`Why d'you call him Cantaloupe?'' John asked.
``Now we cross over this bridge,'' Mr. Jackson Pollock said. He strode ahead of the two children into the night, but (when he remembered) he kept pointing his flashlight behind him so they could see where they were going.
``Mind you don't fall in the water,'' he said. Then he added absent-mindedly: ``Cantaloupe? Because, when he was a kitten, he was the shape of a melon.''
``A melon?'' said Linda. And then she said, ``Whoops!'' as she jumped off the slab of stone that was the ``bridge'' over the little stream. Splooch! Her Wellington boots sank into six inches of mud. ``I think I'm stuck,'' she observed.
``A melon,'' said Mr. Pollock, marching on across the meadow, with the dog far ahead and the boy, John, trying to keep up, ``is -
or so I am led to believe - a member of the tribe of squash, marrow, zucchini, and pumpkin but with sweeter tendencies than those somewhat wishy-washy, namby-pamby, mimsy-flimsy vegetables.
``The cantaloupe is one kind of melon,'' continued Mr. Pollock. ``Other melons are named `casaba' and `water.' '' He paused for a second. ``Speaking of water,'' he said, ``where is young Linda?''
Linda let out a distant, damp-sounding but hopeful squeak.
``Oh dear,'' John said.
``Oh dear,'' said Mr. Pollock. ``The voice of one stuck in the mud if ever I heard one. To the rescue!''
They pulled Linda until she came out of her boots. And then they pulled her boots until they came out of the mud. And once they had gotten the three of them joined together again - Linda, her left boot, and her right boot - Mr. Pollock said: ``Onward! Come on Cantaloupe, wherever you are! Oh crumbs,'' added Mr. Pollock, assuming a London cockney accent suddenly, ``them cats they ain't 'arf slower-downers. Come on, cats! 'Ow abaht us all gettinome before dawn, eh?''
``Come on, Cantaloupe,'' John yelled into the blackness.
``Come on, Ginger!'' Linda yelled. ``Don't forget Ginger,'' she said. ``I like Ginger.''
``Oh,'' Mr. Pollock said airily, putting on his worst American accent, ``now you no need to going worryin' your pretty-little-head about that there ginger cat. He's a loner, that cat is. He moseys along with you and then he leaves you high and dry.
``I'm tellin' you. He likes to stay out all night mostly. Come morning, he'll be sittin' there in the long grass just exactly where he decides to stop off tonight. He'll just stay put. Won't budge an inch. I guarantee it. Ah, there's Cantaloupe at last. Hurry up, you slow-motion feline!''
Cantaloupe let out a small ``brrrow!'' sound and bounded out of the darkness, shooting ahead of them as if to say ``Now who's waiting?''
Linda said, ``Doesn't Ginger come home by himself?''
``Never,'' said Mr. Pollock. ``He is a cat of little brain, I am sorry to report, and I always have to go and find him. He expects it. It makes him feel important.''
``Cats,'' said Mr. Pollock (back to his usual English way of speaking), ``are the most difficult, obstinate, contrary, recalcitrant monkeys on the face of the earth. And my two cats are top of the blinking list.''
``What does `recalcitrant' mean?'' John asked.
``It's a kind of melon,'' Mr. Pollock said. The rest of the walk back home (the purpose of which had been principally to exercise the dog) took place in silence. Mr. Pollock seemed lost in thought.
The two children had liked Mr. Pollock straight away. But they found it hard to know when he was being serious and when he was being funny. Perhaps he was both at once.
And did he make things up? John wondered. Was ``recalcitrant'' really a melon?
One thing, however, Mr. Pollock had been quite right about. Ginger had not followed them home.
* * * * *
Mr. Pollock was not a farmer. He was an artist in the north of England. According to John and Linda's dad, he was probably ``not a very successful artist,'' which meant he had to rent out part of his house to summer visitors like them to ``make ends meet.''
Mr. Pollock had greeted them on their arrival that afternoon, standing in the front doorway with a paintbrush loaded with deep purple paint in one hand.
``Excuse the paint,'' he said, ``I rarely go anywhere without it. Welcome, my final, and I must say impressive-looking, wave of visitors this year. Autumn, it would seem, is upon us. Just look at those chestnut leaves.''
As he showed the three of them to their part of the house and explained things, including the astonishing fact that the front and back doors were without locks and keys ``because burglars dislike the risk of treading in cowpats,'' he let it be known that his real name was Jack Weaver.
``But I encourage a habit that harks back to my school days,'' he went on, ``of calling me Jackson Pollock. I do not feel, never have felt, that Jack Weaver is a promising name for an artist. Decidedly too dodgy. Might be all right for a basket maker. Whereas Jackson Pollock has always struck me as an impeccable name for a painter - especially as someone else had already tried it out and found it worked.''
Apart from his two cats, Mr. Pollock had the brown-and-white dog, Squiglet, about 12 ducks of mixed-up parentage, a goose called George, seven other unnamed geese, various chickens, and so many bantam hens and roosters that even they were uncertain of the number.
It was the roosters that woke John the next morning. At home in London, he could sleep through any amount of truck-revving, garbage collecting, car gear-changing, and workmen shouting from scaffolding to scaffolding.
But the crowing of Mr. Pollock's bantam roosters, which began well before sunrise, woke him immediately. He thought, ``They don't go `cock-a-doodle-doo' at all. They screech.''
Secretly, he was very pleased with the noisy birds, because as his head had hit the pillow the night before, he had hatched a secret plan. Now he was so wide awake, he could carry it out.
Silently, he got dressed. As he tiptoed downstairs, nobody woke up. Dad was snoring. The dog eyed him but curled into sleep again. John managed to open the front door without a noise, and the next minute he was out in the farmyard.
It was still dark, but light was coming fast now and soon he was following the stone wall that they had followed the night before down to the stream. By the time he reached the bottom corner, the sun was up. The grass was soaked in dew and looked almost white. His footmarks turned it bright green again.
They had climbed the wall over a stile made of jutting stones, and he did it again now by himself. He'd have to go down the other side backwards. This was why, when he turned around again, the old woman gave him such a fright.
``Oh!'' John said.
She didn't seem surprised at all. ``It's a right good year for 'em, by t'looks of it. You should've brought a bag, lad.''
``A bag?'' asked John.
``Aye. There's too many for 'ands. 'Ere - this'll do. Tha can use it. Won't bite.'' She gave him a paper bag.
And at that she bent over again.
She was picking wild mushrooms. ``They're champion with two or three rashers of streaky bacon,'' she said. ``By! Just look at 'em. I don't remember such a good year for 'em. Not lately, any road. Come on, get picking!''
He watched how she did it, gently holding the mushrooms between her fingers at the bottom of their stalks, toppling them over, and then popping them in her bag. They were everywhere in this field of sheep-cropped grass, like soft white door knobs.
No sooner had he picked one than he saw another. She did the same, and the two of them kept making small noises of discovery and triumph as they found and bagged one mushroom after another.
``You haven't seen a ginger cat, by any chance?'' John asked suddenly.
``Aye,'' she replied without hesitation, ``Pollock's Ginger, you mean?''
``s sitting on t' railway bank, yonder.''
``On the railway bank? But what happens if a train comes?''
`` 'Appen ll watch it roll on by. ll not be bothered. Trains is up 'is street, if you follow me. That cat's a train-spotter, that's what 'e is!'' And she shook with laughter so vigorously that she dropped the mushroom she had just picked. ``Aye - a train-spotter!''
John was not sure why the woman found the idea of a cat being a train spotter so terribly funny, but he laughed, too. She laughed more. He laughed more. And it was some time before they managed to pull themselves together, so helpless with laughter they were.
The woman eventually decided she had picked enough mushrooms. John's bag had been full for some time, and he had helped her fill her bag.
``Right, 'ome James!'' she said. ``Come on, I'll tek you to t'cat.''
Ginger looked up as John looked down. ``Don't you want to come home for breakfast, Ginger?''
The big cat got up slowly, stretched, yawned, and let John know by various eye and tail signals that he was pleased with the idea of heading home with him.
John said goodbye to the woman (who lived the other side of the railway line), and he, followed by the ginger train-spotter, set off across the fields.
When they arrived at the front door, still nobody was up. So John put the bag of mushrooms on the kitchen table, stroked Ginger (who was purring under the table, hoping for food), Cantaloupe, who was asleep in a basket, and the dog, on her bed still (who sighed, but didn't move a whisker). Then he crept upstairs and got into his pyjamas again and immediately fell asleep.
It was the smell of something frying in the kitchen that woke John this time. He leaped out of bed. He had to find out who was cooking what. Besides, he felt incredibly hungry.
When he walked into the kitchen, there was Mr. Jackson Pollock presiding over a large frying pan and wielding a palette knife.
``Young man,'' he said, ``you have arisen, if I may say so, at precisely the correct moment. Sit at the table pronto. Grab a fork and knife. And eat this plateful of fateful mushrooms and bacon.''
He scooped them onto a large plate and flew them dramatically to the table.
``These mushrooms,'' he said, with a touch of pride in his voice, ``were picked fresh this morning by the ginger cat. A truly remarkable, home-loving and, in my humble opinion, thought-provoking cat.''
``Is he recalcitrant as well?'' John asked (finding the word at odds with a mouthful of mushrooms).
``Recalcitrant?'' asked the artist, ``recalcitrant? Where on earth did you pick up a word like that?'' `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.