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The League of Imaginary Cats

From the Lab Lit short story series

Richard Marshall 17 March 2019

People don't empathize with white mice like they do with a cat. Let's face it, nobody would have bothered much with Schrödinger’s rat

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the final installment in our series, The League of Imaginary Cats. Read more about the Series in our accompanying editorial, and use the navigation links at the top right to catch up.

The League of Imaginary Cats
Part I

After The Shouting And The Crying

I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

TS Elliot “The Wasteland”

There’s a cat on a couch in a room in a house on a street in a city you know. 

Close your eyes, picture the cat on the couch; imagine the room in the house – quite a grand house! – and the street lined with trees in this quietly wealthy area of the city...

Ah, but not that city! This one is very much like it, but it differs in the subtle way that things do in dreams, and is intangibly better than the one you first thought it might be.

The cat, a large ginger tom, stretched out on the black leather couch in a private office, is licking himself the way cats do when they wish to appear nonchalant: legs akimbo and with quietly determined gusto. The tip is missing from one ear. It doesn't matter which.

Oh! You wanted a slender female tabby prettily curled on a soft cushion by a warm winter fireplace? Does she purr contentedly while a grandfather clock tick-tocks in the background? 

No. This is not that cat. 

Now, I suppose the cat could be tabby, but she doesn’t purr. The setting is non–negotiable. 

But I digress. 

It is a bright, cold, business-like spring morning and the room is clinically silent but for the rasping sound of a cat licking his nether regions. On the door to this office is the nameplate of a Dr Something-or-other. You don’t know them. This room lacks the anticipated medical paraphernalia, and seems mainly to be furnished with: 

  • a door
  • a large window onto the bright garden, open at the top.
  • a desk, behind which the good doctor patiently sits
  • a vaguely patterned reddish rug on the parquet floor
  • a large wall clock opposite the desk, that makes no sound as its hands sweep round
  • some pot–plants to suggest an atmosphere of serenity and relaxation
  • a cat on a reclining leather couch

The clock strikes the hour. Nine o’clock. The cat stops licking itself and looks up as the good doctor opens a wide-ruled notepad and unscrews the cap of an expensive fountain pen. The cat stretches, yawns and appears to sit up.

The life of an imaginary cat is not as easy as you might think.

The doctor writes something down, before pausing, nib poised above the soft yellow pages, and looks at the cat in silence. A minute passes.

“Go on...”

The life of an imaginary cat is neither as easy nor as simple as you'd think. 

Again a pause. The doctor looks enquiringly at the cat, which gazes back with unblinking green eyes, his expression quite inscrutable if, perhaps, a little pompous. The doctor thinks for a minute before noiselessly mouthing a few words. Then, without addressing anybody in particular, she adds out loud, “Today, surely, what I think is very much the case in point...”

The cat turns around on the couch a few times, as if hoping to find a more comfortable spot on the unyielding, black upholstery. Upon settling, he flexes his front paws and begins picking at stitching in the expensive leather.

Listen. Let me tell you something... 

It isn't easy being a figment of somebody else's imagination. 

The doctor pauses again, her bright pen nib now resting on the yellow page as a dark pattern of ink spreads unevenly into the paper. Moving her hand to avoid the ink, she looks into the blot and lets her thoughts wander.

How can one develop depth in a character when one is liable to be called forth in the mind of a random person at the drop of a hat? Just when you have got used to being short-legged, fat and lazy, somebody else pictures a sleek and stealthy siamese and – PAFF! – there you are strutting through the rooftops of their mind like the very embodiment of Bast on an Egyptian temple.

Only last week I was at a party organized by the League when one of the original Chauvinist Pigs asked that tired old question, “Who would you be if you weren't yourself?” I know it's just an ice-breaker, a parlour game, but really, what sort of question is that to ask an imaginary cat at the best of times...?

The doctor sits back in her chair and crosses her arms as if in incredulous defiance at the idea.

“A party? For imaginary creatures...?”

Oh, the usual crowd was there: Shanks' Pony, the Lame Dog, Eager Beaver, the Stalking Horse... Scaredy Cat was too timid to come out, as usual, and the White Elephant had to stay outside in the garden because there was already an elephant in the parlour and... well, we don't want to talk about that, do we!

As it happens, I never got to answer the question because the party got quite out of hand. Buck Naked and the Jaybirds were performing on the patio; the quick brown fox was jumping over the lazy dog in the living room; it was spring and the March Hares got a little bit crazy (can't hold their drink, if you ask me); and in one room the Bunny Rabbits were... well you get the general idea. Oh, and some lucky cow had won the raffle so she was very excited about that, making a lot of noise and jumping about. 

Then Shanks' Pony simply turned into a nightmare. They say you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink...  well, just lead any of the horses I know to vodka martinis and you can't stop them. I gave up and found a nice mat to sit on. 

Doctor, sometimes I think my whole life is just a cliché!

The doctor appears distracted by something in her peripheral vision. Laying down the fountain pen to remove her dark-framed spectacles, she holds them at arm’s length to inspect them. A small black speck detaches itself from the right arm and lowers itself to her finger on an invisible silken tread. Placing her spectacles on the desk, she covers the money spider with her left hand, stands and goes to the window where she blows the tiny arachnid into the garden.

Crossing back to the desk, she does not look at the ginger tom on her couch. Her dark skirt swishes gently but the smart shoes barely make a sound across carpet and parquet alike. Seated once more, she replaces her glasses and glances at her notes while pushing her dark collar-length hair behind her ears. Picking up her pen she looks up at the cat once more, which has remained still and silent throughout.

“Now, where was I...?”

I was at a party having both my identity and integrity questioned by a couple of flying pigs who might have been there on a long-haul stopover. And then again they might not. They only came to show off their wings in an effort to impress the Bunnies but I know they spent half the evening talking about me... Doctor, it is worse than not being talked about.

The truth is, of course, I never am me – I was always playing somebody else. Most imaginary creatures have fixed roles, but we cats can be called on to do anything. That's why I took on the job that I thought might define me. Instead I've ended up more lost than anyone.  

The cat stares into space; the doctor looks down at what she has written.

A fixed role, a Capital Letters Job, that's what we all want in this game – a nice cushy CLJ. There was a time when I was synonymous with the Cheshire Cat, you know... nobody would have dared read Lewis Carroll aloud without my assistance. But I took a few liberties while only my grin was showing and once word got around I found myself somewhat demoted. 

“What was that about the League...?”

Ah yes, the League of Imaginary Cats; I joined after the offstage incident that ended my Cheshire Cat career. The League looks after our interests and shares the work out now that we are less in demand. Like an agency and a union rolled into one.  

There are very few who can claim to completely own a role these days, you see, even a CLJ. Think of poor Macavity – he thought he had that number sewn up until humans started running around dressed up as cats. Who needs an imaginary, poetical cat when there's an inferior but far more insistent embodiment prancing about on stage in front of you? Nobody bothers with poetry any more... And don't even get me started on television!

“I'd like to understand how imaginary cats go about their work...”

Sometimes it just comes down to a misunderstanding. Take the cat o’nine tails –time was, when everybody knew what that meant... those who needed to worry about it. So when anybody said “The cat’s out of the bag,” nobody thought about an actual feline, they all knew the whip had been called for and was going to be used. Trouble is, the English collected figures of speech from their maritime past but forgot the meaning – so now, every time somebody lets a secret slip, they think of a cat escaping from a cloth sack... and that’s where we come in – the imaginary cats. We enable and enhance your imagination. Cat out the bag, or COB as we call it, is easy work, bread and butter stuff. An easy job for first-timers and kittens but a little beneath me now.

But the cat o’ nine tails has another, vestigial, usage (if you'll pardon the pun), one that’s not so easy. If a ship’s cabin was small, you couldn’t use the flogger inside – “not enough room to swing a cat” you see – but people grow ignorant and people forget and people think it must be a real cat and now even animal lovers use the phrase to describe a small house... 

Luckily, most people don’t actively think of a feline, but it only takes one... One imaginative or literally minded individual pictures the scene and Wham! you’re called on to perform the Cabin Dance as we call it in the trade. It’s not even well-paid work, and there’s a risk of serious injury to head and tail alike. Days like that I even envy the Manx cats. No tail may mean no soul and little work... but it also means no Cabin Dance.

The doctor is chuckling, privately. She stops writing; puts down her pen and turns up the sleeves on her neat, white blouse.

You think we can’t get hurt, being imaginary creatures? Quite the opposite! Imaginary pain is the worst kind when you're an imaginary creature.

Some things we can pull off using our art, it’s what we train for – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for example. The secret is that there’s no roof and it isn’t hot. We make you imagine the tin roof because you have imagined us – and we act like we’re walking on something so hot it hurts our little paws. Ooh, ow! See that..? That’s a trained walk. That’s our art.

But when we don’t know the outcome, when we’re playing it by ear – like judging the size of a room you’ve never seen, as you get swung round by your tail – that can have unpredictable consequences. Unforeseen, dangerous, even. That’s why the Thought Experiment was such a calamity for me.

“Yes, I wondered when we’d come to that. Perhaps it's time we got to the point?”

The cat arches his back and yawns, showing his teeth, before settling again on the couch.

Don’t mock me, Doctor. I’m really not in the mood after all I've been through – you know very well what this is about. 

It should have been a certain Tomcat Murr. It was right up his street but he was too busy with his fame and fancy ways. He would probably have handled it better than I – he has form for that sort of ambiguity – but he was trying to get into opera at the time and the job got passed to me.

Nowadays it would probably go to the young chap who plays Pixel – you have read Heinlein haven't you, Doctor? But that role didn't turn up until years later. In fact it rather happened the other way round. You know, all that clever walking through walls and impossible behaviour... he actually learnt that from me! When one has a talent like mine, it's selfish to keep it to oneself...

The doctor now bears a confused expression. She crosses out several lines from her writing pad, turns the page and reveals a fresh yellow sheet of paper, quite blank except for the ink blot that has seeped through as one large oval with a smaller round blob above it and a short, fuzzy line below. Adding ears and whiskers to this vaguely feline shape, she writes the word pareidolia alongside. 

The cat sits up, showing off his white bib and socks.

Back then I was more into kids’ parties and picture book stuff – it was all I could get at the time – but when the League offered me a potential CLJ, and my agent insisted it would be good for my career, I fairly jumped at it. Easy money, they said – sit in a box, play cute then play dead or whatever and be home in time for a fish supper. Nice, easy and regular...

“...Which doesn't exactly explain the distressed cat on my consulting couch.”

Indeed! The gig was meant to be as straightforward as they come. Some scientist was trying to understand how unpredictable very small scale events might – or might not – affect things in the everyday world, and he came up with the outlandish idea of imagining a cat in a box as the way of illustrating this. That's where I came in of course. All I had to do was be in the box at the right time and do whatever was required of me. But nobody bothered to explain to me that this physicist was...

“Schrowdinger!” The name leaps involuntarily from the doctor's mouth and her head jerks up as she says this, like somebody waking from a daydream.

I'm sorry, I didn't realise you were allergic to cats...

“Yes! No. Schrö-ding-er,” repeats the doctor, more slowly and more precisely, as if trying out the name for weight and sonority. “The scientist, the thought experiment... The eminent physicist.” 

“So this must be about...” She tails off.

You think I don't know who I am? Good grief! Stop stating the obvious – everybody knows me! That's what makes it a CLJ! 

You're starting to upset me now doctor – and you wouldn't want to do that! I may not know who I am any more, but for your information I played Puss In Boots for two seasons and I understudied a certain feline role by Bulgakov as a student.

Anyway, who's telling the story here?

The cat starts flicking its tail and plucking furiously at the stitching with his front claws. The doctor half rises from her chair, the back legs scraping noisily on the wooden floor. The cat looks up, stops plucking and the doctor sits. She blows her nose on a white linen handkerchief, picks up her pen and starts writing again.

At least Schrödinger didn't have cat allergies...

She coughs as if suppressing a laugh. “Excuse me. Let's go on.”

Have you ever stopped to consider why Schrödinger chose to have a cat in his imaginary box? I mean, he was a cat-lover and the idea of actually subjecting a cat to such a contraption would have offended him... But what else would have been quite so memorable?

If it had been biologists doing the Thought Experiment, I'm in no doubt they'd have put rodents in there. And that would have been a huge mistake. Don't get me wrong, rats and mice make lovely snacks but they hardly carry the gravitas of a cat now do they? People don't empathize with white mice like they do with a cat. Let's face it, nobody would have bothered much with Schrödinger’s rat. 

I eavesdropped a little the first time around and I understand he originally planned to use a rabbit. Again, that would have been a mistake. Too showy. 

White rabbits belong in top hats and magic shows. Now that would really have really lowered the tone, given it the air of a conjurer's parlour entertainment rather than the serious exploration of science and philosophy that I was employed for. Please, don't even think about them – just by imagining it you're employing those upstarts in my role. Stop it at once!

Now then, I think it is clear that only we imaginary cats have the experience and panache to carry off something of this magnitude. 

...So this Schrödinger was very smart but a little reckless in his employment of metaphors. He was debating with some chap called Einstein and his pals just what it would mean if the rules that govern the random world of quantum physics could be directly linked to the everyday world of bricks, shoes and, well, cats. It was meant to demonstrate their thinking was unreasonable and untenable. 

It was a reductio ad absurdum... only I was the absurdity in the philosophical sandwich.

“But that's old news, isn't it?”

“News is news however old it is... and a cat's a cat even when it's a dead cat,” as a dear friend once wrote. That's about all I've had to hold on to through this ordeal.

The doctor glances out of the window, where the first few drops of rain are falling from an apparently cloudless sky. Away beyond high garden foliage, the horizon appears cinematically dark.

“There'll be a rainbow somewhere...” she muses, momentarily distracted.

“News keeps... And it comes round again when you least expect.”

“Like thunder.”

“But that doesn't even make sense!” splutters the doctor, visibly agitated. She stands up, walks around the desk and settles, perched on the edge leaning toward the cat. She doesn’t know whether she wants to ruffle his fur playfully or grab him by the scruff and shoo him out of the room.

“I don't care if it comes from a work of fiction, you can't just quote it at me and try to sound clever; it's gobbledygook! It's ridiculous. It's out of order.”

I'm ridiculous? You're conversing with an imaginary cat and you call me ridiculous? If you want logical consistency, make it yourself, doctor! I am only as rational as the people who conceive me...

“But the cat's just a convention, a convenience, a cog in the machine! The cat isn't alive or dead because the cat becomes another thing in the mechanism, nothing but an emotive indicator of a virtual state... an idea of a cat, a cat-shaped uncertainty, merely a device to illustrate a point...”

Madam, how dare you! I assure you I am a cat, I am that cat. I am, indeed, The Cat. I am the only such cat in the world – and not a mere device!

Listen, doctor, I'm not supposed to know what was going on in there... That's not what I do. My job isn't to read up on the science or make decisions that aren't mine to make. I'm an imaginary cat, for heaven's sake... I'm an Artist!

All I know is that something went on that day – and it keeps happening every time people call on me to rerun that damned Thought Experiment. 

It's bad enough being called on to play something as impossible and unimaginable as a cat that is neither dead nor alive. But sometimes they want me in multiple universes. Split in two. Or not really a cat but a probability wave that describes the potential cat-states I could inhabit – whatever that means when it's at home! And they only decide how this “wave” resolves itself into a cat-state (which is my cue to play dead or play alive and happy) once somebody bothers to look in on me.... Yes, yes, how about that for an insult? I am trying to perform some of my finest and most sophisticated work and all the while they are imagining that they can't even see me. How's that for respect!

What's the point of a metaphor if you can't imagine it? What's the meta- for? I'm supposed to enable the act of imagination – that's what we do, that's our calling and our art – but then they go and imagine the unimaginable and expect me to know what to do with that!

But that's not even the worst of it. When they talk about the box being opened, they lose interest. It's not even me they want; it's just a ghost of my existence. I have become defined by the indefinable. I have become a thing that is not a thing. I am a paradox. ME, A PARADOX!

“And how would that make you feel?”

I feel angry, hurt, insulted, of course, but most of all I feel guilty. I'm sure it must be my fault that they're still arguing over the Thought Experiment so many years later. If I'd got to grips with the role properly it'd be settled by now. A CLJ is meant to be a matter of habit, familiarity and common understanding – this role couldn't be further away if it were locked in a box with the lid shut.   

Oh I've tried; believe me I've tried, but I just can't inspire a clear and common consent. Every time I think we're getting somewhere somebody else goes in completely the opposite direction. I'm a failure! 

I can't take it. I'm falling apart and I'm no good to anybody.

Doctor, I don't know who I am any more. I'm trapped in a role that is indefinable and never ending; trying to answer a question that even they can't agree on. I literally don't know whether I'm coming or going and, to cap it all, I keep glimpsing my double out of the corner of my eye. Me – a double! As if there could be another...

The cat becomes sullen. His good ear twitches forward and the damaged one, without moving, manages to look quite forlorn. Nobody moves.


Meanwhile, across town there's a cat in a bar... Smoking a cigar, hocked up on a stool, he's clearly distressed…

But we digress.


The doctor sits back down at her desk and looks to the ceiling. Placing her slim fingertips together and raising them to her lips, she slowly leans forward, her elbows on the desk. “I think,” she ventures, as the steeple of her hands arcs tentatively forward, then strikes down with increasing certainty, “I think inability to control your own destiny is at the root of internal conflict.”

But that's what I do! I become whichever imaginary cat the people want me to be... I don't know how to be anything different!

“You are alienated from yourself! You see yourself as somebody separate from the world. As ‘Other’. Therefore you feel powerless – not an agent but a phenomenon within the constructs of others, unable to choose your own fate, subject to the whim of forces you cannot control, influence or predict. You have constructed an alter ego, an imaginary self, in the hope of breaking this creative block.”

The cat, suddenly looking animated, gathers himself, springs from the couch and leaps with newfound energy onto the desk. Sitting in the triangle of her arms, right on the yellow notepad now filled with writing, he stretches his neck, bringing his face right up to hers, pink muzzle to pink muzzle.

So it's all down to me... what can I do? How do I change this? How do we escape this... indeterminacy?

“You need to be actively involved, take possession of your destiny, be the master of your own fate. Not just an onlooker but a participant.”

The cat stands and arches his back, pressing his dry nose to the doctor's face. His tail flicks a few times:

You mean to say that, all along, I have been nothing more and nothing less than... an observer?

And with that, he is gone, leaving the doctor with nothing but a slightly crumpled writing pad and a view through a closed window of a tail disappearing from an empty garden.

She starts to close her notepad, now filled with several pages of writing, but hesitates and turns instead to the first page. Taking up her pen again, she crosses through the original heading. Below this she writes a new title.

The Divided Self meets Schrödinger’s Cat
 – a Psychoanalytical Approach to Creative Reintegration.

(Therapeutic Animals as Emotional Proxies in the Creative Process)

~ The League of Imaginary Cats ~