His name was Robert, but he grew to avoid it, preferring the nickname Cat, inspired by a Roman poet. That all emerged from his highly unfashionable love of the Latin language, a love he nurtured throughout his short life.
He was born in London in 1963. His stockbroker father popped champagne. A bouncing baby boy! Robert’s mother later mentioned that Lesley Gore’s It’s My Party “was reportedly audible” from the nurses’ room radio when he drew his first breath. As his love of Latin tightened its grip, teenage Robert/Cat renamed that song Hic Est Celebratio Mea, but admitted under pressure the original English had more zing.
He started calling himself Cat at school. Not because of any affinity with felines but as a tribute to Catullus, the Roman poet. Catullus’s aching love poems – their primal passions and their striking imagery – reverberated in his hungry young brain.
This permanently lovesick Roman’s rollercoaster verse propelled Robert/Cat through puberty and beyond. The febrile tone of Catullus’s pleas to his capricious, hedonistic, spectacularly promiscuous and resolutely married lover “Lesbia” (Lesbia!) shook him to the core. Their sexually-charged tone merged with delicate manifestations of transcendent love to make the virginal teenager gape at the poems in astonishment. By his 14th birthday Robert was Cat and he was hooked for life.
Young Cat promised himself when Cupid’s arrow struck, wherever that might happen and whoever the lady in question might be, his love would pulsate cum passione. He dismissed the notion that all-or-nothing love was “questionable.” Did not Catullus of old cling (usually) to his serially-unfaithful Lesbia, come what may? No, he told whoever would listen to an opinionated adolescent’s ideas on this, all-or-nothing love is the only love worth feeling.
All-or-nothing love, Cat told his mirror, was love painted on a bigger canvas.
His classmates loathed Latin’s endless verb declensions and case endings, gender system and knotty word order, all designed to torment 20th-century schoolboys. But its capacity to say so much so concisely – Aegrescit medendo (“The cure is worse than the disease”) – amazed Cat. “This,” he thought to himself as he metaphorically devoured a slim library book of Latin aphorisms, “this is quite a language.”
His Latin master, old Farley-Ferguson, was delighted – and more than a little surprised – to encounter such keenness after decades of schoolboy apathy. He declared Cat’s enthusiasm for the ancient language made him “one of a dying breed.” Cat – now firmly established as the school’s pre-eminent oddball, its “Latin lover” – shrugged and replied, “Lingua Latina me delectat” (Latin delights me).
As Cat prepared for university, his father decided to have a word.
“Well, Rob … er … Cat,” he said, “I’ve long been of the opinion, as you know, that after Oxford your wisest option would be a career in business. I know of several perfectly suitable investment banks and brokerages who’d welcome a bright …”
“Yes, Dad, you’ve long been of that opinion.”
“Quite.” His father tapped his pipe and searched for his tobacco pouch. “So, you’ll definitely bear that in mind for the future, won’t you?”
“I’ll bear in mind that you’ve long been of that opinion, yes.”
Career options could wait. Cat’s priority was to “seize the day” and delve further into the Latin classics alongside fellow enthusiasts. And he kept up his French (Latin’s elegant daughter). It might come in handy one day.
All the scholastic accolades couldn’t tempt Cat into an academic career, since it would certainly involve teaching. He preferred employment abroad. A friend announced he’d scored a job teaching English in Milan and recommended he consider something similar. “Hmmm, Milan,” Cat said. “But teaching English? I’d rather swallow a golf ball.”
The Diplomatic Service crossed his radar. He shuddered at the thought. Well, what about the BBC? “With the Beeb, Manchester would be more likely than Milan” was his stock reply. Then he hit upon print journalism. Flexible schedules, the chance to travel. None of the Diplomatic Service’s stultifying torpor mentis. Not having to think twice before saying nothing. None of that BBC bureaucracy, either. Yes, he concluded, print journalism would do nicely.
A perfectly suitable news agency recruited him. In an impressively short time he earned a posting to Geneva. There his French would indeed come in handy.
And there Cat began his descent into chaos.
Geneva was nowhere near as sedate as he’d been warned. His colleagues were neither as bland as he’d expected nor as dynamic as he’d hoped. “The Chief” – old “Pinky” Pinkerton – liked bow ties and the novels of Evelyn Waugh. He oversaw his “newsmen” with avuncular concern. Cat soon shaped his working life to allow himself time to pursue francophone Switzerland’s ladies plus the occasional Française.
Impelled by simple lust or lured by the prospect of another conquest, his dalliances were mostly successful. But love never entered the equation. Cupid’s arrows whizzed past. Cat’s women were as disposable as they were accessible.
Then it happened.
In early May 1989 he was about to escape from a lifeless cocktail party when the hostess introduced him to the young trophy-wife of a 60-ish, aristocratically surnamed United Nations dignitary. They’d been the last to arrive. She mingled freely but her husband left after one quick drink, grumbling about “a ridiculously early” trans-Atlantic flight the next day.
They felt the spark as their eyes met. Pupils dilated and hearts skipped beats. Their handshake lingered. Electricity filled the air. Then, as if everything had been written in the stars, it all clicked. She made it clear – as her lively but limited English yielded to Cat’s polished French – the attraction was mutual and her marital status was absolutely no impediment.
He called her Liz, an approximate shortening of her real name. He lost himself in her, and his desire – their desire – became more feverish with every encounter. The deeper he fell, the deeper he wanted to fall.
Cat’s world became a sensual dream. When Liz’s husband wasn’t abroad he’d be at Geneva’s Palais des Nations (at lunch/a meeting/a conference). And even if Monsieur le secrétaire knew about his wife’s amorous adventures he wouldn’t have cared. Her role was to accompany him in public and make him look good. Her private life was her own business. The lovers exploited this to the hilt, and Cat almost came to believe that Eros himself had orchestrated this whole amatory whirlwind.
Liz became his everything. But she cautioned him at the start that she was not a free agent and they couldn’t meet every day. Domestic demands and the burden of being “married to the U.N.” constrained her time. Cat said, “D’accord,” swept some hairs from the sheets and resumed exploring her anatomy with his mouth.
The summer of ’89 was calm for Geneva’s newsmen, even as anti-communist protests behind the Iron Curtain threatened to disrupt business as usual in Europe. Luckily, Cat’s auto-pilot assignments left his brain free to explore the delights of Lizvana, Liztopia and Lizmania (depending on the moment).
They met every couple of days. Usually at his apartment, occasionally at hotels across the French border. She was sexually prodigious. Every impulse, every variation was to be explored and enjoyed. The Consenting Adults Hall of Fame awaited them. Cat loved her. Cum passione.
Yet there were hiccups. In mid-July Liz mentioned her husband would visit “Malaysia or Manila, one of those countries” for a week. Cat used this time to broaden their relationship with some above-the-neck pursuits. However, the results were disappointing. Taking Liz to an exhibition of 15th-century Flemish art proved unwise. His choice of video (black-and-white, Marlon Brando) also flopped. She dozed off.
Even during this husband-free week, Liz was always too occupée to rendezvous on consecutive days. Busy with what? Cat asked his reflection in the mirror. But he figured Liz was entitled to her alone time, especially since their carnal activities remained blissful beyond compare. The only unsettling issue he could identify might be their misaligned cultural tastes. Could this derail their relationship?
It could not, he concluded after a moment’s analysis. Classical wisdom confirmed this. Contrarii se attrahunt. Opposites attract.
From mid-August Liz had unavoidable commitments. She owed her mother in Orléans a couple of days, followed by her obligatory two-week vacation with Monsieur le secrétaire at his sprawling ancestral château near Bordeaux.
Cat now caught his breath, recharged his batteries and reconnected with friends. Soon after her departure he went to a hotel bar on Quai du Mont Blanc for beers with Yves, a Swiss journalist on a local newspaper. Their conversation inevitably turned to women.
“We thought you’d gone underground,” Yves joked. “Nobody’s seen you around in ages. So … who is she? Anybody I know?”
“Yves, you know me. All work and no play.” Cat nodded to the barman for two more Cardinals. “It’s all happening, isn’t it? Big rumblings behind the Iron Curtain. Old Pinkerton says there’ll be ‘Europe-wide repercussions’. Those East German protest marches are mushrooming. And the Hungarians have …”
“I know, I know. But I also know you. So who is she, Cat? Anyone of my acquaintance?”
Prevarication with a fellow journalist was futile, so he told Yves about Liz. Keeping it general, he let his friend guess the graphic details. But when Cat mentioned her name, Yves almost spilled his beer.
“The Venus who’s married to that pompous French fart at the Palais des Nations!” Yves paused. “So,” he continued, “you’re her latest.”
“Her latest? What are you talking about?”
Yves paused again. “Seriously? Since the lady’s graced our fair city she’s seen more naked men than an army doctor. Seriously. There was a Swissair guy a couple of months back. And a tennis coach around then, or maybe before. A diplomat. Plus that Italian fencing team. Anyway, they’re the ones I’ve heard about. Recently.”
Cat stared at him in disbelief. Yves was on a roll: “I haven’t had that particular pleasure myself, you understand, but as I said, quite a few have. I mean, seriously, didn’t you know this about her? Word gets around. And Geneva’s not that big. Seriously, Cat? This whole time you had no idea?”
Cat could only manage a half-whispered, “No.”
“I was joking about the Italian fencers, by the way. But seriously, I’m amazed you’ve been clueless about her this whole time.” Yves was un bon ami, but he wasn’t above twisting the knife. And Cat’s stunned expression was so unmistakable the barman had trouble pretending not to notice.
Yves said Liz always refused exclusivity. She’d make that crystal clear from the start.
Yet for three months she’d never raised this subject with Cat. He’d always viewed their relationship as straightforward: two lusty creatures – one of whom was married to an indifferent cuckold – had fallen for each other in the most passionate way. Now this bombshell. Liz had other lovers while letting him think he was her exclusive one.
Well, Cat reflected, in a sense he was “one.“ Just one of several. Like Catullus with his Lesbia.
Liz told all her lovers that sexclusivity – he spontaneously coined the word – was non négociable. So why had she avoided this entire subject with him for three months?
When Cat got home he poured himself a cognac. Normally he’d feel tipsy, but Yves’s revelation was a sobering experience. He needed to sort out his thoughts. His inner journalist made him write an auto-memo:
FACT: Liz = supremely passionate lover.
FACT: She’s had other men (rivals????) whole time!
FACT: Yves wouldn’t lie.
FACT: She’s never mentioned one word about others.
FACT: But insists we can’t meet every day. So she has time – makes time – to meet others. Her claims of marital responsibilities &c = a ruse!
Question: Why didn’t I suss this? So obvious!!
Question: Maybe Liz never told me about others because I never asked. Was I expected to ask??
FACT: No!! Yves said she always refused sexclusivity. But this info’s WITHHELD!!
FACT: Ergo, this doesn’t apply to me!! That’s why she never mentioned it.
FACT: Ergo, I’m in a completely different category from others. I = permanent lover. Permanent!!!!
Question: So why has she kept seeing those other men if she’s so committed to me??? Why this duplicity????? Why???????
Cat lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He rolled over and inhaled the intoxicating fragrance from Liz’s regular pillow. The night was still warm and he heard the distant hum of late-night traffic through the open window. His mind retreated.
Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
Quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
Dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti,
In vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.
My love says she desires none but me,
And even Jove could never make her swear.
But what women tell their lovers, you’ll agree,
One writes on running water or on air.
Catullus LXX, the poet’s rueful admission to himself that dishonesty is embedded in the game of love, was one of the many Catullian verses he’d memorized in both languages. But for him the crux was what Liz hadn’t said. That was what he had to untangle.
He got up and stood before the full-length mirror.
“When she gets back from the château,” he told his reflection, “I’ll uncover the truth.”
And just as he’d imagined Catullus doing whenever his beloved Lesbia inflicted yet another wound, Cat drew himself up, clenched and unclenched his fists, and told himself over and over, Contine te ipsum! Contine te ipsum!
Get a grip!
The days preceding Liz’s return passed in a ferment of eagerness and apprehension. He was owed a two-week vacation starting August 26th. But with the impending moment of truth with Liz dominating Cat’s thoughts, this completely slipped his mind. When the elderly, underworked secretary tapped the calendar as a caustic reminder, Cat requested an indefinite postponement. The resulting domino effect provoked moans and mutterings. But by now he was beyond caring.
The day before Liz’s return, Cat’s boss, “Pinky” Pinkerton, invited him to lunch at a nearby bistrot. “A wee chat” was in order, he said.
The Chief had the menu du jour. Cat hardly touched his chicken salad. The younger man did, Pinkerton noted, make more inroads into the rosé than was considered seemly with the sun barely over the yardarm. He made a mental note but no comment.
“When you started with us I was immediately impressed,” Pinkerton said after some chit-chat. “You displayed considerable aptitude. Sharp journalistic instincts. Your command of French was as advertised. And you knew how to use apostrophes! I took you for one of a dying breed, so …”
Cat felt a jolt. “Did you just say ‘one of a dying breed’?” he asked.
“I did indeed,” his boss answered. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, it’s just something from my schooldays. But I’m interrupting. You were saying …”
“Yes, you manifested some notable qualities, as I was saying. But chiefly, your reportage was concise. Most neophytes take ages to master concision, but you excelled in that regard.”
Right, Cat thought, he’s softened me up with praise. Here comes the punch.
“However, your work’s been deteriorating of late. So what’s the reason?” He eyed Cat’s almost empty wineglass. “Been burning the candle at both ends, have we?”
“Well,” Cat replied, swirling the remnants of his wine and wondering whether ordering another would be pushing it, “er …”
“That’s what it looks like to me,” Pinkerton continued, brushing breadcrumbs off the tablecloth. “You’re looking rather run down. Like someone who’s striving to excess. Like someone with too much on his mind. You can only keep so many balls in the air at one time, you know.”
“Heed the advice of one who’s been down that road. Slow down, my boy. Keep your eye on the big picture. I mean, if you play your cards right your career needn’t stay anchored in Geneva. No sir. There’s Brussels. There’s Strasbourg.”
Surmising this news was supposed to perk him up, Cat nodded vigorously.
The Chief leaned conspiratorially across the table. “Incidentally,” he said sotto voce, “accelerated promotion to Senior Correspondent is not entirely out of the question for someone of your ilk, entre nous. And, in the fullness of time, perhaps,” he now called for the bill, scuttling Cat’s hopes of more wine, “even Assistant Bureau Chief. The sky’s the limit!”
Pinkerton then threw concision to the winds and launched into a rambling story from his younger days about another up-and-coming newsman who’d parlayed his journalistic contacts into a string of lucrative business ventures. He intended this to illustrate how the sky could also be Cat’s limit. But his central point was lost in a maze of meandering details.
During the Chief’s reminiscences the younger man’s thoughts floated back to a game he’d played with Liz one June morning. When she nominated a part of her naked anatomy, Cat had to announce its Latin name and kiss it cum passione. Any hesitation or admission of ignorance incurred a “penalty”: Liz had to choose and kiss whatever part of Cat’s body she chose.
As they began, Cat called the news agency from his bedside phone to report he’d be delayed. When the waspish secretary asked him why, he explained, “Je suis actuellement engagé dans une activité de la plus haute importance,” and hung up before she could catch Liz’s tinkling laugh.
“Where were we?”
“My right shin!” Liz said.
“Tua tibia dextera” … (kiss).
“My left thigh!”
“Tuum sinistrum femur” … (kiss).
“Between my thighs!”
” ‘Between your thighs’?”
“Inter femora” … (kiss).
Before Liz announced her next selection, Cat said, “Porro excelsiusque!”
She cocked an eyebrow. Her expression was half-knowing, half-questioning.
“Onward and upward!” he replied, and their game veered off on a tangent.
He smiled at the memory.
But Pinkerton’s discursive tale had just petered out, and he was annoyed to see it had elicited amusement rather than admiration.
“Did I just say something funny?” he asked. “Let me in on the joke, since it’s so amusing.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Really.”
“Well, it’s gratifying to observe how easily tickled you can be. But whilst I have your undivided attention, we haven’t yet resolved your holiday situation. You’re still owed a fortnight’s leave. What are your intentions in that regard?”
Cat scratched his chin and looked wistfully at his empty wineglass.
“Can I get back to you later about that?”
“Still undecided?” Pinkerton asked, pocketing the lunch receipt to claim on his expense account. “You could jolly well use a break, I’d say. And the sooner the better. All this Iron Curtain business notwithstanding. What do you say?”
“Well, it’s just that there’s a personal situation I need to sort out first.”
Liz returned at the end of August. She’d put on a little weight, but – as Cat instantly noted at their reunion – in all the best places. She phoned the morning after her return to arrange that reunion. Not tonight, chéri. Pas d’énergie! No, not at his apartment. And not at a hotel, either. She named a popular – and bustling – café. This was an unexpected development. Liz breathlessly added she had some big news, but couldn’t talk now. À demain!
On the appointed morning Cat hacked away at a dull feature article. But concentration eluded him. Accepting defeat, he left the office, telling the secretary he was heading out to follow up a lead.
“Lead?” the crone replied. “A detective now, are you?”
He arrived at the café thirty minutes early and downed a double vodka to help him get a grip. Ignoring the censorious looks from the two Swiss matrons seated nearby – double vodka at 10:30 in the morning! – he took deep breaths. Calmness was required while he had it out with Liz. Then he’d learn where he – they – stood.
Her “big news” preoccupied him. Had Liz messed up her Pill schedule? If she had, he’d now play a new role in her life: not just her lover, but her child’s father, her partner in parenthood.
Unless the baby wasn’t his.
“Shit!” he groaned audibly in English. The Swiss matrons reacted accordingly.
Liz arrived twenty minutes late. She’d been busy and lost track of the time. Cat buried this ominous sign under the pleasing awareness that her (new?) summer dress flattered her hips and made her breasts look fuller. Was she pregnant? Or had the château‘s wine cellar and food been particularly tempting?
She ordered café Viennois, attentively mixing in three sugars. Cat chose mineral water, then opened the proceedings.
“Liz, it’s wonderful to see you again. You’re looking super. Super!”
He paused, expecting her to continue. But she eagerly drank her café Viennois.
“Really super. Anyway,” he continued, “there’s something on my mind that we need to discuss. It’s …”
“Attends!” she said. “You haven’t heard my big news.”
“But I really …”
“We’re leaving at the end of September. They approved Jean-Baptiste’s transfer. Vienna! Can you imagine? The Industrial Development Agency. It’s all so sudden! They only just confirmed it.” She frowned. “Punaise! They speak German there. Anyway, we’ll have to rush with all the packing and arranging all … Chéri, what’s wrong? You look ill.”
He hadn’t eaten in twenty hours. He was still keyed up, despite the vodka currently churning in his bowels. And now this punch to the solar plexus. He looked ill because he was ill. All thoughts of a heart-to-heart with Liz evaporated. Anyway, this café was no place for that.
Yet Cat’s indisposition had an unforeseen benefit. Liz’s concern for his health made her take him straight back to his apartment.
After Liz’s thunderbolt Cat saw no point in confronting her about her duplicity. What good would it do?
She wiped the sweat from his face and neck and unbuttoned his shirt. Her sincere concern and gentle solicitude were meant to soothe him. Instead, they aroused him.
“Liz, I love you. I love you more than life itself. I’ve told you countless times.”
“And it’s not just bedroom love. I love you more than life itself!”
“So how can you leave, just like that? Like my love means nothing? Our love?”
“Chéri, you know I’m married. You’ve always known.”
“Of course. But all we’ve meant to each other, Liz … how can you just end it so casually?”
“It’s not casual. It’s … We … I’m … Did you think we could just continue like this forever?
If this deal included sexclusivity, Cat would have absolutely no objection.
He returned to reality: “Leave your husband! Stay with me. Be my love.”
She sat quietly. Her thoughts were tangled.
“Liz, I love you more than life itself!”
A silence descended. She sat quietly for what seemed like ages. A solitary teardrop rolled slowly down her cheek.
“Will you stay, mon amour? Ma vie? Will you stay?”
She appeared not to hear. But then she stood up and kissed him. Her tongue tasted of sugary coffee.
“I cannot,” she whispered. “I cannot.”
He wiped her tear with his index finger. The teardrop trickled down his finger and he put it to his mouth. She kissed him again. Then she undressed him. Then he undressed her.
Afterwards, she lay her head on his heaving chest. “The transfer’s in a month, Cat,” she murmured.
She stretched and yawned. “Et puis Vienne.”
The seeming finality of “And then Vienna” robbed him of the power of speech.
Liz reached across his bare torso for a cigarette from her handbag. She sat up, lit it, faced Cat and blew smoke at the ceiling.
“Anyway,” she said, “Vienna’s only a 90-minute flight.”
Through September they met whenever her race against the calendar would allow.
Even at her most suggestible times – during a post-coital smoke and after a shower – Liz resisted his appeals with aplomb. But as Vienna Day loomed her irritability surged. The pressures of the move had piled up. She’d lost track of this, miscalculated that. Monsieur le secrétaire‘s constant shuttling between Vienna and Geneva complicated things. She had trouble deciding what to keep and discard. She suspected the servants were pilfering.
Cat resigned himself to becoming her long-distance lover.
Three evenings before the move she arrived at Cat’s apartment feeling peevish. Always particular about her hair and make up, she looked – by her usual standards – unkempt.
Her complaints about the tiresome bureaucracy involved in this routine move to a nearby country had themselves become tiresome. Cat let her vent. Now she returned to that theme. But tonight his concerns were more immediate. He started massaging her shoulders and pressed the balls of his thumbs on the back of her neck the way she liked. He whispered, “Let me help you forget all that.”
Liz angrily shook him off. “Are you deaf? You don’t get it, do you? I’m not in the mood! Je suis fatiguée!“
“Liz, I only meant …”
“I know what you meant! It’s all you ever mean.”
“Wait! What are you saying?”
She let fly with a string of condemnations. He didn’t really love her. He just used her body. He ignored her feelings. He didn’t even notice how tired and tense she was. She shouldn’t have come over that evening. At least her husband respected her in his own way. Visiting Cat that evening was a mistake. This whole thing’s a mistake. She didn’t even know why she came over. Leave me alone. Don’t touch me! I said don’t touch me! I’m going home! Don’t call me!
Of course Cat called her, more often than was prudent. Liz told the servants to hang up when they heard his voice.
September 29, 1989 – Vienna Day – came and went with no word from Liz. No au revoir, chéri! Just silence.
Cat was so drunk that he called three wrong numbers before he reached Yves. He rushed to Cat’s apartment. The door was unlocked. The shambles and Cat’s condition reminded him of the opening few minutes of Apocalypse Now.
“Mon Dieu, Cat!
“Huh? Who’s that?”
“Yves! You just called me, remember? I can see why. You look like Death!”
He dragged Cat into the bathroom and into the shower, turning it on full blast. He found some clothes. Going far beyond the normal requirements of friendship he dried Cat off and somehow got him dressed. Next, he made coffee. He tripped over various bottles searching the kitchen in vain for something edible. Then he made Cat drink water, coffee, and more water.
“Have you eaten today?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care.” Then Cat keeled over as he vomited the water, coffee and a range of unidentifiable fluids. Yves caught him before his head hit the floor. He made Cat lie on his side and called an ambulance.
The hospital pumped out his stomach. In the morning Yves called Cat’s office to report Robert Maddox was sick and couldn’t make it. With obvious annoyance the secretary said it was unnecessary to inform her of this, since Maddox was currently en vacances and wasn’t due back until … Yves heard her shuffle some papers “… I have the exact date here somewhere …” He mumbled a vague apology, adding he must have misread the calendar. He hung up, thinking, That old cow probably thinks I’m Cat’s gay lover.
When they discharged Cat he went straight home and slept. As usual he pulled Liz’s regular pillow to his face and breathed her in. Yves called him late that afternoon from his office and urged a meeting. No alcohol, Yves warned. You need food. You must eat. Then you can explain why you seem to be so intent on killing yourself centimètre par centimètre.
They met at Yves’s apartment, where he made Cat eat two hefty slices of pizza. Then Cat’s floodgates opened.
He divulged everything. He recounted how Yves’s revelation in the hotel bar that August night was like a dagger in the chest. Yves was tempted to ask forgiveness for revealing the truth so callously. But then he suspected Cat would’ve eventually heard about Liz’s ways somewhere else, and probably in cruder terms.
Cat described how his beloved’s infidelities tore him apart. He narrated how matter-of-factly Liz announced she was leaving, despite his undying love. That shook him to the core. He chronicled his efforts to convince her to divorce and stay with him, but she was immovable.
He loved her more than life itself, but she was immovable.
If Liz was the disease she was also the cure.
And now, he concluded, she’d left without a single word of farewell. And he was stuck in Geneva drinking himself into oblivion like an idiot.
He knew now what he had to do.
“Okay,” Yves replied. “She tore you apart. Okay. But now you can move on, right? Seriously. Liz never called you back, right? And she refused all your calls. She’s gone, Cat, and gone for good. That’s her choice. She had her chances, lots of chances, but she’s moved on. Moved on. What I’m saying makes sense, right?”
Cat looked away and said, “Hmmm. Everything you say is logical …”
“I’m glad you’re finally wising up. You said you know what you must do. What’s that English expression? Grip on it?“
Cat’s half-smile was ironic. “Get a grip.”
“Get a grip. C’est ça.”
“Contine te ipsum!”
“Never mind.” Staring out the window, Cat noticed a Renault parked under a streetlamp. It was almost the same shade of red as Liz’s bra the night they first met.
“So,” said Yves, “that’s that then. Leave all this behind and move on.”
Cat stared at the Renault.
Yves now thought it advisable to lighten the mood. He said, “You know, Cat, I say this with a perfect record as a straight male, but you’re a good looking guy. Ha ha. So what are you waiting for? All those great women out there! Seriously. I’ve seen you in action. So forget about Liz and find someone new. Right?”
“So you’re going to get a grip, right? You absolutely know what you have to do, then, right?”
“Right,” Cat said. He stood erect. “I know what I have to do. I’m quitting my job and moving to Vienna.”
Storms delayed Cat’s flight then diverted it to Milan. But winds kept the plane idling on Milan’s runway. Electricity now filled the air as a thunderstorm brewed. The plane took off while it still could, bucking and jolting, pitching and rolling throughout its ascent. Somewhere behind Cat a baby howled like its lungs would burst.
He knew that pursuing Liz in Vienna was the biggest gamble of his young life. When he’d requested Monsieur le secrétaire‘s Viennese home phone number and address, the U.N. politely but firmly reminded him that its privacy rules forbid such disclosures. His personal contacts at the Palais des Nations couldn’t or wouldn’t help him.
It suddenly dawned on him he should have bribed somebody. Would bribery work in squeaky-clean Switzerland? Unlikely. It might in Vienna, you never know. Whatever it takes to find her.
The plane pitched violently as the chief flight attendant reminded everyone yet again to ensure their seat belts were secure-aaaaaah!-ly fastened.
Cat ignored the brutal turbulence. His mind was on his final conversation back in Yves’s apartment.
“I have to find Liz,” he’d said after making his shock announcement. “I have to see if there’s any chance for us. I can’t continue in this darkness.”
Yves sat him down.
“Listen,” Yves said, “her attitude’s been totally consistent, right? You’re sabotaging your career for nothing more than a minuscule chance with this woman. And what will Liz do when you turn up? You regard this as un geste magnifique, but I seriously doubt she will. She might even call the cops!”
“No she wouldn’t! Liz …”
“You’ll be throwing away everything you’ve worked for.” (Not entirely true, he knew, but he was low on ammunition.) “And … think about your parents.”
Such pale arguments were futile against such intransigence. Invoking Cat’s parents? Seriously? All Yves could say was: “Get a grip while you still can, Cat. While you’re able. C’est tout.“
But Cat was long past getting a grip. Reason, he’d decided early in life, had no place in affairs of the heart. As an innocent teenager he’d told himself that when he loved he would love with fierce intensity. He’d have his Lesbia, and he’d love her more than life itself.
Yves judged switching to English might give his arguments more impact. He demanded, “Are you sure you love Liz? Are you?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“Aren’t you really just in love with being in love?”
“Yves, spare me this cheap psychoanalysis. You don’t understand this darkness.”
“Listen! You’re sacrificing everything to be with someone who’s finished with you. That’s madness!”
“No,” Cat said. “That’s not madness. That’s love.”
Yves changed tack: “Has Liz ever told you she loved you?”
Cat remained silent. That red car held his gaze.
Cat sat upright. “What can I say?” he replied. “She’s my destiny.”
Then he joined his palms between his thighs, rocked back and forth in his armchair and said, “I have to seek my destiny.”
And two days later here he was, bouncing through thunderbolts over the Italian Alps. Seeking his destiny.
Since adolescence Cat habitually relieved stress by withdrawing mentally into the Latin language. Once on a ferry to his annual French-immersion summer camp in Calais a storm rolled in and made him seasick. He calmed himself by retreating into his pet Latin proverbs, reciting them in alphabetical order. This was such a time.
His turbulent emotions on this turbulent flight, the howling infant and every cascading thought of Liz drove his mind to retreat. I have to seek my destiny. In Latin.
I have to seek my destiny. He sifted through the possible translations. But he only got as far as fatum meum. In swirling clouds full of savage gusts and lightning the plane smashed into a mountain. It became a fireball, killing everyone.
In the final milliseconds before his brain shut down forever Cat’s thoughts were about how Liz’s teardrop tasted so much like her sweat and about the casually erotic way she held her cigarette and about the tiny scar on the fourth toe of her right foot.
Geneva 8th October 1989
Dear Sir Roland and Lady Maddox,
At this tragic time I write you this fax in the capacity of your late son Robert’s supervisor.
We extend our heartfelt condolences.
The dreadful news of Robert’s death has plunged us into gloom. He was a popular member of our news team here in Geneva. We knew him by his customary nickname Cat, which he assured us was what everyone back in England called him. So I trust you will have no objection to my using that sobriquet.
Since the news of this appalling tragedy reached us, further information has come to my attention. Some of it sheds light (but only partially) on some of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy. However, other parts, if I may be permitted to speak frankly, simply raise more questions. I thought it best, therefore, to pass this information to you by fax rather than by telephone.
As you know, a newsman’s professional and social lives inevitably overlap. Shortly after receiving the horrendous news I approached Yves Lambert, a Swiss journalist employed by a French-language newspaper in Geneva. He was pointed out to me as a close friend of Cat’s. In fact he told me he had met your son for pizza two nights before that ill-fated flight.
I asked him to describe your son’s possible links with Vienna, adding that we had no inkling Cat was going there. Lambert replied that during their conversation Cat had merely announced he would submit his resignation and leave for Vienna.
This revelation that he planned to resign and leave Switzerland came as a shock. But I can tell you now quite categorically that no such resignation was tendered. On the day he left Geneva your son was still a full-time employee in good standing with this agency. He had, however, recently started a fortnight’s holiday which he had postponed from late August. This crucial detail will be addressed below.
Upon hearing Lambert’s assertion I suspected he had somehow misconstrued Cat’s words regarding a resignation. I pursued this, asking: Could you have misunderstood Cat’s English?
Lambert assured me he was quite proficient in English but your son preferred they converse in French. He maintained there was no question of any linguistic uncertainty, assuring me Cat was quite clear in his words. He quoted your son directly: “I’m quitting the agency and I’m moving to Vienna”.
I reiterate: your son did not tender his resignation.
Here I must raise the vital issue of Lambert’s exact words in his quotation. You will have noticed he quoted Cat saying: “I’m moving to Vienna”. I asked him if Cat’s word was indeed “move” (déménager) and not “go” (aller).
Lambert reiterated there was no misunderstanding, and that your son stated clearly: “… and I’m moving to Vienna ( … et je vais déménager à Vienne).”
Now the only confusion this statement could possibly engender arises from the French name of the Austrian capital (Vienne) being identical to the name of a town near Lyon as well as to the area around the city of Poitiers. There is no earthly reason why Cat would visit either place, let alone move there.
It should also be remembered that if your son had intended to move to Vienna, it would make no sense for him to do so without formally terminating his current employment first. An unaccredited relocation to another country would be a career-ending decision, instantly branding a journalist as unreliable in a profession which esteems reliability.
I therefore cannot bring myself to accept this is what Cat really intended. I believe Lambert misheard or misremembered Cat’s words. At our meeting he was, if not distraught, at least still visibly shaken by the tragic news. The shock may well have affected his memory.
Moving on from this point, I immediately asked him: Why Vienna?
Cat had no known contacts or interests in the Austrian capital. No records of any phone calls, letters or faxes to or from Austria exist. Nor can anyone recall him ever mentioning Austria, apart from general comments with colleagues about this summer’s influx of East Germans entering from Hungary. But such events, whilst considered geographically “local”, have never fallen within the purview of the Geneva office of this news agency, and thus do not concern us.
Lambert shrugged. I persisted: Was there something or someone in Vienna of great interest or importance to Cat? After some hesitation he alluded to the possibility that Cat may possibly have known someone there, but he claimed complete ignorance of who that person might be or why your son wanted to visit him. Nor could he shed light on how Cat’s “resignation” related with any person or institution in Vienna.
Finally, I asked: How was Cat’s disposition on that night? Was he perturbed or agitated? After a moment’s thought he said: Cat avait l’air normal. Il semblait normal. (“Cat looked normal. He seemed normal.”)
So, I must regretfully admit the reason(s) for your son’s sudden departure to Vienna must remain mysterious unless any further information emerges.
I should add, tomorrow (Monday) Cat’s landlord will allow me access to your son’s flat. He wishes to have Cat’s belongings moved out of the apartment. The rent is paid until the end of October, but action in this matter must be taken before that deadline. You will no doubt wish to make a decision on this in due course.
I now return to the important question of your son’s two-week holiday.
He had already started this vacation when he flew to Vienna. The holiday was originally scheduled for late August-early September. He later postponed the starting date to Saturday, 30/9.
Cat had earlier forgotten this holiday was due. I ascribed this forgetfulness to him taking on too many commitments, both professional and personal. Indeed, I raised this with him at luncheon on 29/8. (My expense account records confirm this date.)
On that day your son looked decidedly fatigued, and I advised him to balance his time and energies to avoid burnout, which, as you may be aware, is an occupational hazard among talented young journalists keen to make their mark on our profession.
When I remarked that he looked tired – I believe I referred to “burning the candle at both ends” – and suggested a holiday the sooner the better, Cat’s reply was cryptic. His exact words were that he wished to “sort out a personal situation” first.
Should I have followed this up at the time? Could I have said or done something practical? Perhaps. Perhaps not. This was “a personal situation” after all. I regret it may remain mysterious, unless his personal effects provide some clues.
I have now said all I can by way of reportage. What I am about to convey is, I must underscore, conjectural. But as Cat’s immediate superior and as someone who has seen him grow from a talented young neophyte to a proficient and well-regarded junior member of Geneva’s journalistic community, I believe my insights into his character and actions carry some weight.
I incline to the belief that Cat told Lambert he would resign, but did not actually intend to do so. Cat’s emotions were probably inflamed. He may have felt frustrated by Geneva’s staid “U.N. beat” and its many mundane journalistic assignments. I think he may have gone to Vienna for a complete change of scene, to encounter an unfamiliar part of Europe now experiencing “interesting times” and to subject himself to novel stimuli.
In an unfamiliar environment your son would be forced to observe events through a very different lens to the one through which we newsmen habitually view the ponderous and sanctimonious U.N. I believe Cat used his holiday time to revive himself, update his view of the world, refresh his thinking and return to Geneva reinvigorated and with enthusiasm.
That “personal situation” then troubling Cat could, I suspect, be seen more clearly from another city in another culture.
Vienna was a good choice. It is my conviction that he tried to “sort it out” – whatever “it” was – by putting some physical and psychological distance between himself and that unspecified personal situation. A trip abroad, necessitating a radical change of scene, would give him a new perspective on both his personal and professional lives.
Cat was an astute young man, and I maintain his sudden departure was actually a sincere and rational attempt to restore balance, both personally and professionally.
N. S. Pinkerton,
“Allô, Cat! ‘Appy New Year! Comment vas-tu, chéri?“
Liz planned to start The Call thus. “Chéri” would be risky after her three-month silence. But it would demonstrate she still had feelings for him. Would Cat reciprocate? Or was he embittered? If only she knew.
Her cheerless life in Vienna – the solitude, the bewildering language – forced nostalgia upon her. Other men’s memories disappeared like smoke. Only Cat’s image endured. He commandeered her memories. Vienna’s decadent pastries only momentarily deflected her thoughts from the one man whose “Je t’aime” sprang from the purest devotion.
Projecting her domestic frustrations on him was unfair. Slamming the door on him was wrong. Emboldened by wine, she’d sometimes dial his number. But burdened by guilt, her stomach in knots, fearing rejection, unsure of what to say, unsure she even had the right to say anything, she’d never reach the last digit.
Then, during yet another impenetrable German lesson, an idea was born. She’d seek professional advice.
The clairvoyant’s receptionist squeezed her in on December 5th, instructing her to bring a personal possession or at least a photo of the individual she wished Madame Claire to read. But Liz had nothing. She’d torn up her only photo of Cat that fateful night. On the Paris-bound plane she decided to offset this lack by focusing her psychic energies on Cat.
Under the clairvoyant’s CASH ONLY (IN ADVANCE) sign, Liz completed the mandatory questionnaire. Entering the consultation room, she noticed Madame Claire’s sunglasses (“to block interferences, Madame“).
Madame Claire’s trained eye scanned her client: 30-ish, expensively dressed, big-budget wedding ring. Older husband deficiencies. Or problems with a lover her own age. She suspected the latter.
♥: Madame, my situation concerns an affair of the heart. It is of a particularly delicate nature.
🕶️: Such is generally the case, Madame. Rest assured, confidentialité totale is guaranteed. Your beloved is not your husband.
♥: How did you … ?
🕶️: Come, Madame, we are not children. And I am Madame Claire. Now, have you brought his possession? Or photograph?
♥: I’m afraid not. You see, I was angry, and …
🕶️: That is not uncommon. This must therefore be a less-than-definitive reading. “Cold” readings are tricky, Madame. Anyway …
(After some incisive – but cunningly disguised – questions concerning the gentleman):
… Now, Madame, concentrate on your beloved. Remember him. Remember his voice. His touch. Concentrate. Give me your hands while I absorb the psychic vibrations.
(Deciding on a cliché-laden divination, foregrounding cold readings’ notorious ambiguity):
🕶️: You may remove your hands, Madame. I regret your vibrations – for obvious reasons – were less clear than one would wish.
♥: But you detected something?
🕶️: Despite the feeble vibrations, oui.
♥: There’s still hope, Madame?
🕶️: Listen! Your beloved dwells in darkness. Darkness! I cannot say why. The vibrations were faint. Therefore you must act, Madame. During this estrangement you must take the initiative. Make the first move!
♥: “Dwells in darkness”?
🕶️: Malheureusement, cold readings produce few details. I repeat: you must take the initiative. Contact him! But timing is crucial, Madame. Apply your knowledge and experience. Select the optimum time with the utmost care!
I can say no more.
Back in Vienna, Liz’s knowledge and experience directed her to January 3rd’s auspicious Mercury-Jupiter conjunction and waxing moon. New Year – the time of renewal – would also be a natural opportunity to rekindle romance with displays of heartfelt cordialité.
To while away the days until The Call she compiled La Liste:
(1) Says I’m The Cat Magnet.
(2) Is a Gemini.
(3) Says he’ll love me forever!!!!!!
(4) Sneezes when he smells lavender.
(5) Watches me when he thinks I’m asleep.
(6) Says I’m a human aphrodisiac!!!
(7) Scratches his chin when he concentrates.
(8) Never snores.
(9) Gives great massages!!!
(10) Sometimes has a dreamy look in his eyes.
January 3rd sauntered in. During the cold, restless pre-dawn she listened to her Walkman, augmenting La Liste:
… (55) Likes R & B …
(59) Says he’d like to teach me backgammon …
(62) Says left-handers (like him!) lead shorter lives …
Monsieur le secrétaire had yet another ridiculously early flight. Liz read French magazines until The Call. When the time felt right she dialed, feeling confident. But Cat’s number was kaput. She redialed. Nothing. Redialed. Nothing. Had he changed his number? Left Geneva?
Luckily, because she’d put it under A for agence de presse, she’d forgotten to erase Cat’s office phone number from her address book. Her hand trembled slightly as she dialed. A young woman answered.
♥: … Lisette Muillac-d’Aurignol. I’m trying to reach Robert Maddox. He’s still working there?
⇔: Excusez-moi, Madame … you said ‘Robert Maddox’?
♥: Oui, your “star” journalist!
⇔: Er … Madame. Er … er … Robert Maddox is deceased … Allô? … Allô? … Would you like the Bureau Chief to … Allô?
♥: I … I … we … I mean … Deceased? How?
⇔: It was before my time, Madame. I only started here in November. An aircraft accident, they said. In October. Shall I ask the Bureau Chief to call you back as soon …
♥: Was Cat flying to England?
♥: Robert! Where was he flying to?
⇔: Oh … er … V? It started with V.
⇔: Oui … er … Venice, maybe? No! Vienna! Vienna. Shall I ask Monsieur Pinkerton to call …
⇔: Oui, Madame. They said he was en vacances. That’s all I … Allô? … Allô?
Autumn 1991: Lisette was living quietly with her mother in Orléans. An annuity from her late husband meant she didn’t have to work – merci! – but it couldn’t cover Business Class and servants. She spent endless hours with lawyers, wrestling with litigation from a recently divorced illegitimate stepdaughter her own age – whom she’d never met – demanding half of papa‘s assets.
Lisette learned backgammon, displaying a surprising – to herself above all – aptitude. She doted on Robertus, her British Shorthair cat. She kept up La Liste, although the entries tapered off:
… (84) Preferred black socks.
(85) Got his cleverest ideas while shaving.
(86) Claimed he’d make a good detective.
The lawsuit grudgingly but satisfactorily settled, 1995 found Lisette living in Brussels with her Belgian fiancé, a radio journalist. He didn’t inspire passion, but he was stable. At this point in her life, stable was good.
Their building’s no-pet policy meant that Robertus stayed in Orléans, along with La Liste.
Before setting the wedding date, Lisette consulted Madame Claire, who’d so miraculously sensed Cat was living in darkness. It was just that his darkness was permanent.
“Your beloved’s involved in broadcasting, Madame?” she asked after some expertly camouflaged questioning.
“Oui!” Lisette replied, again impressed. “And here’s his t-shirt.”
Madame Claire’s divination approved the wedding. “Fortune smiles on you, Madame,” she declared. “You’re a survivor. You always land on your feet. Like a cat.”
Lisette’s smile was ironic.
“I said something drôle, Madame?”
“Oh,” Lisette said. “It’s nothing. Really.”
Cat kept popping into Lisette’s mind again and again. But over the years the pops became more sporadic. The particulars grew dim.
One night when Radioman was away on assignment, her drowsy thoughts drifted back to Geneva ’89. When she awoke she had to accept that the face and the features and the voice and the touch of the man who’d drunk her teardrop had become blurry.
This troubled Lisette.
Then it troubled her that it hadn’t trouble her more.