★ Of Mice and Men

Not so much a pet as a small, furry and — frankly — indif­fer­ent friend.

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.

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Epilogue

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.’

Hmm.’

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.’

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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