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The school gates were locked and bolted, and all the children had gone home or been collected by their parents. Only twelve-year-old Sarah remained, shivering in the shadows, waiting for her mother.
Sarah's long black hair blew about in the wind, making her appear wild and menacing, yet hidden beneath her long locks her fearful green eyes searched the darkness, afraid of every movement or sound. She pulled her thin blue cardigan tightly about her, whimpering discontentedly; all her friends had winter clothes, but she still wore her thin cotton dress, which gave her no protection from the cold wintry night.
Where was she? Would she even come? Sarah's mind was in turmoil. If she carried on home and her mother eventually turned up, she would get a beating. All she could do was follow her mother's instructions to wait, while pressing her cold body against the damp wall trying to shelter from the icy rain.
Suddenly a sleek black she-cat jumped off the wall mewing loudly, and brushed her soft warm coat against Sarah's cold thin legs.
Sarah opened her plastic bag, which was her mother's idea of a satchel, and pulled out a small piece of cheese, offering it to the cat. The cat snatched the cheese from Sarah's freezing fingers, swallowing it whole, then began to purr so deeply it sounded almost like a growl, making Sarah giggle.
Sarah cautiously bent down and gently put her hand on the cat's luxurious fur coat, feeling its warmth. The cat moved closer, intrigued by Sarah, her huge cat whiskers tickling Sarah's smiling face.
"Sarah!" screamed a drunken voice. "You stupid child, come here."
Her mother grabbed the back of her cardigan, and Sarah could smell the gin on her breath, realising with dread that she would get a beating no matter what she did tonight.
As her mother pushed and dragged her along, she angrily shouted at her, asking why she hadn't gone home, calling her stupid and brainless. Sarah ignored her mother's harsh words, entranced by the shadow of the cat on the footpath, which slowly increased in size until she couldn't tell whether it was a cat or a big bear.
The freezing rain stung Sarah's pale face and she ached from the cold. Ahead she could see the lights of the off-licence, realising with a heavy heart that she would have to wait outside in the cold while her mother went in. As they approached, her mother flung her aside like a discarded rag doll and staggered towards the shop door, searching her pockets for money.
A gentle hand touched Sarah's arm, as soft as a paw.
"Are you alright, child?" said a strange purring voice. Sarah turned to look into the face of the beautiful lady who now encircled her. She had glossy long black hair and mesmerising green eyes that continually darted in every direction, like a panther stalking its prey. Sarah felt warmth flowing through her body as the woman seemed to curl around her, sheltering her from the rain beneath her huge fur coat.
"Your mother is a bully, child," she said coldly, fastening the buttons on Sarah's cardigan. "If she threatens to hit you again, I will scratch her eyes out—would you like that?" she asked, sounding more like a cat than a human.
"You mustn't do that," said Sarah, thinking that just because her mother was a bully, it didn't mean she wanted to become one too.
The lady carried on. "One word from you and I will," she mewed.
The shop door opened and light burst forth onto the footpath, followed by the emergence of Sarah's drunken mother.
Sarah suddenly felt cold again, realising that the lady had disappeared, taking all her warmth with her.
"Come on, you, before I slap you hard," said her mother, trying to unscrew the top from a miniature bottle of gin.
Suddenly, out of nowhere came a screaming, yowling black cat, claws out, lunging through the air right between Sarah and her mother. The cat's claws narrowly missed her mother's face.
Sarah's mother tried to focus on the huge cat entwined in her daughter's legs and moved towards Sarah, attempting to grab her arm. Angrily the cat hissed and spat at her, causing her to lose her footing for a brief moment and drop her small bottle of gin. As she quickly bent down to retrieve the bottle, she felt a stinging pain on the back of her hand. The cat had scratched her.
"The cat doesn't like you threatening me, Mum," said Sarah, suddenly feeling brave.
Her mother laughed, muttering drunkenly to herself, then turned around and headed for home.
"Your grandmother has loads of smelly black cats. I hate them—perhaps you should go and live with her," she shouted back at Sarah.
Sarah listened to the cat purring at her feet. She bent down and took the animal's huge, almost square head into her hands, and pulled her close to her face affectionately.
"Thank you," she said, looking deep into the cat's green eyes.
"Call me Bes, dear child. Your grandmother has honoured me with your guardianship. Now go catch up with your mother, and do not be afraid of her again," said the cat amongst a mixture of growls and purring.
"You can talk?" said Sarah, amazed, while desperately wanting to know about her grandmother.
"Be patient, I will tell you all—perhaps after some warm milk, Sarah," said Bes. The sound of Sarah's name rolled off her tongue as if she adored her.
Walking home, Sarah no longer felt afraid. Even the darkness that surrounded her held no fear for her; she felt safe and warm. And of course, there was Bes at her side with her ears forward, tail in the air, striding along like a huge black panther guarding her cub.
Bes slept at the bottom of Sarah's bed that night, with a belly very full of warm milk.
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