The assignment was "Missing". Not necessarily lost, just missing. Immediately my mind went blank but after a bit of thought I decided to write about a missing cat. I've had several cats go missing over the years (fortunately they all came back eventually) and I've seen lots of leaflets posted on the internet pleading for people to keep an eye open for a curious cat who might have got locked in a garage or a garden shed. So here's a story about what happens when a cat goes walkabout...
When I got home from work there was a leaflet in my mailbox asking me to keep a look out for a missing cat. A photograph of the cat showed a rather grumpy-looking long haired black and white animal whose name, it seemed, was Harpo. Hed been missing for three days now and his human slaves were getting worried about him. I took the leaflet into the house. "So your name is Harpo," I said to the cat who was sitting expectantly by the small plastic bowl on the kitchen floor. "I suppose Id better stop calling you Fluffy."
"Feed me," said Harpo. "Now!"
"You could always go back to your real home," I suggested. "Im sure theyd feed you there." There was a phone number printed at the bottom of the leaflet. I entered it into my phones contact list, then I screwed up the leaflet and tossed into the bin to be recycled. Harpo sneered at my suggestion and fished in the recycle bin with a paw. He grabbed the screwed up leaflet and started batting it around the kitchen. When it skittered to a stop, he crouched, wiggled his bottom and then pounced on it and killed it stone dead.
"Feed me," he demanded again. So I did. I always do what Im told.
Clearly I needed to telephone the person whod left the leaflet in my mailbox so that I could return Harpo to his proper home, but I wasnt sure how successful that effort would be. Id been trying hard to get rid of him for the last three days, but he always seemed to be one step ahead of me and he kept coming back. Clearly he preferred my house to his own, though I had no idea why. I wasnt exactly welcoming him with open arms.
My first, and in retrospect rather naive, attempt to persuade him to leave was simplicity itself. I just opened the front door, picked him up and threw him outside. Then I closed the door on him and turned round. There he was, sitting in the kitchen looking smug.
"How did you do that?" I asked, but he just grinned at me.
Maybe hed climbed in through an open window. I checked all the doors and windows to make sure that they were locked tight. None of them seemed to have been disturbed. Maybe hed shut the window behind himself in an attempt to fool me. What a skilful cat.
Once I was completely certain that everything was cat proof, I opened the front door, pushed him outside and closed it again. I turned the key in the lock and it made a satisfyingly loud click as the bolt shot home. But when I turned round, the cat was sitting just behind me washing himself vigorously. Perhaps hed climbed down the chimney. His white patches seemed a little bit too clean for him to have done that, but on the other hand he was having a serious wash...
There was nothing else for it, Id have to take him to the local vet. Surely he would know how to deal with the animal. I found a cardboard box, and put the cat inside it. He seemed to like that. He sat proudly in his box for a moment then he yawned, stretched, curled up in the bottom of it and fell asleep. I sealed the box with duct tape and bored a few air holes in it. Then I put it in the car and drove to the vet. The cat woke up and howled piteously throughout the journey. "Help! Police! Murder!" But he was suspiciously quiet when I arrived at the vets surgery and parked the car. I carried the box in to the vet and explained why I was there. The vet shook the box gently, but nothing happened. "Is the cat alive or dead?" he asked.
I thought about that. "I dont really know," I said. "The only way to answer that question is to open the box."
"All right," said the vet. "Lets do that." He produced a sharp knife and cut through the duct tape. He opened the box and peered inside. "Its empty," he said. "Not a cat to be seen." He turned the box upside down and shook it, just in case. But no cat fell out.
"There was a cat," I said, feeling embarrassed. "Honest!" The vet raised one disbelieving eyebrow at me and I drove back home where I found the cat curled up asleep on the sofa. For the rest of the day, I called him Schrödinger, but he refused to answer to that name so I reverted to calling him Fluffy until the leaflet arrived and I found out what his real name was.
I dialled the number from the leaflet. "Hello," said a voice.
"Hello," I said. "I think Ive got your cat living in my house."
"Oh, thank goodness for that." The man sounded relieved. "Weve been terribly worried about him. How is he?"
"Hes fine," I said, "but he doesnt seem to want to leave me." I explained all my attempts to get rid of Harpo and the man began to laugh.
"Yes, thats Harpo," he said. "Ive never been sure whether he teleports himself to where he wants to be, or whether he just walks through the walls to get there. Probably a bit of both."
"Teleport?" I asked, bewildered.
"Thats right," said the man. "All cats can do it, to a certain extent, but Harpo does it better than any cat Ive ever known. Somebody once defined a door as the thing that a cat is always on the wrong side of, but the definition has never applied to Harpo. He always makes sure that hes on whichever side of the door he wants to be."
"That must be a problem sometimes," I said. "How do you keep him out of places you dont want him to go?"
"We dont," said the man and he laughed again. "Though there are some places that Harpo doesnt go to any more. Too many bad memories, I suppose. When he was just a kitten he was absolutely fascinated by running water. If you turned on a tap, he was there instantly, batting at the stream with his paw. He found it endlessly intriguing. But eventually his water fetish proved to be his undoing. I went to the toilet one day and Harpo followed me in, even though Id closed and locked the door behind me. He appeared out of thin air and stared in wide-eyed wonder at what was going on. Then he punched vigorously at the flowing stream with both paws. That made him lose his balance and he fell into the toilet bowl. By then it was far too late for me to stop, so in addition to falling in the water and bruising his dignity, he got a wonderful golden shower as well. Not that he appreciated it, of course."
"Did he ever follow you in there again?" I asked.
"No," said the man. "He keeps well clear these days. Its the only place I get any privacy."
"So how can I persuade him to come back home to you?" I asked. "At the moment, getting him out of my house seems a bit of an exercise in futility."
"Now that you know his real name," said the man, "just tell him to go home. Real names are things of power and when you use it hell have to obey you. It might also help if you toy suggestively with the zip on your trousers when you give him his marching orders."
"Ill try that," I said and I rang off.
I didnt bother opening the front door this time; there didnt seem to be any point. Clearly the cat didnt consider it to be much of a barrier. "Harpo," I said firmly, "go home. Now!"
Harpo looked at me and he looked at the door. Then he looked at me again, shrugged his shoulders, and went home.
When I got up the next day Harpo was waiting in the kitchen. "Feed me," he demanded. "Its second breakfast time."