The Circle of Life

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 black molly 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.

Pets, Emotions and the Embedding of Memory

image from Wikipedia
image from Wikipedia
Our parents were keen that my brother and I learned about life, compassion and loss, by caring for pets. Of, course I say parents, plural, but my mother could not always be part of this equation and I have no knowledge what her real influence was, apart from the budgerigar.

Our budgie, joined us when I was a baby. He was, apparently, my mother’s choice in that she refused the more common blue variety, insisting on one that was bright green. A few well placed yellow feathers gave ours the look of a cheeky boy, so that’s how he was named – Cheeky for short. If this was my mother’s choice, it reminds me there was a fun side to her that I seldom glimpsed, but I think it more likely my brother’s call and that the pet was a distraction for him when I was born.

It was, though, when a replacement was needed I witnessed my mother’s insistence on the colour. I was about eight, at this point, but didn’t ask her reasoning. Her brother, my uncle, had an aviary of such birds but mainly blue; perhaps my mother saw a green one as an oddity, echoing her own strangeness, or perhaps, to her artistic self, the pop of colour brought her joy. Anyway, it was our first edition Cheeky that provided one of my earliest memories – anchoring, for me, a period where my mother was at home and where life must have equated to somewhere near normal.

It was the practice in those days, to place very young children in the fresh air for the afternoon; coach built prams accommodating offspring until around two years of age. These ‘naps’ lasted in the region of two hours and happened more or less year round, barring thunderstorms or other times of driving rain. It gave mothers a welcome break and built resilience, both mental and physical, in their children.

On the day in question, I remember it to be pleasant, later fixing it as being autumn – on account of coloured leaves swirling above my head. I recall liking them and the nearly bare trees, against the pale blue sky. I was pleased too, because my mother brought Cheeky out to keep me company, saying it was a nice day and the air would do him good. His cage hung from a chrome stand and had an elasticated ‘skirt’: a bag made of lightweight plastic, slipped over the cage base, stopping thrown seed from strewing on the floor. (Note: much of the detail for this description comes from our having the cage for many years, so that I saw it daily, bolstering the visual memory, nonetheless I was aware of the bright gleam of sunshine on thin metal bars, at the time.)

I know that, as I glimpsed the cage, I chatted to Cheeky in my own way. But it was when the breeze strengthened and the cage began to swing that I became excited. I can remember trying to sit up,  putting my hand on the left side of the pram and pulling so that I was half raised. I would have been strapped in, of course, and frustrated not to sit up entirely – but then his cage came crashing onto the pram. I rolled back with the shock, bundled in all my warm clothes, but rallied and took up the conversation again. Cheeky, agitated by his unexpected flight, began to calm down. (Note: this detail of reasoning, comes from subsequent reflection on the embedded visual.) But here is the strangest thing: I can remember, and have always remembered, thinking, ‘I have a friend to talk to now; Cheeky is my friend,’ delighting in the fact. I absolutely remember trying to tell him the word friend, but was also conscious my attempts at the word were not right, trying again and again. I have then to deduce: I had the capacity for thought and for embedding memory, but not the language to articulate it. I knew my chat was merely babble.

Now, I am sure many will say this is a false memory, that presents itself as real: that it came from versions others told. I cannot prove it otherwise, but can say this: my brother, seven years older than me, was shocked to hear me speak of this a few years back. He, as the only witness, told me more. Apparently, he arrived home from school to find the cage tipped onto the pram, as I describe. He could see it had blown over and worried that our pet was hurt or flown. When he saw all was well he became  amused at my jabber, being more than he had heard me talk before.

In the way of older brothers, he decided to entertain me with his superior knowledge, explaining birds ate seeds, but others also ate worms. To show me what he meant he proceeded to find one, bringing it to let me see. And yes, you’ve guessed, I grabbed it from his hand and gobbled it right down. Terrified he’d poisoned me he ran for help, telling only of the fallen cage and fretting for the rest of the day, in case he was found out. Thankfully, I have no memory of the worm event, excepting a vague image of my mother, with her dark hair and housework pinny, rescuing me from the garden where my brother had left us.

As to exactly when this all occurred, I can’t be sure, but clues remain. The visual chain memory hints at the second of my homes, making me nearly three, if my assumption of autumn is correct. On the other hand, my brother insists it was before we moved (a garden also overlooked by trees), putting me at less than two. Elements of the story suggest this to be true. I don’t really accept I could embed such memory earlier than this, although the instinctive consumption of the worm might contradict that. Beyond this it is the absence of my grandmother, who joined our household when we moved, and the presence of my mother that seems to prove my brother right. That I had the capacity of thought, with only some understanding of language and without the means to articulate it is, however, undeniably clear to me.