Besides a budgerigar, we always had a dog and fish, giving us a fair perspective on how life worked. At Hook Norton, where I came into the family, it was no different.
There, in a small glass tank, we had a goldfish with a fancy flowing tail, a pretty silver fish who glittered as he swam past and a black-velvet molly. The first of the fish to die was the molly. Its inner balance was lost and it was floating upside down, just below the water’s surface. It was struggling to get lower in the tank; the black veil-like tail moving pathetically in the water: we knew that it was sick. Dad removed it incase it infected the others but, when placed in a separate bowl, it showed a fight for life and was duly returned to the tank. It seemed renewed – swimming strongly, round and round then down, to prove it. The next day it was dead.
These days such occurrences often end in an unceremonious flushing down the loo; back then we had no such facility. The village had just been connected to the local water system, but there was no mains sewage. We had guzzunders where a night-time wee could be had by the bed. For anything more, an expedition to the outside ‘facility’ was required. There, in the Modern Elsan Chemical Toilet, the family would sit to deposit their bodily waste. One at a time, of course.
There was no lid to our Elsan: my father said rats hearing humans try to hide, with a lid that would likely be in the toilet, jumping out at you to escape when the lid was raised; on the other hand, with no lid they would simply scarper and not offend your sight – which was, of course, preferable. (I still baulk at toilet seats being down.)
These days, the village still has no mains sewerage, but tankers come regularly to empty the waste from underground repositories – the houses, now having the same flushing toilets found in other places. But in the 1950s we were expected to deal with it ourselves: once a fortnight, my father would dig a deep pit at the far end of our garden, as other householders did, and our banked-up deposits would be buried – adding nutrients to the soil.
My father was a keen gardener and produced much of our fruit and veg. He always said, ’You can’t get better than home grown rhubarb.’ then would chuckle at the anticipated joke:
‘How do you get such good flavour?’
‘Why, I put manure on it, of course.’
To which the imagined guest, represented by us, would chime: ’I prefer custard on mine.’
He had a great sense of humour and was always playing with language to create jokes for our amusement. If he heard a good joke it would be added to his repertoire and be repeated over several years.
But the death of a pet was no laughing matter and to cast our molly into the Elsan vat, where it would remain visible, was unthinkable. As it is, I have no recollection of how the disposal occurred but, knowing my father, its minute goodness would have been put to good use. Come to think of it, he always said how good fish blood was for tomatoes and roses – so perhaps a little of our molly has circled through life in other, more fragrant, forms between then and now.
The budgie Cheeky’s departure was more traditional, with a suitable box selected and a burial following. After the functional cardboard casket was interred, beneath one of the garden trees, a replacement bird was found. This one being less willing to talk. Our opening gambit, ’Who’s a cheeky boy then?’ eventually got either an ’Hello’ or a ’Pretty Boy’ response, and sometimes a whistle, but we had to work hard for it – while he weighed us up with his tilted head and cock-eyed stare. Sadly, Cheeky no. 2 never did become a fully integrated member of the family and he sealed the line, being the last of our budgies. The molly wasn’t replaced either; his erstwhile companions meeting their demise somewhere in transferral to the new house, when I was seven. We had fish, beyond this time but only when we compromised our parents by winning them at the fair. Those were endured with the expectation they were not long for this world. Our spaniels fared slightly better.