This is an account of the animals I have lived with or still live with. It is rather long so I have divided it into parts.
My earliest recollection of domestic animals were two kittens. I later learnt they had been called Peter and Paul. In Brighton we lived in a terrace of modest houses whose interconnected foundations served as a highway for mice. Every household had a simple choice: mice or cats. Any house without a cat was thoroughly infested, as I recall from our catless periods. We even had a singing mouse, a strange phenomenon if ever there was one. He used to come out and sing. That’s the only way to describe it, a murine Caruso.
Alas, poor Peter and Paul, for they did not survive. Cat flu did for them, despite my mother keeping them warm by the fire and feeding them doses of brandy. The mice returned in force, if they had ever gone away, and my mother did valiant battle with them, trying traps and poison. They ignored the poison but would occasionally venture into the traps. I remember my mother picking up a trap on a shovel and holding it at arm’s length, turning her face away from it, as she went outside to drop it in the dustbin.
So Toby came to join us. Toby was a white and ginger neutered tom. Like most cats he enjoyed eating and sleeping most but he did keep the mouse population at bay. Despite being of an ineffably calm and benign nature, Toby nonetheless had some adventures. The worst was when he decided to catch a wasp and as a result got stung in the mouth which caused the loss of some of his teeth. Another time, he disappeared. My mother called and called and hunted everywhere, ransacking cupboards and wardrobes again and again but without finding him. She even began hearing his ghostly miaows. After a couple of days, she realized the miaows were not ghostly and were coming from underneath the floor boards. We cautiously prised one up and out popped Toby. Somehow he had got into the foundations and not been able to find his way out again. He had come as close to us as he could and miaowed to let us know he was there. Toby died of old age, nearly blind. I sometimes wish I could go back and talk to him.
Toby didn’t know what to make of our next lodger, so after some preliminary interest, he chose the feline tactic of ignoring him. This newcomer was the tortoise André. Once over his nervousness, he proved an amenable companion. In summer we left him to roam the garden; in autumn and spring, he came indoors; and he slept away the winter in a box full of hay. André, named after the French hero in a story on children’s radio, was easy to look after. He liked anything yellow. Dandelion flowers were his favourite. Fortunately, our garden produced these in abundance. When we went away in summer, André went with us in a knapsack. When we moved to Gloucestershire, we no longer had an enclosed garden so André went to a new home. I hope he got plenty of dandelion flowers.
The only stain on André’s character concerns another tortoise. This was a very small one, about the size of a bar of soap, whereas André was as big as a soup plate. We thought they would probably ignore one another. Instead, André attacked the baby. He would come up behind him, raise himself as high as he could on his front legs, and then drop his weight on the victim. We had to keep them separate when we were not there to supervise them. In the end, the little one solved the problem by not making it through the winter. When André came out of hibernation, I went to look for the small one but he was obviously dead.