Luckily for eight-year-old Sam, his lonely pet was far more open to the idea of a new companion than his dad was…
It was Sam’s idea, of course.
“Please, Dad,” he’d said. “Look at Marcus! If anyone ever needed a date it’s him. He’s the saddest guinea pig in all of history. If he was a human, he’d be you!”
“Well, thanks,” Daniel said.
“I didn’t mean… I just mean that you also lack companionship.”
“I’ve got you!”
“Yes, and I love you, and we are a great team, blah, blah, blah. But I mean another adult, that you can talk to and also do snogging to.”
Sam pulled a face as if he couldn’t imagine anything worse. At eight years old, that was probably true.
“But Dad, you’re a catch. I heard Cesca Lambert’s mum say so in the playground. She said that a single man over thirty is like gold dust round here and you could have anyone you wanted.”
“Really?” Daniel thought that unlikely.
When did he start calling me Dad and not Daddy? Was it since he turned eight?
“There isn’t anyone I want,” he said. “I like us just the way we are. You, me and Marcus.”
“Well –” Sam looked sceptical. “Marcus is lonely, so please can we go?”
Picking up the local paper, Daniel read the bizarre classified ad once again.
Guinea Pigs’ Valentine’s Ball!
Guinea pigs need companionship to thrive!
Bring your lonely guinea pigs to Flitwick Town Hall, 12 – 4pm Sunday February 14th
Find them a special someone
“I’m not sure,” Daniel muttered into his tea.
“But at least it’s something to do,” Sam said. “It’ll take your mind of your terrible love life.”
Was Sam really so blasé about his absent mother, who’d left the family home when Sam was only three? Sometimes Daniel would try to talk to him about it, and Sam would shrug and say, “I don’t even remember her.”
It had been eighteen months since the last postcard had arrived from Bali. Sam had read it, then put it straight in the bin.
After he’d gone to bed Daniel had taken it out again and put it in a safe place, just in case his son wanted it one day.
Marcus the guinea pig had been down in the dumps recently, that was true.
“Speed dating for guinea pigs, huh?” Daniel mused. “It’s just…”
“What?” Sam asked him.
“I’m not sure that Marcus has anything to wear.”
It was freezing cold, and raining, the way that all Valentine’s Days had seemed to be to Daniel for the last five years. Every shop window they passed was full of hearts and teddy bears holding hearts, and individually wrapped red roses stood outside in rain-filled buckets, looking the worse for wear.
Daniel wasn’t sure what he had been expecting from the Guinea Pig Valentine’s Ball, but he had imagined the event had been arranged by a pet shop, as a way to sell guinea pigs to harried parents. He’d already decided that he would buy one to cheer up Marcus, and more importantly Sam – even if it was he, and not Sam, who would be looking after them.
Instead of a packed hall full of guinea pig fanciers, there was just one woman, around his age with light brown curly hair that didn’t quite reach her shoulders.
She was sitting alone at a table, next to a large tea urn. Taped to the edge of the table was a carefully felt-tipped sign that read Guinea Pigs Need Love Too.
Daniel and Sam stopped a few feet away from the table.
“Is this…?” Daniel didn’t like to finish the sentence.
“I’m afraid it is.” The woman smiled, her cheeks turning pink. “Not quite the turnout I was hoping for! You don’t know how glad I am to see you. I’m Jill and this is my guinea pig, Jennifer Lopez.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow
“It’s her lustrous mane that did it,” Jill said, a smile hovering somewhere around her mouth. “And who is this?”
She smiled warmly at Sam.
“I’m Sam. This is Marcus,” Sam told Jill. “He’s been neutered and was married to a guinea pig called Margot, only she died after watching the finale of Strictly Come Dancing. I think maybe the excitement was too much for her.”
“Jennifer Lopez is alone too,” Jill said. “She used to live with Justin Timberlake but then… my boyfriend and I split up and he took Justin with him.”
“He sounds like a plank,” Sam said sympathetically, and Jill laughed.
“That’s an apt description. He was so determined to split everything 50/50 he didn’t even think about the guinea pigs’ needs. He took half our boxed set of Downton Abbey, too.”
“My mum left when I was three,” Sam said, looking from Jill to his father. “But at least she didn’t take anything with her.”
Daniel was shocked. Sam, who never wanted to talk about his mother, was telling a complete stranger almost at once.
“Well, that’s something.” Jill’s smile faded as she glanced up at Daniel, who as ever never really knew quite how to explain their family to strangers. You marry a woman, you have a child with her, you think you know her and then one day she just leaves a note on the table and disappears.
The thought that always stopped him in his tracks was what kind of man was he to drive his wife to leave her own son and go so far away?
“Do you know,” Sam told Jill, very seriously, “in Switzerland it’s illegal to keep single guinea pigs. They absolutely must be in pairs, or with a rabbit for a friend. They sometimes like rabbits.”
“I didn’t know that,” Jill said, taking care to sound impressed. “But I do know guinea pigs need company to be happy. That’s why I had this idea.” She gestured around the hall. “Lee always did say I was too big for my boots. Silly me.”
“I don’t think you’re silly,” Sam said. “I think you’re epic.”
“I tell you what.” Jill beamed. “Shall we put Marcus and Jennifer Lopez in together, see if they like each other?”
“Good idea,” Sam said.
Daniel watched Sam and Jill introduce the two guinea pigs, popping them into a pen she had assembled on the floor. Jill got up and smiled at him.
“Please say you’ll stay and have a cup of tea?” she said. “I made an urn.”
Daniel smiled as she handed him a plastic beaker of tea.
“So how can you tell if guinea pigs are compatible? Will one run into the other’s paws, like guinea pig Dirty Dancing?”
When Jill smiled, the tip of her nose lifted ever so slightly
“Well, if they don’t eat each other, that’s a good start,” she said. “Sam is very lovely; you must be proud of him.”
“I am.” Daniel wasn’t good at small talk. With Sam he never had to be; his son filled any quiet corner with conversation.
“Is it hard raising him alone?” Jill asked, and it took Daniel a little aback. People would skirt around the subject telling him how marvellous he was, and what a great job he was doing, as if being a single dad was harder and more worthy than being a single mum. No-one ever asked how hard it was.
“He’s not the hard part.” Daniel smiled. “Juggling work, school pick-ups and all that stuff is tricky, but he’s great. I mean, a nightmare, but great.”
“Does he miss his mum?”
“I think so. I mean, how can he not?”
“Do you?” Jill asked, and her cheeks flushed deep pink. “I’m sorry. Lee always said I should think before I speak…”
“It’s fine,” Daniel said. “Thank you for asking. Yes, I was heartbroken of course. Then angry, and now… I look at him and think I’m so lucky to have him in my life. I can’t be angry at her for giving me that. I just wish I knew what I’d done wrong.”
“You?” Jill looked surprised. “When a person runs away, they’re usually trying to escape the problems that are inside them. You couldn’t have done anything about that, except love your son – which you clearly do.”
“Dad, I think they’re in love!” Sam called as Jennifer Lopez and Marcus sat side by side, not doing anything especially, apart from not eating each other.
Daniel was surprised by the sudden rush of emotion he felt as Jill went to sit on the floor with Sam. No-one had ever described it to him that way before. He felt… relieved.
“Sam, if it’s OK with your dad, would you take Jennifer Lopez home with you and take care of her? I think she’d be so much happier with Marcus and you.”
“But she’s your pet. Won’t you miss her?” Sam asked.
“I will,” Jill said. “But I know you’ll take good care of her.”
“Dad?” Sam turned to Daniel.
“If you’re sure?” he asked Jill.
“I am, yes – absolutely.”
“Yes!” Sam punched the air, and Daniel watched him chatter away to Jill as they packed up all of Jennifer Lopez’s things, making each other laugh on every other word.
Finally it was time to go
Sam put his arms around Jill and held her tight. After a moment Jill returned the hug, closing her eyes for a moment.
“Dad?” Sam looked hard at Daniel.
“Right, yes, we’d better get you back for your tea,” Daniel said.
He had no idea why Sam hadn’t talked to him once all the way home.
“Aren’t you happy to have Jennifer Lopez?” Daniel asked.
“The whole world doesn’t revolve around me, you know.” Sam sighed.
A week went by and Daniel kept thinking there was something he had forgotten to do. Mentally he went through checklist after checklist.
Something kept nagging at him and he couldn’t for the life of him work out what it was.
It wasn’t until he was walking Sam home from school that it hit him, hard in the chest, taking him by surprise. It was the thought that he hoped he’d get to see Jill again one day – because even though he’d met her just once, he discovered that he’d really like to see her again.
“I want to ask Jill out,” he blurted out.
“Finally,” Sam said. “I was going to wait one more day and then tell you to phone her.”
“You wouldn’t mind?” Daniel asked.
“Why would I mind?” Sam said. “I keep telling you that you need someone to talk to – and also snog.”
When Daniel thought about the prospect of kissing Jill, he experienced a strange fizzy feeling of anticipation in his chest. It had been such a long time, he’d forgotten he could feel that way.
“But I don’t have her number!”
“Luckily, I do,” Sam said. “I was hoping you’d ask for it when she gave us Jennifer Lopez, but you were so rubbish that I asked her to write it down for me when you put the stuff in the car.”
“Really?” Daniel said.
“It was obvious you two had chemistry,” Sam said. “Just like it was obvious Marcus and Jennifer Lopez did.”
“Right. So I’ll call her – ask her out?”
“As soon as we get home,” Sam instructed him happily.
Later, much later – after tentative dates at coffee shops and cafés, and family trips to bowling and the cinema – his dad and his girlfriend, Jill, sat on the sofa holding hands as they all watched the final of Strictly Come Dancing.
Sam lay on the floor, and whispered to Marcus and Jennifer Lopez, “I knew I was right. Grown-ups and guinea pigs, they just aren’t meant to be alone.”