Most common shrews are shaped like a thumb, but today Shrewdini polished off a snail, a slug and a worm in one go, and consequently became spherical. Satisfied that he could absorb no more goodies, and passing a somewhat liquid trail in his wake, he threaded his way beneath the kitchen table, skirting Tuffin’s feet (who was absorbed in eating his cornflakes), toward the convenient gap under the back door leading to the garden.
When Rita the ginger and white cat spotted something rolling across the lawn, at first she thought that a ball of wool (like those designed to, but typically failing to, tempt her into performances of playfulness) was on the loose, but then moments later the smell of a meat-sweating shrew entered her nostrils and she contemplated the convenience of addressing the obligations of ‘playtime’ and the pleasures of ‘lunchtime’ in one go.
Despite having sprung him to safety on numerous occasions – only yesterday from a steam roller engaged in rolling new tarmac on one side of the road between the station and the semidetached house, number 11, that was home to Rita, and its dense front garden, that was home to Shrewdini – today, the shrew’s reflexes (undermined by the excessive consumption of grub) let him down.
Rita had no need to pounce as reaching was sufficient. She trapped Shrewdini under the weight of her paw, her claws snagging his tail like the coil of a snake in a miniature croquet hoop.
Tuffin, the owner of number 11 and Rita, had grown aware of Shrewdini from the tell-tale rodent ‘calling cards’ that had started to appear each morning in his cornflakes (delivered bi-weekly via Mr Munn’s grocery van). However, he was not aware that at night, from time to time, after the shrew had finished dining and shitting, Shrewdini and he would have a doze in front of the Parkway stove, or listen to the Archers together, or share flakes of pastry from a vanilla slice that fell onto Shrewdini’s velvet fur like edible snowflakes. Despite having no great fondness for people in general, Shrewdini had only good thoughts for Tuffin and his vanilla slices.
Had Tuffin been aware of Shrewdini’s good thoughts, he might have intervened in the perilous situation now faced by the shrew awaiting his fate under Rita’s paw, who, in common with all cats, was prolonging the agony for her intended victim by pausing to reflect.
Rita’s life with Tuffin was one of neglect punctuated by savagery. She belonged to Tuffin only in the way a stray primrose belonged to Tuffin’s garden: it got there somehow and then stayed. This trait was shared, to varying degrees, by all the cats distributed the length of the street (known as the Rise), from number one (nearest the station), a black cat with a slightly disfiguring white stain on her face known as the ‘Station Cat’, although she wasn’t; to number fifty-eight, another one of the ubiquitous ginger and white variety, described by the owner of the last and most prestigious house at the highest point of the Rise (where the road ends abruptly, crowned with a dense wood peopled by nothing but squirrels) as ‘strawberry blond.’ All the Rise cats endured fortnightly calls from a strikingly scarred but angelically white bastard called Kenneth who would deliver a shag or a punch topped off with a snack on whatever tidbits his victim had to hand. This meant that Rita relied on rodents like Shrewdini to supplement the meagre fare provided sporadically by Tuffin (and stolen by Kenneth) that most recently consisted of little but shit-stained cornflakes (a fact she took a little pleasure in contemplating as she observed Kenneth’s enthusiastic post coital feasting on said). The larder robberies that elicited Rita’s modest pleasures and partial starvation provoked in Tuffin an urgent interest in shrews and how best to trap them.
He researched what things shrews like to eat using his almost complete edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (purchased from Mr Kirby who toured the streets in his Ford Anglia signing up those citizens obliged to seek knowledge in instalments). Mr Kirby’s terms were sufficient to encourage Tuffin to fill his bookshelf with a lifetime’s worth of scholarly reading – including the details of the dietary habits of the common shrew, to be found in volume 10.
Thus, over the ensuing weeks Tuffin deployed the shrew tidbits recommended, in volume 10, one by one, as bait for a mouse trap. First snail, then slug and finally worm were prepared, one for each sitting, taking care to attach the live bait to the trap using an assortment of electrical tape, pins, glues and staples. For three weeks Tuffin checked the efficacy of the slug, snail, or worm, and each week he noted that the trap had been triggered without leaving a decapitated or paralysed shrew to slowly desiccate, and that the bait had been removed, the staples pulled out, electrical tape peeled off and pins unpinned. Shrewdini had clearly struck, and thus, driven by financial imperatives and revulsion, Tuffin felt obliged to strike back and to load the trap with snail, slug, and worm in a seductive sandwich formation, making sure to attach the bait with his complete arsenal of adhesives, staples, and pins, hoping to overwhelm the shrew’s rational thought and allow his unbridled greed to cause him to ‘lose his head’ when faced with such a supersized feast.
However, the entry on the evolutionary advantage of intelligence, sufficient that the more gifted in the shrew community could recognise a mouse trap for what it was (namely, a blunt force guillotine) and acquire the engineering skills and dexterity of paw, claw, and tooth to disable said device safely while not rendering the bait irrecoverable, was in the supplementary volume of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica yet to be supplied by Mr Kirby, so, upon encountering Tuffin’s triple-decker, Shrewdini used his skills in engineering to counter Tuffin’s knowledge of shrews to yet again disable the trap, this time repurposing the mechanism to lever off the heavy load (so securely stapled and glued) and eat all three baits in one glorious blow out. Thus inflated by an excess of gastropoda and invertebrates, and with the commensurate impairment to his reflexes previously referred to, Shrewdini ended up held captive under Rita’s paw.
And so he found himself looking into the jaws of death as Rita prepared to swallow him head first, this being the custom for the consumption of shrews by cats. The shrew’s volume, Rita estimated from previous experience of the species, was that of a canapé. True, he looked somewhat rotund in comparison to the examples she had savoured in the past, but a velvet glaze, a soft bone shell, and a liquid centre was her expectation, and, confident in her appraisal, she forked him into her mouth with her teeth, taking care not to puncture the delicate skin and let any of the juice go to waste.
Rita attempted to swallow, but the spherical Shrewdini stuck fast. Rita tried to swallow again, but her airway was blocked as effectively as an acorn can block a squirrel’s arse, a rare phenomenon she had encountered during her safaris into the dense wood at the top of the hill that as you may recall was peopled only by squirrels. Rita tried to breathe, but, if a ginger and white cat could turn blue, she was in the process of doing so. The only recourse was to cough, and, being a cat, she had a cough specifically designed to dislodge furry objects. Accordingly she lay flat, extended her neck like a sword swallower, pulled her projectile vomit face, and after several painful attempts Shrewdini was ejected at considerable force, sweeping past the aforementioned stray primrose in Tuffin’s garden, into the road, right between the legs of Kenneth, who was approaching with the intent of biting Rita’s neck and then shagging her.
So surprised by the unexpected projectile that passed under him and them skittered forth, Kenneth redirected his violent passions aroused by Rita toward food and fun, and accordingly turned and gave chase to the ball of wool that smelt like shrew and cat sick. With monstrous aplomb, he sucked Shrewdini down in one go, unaware of the rumble of iron on stone and the shadow of a steam roller (employed to roll the new tar on the other side of the road) that bore down on him so swiftly that, in just a second, it had embossed a perfect white cat-shaped puddle into the perfect black tarmac and triggered a noise of such specificity (that of squashed white cat in consort with squashed, partially-digested, and suffocated shrew) that Tuffin, who coincidentally was busy reading the history of human cannonballs in volume 4 of his encyclopaedia, was drawn into the street just in time to witness the grisly scene.
Rita purred and caressed Tuffin’s shins with her tail as the steam roller passed by and the traffic was allowed to flow one more, bearing Mr Kirby’s Ford Anglia. In his front seat was the final supplementary volume of the Complete Encyclopaedia Britannica bound for Tuffin’s creaking bookshelf. Moments later came Mr Munn’s grocery van to number 11 carrying cornflakes and a vanilla slice for Tuffin, who, after meticulously restocking his larder, sat in front of the Parkray stove, dropping flakes of pastry onto the floor and perusing the entry on the recently discovered evolutionary enhancements that enabled the most gifted common shrews to escape from even the most advanced traps, earning them the nomenclature of the Houdini Variant Common Shrew, or ‘Shrewdini’.