Monday, 3 February 2020

A Mouse By Any Other Name: Childhood Pets

THE BOY is putting away a massive plate of scrambled eggs before school, when he stops, fork poised mid-air, and frowns towards the window that overlooks the back garden.

"Is that a...are they, on the patio." He grins and returns to his eggs.

I turn and see a couple of well-fed, neighbourhood cats mating on our doorstep. 
"Could be worse," I say, swivelling back around. "They could be fighting, or killing birds. We'll er, give them some privacy."
The Boy shakes his head but says nothing.

The truth is, I've never seen that particular animal activity, except maybe on TV. I'm from Dublin, as were my parents and grandparents. We don't have any pets. There are a myriad of reasons for that. One of us has a tendency to allergies. Another one isn't all that keen on dogs.

Mostly, pets can be expensive and time consuming. As I'm the person at home for most of the day, most of the responsibility would fall to me. I refuse to take on a pet if I'm not sure I can properly commit.

We did try goldfish for a while, some years back. No matter how carefully I changed the water, added the water softener (or whatever it was the pet store owner sold me) and followed every instruction, they died. We decided it was unfair to shorten the lives of any more goldfish.

My own brothers and I didn't have any dogs or cats when I was growing up. But we had hamsters: one at a time. I'm not sure why. I have a feeling we were told hamsters are solitary creatures, and like to be on their own. But given my own mother's feelings, it may have been her way of coping with a rodent in the family.

No matter how often we encouraged her to pet Snuggles (when he finally died and we replaced him, we actually called our new hamster Snuggles 2), she gently but firmly declined. She might even have shivered, but we were too young to notice.

Which made the day that she rescued Snuggles from sure suffocation, even more heroic. The house rules regarding the hamster were simple: when he was not in his cage, he was allowed the run of the hall, sitting room and little-used dining room. Once one of us was with him to keep him safe and out of trouble.

We marvelled at his ability to jump up onto the armchairs in the sitting room and delighted when he wriggled in behind a cushion. We could see him moving across to the other side and we watched and waited for his little head to pop out again.

Except it didn't. We pulled the cushions away to discover that our hamster had found a tiny hole in the back of the chair and had squeezed himself in. We could see the shape of his little body, moving behind the taut, nylon covering of the chair back. We did what all children do: we ran straight out to our mother.

"The hamster's where?" She stared at us. We took her hands and dragged her in to look. She examined the tiny hole. She sighed, clicked her tongue. "Get me the big scissors."

I ran and found it. She took it from me and very carefully cut around the back of the chair: a hole big enough for one of us to fit our two hands and grab our pet.

There was no way to re-stitch the chair, so she taped it up as best she could, covered it with the large cushion and turned to us.
"Two things: don't let Snuggles onto the furniture. And don't ever tell your father about the chair."

Years later, my parents finally replaced the old suite of furniture in that room. As the delivery men brought in the new sofas, and loaded the old stuff into the lorry, my dad noticed the torn chair.
"What the hell happened to the chair?" he asked. My mother smiled.
"Wear and tear, I suppose. Isn't it a good thing we're getting them replaced?"  

It wasn't the only time that little hamster faced danger and survived it. In fact, if my youngest brother is to be believed, he faced it regularly. There was a fair age gap between the youngest in my family and his two older siblings. And for his first two years of school, he arrived home a full hour before us. 

It was years later, as adults with our own families, that the youngest made a confession over a Sunday lunch. 
"Do you remember Action Man?" he asked, as we tucked into my mum's roast dinner. We did. Action Man was the boy doll. The acceptable action figure for boys in the 1970s and '80s. He came with a limited variety of outfits: soldier, jungle soldier, adventure pilot. You get the picture.

"Our Action Man had a parachute," our brother continued. We nodded, wondering where this was going. It was a scrap of material, as I remember. Not actually a working parachute. Because why would a doll need that?

"I used to put it on Snuggles and then parachute him off the landing (upstairs) straight down into the hall."
"What????" I looked at him, aghast. "That wasn't a real parachute."
"Well obviously I figured that out when I got older."

The other brother burst out laughing. My mother looked distraught.
"I never knew you were doing that."

I should add right now that the hamster was never hurt. And both hamsters lived to their maximum age, slipping away quietly at the end. Well-fed, well-exercised, well-loved. Even if the love of a very small child, was a bit misguided from time to time.

As I finish this column, I notice a squirrel in our garden. When he stands on his hind legs and holds something between his paws, I remember our hamsters doing the same thing. He moves suddenly and disappears at speed into the top of the apple tree.

I see him regularly. Along with the neighbourhood cats, the foxes that are increasingly forced to take refuge in people's gardens, the birds that are starting to flock back after the winter.

Spring is finally here.


A belated St Brigid's Day (February 1st in Ireland) and warm wishes to you all.  

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Happy reading and have a lovely February.             
Sharon. xx