In a country dominated by dogs, we have moved onto a street full of cats – Katzenstrasse. There are no dogs on this street, our neighbours tell me. That’s odd, given that dogs are everywhere in Salzburg, on the street, in shops, even in restaurants.
One cat, a large – no, bluntly, fat – dark grey-and-white cat with a delicate face and small pink nose, considers this flat an extension of her house across the street. She followed us up the stairs on Sunday as we brought our suitcases in and went directly to the kitchen, rubbing up against the table. From there, she went to the bedroom, as if she expected to find something, or someone, specific there. Back into the kitchen she came and sat, calmly watching. In fact, she didn’t run down the stairs and out the door until my husband, sitting in the office at the end of the long hall, loudly and unconsciously cleared his throat.
When I awoke at half six Monday morning and pulled back the curtain by the bed, I saw a pair of pale gold eyes, just on the other side of the glass, inches away.
Let me be clear. The flat is on the first floor – the second story by American reckoning. The cat was sitting on the flat roof of the garage, a kind of terrace accessible from the bedroom through a pair of glass doors next to the bed. I didn’t know how she got onto the roof, but she seemed to know I would be on the other side of the curtain.
The cat stared, mouth stretched wide with the plaintive cry I knew from hard experience. I let the curtain fall back and turned in the bed. Minutes later, I looked again. She was still there.
Himself had retreated from my thrashing and duvet snatching in the night to the spare bedroom, so I was alone. With full knowledge of my guilt, I opened the glass door. The cat came in. Soon she was an immobile, heavy and tightly wound knot next to me, secure in the peaceful down of the duvet.
Himself would not be pleased, I thought.
She followed me into the living room when I got up for my meditation. It’s a large room, now cluttered with our furniture and still-to-be unpacked boxes. She wandered the room, thrusting her body into the legs of each chair and table she met, crying pitifully when I ignored her. I settled her half on my lap, half on the sofa – she is too fat to fit comfortably on lap alone – as I began my meditation, concentration diluted by her heavy, soft stillness.
It’s been nearly four years now since we had had to let go of our cat, Puisín. A remarkable cat, intelligent, exceptionally brave and loyal, she was 16 and had reached the point of wandering the house crying in the night. She cried too when she was picked up, her joints knobby beneath her withered flesh. So I called the other Lorraine, our vet, who came to our house, and I held Puisín in my lap, stroking her long marmalade-coloured fur as her body relaxed for the last time.
That may have been the last time until this week that I had held a cat. The year that followed was the year the house in Ireland was finished; the summer following her death was a blur of selling the California house, packing or giving away all we owned and moving to Ireland. In Ireland, my mother-in-law’s dog Sally took a more-than proprietary interest in our house, having long seen the site as part of her jurisdiction. Besides, we didn’t want to be in thrall to litter boxes, yet an outdoor cat, I feared, would be a neat snack for the foxes, badgers, hawks and owls of the countryside.
The cat nuzzled my arm, pushing its face into the wide sleeve of my dressing gown. It had been a long time since a soft but demanding, tightly knotted creature had pressed itself insistently into my outstretched legs or onto my lap, pinning me in place.
My mind wandered, skirting the forest of irrationality, sidling into the wood of superstition. Perhaps this was someone making his or her presence known. Perhaps it was Jakob, the craftsman who had carved the walnut, cherry and oak that panel the walls and ceiling of this flat. Moving here, we acknowledged he may be looking over our shoulders, exhaling dusty breath, keeping watch on his creation. Was he making his presence felt more substantially?
‘It certainly knows this place,’ said my husband over breakfast a little later, as the cat roamed the kitchen.
It jumped onto the seat of Jakob’s carved cherry breakfast nook.
‘Hey! Get off!’ He brushed it off the bench. ‘Maybe it used to live here.’
Would we now be buying cat food? Surely the cat was too clean and well fed to be homeless.
I got some of the story the next day when, taking out the rubbish, I got talking with the neighbours across the street. (Many people in Salzburg speak English to a greater or lesser degree, but this couple met as part of an exchange program between the University of Salzburg and Bowling Green State College, where for a year they were enrolled in American Studies, so they are more articulate in English than most. Yesterday they left for Vienna for the long weekend, and already I miss them.) The owners themselves of a 17-year-old cat called Jimmy, they told me the wanderer belongs to their next-door neighbour. The cat is named Mona, and she has a sister, as shy as Mona is bold, named Lisa.
Yes. You read that right: Mona and Lisa. Someone has a sense of humour, I suppose one could call it.
Mona is friendly and adventuresome by nature, and it turns out the last occupants of our flat were a family with children, a girl, 8, and a boy, 6. Mona had been welcome here and the children had played with her, so she was, in fact, re-visiting a favourite place.
Perhaps we should have been more welcoming, because she hasn’t repeated her early-morning call. But no doubt our familiar will be back. In a street that’s home to about 20 cats, my neighbours estimate, Mona is well known for her wandering into flats and making herself at home. In fact, as I came out of the furnace room the other day, she was half way up the stairs before she saw me, turned and ran out the door.
Or maybe that was Lisa, the shy one. Who can say?
As for Jakob, I haven’t entirely left the wood. When he makes his presence felt, I’m sure he has no need of the corporeal.