Friday, 3 February 2012

Cat and mouse tales

I grew up in the days long before You Tube or The Internet. The antics of my pets have largely gone unrecorded. Pets were given to children to teach them about life, death and the birds and bees. I never got £250 for appearing on You've Been Framed or Pets Do The Funniest Things and my childhood pets are captured in minute monochrome prints, which don't do justice to my first cat Friska who was a ginger Tom or to my tank of tropical fish.

Totter jumping would have made it to You Tube
One day my mother looked across the garden and spotted Friska's sweet little face appearing out of one of the little doorways of the neighbour's very new dovecote. Moments later the cat returned, lovingly bringing back a present.  There then followed the trauma of returning the corpse to be told that they were 'very special' and EXPENSIVE doves.

My parents liked their early morning cuppa and dad especially liked gadgets so it was natural for them to acquire a Teasmade which would wake them up to a perfectly brewed cup of tea.  Dad would get this contraption ready the night before, with milk, tea and water all in their correct places but noticed that the when the tea was made in the morning the quantity of milk was rather less than had been expected.  Increasing the amount of milk the night before did not seem to alter the amount in the tea in the morning.   Dad decided that something was taking the milk in the night and resolved to discover what by lying awake and on the alert.  Sure enough in the night there was the sound of gentle lapping and the culprit apprehended in its felonious act.  Friska was 'escorted' rather rapidly back out through the bedroom window through which he had gained entry and slid magnificently across the catslide roof of the kitchen.

Aged ten, I had a golden hamster called Tabitha Twitchit. I used to make runs through upturned books which would lead her all round the living room. One afternoon my friend and I got Tabitha together with her hamster, a handsome male. Only a few seconds together and the deed was done, birds were singing and bees were making honey. Not long after, a litter of 7 hamsters appeared in Tabitha's cage, bald and blind looking like little piglets. After a few weeks I took them to the pet shop and sold them for half a crown each, a third of their retail price and the same amount as my pocket money. I kept the runt as it only three legs and no market value. It was adorable and lived far longer than expected but the death thing was looming large. Six months later Tabitha was found lying stiff in her cage and was ceremonially buried in a small box lined with cotton wool. I was still in mourning when somebody told me that hamsters can hibernate, so I was convinced Tabitha had been simply sleeping and  therefore needed to be exhumed. Several attempts were made to locate the resting place, but it was never found. I hoped that being a burrowing creature, her training at navigating through the books would lead her to freedom.

I did have a tortoise, which was expected to hibernate. As winter approached it was given a cardboard box and placed below the airing cupboard. When inspected the tortoise appeared to be dead too, but really how are you supposed to know?

At my all girls Grammar school, pupils were encouraged to participate in lots of activities to make you a "more rounded girl", these days it would be to add substance to your CV. My after school time was taken up with Choir as I enjoyed singing, Orchestra where I learned the clarinet, Debating Society, though I don't think I ever went but that's debateable and the Young Farmer's Club. The YFC seemed to consist of cleaning out rabbit cages, which I didn't particularly enjoy, though I can see I'm all the more rounded for doing it, especially as I let go of a very large rabbit called Billy who hopped it and took over an hour to be tempted back to his garrison, not helped by me who was terrified by just how huge he was.

During a Christmas school holiday I took a cute black mouse home for the two weeks rather like one might borrow a library book to enjoy while it proved entertaining and then return when it became a chore. The mouse was enjoying the stimulation of my 70's green and orange bedroom, so much so that it suddenly produced a litter of tiny black fluffy balls.  I decided it needed to be moved nearer to my bed so I could watch more closely. In the night I was woken up by squeals and squeaks and found that the mouse was devouring her offspring with amazing speed and bloodshed. My mother desperately searched the fridge for a tempting titbit to distract it, but despite being given a tasty turkey morsel it continued its frenzy, caused I found later, due to having its nest moved.

Years later living in a old farmhouse, I opened a cupboard in the bathroom and found my astonished gaze returned by a field mouse, who had diligently constructed a pyramid of rubble presumably from the wall. It looked so lovely I placed half a Satsuma alongside. Looking in later I discovered the fruit all eaten and the skin perched like a cupola on the very top of the pile. How cute I thought! Looking forward to seeing my furry architect again, I was disappointed to find it in the kitchen, well garrotted by the trap which had been set there. Aghast I decided to only use humane traps in future and put one in the bathroom cupboard to see if my mouse had a mate. I found eight mice in the trap, for two days running. Not knowing what to do with them, I released them in the woods, but without a nest, those sweet little field mice would never have made it. One mouse is endearing, several feel like a plague. I realised I had been sleeping in a mouse sandwich, with them running below me under the floorboards, and above me with the protected bats in the attic.

I had a bigger surprise a matter of weeks later. I was in my car eating some cashew nuts I'd bought but feeling guilty about how expensive they were, I tightly wrapped the packet and tucked them in the door. Driving along the next day munching the nuts, it suddenly occurred to me that it had been easy to open the bag, so I looked more carefully and saw teeth marks. Narrowly avoiding a crash, I investigated the entire car and found a variety of snacks that I had forgotten about, all of which had been spotted by something else. I called the vermin controller and he put a trap in the boot, which the next day contained a very large rat. It seems I had taken some rubbish to the dump and it must have been in one of the bags. I got away lightly as he told me stories of a brand new Mercedes which had been trashed by a rat trying to get out by chewing through the speakers, seat belts and floor well.

Having cats, it goes without saying that there are regular killings to deal with. One Spring day, Totter arrived in the garden with a huge bird dangling from side to side. Terrified it might be an exotic species, it was hurriedly checked in a bird book and found to be a cuckoo, which I had never seen before or since. Another arrival in the garden was a pigeon with a ring on its leg. It seemed tired and so the RSPB were called for advice which was to keep it in the garage overnight, give it some chopped boiled egg and in the morning to put it on the fence, making sure the cats were inside, clap hands and it would fly away. Morning came and the bird was placed on the fence, hands were clapped and it flew, about a foot, more clapping and it flew into the neighbour's garden, where it was immediately killed by their cat. I flew round to their door shouting "Your cat has got my bird", but they didn't seemed bothered. I was preparing to move saying I didn't want to live next to  such thoughtless people, when they rang the bell in tears saying they had done their best, but it had been too late and offering a bottle of wine.

These lessons in life and death no doubt prepared me for future losses. Loves are intense but often short lived. My cats have mostly been of a neurotic nature, probably picking up on their owner's vibes. In the 1980's we had painted and furnished a room entirely in black and white in which poor Nibber the tabby cat was not really welcomed, whereas Totter became a fashionable accessory.

To all my pets and other wildlife, thank you for entertaining me, comforting me and teaching me many lessons.

Totter posing for an 80's Xmas card

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Horses and cows

                                             Looking like a natural!

"I want a pony", a sentence uttered by so many little girls, most of whom have a small front garden barely big enough to raise a rabbit.  I was lucky to grow up in the country and we had a field, perfect for a pony or even two. I didn't utter those words, I didn't want a pony.  My friends used to come and gaze over the grass imagining riding round and round, whilst I was content to make dens in the hay and collect four leafed clovers.

My experience with horses had been a donkey ride on Blackpool beach that I had found terrifying and smelly and a trip to the local stables.  All my friends were shown their cute little ponies, with names like Rosie or Lupin. The instructor took one look at me and said "Oh, you're very tall", and brought out a massive stallion called Samson.  I had several goes at getting on the saddle and spent the whole ride holding on for dear life. Samson and I did not connect.

Sometimes our field was rented out to a farmer friend who kept a few heifers there.  We had an electric fence that I was always testing with a blade of grass.  This was to make sure the cows stayed put.  I never liked milk as a child, and being the spoilt brat that I was, could only be persuaded to drink the regulation third of a pint at school if it had strawberry milkshake in it.  Years before I thought that cows knew I didn't like milk and was afraid of the consequences.  Living in Cheshire, the heart of dairy land at the time, I often encountered them, leading me to announce "I drink mees milk moo cows", a blatant lie if ever there was one. Generally my relationship with cows like horses was an uneasy one.

"Feel the fear..."

Living near to Wales, we often went walking in the mountains.  I loved watching the sheep and seeing them being rounded up.  One day we were coming down from Snowdon and my mother unusually saw a cow standing in the path.  To reassure me she called out "Hey up, Daisy", and the animal raised its head to reveal a large ring through its nose  and the fact that it was in fact a very large bull.  Wearing a little canvas mackintosh in bright red, I shot off down the hill, fully expecting to be pursued at full force, but apparently it just put its head down again and continued grazing.

One day my father announced that he had a money making idea and that we were going to grow Christmas trees.  He had ordered 100 of them through Exchange & Mart which was one of his favourite magazines.  He told my mother to be in when they arrived and to be ready for the delivery.  A few days later a small packet arrived through the letterbox, one hundred Christmas trees... in a space the size of a robin.  They were tiny seedlings, which were duly planted, but never turned into a forest or a thriving business.  A couple of years later when I was 11 my father decided instead to build a bungalow on the field which became the house where I grew up and my parents lived until they died. I think nearly 50 years on there are two fir trees remaining at the edge of the what was the field.  Many happy years were spent in that garden, by me and lots of other children, but the only horses to be seen were driving the horse and carriage that my sister organised to take my parents round the village on their Golden Wedding Anniversary. 
I was happy to wave them on their way.

Monday, 30 January 2012


I am not a biker chick.  My experiences on 2 wheels have mostly been disastrous. My first time riding pillion was when my school friend offered me a lift home on the back of her Honda 50, a journey of less than 2 miles in the leafy lanes of Cheshire.  After 20 seconds I fell off the back, luckily with few injuries other than bruises.  My pride was hurt but more importantly I decided bikes were not for me.
Years later a friend turned up on my birthday to offer me a ride on his Harley Davidson. He had proudly painted it to look like a horse, dappled grey with leather trimmings. It did look quite impressive but how was he to know that my affinity with horses was the same as motorbikes?  I boldly got in the saddle or whatever it was and he set off at a mind-blowing 60 mph.  My mouth instantly filled up with air. Despite my inane grin caused by the influx of air into my body I was not happy and wanted to get off,  but I was unable to speak and he took the insistent squeezing of his body to mean I wanted to go faster.  No woman wants to be told to keep her mouth shut and I'm sure I would have been offended at the advice if he'd offered it.  Later I did have quite a bit to say on the matter and needless to say I didn't see him again.

Another birthday and I was again being woo-ed.  This guy had opened a bottle of gin and seemed to be adding less and less tonic.  At about 4 in the morning he suggested a ride on his classic motorbike.  Of course I protested, not least because of the alcohol.  He said we would go down the country lanes and watch the sunrise.  His advice to me was to imagine I was a sack of potatoes and to completely relinquish all control.  After the amount of gin, this seemed to be fairly achievable.  It was a lovely sunrise, but I vowed it would be the last time I'd be riding on the back of a bike.

I spent the Millennium celebrations in Goa, India with several friends. Not at a beach rave, but rather trying to escape the festivities and wanting to quietly allow a new decade to wash over me.  Everyone was itching to hire scooters, and although I said I didn't want one, I was persuaded to have a go.  Sitting for the first time with my hands on the controls, I knew it was the best way to get about and that my fear had to be conquered. So I turned the key and twisted the handle and shot forward 20 yards straight into a wall.  The bike spent a whole day at the hire shop being repaired, much to the annoyance of the guy who had lent it to me, as he was grounded for the day.  I agreed to travel on the back of my friend's scooter.  She looked gorgeous wearing a vintage floral dress and her blonde hair flowing round her... with no sign of a helmet. I clung on to her delicate figure, full of admiration for her courage. We got to go to some lovely places, which would have been inaccessible by taxi and of course it was a very cheap way to travel.  The chaos on the roads was just ridiculous, with scooters 3 abreast, 4 x 4 cars driven by rich people from Mumbai, people walking in all directions and cows simply standing in the middle of it all. There was acrid smoke coming from the bonfires of plastic bottles being burned at the side of the road, and at night the only light came from a few fluorescent tubes slung between the trees.

Why is it that when we are abroad all commonsense about health and safety is abandoned? It's 2012 and I am in Thailand sitting on the back of a hired scooter with my partner who is happy to be on an adventure for his well earned holiday.  Like India the traffic drives on the familiar left hand side but the roads are much more civilised and straight.  The law requires a helmet to be worn on the main road, but only for the driver, and very few of the locals seem to be taking any notice.  I am  dressed in a sarong and flip flops, repeating "I'm a sack of potatoes, I'm a sack of potatoes" over and over whilst gripping on to the seat, fearing death. Finally plucking courage to look at anything other than the neck of my driver, I become aware we are riding in tandem with a food seller. The other moped goes past with the passenger offering a variety of tasty morsels on a tray with one arm, while the other arm casually holds onto a baby, a teddy bear and a bag of squid.
I still feel I am on a white knuckle ride and am glad to arrive at an idyllic bit of beach, stretch out on the white sand and relax my body before the journey back.  A man appears from nowhere on a horse with a second one with an empty saddle "You want ride horse?" he asks. "No thanks," I reply "we've got a bike."

                                          "I don't like it, I don't like it..."

We passed a family of mum, dad and five children going shopping and I was so cross I missed the best photo opportunity; seeing them get off their scooter at the 7 Eleven store.