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’.
‘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 it 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.