Let me tell you about Kaiser.
Kaiser was a small black cat that belonged to my buddy, Stefan. Stefan was German by birth, hence the cat’s name. He grew up in an old warehouse space that was both Stefan’s home and his place of business – he was a leatherworker who serviced both the pet supply and adult/alternative industries. A few of us used to hang out out Stefan’s a lot, drinking Corona and watching old sci fi movies on VHS.
The Factory, as we called it, was packed to the gills with books (SF and fantasy), comics, games and toys – we even had an old arcade machine in there for a while. It was exactly the kind of place an alienated kid in their late teens dreamed of living in, and also ageing goths in their 30s – which we were. Kaiser was a nimble, antisocial shadow that lived in the clutter and detritus. He didn’t like being petted much, and he was quite willing to draw blood if he felt the need – sometimes by pouncing and sinking his teeth into a passing ankle, sometimes because Stefan had idly and mischievously let the red dot from a laser pointer jitter up someone’s bare leg.
He was also not allowed outside, and when he did get out all hands were on deck to corner him in the Factory’s concrete parking lot and get him back inside, which usually amounted to hooking him out from beneath someone’s car and then reaching for the Betadine and Band-Aids once he was secured. This happened maybe half a dozen times that I saw.
Came the time that Stefan had grown tired of living like a character in a ’90s indie movie and got a house with girlfriend, Jo. For reasons I never bothered to ask about, Kaiser was not welcome at the new house, and neither was his fellow Factory cat, Mongo, a squash-faced, silky-haired pouffe of a thing that seemed both catastrophically mentally impaired and always on the verge of a cardiac event. Myself and my girlfriend at the time volunteered to hold onto the pair until they could be rehomed.
Which is what happened, more or less – Mongo went to a new home. Kaiser, however, came home with me.
I lived in Northbridge at the time with a housemate, a pugnacious sound engineer called Sean. We were pet free and had always been so, apart from a brief period early on in our tenancy when we took care of the previous inhabitant’s cat for a few weeks before he was shipped off to his owner in Melbourne. Sean had no interest in having a cat around, an argument I outflanked by saying there were two cats that needed a place and letting myself get argued down to one. The one was Kaiser.
It’s hard to say why. He was a handsome animal of about two at this stage, and he was still pretty antisocial and he’d put his claws or teeth into you for any number of arbitrary and contradictory reasons, which was quite a thing to contend with in my girlfriend’s small apartment (Mongo mainly hid). But he was vulnerable. He’d spent his whole life in one big industrial space and now he was in a completely alien world, and he was scared.
Maybe that’s why he started warming to people a bit more – or at least to me, at first. He consented to being patted or scratched without trying to maim the trespassing appendage. He started sleeping on my bed, then in the crook of my elbow, then in my armpit. Later in life, his favourite spot was next to my pillow, curled in on himself nose to tail. He always retained a pathological hatred of feet, though; if you let one out from under the covers in your sleep and he saw it, you’d be awake pretty quickly, shrieking with shock and pain.
Sean encouraged the cat’s scrappiness. he nicknamed him “Mr Snuggles” and would playfully torment him, mussing his ears and booping his nose to get a playfighting reaction. He always claimed to have no time for the animal, but it was clear that was a lie – they got along famously.
We lived in a two bedroom terraced house with a big, overgrown backyard surrounded by high fences, and so I introduced the cat to the pleasures of what could loosely be termed “the garden”. Kaiser’s first sorties out into the foot-high grass were cautious ones, but he soon found he loved to romp around the tame wilderness – it was a world away from his first couple of years in the dusty Factory. There was a single tree, a tallish, twisted thing that attracted a pair of Indian doves to nest every year. Kaiser liked to sleep in the lower branches on warm afternoons, like a miniature jungle cat.
It wasn’t long before he got over the fence, of course.
Most cats, in my experience, will roam, but I didn’t really expect the former shut-in to do so – he’d barely seen sky before, after all. But roam he did, and for increasingly long periods of time. I fretted; there were streets nearby, busy ones, and he was not exactly worldly wise. And yet it seemed cruel to deny him his freedom – he’d had so little. And how far could he go? Pretty far, as it turned out. A few nights ended with me sitting out on the weight bench in the back yard with a book and a pack of cigarettes, waiting for the cat to come home.
He always did. He got very street smart very quickly and we soon stopped worrying about him too much – he became a familiar sight on Brisbane St, often sleeping on the footpath in a patch of sunlight or sitting on a mailbox watching the world go by. He would run to meet me as I approached home and keep pace with me while I fumbled for my keys. He was independent and footloose, and the neighbourhood fit him like a glove.
He could have lived without the other cats, though, and frequently did his best to rid the world of his fellow felines. He took to streetfighting with a rare ferocity and glee, and soon he sported a notched ear, a few white and twisting scars and, frequently, ulcerated wounds that would slow him down for a spell, but never make him consider retirement. We’d hear tales of cat owners shooing a black interloper out of their courtyards while their own pets ran for dear life. Sometimes we’d see it happen.
One time a young couple were walking their big, fluffy white Persian past our house on a leash. Sean happened to be walking up the hallway toward the front door and saw Kaiser, dozing in the sun on our path, lazily raise his head to see what was happening, and take an instant and potentially fatal dislike to the leash-bound newcomer. According to Sean’s later report, Kaiser went from zero to Mach 3 in about a third of a second, slamming into the fluffball like a cruise missile, so hard that he shot through the poor thing, landing in the street with his teeth and claws full of white fur. Before the poor thing could react, Kaiser slammed into him again, intent on murder.
The sound of Sean’s swearing and running feet brought me out of my room and I saw the Persian attempting to climb onto his owner’s head while Sean tried to shoo Kaiser away.
“‘E ees a little devil, non?” said the Persian’s owner. He and his girlfriend were French, which made the whole scene more surreal. As I watched, Kaiser leaped nimbly onto a fence post and, as Sean approached him to try and chill him out, swiped at him with the clear intention of clawing his throat out. His attack having failed, he growled menacingly and disappeared into the narrow gap between the houses.
Age did mellow him, though. He roamed less and he slept more, and attacks on passing ankles became less frequent, if not entirely a thing of the past. He had us – me and Sean, and anyone else who happened to be in our lives on either a temporary or permanent basis – at his beck and call. He would meow to be let in and meow to be let out, and often within a few minutes of each other. He slowed down a bit. Jumping from the floor to the bed became a bit of a challenge. Nothing to worry about, you understand, just a bit of age showing in the old boy.
Eventually I had to consider moving out. Things with my girlfriend, Natalie, were getting serious and I had a job offer in Sydney I’d be mad to turn down. I wanted her to come with me, but she wanted to trial living together here first. Fair enough, but what about the cats?
See, Nat had a cat, too – a timid little thing named Koha that she’d hand-raised from kittenhood and whom she doted on completely. Kaiser was, well, a bit of a bastard with a long history of visiting grievous violence on other cats. Still, I wanted to give it a go – we had to at least see if they got along, right?
Surprisingly, Koha was the bully. She hissed at Kaiser whenever he was in the room, and he soon took to spending all his time in the little office where I wrote by day, curled up on an old coffee sack (a gift to him from Sean). That was a step up from trying to hide under the bed all day, though. We tried a number of techniques to bridge the gap between the two, including those weird cat pheromone gadgets, but it was slow going. Once again, Kaiser’s life had been turned upside down, and he hated it.
What he really hated, though, was being cooped up inside. I knew he needed time to recognise the new place as home, and that meant keeping him in until he settled. Still, every night he yowled for hours to be let out, and it was driving us insane. I would sleep on the couch with him to try and comfort him (the bed has Koha’s territory). Nat resorted to industrial earplugs. We tried drugging him with Valium, which was hilarious to watch – cats on Valium stagger like drunks – but less than effective. Come 4am, I was on the couch with him again.
A week into this Nat and I got home quite late on Saturday night and Kaiser was already at it. I put Nat to bed – she was the worse for drink than me – and considered the cat, wailing at the glass sliding door that led from the kitchen to the back yard. The fences were high. Fuck it, I thought, he’s a canny customer. He won’t go far. I slid open the door and Kaiser, instantly silent, eagerly slipped out into the winter night.
I went to bed, sure I’d here him meowing to come in before long.
Nat was up before me. I woke up when she said, “Where’s Kaiser?”
“I put him out.”
“I put him out. He’ll be fine.”
My phone rang. It was a number I didn’t know. It was just after 7am on a Sunday.
“Hello, this is Travis.” I said.
“Hello, do you have a black cat?”
I chuckled a little. We’d put tagged collars on both the cats, recently, Kaiser with my mobile number, Koha with Nat’s, in case they run away rather than live with each other.
“Yeah, that’s Kaiser. Where is he?”
“I’m afraid he’s been hit by a car.”
The woman waited with him. With the body. She’d actually moved him from the curb to the verge. She was wearing a greyhound rescue jumper, I noted as we drove up. We’d brought an old, brightly coloured beach towel with us, and a shovel.
“Don’t look,” the woman said. It had been quick, apparently, and the body was intact, but she told us we shouldn’t look at his face. She put him in the back seat for us. I thanked her. I was crying steadily. Not gasping or wheezing, just with tears running down my face in a constant stream. I saw his little black paws, the tiny little leather-looking pads, poking out from under the towel. I didn’t see his face.
We drove back to the old Northbridge house. Nat had been the one to say he should be buried there, and she was right. I knew where. I walked out into the back yard while Nat went to wake Sean and tell him what had happened.
The crab grass was over a foot high, tangled and wet with morning dew, and I had to use the blade of the shovel to cut out a patch before I could dig. I went down about three feet, and brought up a couple of chunks of old pottery and the base, round and green, of a beer bottle. When I was done I lowered Kaiser into the hole with the towel still over him and backfilled the dirt. I had buried him at the foot of the jungle cat tree.
When I went out there today there were tiny purple flowers growing from the bare earth of Kaiser’s grave and nowhere else.
Kaiser was a good cat.