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Dr Watson, the cat with 40 owners and a ferocious streak

Moving away meant leaving a charming rogue behind

He first appeared as a mystery cat, announcing himself at the window with piteous miaows, his pointed ears in silhouette against the rooftops of the Dutch university town.

When I relented he slipped through the slanted window with a confident, practised ease, and posed regarding me on the ridge along the back of the sofa. He was a large, long-haired tom, with a coal black coat of some magnificence.

On one of his early visits he was hiding from fireworks. The flat was a converted roof space at the top of an old townhouse, full of odd recesses. In their gloom he found refuge among the stacks of academic books, his black fur melting into the shadows, making him invisible but for his wide, golden eyes.

He came from somewhere below and to the right, springing up athletically out of the escherian jumble of gutters and cornices of the surrounding buildings. I toyed with the idea of attaching a camera to him to find out the mystery of his ways. I recalled a childhood book called Six-Dinner Sid. Just how many households was he frequenting?


The cat soon inveigled his way into the life of the flat. One of my hairbrushes was given over to untangling the dust and stickleweed burrs out of his coat. He had a great enthusiasm for plain Greek yoghurt and would fall upon any left unattended, so in time cat treats began to be added to the grocery basket.

One day the cloud storage software detected a multitude of cat photos, and ran them all together into an automatic video set to a demented jingle of miaows. I found myself telling others about the lovable rogue, only to awkwardly explain that he wasn’t even my cat. I felt my own overreach on the day I doused him with flea treatment after noticing something hopping through his fur as he stretched out in the sunlight.

It was soon no mystery where he was picking them up. Walking home one afternoon I found him sprawled disreputably among the dirt and beer bottles outside the nearby fraternity house. This was his formal residence, I learned. The mystery cat had the handsome name of Watson – Dr Watson, to give him his full title – after the companion of Sherlock Holmes.

The frat house spread across two adjoining fin-de-siècle townhouses parcelled into rooms for a dozen students, the lofty height of their ceilings silted up with the posters, beer crates, and paraphernalia of successive generations of boisterous young men.

Here on Watson’s home turf he was known as a prodigious hunter, a catcher of mice and, occasionally, rats, a rolling stone who would sleep one night in one room, the next night another. Since his adoption to the house in 2014 Watson had had some 40 student owners, the residents estimated – not including any neighbours on the street with whom he may have ingratiated himself.

Watson seemed to vacate the frat house whenever they held their famous seasonal ragers. He spent long days on the relative peace of our sofa, or in silent repose in cryptic locations such as behind the jumpers in the wardrobe, or deep inside the storage space under the bed.

As a rule he wasn’t allowed to stay the night. One evening, as I went to lift him outside as usual, Watson took against me, attacking me with a determined ferocity that delivered a deep slice across the back of my hand that bled like no ordinary scratch.

I became wary of him and did not dote on him as I once had (which admittedly had become excessive – I had once caught myself accidentally address him as darling). But Watson continued to turn up at the window just as before, and gradually we reconciled.

When it became time for us to leave the flat Watson was curious about the moving boxes, picking his way across the packed-up books and carefully sniffing each one.

He followed us out on the street as the boxes were packed into the car. When I was about to close the boot, Watson jumped in.

I admit to giving my companion an imploring look to see whether I would have a collaborator in a potential cat theft.

In time there was occasion to contact the tenant who had taken over the lease, an ample German who seemed to fold himself under the roof beams. Watson had conquered yet another heart.

A black cat was coming by, “and being a dick here and there”, our correspondent wrote. “I think he is one of the finest cats alive.”