"Uncle Gary, he bit you," screeched Rosie. "He's a mean old thing. After you agreed to look after him for Benji."
She's being hysterical again, thought Toby. Even so, his heart was beating fast as well. Would that wild thing that called itself a dog attack him next?
"Oh, he didn't mean anything by it, did you, Scruff?" said Uncle Gary. "He'd had a funny old life, until Benji took him in, didn't you old chap?" Uncle Gary tickled the ears of the rough-haired dog. Scruff's tail shot down between his legs, and then he started wagging it tentatively. Uncle Garry patted him once more and then pulled his hand back and sucked it. He waved the hand in the air. "Look, hardly drawn blood," he said grinning. "Better keep the cats away from him, though."
On cue, the cat flap went. There was the familiar sound of a high-speed Flix, followed by a frantic mewing.
"Oh no!" cried Rosie.
Toby followed her into the hallway. That sound meant only one thing: she had caught something - probably a mouse.
Uncle Gary quickly directed Scruff to the lounge. "Stay!" he bellowed.
It wasn't a mouse. It was a bird. It sat on the hall carpet, blinking. Its feathers were all puffed up and it seemed to be taking deep breaths. Flix pawed at it, then started to circle it.
Rosie was cowering behind uncle Gary. She hated it when there was a bird loose in the house. She hated the way the wings fluttered. Several times, Toby had had to chase one out.
"It's a baby," said Uncle Gary. "A young robin."
Uncle Gary bent down to pick the bird up. It fluttered up into the air.
"Open the door quickly," said Uncle Gary.
Toby rushed to the door and opened it. The outside air seemed to push the little bird back in, though. Uncle Gary grabbed the newspaper, which was sticking through the letterbox and waved the bird towards the open door. It managed to flutter a little and then landed on the drive.
"It'll probably recover and fly back to its parents soon," said Uncle Gary. "Give that cat a ball of paper to play with to keep her mind off it."
Toby took a piece of paper out of the recycling bin. He screwed it up and threw it at the cat. Soon, she was chasing it all over the place.
Toby went back up to his room. He had some homework to do. But from his room, he could easily see on to the drive. He found it difficult to concentrate and kept looking down to see whether the bird had moved. At last, it seemed to flutter its wings a little.
Toby settled down to his history project. He heard Rosie go out with Uncle Gary and Scruff, and he could hear his mother pottering about in the kitchen making the sausage rolls and quiches for grandma's seventieth birthday party. It would be best if he could get this history project finished first. But it was boring, oh so boring, and soon he fell asleep.
It was Flix and Sheeba having a pop at each other that woke him. They didn't do that these days so much as they used to. They were both adopted cats, and after a lot of snarling and growling, when they were first introduced to each other, they had learned to ignore each other most of the time. Sheeba was doing her usual trick of sitting on her hind legs and boxing. Flix was fighting like a trooper.
"Don't you realise she's twice as big as you, you daft cat," he said to Flix, picking her up and carrying her to the lounge. It was then that he saw what had probably caused the tension. He was there again, in the middle of the hall carpet, looking even more disturbed this time, but once again blinking quietly and breathing deeply. Toby could see that part of his wing was torn.
"You poor thing," he said. He opened the kitchen door to let Sheeba in
"I don't want any cats in here, thank you," shouted Mum. "It's unhygienic when I'm baking."
"They've brought something in," Toby shouted back.
"Well get rid of it," shouted Mum.
"What do you think I'm trying to do?" Toby muttered, slamming the door. But what to do next?
He wasn't as silly as Rosie about birds flying about in the house. But he didn't think he could pick it up with his bare hands like Uncle Gary had tried to. It would feel funny if it tried to fly away - or worse still, did a poo on him.
"What is it?" he heard Mum shout. "Get rid of it quickly. I want this cat out of here."
She opened the door and Sheeba darted out.
"Mum!" shouted Toby. His mother grabbed Sheeba, depositing flour all over her black fur.
"This is a nuisance while I'm trying to make sausage rolls!" Mum shouted.
He would have to do something.
"Clear it out! Clear it out!" Mum almost screeched now. She was talking as if the poor thing was a piece of rubbish. But at least that gave him an idea. He opened the door to the cupboard under the stairs and took out the dustpan and brush. Carefully, he pushed the bird on to the pan with the brush.
"It's all right. It's all right," he whispered to the bird.
It sat quietly on the dustpan, not moving.
"Put it as high up on the tree as you can," called his mother as he opened the door.
Toby chose the fig tree, which hung over the drive from next door. It was quite a job getting the little fellow to perch on the branch. But he did at last.
When Toby got back inside the two cats were curled up asleep in the lounge, Sheeba in front of the fire, Flix perched precariously on the back of the sofa.
Crisis over! He had better get back to that history project. Soon, he was back in the world of the Romans, marvelling at how their heating systems worked. He was just finishing the last sentence when he heard Uncle Gary's key on the lock.
"Toby!" his uncle called upstairs.
Toby rushed downstairs. Uncle Gary was still in the porch. He was using an old towel to rub down one very muddy Scruff.
"Seen any more of that young bird?" he asked. "Only its parents are outside, chuntering about something."
Toby explained what had happened.
"Yeah, well, the trouble is," said Uncle Gary, "Robins always nest near the ground. Poor little blighter would probably try to get back home - and he'd risk getting killed on the way. He obviously hasn't made it yet. That's why those two are kicking up such a row."
"Should we keep Flix and Sheeba in?" asked Toby.
"Not a good idea," said Uncle Gary. "That would be cruel to them. They're used to being able to go in and out. Anyway, they need to be able to get away from old Scruff."
There was not really anything they could do.
Toby soon forgot about the bird again. There was a good film on the television. He didn't think about it again, until just after tea. He was helping to clear the tea things off when he heard a frantic squawking outside. He looked through the patio doors. Flix was there with the bird between her paws. He thought it must be dead. She was batting it, like she did with a paper ball, to make it move so that she could chase it.
The two robins were circling round her, clearly angry.
How can such little things make so much noise? thought Toby. The birds were now screeching really loudly. Crikey, he thought, they're going to peck her eyes out. Quickly, he picked the cat up. The birds immediately shut up. They were staring at him. Perhaps they're going to have a go at me now, he thought. Better get out of here. He started to walk back towards the house, holding tightly to Flix who was now the one who was protesting.
Just as he was about to open the patio door, the little bird moved. It hopped uncertainly. The bigger birds moved towards it. Their child was still alive, but they wouldn't be able to carry it back to the nest.
Toby dropped the cat just inside the door and shut it quickly.
"Okay, you guys," he said. "Show me where to take him and I'll put him there." The male robin puffed up his red breast, making himself look important. The smaller bird just sat and blinked at him.
Toby bent down to the baby bird.
"Come on, little fella," he said. This time it didn't bother him picking up the little bird. He was surprised at how soft and cuddly it actually felt. It was taking very deep breaths again. Toby thought he could feel its heart beating. It didn't move at all as Toby looked round for the tree which might hold his nest.
The two parents followed Toby, circling round him, looking at him suspiciously, but not making any noise. The red-breasted bird suddenly landed on a branch of the old crab-apple tree.
"Is this it, then?" asked Toby. He could see a mound of leaves. He gently laid the bird down in the bed. "There you go then." The bird blinked at him. He's such a brave little fighter, thought Toby. He winced to himself as he saw the blood on the bird's wing.
The smaller adult bird hopped down next to the nest.
Toby went back into the house. He didn't have to decide whether to keep Flix and Sheeba in. It had just started to rain and both cats and Scruff decided that it was best to sleep away the time.
There were no more dramas that day.
"Well, those birds seem to have kept quiet this evening," said Uncle Gary after it had got dark. "I wonder if the little fella survived?" He was putting some more antiseptic on the place where Scruff had bit him.
"Shouldn't you go and see the doctor about that?" asked Mum.
"Naw!" said Uncle Gary. "He's hardly grazed the skin. He stopped when he realised what he was doing. He didn't mean it personally."
"Hmm. Biting the hand that feeds him," said Mum.
"No!" retorted Uncle Gary. "Just being himself. A poor animal who'd been let down by human beings. Then he remembered that, actually, we're okay."
"You're amazing, Uncle Gary," said Rosie, rushing over and giving her uncle a hug.
"Steady on," said Uncle Gary, almost spilling the antiseptic.
But she was right. Uncle Gary was amazing.
The next morning, Toby woke up as Sheeba pounded on his door. She was mewing loudly and Toby could swear he heard her say "Let me in! Let me in!" Then he heard Flix making a fuss downstairs, followed by an "Oh no!" from Rosie.
Rubbing his eyes, Toby made his way down to see what all the fuss was about. Why were people making so much noise at this time of the morning? He glanced at the clock. It was only half past six.
Uncle Gary was standing there in his dressing gown.
"What a shame," he said. "So he didn't' make it after all."
Toby felt slightly sick as he looked at the body of the little bird. It lay stiffly on the hall carpet.
"You wicked thing, Flix," said Uncle Gary. He tickled the little cat's ears. She started purring and rubbed her cheek against his Gary's leg.
Toby was wide-awake now. It was just so unfair. It would have been much better if Flix had killed him first time. Instead, the poor animal had had all that fear and pain. That would have been okay if he had survived. To die after all of that didn’t seem worth the bother.
Rosie was howling by now. She stamped her foot at Flix.
"Go away, you nasty cruel cat," she shouted.
Flix looked startled for a moment, and then ambled off with her nose in the air towards her food bowl.
"Well, I don't know about you," said Uncle Gary. "But I could do with a cup of tea. Care to join me?"
Toby nodded. He didn't dare say anything. There was a great danger that he was going to cry. It was all very well - Rosie making such a fuss. But it would just look so absolutely silly on a big lad like him who was about to go up to the comprehensive school next year. Especially in front of Uncle Gary.
He watched as his uncle put the kettle on, and then brushed the corpse of the little bird into the dustpan. He took a Tesco's bag out of the cupboard and dropped the dead bird into it and then went out to the bin with it.
No funeral service for you, then, thought Toby.
Uncle Gary finished making the tea and he poured out an orange juice for Rosie.
"Come on," he said to Rosie. "It's just nature, you know. Let's see if we can find you a funny cartoon to take your mind off it."
Toby and Uncle Gary sat and watched the cartoon with Rosie as they drank their tea and she drank her orange juice. She had forgotten all about the dead bird, or so it seemed. She was watching Tom and Jerry, of all things.
When Toby got back up to his room half an hour later, Sheeba was fast asleep on his bed. She stirred as he moved into the room. She stood up, stretched and mewed at him as if saying "Hello."
Toby sat down on the bed beside her.
"You lot cause trouble," he said. She stared at him with her big round eyes. He always thought she looked like an owl. Could she be the child that was born of the Owl and the Pussycat from the poem? "That poor little bird!"
"Miaow!" said Sheeba. She went up to him and nuzzled his face. Automatically, he stretched his hand out and smoothed her thick, silky fur.
"Miaow!" she said again. Or was it "I know."? She licked him on the nose.
Toby sighed. "I guess you were just being yourself," he said. "You were born to hunt" It didn't stop him feeling sad about the bird. But he couldn’t feel cross with this beautiful creature. At least now he understood about Uncle Gary and Scruff. And about a few other things as well.
Sheeba butted him under the chin and rubbed he cheek against his.