John Lennon stepped through the front door of his Aunt Mimi’s beach house in Sandybanks, rested his suitcase on the floor, and slipped off his coat. His eyes immediately fell on the ginger cat sleeping peacefully on the most comfortable chair in Mimi’s sunlit parlor.
Mimi rushed to the door to greet her nephew. “You’re early,” she chided him. “I didn’t expect you until half past three. You’ve been speeding again, haven’t you?”
John rolled his eyes, then kissed her cheek. “I thought you’d be proud of me, Mimi, actually driving here by myself for once and not relying on my chauffeur like a poncy toff.”
Mimi looked John up and down thoroughly, then smiled. “Well, I’m glad you could come on such short notice. Though I know you relish every chance you get to escape the confines of Beatledom and your staid suburban life in London, so I didn’t hesitate to invite you down.”
“How could I refuse an offer to come to the beach and cat-sit Tim and Howler?” John replied.
“My cat’s name is not ‘Howler’,” Mimi corrected him. “It’s ‘Tich’.”
“Tich is still half-Siamese, isn’t he?” John replied. “He howls.”
John hung his coat in the closet by the front door, then walked over to the cat curled up on the chair. “What have you done to my Tim?” he exclaimed. “He’s got a nick in his right ear now instead of his left!”
“That isn’t Tim,” Mimi replied. She joined John by the chair and started petting the cat. The animal lifted his head briefly to acknowledge her presence, then stretched out his front paws and started grooming himself.
Mimi gave the cat’s forehead one more tickle, then turned towards John. “This is Webster. He belongs to the artist who lives next door. Or rather, he belongs to the artist’s uncle. It’s all a bit confusing.”
“So what’s Webster doing in Tim’s favorite chair?” John challenged.
“Come to the kitchen and I’ll make you some tea while I explain everything,” Mimi replied.
John ran his fingers over the soft fur on Webster’s back before joining his aunt in the next room. Webster looked up briefly as John walked away, then tucked his head under his front paw and went back to sleep.
John took a seat at the kitchen table and grabbed a choco biscuit from the tin Mimi had set out for him. “So tell me about Webster,” he said before sinking his teeth into the cookie. “Do you need me to cat-sit him as well?”
“Let me tell you about Lance first,” Mimi replied as she set the kettle on the stovetop to boil. “He’s a landscape artist who rents the house next door. He’s done quite a few lovely paintings of the seaside since he moved here. I bought one of them and hung it in your bedroom.”
“Lovely,” John said with a frown. He tapped his fingers impatiently against the tablecloth.
Mimi scalded the inside of her teapot with a splash of hot water, then scooped a spoonful of tea leaves into the china pot and waited for the kettle to come to a full boil.
“Webster belongs to Lance’s Uncle Teddy,” she explained. She made a face at John and started to speak in an affected posh accent. “Or should I say, he belongs to the Most Reverend Theodore Mulliner, the saintly dean of Bolsover, previously the Vicar of St. Botolph’s in Knightsbridge.”
Mimi’s mouth remained set in a serious expression, but the corners of her eyes crinkled up with mirth as she continued speaking. “Having been brought up in a Deanery since he was a kitten, Webster developed an austere and censorious personality, I’m sorry to report, but then his master was assigned to a bishopric in Botswana, so with much reluctance and trepidation, the venerable cleric bestowed his beloved feline companion upon Lance for safekeeping while he did his bit as Bishop at See to the Tswana people.”
John swallowed his mouthful of biscuit and smiled at his aunt. “I’m quite impressed, Mimi. I haven’t heard a run-on sentence with so many multi-syllabic words since my English teacher recited a passage from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” to my class on Bloomsday in 1956.”
“Oh, you!” Mimi scolded him affectionately. She filled her china pot with water from the whistling kettle, then brought the tea to the table to steep while she finished her story. “Well, you should be happy to learn that Webster has developed quite a few bad habits since he’s come to live with Lance in Bournemouth. First he lapped up some whiskey that Lance had spilled on the floor of his studio. Then whilst inebriated, he went wandering on the beach and met your cat Tim. A fight ensued, from which, I imagine you have already surmised, Tim proved the victor.”
“Ah,” said John. He reached for the pot and poured himself a cup of tea. “That explains the nick on Webster’s ear.”
“Yes,” Mimi agreed. “Though since being vanquished, Webster has proven quite devoted to his conqueror. I gather he shares this toadying trait with his original owner, the Bishop. Webster follows Tim around everywhere like a shadow. They make quite the pair – those identical gingers!”
“And now he’s moved into your house and taken over Tim’s chair,” John noted.
“No,” Mimi countered. “I’m just watching Webster for the week. And I’m sure Tim will reclaim his favorite chair as soon as he comes back from his afternoon prowl.”
She took a sip of her Earl Grey, then rested her cup in its saucer. “I should show you the letter Lance just sent me, requesting my assistance. It will make you laugh.”
“Or you could simply sum it up for me,” John suggested as he reached for a second biscuit.
“Alright then,” Mimi agreed. “Though I might not get all the names right. Apparently, Bishop Theodore lacked the mettle to survive the torturous African climate and fell ill with a tropical ailment, so he was recalled to England. But since the bishop was a man of some means, he upgraded his return ticket to a first class passage on board a luxury liner. And whilst promenading the upper deck, he met the indomitable Lady Hortense Widdrington of Hampshire. She seems to have had the same sort of effect upon the unfortunate clergyman that Tim has had upon poor Webster. Bishop Theodore fell quite under her spell while at sea, and couldn’t bring himself to refuse her invitation to convalesce at Widdrington Manor. And there he remains, attempting to recuperate from his illness while being subjected to the incessant ministrations of Hortense Widdrington and her mother, Mrs. Pulteney-Banks.
“He wrote a frantic note to Lance last week, begging him to come to Widdrington Manor under the guise of being his solicitor,” Mimi laughed. “Apparently, the once saintly dean is so desperate to sever ties with his seducer that he has been reduced to encouraging his nephew to bear false witness on his behalf! He instructed Lance to tell Lady Hortense and Mrs. Pulteney-Banks that his presence was required in London on a matter of great legal importance. So my neighbor engaged my services as a cat-sitter for Webster, then ran off to Hampshire to attempt this deceptive ruse. Unfortunately, Lance has been unable to convince the formidable Widdrington women to release their hostage. He just sent me a letter, announcing his uncle’s engagement to Lady Widdrington, and included some money for me to purchase a first class train ticket. He wants me to bring Webster to Widdrington Manor, to introduce him to Lady Hortense’s cat Percy. Lance assures me that Percy is even more of a bruiser than Tim is, and will have Webster under his thumb in no time.”
John furrowed his brow. “Tim’s no bruiser. He simply refuses to suffer fools gladly. Neither man nor beast can break his spirit. He’s a natural born leader, my Tim, with a fiercely independent streak.”
“Hhmm,” Mimi murmured. “I wonder where he picked up those habits.” She lifted her teacup and took a small sip.
A loud scratching noise reverberated through the back door of the beach house. Mimi set down her cup and walked towards the sound. She looked through the door’s screen and clucked her tongue.
“Put that poor creature down, Tim!” she reprimanded John’s cat. “Half-dead birds are not welcome inside my home.”
Webster jumped off his chair in the parlor and ran to the back door. He meowed at Tim through the screen. Tim dropped the injured bird on the stone step and called back to Webster.
“Oh, c’mon Mimi, let Webster outside,” John urged his aunt. “He want to go out hunting with Tim!”
Mimi opened the door a crack and let Webster outside. Tim picked up his prey and took off running. Webster chased after him at a furious pace.
Mimi sat back down at the kitchen table and shook her head. “I daresay, the debilitated Bishop of Botswana will be most upset when he sees how far his once mild-mannered pet has fallen from grace in his absence.”
John lowered his teacup and smiled at his aunt. “Or perhaps he won’t. Pack up your nicest frocks, Mimi, so you can make a good impression on Lady Waddletoes and Mrs. Pulled Knee-Bone. I’ll stay here with Webster and Tich for a few days, while you take Tim to Hampshire to teach that bully cat Percy a lesson. Webster’s uncanny resemblance to Tim can’t just be a lucky coincidence. I sense the hand of a feline-loving god in bringing together my tough Tom and that effete Bishop’s cat!”
* * *
John stopped playing his guitar the moment he heard a key turn in the lock of the beach house’s front door. He propped his instrument against the sofa and stood up.
Mimi opened the door and stepped inside, carrying a wicker basket in her left hand.
“Hail the conquering hero!” she called out to John as she rested the basket on the floor and lifted its lid.
Tim leapt out of the basket and ran to the bay window that faced the water front. Webster jumped off his chair and greeted his friend enthusiastically. Tim batted Webster about the face a few times, then ran into the next room. Webster followed at his heels in a blur of orange fur.
Mimi turned around to face the two men standing behind her in the door frame. “Step inside, please, m’lord. And you too, Lance. Come meet my celebrated nephew.”
John approached the front door.
“Golly, it’s great to meet you at last!” Lance said, extending his right hand towards John. “I’ve heard so much about you!”
“From the newspapers, or from my auntie?” John asked as he shook Lance’s hand.
“From both!” Lance admitted.
A portly, silver-haired man dressed entirely in black stepped forward and scanned the parlor, ignoring John completely. “Oh dear, oh dear, where is my cat?” he asked nervously.
“Ah, you must be Webster’s owner,” John noted. He extended his hand towards the bishop in greeting.
Theodore ignored John’s proffered hand and stepped into the parlor. “Webster? Where are you, my sweet angel? Daddy’s come home from the Dark Continent! Come here, my darling boy!” He made a clucking sound with his tongue and looked around the room forlornly.
“Webster’s a bit preoccupied at the moment, Your Most Benevolent Holiness,” John assured the bishop in an obsequious tone. “Or should I say, Your Most Holy Benevolence?”
Mimi frowned at John, then followed Theodore into the parlor and instructed everyone to sit down.
“So I take it my Tim made short work of that posh pet Percy?” John surmised as he moved his guitar out of the way of Mimi’s guests.
“The fur was flying furiously throughout Widdrington Manor,” Lance laughed. “Percy hardly knew what hit him!”
“A Scouse stray can put a toff tabby in his place any day!” John boasted proudly.
Bishop Theodore sat down on the edge of the cats’ favorite chair and continued to fret. “Is he still inside this house? I do so hope my angelic Webster hasn’t wandered off to the seaside with your, your…golden gladiator!”
“They were just heading towards the kitchen, the last I saw,” John replied. “Though they took off at such a tear, they could be anywhere in the house by now.” He turned towards Mimi. “So what happened? I thought you’d be staying at the manor house for a few days, but you were hardly gone 24 hours!”
Mimi exchanged bemused looks with Lance, then turned towards her nephew. “Well, Lance was good enough to pick me up at the train station last night. Lady Widdrington and her mother, Mrs. Pulteney-Banks, stayed home at the manor with Bishop Theodore to await our arrival.”
“I dare say,” Lance interrupted, “Uncle Teddy was beside himself with joy when he opened Mimi’s wicker basket and scooped out the ginger cat he assumed was Webster. But Tim was not in the mood to be cuddled, so he bit my uncle squarely on the nose. Your cat quickly escaped from Uncle Teddy’s arms, then started prowling the premises. Percy approached him stealthily from behind, trying to make the most of his home pitch advantage, and leapt at him! But Tim met Percy mid-air, and took him down right in front of the horrified ladies of the manor house. It was not a pretty sight.”
“I can’t imagine it was,” chuckled John.
“I’m not sure who was shrieking louder,” Mimi laughed. “The hissing cats, or the howling women! Between the four of them, they probably out-screamed the fans who shouted at you in Shea Stadium last month!”
“So how did you separate the two combatants?” John asked, cocking his bushy eyebrows in a curious expression.
“Actually, it wasn’t that hard,” Lance admitted. “In less than three minutes, Percy conceded defeat and fled the room to lick his wounds. You auntie and I somehow managed to capture Tim and carry him into her guest room, where he was locked away for the remainder of his stay at Widdrington Manor. Lady Hortense promptly gave my uncle his walking orders, and all three of us were dispatched back to Bournemouth on the first train this morning.”
“I was quite frankly appalled by Lady Widdrington’s behavior,” Mimi stated haughtily. “For a woman of the landed gentry to behave with such uncivility towards a bishop! What is this world coming to?”
Theodore stood up from his chair and stepped towards the kitchen doorway. “You said Webster went this way?” he asked John meekly.
The two ginger cats dashed back into the parlor, slipping between his legs. They both jumped on top of the chair the bishop had just abandoned.
Theodore ran to their side, then knelt down on the carpet to inspect them. “Oh my stars, these two beautiful creatures do look quite similar, don’t they? A regular pair of doppelgangers, they are! But their ears! Bless me! They both have nicked ears!”
He inspected his beloved pet’s face and sighed theatrically. “I hardly even recognize my darling Webster anymore, he is so altered.” Then he turned towards Mimi and met her eye.
“His dam was a tortoiseshell belonging the Archdeacon of Throop in Dorchester, near Affpuddle, I’ll have you know,” Theodore boasted. “Ever since dear Webster was a kitten, he has carried himself with that exquisite poise which one so often sees in the high dignitaries of the church. His eyes were clear and steady, and seemed to pierce to the very roots of the souls of any sinners who dared to look upon him, filling them with a profound sense of guilt. But now, alas, I fear he has lost his ecclesiastical bearing.”
Tim lifted his head and gave Theodore the stink eye, then jumped off the chair and sauntered towards John.
John scooped up his cat and rested him on his lap. “There’s my fierce boy,” he cooed as he stroked Tim’s arched back. “You showed that flash bastard Percy who’s in charge, now, didn’t you? A working class kitty is something to be!”
The bishop ignored John’s remark and focused his attention on Webster’s tattered ear. “How did this ghastly injury occur, Lancelot?” he chided his nephew. “I trusted you to care for my pet, despite my reservations about your, your…bohemian ways. And now look what’s happened to him! He is scarred for life!”
“He’s found a champion, who will defend him and his master against all perceived threats,” Lance retorted, puffing out his chest with pride. “And I dare say, Webster has chosen his friend Tim quite wisely, just as St. Paul selected Timothy to help him bear his apostolic burden.”
“Hhmm,” murmured the bishop. He softened his gaze. “Perhaps you’re right, lad, perhaps you’re right.” He picked up Webster and hugged him to his chest, then smiled contentedly. “Now that I am reunited with my beloved boy once more, my life can begin afresh, after the terrors of Botswana, and my even more disturbing stay at Widrington Manor!”
John squared his eyes at Theodore. “Why didn’t you just say no to Lady Widrington’s advances? How hard could that have been?”
The bishop sighed theatrically once more, but offered no response.
“Some women just know how to make a man cower,” Mimi replied. She stood up from her chair and looked squarely at John. “Be grateful that that’s never happened to you.”
“And it never will,” John assured her. “Not while I have Tim on my side.” He gave his cat a fond scratch between the ears.
“But you left Tim in Mimi’s care, here in Sandybanks,” Lance pointed out. “You live in London.”
“Ah, but I know where he is if ever I need a champion to come to my rescue,” John replied with a proud smile.
Tim climbed off John’s lap and sauntered towards the bay window. Webster squirmed out of the bishop’s embrace and followed his friend to the glass.
Mimi focused her gaze at the bishop. “I’ve heard a rumor, m’lord, that the pastor of the local parish here in Bournemouth was hoping to take a sabbatical. Perhaps you might be able to take his place for a year. That way you could recover from your tropical illness by the calming British seaside, and Webster could still visit Tim while he gets used to your company once more.”
Theodore stared fondly at the two cats, and nodded.
John stood up from the sofa and smiled at the feline friends. “Sit back down, Mimi. I’ll make us all some tea,” he offered. “And I’ll fetch the bits of haddock I bought for the cats at the fishmonger while you were gone. I’ll give Tim the lion’s share. He’s earned it.”
* * *
Based on the short stories “The Bishop’s Cat” and “The Bishop’s Folly” by P.G. Wodehouse (1932)