Hope you enjoy….just for you, Scifihammy!
When I was a little girl, we lived in one of the practice houses. As the junior partner in the veterinary practice, my father had the advantage of the house but was also on the spot for out-of-hours emergencies. With a large garden, three dogs and stables for the ponies just down the road, it was the ideal set up for the aspiring young vet and his family.
I was lucky enough to see a wide variety of animal patients come and go and of course we had our own fair share of pets too. We grew up in the seventies, when various things were trending… as new vaccinations for childhood diseases were patented, I was duly carted off to the doctor to have them administered… as new pets came into fashion, my sister begged and pleaded and thus it was guinea pigs, hamsters, canaries, rabbits and gerbils all spent time with our family.
Primarily I have always been a cat person, but when my father presented us with a pair of gerbils I was equally taken with them. My sister greeted them with great glee and at once set about installing them in their new home, a converted fish tank, with plenty of bedding material, sand to dig in, treats, toys and food… a veritable rodent royal residence.
They were dear little things, with soft brown fur, beady black eyes and clever little paws with neat black claws. The pair – two females, we were confidently told by my father, more accustomed to farm animals – settled in well and in due course produced babies. Much to our surprise. I seem to remember my sister’s friends coming round and leaving with lovely new pets, but soon they and their parents were all gerbilled out.
One Sunday afternoon, we were lurking in the dining room discussing the latest litter of gerbil babies, and how much longer we could go on pretending to our father it was the first litter and that actually gerbil babies just grew really slowly… The gerbil cage stood opposite the large fish tank which was my mother’s pride and joy. She cleaned it out every week religiously and kept it well stocked with gleaming gold fish, calico shubunkins and jolly little moors, like shiny black water olives. They swam apeedily or elegantly through their carefully arranged clumps of weed and artistically placed rocks, and nothing much bothered them in their tranquil watery home.
My sister – and I swear it was her although even to this day she denies it – said:
“I’m so bored… I know! Let’s have a swimming competition!”
We looked from the cage to the fish tank and all at once the afternoon worry and boredom melted away in the anticipated enjoyment of some sibling rivalry, a bit of competition! We selected our unwitting baby of choice, no bigger than furry grasshoppers, lifted the lid off the fish tank and took our places at one end of the tank.
“Ready… steady… GO!”
And with that, we popped our baby gerbils into the water. They swam… oh yes, they swam, poor little things – even now, I feel guilty, remembering how their little legs paddled, rather like a clockwork toy I enjoyed playing with in the bath; and to this day, if I see something that I think doesn’t belong in water I will drag it out… like worms or snails… but back to the innocence of childhood where what we did was out of curiosity, not cruelty.
The fish gathered underneath to watch the paddling little legs, watching, mouths opening and closing in imagined roars of appreciation – halfway across and both babies were still going strong, miniature powerhouses fit to beat any Olympian…
“Girls – what are you doing?”
My mother, alerted, perhaps, by the fact that we had been very quiet… for quite a long time, without engaging in one of our noisy sister scraps…Before my sister could leap forwards and slap a hand across my innocently betraying mouth, I shouted back:
“Just seeing how well baby gerbils swim!”
A moment later, our mother flew into the dining room with a shriek of rage at our sullying of her precious fish tank, tenderly scooping out the baby gerbils…
This, directed at us, she rushed off to carefully dry the baby gerbils with plenty of toilet roll and the hairdryer on its lowest setting. Dry and fluffy, after their swimming marathon (it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part… ) my mother carefully tucked them inside her bra (she’s had bats and puppies down there too..) to ensure they were warm and safe.
Suitably subdued, my sister and I had gained the knowledge that yes… all animals will swim if they absolutely have to. My mother felt a personal connection with the two gerbils she had rescued and they went on to become her special pets, Bambi and Suki, living for a surprisingly long time…and staying well away from the fish tank.
Shortly afterwards, I remember my sister approaching my father with a request for pet rats…