The Birthday Bunny brought a very special gift for cat-sitting Dan…
Dan Wainwright finished his late lunch, which consisted of a glass of apple juice and an elegantly crafted sandwich – cheese, chutney and organic salad on stoneground wholemeal bread.
He’d been sternly warned by his sister Tilly about crumbs on the dining-room carpet, so he ate his lunch in her immaculate kitchen.
However, there were advantages to cat-sitting, he thought, looking around at the top-of-the-range appliances and gleaming granite surfaces, which compared favourably with the matchbox-sized kitchen in his humble bachelor flat.
He was enjoying having the run of Tilly’s comparatively palatial establishment while she and her husband and their two small children were on holiday in the South of France, catching some much- needed warm spring sunshine.
Tilly, tidy-minded as ever (she preferred to be called “tidy-minded” rather than “fussy”), had left Dan a list of reminders and instructions about cat food, cat bowls, cat toys, and use of washing-machine, dishwasher and microwave.
There were also little notes which said things like There is fruitcake in this tin and Dustbins on Tuesday.
Dan knew that he had to stay in that afternoon because a note told him that there would be a delivery of garden furniture.
At half-past two the front door bell rang, and he went to answer it, remembering, Table, four chairs, ask them to put it in conservatory.
He opened the front door and found himself face to face with a large rabbit.
“Good afternoon,” said the rabbit politely. It was carrying a basket of decorated cupcakes individually wrapped in Cellophane and tied with colourful ribbons.
“Good afternoon,” said Dan, wondering if he was hallucinating. “Are you the Easter Bunny?”
The rabbit looked offended.
“I’m the Birthday Bunny,” it said defensively. “And I’m here for Benjy’s birthday.”
“Ah!” A certain amount of light dawned on Dan. His nephew was called Benjy. “Are you sure you’ve got the right date?” he asked. “And indeed the right Benjy? There’s a Benjy who lives here, but it’s not his birthday today.”
The rabbit transferred the basket to her other hand, then felt in her pocket.
Rabbits with pockets? thought Dan, and noticed that she was wearing natty dark-beige leather gloves.
The rabbit produced a card and handed it to him.
Dan looked at the card, which was headed Ribbons Party Agency. The date was correct, and then it read, Benjy’s Birthday, 5 Darwin Close. Age 4. Arrive 2.30. About 10 small children. Distribute cupcakes. Read them Peter Rabbit. Help with tea, then songs and games. 2 hours. Fee paid in full in advance.
“This is 5 Darwin Close, isn’t it?” asked the rabbit.
“Must be some sort of mix-up. I’d better ring Sheila,” said the rabbit, putting her hand back in her pocket and producing a mobile phone. “She owns the agency, does the bookings. She gave me a lift here, and then shot off.”
At that moment the garden furniture arrived, brought by two men in a large van. The rabbit, busy pressing buttons on her mobile, stepped back to make way for four chairs and a table.
“You must need a big hutch for that,” one of deliverymen remarked to Dan as they went back to their van.
“Eats her own weight in lettuce every week,” said Dan.
The rabbit put her mobile back in her pocket, dejected and a bit cross.
“How did you get on?” asked Dan.
“Her phone was engaged or switched off. I had to leave a message. She’s going to collect me in about two hours. There’s nothing else I can do.
“Oh, hang on – I suppose I should try the rest of the houses in Darwin Close. There’s only about half a dozen of them.”
She picked up her basket and sighed.
“I can do that,” Dan volunteered.
The rabbit waited in the front garden while he did a rapid round of the close.
“No one’s at home in three of the houses,” he reported. “The other two have got teenagers. And there are no Benjies.”
“Oh,” said the rabbit, sounding crestfallen. “I suppose I could go for a walk for a bit, before Sheila turns up.”
“Why don’t you come in?” said Dan. “I could make some tea, and there’s cake.” Then he couldn’t resist adding, “Or lettuce, if you’d prefer.”
“Cake would be nice,” said the rabbit. “And I get lots of jokes about lettuce. Also carrots, although rabbits don’t actually eat carrots.”
She stepped carefully into the house and put down her basket.
“I suppose I’d better take this costume off before I start drinking tea.”
“I could find you some of my sister’s clothes,” offered Dan.
“It’s all right,” said the rabbit. “I am fully dressed under this.”
“Ah,” said Dan.
“But it would help if you’d unzip me, once I’ve got my head off.”
“Right,” said Dan. “And while I think to ask, how come I can hear you so clearly?”
“Built-in mike,” said the rabbit, taking off her gloves. “And I am a trained actress, actually.”
“Ah,” said Dan again.
The rabbit removed her rabbit-head, revealing short corn-coloured hair and startlingly blue eyes. She looked about twenty.
As it turned out actually, she was twenty-eight, his own age, but he’d always been rubbish at estimating ages.
“Wow,” thought Dan, as he unzipped the rabbit costume at the back and helped her out of it. She was wearing a black T-shirt and black trousers, with bright yellow socks.
“I’m Katy,” she said. “Katy Sturgess. Actress. Currently out of work, actually, hence part-time rabbit. It’s all good experience, so I mustn’t complain. My godmother runs the party agency.”
“Dan Wainwright,” said Dan. “Web designer and cat-sitter. Tea in the conservatory?”
They tried out the new table and chairs, drank tea, ate cake, and chatted. Katy tried to ring Sheila at intervals, but she was always unavailable, so Katy left a string of messages.
“She did say she was going to be busy this afternoon,” said Katy ruefully. “Something about new clients, but I should be out of your way in about–” she looked at her watch – “an hour.”
“No hurry,” said Dan. “I’ve only had one decent conversation since I arrived, and even that was with the cat. He’s called Ginger, and I haven’t seen him since breakfast. I’d much rather be talking to you.”
Nine hundred miles away, on a beach in the South of France, Dan’s sister Tilly lazed in the sun while Benjy and his two-year-old sister Ella built a sandcastle with their father.
Tilly looked at her watch, thought for a moment, and remarked, “She should have been there for at least an hour now. I hope he’s offered her some tea.”
“Katy. She’s the god-daughter of Sheila at the agency. You know Sheila, I look after her accounts. Well, she and I put our heads together and…”
“You better watch – with children the age of ours, all that gets you is nits.”
“I shall ignore that remark. To continue, Sheila was complaining that Katy never met any nice men, so I thought – why not Dan?
“My little brother’s quite nice once you get to know him. Even very nice. Uncomplicated, straightforward, kind, solvent. Not bad-looking. Good sense of humour, actually.”
“He’ll need it, if he discovers you’ve been plotting.”
“I don’t think that’s very likely. Sheila and I have been planning it for months. Every detail. Right down to the garden furniture and the cake.”
Nine hundred miles away, in his sister’s conservatory, Dan picked up the teapot.
“Would you like another cup?”
And what are you doing for the rest of your life? he wanted to ask, but didn’t.
Instead, he asked casually, “Do you have a website? A web presence?”
“Can’t afford it,” said Katy. “I know one’s supposed to, to get noticed, etcetera. My name appears in two lines in a tiny corner at the bottom of my theatrical agent’s website, probably with the information Also available for waitressing and other temp work, rabbits a speciality.”
“I could set up a website for you,” Dan offered.
“Can’t afford it,” said Katy.
“I don’t want to be paid,” said Dan. “It would be interesting. It would act as an advertisement for my business. And it would compensate you for missing out on Benjy’s birthday, whoever he is and wherever he is.”
In the South of France, Benjy’s mother temporarily stopped searching in her handbag for enough euros to buy ice cream and turned to her husband.
“I bet he’s offering to build a website for her,” she said with a smile. “And we really did need new garden furniture…”
Our My Weekly Favourites series of short fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.