Jerome was scarcely able to believe his eyes when he saw the cat padding towards him. Choked with emotion, he bent down to stroke the creature as it nuzzled the hem of his habit, just as it had done back at the friary.
Finally he managed to say, "Hello, Leo, old chap! It's great to see you again!" As the cat meowed a friendly greeting, he added sympathetically, "And what brought you here? Did you have an accident, like me?"
Expecting no answer beyond a further nudge and another meow, he nearly fell over when the cat replied indignantly, "No, of course not. Accidents like that don't happen to me!"
While Jerome struggled to recover from the shock of hearing the cat speak, Leo added, "And the name's Quantum, by the way, not Leo. You can call me Quant, if you like."
"Of course I can talk," he said in response to Jerome's next question.
"But you didn't talk on earth," Jerome pointed out.
Quant did not reply.
Jerome regretted his remark, for he felt that it showed insensitivity to draw attention to the fact that the cat was now as dead as he.
"Can all cats talk?" he asked Quant, adding carefully, "When they're here, I mean?"
The cat considered his question before answering, "All the cats here can talk."
"And the other animals, too?"
Again there was a slight pause before Quant replied, "Yes, the animals here can talk."
Jerome thought back to their first meeting, when Brother Bernard, who helped out in the kitchen, had introduced them. They had hit it off immediately and had taken many companionable strolls together on fine days.
As the cook, and with Bernard's quiet encouragement,Jerome had ensured that Leo was fed the friary scraps. This, unfortunately, was in the teeth of opposition from the guardian, Father Fidelis, who said he saw no reason why the cat shouldn't feed itself off rats and mice in the outbuildings. As a result, Jerome's relationship with the cat had been a friendly one, while his guardian, aiming a sly kick at the animal one morning when he'd thought no one was looking, had received a nasty scratch on his ankle.
One hot summer's afternoon, Father Valentine, who had been an artist before joining the Order, had pointed out how apt the cat's name was. Spotting Jerome sitting in the garden with the animal lying at his feet, he had compared the scene with Dürer's painting of St Jerome in the wilderness with his lion: two Jeromes, both wearing robes, each with a ginger cat lying beside him. Admittedly the desert cat was bigger than their little Leo, but the friary garden was definitely something of a wilderness, too. Everyone had laughed at the comparison, including Jerome when they'd told him about it. They had all agreed that Leo was exactly the right name for the cat, for in the twilight his ginger fur softened to a tawny hue, and he certainly wasn't a cat to be messed with.
Now, Jerome told the cat this little story, thinking that the creature would be amused. Quant, however, looked at him in the strangest way. He said nothing; he just looked.
Jerome had an uneasy feeling. A weird, fantastical thought sprang into his mind. The cat has been around for an awfully long time. But surely not! It can't be possible....
And yet, as Jerome looked into the cat's eyes, they seemed to grow bigger and brighter. And suddenly Jerome was no longer looking into the green, familiar, friendly eyes of the cat he knew. Great, golden eyes gleamed at him: eyes he hadn't seen before, eyes that frightened him. He tried to look away but found he couldn't. The baleful stare held him mesmerized.
The moment passed, and he found himself looking once more into the steady gaze of a small ginger tom. Then before he had time to recover himself, the animal's expression softened and Quant did a parody of the Cheshire Cat and disappeared, leaving Jerome with the memory of an enigmatic, mocking, feline smile.
After that, Quant was away for a while. In his absence, Jerome found that he couldn't get those glittering, feral eyes out of his mind. He asked himself what Quant's past could have been. And he knew the answer as a vision of desert sands rolled out before him.
Quant had been the lion in the picture. He must have been. He had been the lion at the saint's side, his namesake's companion. That was what Quant's past had been.
Then, remembering how the leonine eyes had changed back into the cat's eyes he knew so well, Jerome corrected himself. No, not past, not in Quant's case. Present. What Quant had been, he still was. His past wasn't over and done with. It could be revisited at will. There was no then for the cat: there was just now.
Jerome sat down and tried calmly, carefully, to think this through. If Quant's past and present are one, as they seem to be, then time means something different to him. Time is something he can move around in as he pleases – not like the road I was on. When I ran out of road, I ran out of life. Quant's time isn't like that. He's still on the road, still in time. And he can go wherever he likes – backwards, forwards, sideways. Will Quant's time ever end?
Copyright © 2002 by Robina Williams