The Cats of Ronda by Chris Green
If you visit the historic city of Ronda in southern Spain, you are likely to notice that the cats scurrying around under the tables at alfresco restaurants for scraps are slender. While you are wondering whether to toss them the skin from your monkfish, what you may not be aware of is that despite their being small in stature, these Andalusian felines possess age-old mystical powers. It is thought that the cats of Ronda originated long ago in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians knew a thing or two about the magic of cats. The ones that made the millennial odyssey through North Africa and came over during the Moorish invasion were probably the pick of the bunch. Down through the centuries, their progeny may have inherited their ancestors’ numinous gift.
On my occasional trips to Spain, I had not come across them. It was not until one evening over dinner during a stay in the fabled city that I began to notice them.
‘That one is called Layla,’ said the stranger in the white linen suit, pointing to the small black cat at the foot of my table. We were outside a small restaurant just down from Hemingway’s famous bullring. ‘She likes slices of grilled squid. I think that if you tipped your plate up and let her have those pieces you have left, you would in some way benefit from a modicum of good fortune.’
‘Ha! You think it’s as easy as that,’ I said, to humour him, more than anything else. Why was this roué wearing that thick gold earring, I was thinking? It looked ridiculous on him. He was much too old for such adornments.
‘Try it, my friend,’ he said. ‘What have you got to lose?’
I felt I was due some good fortune. Things had not been going well of late. The very reason I had come to Ronda was to get over a failed business venture and put a jaded relationship behind me. The sunshine of Andalusia was a big attraction and Ronda, being some distance away from the teeming crowds of the Costa del Sol, seemed to have a special appeal.
Still a little concerned that my fellow diners would disapprove or that the waiter might come over and read the riot act, I slyly slid the slices of squid to Layla. She gathered them up and took them to a darkened corner of the courtyard to feast on them. The stranger meanwhile finished his Mojito cocktail and got up to leave. He shook me by the hand and, with a glint in his eye, said, ‘Layla will remember you now, my friend. You should be on the lookout out for a pleasant surprise.’
I took this with a pinch of salt. Spain, just like anywhere else today, was overflowing with charlatans. But, when I got back to my room at Hotel Farolito, there she was, waiting. A vision of loveliness. Long black hair, little black dress and a smile like daybreak. At first, I assumed I had walked into someone else’s room. I was about to apologise and take my leave when I thought to check the number of the key I had in my hand. 101. It was the right room. No doubt about it. This was Room 101. I was searching for a rational explanation and mumbling something incoherent, when she said, ‘I thought you wouldn’t mind, querido, if I joined you. I’ve put my things in the wardrobe. I hope that is all right.’
While it seemed fortunate that I had booked una habitación doble, first I had to allay my fears that this was a set-up. When you have been down on your luck for a while, it’s only natural to be a little suspicious of serendipity turning up unannounced. Especially in such a dramatic way. Besides, the shady character in the white suit who had promised the good fortune was hardly the sort you would buy a second-hand car from.
‘I’ve read about you and seen your picture in the paper, cariño,’ she said.
This was strange because the only time I could recall being in the papers was when Jimmy Jazz Enterprises ceased trading. Perhaps she was thinking of someone else, I suggested.
Somehow we got over our uneasy start and before long, we were getting along like a house on fire. A man can never be certain of a woman’s motives, but Isabella presented a convincing case that her intentions were honourable. She spent twenty four hours reassuring me in the nicest possible way, after which time I was too enamoured to care.
We talked a little about cats during this time, as you do. Isabella maintained she knew little about them but I was able to do some basic research on my laptop. I found out about the cat’s place in Egyptian society. Cats it seemed were a symbol of grace and sang-froid and because they possessed mystical powers they were considered sacred. As a result, for over a thousand years, Egyptians, the most advanced civilisation on Earth worshipped a succession of cat deities, the most powerful of these being Bastet, Mihos, Sekmet and Mekal. It was important for citizens to own a cat and well-bred felines were exhibited in shows. When a cat died the family would go into mourning and prized animals were often mummified.
I don’t know how we ended up going to the restaurant I had been at the previous evening. It’s possible that it might have been Isabella’s idea. I was not sure what to expect. While I had mentioned the strange encounter to her in passing, I had kept my cards close to my chest with regard to the detail. This time, it was late, nearly eleven, and there was no sign of the stranger in the white suit, but there were plenty of cats still skulking around. Towards the end of our fried calamari in tartare sauce starter, a slinky white one, so white it was almost luminous, came over and sat expectantly at the foot of our table. My thinking, perhaps helped along by the second bottle of wine, was, if black cats, traditionally thought of as a bad omen, brought such bounteous good fortune, then who knew what delights white ones might bring. I tossed a couple of the fried rings down and the cat gobbled them up.
‘You really shouldn’t have done that,’ said a dark figure emerging out of the shadows. He had long, uncombed black hair and was wearing skin-tight black trousers and a ripped black t-shirt with white lettering in an unfamiliar script. He could have almost been auditioning for the part of Bob in Twin Peaks.
‘You will regret it,’ he said as he stepped into the light, his sinewy tattooed face trembling with menace. He continued in Spanish. ‘No todos los gatos de Ronda traen buena fortuna. Ese gato es malo. Muy malo.’
A bad one? I wanted to challenge him on this. Who was he? How did he know the cat was bad? He clearly intended it to be a short conversation. He said I would find out soon enough. Muy pronto. Adios, amigo. He was gone like a thief in the night. He probably was a thief in the night. He was certainly not Santa Claus.
My attention had been so totally taken up with Twin Peaks Bob that I had not noticed it. But, when I turned back around, I couldn’t help but notice it, There was no-one at my table. To my alarm, Isabella too had vanished. I looked frantically around but she was nowhere to be seen.
‘Did you see where the woman who was sat with me went?’ I called out to the young couple at the only other table that was occupied. ‘La señora? Has visto?’
‘No había mujer. Estabas solo,’ said the man. ‘Hasta que ese hombre llegó.’
No matter how absorbed with one another they were, how could they have not noticed Isabella?
‘What about the man who came up to us?’ I said, ‘El hombre de negro.’
They had not noticed him either. Were they blind, or something?
None of the staff at the restaurant or any of the neighbouring bars could shed any light on what had happened. I didn’t say anything about the cats, as I was still thinking that there might have been some kind of chicanery and clearly, I couldn’t go to the police. I went back to Farolito hoping against hope that Isabella might be there. She was not. I spent the night worrying about her and about what the man in black had said. Was something terrible going to happen? When would it happen? Could he merely have been referring to Isabella’s disappearance? Maybe I was taking a pessimistic view, but I thought not.
What made me decide to return to the restaurant the following lunchtime, I cannot say. Maybe I thought Isabella might re-appear but quite honestly I had to admit I was clutching at straws. I had not been there in daylight before and although there was the distinct possibility that I was courting danger, there was the possibility that revisiting it might offer some clues as to what was going on. When strange things have occurred there is a natural urge to solve the mystery. I realised that I had either been badly distracted or woefully unobservant because I did not even know what the restaurant was called. As I approached in the light of day, I could see the sign, in bold lettering. It was called Los Gatos de Ronda. This somehow put a different complexion on things. The restaurant was a celebration of the contribution of the cat to Andalusian culture.
If I hadn’t been staring so intently at the display graphics, I might have been aware of the rider of the Kawasaki motorcycle bearing down on me. I might have stepped out of the way and avoided the accident which left me with multiple head injuries. Dr Hernandez thought it was too early to tell if there would be lasting brain damage, but he said I needed to stay in hospital for three or four days so they could keep an eye on me.
While I was lying there, the question I kept turning over and over in my mind was whether there was any justifiable reason to connect the Kawasaki ploughing into me with my having fed calamari to the white cat. No matter what the madman in black had said, such a proposition seemed to belong to the world of hocus-pocus. For one thing, I was not superstitious. I never had been. But, there again, rational thought seemed somehow to have jumped ship at Malaga. Whether there had been a causal connection or not, I could not deny that the accident happened in the wake of his warning. Or earlier that Isabella had appeared shortly after the lounge lizard had said something good would happen.
When you are in hospital, time hangs heavy on your hands, in foreign hospitals, even more so. You hear all this chatter going on around you in a foreign language. Admittedly my Spanish had improved of late, and I could make out some of what was being said, but I felt I needed to talk to someone in English. Out of the people on the ward, Javier was the only one who could speak good English. He had spent many happy months, he told me, as a marketing manager for a biscuit manufacturer in Ashby de la Zouche. He was gay, he said but sadly it was not yet fashionable to be gay in North Leicestershire so he came over to Ronda, where there were more opportunities to meet like-minded people. Javier’s tale of how he came to be in hospital was a strange one indeed.
‘You are probably not going to believe this,’ he said. ‘I’m in here because I fed the wrong cat at a restaurant. A tortoiseshell tabby. It looked hungry and I offered it some of my carabineros. A thug dressed like Benito Mussolini shouted something threatening at me and shortly afterwards I was viciously attacked by a Cambodian monk with a prayer wheel.’
I told him about my experience with the Twin Peaks Bob figure warning me something bad would happen after I fed the white cat and afterwards the Kawasaki running into me. Then I told him about feeding the black cat and the fellow in the white suit predicting good fortune followed by my finding Isabella in my room.
‘That’s uncanny,’ he said. ‘I shared my halibut with an Egyptian Mau cat. Pope Francis appeared out of nowhere and said I had done a good thing and would be rewarded and I found a Marlon Brando lookalike in my room.’
‘Early Marlon Brando, I trust,’ I said.
‘I take your point,’ he said. ‘It was The Wild Ones era Marlon Brando. The Godfather version wouldn’t get me going.’
‘So you are saying there is something of a pattern.’
‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘Fernando over there fed some of his mackerel to a Siamese and was rewarded with a Euro millions win. But after he let a short-haired Burmese have some of his crayfish, he was struck over the head with an Abba statuette by a dwarf in a wheelchair.’
‘Astonishing,’ I said.
‘I believe the whole ward is full of people who have met with misfortune after feeding cats,’ he said.
‘What do you think is going on?’ I asked him.
‘You must have read about the special powers of the cats of Ronda by now,’ he said.
I confided that I had found out a little.
‘Well! Clearly, there are two distinct groups of cats,’ he said. ‘One group uses its special powers for good and the other uses them for evil.’
‘Good is usually associated with those that are group minded and evil by those who have broken away, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Civilisation is based on rules and conformity.’
‘But this is all subjective. There are different thought systems, different cultures, different religions,’ he said. ‘There is no consensus.’
‘That’s right,’ I said ‘But, within each of these the notions of good or bad are based on conformity.’
‘I can see what you are saying, but this is still a simplistic view,’ he said. ‘Animal instincts promote survival and aggression.’
‘And in our scenario, we are talking about both people and cats,’ I said. ‘So how does it work?’
‘I can’t explain the supernatural elements,’ he said. But, I think that we ourselves might have a bearing on what happens to us. What each of us considers good or bad comes into play. For instance, I have always gone for hunky men like Marlon Brando, so it’s only natural that my visitor should look like Marlon Brando and I was brought up as a Catholic, hence Pope Francis. On the other hand, I have never liked military uniforms, hence Mussolini. Mussolini was obsessed by military uniforms.’
‘So far, so good,’ I said. ‘But, what about the Cambodian monk attacking you with a prayer wheel? How does that fit in?’
‘Good point,’ he said. ‘I can’t work that one out. Anyway, it was just an idea. I think perhaps we have a long way to go before we come up with a solution.’
‘It probably doesn’t help being in hospital,’ I said. ‘We can’t even get the internet in here.’
‘I’ll see what Pedro can find out,’ he said. ‘He has an iPhone.’
Unfortunately, this was the last conversation I had with Javier. Dr Hernandez wouldn’t tell me but I think Javier may have been discharged early. I never did find out who Pedro was.
My injuries must have been more serious than first thought, because each time I asked when they were going to let me go home, Dr Hernandez told me that I was not ready yet, but as long as I kept taking the medication, he was optimistic that it would not be more than a month or two. During this time, I had dozens of conversations about the cats of Ronda. They followed a similar pattern throughout, some good experiences mixed with some bad experiences, all of these happening after they had fed cats. Luis found himself on a paradise island but was then bitten by a poisonous snake and Maria Elena landed a modelling contract but was badly scarred when a UV light exploded. Diego was hit by a train. Diego seemed to have missed out on the good experience or perhaps he just couldn’t remember. I think they had put him on extra strong medication on the basis the injuries he sustained from the collision. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it was but I couldn’t help but notice that everyone on the ward seemed to experience complications with their recovery and be kept in for longer than you might expect.
Juan Pablo didn’t think that Dr Hernandez was a real doctor or that we were in a real hospital. He thought that we were being held captive against our will. I told Juan Pablo not to be a fool. Of course we were in a real hospital. They gave us medication every day to make us better, didn’t they? In the end, Dr Hernandez had to restrain Juan Pablo once or twice, which was not at all pretty.
Eventually, I was discharged. It was a fine day and once I had got my bearings and checked back in at the Farolito, I went along to Los Gatos de Ronda. I sat there all afternoon but the strange thing was, despite the menu now consisting entirely of fish dishes, I didn’t see a single cat. What on earth could have happened to them all, I wondered? After my third Alhambra Mezquita, I plucked up the courage to ask the proprietor where all the cats were but he did not seem to know what I was talking about. He told me he had only recently bought the restaurant. He did not even know why the place had been named Los Gatos de Ronda, he said, it was a ridiculous name.
‘I have a painter coming in to change the sign,’ he said. ‘I’m going to call it La Cocina de Pescado.’
I was not sure of the exact translation but it was to do with fish. Something about it was definitely fishy. …… Perhaps all of it.
© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved