The silver threads in her patchwork shawl glittered and tiny specks floated in the sun-filled conservatory. A smoky Burmese cat simmered in her lap, kneading with splayed paws as though in a trance. Lillian Carmichael regarded the creature with amused affection, her snowy white hair pulled loosely back, a single errant wisp trailing her papery cheek.
“I don’t know how dogs came to be top of the tree” she drawled, all languid Southern vowels, “this idea that cats are opportunists and dogs so loyal, man’s best friend and all, I don’t know where that came from.”
Today I counted six including the Burmese. A stripy Bobtail with a spotted tummy stretched majestically on terracotta tiles. A ginger Tom sat upright on sentry duty at the large window. Two white Albinos slept peacefully on a faded chaise longue and an unfeasibly large Persian blinked slowly beneath a potted palm. I knew there were many others, in different rooms or roaming the grounds. Sometimes, they were camouflaged among the plants and blooms or would disappear into the pattern of an Oriental rug, I’d learnt to mind my feet and not trip over them. In this house they were Royalty.
“You know, Patricia. I think it’s because cats are associated with the female. There’s no such thing as a crazy cat man.”
Suddenly, the peace was disturbed by strained honking, like the sound of a distressed goose. The Persian fell back on his haunches, neck outstretched, sequentially juddering like a Mexican wave until at last he managed to emit a hair ball. He licked his lips, sniffed the milky bile then padded away, tail in the air. Betsy arrived with chinking glasses as fresh mint tea was poured from a silver teapot with a spout like candy cane and Lillian pointed to the putrid puddle.
“ I’m afraid Babettes vomited again. She pays a high price for such beautiful fur.” Betsy smiled indulgently, had probably heard that line a thousand times before and returned with a wet cloth to restore order to the magnificent chaos.
I had been apprehensive the first time we met, so much so, I couldn’t supress the tremor in my voice. It wasn’t everyday I met a legend but as I worked through my carefully planned questions, Lillian answered with such graciousness and generosity, my nerves dissolved. I was able to go off script as conversations took on their own momentum and meandered in all directions, each more fascinating than the last. I’d discovered Lillian Carmichael’s writing as a sophomore and was entranced by her trips to Eygypt, Tunisia and the Far East in the 1950s and ‘60s. In times of political upheaval and division, her travel writing had a unifying quality. It was less about the Other or strangely exotic, more about familiar connections. I was struck by her minute domestic observations and ability to capture incidental interactions that were somehow universal.
“They are the most intuitive creatures. Bobby always knows when I’m feeling blue. They are wise and clever and each has their own personali...” She broke into a hacking cough and the sudden eruption of noise caused her lap cat to take flight. For a moment, I thought Lillian would raise a hair ball in sympathy with Babette. As she placed an embroidered cotton handkerchief over her mouth and closed her eyes, I saw her for the first time not as a formidable presence but a vulnerable and elderly individual, a once bold and brilliant woman in her twilight years. She had been a pioneer, circumnavigated the globe but now all she could do was look back. I hoped by being here, inviting her to share memories, she could revisit those places and live them anew.
As a major, I decided to write my dissertation on ‘journalism as a gendered experience’ and made the intrepid decision to seek out Lillian Carmichael. I wrote a long letter to her publisher explaining why her work was relevant. Travel writing was historically all-conquering, macho territory. Those colonial boys planted heavy boots, erected flagpoles and gathered trophies but Lillian’s approach was more contemporary. She respected the customs and traditions of cultures, didn’t gawp, pass judgement or compare, but blended in quietly and wished only to learn. She had great humility and regarded many of the people she met as superior to Westerners with greater knowledge, more in tune with the earth and cycles of nature, something we had lost. Maybe, I went overboard but it worked. When, several weeks later, a handwritten note arrived inviting me for tea, I whooped with excitement in the silence of my apartment.
I wonder, was it because she had so few visitors? I think I was her only visitor but that first introduction would become a series of meetings, then a regular rendezvous, more social than professional. We became friends. I would arrive every few weeks with a tub of strawberries or posy of anemones and we would sit and talk, sometimes for an entire day, intermittently refreshed with pots of Chai and baklava.
“Animals and people. We depend on each other” she said on more than one occasion. “It’s no wonder they were worshipped in some countries as Gods. They exist in a mindful state.” It was while travelling through the Mediterranean she fell hard for the feline species. Every time she sat in some tiny quayside café, she would be surrounded by pitifully skinny, mewling things. She heard horror stories of kittens being thrown into rivers in sacks, weighted down with rocks and thought this unspeakably tragic.
“How could anyone do that to these babies?”
She sat on the same armchair beneath a tall fringed lampshade and next to her was a small carved table, decorated with marquetry, inlaid with different colour woods. Here were stacks of her original smooth-skinned notebooks, each with its own ribbon and often with tiny photographs or bus tickets tucked into the back pocket. They contained little sketches, key dates, specialities from menus and snatches of conversation recorded verbatim. At certain points of the interviews, she would often refer to these, flicking through them and reading out certain passages or specific phrases.
As our bond grew, and after my dissertation was submitted, Lillian revealed stories never before committed to print. She was able to translate extracts written in private code and narrate with great clarity these censored and sensitive encounters. Like her trip to Kitchener’s Island, off the coast of Aswan when an old Arab fixed her with a steely stare as he masterbated beneath his robe. Everyone watched but no one said a word. When she moved among the Bedouins dressed as a boy, her disguise was discovered and she was vicously gang raped, only just managing to escape with her life. She once helped a woman flee her brutal husband and often travelled with a snake for protection.
Although celebrated once, Lillian’s contribution had been erased by a fashionable wave of ego-lead Gonzo journalists, whom she vehemently opposed. Her less intrusive methods became increasingly muffled as the commissions stalled and eventually ceased entirely. Lillian filed away her notebooks and retreated into the shabby opulence of her crumbling mansion where she racked up multiple failed marriages. With every departed ex- arrived several more cats who were “way more reliable, personable and lovable.” As the daughter of a local wealthy industrialist, Lillian’s waywardness had become something of an embarrassment to her family who distanced themselves from her aging eccentricities. By rights, she should have been attending charity galas on the arm of some white-toothed tycoon, but she chose her own way, as she always had.
When I called that Friday afternoon bearing lilies, Betsy opened the door, her face ashen.
“Patricia” she said. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
As an octogenarian, I knew she would die eventually but was unprepared for the sense of hopelessness that threatened to engulf me. She’d come to fill a void, one I hadn’t been aware of, with wonder and possibility. She made my safe, suburban life, with an app for every uncertainty seem sterile and tame. It was as though adventure and the unknown had been designed out of our lives and she had given me a taste of something palpable. I couldn’t believe we’d never have our random, free fall conversations again that would spiral and spin beyond the parameters of my notebook. I’d grown to love her and death was depressingly terminal. When the phone call from Messrs. Kritzel & Sons came inviting me to their offices for the reading of Lillian Carmichael’s will, I checked twice they had the right person, how did they get this number and was this a prank call?
It was at the attorney’s office I discovered the enormous house had been left to Betsy, her loyal carer. She was to treat it as her own for the remainder of her life and thereafter, it would become a cat sanctuary. The current cat family, all eighteen of them, were to remain there; it was their home too. Millions of dollars were sent to existing feline refuges around the world to improve facilities and employ more staff. In some places, Rajasthan and Bangkok, entire new wings would be built bearing Lillian’s name. It was noted that my companionship had bought succor to the final months of her life and for this reason, she bequeathed me $20,000. I was speechless and had to sit down. She had already given so much.
“That’s not all” said Mr Kritzel Jr, who disappeared into a back room to return with a large cardboard box.
“This is also for you.” For a moment, I thought it might be a cat but when I lifted the lid, I saw a file of photographs and her precious collection of notebooks spanning thirty-two years of travel. On personalised paper was the formal transfer of her entire creative and artistic property. She had passed over to me her copywrite and was entrusting me with her work. Tears fell from my eyes. I would be the keeper of her flame, the editor of Lillian Carmichael’s unabridged works. In time, I would introduce her to a new generation of readers, who welcomed a lost feminist icon into their hearts.
On the very top of Lillian’s archive was a brand new notebook, exactly like the ones in which Lillian had recorded her trips. It had rounded edges and a cool, black leather cover. I opened the first page. Written in her elegant Copperplate script in purple ink, Lillian had left me three instructions.
Do right by the creatures.
Never be afraid.
Love and Live.
The rest of the pages were mine to fill.