One day in early 2004 Robin and I were awoken by the sound of a cat swearing loudly. The noise appeared to be coming from just outside our front door. When I investigated, I found a fluffy black cat with a white waistcoat and white socks. He swore at me and when I tried to pat him, he lashed out at me, inflicting the first of the many wounds that he would give me over the next fourteen years.
"The poor thing looks miserable," said Robin. "Perhaps we should feed him?"
"Certainly not," I said. "Hes wearing a collar so hes clearly somebodys pet. If we ignore him hell soon go home."
So we ignored him. But after three days of listening to him swear and curse, I finally gave in and fed him. Naturally, he took that as an invitation, and he moved in. I asked all around the neighbourhood but nobody recognised him so clearly he wasnt a local cat. We never solved the puzzle of his collar. Eventually we decided that hed probably been driven miles away from home and then just dumped. Possibly the people he lived with had got fed up of his teeth and claws and their sticking plaster bill had gone through the roof
He was a very vocal cat, and he knew a lot of swear words. So we called him Harpo, after the Marx brother who never spoke. We felt that perhaps the name would quieten him down a vain hope. All his life long he mumbled, moaned, cursed and ordered us about.
It soon became clear that Harpo was just a solid lump of personality with long black fur. He was a forceful creature who dominated any room that he was in. And if the room wasnt to his liking he would tell you about it. His eyes glowed red when he was angry, which was most of the time, and he was always willing to use his teeth and claws on anybody who got in his way. Which is to say, everybody.
He would sit on your lap if you asked him nicely and he would let you pat him if he was in a good mood. But once hed had enough patting hed tear your fingers to shreds and run away. Everyone who knew him was always very wary of him. Nevertheless they continued to come back for more because Harpo was concentrated charisma in a fur coat. Nobody was immune to his charm.
Our house has a walk-in pantry with a large bolt on the door. Visitors sometimes ask me why I feel the need to bolt the pantry door closed every night before I go to bed. "Because Harpo has learned how to open the door," I explain, "and he goes for midnight feasts. In the morning, when we go looking for breakfast, we find that he has eaten all the bread and ripped the cereal boxes apart, spreading breakfast goodies all over the floor."
One of our visitors was sure I was exaggerating. "Cats dont eat bread," she said. She left an experimental loaf out on the kitchen bench overnight. Sure enough, the next morning, every slice had a delicate nibble taken out of it. "Hmmm," she said thoughtfully. "Theres always an exception to every rule, isnt there?"
Harpo was an outside cat for most of his life. We generally only saw him in the house at breakfast time and dinner time. In between meals he was always away having adventures. One day, when we were talking to our next door neighbour, we learned a bit more about how he occupied his time. "Your cat squashes down my plants to make himself a nest in my garden," she said, chuckling at the thought. "And then he lies in his nest all day long watching the birds."
"Everybody has to have a hobby," I said. "And Harpos hobby is birdwatching. Hes quite an authority on their habits, you know. Other cats come to him for advice." She looked a little puzzled when I said this. "In a way," I continued, "its quite a compliment that he trusts you enough to grace your garden with his presence."
"Oh, indeed it is," she said. "and I actually rather enjoy having him there. But..." Her voice trailed away into embarassed silence. Then, a little plaintively, she asked, "Does he really need to have five nests?"
"Of course he does," I said firmly. "Hes Harpo."
Whenever we went away anywhere, Harpo stayed in the local cattery, which was run by a lady called Diane. Harpo quickly became her favourite cat and she always looked forward to having him come to stay with her. "Isnt it time you went away again?" she would hint heavily. She couldnt say Harpos name without giggling.
The rule at the cattery was that during the day the cats had the run of the place, but at night they were each locked in an individual cage which was well equipped with food, water and a dirt tray. "Harpo wont go in his overnight cage," Diane told me. "If I insist and lock him in there anyway, he punishes me by scattering his food, water and kitty litter all over the cage. So Ive given up. Harpo has the run of the cattery all day and all night as well. Its the only way to make him liveable with."
"Where does he sleep?" I asked.
"Anywhere he wants to," said Diane, and she giggled.
During his stay with her, Diane would have long, involved conversations with Harpo. He would tell her all about what hed been up to since the last time he was there. And every day when she came in to the cattery to let the cats out of their cages and give them their breakfast, Harpo would tell her the gossip about what they had all been up to during the night. In return, Diane would tell Harpo how she had spent her evening, what she had eaten for dinner and what she watched on the television. Harpo would criticise her choice of TV programmes, and she usually agreed that he had a point
Once I went to pick Harpo up from the cattery after wed been away somewhere. "How has Harpo been?" I asked. "Has he behaved himself?"
Diane giggled. "Remember the shade cloth we used to have attached to the ceiling?" she asked. Indeed I did the shade cloth had stretched right across the room. Some cats liked to sleep in the centre of it, high up and safe from scrutiny. Others liked to hang over the edge and swipe their claws at anyone who walked past. Harpo, of course, was one of the swipers.
I looked up at the ceiling. There was no trace of shade cloth to be seen. "What happened to it?" I asked.
"Harpo decided it needed shredding," said Diane. "He must have spent all night at it. When I came in the next morning, it was just a pile of torn up fragments on the ground and Harpo was sitting in the middle of the pile grinning an evil grin at me." She giggled again. "Hes a dag!" she said admiringly.
Even Steffi, the vet who treated Harpo during his last illness, fell a little bit in love with him. He was well past his prime by then, but his forceful personality was still very much in evidence and he quickly wormed his way into her affections. "Whenever I see his name on my appointment list for the day," she told us, "I hear his signature tune playing in my head. None of my other patients has a signature tune. Only Harpo." She sang his signature tune for us the opening bars of Beethovens Fifth Symphony. Dramatic, slightly ominous, and very, very Harpo.
As Steffi injected Harpo with the drugs that would send him on his way, Robin and I were in tears. And so was Steffi.
Because thats the kind of cat that Harpo was.