Gerbil Essences


‘Twas the night before my viva (the final oral exam defending my PhD thesis). I was sitting minding my own business, chewing a chilli chimichanga that was merrily burning its way through my tongue, when my parents dropped the Gerbil Bombshell.

“I think we should tell her. I mean, I’m sure she’s old enough to handle it. We think Dusty ate Lemon.”

Let’s backtrack. My family has a somewhat chequered history with rodents, and we are probably on an RSPCA watch list. Any day now Secret Squirrel Shoppers will start turning up at our houses with hidden cameras in their fur.

It all began when I was five, and it was my turn to look after the class gerbil for the weekend. Squeak was his name, being as he was part of an estranged double-act called Bubble and Squeak (though now I wonder if Bubble met his end in a more cannibalistic fashion). My mother went to empty out the old sawdust from his enclosure and left Squeak in an ice cream tub with my father and I to play, issuing strict instructions that whatever happened we were not to let the gerbil get out and run away. Instead of listening to the voice of rodenty experience, my father thought, “Pfft, how fast can a glorified hamster be?”

Much of the following two hours was spent trying to coax an anxious gerbil down from the interior of an upright piano.

For reasons best explored by professionals, the next year my parents nevertheless took an intuitive leap and decided that getting two gerbils would be a good move. I was enraptured by the whirling ball of fluff that arrived in my house and loved watching the gerbils, playing with the gerbils and making Olympic-standard obstacle courses for the gerbils. The gerbils – names Dusty and Lemon with imaginative reference to their respective hues – were reasonably tolerant of this enforced exercise and rarely took to nibbling the Tiny Human Overlord. Until Dusty snapped and apparently ATE Lemon.

After Lemon’s cruel end, Dusty continued to enjoy the single life in his gerbil duplex bachelor pad, though he eventually grew bored and worked out how to escape. He could use his little paws to unscrew the uppermost level of his house and made it to the floor through what I can only assume was a heroic but minuscule abseiling sequence. Perhaps accompanied by the Mission Impossible theme on a glockenspiel.

One night my mother awoke and heard chaos downstairs. Our fairly new puppy, Ribbons (yes, I named the pets), was going bonkers. She went down and was calming the dog when what she thought was a rat ran across her feet and she shrieked. Of course, it was just Dusty having second thoughts about taking that night job inside the upholstery and making for home base. But it serves as a valuable lesson in both gerbil security and the strength of Yorkie ratting instincts.

Dusty began to look a bit worse for wear after a couple of years. Accepting that he was an elderly gerbil and death comes to us all, I nevertheless felt a deep sadness that he would not be with us to celebrate his birthday the following month. My conviction was that Dusty should get to celebrate early and go out on a high. We may have had a houseguest to traumatise, but I would not be dissuaded. We baked the gerbil a cake and wrapped up some toilet roll tubes as gifts, then I made everyone kneel around him and sing happy birthday.

Miraculously, Dusty recovered. I was convinced the special attention had done him good until I was twenty-five and my parents confessed that, having decided on a kill-or-cure approach, they had given him whisky and he perked right up.

Dusty, the escapology-studying, dog-tormenting alcoholic gerbil. A bit like a rodent James Bond with less misogyny and more sunflower seeds. Why my parents felt that the night before a nervewracking major life-event was the best time to introduce gerbil cannibalism to our family history, I can’t say.

A post-script to my rodent saga came in 2008, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I was staying in Denver for a week with a friend. Taking an overnight bag, we took her parents up on their kind invitation to join them at their cabin that weekend. I realised at one point that my pear-scented deodorant had leaked and saturated my only change of shirt. My friend’s parents offered to let me air it overnight on the deck so I would not smell so much like food in the morning.

At sunrise I was already awake, popped outside to admire the mountain vista with pink rays glinting off a distant bison, then went back to sleep contentedly. A couple of hours later I emerged to find three slightly guilty looking hosts who rushed to apologise for an event that was certainly not their fault but has provided much amusement since: chipmunks ate my shirt. People think I am making this up, but they had chewed an impressive number of holes in the material so that parts of it were barely clinging together. I giggled about it for a while then packed the remnants carefully so that I could demonstrate the power of chipmunk teeth.

The chipmunks, however, did not eat my gerbil, so cannot be implicated in my parents’ poor judgement.

The Wheel of Death: A Christmas Story



I am going to tell you a tale of woe. Wait, that’s not right – I’m going to tell you a tale of WOAH!!! Such a tale that will turn your hair on end and make you appreciate your simple lives and families. First, we set the scene.

It is late December, and I observe that the snow from the previous week is no longer deep and crisp and even but looks very similar to tripe that has been run over by a turkey driving a steamroller. Instead of happy children with merry and bright hearts flying around on broomsticks, we are left with only seagulls. Having spent much of Advent fighting off evil snowmen (that’s another story, for next Christmas), I determine that more a festive environment should be sought.

I enlist a friend, T into the expedition and we set off for the train station. Unfortunately, we forgot that the university was closing for the season, and the students were departing for their villages and townships, bags full of gifts, cloaks and laundry for their appreciative kinfolk. We do not realise this until we are stranded on board with little chance of escape, but accept that in this time of Advent it is good to reflect on the Son of God and how he was willing to hang out with the normal folk. I condescend manfully but wish I had brought hand sanitiser.

The journey proceeds smoothly, albeit in a standing position, except for the indignity of being clambered over by ordinary people trying to reach the dining car. I note that it must be tasty if so many passengers are keen to elbow their fellow travellers so vigorously in their attempts to reach the food.

A very relieved pair of adventurers arrive at the Christmas Market, where it is cold but decidedly steamrollered-tripe-free. The crowds bustle around us, brimming with festive energy and glowing with cheer, or possibly mulled wine. Both, perhaps. Heads spinning, we behold the Big Wheel, carriages wobbling in a friendly humour as it turns, and down below we see well-cushioned day-trippers jostling for safe passage on the ice rink, teetering and colliding alternately in their pursuit of elegance. Harnessed youngsters bounce high above trampolines and seem to enjoy their endeavours, but we decide that we are best served leaving our stomachs on the inside, and at approximately the present height.

We wait, noses high in the air to catch the delicious smells, until our friend and associate Tallulah, a primary teacher, appears in the vicinity of the giant chicken snow globe. I assume it’s meant to be a giant chicken snow globe. It is certainly full of feathers. We find ourselves in the middle of a market full of treats from Germany, or adjacent parts of Europe pretending to be Germany for the tourists. Overcome by hunger, we hit the sausage stand and drown our sandwiches in sweet German mustard, savouring the tasty, tasty sausage lunch. Thus fortified, we have the strength to investigate the nearby doughnuts recommended by Tallulah.

In a sugar haze, the masses of shoppers, carollers and (paranoia speaking) pickpockets merge and, when we recover our faculties, we find ourselves in possession of bags full of traditional merchandise. Quite inexplicable. Confusion abounds, but the handcrafted items are of such quality and beauty that we do not mind much. The discovery of an outdoor heater leads us into the mulled wine and beer garden, where we enjoy steaming beverages in ceramic goblets, wrapped up against the chill. Caught up in the revelry of the beer garden’s atmosphere, Tallulah and I lead a chorus of the old German drinking song, “When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney”. Distracted by the smells wafting from a recently-opened smokehouse, we follow a large joint of smoked pork to the stall where a local artisan slices it with a thump and offers us some of the delicious meat on a roll.

Inside the gallery cafe nearby, we divest ourselves of our outerwear, sipping tea and luxurious melted chocolate while we warm our hands.

The lights of the fair are aglow as we emerge to meet our dear friend, J, who has just finished work.

Tallulah buys me an early Christmas present of hairy highland cow earmuffs, then our attention is drawn to the lights cycling above , spinning and spinning as, one by one, each carriage traces a giant wheel in the air.
‘The Wheel of Death!” I exclaim. “I have heard tales of it, but have never had the chance to see it with mine own eyes!”
‘Ah, ” says Tallulah. “I have seen in before, in my childhood. Indeed, verily, lo, this wheel you see yonder defeated me in my youth and I do believe we are destined to meet again!”
“Um,” says I. “I’m really not all that bothered.” T and J shrug. They are used to these outbursts.
“Look,” says Tallulah. “You brought it up.”
“‘Tis true,” I admit. “You have me there.”
Tallulah considers. “For once, allow me to guide you in this task. We shall conquer the Wheel of Death, or return enbalmed!”
“Yay!” we cry, beginning to feel the heady effects of those delicious beverages.

We approach the attendant and hand over our money, proceeding up the marked path towards the mounting zone. An attendant holds the door as we climb into the carriage.
“Not too bad so far,” I remark.
The Wheel of Death begins to spin.
“MUMMY!” we screech.

Faster and faster the carriage climbs, pausing at the top suspended only by hope and a large metal bar, before surrendering to gravity and plunging, leaving our hearts at the top as we begin to have second thoughts about the day’s indulgences. As we pass the attendant, we see that he has determined to make the Wheel of Death spin until we can barely remember their names, nationalities and pin numbers.

We spin and spin, faster and faster, whirling and whirling until suddenly all is still.
“Are we… dead?” I ask.
“I think they’re unloading,” says J. “If I use this bit can I make it spin?”
“NOOOO!” we cry.
“If you do, then I will throttle you,” I threaten. “Actually, worse – I’ll hug you.”
J thinks about it for a moment. “I’ll be good.”

Painfully slowly, the Wheel of Death crawls around. The winds whistles through the surrounding girders and all I can hear is my pounding heart. Finally we are poised at the top. The view is magnificent, but all we feel is the chill of the night air, tinged with abandoned dreams and missed opportunities, garnished with the stale, cold smell of vague disappointment. As we descend, these afflictions ease, and we feel instead the promise of relief, when the attendant will open the door and welcome us back into a safe world populated not by Evil Wizards with carriage-spinning intentions, but by good, kind people who wish to live secure lives surrounded by grandchildren and puppies.

The carriage halts. The door opens. Tallulah and J alight first, followed by T, who takes my walking stick and handbag as I try to find the most appropriate disembarkation procedure. Crawling around the central pillar, I pull myself into a position from which I might bend my better leg, thus rendering me somewhat more capable of sliding to the door. A shift here. A slither there.

Just as I am about to push myself out of the door, someone absent-mindedly pushes the lever in the control house to “DEATH SPEED”.

The ground disappears. I can see only the stricken face of T as she attempts to effect a rescue, but is cruelly stuck down by a blow from the following carriage. J can only laugh, laughter that would surely turn to tears of distress were she able to wrest full control of emotional faculties.

High above them, I am shrieking in fright, but after a few moments of paralysis I am able to roll away from the open door – and certain death on the streets far below – and slam the door behind me. As I breath a sigh of relief and continue to ascend, below me I hear the welcome voice of Tallulah.

At ground level, she attempts to reach the enthralled safety attendant by issuing a command: “STOP THE WHEEL!”

The power of a yelling teacher could have stopped the wheel by itself, had not the safety attendant shaken off the trance and reversed the action. I was rescued from the Wheel of Death and disaster was averted.

Bet you’re all breathing a sigh of relief. You thought I was a goner there for a minute, didn’t you?