Our first hot night in Melbourne. There is no relief anywhere in the apartment, not even on the tiny metal balcony that juts out into the concrete heat-absorbing courtyard.
As darkness starts to fall, we go out in search of coolness. We cross the reserve where people are picknicking, and insects chirp in competition with the hiss of sprinklers. We walk along deserted tree-lined streets, where the houses draw me into their shuttered darkness. Here and there, I glimpse lives hidden inside – a picture high up on a wall, lit by blue TV light; through delicate stained glass, an indistinct figure in a hallway. In one house, the curtains have been left undrawn, perhaps deliberately, on an elegant living room hung with gilt-framed mirrors, an antique grand piano in the bay window, and off to one side, a walking frame. But mostly, they do not reveal their secrets. We slink like cats through the shadows, trying to get a measure of the neighbourhood, admiring graceful wrought iron balconies, tiny cottage gardens, apartment blocks with Art Deco details. We pass a medical practice, a row of unoccupied plastic chairs in a half-lit waiting room. In Fitzroy Gardens we follow paths lit up with pale globes of light, through the avenues of elms that are like an English country estate, except it is too hot for England, and the towerblocks of the CBD are just a few hundred metres away. We circumnavigate Cooks’ Cottage, peering in at the windows, but they too refuse to give up their secrets, guarded by Captain Cook himself, standing motionless in his moonlit garden.
Back on the path, we see possums. Bounding over the lawns and up tree trunks like over-sized squirrels, pointed cat-like ears silhouetted against the lamplight. They stare back when we stop to look at them, with the wide-eyed confidence of a protected species. I hear a crackling sound behind me. A possum balanced on a branch is steadily munching its way down the leaves. “That’s the sort of behaviour that would get you into trouble in New Zealand,” I tell it, but it doesn’t seem concerned. One of the possums starts to hiss at another possum, and it hisses back, violent, lips-curled-back hissing, at odds with its cute demeanour.
That night I dream of my cat, back in Wellington. He sees something and hisses, and another cat identical to him materialises from nowhere. The ghost cat in turn hisses and another identical cat appears, and so it goes on, ghost cats forever materialising and multiplying until the room is full of hissing, ginger cats.