Tuppence A Bag
Once upon a time there was a little kitten named Tuppence, who lived in a hole in the side of a hill. It was a warm cosy hobbit-like hole with a braided rag rug and lots of cosy cushions, but she was all alone. On cold rainy days the kitten would fix herself a cup of tea in her tiny brass tea-kettle and make some cinnamon raisin buns and eat all by herself, staring at the silver streaks of rain pouring past her door. She was lonely with a lonely kind of happiness, or happy with a happy kind of loneliness.
She had a white breast and paws so white they looked like they were dipped in cream. But the rest of her was black, which was why she lived alone. Being black was terrible bad luck. Nobody wanted a black cat nearby. The other cats lived in elaborate and beautiful tree houses on the other side of the hill and played at cat politics and elected cat kings and cat queens. They went up and down from their treehouses in little steam-powered elevators, and were waited on by trained mice in liveries.
But because of her beautiful shiny black coat, Tuppence was never allowed in the elevators. She didn’t like to walk beneath the trees and see the cats leaping and playing and meowing up there, so mostly she stayed on her own side of the hill and made a living selling baked goods to all the little creatures of the forest. The front of her home was all nicely set up with a bakery window. There were braided golden loaves and sugar-crusted pies and lovingly stacked pastries. She handed out the bread and took the money through a little trapdoor, because she didn’t like talking to people, and was very, very, shy.
She never had customers on rainy days. So one rainy day when she was sipping mint tea with honey and nibbling the edge of a croissant, she was shocked to hear a knock on her door. She was so shocked she even opened the door instead of peeping through the trap door as was her custom. And so her visitor fell right onto the mat.
Her visitor was the smallest mouse she had ever seen, dressed in the torn livery of the Cat Kingdom. “Please,” he squeaked. “Might I have a bit of bread?”
“The bread is tuppence,” said Tuppence, with a dignified, lady-like reserve. (Tuppence had gotten her name because her bread rolls were tuppence a bag. “Tuppence” was practically the only word she ever said to anybody.)
The mouse checked his pockets, then moaned, “I’ve got nothing but holes!” He turned his pockets inside-out to prove it. “Please kind lady,” he said, “Even a crust of stale bread would help.”
“You’re dripping all over my mat and getting my floor messy,” said Tuppence, and then, her heart softening, she added, “And you look chilled to the bone. How old are you?” He replied, and she exclaimed, “Why you’re merely a child! Where are momma and poppa?”
“Eaten,” the little mouse groaned, “Eaten by Queen Cat and her husband, who didn’t like the sound of their singing at the dinner table. They were musicians, entertainers, you see… they’d been singing for years, and the queen thought their sound had grown rather old-fashioned…”
“I never approved of eating the servants,” Tuppence remarked wisely. “It just leads to complications later. What’s your name?”
“Pipsqueak, at your service,” said the mouse, and sneezed miserably. His entire little body was shivering. He smelled of mud.
His frightened and bedraggled appearance could not be a bigger contrast to his surroundings. Her hole was warm and cozy with every comfort money could buy. The cushions by the fireplace were green and blue and purple silk. The faded floral armchairs were perfectly shaped for curling up in, and they had stained glass lamps next to them for the casting of warm light over the pages of a book. She had cabinets full of flowered china and ginger cookies.
Tuppence made a snap decision, “Into the bath, you,” she said, hustling him towards the door where the porcelain gleamed and glistened.
“What are you doing? You aren’t washing me up to eat me, are you?” Pipsqueak squeaked.
“Don’t be silly,” said Tuppence. “I’m not sending you back in that storm, but I’m not letting you drip all over my carpet, either.” And she settled him into a scalding hot lemon-flavored bubble bath and gave him a mug of milk and honey to drink while she scrubbed up the mud. Then she dressed him in one of her old green sweaters, which looked very shapeless on him but kept him warm. “I would never eat a customer,” she told him. “That’s an even worse idea than eating the servants.”
“I don’t have any money,” the mouse protested.
“You can wash the dishes as payment,” Tuppence told him. “But don’t talk too much, because I like peace and quiet.” And then very quietly, very peacefully, with gestures as precise as a Japanese tea ceremony, she loaded up his plate. She loaded it up with berry scones, clotted cream, goat cheese, raspberry jelly, hot buttered fried fish, buttered whole grain toast, boiled eggs with salt and pepper, dried peaches, and cinnamon rolls drenched in maple syrup. Then she put a sprig of mint on top of the arrangement and frowned at the effect. Then she handed him the whole platter.
Pipsqueak stayed with Tuppence for a very long time. They kept talking vaguely of his going, but then he would stay and wash some more dishes. He grew plump and round and glossy and after a time, actually stopped believing that Tuppence was fattening him up to eat him. Tuppence liked listening to his little songs. He had a special song for when the tea kettle was boiling that she especially liked. It went, “The tea kettle is boiling, oh-ho-ho! Warm yummy tea for us to drink, yo-ho!”
“I miss my parents,” said Pipsqueak one day.
“I don’t miss mine,” said Tuppence.
“What?” Pipsqueak squeaked. “Why?”
“They threw me out for being black,” Tuppence explained. “My sisters were tabby, red, white, and brown. They kept all my sisters. But they didn’t keep me. I never knew what it was like to have a mother. Not really.”
“But you’re a good mother to me now,” said Pipsqueak.
“What!” said Tuppence. “You’re not my child.”
“But you’re my mother all the same,” Pipsqueak replied. “And I think that shows a lot of character. Especially for a cat towards a mouse.”
“Sometimes I hate those cats up there. The whole rotten crew of them,” said Tuppence, in an uncharacteristic burst of emotion. “Why do they have to be so mean?”
Pipsqueak snuggled up to her. “Why do you have to be so nice?” he asked.
“Because the world is supposed to be a nicer place,” Tuppence replied. “I know it. I feel it in the tips of my whiskers and the tips of my claws. I feel it in my bones.”
“There are two kinds of people in the world,” Pipsqueak observed sagely. “People who are trying to come out on top. And people who are trying to make the world into the kind of place it’s supposed to be.”
“And the world is supposed to have a lot of cinnamon rolls,” said Tuppence, taking another batch out of the oven, and inhaling the cinnamon scented steam. “In this, I believe firmly. Pass me the icing.”
Here’s the Marry Poppins song that inspired the title of this story: