and crossed the road to the Town Hall Square. An acquaintance of Billy overheard him and came over when the stranger had gone. “Nay, Billy,” he said, “I’ve never seen a more idle way of giving directions in my life. If you can show me an idler trick than that, I’ll give you a quid.”

“Put it in,” said Billy, still leaning against the library wall and nodding to his left-hand trouser pocket from which he’d partially removed his hand.

Billy avoided work like the plague and the Benefit people were always after him trying to make him take a job; yet Billy’s whole aim in life was to thwart them. However, they did catch up with him in the end. He was summoned one day to their office to apply for a job which had just come in. He was to look after two Persian cats belonging to a Miss Tidy while she visited her cousin in Texas for a month.

Now Miss Alice Tidy was the only child of a rich Keighworth tycoon, long departed this life. She’d inherited a fortune on the death of her widowed father, and she deserved it, for she’d looked after the cantankerous old buffer for years before he died. In fact, you could say she’d sacrificed her life to him and her mother for she’d had several suitors in her younger days (after all, she was heir to a vast fortune) but the old man and his wife had choked them off one by one till she too old and dried up for courtship. Nevertheless, she still yearned for a lover, but none came her way.

She was a small petite lady in her mid-fifties, living by herself in a large house called Rivock View at Utworth, on the outskirts of Keighworth. Her companions were two prize cats, spoilt rotten and jealous as hell for her attention. She took them for a walk each day in the grounds of nearby by Crag Castle attached to long pink ribbons. Sometimes she had to run the gauntlet of scurrilous remarks from schoolboys on their way home, but she ignored them and walked daintily on her way content and happy with her two cats.

She’d arranged with the Benefits Office for any potential cat-minder to come to her home for interview, and Bill Slackenby appeared one drab Friday morning looking like the day itself scruffy and unkempt. Alice Tidy looked him up and down with pursed lips. She mentally dismissed him till he bent down and stroked one of the cats. Jealous creatures that they were, the other cat rushed over purring loudly, rubbing itself against his legs demanding to be stroked. He stroked that one, too, talking to the cats like children. Miss Tidy was impressed.

“The job’s yours, Mr Slackenby,” she said. “I want someone who genuinely likes cats.” So much against his will Billy had to take on the job. To have refused would have meant losing his benefits. Yet had he known he was in clover. All he had to do was to keep the house tidy and secure, and look after the cats, taking them for their daily walk in Crag Castle. And away went Alice Tidy to her cousin in Texas.

Billy soon settled in, making himself at home, lounging around all day doing nothing after he’d fed the cats. He didn’t take them for their daily walk but let them find their way round the garden while he strolled down to town to his usual pitch on the library steps and his daily flutter on the horses at Jackson’s the bookie. He’d no worries. He was housed and fed and he’d more spending money than he’d had for years. So much, he was able to fund a venture that came his way one day while at the bookie’s.

He met a guy there who conned him into growing mushrooms in Miss Tidy’s vast cellars. “No work in it at all, man,” he said. “All you do is open the bags and let them grow themselves. Take what you want and I’ll sell the surplus and let you have commission.”

It seemed a brilliant idea, especially as there was no work involved. Billy could make himself even more money while Miss Tidy was away and it worked a treat. Billy had half a ton of bagged compost seeded with mushrooms delivered and carted down to the cellars. The place reeked of dank compost and growing mushrooms.

It didn’t affect Billy at all. He rarely washed and was happy to drift around like a tramp. Then disaster struck. Miss Tidy returned unexpectedly with her cousin, Myrtle, a rich widow.

She phoned him a couple of days before she flew home and Billy panicked. He hurriedly cleaned the place up as best he could, emptied the cats’ sand-pit and got rid of the beer cans strewn around the house, before washing up three weeks’ crocks and doing some dusting. He also had a bath and spruced himself up to welcome the cousins home. But in his haste he forgot about the mushrooms growing down below.

When the taxi dropped off the cousins he welcomed them at the door with a broad smile. Myrtle du Bois was a big bosomy woman, smothered in expensive bangles and ear-rings. She’d a blue-rinse hair-do and wore clothes straight from the expensive salons of New York. She was also on the look-out for a new husband having been widowed a year and missing male company.

The minute she set eyes on Billy, she became predatory. Now that he’d cleaned himself up and wore decent clothes he looked presentable; in fact very attractive. He was quite handsome and he’d dreamy blue eyes which she adored – so did Alice Tidy, who saw Billy in a new light. She invited him to stay on living in the old servants’ quarters as her handyman and that intensified the competition between her and her cousin. Before the month was up they were both ardent rivals determined to get their man.

At this point the mushrooms came into their own. Far from being unwanted the two ladies relished them; and the mushrooms increased more than their appetite for food. They were positively aphrodisiac and those little button mushrooms worked on the two women till they were almost fighting over Billy.

His tide was at the full. He took it and it led to greater things. He flattered them both equally, treading a gentle path between them, but it became more apparent when the day for Myrtle’s departure drew near that he’d have to make a choice. He made it the day before Myrtle flew out and by that time the cousins were at daggers drawn.

Myrtle made Billy a proposition over coffee after lunch. She was never one for beating about the bush and said outright, “Billy, you an’ me have got along just fine these past weeks. Now how about you coming back home to the States with me for good? How about making me Mrs Slackenby?”

Billy opened his mouth to reply but Alice cut in in a flash. “He’s mine!” she said. “I found him first and you’ve already had one bite of the apple, Myrtle. Billy’s mine, aren’t you, Billy?”

Billy was in a fix. With his dreamy blue eyes he looked first at one then the other. Alice let him grown mushrooms; she let him go to the bookies and play cards in the pub each day; she waited on him hand and foot, spoiling him rotten like the cats. No doubt Myrtle would do the same, but life in Texas was an unknown quantity and he knew Keighworth through and through.

To cut a long story short, after Billy had made his choice, he married Alice Tidy and they lived happily ever after. She straightened him up, bought him smart suits and showed him how to play the Stock Market.

He had a good head for stocks and shares and made a deal of money out of them. In fact, he was regarded as a Stock Market expert by his fellow members in the Cycling Club (the gentleman’s drinking club in town) where he became a member. He also continued growing mushrooms, for Alice was addicted to them, but not in the cellar. He bought a small-holding and farmed them whole-scale. Billy Slackenby’s mushrooms became famous. So potent were those mushrooms, renowned for their aphrodisiac powers, that folk went wild after eating them and queued up for more. And so busy did Billy become growing them that he abandoned the library steps for ever.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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