My Family & Other Animals (Part 1)
My Family And Other Animals
We have had only a few family pets in my lifetime. So far. Apparently, when I was a babe in arms there was a dog. I don’t remember the dog. I don’t even remember the dog’s name. In fact, my parents couldn’t remember the dog’s name when I asked them about it recently. It was a “lovely Alsatian cross” though. The dog died. I do remember being told that he had died, and, how. It may have been suicide, but that theory probably does not hold water. For a start, there was no note. Most suicides leave a note, I’m told. And, to all intents and purposes, the dog had been happy until he ran out of the shop door at the off-licence above which we used to live and of which my mom was manager (actually, she was the manageress – this was the days when gender differences existed; days before political correctness). Indeed, by all accounts the dog had been happy right up to the point that he ran under the wheels of the speeding car. After that he was mostly flat. And dead. Flat and dead.
Sometime after this mom and dad bought my sister and I new pets – two gerbils that we called Tom and Jerry. Don’t ask me why Tom and Jerry. Clearly this was something to do with the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but, neither of Tom nor Jerry was a cat. Indeed, neither of Tom nor Jerry was a mouse. Moreover, both Tom and Jerry were lady-gerbils, I think. Whatever, they were brought home (to the off-licence) in a nice cage, complete with big wheel and water bottle. I was very young, maybe 3.
We were very excited and mom and dad decided we would have a welcome party. And so, much jelly and pink blamanche (my auntie Joan’s speciality – in the shape of a rabbit sat on a bed of green grass jelly with currants for eyes) was moulded, many a sachet of Angel Delight was mixed, much meat paste was spread on white bread sandwiches, many a cheddar cube and chunk of tinned pineapple was impaled on a tooth pick, and, many a bowl was filled with crisps and KP nuts. This was the early 1970s after all. All of our friends and cousins were invited and orange squash and Corona “pop” was swilled and spilt with abundance. Fortunately, 1970s carpets, like cinema carpets of the modern era, were designed to hide the stains.
Whatever happened to “pop” by the way? In those days “pop” was a drink for kids, not music for morons. There used to be a “pop” man that would come around the streets, selling “pop” from a van, in much the same way that an ice cream van does sell ice cream. These were the days of Dandelion & Burdock, Cream Soda, and, Shandy rather than 7 Up, Pepsi, Coke and Doctor Pepper.
Of course, once the squash had kicked in – these being the days before e-numbers had been discovered or their after-effects understood (these were the days of Angel Delight rather than Sunny Delight, Nesquick and hundreds and thousands – sugar, sugar, sugar) – a hoard of over-excited, Spam-filled toddlers wanted more. Pushing sticky little salt ‘n vinegar fingers through a cage door and prodding small rodents with your Nesquick-coated drinking straw or a twiglet just wasn’t enough. Besides, the crisps had run out. The cage was full of crisps. Gerbils don’t like salt n’ vinegar. It was decided that it would be nice to let Tom and Jerry “run around”.
Now, my mom and dad were not stupid. They were well aware that 2 small rats and several over-excited, over-tired hobbits, is a less than safe environment (mostly for the rats). And so, we children were instructed to sit around the edge of the room with our backs to the wall. We were lectured on the need to keep still and to keep quiet. Ssshhhh! And then dad brought in the cage and opened the little wire door. Tom and Jerry nervously edged their way into the strange world outside of the cage as every toddler gave a collective “ooh” and shuffled excitedly in their terry nappies and training pants. No disposables in this decade. We were all going through that stage when our bums definitely looked big in absolutely everything.
Tom and Jerry quickly grew in confidence and began to explore. It was at this point that my dad decided to practice what he had preached and to join the many munchkins on the floor, his back to the wall. It was at this point that, in the middle of the forced collective silence, there was a small crack. Dad had sat on Tom. Dad had crushed Tom. Tom was dead. And, flat. Another mostly flat and dead pet. This was becoming a bit of a theme.
To be fair, it could have been Jerry that died that day. We never really knew. They all look the same, gerbils. It was just that after the event, once many a small child had had his or her tears dried (what is it with moms and damp handkerchiefs?), and packed off back home with a sherbet fountain and a piece of home-baked cake (much more effective than any modern form of post-traumatic stress counselling), we all decided that Jerry was a much more appropriate name for the remaining gerbil. Tom was buried in the back yard. Presumably, in something like an A4 envelope, maybe a jiffy bag. He was, after all, very flat. And very dead. Flat and dead.
Jerry was always a bit nervous from this point on. Especially around my dad. And jiffy bags. Clearly, something needed to be done to cheer Jerry up. So, we got him a friend. We got him a cat, who we called Tom. To be fair, Tom found us. He had been abandoned in a sack with his fellow feline siblings at the band stand of the park opposite our off-licence in Selly Oak, Birmingham. The circus was in town and the circus master who had found the sack, brought them round and asked us if we wanted one. Tom (although un-named at this point) was the runt and cutest of the bunch. He was black with white socks and white cheeks. Cute. Cute. Cute. We had clearly got better at naming pets. Actually, we probably just lacked imagination and post-rationalised our choice on the basis that a) he was a tom cat, b) he was noisy and reminded us of Tom Jones (our family name) singing, c) having already got a mouse/gerbil called Jerry then that old Tom and Jerry thing kind of made sense this time around.
Tom and Jerry were inseparable. That is to say that Tom would sit on top of Jerry’s cage most of the time. He was constantly trying to kiss and stroke Jerry through the cage. Hmm. To be honest, I do not think this helped Jerry recover from the shock of losing the first Tom. At some level, I think the fact that we had given the kitten the same name merely sought to remind Jerry of her previous playmate. Mostly, Jerry just looked anxious. It was not long until Jerry also died. She was discovered stiff as a board at the bottom of the cage. Mom and dad tried to tell us that she had died of a broken heart, mourning Tom the gerbil. Even at the tender age of 3 or 4 though, I kind of knew the cat did it. Jerry died in a state of absolute terror. Sorry Jerry.
Tom, the cat, was with us some 18 years. He was my cat. Or at least, I thought so. He was a very forgiving cat. He forgave me when I tried to dress him up in my sister’s doll’s clothes. He forgave me when I picked him up. He forgave me when I dropped him. He forgave me, mostly, when I pulled his tail. He forgave me when I slipped crème de menthe into his milk. He didn’t forgive us, though, when mom agreed to take in a friend’s cairn terrier. Indeed, when Tom was first introduced to the dog, Tom leapt 6 feet into the air and clawed his way up onto mom’s shoulder, leaving deep scars, and, pis*ed himself. Mom was quite damp. Tom then spent the next few days sulking and hiding in the front room. Fortunately, the dog didn’t last long as it brought on my mom’s asthma attacks. Tom made us feel very guilty for a long time. At least the cairn terrier survived with life intact and un-flat!
Tom died from a stroke while I was away at university. This was a real shame. When I used to phone home from Oxford on a Sunday evening, Tom used to recognise my voice and jump onto mom’s lap and purr down the earpiece at me. When he had the stroke he only settled when he was wrapped in my old school blazer. It was while wrapped therein that they killed him (put him to sleep). And, wrapped in my blazer, he was buried. That blazer would have come in bloody useful at many a fancy dress/theme party since. But, Tom was a good cat. I don’t begrudge him the blazer……much.
Entry filed under: childhood memories, humour, middleman, Pets. Tags: 1970s, angel delight, Birmingham, blamanche, cat, childhood memories, Dandelion & Burdock, dog, gerbil, gerbils, Hanna–Barbera, jelly, my family and other animals, nesquick, Pets, pop, Selly Oak, spam, tom and jerry.