Now Megan and Lisa are holding hands and I’m kind of maybe jealous, even though I hate holding Megan’s hand. She always grabs my hand as we walk around the oval, and I wait a diplomatic amount of time—about two minutes—before taking it back and wiping it on my uniform.
Luckily Leanne is eager to take me in like a stray. But only halfway into morning tea, she links her arm in mine and announces that she’s my best friend now—Megan and Lisa can get stuffed! I wait a whole five minutes before retrieving my arm.
Despite my newfound patience, I already know that Leanne is an undesirable BFF candidate. The one time she visited my house, she insisted I come into the toilet with her while she did a number one (pee). I can handle nudity—Megan and I used to play a game called The Naked Parade—but the peeing was a bit much for me.
Now I’m worried that mum thinks I’m a lesbian, because probably that’s what lesbians do. “They were in there together for fifteen minutes!” I heard her telling dad afterwards.
I wanted to say, “I’m probably not a lesbian, mum. I just don’t know how to say the word no. I try to say it, but then everything inside me twists into painful knots until I give in.”
None of this matters too much though, because I have Bagheera.
Bagheera is just a normal domesticated cat, except he’s the colour and size of an actual panther. He’s my true best friend because he never tries to hold my hand or make me watch him pee.
He roams around the garden while dad waters. Sometimes dad sprays me with the hose and accidentally wets Bagheera too. I scream in delight while Bagheera growls, but he’s not really angry. We go to our secret place under the ancient frangipani tree and sit among the jungle ferns. He stretches out while I shower him with pats. He asks about school.
“We’ve been learning how to tell the time.” I scratch under his chin. “Can you tell the time?”
“Sure,” he says with a purr. “It’s easy.”
I tell him that Mrs Cameron made me get up in front of the class and change the hands on the clock to 8:45. I guessed one of them should point to the eight, but a roomful of sniggers alerted me to my failure.
“Does that mean I’m stupid?”
“I think it means you should stop skipping school.” Bagheera yawns and rolls over. “Just a thought.”
“They’re lucky I go as much as I do!” I say indignantly. “I just want to hang out with you all day. We could build a temple to the Panther Gods in the middle of the garden. Dad probably won’t mind.”
Bagheera smiles his perfect panther smile. His eyes gleam gold in the sun, and I suddenly realise there’s at least a few thousand years’ worth of wisdom in his feline brain—probably passed down through the ages from ancient Egyptian cats.
He rolls over again, coating himself in warm dirt and leaves. He’s the best panther in the whole world.
“I caught a mouse today,” he says. “Let it go, because I’m nice like that.”
“You’re so nice. You’re the best.”
At dinner I sneak him bits of chicken under the table. Then we watch the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with my parents, and I state the controversial opinion that I’d rather marry Mr Bingley than Mr Darcy. Bagheera says he wouldn’t want to marry either of them, which is fair enough considering he’s a straight male panther.
At bedtime he curls up on the end of my bed. I sip chamomile tea, wishing I lived in Pride and Prejudice so that I didn’t have to go to school tomorrow. Maybe I’d have a governess. Maybe I’d marry Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy would be so confused.
“Do you think if I sprained my ankle mum would let me stay home for a week?”
He frowns. “You’re going to fake a sprained ankle?”
“You know I hate lying.” I slurp up the last of my tea. “I’m going to actually sprain it. I know how to do it because I sprained it at the last athletics carnival. It’s pretty easy.”
His purring teeters on a growl. “You shouldn’t do that.”
“But then we can spend all day in the garden! I could teach you how to make potions. I made a really powerful one out of those orange berries dad keeps telling me not to eat.”
“What does it do?”
“Makes you invisible.”
He meows in approval. “Could be handy—mice are speedy bastards.”
“You see! With your hunting skills and my potion expertise, we’ll never have to worry about anything ever.”
Bagheera uncurls himself, sits up, and places a steady paw on my shoulder. “I know it’s hard, but you have to go to school or you won’t have as many options later in life. You think it’s bad not knowing how to read a clock? It’ll only get worse. Go to school and play with the other kids. I’ll always be here when you get home.”
My eyes sting as he pulls me into a purring panther hug. Why does he have to be so sensible all the time? He couldn’t be any more like Bagheera from The Jungle Book (1967)—brilliant movie—if he tried.
I turn off the light and spend the next hour visualising different ways I might sprain my ankle in the morning. My foot could twist while I’m walking down the stairs. Or I could slip in the shower.
Or I could take Bagheera’s advice.
“You promise?” I say after a while.
He stops mid-purr. “Promise what?”
“You’ll always be here?”
I hear his answer in my mind. He says, “Of course—I’ll be here as long as you need me.”
And suddenly I feel better.