Herschel Linger was given a lot of presents for his birthday, but the item he wanted above all others had not been bought for him. Despite being far from a spoilt child, the nine year old was unable to hide his displeasure. He thanked his parents and siblings for their gifts and then ran upstairs to his room to cry. His mother followed him.
“Herschel,” she said soothingly. “You know we can’t buy you one of those games where you shoot people, you’re far too bright to enjoy those things anyway.” “But everyone has Call of Duty, why can’t I,” he wailed. “Even Matt has it and he’s only eight!” “Yes but you’re not Matt and we don’t think those games are very good, you can read your comics and watch films instead.”
Growing up in a family with three older sisters, Herschel found himself in an environment moulded from a female perspective. His mother had battled against his sisters, one after the other, for various rights, such as the appropriate age to get one’s ears pierced. As a result the younger the sister, the earlier she was able to get her own way. Violent video games represented a new front, and Herschel’s mother was not about to give in to her youngest.
As a result Herschel had become an independent child. Not in the sense that he could make himself dinner, but he had learnt to enjoy his own company. The least extroverted member of the family, he could often be found in one of his various “dens”. These dens or hideouts, as he referred to them, were small, enclosed spaces he would hide in around the house. A small broom cupboard, the attic or even the garden shed. There, safe from the commotion that seemed to follow each of his sisters, he could draw in peace.
His father, who had progressively had less input in the rules surrounding his children’s lives, had begun to worry about Herschel’s constant hiding. One day he went to the garden shed looking for a screwdriver. The shed had not been cleaned out in years and it was proving quite an effort to find his tool box. He almost had a heart attack when he lifted a table cloth and revealed his son, under the table, pen in hand and wrapped in a blanket. “Hello dad,” said Herschel with a smile.
“It’s not healthy,” Mr Linger told his wife; “We can’t have him spending his time stowed away in cracks around the house like a rat.” She disagreed and pointed out that he had friends, got good marks at school and had always seemed popular when she went to watch his tennis lessons. “I don’t care, I can’t have my son crawling around in the dust all day. We need to encourage him to find other hobbies.”
Herschel took the forced eviction from his dens badly. He tried to explain to his parents that these were the only places he could draw in peace but they answered that the living room was a much better area for artistic expression. It took one afternoon of trying before Herschel gave up. His sisters were all quite small, yet each managed to make a disproportionate amount of noise. They were always on the phone, shouting, laughing and trying to see his pictures. He couldn’t work like this and had his first big argument with his father.
After years of not weighing in on his daughter’s upbringing, Mr Linger stuck to his guns. He firmly felt his son needed to stop distancing himself from the rest of the family. Herschel was very angry. His father had no idea what it was like to be constantly surrounded by a whirlwind of sisters. He wasn’t, however, the type to directly disobey. One of the key themes of his father’s discussion was Herschel’s need of more “fresh air”. “I’ll build a tree house”, thought the nine year old.
Herschel’s garden was a long rectangle surrounded by thick, three meter high walls. The plot was roughly six metres in width and 20 metres in length. A cobbled path ran from the house to the shed at the far end. The garden was almost entirely covered in grass but did have a couple of trees. Of these the only one that would provide the necessary support for a tree house was the old Lilac to the left of the shed. It was here that Herschel began his construction.
The shed provided a wealth of tools and planks of wood for the nine year old to toy with. Mr Linger, briefly a keen handyman, was delighted to see his son showing an interest in carpentry. He showed him what each piece of equipment was for and watched with pride as Herschel gradually put together what would be the roof of his tree house.
During the weeks that followed, Hershel became familiar with one of the cats which prowled the walls. An elderly black and white male with a bell on its collar, which he called Frinkle. The nine year old took to taking cans of tuna fish from the kitchen to feed his new friend. Gradually, over the course of two months, Hershel built a fairly solid tree house under the watchful eye of Frinkle.
Once the construction was complete, Hershel took to spending his days drawing in his new den. His father tried to coax Hershel to work on other projects but he just wasn’t interested. At least he doesn’t spend his days hiding around the house anymore, thought Mr Linger. A rare, partial victory which was enough to satisfy a man who had become used to not having much of a say in his household.
Hershel was very pleased with himself. Everything had worked out perfectly. His tree house was too high up and difficult to climb into for his sisters and he finally had the privacy he craved. Maintaining and improving the hideout was also a satisfying job. The first time it rained while he was in the tree house, he had been forced to go home. The structure was composed of planks of wood nailed together and was not effective protection from the English weather.
To remedy this, Herschel took to plastering the structure with pond liner. Whilst this approach kept most of the rain out, even Hershel had to admit that the tree house was an eyesore. He asked his father for help and together they added a new layer of planks to cover up the pond liner. Again, Frinkle watched over their progress with muted approval.
One summer evening, Hershel was putting the finishing touches on his latest work of art when he heard Frinkle’s bell. He drew his pond liner curtain to let the cat leap from the wall into his tree house and went back to his drawing. A wet ball of hair of claws hurled itself through the opening and clattered into a corner. The cat was shaking and covered in blood.
The boy tried to comfort his friend as best he could but the animal would not stop trembling. Herschel wrapped Frinkle in a towel, placed an open tin of tuna next to him and left the tree house to investigate. From the tree his was able to pull himself onto the garden wall and then find his way to the roof of the shed. Here he had a good view of the surrounding gardens. It did not take long for him to identify the aggressor.
The cat was easy to spot, not just because it was pitch black and stood out on the red brick wall but also due to its sheer size. The creature did not seem out of breath or flustered in the least, yet was quite clearly Frinkle’s perpetrator. Its coat glistened with blood and puss.
Hershel was a peaceful child and at first decided not to intervene. However, when he returned to the tree house and examined the extent of Frinkle’s wounds, he became enraged. The cat had calmed down and was eating the tuna but the white towel he had been wrapped in had turned a reddish brown. Hershel grabbed some stones he had been collecting in case he ever needed to defend his tree house and headed back to the shed roof.
The cat was about 10 meters from him and did not seem concerned when Hershel took aim. He threw a stone as hard as he could and missed. Having anticipated the cat’s darting run in the opposite direction, he then threw a handful of stones, hoping that one would hit its target. It was difficult to tell if the cat had been hit but at the very least it was perturbed. A neighbour, who had witnessed the incident, shouted at the boy. “You horrible child,” she shrieked. “What are you doing to poor Alfred? I’m calling your father right now!”
Mr Linger was surprised to get a call from Mrs Brawn. He didn’t get on particularly well with her and had gotten into an argument with her before, when she had demanded he cut down the Lilac which “keeps the sun off my flowers.” He was even more surprised to find she was accusing her son of cruelty to cats. When he spoke to his son, he was startled to hear that the story was true. He ordered the boy to apologise.
Hershel knew he had done wrong and said sorry to Mrs Brawn. He also told her that her cat had brutally beaten Frinkle and should not be allowed out. “Cat’s fight and that’s the way it is, it’s nature’s way and it’s no reason to go throwing rocks at poor Alfred,” she replied. The nine year old was unhappy with this answer but kept his mouth shut. He was learning when not to waste his breath.
The weeks passed and the cats settled into a routine. Alfred was bigger stronger and more vicious than Frinkle but he was also less mobile. Frinkle had learnt to use this to his advantage. The cuts administered became less severe and the tree house had become a safe haven for the smaller of the two felines. Hershel had made sure of this by borrowing a friend’s pellet gun and shooting Alfred whenever he came in range. The idea was to replicate the tiger domesticating feats from the novel “The Life of Pi”.
Knowing he would soon be setting off for a two week holiday, Herschel intensified his efforts to ward off Alfred. He took to lying on the shed roof, pretending to read, whilst waiting gun in hand for the large cat. Whenever the cat came into range he would use a toy lion to emit an electronic roar before pelting the cat with bullets. This way Alfred would associate the noise with pain.
A few weeks before leaving, Herschel put a motion sensitive dinosaur toy in his tree house. Every time something passed in front of the toy, it would emit a noise similar to the electronic lion’s roar. Herschel hoped that if for some reason Alfred was no longer deterred by the likelihood of pellets raining down on him, the roar as Frinkle entered the tree house would scare him off. Frinkle had become used to the noise and hopefully wouldn’t run back out himself.
Herschel had contemplated asking his father to let him stay behind to protect his cat but he knew when a battle was not worth fighting. There was no way Mr Linger would permit his nine year old to stay home alone with a cat. The two Linger men, accompanied by the cacophony of the Linger women, headed to the beach. Each with his own thoughts and preoccupations.
Herschel usually enjoyed his family’s seaside holidays. His sisters were surprisingly calm and spent most of the day lying by the pool or on the beach. Mrs Linger used the time to read what he had heard his father describe as “badly written, pornographic trash” on her Kindle. Mr Linger was a keen kite surfer, a relic of his days living in Australia, and would fall asleep exhausted almost as soon as dinner ended. This left Herschel plenty of time to catch up on his drawing.
This time, however, the child worried about Frinkle. He began designing elaborate security systems to protect the cat from his larger rival. Many involved a complex web of wires and in some cases spiked clubs. Herschel main focus was finding a sustainable solution to the problem. His parents had already brought up the topic of moving house and bringing Frinkle, a cat who wasn’t actually theirs had been vetoed. Herschel had decided to smuggle him anyway, but wanted a backup plan. The only question which he remained unable to answer was just how seriously he was willing to injure Alfred.
Two weeks passed quickly and Herschel leapt out the taxi and ran to his tree house. He glided up the step ladder and could not believe what he saw. Frinkle was lying down in the middle of the room. The cat was covered in blood and puss and seemed to be having trouble breathing. Without pausing, Herschel disappeared and returned with water and tuna fish. He hand fed his friend from the can and then wiped him down with a kitchen rag. He was enraged.
Frinkle had lost an eye and had multiple lacerations on his body. Some looked quite deep although an online vet told Herschel they should all heal up. The cat had also developed a limp, which combined with his new lack of depth perception, made him an easy target for Alfred. He couldn’t dive into the tree house for cover as he used to and had become a tense ball of nerves. Herschel hid the cat in his room whilst he plotted his revenge.
One night Herschel snuck out of bed and tip toed to his tree house. His mother had found the cat in his room and had ordered him to take him out the next day. This looming deadline had eliminated any doubts in the boy’s mind. He made his way onto the wall close to Alfred’s garden and laid down a rat poison infused can of tuna.
From this moment a series of events took place which led to Herschel’s arrest. Alfred ate the tuna and died, Mrs Brawn immediately accused her nemesis who broke down in tears and admitted everything. At this point the Daily Mail ran a story on the “cat killing nine year old” and Frinkle, who was actually called Jameson, was declared missing by his owner. When Frinkle remerged, the cat’s scars and missing eye were blamed on cat killer Herschel.
The child was taken before a judge and, through sobs, eventually explained why he had behaved as he had. A couple of cat related websites ran the story and an internet meme, a photo of Herschel with Frinkle and a “Don’t fuck with my cat” caption, went viral. He narrowly avoided a spell in a juvenile detention centre and was made to attend anger management classes. He partook in two before being told he needn’t come again. He did not have enough anger to manage.
All this attention precipitated the Linger family’s move. Much to Herschel’s disappointment Frinkle was left behind, although he had since made friends with the cat’s owner and had promised to visit. The new house did not have any trees so a tree house was out of the question. The boy went back to hiding in dens around the house which terrified Mr Linger.
The father felt both culpable and justified in relation to the events leading to the murder of Alfred. He had always suspected there was something not quite right about his son and the episode had confirmed his suspicions. His wife told him not to worry and that Herschel had just tried to defend a friend. In her view the incident had at least as many positive implications as it did negative. Nonetheless they were both looking for an easy solution.
For his tenth birthday, Herschel was given a present that made each of his sisters jealous. Later they would joke that they would have “killed a bloody cat” if the end result was getting a puppy. The ten year old was delighted with his Golden Retriever. He thrashed his head up and down, agreeing wildly with his parents’ orders to take him on walks, pick up his mess and take full responsibility. The dog meant he couldn’t spend much time hidden around the house, not that he wanted to. It also kept cats out of the garden.
Michele Martinelli is a London based writer, you can follow him on @Greatbites.