Chapter 0: Toffee
It was the end of the dry season. Roasted grasses dissolved into powder. Dust devils danced with dead maize husks. And an alien cluster of clouds boiled over Samti’s head.
They had to be alien. No earthly clouds dared defy the sun. So these strangers bulging above her must be invaders.
Samti was resting beneath a forest giant, her ti’ita. Its smooth grey limbs reared skyward, shielding her from the sun. Red maamáy fire lilies erupted from the ground around her, their delicate petals calling the rains. High in the forest reserve, this was her sanctuary, the place her mother had shown her. Hidden by mossy boulders the ti’ita’s shade, and the deep pool beside it, made the perfect refuge from the heat. Samti had a supply of guavas by her side and a large mound of toffee candies in a sun-patch before her. The toffees were heaped together. She was melting them into one enormous sweet, the biggest she’d ever eaten. Soon she would be in heaven.
Samti examined the sky. In one small patch above her head, the clouds beat and pummelled each other. Waves of heat rolled from their battling forms. Her sweets would melt even faster now. She rolled over to check the sticky pile and started in shock. Her candy was gone.
Samti looked around in alarm. She jumped to her feet, heart beating, searching through the trees up and down the hill-side. But the forest pretended that nothing had happened. All was silent.
As her heartbeat slowed, Samti’s fists clenched. She beat the ground, challenging the stillness. She had stolen those sweets herself. They were hers. How dare anyone take her bounty!
Samti glanced upwards. The clouds had dissolved. In the distance, she heard the clang of beaten metal. Her aunt was beating a saucepan, summoning children for the evening chores. She dare not be late. Reluctantly Samti gathered up her guavas and threaded through trees and over tumbled boulders, kicking the stones in frustration. One day she would find the culprit – and they would be sorry.
When the girl was gone, a slow growl rumbled in the air, followed by a dull, wet splat on the ground. A large mound of dissolving toffee slapped onto dry leaves and lay glistening, coated in dribble and spit. It had fallen out of nothing, from thin air.
A satisfied rustling surrounded the toffee, a whisper on the leaves. The sweet mass began to jerk and dance, pushed one side, then the other. Small chunks of it snapped off and disappeared. Drool pooled around it. There was a smack of sloppy licks – and a deep, contented purr.
Chapter 1: The One True Story
A thin rain darkened the coarse asphalt of the school yard. The air tasted of metal and concrete and stank of rubbish overflowing from industrial bins. Steam from the kitchens wafted over, belching fumes of overcooked dinners.
Ben squatted on the ground, back against the wall. Blue veins marked his shivering hands. His trousers were getting damp. But he did not notice. He did not care.
He was glued to his phone. Ben had received a simple message from his aunts: ‘WATCH THIS’. And so he was watching it, again, and again, and again. His skin was tingling.
It began ordinarily. Goats wandering along a mountain path, children tagging along behind. That bit was fine.
But Ben was watching what happened next. The animal that appeared in front of them. Out of nothing. Out of thin air. That creature was impossible.
But if this was faked, why did his aunts want him to watch it? That thing could not exist, yet it looked so real. Ben dared to hope.
Benedict Rawlins was twelve years old. His muddy blond hair was permanently messy, his face was earnest and freckled and he knew that he was living in the wrong place, and the wrong time. He couldn’t be an explorer – there were no places left to discover. He was too old to get lost in the rainforest and be adopted by an unknown tribe. He should have lived in the Dark Ages, swirling with rumours of dragons and knights. Or the Ice Age and battled mammoths. But if this video was real, those disappointments did not matter. He could find the adventure he craved.
A pair of trainers appeared before him, interrupting his dreams. Molly, his sister, was steaming after her workout. She was seventeen, a champion kick boxer and oblivious to the cold.
“Are you watching that video?” she asked. Her blue eyes were curious.
Ben pushed himself off the ground, wet grit sticking to his palms. “I can’t stop. It’s just the most amazing thing. Jacki and Meera will be around tonight, I can’t wait for them to explain it.”
“I think we should go looking for that creature.” Molly said.
“We? I could manage by myself, thanks.”
“If you go anywhere, I come with you,” Molly said. “You’re scrawny, you’re annoying and you need protecting.”
“And you slip into extreme violence too easily, even for a big sister,” Ben observed. “I think I’m big enough to look after myself. You need to accept your retirement.”
“Yes, retire. You can stop worrying about me. In fact, I’m going to get everyone worrying about you. I’m going to start a charity for you, because of your spots. No. I’ve got it.” Ben danced around his sister, edging away. “I’ll start a charity for your spots, because they’re on your face.”
And then he was running, with Molly a breath behind him, laughing despite herself.
* * *
“Where is my son?” Jacki demanded, bursting through the front door that evening, her bright clothes glowing, “and where is my amazing daughter? Ewe!” she marvelled at Molly in isiXhosa. “Ukasemhle! Yes. You are flawless.”
Behind her, Meera shuffled in. She was short and slight, and wrapped in a thick dressing gown to ward off the cold.
“Auntie Meera,” Ben said, “I think Jacki’s going mad again. Did she just say something nice to Molly?”
Meera ignored him. “To think we’ve had a hand in raising you two,” she murmured, kissing Molly and Ben on the forehead. “Now Ben, tell me how your amazing artwork is getting on, I want another portrait.”
Professors Meera Kothari and Jaqueline Ngqola were not Ben’s true aunts. They were zoologists and knew his parents because both his Mum and Dad worked for a large conservation organisation. They had been part of the family for years and treated Ben and Molly as their own.
“Never mind the artwork today,” Jacki said. “We know he is brilliant. Now we must talk. Yes! Did you both get the video we sent? It is the best.”
“I did, and I’ve not stopped watching it,” Ben replied. “What is it?”
“It is proof!” Jacki was triumphant. “We have been trying to find that animal for years. This video is the best evidence we have.”
“You mean that thing might really be real?” Ben asked. “Have you shown Dad?”
“We are about to,” she said, “where is your tiny father?” She ploughed on to the kitchen. “Richard!” Jacki stooped to embrace him. “How does your family put up with you?”
Ben’s father was looking even more dishevelled than normal. His hair was wild, his clothes crumpled and he was noisily enjoying a smoothie. A trail of orange peel and banana skins surrounded the blender.
“Dad, Dad!” Ben was almost jumping up and down, “you’ve got to see this!”
“If it’s from Jacki and Meera,” Richard said between slurps, “then I don’t want to. They like making me look stupid.”
“That’s not fair, Richard,” Meera protested. “You look stupid without us. And we have an important new species to show you.”
“Really? The last new species you showed me was a rock-shaped tortoise. I spent ages staring at it, waiting for it to move, only to discover that it was, in fact, a rock.”
“It was quite funny Dad,” Ben said. “I mean that rock looked nothing like a tortoise.”
“It was hilarious,” Richard replied. “And now I don’t trust you.”
“But you are still going to look at our new animal,” Jacki insisted. “Ben, show him.”
Ben smiled. Jacki reminded him of a bulldozer. A beautiful bulldozer, with a perfect headdress and large, round earrings – and a bulldozer, nonetheless. He gave his phone to his father.
Richard jumped when the beast appeared. He replayed the crucial moment again, frowning at the screen.
“Is this shot in your Indian field site?” he asked Meera. “How did you do that?”
“We did nothing,” said Meera. “That’s just what it’s like. Look at its fur again.”
Ben slowed the clip down, watching it frame by frame. “The colours aren’t stable,” he said at last. “Its stripes are moving. The reds become orange, the oranges yellow, and back again.”
“But how does that explain the way it appears and disappears?” Molly asked.
“It can change its colouring,” Meera replied. “That’s why the stripes move. But its special secret, and the reason why it’s never been discovered until now is that it can mimic its background perfectly, even when it moves. You can only tell where it is from the shadow it casts.”
“Yes!” said Ben, “There is a shadow on the path, right where it appears.”
“Son, that proves nothing,” Richard insisted. “It’s a small leopard. They’ve doctored the video to give it those weird stripes.”
“But if it is a leopard,” Molly asked, “what’s going on at the end of the clip?”
It was a good question. The children herding the goats dropped something on the path, and whatever that was, it seemed to distract the creature. It stopped and disappeared.
“That is the proof we were looking for,” said Jacki. “Those children dropped sweets to distract it. In some countries honey works as well. That creature has a sweet tooth, it prefers sugar to meat.”
“Right,” Richard said, “so you want me to believe that you have discovered a large cat with iridescent, bright stripes and stealth abilities. And the proof is that it likes sugar. D’you think I’ve got a tiny brain or something?”
Meera crouched down and inspected Richard’s head closely. “Yeees,” she said slowly, “I think it probably is quite tiny, now that you mention it. Because you’re missing the point here. All the stories agree on the sugar bit. That’s too weird to make up, and it is repeated by different sources who could never have met.”
“Oh stop it,” Richard said. “That proves nothing, you’ve fallen for a doctored video and now you’re peddling fables.”
Jacki rounded on him. “Wena kwedini! Une ngqondo yenja!” (This was not entirely fair: Richard was short, but he was not that stupid). “Fable, Richard?” she said. “No! I’ve collected mythical stories for many, many years. And this is the best. Yes. How do you know this is not the one: the true story amongst hundreds of falsehoods? I, too, have heard about these cats, when I was a child growing up near the Drakensberg. My grandmother told me about them. That is an entire continent away!”
“I’ve got an idea,” Ben suggested innocently. “We can let Mum decide if it’s real. She’s important.”
“You’re brilliant,” Meera exclaimed, “Mary always believes us.”
Ben’s father grinned at him, blue eyes twinkling. “Your mother may be my boss’s boss,” he said, “but really she’s only my mad wife.”
Meera spluttered her protest and Molly cracked her knuckles ominously. Jacki wagged her finger at Richard, hand on hip. “Ewe! You be careful, you messy man. Mary will fire you. You – you are under-performing.”
“Well, I think that Meera and Jacki should discover these cats officially,” Ben said. “And when you announce it, you’ll need to name it. I shall let you call it the ‘Bencat’.”
“It already has a name, you young coloniser,” Jacki warned. “These are ‘grimcats’. That translates from isiXhosa, Sesotho, Nepali and Lepcha. Which, by the way, is another sign that it exists.”
“Could you find it?” Molly asked “Unfortunately, Dad’s right. You’ll need more than this video.”
Meera smiled at her. “On our next field visit we might. Maybe we’ll have some good news when we return.
“Please find it,” Ben said. “My life needs change so badly.”
He looked outside to the flat suburban landscape that slept around his home. It was raining, and the view dimmed into a fug of thick, low clouds. Nothing ever happened here. And every day more of the world turned into this grey tedium. But now he could ignore it. He was filling the land with imaginary grimcats.