Best Mates

A collection of six magical and heart-warming animal stories, specially for World Book Day, by the nation’s favourite storyteller.From the author who brought you Joey the War Horse, Shadow the dog and Kaspar the cat comes a pocket-sized collection of perfect animal stories – proving that it’s not just dogs that are man’s best friends…Taken from the length of Michael Morpurgo’s career, the tales in this charming book will delight any child who loves animals … or stories! Readers will return to the best mates in this little book again and again.From dogs to cats, and from horses to dolphins and whales, it’s all here in this timeless treasury.Contains the stories:• The Silver Swan• It’s a Dog’s Life• Snug• Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time?• Dolphin Boy• This Morning I Met a Whale
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Best Mates

   


   This collection first published in Great Britain by

   HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2015

   HarperCollins Children’s Books is a division of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd,

   1 London Bridge Street

   London, SE1 9GF

   The HarperCollins website address is:

   Snug, text copyright © Michael Morpurgo 1974, first published in the collection

   It Never Rained in 1974 by Macmillan

   The Silver Swan, text copyright © Michael Morpurgo 2000, first published in 2000

   by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House

   It’s A Dog’s Life, text copyright © Michael Morpurgo 2001, first published in 2001

   by Egmont UK limited

   Didn’t We Have A Lovely Time? text copyright © Michael Morpurgo 2010,

   first published in 2010 in Country Life

   Dolphin Boy, text copyright © Michael Morpurgo, first published in 2004

   by Anderson Press Ltd

   This Morning I Met A Whale, text copyright © Michael Morpurgo 2008,

   first published in 2008 by Walker Books Ltd

   Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers 2015

   Cover photographs © Shutterstock.com

   Michael Morpurgo asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of the work.

   Source ISBN: 9780008118570

   Ebook Edition © 2015 ISBN: 9780008135010

   Version: 2015-02-04

   Contents

   

   

   Copyright

   

Snug

   

The Silver Swan

   

It’s a Dog’s Life

   

Didn’t We Have a Lovely Time?

   

Dolphin Boy

   

This Morning I Met a Whale

    Also by Michael Morpurgo

    About the Publisher

   Snug was Linda’s cat. No one ever actually gave Linda the cat, they just grew up together. I don’t really remember Linda being born, but apparently Snug turned up a few weeks earlier than she did. Dad found him wandering about, crying and mewing after a cat shoot in the barns – they shot them once in a while because they breed so fast. He found Snug crying round the calf pens. His mother must have been killed, or maybe she had run off.

   Anyway, Dad picked him up and brought him home. He was so young that his eyes weren’t open yet and Mum had to feed him warm milk with an eye dropper.

   By the time Linda was born, Snug was a healthy kitten. Linda used to cry a lot – it’s the first thing I remember about her – come to think of it, she still howls more than she should. Snug took to curling up underneath her cot when she was indoors, and by her pram if she was sleeping outside.

   I first remember noticing that Linda and Snug went together when Linda was learning to walk. She was staggering about the kitchen doing a record-breaking run from the sink to the kitchen table, all five feet of it, when Snug sidled up to her and gently nudged her off balance into the dog bowl, which was full of water. We all fell about laughing while Linda sat there howling.

   He adored Linda and followed her everywhere. He’d even go for walks with her, provided she left the dog at home. Linda used to bury her face in his fur and kiss him as if he was a doll, but he loved it and stretched himself out on his back waiting for his tummy to be tickled. Then he’d purr like a lion and shoot his claws in and out in blissful happiness.

   Snug grew into a huge cat. I suppose you would call him a tabby cat, grey and dusty-white merging stripes with a tinge of ginger on his soft belly. He had great pointed ears, which he flicked and twitched even when he was asleep.

   He came in every evening for his food, but he never really needed it, or if he did he certainly never showed it. He didn’t often get into fights, and when he did, they hardly ever left a mark – he was either a coward or a champion.

   He’d come in in the morning, after a night’s hunting, full of mice and moles and voles, and lie down on Linda’s bed, and purr himself to sleep, waking just in time for his evening meal, which Linda served him at five o’clock.

   No one ever got angry with Snug and everyone who came to the house would admire him stalking through the long grass, or sunbathing by the vegetable patch, and Linda would preen herself whenever he was mentioned.

   Linda could never understand why Snug killed birds. In the early summer he used to tease to death two or three baby thrushes or blackbirds a day. Linda very nearly went off him at this time every year. Only last summer he found a robin’s nest at the bottom of a hedge – he’d been attracted by the cheeps. By the time we got there, he’d scooped out three baby robins and there were several speckled eggs lying broken and scattered. Linda didn’t speak to him for a week, and I had to feed him. But they made it up, they always did.

   Occasionally Snug wandered off into the barns and fields looking for a friendly she-cat. This must have taken a long time, because he disappeared sometimes for twenty-four hours or so – but never longer, except once.

   Mum and Dad were home and Snug was late coming in. We’d had our bath and were sitting watching telly – Tom and Jerry, I think it was, because we always went to bed after that. There was a yowl outside the kitchen door, more like a dog in pain than a cat. Linda disappeared into the kitchen and I followed – I’d seen the Tom and Jerry before anyway. Linda opened the door and Snug came in, worming his way against the doorway. His head was hanging and his tail, which he usually held up straight, was drooping. One ear was covered in blood and there was a great scratch across his face. He’d been in a fight and he was badly hurt.

   Linda picked him up gently and put him in his basket. ‘Get the TCP and some water … quick!’ she said.

   Snug lay there panting while Linda cleaned up his wounds. I supplied the cotton wool and the TCP and when Linda had finished that, the Dettol.

   She must have spent an hour or more nursing that cat, and all the time I didn’t say a word to her: I knew she’d cry if I talked to her.

   Mum came in after a bit to wash up. She bent over the basket. “He’ll be all right, dear,” she said. “It’s not as bad as it looks. You’ll see, he’ll be right as rain by the morning. Why don’t you see if he’ll take some warm milk?”

   Linda nodded. I knew she wouldn’t do it herself; she’d have to turn round. She hated showing her face when she was upset. I put the milk on the stove and Mum cleared up. Linda put the saucer down by the basket and Snug went up to it almost immediately. He drank slowly, crouched over the milk, his pink tongue shooting clean into the saucer.

   What happened next, happened so suddenly that none of us had time to react. Mum bent down to put some potato peel in the bin; she lifted it and opened the door to empty it. In a flash Snug was through the door, and we just stood there, the three of us, Mum clutching her bin, me holding the saucepan and Linda, her eyes red with crying.

   Linda rushed after him, calling into the night. We all tried. Even Dad came away from the telly and called. But Snug would not come.

   We tried to convince Linda that he’d be all right. Dad put his arm around her and stroked her hair before we went up to bed. “If he’d been really ill, love, he wouldn’t have taken any milk.” He was a great dad sometimes. “He’ll be back tomorrow, you’ll see.”

   We went off to school as usual the next morning. No one even mentioned Snug at breakfast. Usually we went along the road to school to meet up with Tom, but this morning Linda wanted to go through the fields. We left the house early and went off through the farm buildings where Snug used to hunt. Linda searched round the tractor sheds and calf pens, while I clambered over the straw in the Dutch barn. It was no good: there wasn’t enough time. We had to get to school.

   “It’ll be all right, Lin,” I said. “Don’t worry.” It was the best I could do.

   School went slowly that day. Linda was even quieter than usual: she spent play-time looking over the fence into the orchard behind the playground, and during lessons she kept looking out of the window, and I could see her getting more and more worried.

   Lunch came and went, and it started to rain: by the time we were let out it was pouring down. Linda grabbed her coat and rushed out. There was still no sign of Snug at home. We searched and called until it was dark and Mum came home from work. The time for his meal passed; still no Snug.

   Dad came home a little later than usual. We were in the front room, Linda and I, and we heard him talking quietly to Mum in the kitchen.

   We were mucking about trying to mend my train set on the floor when Dad came in. He didn’t flop down in his armchair but stood there all tall and near the ceiling, and he hadn’t taken his coat off. It was dripping on the carpet.

   “Lin,” he said. “I’m sorry, love, but we’ve found Snug. He’s been killed, run over. Tom’s father found him down by the main road. It must have been quick, he wouldn’t have felt anything. I’m sorry, love.”

   Linda turned away.

   “Are you sure it’s him?” I said. “There’s lots of cats like him about.”

   Linda ran out of the room and upstairs and Mum went up after her.

   “It’s him all right – I’ve got him in the shed outside. I thought we’d bury him tomorrow, if Lin wants us to.” Dad sat down. “It’s him all right, poor old thing.”

   “Can I have a look at him, Dad, just to be sure?” I said. I didn’t feel like crying; somehow I couldn’t feel sad enough. I was interested more than upset. It was strange because I really liked that cat.

   Dad took me over to the shed and switched on the light. There he was, all stretched out in a huge cereal carton. He barely covered the bottom of it. His fur was matted and soaked. There was no blood or anything; he just lay there all still and his eyes closed.

   “Well?” Dad mumbled behind me. “It’s him, isn’t it?” It was him, the same gingerish tummy, and the same tabby markings. He didn’t look quite so big lying in that box.

   “He’s so still, Dad,” I said. “Why isn’t he all broken up after being run over? You’d think he’d be squashed or something.”

   “When you carry him, he doesn’t feel right, but I expect he was thrown clear on impact,” Dad said. “Go on now, you’d better go and see Lin.”

   When I got up to my bedroom, Mum was in with Linda and I could hear a lot of crying. I hate that: I never know what to say to people when they’re like that. I went and lay on my bed and tried to feel sadder than I really was. I was more sorry about Lin than old Snug. He’d had a fairly good run after all, lots of food and warmth and love. What more could a cat want? And for some reason I got to thinking of a party the mice would be holding in the Dutch barn that night to celebrate Snug’s death.

   I was down early in the morning before anyone else. I’d forgotten to feed the goldfish the night before. I was dropping the feed in the tank, when I heard Snug’s voice outside the kitchen door. There was no mistake. It was his usual “purrrrrp … p … p” – a sort of demand for immediate entry. I wasn’t hearing things either. I opened the door and in he came, snaking his way round the doorpost, as happy and contented with himself as ever.

   I screamed upstairs, “He’s here! He’s back! Snug’s back!”

   Well of course they didn’t take long to get down-stairs, and Linda was all weeping over him and examining him as if she couldn’t believe it.

   Dad came back from the shed in his slippers and dressing gown. “Lin, I’m sorry, love, but it’s amazing: that cat’s the spitting image of Snug. Honest he is.”

   Lin wasn’t even listening, and I must admit I felt quite happy myself. It was a Saturday morning, Snug had come back from the dead and I was playing football that afternoon.

   Dad and I buried the other cat after breakfast. We dug a hole in the woods on the other side of the stream and wrapped him in one of Dad’s old gardening jackets.

   When we got back, I saw Dawnie from school in the garden with Linda. Mum met us by the gate. “It was Dawn’s cat,” she said. “It’s been missing for a couple of days and it’s just like Snug. She wants to see where you’ve buried it.”

   The silver swan, who living had no note,

   When death approached, unlocked her silent

   throat:

   Leaning her breast against the reedy shore

   Thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.

   Orlando Gibbons

   A swan came to my loch one day, a silver swan. I was fishing for trout in the moonlight. She came flying in above me, her wings singing in the air. She circled the loch twice, and then landed, silver, silver in the moonlight.

   I stood and watched her as she arranged her wings behind her and sailed out over the loch, making it entirely her own. I stayed as late as I could, quite unable to leave her.

   I went down to the loch every day after that, but not to fish for trout, simply to watch my silver swan.

   In those early days I took great care not to frighten her away, keeping myself still and hidden in the shadow of the alders. But even so, she knew I was there – I was sure of it.

   Within a week I would find her cruising along the lochside, waiting for me when I arrived in the early mornings. I took to bringing some bread crusts with me. She would look sideways at them at first, rather disdainfully. Then, after a while, she reached out her neck, snatched them out of the water, and made off with them in triumph.

   One day I dared to dunk the bread crusts for her, dared to try to feed her by hand. She took all I offered her and came back for more. She was coming close enough now for me to be able to touch her neck. I would talk to her as I stroked her. She really listened, I know she did.

   I never saw the cob arrive. He was just there swimming beside her one morning out on the loch. You could see the love between them even then. The princess of the loch had found her prince. When they drank they dipped their necks together, as one. When they flew, their wings beat together, as one.

   She knew I was there, I think, still watching. But she did not come to see me again, nor to have her bread crusts. I tried to be more glad for her than sad for me, but it was hard.

   As winter tried, and failed, to turn to spring, they began to make a home on the small island, way out in the middle of the loch. I could watch them now only through my binoculars. I was there every day I could be – no matter what the weather.

   Things were happening. They were no longer busy just preening themselves, or feeding, or simply gliding out over the loch taking their reflections with them. Between them they were building a nest – a clumsy messy excuse for a nest it seemed to me – set on a reedy knoll near the shore of their island.

   It took them several days to construct. Neither ever seemed quite satisfied with the other’s work. A twig was too big, or too small, or perhaps just not in the right place. There were no arguments as such, as far as I could see. But my silver swan would rearrange things, tactfully, when her cob wasn’t there. And he would do the same when she wasn’t there.

   Then, one bright cold morning with the ground beneath my feet hard with a late and unexpected frost, I arrived to see my silver swan enthroned at last on her nest, her cob proudly patrolling the loch close by.

   I knew there were foxes about even then. I had heard their cries often enough echoing through the night. I had seen their footprints in the snow. But I had never seen one out and about, until now.

   It was dusk. I was on my way back home from the loch, coming up through the woods, when I spotted a family of five cubs, their mother sitting on guard nearby. Unseen and unsmelt, I crouched down where I was and watched.

   I could see at once that they were starving, some of them already too weak even to pester their mother for food. But I could see too that she had none to give – she was thin and rangy herself. I remember thinking then: That’s one family of foxes that’s not likely to make it, not if the spring doesn’t come soon, not if this winter goes on much longer.

   But the winter did go on that year, on and on.

   I thought little more of the foxes. My mind was on other things, more important things. My silver swan and her cob shared the sitting duties and the guarding duties, never leaving the precious nest long enough for me even to catch sight of the eggs, let alone count them. But I could count the days, and I did.

   As the day approached I made up my mind I would go down to the loch, no matter what, and stay there until it happened – however long that might take. But the great day dawned foggy. Out of my bedroom window, I could barely see across the farmyard.

   I ran all the way down to the loch. From the lochside I could see nothing of the island, nothing of the loch, only a few feet of limpid grey water lapping at the muddy shore. I could hear the muffled aarking of a heron out in the fog, and the distant piping of a moorhen. But I stayed to keep watch, all that day, all the next.

   I was there in the morning two days later when the fog began at last to lift and the pale sun to come through. The island was there again. I turned my binoculars at once on the nest. It was deserted. They were gone. I scanned the loch, still mist-covered in places. Not a ripple. Nothing.

   Then out of nothing they appeared, my silver swan, her cob and four cygnets, coming straight towards me. As they came towards the shore they turned and sailed right past me. I swear she was showing them to me, parading them. They both swam with such easy power, the cygnets bobbing along in their wake. But I had counted wrong. There was another one, hitching a ride in amongst his mother’s folded wings. A snug little swan, I thought, littler than the others perhaps. A lucky little swan.

   That night the wind came in from the north and the loch froze over. It stayed frozen. I wondered how they would manage. But I need not have worried. They swam about, keeping a pool of water near the island clear of ice. They had enough to eat, enough to drink. They would be fine. And every day the cygnets were growing. It was clear now that one of them was indeed much smaller, much weaker. But he was keeping up. He was coping. All was well.

   Then, silently, as I slept one night, it snowed outside. It snowed on the farm, on the trees, on the frozen loch. I took bread crusts with me the next morning, just in case, and hurried down to the loch. As I came out of the woods I saw the fox’s paw prints in the snow. They were leading down towards the loch.

   I was running, stumbling through the drifts, dreading all along what I might find.

   The fox was stalking around the nest. My silver swan was standing her ground over her young, neck lowered in attack, her wings beating the air frantically, furiously. I shouted. I screamed. But I was too late and too far away to help.

   Quick as a flash the fox darted in, had her by the wing and was dragging her away. I ran out on to the ice. I felt it crack and give suddenly beneath me. I was knee-deep in the loch then, still screaming, but the fox would not be put off. I could see the blood, red, bright red, on the snow. The five cygnets were scattering in their terror. My silver swan was still fighting. But she was losing, and there was nothing I could do.

   I heard the sudden singing of wings above me. The cob! The cob flying in, diving to attack. The fox took one look upwards, released her victim, and scampered off over the ice, chased all the way by the cob.

   For some moments I thought my silver swan was dead. She lay so still on the snow. But then she was on her feet and limping back to her island, one wing flapping feebly, the other trailing, covered in blood and useless. She was gathering her cygnets about her. They were all there. She was enfolding them, loving them, when the cob came flying back to her, landing awkwardly on the ice.

   He stood over her all that day and would not leave her side. He knew she was dying. So, by then, did I. I had nothing but revenge and murder in my heart. Time and again, as I sat there at the lochside, I thought of taking my father’s gun and going into the woods to hunt down the killer fox. But then I would think of her cubs and would know that she was only doing what a mother fox had to do.

   For days I kept my cold sad vigil by the loch. The cob was sheltering the cygnets now, my silver swan sleeping nearby, her head tucked under her wing. She scarcely ever moved.

   I wasn’t there, but I knew the precise moment she died. I knew it because she sang it. It’s quite true what they say about swans singing only when they die. I was at home. I had been sent out to fetch logs for the fire before I went up to bed. The world about me was crisp and bright under the moon. The song was clearer and sweeter than any human voice, than any birdsong, I had ever heard before. So sang my silver swan and died.

   I expected to see her lying dead on the island the next morning. But she was not there. The cob was sitting still as a statue on his nest, his five cygnets around him.

   I went looking for her. I picked up the trail of feathers and blood at the lochside, and followed where I knew it must lead, up through the woods. I approached silently. The fox cubs were frolicking fat and furry in the sunshine, their mother close by intent on her grooming. There was a terrible wreath of white feathers nearby, and telltale feathers too on her snout. She was trying to shake them off. How I hated her.

   I ran at her. I picked up stones. I hurled them. I screamed at her. The foxes vanished into the undergrowth and left me alone in the woods. I picked up a silver feather, and cried tears of such raw grief, such fierce anger.

   Spring came at long last the next day, and melted the ice. The cob and his five cygnets were safe. After that I came less and less to the loch. It wasn’t quite the same without my silver swan. I went there only now and again, just to see how he was doing, how they were all doing.

   At first, to my great relief, it seemed as if he was managing well enough on his own. Then one day I noticed there were only four cygnets swimming alongside him, the four bigger ones. I don’t know what happened to the smaller one. He just wasn’t there. Not so lucky, after all.

   The cob would sometimes bring his cygnets to the lochside to see me. I would feed them when he came, but then after a while he just stopped coming.

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