I spent last week in the Highlands, in retreat, writing. It misted, it rained, it blew, and on the last night, the elements fell still, the sky cleared, and we adjourned to the straw bale studio to read our work aloud, to uncork wine and stay up late. On the short walk back to the main house, the last four standing, of whom I was one, stopped, leaned back and traced a celestial path from the tip of the Plough to the north star. Dizzy with wine, light-headed with leaning, the beauty of the night sky held us: no light pollution, a waning moon, and the constellations fixed and clear like something from a textbook. In a moment of pure Disney, a shooting star vaulted the sky. I wish I had told them then that I knew the old lady who put the stars in the sky. But I forgot to tell them, so I’ll tell you instead.
She lived next door to us when I was a child. Hers was a quiet house with an abandoned look, curtains pulled by day, the lining all torn, sun-weakened until the moths began to nibble at it, making it thin and perished so that when her cats climbed between the curtain and the window trying to catch bluebottles, they ended up clawing at the fabric and shredding it further. The garden, once tended with lawns and carefully planted flower beds, was left to grow wild. In summer the grass grew to waist-height and a bank of hydrangea bushes had grown so big that it blocked the front door. And the climbing ivy that had once made the house look like a picture from a chocolate box had reached the first floor and was closing in on the window panes, holding fast like a starfish on a rock. It must have darkened the house terribly, except she never opened the curtains, so it would have been dark in there anyway.
Her cats prowled the streets, ran along the wall coping and jumped over into our garden. They were watchful, as cats are, always from a distance as though they were spying on her behalf, with instructions on what to look for. I knew those green and yellow eyes could see everything, those pointed, perked ears could hear the faintest whispers, and those miaowing jaws could report back on everything they saw and heard.
We named the cats, as much to keep count of them as anything else. First we learned to tell the difference between the black ones. “Look, that’s not Bell. Bell’s front left paw is white. That’s Book, his back right paw is white.” Bell, Book and Candle we named the first three – isn’t that what every good witch needs? The next three we called Anne, Charlotte and Emily. Then Harry, Ron and Hermione. “There can’t possibly be that many of them,” Mum said when we go to twelve. “You must be double counting.” We weren’t. Peanut, Butter and Jelly came next. Then Goneril, Regan and Cordelia (my big sister was studying GCSE English at the time). Then Athos, Portos and Aramis (Dad had always loved the Musketeers). In the end, we had nine sets of three: twenty-seven different cats.
They were well cared for, healthy and fit, glossy coats, none of them over-fed, none malnourished. They could scale walls like spiderman and were great hunters of baby sparrows and bluetits and mice. The old lady didn’t have a cat flap, instead she would leave a back window open for them to jump through, quarry in their mouths, bringing it to her as a sign of their devotion. I could just about see the open window from my upstairs bedroom, although there was an elder bush that was getting so big that soon I wouldn’t be able to see anything but rooftop and sky. It was from this upstairs spot I first saw her doing ‘the thing’.
It was late, close to midnight and I couldn’t sleep, but the cats were miaowing extra loudly, as if they were calling, singing even, which sounds crazy, as cats don’t sing, but that’s what it sounded like to me. And the moon was full, which is why I saw her so clearly, it cast so much light that it looked like she was on a floodlit stage. She was wearing a cloak and her grey hair, thick as a young girl’s, flowed down her back. She moved quickly, light on her foot, dancing, jumping, whirling, so much bounce in her body, fluid and rolling, like how a child moves. And the cats sang as she danced around a huge pot in which something was cooking, but instead of giving off steam, it gave off sparkles of silver and gold that streamed upwards in a river of sheen that tapered and narrowed into the air until it mixed with the stars in sky and fed into the milky way.