82. City of Cats

ONE WINTER, A FRIEND told me she and her husband had decided to spend the winter abroad and would I like to spend the winter house-sitting for her. They lived in a beach town about an hour and a half away from where I lived. She said she knew I was a writer and writers are always looking for cheap accommodation. The only catch, she said, was that I'd have to look after their cat Mooki, keep the lawn mown and mind their second-hand bookstore on weekends. Of course, I jumped at the chance.

On the day after the departure of my friends, their beloved cat went missing. It took me a full day to realise it, as at first I thought he was just avoiding me. On the second morning I began calling for him. I called for him throughout the house, and then throughout the neighbourhood. I must have made a funny sight, wandering the streets yelling the word ‘Mooki’ at the top of my voice. I knocked on the doors of the neighbourhood houses. Most of them were empty, but a few people were home. These people, I came to realise, were the locals, and they were a very different breed to the weekenders, who tended to be wealthier and shinier, somehow.

This was how I met N, an artist who had moved here from interstate with her son to get away from the boy's father. It had worked - the father hadn't followed, but on the other hand he'd stopped paying child support. N offered to help me find the cat, and together we prowled the streets, calling his name. By mid-afternoon the cat was still lost, and N told me she had to go, her son was about to finish school. I felt a compulsion to go with her, but I tried not to show it. Thankfully, she invited me to dinner at her place that night. We ate with her son, whose interest in me lasted all of a minute before he resumed explaining the latest schoolyard drama. After dinner, N spent a long time putting her son to bed, during which time I sat in the lounge room in front of a fire N had asked me to light, sipping the wine I’d brought with me and looking around, getting the feel of the place, wondering what it said about N, and wondering what that said about me.

Fires make me dozy, and at some stage, without realising it, I fell asleep – all the walking the streets had tired me out, I guess. I dreamed I lived in a city of cats. I was walking along a suburban street within sight of the sea when I saw the missing Mooki sitting at the steering wheel of an Impala parked by the side of the road. He told me to get in beside him, which I did, and explained he was keeping watch on the house opposite, which I realised was N's house. I asked him if his client was the child's father but Mooki ignored my question. Instead he said, ‘I understand you're a writer.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I am.’

‘What's your book about?’ said Mooki.

‘I don't know yet,’ I said, ‘that's what I intend to find out.’

Keeping his eyes on the house opposite, Mooki took a cigarette out of a packet and lit it with the car's cigarette lighter. ‘A homeless failed writer bunkers up in a resort town in the off season to write a book without a clue what he's going to write,’ he said without asking if I minded him smoking. ‘Sounds like a bit of a cliché to me.’ I had nothing to say in reply, so he continued: ‘I tell you what. I'm not sure my client would approve of someone like you getting so close to his wife and son, so I'm going to do you a deal. I'm going to tell you what your novel will be about.’ He fixed me with a cool yellow-eyed stare. ‘I'm going to give you the plot to your novel. But not just the plot - the characters too, and the feel of it. I'm going to explain how you're going to write it - the structure of it, the chapter breakdown, and so on. Everything you need. When you wake up, you'll find yourself on N's couch with a blanket over you. You'll find your jacket lying over the arm of the couch behind your head. You'll pull your pen and notebook out and write down everything I've just told you before you forget it. There's a lamp next to the sofa you can switch on if you don’t have enough light to write. In exchange, I ask you only one thing.’

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘Don’t sleep with N. Just don’t. I can’t tell you why, but it’s not a good idea – for her, I mean. It might be good for you, but it isn’t good for her.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘I can’t say,’ said Mooki, ‘it’s private.’

‘I'm not sure I can stick to a deal like that,’ I said. ‘I have a feeling she and I will make love later tonight.’

‘Wait till I tell you this idea,’ said Mooki. ‘You'll be sure to change your mind.’ He began to tell me his idea for a novel. Sure enough it was brilliant. It was like one of those instances where a friend tells you what they’re writing and you instantly know it’s going to be good, and you’re jealous – except in this case the idea was entirely new. I knew, listening to Mooki, that if I followed his instructions I would write a novel that could maybe win a prize, maybe make me some money, definitely make a reputation for myself and maybe get my writing career out of the rut it had always been in. Mooki sure knew what he was talking about – you could tell he'd thought about it, a lot. When he finished he said, ‘There, it's yours if you want it – you don't even have to credit me.’

That’s when I woke up on the sofa in N's lounge room, my jacket folded on the arm of the couch above my head. I took my pen and notebook and wrote two words - Mooki's story - when N appeared in the doorway, arms folded, leaning against the wall, head tilted to one side. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked. She was dressed only in an oversize Pixies T-shirt.

‘Just writing something down,’ I said.

‘I don’t want to disturb you,’ she said.

‘Not at all,’ I said. You can guess where this is going, so I’ll skip to the next morning, as I was leaving N’s place, hearing her waking her son to get him ready for school. As I was walking to the car, I saw what appeared to be a possum lying on the side of the road, lifeless. I approached it and saw it wasn’t a possum but a cat, and on closer inspection that it was in fact Mooki. I had to take Mooki’s body into my arms and carry it back to the house I was minding, and call my friend to tell her of the death of her beloved cat. She was so upset she and her husband cut short their trip and returned home barely a week after their departure. I tried to stay in touch with N, but we were somehow never able to get back onto the magical footing of that first night together. The affair fizzled out soon after. We didn’t keep in touch, so I don’t know what happened to her. And as for Mooki's story - well, I've been trying to remember it ever since.