This story is a retelling of Hector Munro’s classic 1911 short story “Tobermory.”

Everybody gathered at Bob’s place, drifting in late Christmas morning after they’d opened their presents wherever they were staying. The women from out of town brought meringues and whipped cream, then spread berries on top of the dessert. The men brought beer, except for Uncle Sean, who had a bottle of whisky. He had a senior job in the Ministry of Works. No one in the family was quite sure what he did there.

Everyone ate themselves to a standstill, and there was lots left over for dinner. ‘We’ll be eating leftovers for a week,’ joked several uncles and aunts. This was the year that McDonald’s arrived in New Zealand, but no one in South Canterbury had any clue about that.

Christmas afternoon was a blank time. Everyone was sleepy. The beer drinkers felt bloated and watched each other to see who would quit first. Other relatives kept grazing on leftovers, in a morbid, monotonous trance. The family never did talk much, but now conversation slowed to occasional single words, so that Ezekiel’s announcement dropped like a bomb out of a clear sky.

Ezekiel was never one of the popular cousins. As far as anyone knew he’d never built anything, and his job wasn’t very interesting. He might have been to university, perhaps even overseas. No one expected him to say much at a large family gathering. In fact, no one had expected him to show up at all. Many hadn’t seen him in years. Yet here he was sitting in the kitchen, making an assertion nobody believed.

Aunt Doris recovered first. ‘Are you saying Pete knows how to ask for his dinner?’ she said.

‘No,’ said Ezekiel. He frowned and leaned forward. ‘Any cat can do that. They meow or they rub their head on your leg, or maybe they sit next to their bowl and stare at you. Perhaps they’ll turn their nose up if you give them the wrong thing. But that’s not what I mean. I’ll say it again: Pete can speak English as well as you or I.’

He stopped talking and sat still, quite happy to have caused another uncomfortable pause.

‘That’s bullshit man,’ said Bob. He was the oldest uncle in the room and it was his house, so he was entitled to sort Ezekiel out. ‘You’ve taught him some kind of trick, or you’ve hidden a tape recorder somewhere.’

‘No,’ said Ezekiel again. ‘You’re not listening to me. Cats are highly intelligent. Much more than people think. Over the years, I’ve had some success teaching gifted individuals to speak a few words. But Pete is really clever. In cat terms he’s a genius. Smartest animal I’ve ever met.’ 

On the other side of the room, Ezekiel’s cousin Roger snorted. Ezekiel stared at Roger for a second. Back when they were both boys, Roger was always the leader of the gang. He was the one who picked the sides, came up with dares and chose penalties. Today Roger leaned back in his chair, knees wide apart, looking down at his beer while he poured it. There was no reason for the hierarchy established in their childhood to change now.  

Ezekiel continued. ‘There’s an easy way to find out,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you ask him yourselves?’

Bob stood up. He had no idea what Ezekiel was up to, but he did know he’d had enough. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ll do that.’ Bob put his glass down and stomped out the back door, swinging his arms and puffing.

The silence extended again. Perhaps Bob couldn’t find the cat. Ezekiel’s face was unreadable. He poured himself a fresh glass from Bob’s jar. Five more minutes passed and people tranced back out. Then Bob stumbled up the back steps and in through the doorway. His eyes were wide open like a man who’d just been slapped. He shook his head from side to side, once.

‘What?’ said Doris, before Bob could sit down.

‘Coulda knocked me down with a feather,’ said Bob, clutching his glass and dropping from a height into the best chair. ‘Pete was curled up under the hedge, so I walked over. He ignored me, so I told him to come inside because we had some nice roast chicken for him. “No thanks,” he said. “I don’t eat leftovers. Especially not on Christmas Day.”’

‘Nah,’ said Roger. No one else offered an opinion. Ezekiel said nothing, but sat straight up and smiled.

‘Hey,’ said Bob to Ezekiel. ‘How did you do that?’

‘Do what?’ said Ezekiel. ‘I was here inside. You all saw me.’ He waved his glass at the assembled family. ‘I did my work days ago. Whatever you heard just then, that was all Pete. Speak of the devil.’ 

Everyone turned as Pete walked in. He padded across the kitchen to the pantry door, ignoring every last one of them.  

Pete was an ordinary shorthaired black and white tom, perhaps three years old. He looked exactly the same as he had when Ezekiel arrived a week ago. It had to be some kind of trick.

Pete sat on his haunches next to the water dish, curled his tail around his front paws, and settled down facing the relatives. He was looking straight at Doris.  

‘Hoy, Pete,’ said Doris, putting her empty sherry glass down and leaning towards him. ‘Would you like something to eat?’ She spoke in a childish, higher-pitched voice than normal. Cousin Reg wondered how she might speak to the cat when no one else was around.   

Pete settled down further on the lino. He stayed quiet and waited for his feed. He moved his head to one side as Doris walked round him to get into the pantry. She picked up a shallow dish and put it on the floor in front of Pete, mock-curtseying and making a limp-wristed, open-handed gesture, as if she could hear a fanfare of trumpets.

‘No,’ said Pete. ‘I’m not eating that stuff. That’s been out since yesterday, and the weather’s stinking hot.’

Doris stumbled backwards, steadying herself with a hand on Bob’s shoulder. This silent-movie tumble would have been legendary at Christmas parties for years to come, except now it had to compete with a talking cat.

‘Jesus,’ said Roger to himself.  

‘I told you!’ said Bob. Rebecca, one of the youngest female cousins, scrambled in her bag for an inhaler, while everyone else stared hard at the cat. Reg, who lived in Auckland, wondered whether Pete needed an agent.

‘So what do you want?’ said Doris.

‘Same as always,’ said Pete. ‘But make it fresh.’ Pete might have learned human words, but his attitude remained all cat.

Doris rattled dishes and slammed drawers while she found the can-opener. Nobody spoke. Rebecca leaned forward and jerked her head at Bob, pointing towards the cat like she expected Bob to sort the situation out. Bob shrugged and laid back in his chair. Ezekiel poured himself another beer.

The cat ate fast, gobbling and slurping. A gluey-looking gobbet fell from his mouth onto the floor next to his bowl.

‘Hey!’ said Rebecca. ‘You’re making a mess!’ The cat stopped eating, looked straight at her for a second or so, then went back to guzzling his dinner.

Rebecca always liked to be the centre of attention. ‘God,’ she said. ‘Why did I even come here?’

Pete stopped eating. He raised his head, ran his tongue across his teeth and spoke. ‘You wanted to get away from your flatmate. You’ve been sleeping with him, and last week his girlfriend caught you. At some point you’ll have to deal with it, but you can’t find anything to rent over the Christmas break. Sheree told Doug why you were here, and he replied that nobody wants you around. But you’re family, so they don’t have much choice.’

Rebecca had meant to ask Doris if she could stay a few weeks, but now she shut right up. Pete went back to his dinner.

Now Bob spoke. ‘Never mind any of us. What about you and that pretty little tabby from the back neighbours?’ He sniggered in a man-to-man sort of way, blowing air out through his nose and nodding his head. The cat made him suffer straight away.

‘I thought you’d know better than to talk about somebody else’s perfectly normal relationships. Perhaps Doris should ask some of the younger members of the family about dear old Uncle Bob and his special treats?’

Roger would have said something, but he saw what had happened to Bob. Roger needed to protect his reputation as a lady’s man. In those days being gay was no joke in a small New Zealand town. And if you’d covered your tracks by having tons of children and beating your wife, then you didn’t want your family to figure out that the multiple affairs you’d hinted at were anything but heterosexual. Roger wondered if Pete ever roamed as far as the motel half a mile away.

Family members were struggling to remember where they’d seen Pete prowling or sleeping, and what he might have observed. Sometimes Pete climbed in the apple tree by the caravan, where he had a perfect view through the window of goings-on by day or night. Other times Pete slept on the broad, warm brick windowsills on the north side of the house where the bedrooms were. The sisters Sharon and Bernadette exchanged furtive glances and then looked away from each other. Bernadette was blushing deep red, while Sharon had gone quite pale. 

The ones who lived blameless and innocent lives didn’t want people to know how boring they were. Reg wondered how soon after Boxing Day the fish shop would open, so he could buy a piece of hoki and bribe the cat.

But for now they were saved any more unpleasant surprises. Pete took another mouthful and looked up. Through the window he saw his deadly rival, the big ginger tom from the house on the corner. Pete put his shoulders down, lowered his tail and dashed out the door. The relatives saw the ginger tom raise his wide head and look towards the house, then leap off the fence into the hydrangeas at the back of Bob’s section.

Now there were many voices in the room. Some were protesting, others offering excuses, and everyone was having a piece of Ezekiel. For the first time that day, he was on the defensive.

After a minute of rowdy chaos, Bob made himself heard. ‘Hold on, hold on. Could you all just hold on a minute?’ As the noise died down, Bob turned to Ezekiel and said, ‘I hope you’re proud of yourself.’

‘Yes, I am actually,’ said Ezekiel. ‘This has to be one of the…’  Bob cut him off.

‘We had an ordinary pet, and you turned him into a journalist. Pete used to mind his own business and catch the occasional mouse, and now look what you’ve done.’

‘Really,’ said Ezekiel. ‘I think you’re missing the point here. This is huge. It’ll put this town on the map.’

‘That’s what we’re afraid of,’ said Bob.

‘What are we going to do?’ said Rebecca, waving her hands around. She never could stay quiet.

‘Well, there’s one thing that’s very clear,’ said Bob. ‘The cat has to go.  Sorry Doris.’  

Doris put her chin down and looked at Pete’s dish. Nobody could tell whether she was sad or annoyed.

‘Ezekiel,’ said Bob. ‘Is this thing contagious?’

‘If you mean has Pete taught any other cats to talk, then I doubt it. As I’ve said, Pete is a…’

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ said Bob. ‘I think we’ve all got that. What about his very close friend over the back fence?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Ezekiel. ‘I’ve met the cat and she’s just a bit of fluff.’  

No one could tell whether Pete had corrupted his girlfriend or not, so it was better to be safe than sorry. The pretty little tabby from the back neighbours must die.

‘I’ll take care of that one,’ said Roger. He needed to release his building tension and fear.

‘Good on you, man,’ said Bob. He looked down his nose at the relatives who had failed to be useful. ‘You do that.’ After a moment he said, ‘I’ll have a quiet word with Pete myself.’

Christmas dinner was miserable. Most years no one could eat much after the gigantic lunch. This time they didn’t even try. The teenage boys got most of it, and one ate so much he was sick under the hedge.  

Bob was gone for the rest of the afternoon. People pretended to read the paper, or listlessly watched a Christmas edition of It’s In The Bag. No one listened to the Queen’s message.

Over the back fence, a female voice could be heard chanting ‘Prudence… Prudence… Pruuuudence,’ punctuated by a spoon being banged on an enamel plate. The voice ceased after a couple of minutes. Everyone relaxed until the calling began again. This pattern would recur at fifteen-minute intervals for the next two hours.

Around eight o’clock Roger came in swearing and poured himself a beer. Both his forearms were crisscrossed with blackening droplets of drying blood. The tabby from over the back fence had been more than just a pretty face.

Around nine o’clock there was a knock at the back door, and the neighbour came in asking after her cat. Doris said she was welcome to look in the yard, and in the midsummer twilight the woman’s son squashed Bob’s best lettuce with his boot.

Bob came in. ‘I’ve looked everywhere,’ he said. ‘No sign of the bugger. Usually he’s right under your feet, or doing his business in the veges, but now I can’t find him at all. It’s too dark.’ The relatives went home or to bed. The crowd disappeared like suds running down a drain.

Around seven o’clock the next morning, Pete was found dead in the bushes, with his claws full of fur from the big ginger tom. Ezekiel wanted to do an autopsy, but Bob put his foot down. Instead, Doris took Pete round the back of the house to be buried in privacy. Then she went to the neighbours to complain. 

Pete would be Ezekiel’s only success. A few weeks later, Bob and Doris were watching the evening news, when they saw that a man had been killed by a stag at a deer farm. The TV got his surname slightly wrong, but there was no doubt that the first name was Ezekiel. According to the reporter, the animal had been a docile, manageable beast until it attacked the visitor.

‘Well,’ said Doris. ‘If he was trying to teach it the difference between “affect” and “effect,” he got just what he deserved.’

Richard James is mostly known as a songwriter, having recorded on Flying Nun in the early years of that label. These days he works as an English teacher in Invercargill Waihopai, where he mainly writes prose.