The Cat and the Violin – Helen Moat

The cat appeared the moment he pulled his old violin out. Dusty and out of tune, it had lain under his bed at college untouched.

University done with, Nick had moved back north to work in Sheffield and rented a tiny two-up two-down terrace house on the edge of Dore close to the moors. It was not much of a home, damp and drafty. Neglected. He thought he deserved something better after 3 years of university.

Packing cases and bags still lay strewn around the house. Nick pulled the flaps back on one of the packing boxes and gently lifted out his violin embalmed in a flannel sheet: he’d lost the violin case somewhere between home and university. Carefully, he unwound the cloth. And at that moment there was a knock on the door.

Nick frowned. Who was at the door on a night like this? Outside his window an amber liquid sky battled bruised black clouds, the wind whimpered and snow fell in great heavy clumps.

Nick sat the violin down on the mantelpiece and opened the door. In front of him was a black cat, paw suspended in the air as if about to knock again. Nick stared: could a cat make the noise of knuckle and bone on wood? Surely not – cats didn’t rap on doors; they scratched.

The cat looked at him expectantly; then slipped across the threshold and into the living-room.

“Cheeky bugger,” said Nick out loud. The cat narrowed her green eyes at him.

Nick thought of kicking the cat out the door but something held him back. The creature’s fur was wet and matted with clumps of snow. “Well, you can stay a while,” said Nick. “But don’t think you’re taking up residence here. There’s not even room to swing a bloody cat in this damp hole.”

Nick laughed at his own joke. The cat seemed less amused. She turned her back on Nick.

Nick lifted up the violin again. He placed the instrument under his chin, picked up the bow and ran it across each of the four strings. It wasn’t a pleasant sound.

“God, it sounds worse than a pair of sparring cats,” Nick said.

The cat turned round to face him again and frowned. “Could cats frown?” Nick wondered. There was something about the frowning cat and the violin that stirred something lost in his memory, but he couldn’t think what.

Nick tuned up, twisting the pegs here and there until something musically recognisable began to emerge from the instrument. He began to play: ‘Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle.’ The violin squeaked and scratched.

Out of the corner of his eye, Nick saw the cat place her paws on her head as if to say ‘this isn’t good.’

“Come on,” Nick said to the cat. “Give us a break. I haven’t played a violin for more than 3 years and it’s been a lot longer since I’ve played this old scrap of a thing.”

Nick played on: ‘The cow jumped over the moon.’ The violin whistled and scraped. The tune brought back memories of a younger version of the adult Nick, scratching his way through the piece. His teacher standing with her hands on her head, frowning.

Nick hated the violin. His mother pleaded with him to practise more.

“I can’t play this thing,” Nick shouted. “It’s hopeless.”

“A bad workman always blames his tools,” his mother shot back.

But Nick’s violin teacher agreed with him. “This is no good Nick,” she’d said, her hands over her ears. “You can’t learn to play violin on this instrument. I’ve got an old violin at home. You can borrow it as long as you’re my pupil.”

There’d been an immediate transformation with the borrowed violin: the bow glided across the strings, the sound sweet, his vibrato now effortless, his tuning immaculate, his phrasing delicate, the playing emotional, the notes pure.

There’d been no looking back. He fell in love with the violin – and with his teacher: gorgeous, green-eyed, feline with thick black hair and her body animal-soft. Well, the last bit, he could only imagine. She wasn’t much older than him, maybe 6 years – but at seventeen, twenty-three was way out of reach.

He’d got a distinction at grade 8. Nick returned his teacher’s violin and left for university. He took his old violin with him – God knows why. There were other things in his life now – and music wasn’t one of them.

Nick continued to play: ‘The little dog laughed to see such fun.’ From the periphery of his eye, he could see the cat had her paws over her ears.

‘And the dish ran away with the spoon.’

Nick stopped playing. The sound hung in the air like a bad smell.

“Well,” Nick laughed. “It’s not that bad. Is it?”

The cat shook her head. He remembered now – how his violin teacher used to shake her head in the same sorry manner every time he’d played a note or phrase badly.

The cat stood up and padded to the door. She lifted a paw and beckoned to him.

Nick pulled on his coat and gloves and headed off along the road that cut across the hillside behind the cat. The ground was heavy with snow; the road empty but for the occasional walker.

Amber liquid had now yielded to charcoal-grey. White flakes drifted into Nick’s eyes. A car appeared on the hill, wheels spinning, engine moaning, twisting and turning like an injured beast.

Nick continued to follow the black cat over white. They came to a road that wound across the moor, the lane barely discernible under the covering of snow. Nick trudged past bedraggled, snow–plastered sheep leaning into dry-stone walls, half running, half staggering behind the cat. The wind was biting cold. Ahead he could see two lights twinkling in the dusk. A cyclist swept past them across the field of snow.

At the end of the heath, the cat slipped under a metal gate. Nick pulled the gate back and followed the cat down a lane twisting downhill through a copse. The cat turned right up a short track. To the left there was a large rambling house but the cat made its way to a garage-like shack. Leaping up, she pulled down the handle and pushed through the door. Nick followed curiously. The wooden hut looked half-abandoned: the windows hair-fractured, curtains plastered with cobwebs, broken furniture covered in a thick layer of grime. The shack smelled of Arabic gum, egg white, honey and fusty air.

Then Nick saw the violin on the table. He picked it up and ran his finger over the spruce, removing a fine film of dust. He turned the violin over, running his fingers over the maple back, then the ribs and then the neck. He lifted the bow and began to play. It all came back to him: the delicate touch of the bow on the strings, the slight shift in pressure that subtly changed the sound, the vibrato creating waves of sound so sweet and haunting they fell like a hammer on his chest. The notes filled the room, rising and falling then floating suspended in the air.

The cat had folded her front legs, eyes closed.

He remembered now: his violin teacher, arms crossed over her chest, her eyes closed, lost in the music. “Beautiful, Nike,” she’d said. “You’ve got talent,” then abruptly changing the subject said, “What do you want to come back as in your next life?”

“I don’t believe in reincarnation,” Nick had laughed. She’d ignored him. “I’d come back a cat”. Nick had nodded in agreement. It was fitting.

Nick stopped playing. He peered inside the violin and read the Latin inscription. ‘Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1716. Nick’s heart leapt. A strad! Could it be possible? It must surely be a fake!

Then the cat spoke. “You’re right, Nike. It is a Strad. It’s my violin. It’s been in my family for centuries. It’s yours now. Just promise to start playing again.”

He recognised that voice: it was the voice of his violin teacher. He lifted the violin into its case and clipped in the bow, left the shack with it and made for home.

In the morning, the Stradivarius was still there on his chest of drawers where he’d left it. Nike thought of the cat (who had melted away somewhere in the shadows of the hut) and thought how silly he’d been to imagine the cat had human gestures and a human voice, how silly he’d been to think his teacher was a reincarnated cat. He’d seen her just last week on the other side of the street in the centre of Sheffield. He’d called her name but she had disappeared, swallowed up by the throng of pedestrians. She was still gorgeous, still young, still in her twenties. Surely still here?

She was gone now; the cat too, but he had the Stradivarius and a promise to keep. He picked up the violin, started to play and stopped again as the thought hit him: the Stradivarius was worth many times more than the measly bricks and mortar he was renting.

Nick was stuck in a moral dilemma between cat and fiddle.

Helen Moat Travel Writer


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