It wasn’t a Balinese cat, that was for sure.
The sleek, pure black feline was making its way slowly and curiously, through the chaotic noisy, crowded stalls of the Denpasar Meat Markets.
Rodney was himself wandering aimlessly and curiously around the bazar when his attention was drawn suddenly to the cat as it crossed his path. Good luck, he thought, his inherent perverse superstition coming to the fore.
Not being in any particular hurry, he began to follow it. He was himself probably more of a dog person, but he did have a particular attraction to cats, dating back to his childhood.
It was the only living animal in the crowded, grim and confronting marketplace which was a traditional food supplier for the indigenous Balinese; definitely not a spot for tourists.
How he had ended up there, he wasn’t sure. Boredom with his week-long organised “cultural tour” of the Indonesian island probably had something to do with it. Looking to see something different, he had randomly asked his driver to take him somewhere tourists didn’t go.
The driver had got it right. It was a world away from the Kuta food shops or the the Jimbaran Bay fresh fish restaurants. This was depressing, grass roots, Third World squalor.
Row on row of sad looking smoked ducks, freshly slaughtered chickens. Odd looking seafood. Lugubrious pig and sheep heads stared down at him from the hanging rails. As well as other unidentifiable skinned carcasses of smaller mammals, the identity of which he didn’t dare to speculate about. Plates of steaming fresh offal was everywhere.
But at that moment, it was the cat that dominated Rodney’s gaze. What on earth was it doing there?
He knew for certain it wasn’t a local. They were all so thin and scrawny, mangy and sick looking. As long as he’d been coming here he’d always felt a certain sorrow for the domestic cats and dogs of Bali.
Despite the fact that it was wearing a collar, it looked decidedly lost.
Above the hubbub of the market he suddenly became aware of a woman running frantically in his general direction through the throng, a hundred metres or so away.
She was calling out loudly, desperately. “Lucien? Lucien? Ou êtes-vous? Lucien!”
Instinctively he bent down and scooped up the cat, just before a couple of dubious locals attempted to do the same. It readily allowed him to do so. Cats knew cat people.
He turned, held the cat tightly, but gently, and waited for the woman to arrive.
“Oh merci, monsieur, merci beaucoup!”she said effusively as he handed the cat over.
“Mon plaisir” Rodney replied in his best schoolboy French. “C’est ton chat? Il est tres beau!”
As she was reunited with the errant moggy, stifling a tear, she began to speak in English, albeit with a thick accent, having readily detected Rodney was hardly a French speaker.
“I cannot thank you enough, Monsieur. I was very worried. I left the door slightly open, and he escaped! These markets are not a place that I would want him to be! You never know what might have become of him in the wrong hands here!”
“I can imagine” he said. “Do you live around here?”
“Oui, malheuresement…” she replied snuggling Lucien tightly into the nape of her neck and kissing him on the top of his head. “Mauvaise petit chat!” she said to the cat lovingly.
“I am so grateful, Monsieur! Can I get you some coffee?”
“Well, of course, is there a café here?”
“Mais non!” she laughed … “Pas ici! You must come to my apartment, it’s quite close…”Rodney baulked at the suddenness of the invitation.
He hesitated, but felt her take his arm with her one free hand and followed as she began to whisk him away.
Her name was Yvette. She was, he surmised, around 45 years old, probably a decade his senior.
She was a very attractive woman, unconventional looking, with a kind of artistic gypsy aspect about her. She was dressed in a pure silk sarong, midriff singlet and leather sandals. She wore no makeup and her long dark hair was pulled back in a pony-tail. He knew immediately that she was anything but a tourist.
Back at the Hyatt later that evening over a few Bintangs on the balcony of the hotel, Rodney related the curious events of the morning to his new-found friend Bolton, a fellow member of the tour, who was feeling the same sort of ambivalence about the trip as himself.
The Meat Market, the coffee encounter. The alluring painter from Bordeaux, exiling in Bali after a disastrous relationship break-up. The odd, eclectically furnished apartment. And Lucien the cat.
An old time rock-and-roller, bass player, rising 70, Freddie Bolton had allegedly played bit parts and sessions with some of the seminal bands of the mid 1970’s Melbourne pub scene. Goanna, Icehouse, Chisel; those sort of outfits.
On the face of it, Bolton had little in common with a currently retrenched anthropology graduate, but he and Rodney had seemed to strike a chord with each other compared to their fairly mundane fellow travellers.
How either of them had ended up on that Bali expedition to “examine Gamelan music and traditional Indonesian art” was now a mystery to both of them. Probably an excuse to avoid the most severe portion of the Australian winter and the ubiquitous AFL season for which neither of them had any affinity. And for Rodney a possible tax-deductible break, which was pretty cheap.
“Sounds like a scene from ‘The Year of the Cat’ if you ask me Rodney” Bolton said laconically, rolling a cigarette from a pouch of White Ox tobacco.
“What exactly does that mean?”
“The song, mate. The famous song. You’ve never heard of Al Stewart? Seriously?”
“No, I can’t say I have, Fred?”
“Look it up. It’s a classic… You’ll know it.”
Later that night in his room he looked up the song. As Bolton had suggested, he knew it. Vaguely.
On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turned back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime…
Rodney didn’t know who Peter Lorre was, and hadn’t seen any Bogart movies other than Casablanca. But he was transfixed by the lyrics and the haunting piano introduction, which later launched into swirling violins, saxophone and ultimately a climactic guitar solo.
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a water colour in the rain…
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came…
In the Year of the Cat…
He fell asleep with the song on his tongue and Yvette on his mind.
Rodney met Bolton for breakfast at the garden restaurant.
He had taken the opportunity to search for any reference to Freddie playing in any of the bands he mentioned. Nothing came up. Not that it worried Rodney. The bloke seemed pretty genuine and really knew his music. Maybe he was just too peripheral to have made Wikipedia? He certainly looked, talked and dressed like an old muso.
“You were right, Fred. As it turns out I did know that song. Sort of.”
“And are you going to follow it through? Like the bloke in the song?” Bolton asked.
“Well she did give me her phone number.”
“Go for it mate. It might be better than the Ubud excursion today. “
“Well, I did like the cat…”
Rodney decided to pass on the trip to Ubud.
Sitting by the hotel pool, he saved “Year of the Cat” to his playlist and listened to it several times. Then several more. Then some more again.
And after resisting the temptation for as long as he could, and against his better judgment, he dialled Yvette’s number.
They met, at her suggestion, for lunch at a small café, ‘Kuching’, down the Sanur Road. It was not lost on him that “kuching” in Indonesian meant “cat”.
She was dressed in a stunning off-the-shoulder silk sarong. Her skin was faintly freckled but obviously not regularly exposed to the harsh Bali sun. She was, he thought, as essentially French as she was inherently feline.
The hours passed easily and quickly. For two people with ostensibly nothing in common other than a mutual understanding and affection for cats, the experience was a little bewildering to him.
Yvette gave away little about herself and asked very little about him. He knew Europe well enough and their conversation revolved mainly around that.
And, predictably, the cat.
Lucien was, she said, usually unapproachable. Came to no-one but her. Allowed no-one to pick him up. That he had saved Lucien from the hands of an uncertain fate was something to which her conversation continued to return. Rodney wasn’t quite as sure that the cat’s predicament the previous day was as dire as Yvette suspected it might have been, but he was prepared to take the accolade.
Why she continued to live in Bali two years on from her divorce was never really explained, and he didn’t press it.
These days, she says,
I feel my life
just like a river running through…
The Year of the Cat
Much later, at the Denpasar apartment, he renewed acquaintances with Lucien. It was, oddly, as if the cat was an old friend. Increasingly, it seemed like Yvette was as well.
They drank Bordeaux red and smoked Gauloises cigarettes, both of which she seemed to have in ample supply.
As the evening seamlessly progressed, Rodney was gradually, and almost without realising it, overwhelmed. He was physically and emotionally intoxicated.
She kept her art upstairs in a large studio adjoining the bedroom. Oil paintings and water-colours as remarkable and unique as she was.
But everything about her had one defining feature. Every aspect of it involved cats. He began to notice that all her artefacts, from tea cups and vases to placemats, curtains and towels, were all either obviously or subtly, feline. Huge cats. Tiny cats. Conventional cats and strange, odd looking Picasso-esque cats. No aspect of her existence had seemed to escape it.
“Please excuse me for asking, but you only paint cats, Yvette?”
“No. Pas de tout. I paint the world, Rodney.”
Lying stretched out on the bed beside him, she slowly rolled across to look him closely in the eyes, paused, and kissed him.
“My work has many aspects. The world has many cats. I merely include them.”
Lucien lay purring softly at the foot of the bed.
Rodney returned to the Hyatt in time to join Bolton for Breakfast.
“So how goes ‘The Year of the Cat’, young Rodney?” the perspicacious old muso inquired.
“I’m not sure how to answer that, Freddie… at this stage…”
“Well you know how the song ends? Is that how it ends for you?”
“You seem to be right across this, Fred?”he mused over a much needed cup of impossibly strong and bitter Bali Kopi.
“Well, we all check out of here tomorrow. I suppose you just need to listen to that last verse again…”
Bolton said nothing more. Nor did Rodney. He knew precisely how the song ended.
But the drumbeat strains
Of night remain
In the rhythm of the new-born day…
They sat in silence for a while, before the older man rolled a White Ox and sauntered off alone slowly in the direction of the beach.
Sitting by the pool later that morning ,Rodney put his headphones aside, but try as he might, he could not mentally erase the final stanza of the song.
The violins and the towering crescendo of the final lead guitar solo were inescapable.
Well morning comes and you’re still with her.
And the crowds and the tourists are gone.
And you’ve thrown away your choice
You’ve lost your ticket
So you have to stay on…
Picking up his towel and phone Rodney walked haltingly toward the hotel reception.
There were arrangements to be made.