Cats of My Neighbours

Ronnie Scott

For many years, I thought I would write a story about the cats I saw out the window of my apartment. Because there were so many (not very serious) attempts at the story, I have notes about these different cats in different files on my computer, in different tenses and with different levels of detail, even, as in some cases, I’ve found I no longer remember the cat or the circumstances of having made the notes.

For instance: ‘Well before dawn, the black cat in the neighbours’ yard arranges itself in a lump on top of their hot water tank, where it spends the day with one leg in the air, licking itself much more than other cats do. It fails to notice the black and white cat that sits on the fence and stares at it, imposing like a statue, large.’

Reading this note, I have two broad responses:

1. None of the neighbours I can see from my first-floor apartment have either a black cat or a visible hot water tank anymore. I don’t remember which of my neighbours did have the hot water tank, because the three houses right behind my kitchen—the best view, the most cats—were sold, demolished and rebuilt over the course of two years, transforming from worker’s cottages into glassy modern boxes. There are two main black cats I know: the one that lives three or four houses down and often hangs out in a tangle of bushes and a large one that still sits sometimes on a corrugated roof out a different window (outside my bedroom). Although I once judged the first cat that appears in the note for how often it licks itself (?), I don’t know what happened to it and obviously never thought about it again.

2. The large black and white cat that sat on the fence and stared: this cat is and always has been a peril in my neighbourhood. It’s one of the only cats my neighbours talk about, and it shows up in other notes made at different times: ‘There was a black and white cat who was considered cruel by my neighbours…’—notes of essentially that nature. I didn’t specify the reason the cat was considered cruel, but it bullies other cats as a matter of course. It’s one of the least likeable cats I’ve ever encountered, and is also skilled at making itself known. I think of the time I was carrying a load of washing and it shocked me by jumping out from a wide hollow it had formed in a patch of weeds, for lazing in, beside the washing line. Months later, when the patch of weeds was cleared in routine maintenance, the cat began to sleep in the patch of dirt behind our bins, where it continued to jump out and shock people.

If I take a long view of the years in which I made notes on the cats of my neighbours, it’s the push and pull between states of loneliness and independence that characterise my own experience of apartment life. As with most things, the downsides of living alone in an apartment are closely related to the advantages, which means it isn’t about attaining precious autonomy or independence so much as monitoring a balance, checking in on how you feel and adjusting your life from time to time. Throughout those years, while I was seeing so many cats of my neighbours, I often wondered what it would be like to live with a cat of my own, and the effect it would have on the balance between loneliness and independence that was apparently so challenging to get right.

I figured it would have something to do with the individual cat’s personality, but there were also characteristics that seemed common to most cats that would impact their suitability as companions. Their eyes look like marbles in plush encasements—which I love. They have peculiar reactions to windows, taps and doors. I most liked looking at cats that sat on household surfaces, because they seemed more noble than their circumstances allowed. But in the plague year, when I saw many cats while on walks and generally tried not to pat them—because if you’re going to pat a stranger’s cat, you might as well just hug that person—I also watched Kedi, a documentary about cats in Istanbul, and realised that I liked cats in a range of different settings, e.g. relaxing in the blue hour on the shore.

There is so much I like about lockdown, even though so much is hard. I live within 5 kilometres of my boyfriend, both in Collingwood, and neither of us has other people in our homes to worry about. I don’t miss my friends as much as I thought. The scale of life grows longer. I will love seeing them when I see them. It doesn’t have to be now.

I like seeing colleagues on Microsoft Teams and talking to them on the phone. I have no trouble rolling out of my bed and just heading straight ‘to the office’. In some ways this is the life I had back when I was a freelancer; in other ways it’s the life I’ve always wanted for myself.

How, then, does the cat come? It comes from Instagram, where a person I know has started fostering cats. When I show my boyfriend the Instagram Stories, it’s clear almost immediately that this is the cat that’s going to live in my apartment, the roughly thirteen-year-old, one-eyed cat. We’re warned that it will cry the first night because it won’t understand where it is, so there’s something strangely comforting (for us) when this is what happens. Beyond its weeks with the foster carer, it has no history. We don’t know if it has ever lived outdoors, or if it was known for its cruelty.

We know it sits on the window all day, especially when it’s sunny, and that most of what it’s looking at is other cats out there. It seems very uncomplicated, which is part of its joy, but as with all creatures, whether inside or outside, the details of the situation are ongoing.

Ronnie Scott is a senior lecturer in the writing and publishing discipline at RMIT University and program manager of the Bachelor of Arts (Creative Writing). He’s a lead researcher on Folio: The Story of Australian Comics 1980-2020. His novel The Adversary (2020) was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Award and the ALS Gold Medal.

Illustration: Nyein Chan Aung

Brought to you by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for Melbourne Writers Festival. Excerpts of ‘Writing Melbourne’ and accompanying illustrations can be seen at City Square on Swanston Street when restrictions ease.