Owning a small furry animal is a rite of passage for every small child. As a parent, in a moment of grand delusion, you buy your offspring a hamster or gerbil. You think, wrongly, that they will learn from the experience, learn the joy of caring for another being.
I knew all this. I had, in my childhood owned a hamster called Tag and a guinea pig. I recalled that my mother ended up doing most of the cage and hutch cleaning. My first experience of the parent role in small pets was when my daughter Laura’s older sister Kate acquired a hamster. It had lived a short life, died and had an emotional burial ceremony in our back garden. A few days after the funeral I sat gazing out of the patio door mulling over whether to cut the grass or not. As you do. Suddenly, the remains of Kate’s hamster cartwheeled though the air in a cloud of loose soil to land spread eagled on the patio. The hamster’s slightly mauled body was followed by our frantic dog who had obviously disinterred it. I confiscated the corpse from the disappointed dog and secretly and unceremoniously reburied it in the wheelie bin.
Years later it was my daughters turn. She pleaded with me, persistently begged me to buy her a hamster. She just had to have one. Her sister had had one, a friend had one. I capitulated, accepted that, despite her promises, there would be the usual division of labour: I would end up mucking out the cage and she would cuddle and play with her new pet. Laura’s hamster on one of its evening outings in the lounge created a neat circular hole in the new carpet. It emerged from under the TV cabinet looking very furtive with its pouches packed with a mixture of carpet pile and jute. To add insult to injury, the hamster, having been summarily returned to his cage disgorged the contents of his pouches and proceeded to use the debris from my carpet to line his nest.
This hamster must have passed away as I have a vague recollection of the hamster being superseded by a mouse, but I am not certain, as there is only one image in my mind. It is this: Laura and I are standing at the counter of the local video shop and I am surprised to see out of the corner of my eye a mouse emerging out of the breast pocket of her blouse. But not as surprised as the girl serving us, if this recollection is true.
Snowball the rabbit I have clearer memories of. It was white. The name sounds suspiciously obvious, so that may be wrong, but for the sake of the telling I’ll stick with it. I agreed to buy Snowball on the usual clear guarantees that Laura would not only hug the large and cuddly Lagomorphs (that’s what rabbits are; not rodents as I thought, and many people think) but that she would, in addition to lavishing love and affection on her new pet, feed and perform the more unsavory task of cleaning out the cage. This arrangement, predictably, soon lapsed to just the giving of hugs while I, muttering curses, cleaned the hutch.
After much thought I had the answer, a dazzling moment of design brilliance. Snowball could live in the lean-to shed that leaned on the precariously on the back of the garage. I would cut a round hole in the bottom of the shed door. From this hole would run a piece of flexible air conditioning tube connecting the shed to a large moveable cage made with a timber framed covered with chicken wire mesh. During the day, while I was at work and Laura at school the rabbit would hop happily through the tube to the cage to feed and poo on the grass. I would move the wire enclosure to a different patch of the lawn every morning before leaving for work. I assumed, wrongly, that Snowball would neatly crop a different area of the lawn thus reducing the number of times I would need to get the lawnmower out.
Unknown to me Snowball was a closeted member of a World War One historical re-enactment society. Possibly the UK’s only Lagomorphs member. Instead of neatly cropping the grass he proceeded to construct a scale model of the Somme battlefield complete with trenches and shell craters. Within a week he had a full set; Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and Arras.
My scheme was not going to plan, the design was clearly flawed, before long I would have the complete Western Front. And, I certainly wouldn’t have any need of a lawnmower.
I was thinking about re-grassing the top of the lawn, probably with Snowball under the slabs of turf, when the problem resolved itself. Snowball’s re-enactment interests moved forward in history; to the Second World War. This time he enacted the Great Escape. Without the vaulting horse, the motorbike and forged papers, it lacked the historical accuracy of his First World War creations but he did have the tunnel. A big one.
It was rather unfortunate that, by coincidence, the local foxes Historical Re-enactment Society were re-enacting the German occupation of Europe 1939 – 45. Poor Snowball was never seen again.