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Thursday, 19 March 2009


My mother phoned. Death was in her voice. Such sorrow could mean only one of two passings: dog or hamster.

The dog is a 14 stone (guessing here) Newfoundland, whose tail sends tellies rocking and who is currently keeping the vet in Porsches; the hamster’s a ping pong ball of fur. In Pixar or Disney, these two would be great chums off saving the world and learning heart-warming things about friendship. In reality, one hogs the raft of dreams (a dog bed bigger than most people’s sofas), but still retains superior rights to the sofa, kicking into touch those of peripherals like daughter and grandchildren; while the other scurries around with a feather duster keeping his glass palace spruce. The hamster’s pad could happily feature in Country Life sporting its keep fit area, lounging/relaxing zone and intellectual gym.

I held my breath.
The hamster it was who died.
I felt sad, not as sad as my mother, whose sorrow was painful, but sad still that this little scrap that could mean so much in its life was meaning so very much more in the losing of it.

For those who are new to the hamster, I’m going to insert at this point, a blog I did when my mother bought the thing which was 2 years or so ago:

my mother, her hamster and me

My mother confounded me by phoning to announce that she had just bought a hamster. If I had had to write a list of several thousand things which she might say to me, having bought a hamster would not be on it.
“Why?” I asked.
“He was very cheap,” she said.
“How cheap?” (visions of my inheritance were being sucked into a hamster cage and getting messed up with straw)
“£2.50.” (it still seemed a possible, crashing waste of money). “And very sweet.” (this last was said with feeling).

Luckily I had nothing else to do that hour, for I was all but having phone sex with the hamster come the end.
No slouch that hamster.
Very bright, but how could I have expected anything less?
Russian. I should have guessed. Nothing prosaic for my Ma. She wanted Russian names from me: Otto? Pushkin? Blini?

Since then, our conversations have been slightly more hamster-led than I would necessarily have chosen, but Ma is immersing herself fully in her new project. Every book on the subject has been bought and read. She will have written to the authors suggesting changes for the next edition, the print run of which she will oversee. She’s that sort, the last time she wrote to the Telegraph, someone contacted her, inviting her to go and stay in their castle in Scotland.

So she joined the Hamster Society.
“’Association,’” I said firmly, bringing her down a necessary peg. “Or ‘Club’. Hamsters don’t have Societies.”
The silence on the other end of the phone suggested that they might. In the near future.

Meanwhile, my father has wisely insisted that all her Hamster Literature be kept well away, in her study. That’s her various membership papers, rules of association, dates of hamster shows, entry forms and a ‘handsome’ (her term) turquoise and gold hamster badge.
“All this for a tenner,” she says proudly.

We saw the hamster.

It was very small, and I would question whether she got her full money’s worth. As a little girl, I wasn’t allowed a hamster – something about foxes getting them although, on reflection, memory tells me that few foxes trotted through our kitchen.
It means that I have been confusing hamsters and guinea pigs all my life. We only had a budgerigar, and that was merely for an afternoon, too. My mother returned it to the shop, lying, saying that it frightened me. I think it was a certain clattery quality, thrashing about in grit, something clearly quite absent in a hamster, that king of beasts.

The king of beasts was sweet enough, I suppose. But the betrayal incipient in that phrase makes me quiver with disloyalty. I will have to re-phrase: “astoundingly sweet, of a sweetness altering the dawns of days to come, to knock the world from its staid old path, to make laureates ditch young girls as muses and take up hamsters instead… That sort of sweetness.”

Possibly bright. I’ll have to take her word for it, as with so much.

Plans for its future? As gloves, perhaps, for a mouse. Something I quietly imagined, through to the patenting process on a pair of baby gloves fashioned from a hamster, while Ma waxed proudly about its bedding-dragging prowess.
I could do that, I squeaked internally, I could hang by a paw and hide in a corner, and flop on my back looking exhausted. But she was still admiring hamster-face and I rather think I was blocking the light.

Then she e-mailed yet more guff about hamsters. Really, I have come to dread the ping of the in-box and the trill of the phone.
My father had freaked her out by saying that if she died, she’d have to make arrangements for a next of kin for the hamster, since it wasn’t his bag. (if my genes are his genes then all is not lost.) I feared that future correspondence would inform me of my reluctant new status in her will as Hamster’s Sister, but when I mentioned this to her, she looked embarrassed and said that she had a little list of suitable friends lined up. Indeed, when they went on holiday one of these insane creatures was charged with looking after the thing and, get this, e-mailed photos to my mother on a daily basis. Truly.

It transpires, in further leakage of my inheritance, that she has bought a new home for Hammy, which she calls The Glass Palace, and which has the added advantage of being approved by that august body, The National Hamster Council. Or Club. She filled me in, as if she were an estate agent and I were interested. Seems it has a log cabin, which she calls his weekend cottage, a balcony and 3 platforms. All this, in pursuit of feeling like a Professional Hamster Owner. Which, it seems is necessary to the confused. I mean, my mother.

I rang her up.
“About this glass palace.”
“Yes, much more suitable. The other one” (slightly irritably, as if I had purchased it in the first place, not she) “was very small, far too small. Not enough for him. This one’s 36 foot.”
“Wow! That’s enormous.”
“Oh yes,” (airily, still the edge of irritation with me and my substandard Hamster Home ideas). “He needs it.”
“But that really is very big, where are you keeping it?”
“Where the old one was, on the drinks trolley.”
D’oh! “You mean 36 inches, Ma.”
“That’s what I said, you’re thinking of metres now, being that bit younger.”
“You might have meant 36 inches, you said 36 foot.” How swiftly a phone call can degenerate, but sometimes a point just has to be pursued.
“Of course I didn’t, darling.”
Darling is a word which is open to abuse. From my mother’s mouth it can chill the soul. Unless you’re a hamster when it’s said with love.
“Sometimes,” she said, “I think you’re mad.”

Yes, well, we all have our opinion on who should be in charge of that particular sentence.

And now he is dead. I’m really rather sad. Only don't tell Lolly. She'll get ideas above her station.
RIP Rudi.

Friday, 13 March 2009

that'll do nicely

The race-goers peppering the village are as recognisable to locals as plain clothes policemen are to TV low life. It’s a roundness of tum, a certain kind of tie, a slope of shoulder (similar to my avatar) indicative of too much time spent hunched over the Racing Post. That, and a proliferation of Bentleys, and the fact that the skies have been alive with the sound of … choppers. For this is Gold Cup week and despite fewer helicopters than of yore, the rich are still at play (no silly banks to go to, sigh). Today, even the Queen’s due to pop in, bless her.
Every denizen in the geographical fallout of Cheltenham Racecourse is out to fleece the racers somehow. Friends do B&B and count the cash. Cheltonians go on cruises for Christmas, or are half-way to China, on the proceeds. Driveways are dusted off and called car parks; limos fill lay-bys; opening hours are rapidly extended: normal old breakfasts at cafes are called Racing Breakfasts, and charged accordingly. Everything, temporarily, becomes Gold this or Racing That.
It might add a buzz, but if you’re not profitting from it, you’re buggered by it and traffic means that we are effectively marooned this side of Chelters. It’s not that I would normally want to go, but now that I can’t, I feel aggrieved: even a Country Liter has shopping needs to meet. So I went just now, fool that I am, to the Post Office, to stalk out a few creme eggs and get in some Match Attax (sic) cards. Don’t tell me my education’s been wasted.
A string of racegoers were aimlessly wandering around the shop – tum, porkpie hat, tie, debris of disgusting breakfast festering in the cafĂ© corner (don’t ask).

Post Office Man was – his words – “made up.” “All that booze they buy!” he hissed confidentially, “Each night! We get more in.” He did that pursed lips kissing the window thing he favours when making a point.Such is the mighty power of his whisper, so much more audible than the normal ebb and flow of his disappointed speech, that every race goer’s head turned to eyeball him.

I gave a stiff dead smile, cringed, and turned my best, dim, Lolly-like attention to the chocolate stand.He shook his head at the giddy commerce of it all. The thrill of the till, clanging shut on crisp Irish twenties (not village 20ps grudgingly counted out); the unexpected extra visits to the Cash & Carry; the sheer enterprise represented. He nodded a reproving nod at me and bounced off to tidy his bafflingly large birthday card racks, as if now jostling for Richard Branson’s place on The Rich List.
Witness to POM’s idea of self as successful entrepreneur, not washed-up weirdo with a penchant for driving ducks to Spain was not something I wanted to be.

I prowled around the tatty bit normally frequented by 10 year olds, where the Match Attax cards should be … but weren’t. POM has no idea of supplying to meet a demand, hence his unfathomable interest in the wrong sorts of cards, endless birthday ones. Profits lie instead in the greedy, shifting, desires of 10 year olds (and their desperate parents, eager for behaviour/treat leverage). Greasy cards shuffled fervently in grubby little hands, mini book-makers in the making, every one of them. We are all fluent in Italian midfielders.

Having made the effort to trudge across the road, and risk the conversational ambush of an encounter with POM, to be then denied my reason for being there was just outrageous.
“Still not in, national shortage,” POM said with something approaching pleasure in his voice. He’s moved on from locals, he hobnobs with race-goers now. “’ve been up since four,” he purred at one in a trilby, “No time for sleeping. Not in this game.”

Mrs POM, a study in defeat, was kept busy, the long minutes I was in there, debating the minutiae of a paper bill with a pensioner whose gloved hand was determined to remain triumphantly clasped round coppers. The paperboy – “he always walks on the grass!” – was being ripped to shreds.

It is a fearful thing the village Stores’n’Post Office being held afloat so arbitrarily, and by one who never sleeps. Post Office work, with its stingy pay off per “swipe,” brings something like £2.50 an hour. The many many greetings cards remain unsold, testament to a plan gone sour.
The Match Attax cards meanwhile might retail at a mere 40p a pack, but they disappear under the locust swarm of small children’s hands. Blink and they’ve gone. At the moment, they’re gone. And, with the imminent defection of the racers, if the national shortage continues, married to that capricious whim of fickle children whose interest in the cards will melt like butter in the sun the day his mis-judged double order comes in, then it could be Bye Bye Post Office.
Not for nothing did my boss call me Cassandra. Doomed ever to tell the truth but never to be heeded.

It’s a bit like musical chairs. Round of cuts: remove a chair: close a branch; take the big utilities from the Post Office: profits fall; remove a chair: close a branch.
We’ve survived the random chair removal so far, and our little sub-branch is still here. Match Attax could be the only thing standing between him and disaster. Feeling suddenly mean for laughing at his dreams, his misguidedly heavy investment in greetings cards, and being Queen of the Unnecessary Purchase, I grabbed indiscriminately at some over-priced rice to buy pro tem and scarpered.
“They’re on order,” he added wistfully, as the door clanged to.

2 years ago, it was Dr Who cards, another tense time with fluctuating availability. Then we had to stump out £1.50 for a mere 9 cards. I'm sure POM has a job lot out the back from when the demand plummeted.
Times change, and there’s nothing you can tell me about value for money.
Lolly is back to full prance and, I’m glad to report, the bill was small, meaning that it’s worth having a stern word with vets. I almost tipped her in my gratitude. Almost. Silly to give her any ideas.
an 8 hour stay on the day of reckoning, including (shudder), shaving, draining, pus collection, leak-seepage management, keeping an eye on
a course of antibiotics
a new yellow squadgy lead
2 follow up appointments (admittedly brief, but one of them involving 2 vets)
I was charged ….… £35.08.
Even I couldn’t baulk at that.

Indeed I’ve been recommending them all week so their portals will soon be bursting with skinflints bearing maimed pets.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

the dog it was

A beautiful day, one in which the irony of death was primed to present itself. The sun shines bright and beautiful creatures go tits up. For when I felt the huge hard lump under Lolly’s throat, and paired it with the lethargy and lack of appetite of the last few days, I fast-tracked her straight through ‘tumour’ to ‘inoperable’ to ‘dead by tea-time.’
Following her walk – the one thing in which she still shows vague interest – I phoned the vet.
A bored girl fumbled with the pages of the diary. I described the symptoms to kill time and she said, “Can you make it 10.15? it sounds like you should come in straightaway.”
I glanced at the clock. Time just enough to scoop up the furry beast.
“Yes,” I said.
My heart pounded.
Poor dead Lolly, only 2 and I didn’t make her a birthday cake. How mean is that!
Her bed could catch the rubbish collection next day.

The sun gleamed in my eyes, a feature of driving east, as we wended our way to the vet, me trying to make the most of this, her inevitable last journey. Hello sun, hello birds, bye bye Lolly. Brave lip-biting hurt. Chin up old girl.

I lifted the baggy thing onto the table. She looked at me, confused, hunched, thinking blandly maybe that I looked familiar.
The vet busied herself with Lolly’s dubious end and a rectal thermometer, yum, and pronounced her temperature to be 104.5.
A rummage in her pink undercarriage found that her heart was fine.
“Why do you check her heart?” I said.
“To see if she’s strong enough to be sedated,” she said.

Turns out it’s not a tumour. We are not in death’s waiting room, after all, so I can take my caring face off. It’s an abscess. Probably got from chewing on a stick (yup, that figures, stick chewing is her one and only skill).
“We’ll keep her in,” she said.
Not so fast, I thought, images of a perfectly fine but totally dim dog now given to malingering, lounging on a velvet cushion having dog-grapes peeled for her as the meter on her bill went crazy. They’re not used to dog owners like me. Round here it’s all co-ordinated dog coats and talk of puppy-pilates.
"It's not that I don't love her," I said, patting Lolly in a way that I hoped convinced, "Only we've not got insurance."
So, steady on the extras, trim the room service, missy, no talk of Sky TV.

I phoned just now. They’d drained the abscess and madam was fine. “We’ll keep her a bit longer, you won’t want her on your best carpet.”
When do we ever, I thought, but didn’t say; although aware of the meter ticking fast as Lolly's stay lengthened.
“There was a lot of pus, she’s still dripping,” the girl continued.
"Well, my son has got a football match," I said carefully, "I don't like to think of picking her up and then having to abandon her to go and watch him. Doesn't seem right. Perhaps she'd better stay with you a while."
It wasn't my alter ego, St Francis, at work here, it was that word 'dripping.' It was 'pus,' as in 'a lot of.'
Why DO they tell you things like this. 'Drained''s never been a word I want to think about too deeply, but now 'dripping' is contaminated, too, to be conflated ever after with pus and rectal thermometers and louche dogs running up big bills.
“She’s all yours,” I said weakly, deaf to the meter, alert to pus and reaching for my credit card.