I was in Bradford one Saturday, and passed a gang of youths (this is the technical term) glowering their way across the car park. They were intimidating enough that a very sheltered sixteen-year-old might reasonably cross the car park to avoid them, except that I was wearing my sports shop uniform, so felt a tiny bit gangsta myself.
“What’re we doin’?” one of them said.
“Goin’ to Pets at Home’, growled the largest, beefiest one. ‘Goin’ to see t’ rabbits”.
Thug life, my friends. Don’t imagine that stroking rabbits in a pet shop doesn’t feature heavily in their down time, because it does.
I thought about this on Tuesday afternoon, when I took Henry out for a treat after our museum trip, and decided to pop into Pets at Home first. To see t’ rabbits. I couldn’t help but feel that a handsy two-year-old would strike more fear into a rabbit’s heart than a burly teenaged hoodie, so really, we were the most gangsta of all. Hen was over the moon, trying to count the fish and yelling escape instructions to the hamsters through the glass cages.
Hamsters don’t need escape instructions. They are artists. We were never pet people, mostly because my dad wasn’t a pet person, and passed his hair-spit-and-poo aversion solidly onto the next generation. But I kind of fancied myself as a pet person once, the way you might fancy yourself a hat person and try out a few, before you realise you don’t have the right nose for hats. Before I realised I didn’t have the right nose for pets, either, I had hamsters.
The first was a peach and white Syrian hamster, called Toffee. She was a lean, angry warrior hamster, who never took to us in the way the books said she would. I tried all sorts to make her love us, but she still spent all her spare time scratching at the corner of the carpet, or leaking milky pee all over us out of spite. One day, I left the cage door open by accident, and she ran for it. We had a boiler cupboard in the bathroom, with a sizeable gap in the floorboards to let the pipes through. Just made for a hamster with no fear and something to prove. You can see why we thought she was done for.
After a fruitless, sobby day of searching, we were put to bed with the promise that Dad would leave her little ladder down the hole, and her cage open on the floor, in case she found her way up in the night. It’s the sort of thing parents say when pets are definitely dead. But the next morning, there she was, huddled in her little house, a scratch on one side of her nose. AMAZING.
Now I’m wondering if my parents went out, bought another hamster and roughed it up a bit. Surely not.
She was like Braveheart, that hamster, but even Mel Gibson rodents will succumb to convulsions. About a week after her passing, I mentioned to Mum that hamsters sometimes hibernate and look like they’ve died.
‘Kenneth, they hibernate’, Mum said. Apparently forgetting that she’d witnessed the hamster die from convulsions.
My dad tried to look as though he didn’t know where this conversation was headed. ‘So?’
‘So what if she’s hibernating?’
‘She’s definitely not.’
‘I’m so worried about her. You need to go and check.’
And so on, until Dad went out, in the middle of the night, to dig up a hamster that had been dead for a week. He came back in looking like he was suppressing a gag reflex. She wasn’t hibernating. At all.
Hamster no. 2 was called Smoky. I must be searingly honest here, dear readers, in the interests of journalistic integrity. And so I confess to you that I abandoned him – heart, soul and hands – because he turned out to be male, and had large balls.
I was young and shallow, but they were very large. And weirdly soft. And dragged along your hands when he walked. It was incredibly off-putting. So I handed him over to my sister, who took him on and loved him like her own. (If you’d like to know the difference between me and my good-hearted sister, this incident would be a good place to start.)
He died of hamster cancer, and I was sorry, but by then my reputation for hard-heartedness had lost me the right to grieve. I’d like to think that now, older and wiser, I’d be able to look past his supreme genital over-endowment and appreciate his equally large heart. But I dunno. Maybe, deep down, I’ll always be the sort of person who’d wrinkle their nose at being caressed by hamster balls. If that’s not the sort of self-discovery that blogging was made for, I don’t know what is.
I don’t think we will be pet people, either. Not even for t’ rabbits.