The village of Long Dafferd, some ten miles north-west of Stilchester, is banana shaped, moulded by the lower contours of Dafferd Downs and the western edge of Oxbake Woods. The road from Epfield to Cruftmere meanders through its centre and is called Lower Street; the only other thoroughfare runs more or less parallel but around ten to twelve feet higher and is known by the equally inspired name of Upper Street. The church of St Jerome stands above Upper Street, but many of the other buildings are set on sloping plots of land between the two roads, including three of Long Dafferd’s four pubs: the Merperson, the Plough and the Giddy Goat all have two entrances, one on each level.
Thomson the cat belonged to old Mrs Blackaby at No. 43, Lower Street, but from the age of two or thereabouts spent most of his waking hours - and for that matter his sleeping ones - in the Plough Inn. This was not purely on account of the convivial surroundings, pleasant enough though they were, but due to an unslakeable thirst for ale. Now this is unusual in a cat. It is well known that horses love the stuff and not a few dogs enjoy a bowlful from time to time, but cats invariably turn up their noses at the slightest whiff of hops or the heady aroma of fermented malt. Not so Old Thomson. Ever since he knocked over Mrs Blackaby’s glass of stout as a nine-week-old kitten, he had been addicted.
As soon as the Plough opened at eleven o’clock, he was there. Throughout the morning opening hours he would regularly lap the drip trays dry, take his customary libation from the regulars and pester visitors to follow suit. During the afternoon he would sleep in the churchyard or, in inclement weather, the church porch, returning to the Plough at six o’clock sharp for the evening session. If trade was slack, he would sometimes wander across to the Giddy Goat. After drinking-up time (when he was always on hand to assist anyone struggling to finish a pint) he could be seen rolling home, sometimes quite literally if he happened to leave the pub by the upper door.
But cat does not live by beer alone. Mrs Blackaby had long since given up feeding Thomson as his welfare became the shared responsibility of the village. When Ted the fishmonger popped into the Plough for his morning pint there was always something for Old Thomson in his pocket: the tail end of a cod or haddock, a few inches of fresh eel or, on Saturdays, his favourite - a plump, juicy bloater. In the evening there might be a plate of steak and kidney or liver and bacon to soak up the ale. At Sunday lunchtime there was always roast beef or shoulder of mutton to be had at the vicarage, with a piece of ripe Blefton Blue to round off the meal. It will not surprise you to learn that Old Thomson was a cat of impressive proportions. One or two people remember that he was once weighed and insist that he tipped the scales at three and a half stone.
He was never terribly enthusiastic about normal feline pursuits. Birds were of no interest to him; a sparrow might perch on his tail and he would do no more that flick it off with a gesture of mild annoyance. He sometimes caught the odd mouse in the cellar though no-one was quite sure how: opinion was divided as to whether he chose only the most infirm and slow-moving specimens, intimidated them with his sheer bulk or stunned them with alcohol fumes. As for balls of wool and suchlike: absolutely nothing would induce him to move a muscle unless it were edible or potable.
So far as anyone knows, Old Thomson left no progeny. He was, as they say, entire; but, whereas most village tom cats can boast scores of kittens in their likeness, Thomson seldom went courting even in his youth, being generally otherwise occupied. Occasionally he would leer drunkenly at a passing queen or make a half-hearted attempt at marking his territory with re-cycled best bitter. But it seems safe to surmise that he was for the most part totally incapable of discharging his duty towards the propagation of the species.
When he died in 1954 at the ripe old age of nineteen, his mortal remains were laid to rest in the bank of the churchyard overlooking the Plough. But his spirit continued to haunt the place. Drip trays and unattended glasses mysteriously emptied. Drinkers sitting on his favourite seats in the inglenook or the bench outside the lower door often became aware of his presence. Some would see out of the corner of an eye a large furry object sitting beside them but then, on turning to look closely, realise there was nothing there. Others might be conscious of a disembodied purr and the smell of beery breath. Dogs were puzzled, not knowing whether to bark and give chase or raise their hackles and growl; cats arched their backs and slunk away.
Then, in the 1960s, came the keg beer and the atmosphere in the Plough changed. Equipment continually malfunctioned; pipes would block, gas cylinders leak, taps hiss and belch. Older regulars would shake their heads and mutter darkly: “Tis Old Thomson’s doing. ’Ee don’t like it.” “Aye, ’ee knew a good drop o’ beer” “’Ee p****d better’n this stuff”. But younger people came who didn’t know and didn’t care, life went on in Long Dafferd and ghostly goings-on faded into memories.
When the handpumps came back to the Plough, so did Old Thomson. Nowadays, Jim the landlord keeps a good cellar. He knows that, should the ale not be up to scratch, his most loyal regular would soon make his displeasure felt. But just to be on the safe side, whenever he taps a new cask, Jim always draws a big bowl and sets it on the floor and as soon as his back is turned it vanishes. Jim’s steak and kidney pudding is justly popular with the customers and the portions are gargantuan, so nobody minds too much if a choice morsel disappears from the plate while they’re not looking. Then there is the North Stilts branch of the Campaign for Real Ale: it must surely be the only one with a deceased feline for its President.