The Creature

FullSizeRender (5)They pour themselves into her, whispering and kissing and making up words. They fawn and they fight over her.

‘She’s my baby’.

‘No she’s my baby’.

She crawls on them. Nestles on shoulders. Kisses their noses. Noises come from them that we haven’t heard before. Guttural murmurings. Cooings. They love her. Are in love with her. This three inch long black eyed Russian beauty.

I was reluctant at first. Memories of my brother’s one – Hamsterdam – coming to a tragic end. He had taken it for a ride on his tricycle in the kitchen. Didn’t notice it had fallen off the broad dipped seat. Rode the thick plastic back tyre over it. I arrived in from college – yes there’s a significant age gap – to find the creature splat on the freezer top. I popped my head into the quiet dark sitting room and asked what had happened. My father put his finger to his lips and set his eyes on my silent traumatised brother. We were not going to discuss it then.

So it can be tricky and painful, owning a creature, caring for it, knowing that death whether accidentally hastened or not, is around some corner, soon.

But then he propositioned me. Marque 2. Almost a year ago now. He had saved up. All the money for the creature and the cage. The food. The bedding. We’ll just go and have a look, I said, see what we think. In the pet shop over sized Syrian tan coloured hamsters with squinty eyes and bitten off ears were running riot. Oh no, we said in chorus. Fat guniea pigs squealed for our attention. Certainly not. He was deciding along with the rest of us that this was not for him. Relief fizzed in me. Until.

‘Oh look – there’s a little thing here, oh my god, look, what is this?’

And there she was. Tiny, grey and white, staring at us with adorable big shiny eyes.

‘I think it’s a mouse’ I said ‘and we’re not getting a mouse’.

‘Awww’.

‘It’s a hamster’ the pet shop assistant said.

‘A Russian dwarf hamster, female. I wouldn’t recommend her though, for kids, they bite, especially the females’.

It was too late for that. She was far too cute to leave behind. The heart strings had been pulled. On all of us. We had seen her and she couldn’t be unseen.

‘Why don’t you think about for a couple of days’ she said appealing to the probable wisdom of the parent. The wisdom that should be saying a biting hamster is not what we need.

‘I’ll keep her for you, just have a think and a look around’.

I listened to her vacuous words. She was wasting her breath. But I let her, politely, carry on, knowing there’s no way we were going to leave the cute beauty another second in with those other fighting bruisers. She needed to be rescued. Now.

‘We’ll take her’ I said. And so it began.

The taming was quick. From a wild nipping thing, pin pricks of blood on little fingers, within a few days of being handled regularly, she was docile as a bunny rabbit. They googled away. Hand made toys produced for her out of toilet roll cardboard. Best foods. Best care. What to watch out for. We fell, all of us, harder and harder. Except the father. It took him a while longer.

‘How’s the rat?’ he’d ask getting in from work, laughing, sending shudders down spines, emitting defiant squeals from the kids and perhaps the mother. She got to him too though, in the end. She has a personality, you see. She does funny little things and seems to laugh along with us. She brings out qualities in the boys that they may not have known they had. Generosity, protectiveness, caring, loyalty, love. They fizzle with these around her. She has been the recipient of a wooden play gym, purchased by marque 3 out of his savings. At €19.95 I tried to persuade him not to get it. It would clear him out. Perhaps something cheaper so he’d have a little left for himself? He was not for the turning.

The love runs so deep though that it’s overwhelming at times. I look into their glistening fearful eyes when they think something is wrong with her. We’re having a party in the house – my sister is home from Dubai – when Marque 2 discovers a lump on her. We Google. Perhaps, the father suggests, she’s a he after all and that’s a scent gland. He laughs. Hoping to keep the party vibe going. Also it’s true. The males have large scent glands exactly where the lump is. She’s a she, they tell him, and the lump has only just appeared. Keep an eye on it, we suggest, calmly.

A week later I’m with them in the West. The last blast of summer. The Connemara Pony Show is on in the town. The highlight of the year for locals. We are hemmed in. The place is thronged, thumping, tannoy pumping, no parking, hemmed. I decide that whatever we do will be on foot. You can’t get into or out of the town in a car. If we try to leave we might never get back. The weather isn’t good anyway and I’m mulling it over, what we might do, when the burbling sounds of thinly veiled hysteria filter up to me. The lump has grown. They look at me, accusingly. I’ve no idea why. The glistening eyes produce actual drops.

‘If my baby dies because you didn’t bring her to the vet…’ and he trails off, matricidal thoughts no doubt humming inside him. Hang on a second. How could owning a little creature produce such deep emotions? It’s all very lovely when it’s going well. But threatened with the loss of her plumbs different wells. Scary wells. I try a rational approach. Something along the lines of how we knew when we got her that the life span is two years and… Nope. The hysteria goes up a notch and they look at me as if I am a traitor. Where’s the father with the diffusing jokes when you need him?

I phone the local vet to see if we can get her seen. Have you been here before the receptionist asks. Oh yes, I say. We rescued a wild non-flying bird from the beach a couple of years back and brought it in to you. At least now they know the cut they’re dealing with. I ask how much it’ll cost. €35 for the consultation. More if anything needs to be done. Great. That we could purchase another two and a half black eyed beauties for that price may or may not cross my mind. The fact that we will now certainly not be making that visit to the cinema, nor indeed getting the take away pizza certainly does.

We traipse the ten minute journey along the Galway road. Me and the five and the cage carried solemnly by marque 2. We meander around pony poo on the path. Passers by enquire – what did we purchase at the show? A hen? What’s in the cage? As if we’re part of the club. We nod and smile and pick our way along in procession. Ponies trot beside us. It’s funereal.

We wait. Dogs and cats are seen before us. A beautiful black placid hound behind the counter catches their eye. Louis he’s called. Ah god. They stroke him on his regal head. He seems to smile at them. I know what’s coming down the line. The vet invites us all in to her tiny room for the consultation. She has a dulcet Scottish lilt and is kind and pragmatic, just as one would hope. She compliments them on the early detection of the lump. Usually in ‘small furries’ they remain unnoticed until they are large. She then speaks in code, skilfully avoiding the word tumour. Which is the only word they are expecting and dreading. In truth she can’t say what it is without a biopsy. To biopsy such a tiny creature comes with risks. It will be important to weigh these risks up, down the line, should the lump grow further. It could be a cyst, something benign, or something else. As she is very slim the vet worries that it might be the something else. But if it’s not bothering her then the weighing up thing will have to be done. Nature or intervention with risk. Nonetheless she says she’ll treat it for now as if it’s a cyst that may be infected. She instructs us on administering antibiotics. If it shrinks at all then we’re in luck. I get the impression from her that vets don’t tend to see much of little furries. We leave relieved. She has a shot at a while longer with us. As we trot back, leaping over the mounds of poo, they begin.

‘We have to get a dog Mum, we just have to, did you see the way his eyes looked so lovingly at us and how his…’

Oh yes. I saw it all. God help us.

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Higher than Chief

New Starter pic with boatIt’s with a mixture of guilt and relief that our summer holidays are being spent in Connemara again. The guilt, which bubbles away in the epidermis, stems from the fact that we have failed to take them abroad. Ever. The relief from the fact that it’s so easy, safe, stunningly beautiful – even in the soft misty drizzle which features for part of most days before doing the decent thing and hiding for a while. It makes perfect sense the relief says. But what about them experiencing other cultures, foods, climates the guilt chimes in. All in good time, the relief says. All in good time.

I’m talking to myself about an idea that’s been brewing which might just jizz it up a little. I’m mumbling about a boat and an island and some bicycles. They don’t usually pick up on my mumblings, nor indeed on my requests, but I find myself now confronted with widened eyes dotted all around the room. There is nothing wrong with their hearing, it seems, after all.
‘Did you say a boat?’ marque 4 asks and he begins to whoop and clap and then there’s a cacophony as they join him and I feel like sticking my fingers in my ears to protect my own hearing.
‘Oh thank you Mum so much, I’m so excited. I’ve never been on a boat in my life’ and he squeezes my legs as his words echo around the room and the guilt bubbles that bit closer to the surface of the skin.

It’s not the way we usually do things. We usually say nothing. Not a word. Bundle them into the car with the notion that we’re going somewhere. It’s a surprise. They guess and guess. We don’t tell. It leaves us with a get out clause. In case we can’t actually get to do the super exciting thing for whatever reason (rain mainly, let’s face it). But then it’s all the sweeter if we do. I’ve blown it. Without having even discussed it first. He’ll arrive down on Friday evening after a busy week at work to be greeted by super excited kids with big plans for his weekend. Early rising energy fuelled plans.

They blurt. He enthuses. The excitement soars. Weather checks are made. I wonder if the solid lines coming out of the grey cloud for Sunday’s forecast are more foreboding than the broken lines coming out of the grey for Saturday. On the strength of this questionable deciphering we plumb for Saturday. Then we cart ourselves off to Aldi to purchase all that we’ll need to survive.

The alarm clangs cruelly but there’s no need for it. For the first time on their summer holidays they are all wide awake at this school going hour. Dressing eagerly, avoiding shorts and flip-flops in a bid to minimise the trauma in case they come off their bikes on rugged terrain. Hoodies, T-shirts, tracksuit bottoms.

Nobody mentions how the windscreen wipers are working pretty hard, although he does glance at me whispering ‘I wonder, I don’t want to disappoint, but…’
‘It’ll clear’ I tell him. It’s just a feeling. I’ve acclimatised to the vagaries of the Western weather now. I purchase the family return ticket in the little porto-cabin, expressing that if the soft rain turns torrential in the next half-hour we’ll be swapping it for another day.
‘No problem at all. You never can tell what way it’ll go’ she says, auburn eyes matching auburn hair, smiling. And with that it lifts, magically, as if it was never there, revealing the true beauty of this fishing town. We make our way to the end of the pier where the ferry awaits. They are too preoccupied to eat, even as I wave warm sausage rolls under their noses. Instead they count the enormous jelly fish idling in the harbour and watch the boatmen load stacks of provisions for the islanders.
On the boat
We are shown through the gleaming new ferry onto a much smaller tattier old one. As we’re first in the queue. The late comers will be treated to the new one. There seems to be a downside to being too well prepared. But then the old ferry begins to move, ahead of schedule, and we meander out onto the deck which is low to the water. We are part of it. Part of the sea. We make our way up to the prow and, holding on to gapped railings, we ride the waves. I’m receiving hugs and squeezes, while grasping marque 5’s hood lest he slip through.
‘This is your number one idea ever, thank-you’ one of them says.
‘I just love it’ says another.
‘It’s way better than Tayto Park’ says a third and they all agree which causes laughter beyond the family circle. Fellow passengers enjoy their banter and strike up chords with us.
‘And only €76 euros for all this’ marque 5 says gesticulating to the ocean and the landscape and the boat, laughing. I tighten my grip on his hood and try not to think about my Grandfather – a pilot and sailor – who would be horrified to see his great-grandchildren bumping along at the very front of the boat without a single life-jacket amongst them.
Starter pic
We strike a deal of sorts at the bike hire hut – it’s extortionate now that we seem to be tourists – and set off. It’s been at least twenty years, shamefully, since I set my arse to a sadle, and I beg the kids to go easy on us olds. The days that they know nothing about, of their mother offering a saddler to their father home from college, via the student bar, where lemon salted tequilas may or may not have been imbibed, are well and truly gone. Perhaps they could check that we’re doing ok from time to time. But then we take off and it’s easy peasy and the memory of the pleasure of the pedal and the fresh wind whistling and the foot to the ground to pause and take it all in, floods back. But this, cycling with my own crew out here on a beautiful island in the Atlantic, this is something special.

They lead the way, mapless, interrupted only by hens on the path, and we stop to picnic on a rock. We’ve seen a handful of other people only even though two ferry loads of tourists were dropped off. The quietness is dizzying. A man in his 60s is walking in our direction as the kids cycle up a vertical hill. Two women follow behind. He stops to talk to us. I think he’s muttering about mushrooms and how someone has pipped him to it and nabbed them. We sympathise but we do not ask what mushrooms he’s talking about.
‘Are they all yours?’ he asks counting the kids disappearing over the hill.
‘They are’.
‘Wow, five, that’s unusual these days. What’s the mix of boys and girls?’
‘All boys’ we say in unison.
‘All boys? That’s fantastic’ he says.  I’m warming to him. Even if he’s hallucinating.
‘You know what’ he says looking directly at me. ‘You’d be higher than chief in a tribe producing all those boys’. I laugh. ‘No really, your status would be higher than chief. Fantastic’, he says again and then shares this news with his female companions. I know it shouldn’t mean anything at all, this little snippet of questionable sexist lore, but it does something to me. A fellow human being just saying well done you. Nice one.
Swim at Island
We pedal on past breath-taking sheer cliffs and discover a white sand turquoise water beach. We ditch the bikes and clamber down past the bleating sheep. Not a soul to be seen. The sun appears. Some of them insist on a swim. One brave parent does too. Even though they’ve all been warned we have one towel only to share. It feels different to swim off an island than off the mainland. A tingly intrepidness. That’s what I see in them. I’m not the brave one who joins in today. But hey, I’m higher than chief so I can claim a pass.

We reach close to our starting point with an hour to spare before the boat. We sit opposite a hotel at a picnic table above the coast and gratefully receive a Bulmer’s cider and a Guinness while the kids have well deserved cidonas, a smattering of chips, island ice-cream.
‘It’s just been astonishing’ marque 1 says about the day.
‘Hey guys, what do you think about your first time off mainland Ireland?’ and they banter on about the adventure as I feel the parental guilt slipping dutifully away into the copper fizz before me.

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