The little cat puts her hand possessively on my arm. After a moment’s thought her other hand creeps up to join it and I remember the day I finally found her again, after she had been lost for a lifetime, five months at large in the laneways of inner Melbourne, and a man rang in response to one of my incessant posters saying, I think your cat is living in our backyard, and I went there and she came out warily from among the ferns, panting with thirst and telling me all about it, Mwowl, wowl, wowow, and she wrapped her forearms around my thigh and pressed her length along the length of me, ferocious with love.
Today I am going away again forever and she knows something is up. She doesn’t like it. She has slept in the private cave between my knees, purring. She comes along after her night walks and nudges the blankets with her little nose, so that I half-wake and raise the covers up for her, and she slides in. Our physical intimacy has always been a most remarkable element, to me. When I found her it was through a cattery out at St Kilda, the other St Kilda, a coastal hamlet miles out of Adelaide. The lady who ran it was dotty about cats and had simply bred too many. The local council told her, you have to get rid of some, or cull. She’d put a notice up in the papers saying, free purebred kittens. I went out to her farm and there were four large sheds brimming with yowls. In the middle one a concrete floor writhed with kittens. I sat down to watch and find the cutest one, the prettiest. I liked the golden baby with caramel points. I liked the dark brown. I looked down and a skinny, ugly, funny-looking teenage cat with a smudge on its nose had crept up onto the table silently and crouched in against my hip. She laid her sharp pointed head in the hinge of my thigh and closed her eyes.
I didn’t want her. I wanted the pretty ones, ones who still had all their growing to do. The next week I visited again and the same thing happened. It was summer and my bare toes in their sandals were rimmed with little kittens who chewed softly at the salt. Oh, they were all adorable. But this freakish, peculiar, not particularly attractive animal stretched to the length of her growth had chosen me. With ill grace I packed her in a banana box and stowed her on the seat of my ute. She had never been away from her extended family before, never been alone or in a car. She gave out rhythmic little bleats. I was driving and could only fit the crook of one knuckle in the narrow slot by which banana packers lift bananas. I felt her soft face come up against the tip of the knuckle and she sat down right away and stopped crying.
It is twenty past seven and everyone is sleeping. I leave Brisbane in a few hours. I was sitting up in bed writing with my early morning cup of tea and I glanced up and met the eye of a big muscular Maori man I had never seen before. He was creeping round the side of the house, wearing a hi viz vest. When I went to open the door he boomed, Hello! But when he heard me answer far more quietly, he glanced up at the house quickly, and said far more softly, “Aw sorry, don’t want to wake everyone up.”
This was Robbie, lifting all my precious things into a truck to drive them out to the ship. He took especial care of my guitars. These guitars have been in storage in Melbourne for three years and my cat has been in storage here. My mother calls her the grey nurse. When Dad is sleeping, which he mostly does, she curls in him and sleeps too. He’s her perfect companion: warm and available and never standing upright so he always has a lap. When the constantly changing rota of Blue Care nurses visits she sits on the side of his bed and keeps guard mistrustfully. I would so love to take her to Berlin with me but it would be cruel to all of them. My father would be bereft. And Tisch is a little wild animal with her afternoon frolics in the bamboo, her insouciant saunters under the old house next door to taunt their verandah-caged dog and to leave her scat. During the day I hear my father talking to her. She is his grave, watchful, lazy companion.
There was another cat here who was dying when Tisch first arrived, four years ago when I went to Berlin, for a week, and ended by staying for three months. I met a man and stayed on and now our future is uncertain – just in the last 24 hours. I had parked Tisch in a cat hotel in Richmond and when I went in to pick her up the girl on the desk said, in a bored tone, “Name?”
I said, “Tisch. T, I, S, C – ”
“Oh!” she cried. “Tisch! Oh, does she have to go? Can’t she stay?”
She brought me my cat and I couldn’t help noticing Tisch had grown substantially rounder. “We take her out whenever it’s quiet,” the girl confessed. “We play with her round the desk and give her biscuits.”
The year before, Tisch had been lost for so long that my friends were telling me, You’ve got to give her up. She is dead, or she’s found another family. I walked the streets calling and calling. I collected sightings. I rang a cat retrieval specialist who suggested a poster saying, This Cat Has a Serious Illness. “But she’s healthy!” I protested. “She’s a sweet little healthy girl.”
The retrieval specialist said darkly, “You’ve got to appeal to people’s lowest common denominator.” I said, “No. I’m going to appeal to the love.”
My poster had photographs of Tisch curled in my lap and on the rug and it said, This is Tisch. She is lost. I miss her like sleep. A flood of text messages followed. Can I put up your poster at our school, I have copied your posters for our office, don’t lose hope, “this is our dog Wendy. She is watching tv. I thought a picture of her might cheer you.” A neighbour wrote, “I know how you feel. I lost my little while dog eight years ago and I still stop every little white dog in the street, just in case it might be him.”
So now my guitars are on their way to the sea and will be freighted like so many piles of t shirts. I have only a temporary home in Berlin and the reason I couldn’t come to visit Dad sooner was my offensive landlord had taken me to court. We have a contract but he seems to think he can bully me into leaving, for his friends to use the apartment, by dint of phoning and shouting at me, screaming at the door. The loving relationship I was going back to, the person who has kept me sane in our whispered late-night conversations, has turned his back and folded his arms. It’s all hard. I leave my father and my cat wrapped in each other’s skinny arms. I salute death, the enchantress who makes life possible, as ably and courteously as I can. I remember my uncle’s cat Putschen, after the uncle had died in a scurf of urine stained cushions and skittering letters to the government about his fears of his various neighbours; Putschen was big and wild and I had to coax him into the car. Years later after Tisch had also moved in, Putschen had cancer. The cancer ate him away from inside and I was visiting and for some reason the spot he wanted to curl in all day and all night was the wardrobe in my room. He had become transcendent with pain and was skinny and hollow and purring so loudly all night that I finally had to move him, into the next room, through whose wall I could still hear him. The other cat, Tisch, would come in of an evening and the two of them touched noses, “Still the cancer?” “Yup, it’s ok.” I began to call him the Dalai Putschen. My father has not reached this state and the death which seemed imminent now perhaps may be more uncertain. We can’t know. My father says to me every day, Can’t you stay one or two more weeks? and I have. But now it is time and I am heading out into the wilderness, a country whose language I don’t speak, a blessed breather of solitude that now with my relationship on ice seems more like a lonely sojourn in foreign parts. I will get to Berlin in eleven days and don’t know if he will be there to meet me, or not. I leave my cat behind and she is the worst possible correspondent. She doesn’t phone, she never writes – not a postcard – but my mother has said, when I telephone and she hears my voice, sometimes she comes and writhes around the implement. A hollow love long distance. A house of bamboo grief. I don’t even know what I am saying any longer and the plane is waiting, opening up its maw.