The Cats of Istanbul: Chapter Sixteen

Zeynep's Search for Meaning

Zeynep smiled broadly at the sky and gave thanks to the day. Patras, and the Greek mainland with it, was now in sight. She was overwhelmingly pleased at the prospect of visiting this country that she knew so well and had enjoyed over so many decades. It was a good thing that she was here, and a privilege that she would not neglect, whatever her concerns for the context, whatever the dark forces at play beneath the surface. She passed a thought back to her arrival on Kefalonia - on seeing the pines rising from behind a white beach, and then the taverna that she had visited so often, she had felt an exquisite feeling of familiarity refreshed, quintessence of reacquaintance, the best warm scents of cherished memory.

It had been a relief to get there, finally, after a long day's sail from Istanbul, and then an even longer night, through which the seas had borne her vessel so uneasily that she had barely slept a wink. Even out in the middle of the Mediterranean the air had felt thick with worry. She was sailing away from the centre of the storm, and had been glad of it, but anyway had found it hard to assert her being in full confidence. Expressions of doubt seemed to haunt the night skies, charging in at her brow as if furies flung from afar. What was happening in Istanbul? Had it been a mistake to leave? Was she not needed there? And what was the point of this trip away?

She noted, now approaching the docks at Patras, that her visit to Kefalonia had been a success. She had found what she was looking for. She had been wrong to worry that night. She had known instinctively what she must do, and all the fretting she had been through, the post-rationalisation she had eventually insisted on, had been needless, if not entirely without value.

She was pleased with the clarity of the objectives she had eventually settled on. They had been alive in her heart long before she had granted them a description in language. Their meaning had been understood by her senses from the moment of their conception, and Zeynep saw perfectly that such a way of knowing was more true than its verbal counterpart. It puzzled her that her mind had been so loquacious in its search for meaning. She could not quite accept that this nervous thirst for articulation she had felt was hers, it had not seemed at home with the identity that she gave life to.

In any case, it had happened. Her mind had been brought into the declaration of her purpose. She was going to see her friend in Kefalonia to ask for his advice. Specifically, she wanted to compare places, people and cats, so that, in the appreciation of similarities and differences, she would see the situation of Istanbul in relative terms, with perspective. Slowly, she was forming a field of understanding, laying out the perimeter and internal structure of an idea, an explanation for their times, which, eventually, would yield a solution to their problems.

What good would it do to see the world around her? She had met so many cats before, and seen so much of life, all across the continents, that every new experience made sense to her, immediately as a point within society. At the core of existence, encompassing all the species on the planet, there lay a truth - the expression of nature at peace - and whenever there was deviation from it, the case presented itself across a range of affected variables; whatever the facets of being exercised and whatever the activity, there was a story to be read, a position, place and purpose to be brought into light as essence, a unit of identity that would reveal its relation to the flow of peace.

The truth of identity was fluid between and consistent across all manner of distinct things, for in the same way that a tree could be read in its leaves, the same expression of being could be found in both paw and claw, tail and eye, whisker and tooth. Therefore, if she wanted to know what was wrong with the world, all she had to do was follow the signs: the muscles behind a certain smile, the flush of a face, the glint of an eye... She would look at the world and she would know where to go next - life would lead her to the truth. 

Her experiences in Istanbul had taught her something. As much as anything else, Zeynep was a student of the face, and the moral physiognomist in her had been disturbed by what she had witnessed at home. It was as if almost everyone and everything was affected by something that she could not identify, other than to say that the face of the matter betrayed a fundamental disturbance. Certainly the core of nature, the volume of life, the peace of existence, seemed much diminished.

She had decided to visit Kostas first whilst walking towards the docks in Istanbul. As soon as she thought of where and who, he had presented himself in her brain as an attractive first step. Kostas was a very nice cat, affable and talkative, who lived very comfortably in a taverna, alongside a rather wealthy family of humans. Kostas also had lots of friends across Greece, and so would be able to tell her about the general condition of cats in his country, and advise her of who to see, and of what to look at.

The visit had been as pleasant as she had expected. The taverna, at the back of which the family had built their home, was as beautiful as she remembered, terraced, mosaic and vine-swept, white-washed and cool, flower-scented, cavernous. Kostas had been of the best company, his own special self, and the food superb - sardines with courgette flowers, bream pan-fried in butter and dressed with fresh mountain herbs, the local sheep's cheese, cream and honey... Most importantly, however, the conversation was excellent, and now she had a clear plan of where to begin her assessment.

Kostas had understood what she meant immediately when she explained her feelings about life in Istanbul, of how the atmosphere had worsened, of how the behaviour of the cats there seemed affected, but not as a reaction to external events, but more through a general deterioration in aspect and well-being, so much so that everything else was now impacted. 

'In Greece things are much the same' he said, 'everywhere there is pressure, the fear of crisis, clamourings about the need for power. There are cats out there starving Zeynep, and the humans are in such a mess, there is no knowing what to do with them. Money is the main problem that they talk about, money they thought they had but now do not, money that they owe to someone else but can no longer afford to pay, money that someone spent that was not there to spend - all of it is nonsensical of course, clearly their systems are abused, but no one seems to understand how it works, and as their society stumbles, well yes it affects ours too.'

'But then the atmosphere you say, I think you're right, there is something funny in the air. Dimitri and his family they're okay, everything in their lives is more or less the same as it always was, he has a good job and in general they live very easily, but I do see it in his face, he is ever so worried, forever screwing up his face and clenching his muscles, not sleeping properly either - he goes out in the night and stares at the stars, thinking god knows what, and with his family it is the same, his wife has developed a nervous sickness, his children fight now when before they never used to... And who can see any sense to any of it? But out there Zeynep there is real trouble - the people are angry. I have a friend in Athens who tells me the streets are full of people shouting, and on the islands to the South and East, everyday people from afar arrive on boats with nothing to their names, people that have lost everything. You wouldn't understand in Istanbul, with your attitude towards humans, but their world has gone mad. Is this the same problem that has caused all of your troubles? It might well be. But what to do about it? How to identify the ultimate cause and negate it? I do not know Zeynep, but I will give you what advice I can.'

Zeynep's plan now then was to travel across the Peloponnese, towards Athens, without any particular purpose but to see what was there, for Kostas had explained to her that the cats in Greece were not drawn into any particular plot, only that they had had their everyday concerns sharpened. The humans in Athens he speculated she might find more interesting - 'Dimitri's boss in the bank, a Greek man, who is forever angry, and then perhaps around him you will find others that interest you. There will be all sorts of humans there - from all over the world, Europeans and Americans, for there are many powerful humans Zeynep that devote their time to the management of money.'

Thus it was that she arrived at Patras, now looking with greater confidence, feeling it certain that there was something going on in this world that needed to be understood and expressed. Whatever it was, it would eventually explain the behaviour of the alley cats and rooftop cats. Even though the links between these different disturbances were still invisible, symptomatically the situations seemed aligned - in Istanbul and in Greece - everything was worse than it should be, but apparently for no good reason.

In any case, she concluded, it was time to take an interest in the human world. It was true that the culture and philosophy in Istanbul precluded involvement with their kind, and generally she considered this to be correct, for how could life through their eyes be better than through their own, but if the trouble in the two worlds was connected, and the humans were to blame for this upset in nature, then their issues, whatever they were, would need to be addressed, there was simply no choice to the matter. She was sure she could learn quickly.

Walking away from the docks and into town, she looked at the people passing by with fresh eyes. How did they compare to the cats? Certainly they too seemed agitated, holding their worries in the front of their minds, all obviously stressed about something, but without talking to them she had no way of knowing what. Most of them looked like they cared for themselves, they were dressed in a way that aspired towards attraction, and were clean, and generally occupied with some sort of task. At a basic level of functionality, they seemed to be in working order, and not 'mad' as Kostas had suggested they would be. Really though she had to listen to them to be sure.

She walked around town slowly, appreciating the novelty of the experience, stopping to look at cat life in the Greek streets wherever felinity presented itself: a mother lying in the sun, a father eating in the shade, kittens playing in the dust... The cats she passed seemed happy enough, not overly content certainly but managing, and not in fear of oppression. She had to admit that none of the scenes she saw, whether cat or human, were particularly pointed. These moments that passed before her eyes led her nowhere, and thus the only conclusion could be that whatever was going on, it wasn't really going on here. In Istanbul too the case was similar - in general the cats in the gutter were innocent and not part of the plot. Affected yes, stressed yes, but without leading on towards the originating cause. The equilibrium of their lives had been thrown into question by the rash behaviour of a few energised characters: Longshanks and the four cats of the moment, Elvan and Zara too, Ahmet and Fatma even. But if the comparison held true, who were the equivalents in the human world? Clearly, the centre of power was not in Patras, but beyond that she supposed it could be anywhere. Was it in Istanbul, as with the cat world, or somewhere far away? It was a thought that made her shiver, that she had not seen the worst of it yet.

The only onwards then was closer in, towards Athens and the money men Kostas talked of, who themselves she hoped were close enough to the centre of power that they would yield some clue to the forces at work, which in turn she might trace to the troubles in Istanbul. First though, before leaving Patras, she would check more of what was there, there must be something to be discovered from listening to conversation, and she needed to eat. A well-fed looking mother cat had told her of a restaurant with a terrace where she might find some decent fish, and so she headed there, continuing through the streets until arriving at a smart square with benches and a fountain in the middle. Taking her seat in the restaurant, to the side of one large table of humans, and finding the food satisfactory, she settled in to listen.

'It's another good reason anyway to get together for lunch, less rubbish in the bins at home if we eat out' said one woman.

'I for one can't blame the bin men for not working if they're not getting paid, although I can't say it's going to be pleasant.'

'Yes well it is very nice to see you all' replied a man, 'even in these difficult times, especially in these difficult times. It isn't very easy for any of us though. I saw my friend last night and he knows the mayor, who he says is ever so upset, as he simply doesn't have the money to pay everyone, and so has to make choices between bin men and nurses. And are we to blame the government? They don't have any money either. Who is supposed to have the money if not ourselves? None of us do, so we must all accept that we have less than we thought we did, but none of us are prepared to do that, so instead there is chaos.' He concluded with a stamp of his foot, throwing his hands in the air and letting his knife and fork clatter to his plate. The others she noted were smiling, but more at the manner of the human than at his message.

'It really is terrible isn't it?' said another woman. 'But it isn't very complicated, we act like it's difficult to understand, as if our money just disappeared into thin air through some act of mischief or magic. Actually the problem is rather simple - it is debt and greed, greed and then debt perhaps, but anyway it is clear enough. What else can be behind these things but our own culture? Evidently there is a mismatch between our expectations and reality, we want more than we are prepared to work for, but of course we are not allowed to acknowledge this fallacy or the whole system would collapse. Instead we have a house with bursting pipes and not enough money to pay the repairman.'

'But you can't say our culture is to blame for all this. It isn't a problem with Greek culture that the global economy is in trouble. It's an American system, a European system, whatever, but it isn't really of our own making that this happened. Of course we fell into the trap, so it is our fault too, but we're not guilty of designing the trap.'

'Yes, yes, but we came to eat at the table when we were invited.'

'You see what I'm saying, we both agree I'm sure...'

'I think we all agree there are many worse places out there. These poor refugees from Syria. I can barely even begin to think about the misery they must have been through, just to think of a single bomb falling on Patras makes me want to cry, and how many are dead now, they're not even counting anymore. You might think all these problems are very simple, but I can't make any sense of it - who exactly is fighting who and why - this tribe and that tribe, this country and that country, everyone dropping bombs. What can they all be fighting for?'

'They are fighting for power and money' said the man, 'and you're right it's greed, but there is also fear and racism. Anyway we are going round in circles.'

'Some good news' he laughed, 'we are going to take some refugees, a hundred or so, in the old school - Eletheria told me, she is organising collections.'

'Ah Eletheria how is she? Does anyone know? I must go to see her.'

From here the conversation moved onto discussing the well-being of Eletheria, and then of other people they knew. Births, deaths and marriages were announced, and everyone else mentioned was reported as fine. Zeynep decided that she had learnt as much as these humans were going to teach her. She was pleased, many of her suspicions had been confirmed, and her mind was full of the light of new ideas. The mayor she thought, whose job it was to decide between paying bin men and nurses, seemed to promise the most potential for her next visit. Now invigorated by the thickening scent, she made her way back out onto the streets to ask for directions.

The mayor's offices she found in the centre of town in a grand white building. Sat in the late afternoon sun, it should have been pleasantly warm, but as she approached she felt an extra layer of heat against her fur, sickly and prickling, and bearing down upon her with an unusual sense of weight.

She toured the building and chose a route up the walls, pausing by each window that she passed to inspect the contents inside. The office in the centre, the largest, contained a portly man sat behind a large wooden desk. This she assumed was the mayor's office. The man was holding a black box to his ear, the type she had heard Fatma describe, and was talking into it. 

'Yes I understand the number you are giving me, it just doesn't make any sense in the real world. We could sack some people, but then we have to pay redundancies, and then anyway the people will starve, or steal, or riot. Whatever it all costs the same to keep the world turning. There isn't anything for me to cut, do you understand?'

Zeynep gazed at the man intently. Here there was something - the man was agitated in a way that called to her - for a second it felt like she was looking at Elvan. You are both so sure she thought that there is no way out. You cannot see that the universe is unperturbed by your problems.

She returned to watching and assessing the mayor, sitting in silence and staring at his form, letting the light impress his being into her mind. He was slumped in his chair, glaring at the ceiling and running a hand through his hair. What was he thinking? She tried to read the feeling that his aspect gave her and caught a whisper, unspoken, flitting through the air.

'There will be chaos' a voice said, a voice only in her mind, 'they're never going to be able to deal with this. The army would be best...'

Instinctively she asked back, 'Who was that? Who's there?'

The air around her emitted a faint crackle. A moment or two of silence passed, before another voice spoke into her mind, this time clear and direct.

'Cat, we know why you're here, we've been watching you. You need to get off that window sill right now and go home to Istanbul. This town belongs to us. Cat, this world belongs to us.'

Zeynep continued to watch the mayor remonstrate with his black box, slowly considering the implications of this interruption. The humans could speak into her mind, this was clear. What relation did this have to their problems with money? Was it that these humans, who had this ability, had an interest in Greek poverty? Why would anyone want that?

'Cat, you don't think anymore' said the voice in her mind, 'you just watch now'.

Strangely, the mayor then looked up at her and glared, clearly suddenly annoyed that she was there. He stood up quickly and walked towards her, then making swishing motions at her with his free arm. Zeynep, unmoving, continued to watch.

'He's gonna get you kitty' said the voice in her mind.

On seeing Zeynep maintain her position, the mayor pushed open the window and moved his hand towards her, as if to shove her. Zeynep flicked out a claw and drew a clear red line across the mayor's palm.

'Zghhh...' cried the mayor, retreating quickly to his chair, now cupping a small pool of blood with his injured hand.

'I'm sorry' he said, 'something's come up. I've got to go.' He then rushed out of his office, not daring to look back at the window.

Zeynep decided that the scene was at an end and so departed, nipping swiftly back down the walls and then wandering out along the streets.