How can a pet as small as a hamster transform your life? Prepare to get that warm and fuzzy feeling…
“Hello there, I wanted to have a word about the hamster you sold me.”
An elderly lady with a face as round as a dinner plate stood on the far side of the counter with her hands tucked up under her breasts as if she were impersonating a rabbit.
I’d sold plenty of those in Pets4U. I’d always dreamed of running my own pet store. When it came true, I vowed never to sell animals to dodgy types or unaccompanied children.
Reassuringly, most people did their research when it came to taking on a new friend. They knew what they were doing.
I did remember this lady.
A week ago, along with one lively ginger and white hamster, I’d sold her a big cage, some bedding, food and toys galore. Then I’d helped carry them all to the lady’s car outside.
“I want a bit of company and I thought I’d start with something small,” she’d explained out in the street. “I’m rattling round my house these days.
“My children never showed much interest in pets. They’re off out in the world now. I only see them at Christmas and birthdays.”
Now, at the counter the very same lady’s lips pressed into a tight line.
“He’s a naughty little devil – Mr Darcy, my hamster. He’s only gone and disappeared behind my kitchen cabinets.”
Mr Darcy? That explained a lot without saying a word. My stomach tightened, seeing her dismay.
“Are you certain Mr Darcy’s still there? He might have made a break for it.”
“Yes. Well, I think so, anyway.”
“Right. I see…”
There had to be a leaflet on this somewhere. Lost cats, lost dogs, lost mice, lost rats. My customers deserved advice they could read in black and white.
I scuttled out from behind the counter.
“Hang on a moment.”
I hurried past the squawking budgies and the guinea pigs in their big pen mid-floor. Next to the goldfish tanks right at the back of the shop, I studied the rack Simon, my husband, had mounted to the wall.
Have You Lost Your Hamster? screamed the big red letters.
Simon had undertaken extensive research on a dozen subjects, typed out his conclusions and then had everything printed out.
“Here’s what you need to do.” I tugged the right leaflet free. “Remain calm. Shut the door. Remove other pets,” I read. “If applicable, close the toilet lid.”
At the other end of the shop where the dog leads hung, the lady waved my advice away with her hand.
“Yes, yes, but that’s all common sense, isn’t it?”
“OK…” I read a little further. “Leave his cage on the floor. Leave his wheel out.”
I chewed at my lip, hunting the leaflet for something more constructive. “You could make a trap, if you have a bucket?”
“Sorry, a what?”
“A bucket. You put food inside it.”
“How’s Mr Darcy going to get inside a bucket?” The lady narrowed her eyes.
“You make stairs with books or build a ramp. The hamster reaches the top then drops into get to the food. Or you could lay a sheet of paper across the bucket. When he crawls across, it’ll give way and in he’ll drop. He’ll need something soft to land on – perhaps a cushion?”
“A cushion?” the lady echoed. “It’s a good thought but I expect Harry will laugh his head off at the idea.”
“Oh. I thought you said you lived alone?” I frowned. “Er, I mean, you didn’t mention him the first time you visited.”
“Oh, didn’t I? What an oversight – or maybe not. The truth is, I’ve been married for forty years now,” my customer explained.
“You should have seen Harry’s face when I brought Mr Darcy home for the first time. He looked like a thunderstorm on legs. ‘What did you get that for? Women your age don’t buy hamsters!’ That’s what he said.
“So I told him I’d bought Mr Darcy to talk to.”
Her hands cut through the air as if executing some strange martial art.
“Anyway, I set all Mr Darcy’s things up in the kitchen then I settled him into his new home. I do spend a lot of time in my kitchen so it was nice to have a little company.
“You know, the kind that doesn’t need a walk like a dog, or wander off mid-sentence the way cats… and husbands… do.”
I nodded. “Yes, I like my kitchen too. It was a bit of a sanctuary once upon a time.”
We shared a look; I think she understood that I really did know where she was coming from.
Months ago, Simon would sit every night with his feet on the coffee table. He’d watch the football or some programme with souped-up cars in it and barely utter a word to me.
“Anyway,” the lady continued. “I started to put Mr Darcy inside his exercise ball every night. He’d roll round and round the tiles.
“Harry would step over him and scowl. ‘The blooming thing,’ he’d say. ‘That’s a pet for a nine-year-old girl.’
“‘I kept hamsters when I was nine. Don’t you remember?’ I reminded him.
“He used to live across the street from us, you see. He’d sit with me in my dad’s old shed where I kept my pets and we’d play with them together and natter.”
She heaved out a sigh. “We stopped nattering years ago. You know how marriages get?”
“Oh yes.” I nodded. “I know, all right. The little niggles, the endless silences, the arguing over nothing at all?”
My customer pursed her lips. “Exactly. That’s why I needed Mr Darcy.
“Only, a few days ago I started cleaning out his cage. I hadn’t popped him into his ball since I’d just given it a rinse.
“So I put him inside a shoe box instead. It had air holes and I weighed the lid down with a book.
“The trouble was, when I went to collect him, he’d chewed his way right out through the side and disappeared.
“I shut the kitchen door and started a proper search, only then Harry marched in.
“Of course I explained and tried to shoo him out again but he refused to go.
“‘I want a cuppa,’ he said. ‘I’m not going to step on the silly thing, am I?’
“He does get very gruff when things aren’t precisely how he likes them.
“When he picked up the kettle I panicked a bit – ‘Check in there before you fill it up, will you. You never know.’
He laughed as if it was all a big joke.”
Across the shop, I frowned. Honestly, Harry sounded dreadful. He’d definitely turned into one of those elderly men who marched around bossing their wives about.
An old-fashioned type who thought women ought to be in their place – at the kitchen sink most likely.
“My Simon’s not like that,” I said. “I mean, not any more. Our marriage did go through a shaky patch. He turned into a right… nightmare.
“Only then he saw me struggling to set this place up and he threw himself into getting involved and helping out.”
I beamed. “We needed a challenge we could share. He’s wonderful now. So supportive.”
My smile fell away when I remembered that poor Hamster Lady hadn’t been so lucky.
“So what happened next with Mr Darcy?”
“Well, last night I put his cage on the floor and his wheel out. I put his food in the middle of some flour so he’d leave tracks if he came out to eat. When I went to bed I lay worrying he’d find his way outside somehow. So I got up again.
“I found Mr Darcy’s little footprints all across the kitchen floor. He’d made a lovely trail, but even though I followed it I still couldn’t find him.
“When I went back to bed again I accidentally woke Harry.
‘Are you still looking for that silly hamster?’ he snapped at me.
“I turned my back and said, ‘Do you ever listen to yourself these days, Harry? You’re like a voice from the past, you know.’ I’ve never said anything like that to him before.
“He didn’t reply so I pretended to nod off, although I don’t think I slept at all until well after three.
When I woke up, Harry had already gone down for his morning tea. I hurried down after him wondering if Mr Darcy had turned up.
Harry was chewing toast. ‘The blooming thing’s still missing,’ he said, waving a screwdriver.”
“Sorry? He waved a what?”
“A screwdriver! Oh yes, he’d only gone and unscrewed the sides of the kitchen cabinets and the boarding at the bottom. There were tins, cereal boxes and washing powder all over the place. He’d decided to find my hamster, no matter what.”
The lady nodded her head and smiled.
“You see, even though he was only ten years old, my Harry used to stand up to my dad. He’d stick out his skinny chest and yell, ‘Don’t you be mean to her!’
He could be very mean, my father, very gruff and very snappy. That’s why we used to hide out in the shed.
When I told Harry he reminded me of someone from long ago, he knew precisely who I meant. I think it came as a bit of a shock. I don’t think he slept a wink afterwards to be honest.”
She broke into a smile. “This morning, I might not have found my new friend but an old one had definitely turned up out of the blue.
Harry’s been chatting all day about the good old days. He simply won’t stop. Not that I’ve asked him to.”
“Oh, how lovely!” I bit my lip, quite overwhelmed with emotion. Things had turned out so well for her as well as me.
“Harry has something to prove now,” she added. “He’s sworn he’ll carry on dismantling the house until he finds my hamster for me.
“That’s the real reason I wanted to talk about Mr Darcy today. Once he returns, I think it might be best to introduce him to a new little friend of his own.
“I’ll have less time to keep him company now.
“Harry’s talking about us both visiting the old places we used to go to when we were children – the parks, the river and the countryside. We’re really reconnecting, thanks to my hamster.”
I motioned across the shop.
“Well, I do have a lot more waiting for good homes.” I smiled. “I’m Jilly, by the way.”
“And I’m Anna. It’s always nice to be among friends, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes!” I nodded then gazed down at the leaflet I still held. I might ask Simon to print up another leaflet for my customers now – how to find your missing wife…or husband. We all need a bit of guidance now and again.
Anna’s mobile began to ring.
“It’s Harry,” she said after she fished out her phone.
We shared a wide-eyed look. Surely it could only mean one thing?
“Oh you’ve found him!” she cried. “Thank you, darling! Where was he? Oh, inside the sofa? How crafty of him.”
As she talked, I made my way down to the hamster cages. The shop had glued me and Simon together once more and Mr Darcy had done the same for Anna and Harry. He’d turned out to be so much more than just a hamster.
“I need a volunteer,” I whispered to more of the tiny, canny creatures as their whiskers twitched. “Do any of you need a life-long friend? It seems Mr Darcy is in need of an Elizabeth.”
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