When Britta first mentioned, a few years back, that there was another gerbil at the RSPCA begging her with his big black eyes to take him home, I offered the opinion that mice were all well and good, and so on, and so forth. Before I could warm to my theme, Britta had said something like ‘Great! Apparently, he’s been bashing his head against the lid of his cage. I’ll have to build him a bigger one,’ before dashing off.
‘Build him?’ I asked the empty house. ‘A bigger one?’
So we acquired a gerbil called Coffee. Cream, his companion, had long since been taken away because of a problem with her genitalia — they were compatible with Coffee’s.
On his arrival, I remember regarding this gerbil sceptically (and being regarded, in turn, with equal scepticism). Coffee was quite small, even for a gerbil. And his behaviour was odd. Unlike our other gerbil, Erich, he didn’t produce Road Runner-style clouds of slowly settling dust and a ‘peow’ sound when I blinked. I wondered, therefore, whether he was somehow defective. My suspicions were reinforced when I tried to stroke his head: he didn’t take a big, wet bite of my finger. Instead, Coffee permitted me to touch him with rather more equanimity than I would offer if, for instance, a giant gerbil had opened the front door tried to touch me up with an aircraft escape slide.
Hmm, I thought. We shall have to see how we get on.
A couple of weeks later, when Britta observed that it was time for Coffee (and partner-in-grime Erich) to take his place in her office at work, I offered the opinion that moving the mice was all well and good, but that I had become somewhat — cough — attached to them. At this point, I grasped my lapels in a lawyerly fashion and turned my gaze to the ceiling.
‘So you do like them!’ There was a note of triumph in her voice.
‘It is possible I’ve habituated to the bloody racket they make when I’m trying to watch Dr Who; though I may never know what the Doctor said to that tree-being last week.’
That was four years ago. Nobody is quite sure when Coffee was born. He was probably approaching his fifth birthday when he died. He had been doddery and getting weaker for several months. Gone were the days when he could skip up the pipe from the ‘desert biome’ and balance on the edge of his food bowl. Last Sunday morning, having been unwell all weekend, and being blind and unable to move properly, Coffee died. I’d been up with him on the Saturday, fairly determined that he wouldn’t die alone (his colleague Erich showing no signs of sympathy), but in the end I had to go to bed. I left him leaning against his food bowl because he couldn’t stand up without help.
There had been a moment of lucidity just after midnight on Saturday. Abruptly, Coffee seemed to wake up and notice me. Perhaps he was irritated by the Nutella, peanut butter and other high-energy, easily-chewed things I was trying to push into his mouth on the small end of a tea spoon. But he turned and sniffed and shuffled in a very lopsided way to the open door of the hutch. I put my palm out, as I always did, and Coffee managed to struggle on to it. Then I folded my arms and Coffee made it to the crook of my elbow. From there, on countless occasions over the years, he’d been taken on a tour of the living room. Sometimes we would stop at the hutches of the other gerbils for a quick hello, or we’d relax on the sofa for a while, or — on special occasions — Coffee would have the run of the living room floor itself. On this occasion, however, he just sat in the crook of my arm and tried to breathe. I took him on the tour anyway.
Coffee was really great. He’d never harmed anyone (we harmed his breakfast of mealworms on his behalf by freeze-drying them; he wasn’t to know) or treated strange humans with anything less than curiosity. He wasn’t the size of a dog or a cat. He could fit in the palm of my hand and when he ran across the keyboard of my laptop, his weight wasn’t enough to depress the keys. He was just a gerbil. But a great little gerbil.
‘Do you think we should show Erich Coffee’s body?’ asked Britta. ‘He might start looking for him. It would give him closure.’
‘Hmm.’ I held Coffee up to the gerbil with whom he’d shared his life.
‘That’s so sweet! He’s nibbling Coffee’s ear.’
‘And look, he’s really digging his teeth in.’
‘He’s trying to eat Coffee.’
‘He’s not, he’s -’
‘Erich, you disgust me.’
‘Better get him a mealworm.’