Freddie

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It is always dangerous leaving a resourceful thirteen year old to their own devices, especially when the fun fair is in town. I drop my younger son off at our local cricket club to watch the first team play but when I return, two hours later, it is evident that the lure of the fun fair has won out over the match. He is clutching a small container with a goldfish inside and looking shifty.

“Before you say anything,’ he begins quickly, ‘My friend won it. Only his mum wouldn’t let him take it home so he offered it to me.’

‘That was nice of him,’ I say, giving my son a suspicious look. He has been after a gold fish for years.

‘So can we bring him home?”

No is my gut instinct. We’ve had a lamentable track record with Guinea pigs, none of them lasting more than a few weeks and we already have two dogs (well, the little one belongs to my mother but we have her to stay so often she might as well be ours). We don’t need any more pets. But then my son looks at me with those big, brown, beguiling eyes of his and my resolve weakens.

‘What are you going to call him?’ I find myself asking.

He thinks for a moment. ‘Freddie.’

I glance dubiously at the container Freddie’s in. It’s the size of a chocolate Maltesers box.

‘Is he going to be all right in that?’

‘He’ll be fine, Mum. Look, I bought some food.’ My son shows me a tiny cylindrical cardboard pot with what looks like fine sawdust inside. ‘Only cost a pound. The man said it will last a year.’ Mmmm.

Freddie’s new home is on my son’s bedside table. For two days I am traumatized by this little fish banging against the sides of his minuscule container. It’s like me trying to do lengths in the kitchen sink. He’s no sooner turned round than he’s hitting the opposite side ready to turn again.

On day three I can’t take the Maltesers box any more and drive to a nearby pet shop. I discover it does a roaring trade in all things relating to cats, dogs and birds but almost nothing on marine life. After some searching the shop assistant finds, half hidden on a top shelf, a five litre plastic tank. No gismos, just a plastic box which I buy even though the cost of it would get me enough Freddies to fill the London Aquarium.

Transported to his new home, Freddie now looks like he’s attempting the Atlantic crossing and I no longer pass him weighed down with guilt. But for a little fish he produces a lot of waste so the water gets murky very quickly and has to be cleaned every other day. And there’s another issue. Big it may be but the tank does look pretty boring. There’s nothing for Freddie to do or interact with.

Egged on by my son, I go in search of a proper aquatics centre to stock up on accessories. I’m not sure what to expect but as I enter the place I am transformed. Huge tanks lit with a dreamy blue light fill the walls displaying a circus of fish. Wow, I think, delighted by the spectacle. The last time I got this excited about fish, I was snorkeling in Sharm el Sheik. It’s like being at a fashion show, each creature showing off dazzling colours and exotic shapes. My son would love this, I think, wishing he were with me. Trying not to get distracted, I show the assistant a picture of Freddie and explain how we got him. Then comes the sobering news. Freddie is a fresh water fish and will grow to several times his size. Left in his current home (and without filtration), the water will run out of oxygen and he will die.

I think back to the goldfish I had as a child and don’t recall any of them growing particularly big or having a fancy home. Mine would have been your standard fairground bowl, like the one depicted in The Cat in The Hat. But then if I’m honest, I don’t think any of my fish lasted very long. I could just bite the bullet and buy a filtered tank but it turns out I’d also need lighting, a heater, shingle for the floor, thermometer, accessories, plant cover to prevent stress, not to mention the chemicals needed to keep the water healthy. All this for one little goldfish. I can’t help feeling that Freddie who’s only trick is to swim in circles, is beginning to look like a poor investment.

In the end I return home empty handed and convey the news to my son. He takes it better than I’d feared. Thirteen year old boys are stoic like that. Neither of us know how long it will be before the end comes but one morning I wake to find Freddie’s tank very cloudy and Freddie looking subdued. Usually he darts about eagerly looking for food. Now he hovers like an inert submarine. The time has come.

Conscious that Freddie might only have a bit of oxygen left, I wake my son who launches into action. Together we fill a freezer bag with fresh water and scoop Freddie into it. Then, my son sets off at speed towards the pond at the end of our road. Freddie doesn’t know it yet but his tank’s about to get a whole lot bigger.

I know he’s only a fish but as I watch my son disappear, I feel a pang of guilt. After all what fate am I sending him to? Will he manage to adapt to pond life? The man in the shop told me that pond fish (for that is certainly where he came from) can grow up to ten inches, but first there’s the shock of the temperature change to cope with and the threat of larger predators waiting to pounce.

A few days later I drive past the pond. My son is with me chatting away about something he’s seen on T.V. He seems, thankfully, to have escaped the whole fish episode without any emotional scarring. All the same, I keep him distracted as I notice out of the corner of my eye, a newly installed heron taking centre stage on the pond. Uh oh, I think. Let’s just hope Freddie’s keeping a very low profile.

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Who Let The Dog Out?

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They say you should never work with animals or children. Today I am doing both. I have come to a dog show with the Black Dog and my mother’s pocket-sized Yorkshire Terrier. This is to be their debut on the doggy stage and I have some misgivings as, while they have buckets of cuteness, obedience is not one of their strengths.

We arrive with the handsomest dog event already underway and spot my friend leading her Schnauzer, a bold and muscular dog, in a jaunty fashion around the outdoor arena. The Schnauzer has done this before and it shows as he looks entirely at home parading in front of the judges. His moment of triumph when he wins, however, is somewhat spoiled – much to the embarrassment of my friend – when the Schnauzer, perhaps overcome by the excitement of the occasion, leaves an unedifying contribution on the grass as they collect his prize.

It’s a glorious afternoon. We squash together on large bails of hay amongst the bunting and tents and boil in the afternoon heat. The Black Dog strains at her leash, head darting back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match, trying to assimilate all the new sights and sounds. It’s almost too much for her to cope with and I worry about how much she’s salivating. By contrast the little Yorkie sits on my mother’s lap unfazed.

The prettiest bitch category turns out to be a very popular event. A large, red-faced judge holds court and approaches each dog owner with a microphone for a chat. Unfortunately, none of the spectators catches a word as the mike doesn’t appear to be connected to the speakers. When it’s our turn I discretely wipe away the drool and smile enthusiastically, hoping to aid the Black Dog’s chances.

We continue to parade round the ring, following a grotesquely large poodle. I am not a fan of poodles and this one has been manicured and clipped to the point that it resembles a moving topiary bush. The dogs’ owner wears the smug look of someone clearly here to win and I can’t say I blame him. Even to a novice like me there’s no doubting the dog’s pedigree. But here? Really? Wouldn’t it be better suited competing at Crufts? The Poodle displays the same disdainful superstar manner as its name; Lady Gaga and we keep a sedate and respectful distance.

Then, out of the blue, Lady Gaga spins round and launches herself at us, her attack aggressive and sustained as she tries to bite the Black Dog. I am almost upended as the Black Dog attempts to escape Lady Gaga’s teeth while dogs around us start up a chorus of excited barking. The Poodle’s owner is quick to get her under control and order finally prevails, but the damage is done. Lady Gaga has shown her true colours and gets her just deserts, leaving empty handed. The Black Dog, however, walks away with third place, earning herself a rosette and a congratulatory hug from my younger son.

Winning rosettes becomes contagious as my mother’s little Yorkie bags second place in the Child’s Best Friend category. This is somewhat ironic as, with my son already committed to The Black Dog, my mother asks a complete stranger (an obliging girl of twelve) to take The Yorkie instead. Such is my mother’s delight when they return with their prize you’d think The Yorkie had just secured a double first at Oxford University.

Later, while the Southern Golden Retriever display team demonstrate how it should be done, my friends and I duck out to give the two big dogs a much needed walk. The dogs pull hard at their leads like eager toddlers entering a playground and, once released, promptly disappear. Trees crowd around us and ahead a small lake emerges. It is a romantic and tranquil spot, sunlight piercing the gloom and highlighting the lake’s green-laced surface. I’m too busy chatting to notice the warning signs until, that is, I hear a loud plop followed by the all too familiar sound of splashing.

‘Come!’ I shout, fearing the worst. ‘Here! Now!’ We whistle and call. Moments later the dogs reappear and my fears are realised. Normally obscured by soft clouds of fur, the Schnauzer is transformed, trotting stiffly on now absurdly skinny legs and wearing what appears to be a moss-green coat. The black dog, bedraggled and panting heavily, looks delighted and sprays pond water everywhere.

We cannot take the dogs back to the show in this state. Apart from their appearance they stink to high heaven so we make a beeline for the neighbouring garden centre and spot a hose. We ask a member of staff if we can use the hose to clean the dogs.

‘I’ll have to check that,’ he says in the tone of someone who has just been asked to serve vodka to an underaged child.

The second he’s out of sight my friend grabs the nozzle and, with her husband holding the wriggling Schnauzer, unceremoniously hoses him down. The Black Dog suffers the same cold fate with resigned acceptance.

Back at the show a new event is already underway. We discover that the schedule has been changed, bringing forward musical bumps by half an hour. Disaster. This is the event my son had earmarked me for (you’ll be good at the disciplined ones, Mum) and one look at his crestfallen face tells me I cannot disappoint him. I quickly slip into the arena with my very wet dog and join the group walking round to music. No one seems to notice our late arrival or the smell we bring and so when the music stops I snap at the Black Dog to sit.  Fortunately this is one trick she can do well and appearances, in this instance, don’t count. My son materialises at my side and pushes treats into my hand.

‘Everyone else is doing it,’ he whispers when I start to protest. And suddenly I notice the bulging belt bags worn by most of my competitors. Doggie treats are being dished out like sweets at a children’s party.

One by one dogs drop out until it comes down to the last three. We are guaranteed a rosette but I realise, absurdly, that I want to win and avoid eye contact with the judges. Don’t pick us, I say in my head as they cast their critical gaze on whose rear is slowest to descend. We lose out to a golden retriever but I cannot begrudge the three blond-haired girls accompanying the dog as they skip happily back to their parents with first place.

We all throw our caps into the ring for the last event; the egg and spoon race. There are so many takers that the judges have to run heats. The challenge is being able to hold the egg and spoon and dog lead in the same hand while negotiating an obstacle course. I partner up with the Yorkie and wait our turn next to a barrel-chested man covered in tattoos and studs.

‘Where’s the best place to hold this?’ he asks me nervously. His dog is almost as small as mine.

‘Further down,’ I advise. ‘The egg doesn’t wobble as much.’ Not that it does him much good as he drops it the moment he moves.

A fair bit of chaos ensues. Eggs fall like autumn leaves and suddenly no one can walk in a straight line. The Yorkie’s so light I practically carry her round the course and end up going over the hurdle myself as she’s too small to jump. In the next heat, the Schnauzer breaks free from his collar after the egg (uncooked) lands on his back and cracks open prompting mayhem. Finally caught, he trots back round the course, pausing to eat a stray sausage and still wins his relay, (though I suspect the stressed and over-heated judges had, at this stage, hit the bottle so the placings might not have been entirely accurate). The Black Dog and my son race through to win their heat incident free, then go on to clinch the final by a hair’s whisker. I feel a pang of guilt as the boy who looses out to them walks away looking inconsolable.

We’ve cleaned up, my friend comments as we leave with a collection of rosettes, doggie treats and soft toys. I laugh. Who’d have thought it with our motley lot. It’s been a good day. We all climb into the car, the dogs weighed down by their booty and fatigue and as I shut the boot, I catch sight of Lady Gaga being chauffeured away in the back of a shiny Range Rover. The owner has the look of someone who has just eaten something deeply unpleasant and accelerates away in a cloud of dust. How the mighty have fallen, I think, watching them go. And with that I put the car into gear and head for home feeling happy, proud and ever so slightly smug.

Love that dog. Well, sort of.

Okay, you’re going to look at this picture and go ahhh, what a sweet, little puppy and yes, I remember feeling the same way when, three years ago, we brought home the latest addition to our family. She was this adorable black blob who everyone fought over to hold. So why didn’t I connect with her in quite the same way as my husband and boys? Perhaps it was the guinea-pig moment (no, stay with me). We’d been through many guinea-pigs and while the boys would give them the odd cuddle, muggins here would be left to clean out their poo-infested cages and deal with them when they got sick as they invariably did. I could see this scenario playing out again, only on a bigger scale and to be frank, it was hard enough finding me time with a family of four to look after without the additional responsibility of a dog. Tip: don’t have sporty boys. You get up at hideously early hours and spend far too much time in the car.

Don’t get me wrong. As dogs go she’s as good as they come. She has a gentle nature and is the ideal family pet, but there are drawbacks. Do you have any idea, for example, how much a black lab molts? I could carpet our house with the amount of hair she sheds. Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, but we have pale, tiled floors that show up every speck of dirt and leaves house proud, tidy little me forever plugging in the Hoover.

Fact. Labradors like to eat. Indiscriminately; left-overs, felled apples and plums from the fruit trees, industrial size bags of chocolate Minstrels (foolishly left in the garden for a kids party); cow pat – yes, disgusting. You name it, she’ll eat it and sometimes she’ll bring it back up (and eat that too!) Fact. Labradors are big dogs and need plenty of exercise. I enjoy walking as much as the next person but I don’t want to do it every day. Sometimes I want to have me time. Then I have to live with the guilt. Walks are the highlight of her day.

No doubt all you dog lovers are reading this and thinking what’s all the fuss about? She’s a dog. Love her and get on with it, which I do, sort of. Just not in that ignore everything including your mother/wife as you rush through the front door to embrace her way. If anyone’s going to dish out the discipline it will usually be me. I’m the one who trained her to sit and to lie down, to wait for her meals until she’s told she can go. I’ll scold her if she’s caught in the kitchen or approaches the table when we’re eating and I’m also the one who dispatches her to her bed when she’s in the way, which from my point of view is a lot.‘Poor dog,’ my boys lament, frequently coming to her defence because they think I’m too hard on her and don’t give her enough love. Its true. I probably don’t.

So here’s the rub. Last week I took her to the vet to have her spayed – well, it was never going to work having a litter of puppies taking over the house for two months, never mind the pressure I’d have been under to keep one. I did have a slight pang of guilt as I drove her, blissfully unaware in the back of the car, to the veterinary clinic, but it wasn’t until the vet started explaining how while performing a full hysterectomy was routine for him, for her it was a pretty big deal, that the impact of what I was doing suddenly hit home. I was responsible for her well-being. This dog of ours trusted me completely and here I was not only denying her puppies ever, but putting her through a major ordeal. I was completely unprepared for the hard ball of emotion that surfaced and lodged in my throat as I accompanied her into the little operating theatre to ‘hold her paw’. Quite suddenly, my maternal instinct kicked in and I felt ridiculously protective as they put her under and she went floppy in my arms. I will admit to my own Wuthering Heights moment, howling all the way home to wait, anxiously, until it was over.

She’s fine now and is, this very moment, happily stretched out on her bed gently snoring. Dogs are like that;  bounce back quickly and get on with things – as with our relationship. She remains a person needing my attention and my attention is often elsewhere. But while she’s never going to be top of my pecking order, there is a softness to my touch when I rub her tummy or stroke her head and yes, all right, if you’re going to push me, a little love in my heart. I know it and you now know it.

Just don’t tell the dog.