The Christmas Ferret
AT FIRST he didn't know what it was. Only that he must have it. He made a pouncing grab and plucked it from the filthy pavement. It dangled kitten-like in his hand staring at him with beady button-black eyes. It was surprisingly heavy, the colour of stained sheep's wool. He'd seen them before, on that animal rescue programme on telly, playing in and out of bendy tubes. They'd danced and jumped about and the presenter said they needed new homes. He wanted Mum to ring up but she said it wasn't practical. It was a ferret. His ferret.
He looked quickly about. A thin stinging rain streaked the stained concrete. The street was deserted. He pushed the ferret carefully into his large anorak pocket, buttoned it inside, and walked quickly towards home. In the shadow of the tower block, he glanced back, half expecting to be challenged. He felt the ferret's furry warmth. Its compliant weight dragged at the thin fabric of his coat.
He hurried past the terraced houses, their raw red chimneys ranked like fortress battlements against a leaden December sky. He reached the newsagent's shop, its grimy barred windows, giving no hint that Christmas was only four days away. Then came the last climb from the city centre to the small second-floor flat he shared with Mum.
Anxiety began gnawing at the edge of his excitement. Where would Ferret live? Did he eat live rabbits? He imagined him looking ravenously at Cuddles and Snuggles, his cousin Amy's Angora rabbits. Amy lived in a detached house with a fish pond and what Uncle David called 'a barbecue area'. They had a garage, a dishwasher and two toilets, but one was just a tiny compartment under the stairs. You could see the tower blocks from the barbecue area. It wasn't the real countryside. Nothing like.
His school friends loved the city, with its ice rink, bowling alley, busy shopping centres, new multi-screen cinema and pizza and burger restaurants, but something in him craved the countryside. An old jigsaw puzzled in the storage unit at home fascinated him. On the battered box was a picture of a thatched cottage next to a duck pond, tall pink and yellow flowers grew in the garden and a ginger cat basked in the sun under a blue sky. He would sit and stare at the picture: at the yellow thatch, green grass, pink flowers and blue sky. Mum said it was a cottage in the Cotswolds but he couldn't believe it was real.
He was almost home. The ferret turned in his pocket. Its claws rasped the nylon lining and its nose shoved at the button. It was early and Mum was out cleaning. He shut his bedroom door, tugged the ferret free and set it lightly on the carpet. It trotted on short purposeful legs like a clockwork toy. Its fawn-coloured coat was sparse and it looked dirty and neglected but its button eyes were bright. It was his and already he loved it. He fetched a saucer of milk. The ferret drank greedily, sneezing droplets from its whiskers. He found some mince in a bag in the fridge. The ferret seized a lump and shot under the bed to champ it. It came back for another and another. Then it leapt at the empty rustling bag, dancing madly round him, tail bristling, snatching playfully at his trousers. He went to pick it up but it darted backwards, skewed its head to stare at him and buried itself in a discarded jumper. He knelt beside it watching its regular breathing lightly disturbing the blue wool.
Mum and Mrs Schofield arrived soon afterwards. Mrs Schofield cleaned at the same offices as Mum and often dropped by for a cup of tea on the way home to her immaculate semi. She was a tiny bossy woman who spent most of her life berating Mr Schofield. Above the clatter of tea things, Mrs Schofield's voice was raised in querulous indignation: "Ab U sez ti ;un 'call that patyo swept and as for that 'edge, it looks like The Thirty Nine Steps, so get those bloomin' cutters and...'"
Mrs Scholfield broke off."'Ere," she demanded. "Wot's that smell? That's ferrets that is. They 'ad 'em on the farm when I was a kid. Stinking vicious things. Take yer 'and off soon as look at you."
The bedroom door swung open to reveal Mrs Schofield's sharp features. She immediately spotted the empty saucer. "'E's got a ferret in 'ere," she announced triumphantly. "A nasty stinking ferret in 'is bedroom."
He stood up, blocking the doorway. "'E's mine," he said. "You leave 'im alone." Mrs Schofield ignored him. "No better than vermin them things," she said. "I'll send Mr Schofield round with a sack. 'E'll get 'is thick gardening gloves and dispose of it."
Rage and hatred seized him. "You touch 'im, you bloody touch 'im, and you'll be in a sack you old bag," he yelled. He kicked shut the door and leant on it, waiting for the row to subside.
Mum would be all right. She loved him like he loved Ferret. Ferret would be allowed to stay. But as he looked around his tiny room, his heart sank. Ferret didn't look well. His head was covered in strange black lumps and he was smelly and stringy looking. He needed fresh air and grass to play on, not to be shut up out of the sunlight. And what would his pet do when he was back at school? He imagined Ferret peering through the net curtains hour after hour, staring across at the tower blocks and waiting for him to return.
Mum came in. She said he must apologise to Mrs Schofield as she was only trying to help. She gave him a note-let with pansies and violets on it. Reluctantly, he wrote: "I am sorry Mrs Schofield but that Ferret is my Ferret and not for disposing."
Later, he and Mum watched Ferret trot round the kitchen. He messed on the lino but Mum cleaned it up with kitchen roll. Ferret ate some chopped boiled egg, drank water from his saucer and went to sleep in the laundry basket.
Mum said she had booked Ferret in at the vet because he didn't look too healthy. They found a cardboard box and he took him to the surgery nearby. Mum said they didn't have to pay because it was a special vets paid for by charity.
The vets' waiting room was warm and bright. There was a Christmas tree decorated with red and gold tinsel and baubles and piles of leaflets about animal care, but he couldn't find any about ferrets.
The vet said Ferret had ticks and fleas. She got a tweezer-type thing and twisted the black lumps off his face and ears. She dusted Ferret with white powder and gave him two injections. She asked him how long he had had Ferret. "I found 'im this morning," he said, "Near the bus station. 'E's mine now."
The vet asked where Ferret lived and what he was fed on, then she left to make a phone call. She returned with a card printed with a ferret's head, a holly bush resplendent with scarlet berries, and the words: Holly Tree House Haven For Ferrets. "It's a rescue centre," she said. "The owners have invited you to visit with your ferret. They are called Michael and Alison Meredith and they care for unwanted and abandoned ferrets." She paused. "You can leave him there if you decide that's best for him."
"'E's mine," he said. "I'm not leavin' 'im nowhere. 'E's stayin' wi' me."
"That's your decision entirely," said the vet. "But please ring them and arrange to visit. They won't take your ferret without permission, I promise."
She smiled at the small boy clutching the bedraggled ferret. "You can meet all their ferrets and learn more about how to look after yours. You really must go. He needs a lot of special care. He's been badly neglected."
It was getting dark as he carried Ferret in his cardboard box past the shopping centre. Its bright windows displayed glittering Christmas trees, sequinned partywear, expensive toys and hampers strewn with tinsel, gold stars and red and silver streamers.
Ryan Scott and Bradley Mason, bigger boys from school, were hanging about near the chip shop.
"Wha'yer gor in there?" Bradley demanded.
"Nothin'," he said, shifting the box under his arm. Just then, Ferret pushed up the cardboard flaps and stuck out his head like a Jack-in-the-Box, peering about with bright interested eyes.
"Flippin' Nora! It's a giant rat," said Ryan. "Them's vermin. Let's stick 'im."
Bradley, advancing purposefully, said: "It's a ferret. I seen 'em before. They use 'em for ratting. Gimme 'im 'ere."
"Gerroff," he said in rising panic. "'E's mine. You can't 'ave 'im."
As Bradley lunged at the box, a girl shouted: "Wot yer doin'? Leave 'im be yer daft b*****s."
It was Gemma Slaney. Tall, skinny, with blonde hair-twists and a myriad piercings in her ears, nose, eyebrows and other conspicuous parts of her fashionably-dressed body.
Gemma was going to be a model and, to all the older boys, she was already Kate Moss. She was with her boyfriend Carl from the tyre and exhaust centre. Carl, who screeched about in a battered XR3i, was said to have a conviction for GBH.
"You get lost," she told Ryan and Bradley and, to Carl: "Get us a fishcake an' chips."
She teetered up on kitten heels to look at Ferret. "'E's sweet," she said. "But 'e pongs a bit, don't 'e?" She tickled Ferret's with her long purple nails. Ferret behaved beautifully and allowed himself to be shoved safely back into the box for the short walk home. To Ryan and Bradley, Gemma's admonishing shriek was an angelic command. They drifted off towards the snooker hall.
That night, Ferret slept in his box in the bedroom. He settled his pet snugly into his jumper and lay awake worrying. Everyone seemed against them. The vet obviously didn't think Ferret would be happy here and even Mum had mentioned the smell. There was no denying that the room, and indeed the whole flat, smelt of Ferret. He thought about visiting the ferret rescue home for advice but feared they would snatch his pet away.
Early next morning, he and Ferret went for a walk. There was a crispy coating of frost on the grass opposite the flats. Ferret bustled about undisturbed, rootling in a discarded biscuit wrapper and rubbing his sparse fur on the crunchy white tufts of grass.
At breakfast, he told Mum about Holly Tree House Haven For Ferrets and showed her the card. He asked if it was far and if they could go on the bus. Mum said she'd ring Mr and Mrs Meredith and see if Uncle Dave could give them a lift.
"I'm not leavin' 'im there," he said, "It's just a look round. Me an' Ferret."
Uncle Dave arrived after dinner in his green Peugeot. He said Ferret stank and the upholstery would smell for weeks. Mum told him to stop mithering. They arranged to drop him and Ferret at the rescue centre while they went to the big new out-of-town shopping centre. He knew this was a treat for Mum as she didn't get out much since Dad died.
He sat in the back of the car with Ferret in his box, passing rows of shops, tower blocks, housing estates and industrial units. They reached the ring road and turned out of the city.
Soon there were fields, trees, farms and cottages. Uncle Dave stopped in a pretty village high street to ask two old ladies for directions. He then pulled up outside a small manor house with iron railings, a flagstone path and elegant sash windows. A wreath of glossy evergreens decorated with red ribbons hung from the shiny green front door. To the left of the stone porch grew a holly tree ablaze with berries.
"Bloomin' 'eck," said Uncle Dave. "This looks a bit posh."
"We'll just wait while you knock," said Mum. She knew it was his big adventure. Ferret's and his.
He carried Ferret in his box up the path and knocked. A grey-haired man in a blue tie, fawn cardigan and check slippers stood in the doorway. He smiled down at the boy and gave a friendly wave to Mum and Uncle Dave.
"It's Tommy isn't it?" he said. "Come in and meet us all."
The hall sparkled with a tall Christmas tree, smelling of fresh pine needles. A passage hung with watercolours led to a big warm kitchen, redolent of spices and fresh baking. Two shaggy dogs rose from their baskets near the Aga. A pretty dark-haired woman in a scarlet jumper and black trousers turned to greet him.
"Hello," she said. "I'm Alison. I'll just get this last lot of mince pies in and then we'll take a look at your ferret and have a tour round." The Aga door clanged shut and she led the way down another passage to a conservatory looking over a sweep of lawn, trees and a range of stone outbuildings.He lifted Ferret from his box and Mrs Meredith took him. His coat, claws, ears and teeth were scruntinised. "He's a nice big size," she said, "and not very old. Look at his milky white teeth. He's still got some ticks and his claws need cutting. We'll put him in a run and let Michael sort him out while we look round."
Mrs Meredith told him Ferret should be castrated. It would stop him smelling so strongly and enable him to mix with other ferrets.
They left the house by the conservatory door and set off up a mossy stone path. There was a frosty tang in the air and the garden smelled of the countryside: of decaying leaves, fallen apples and wood smoke. They reached a stone barn. The huge studded door was open and, ranged high above them, were the great timber roof beams. The floor was covered in straw and a broad shaft of sunlight turned it to a gleaming gold.
All around the inside were ranged roomy pens with nest boxes, flexible tubing, slides and ladders. Eager pointed faces appeared at the mesh and small hand-like paws gripped the wire. A seeming multitude of ferrets ran up and down, scaling the wire, wrestling, sliding, jumping and bouncing. Ferret's head popped out of the box and he looked around, beady black eyes alert with excitement.
They crunched on the crisp straw to an empty pen with a water bottle clipped to the wire. There were shavings on the floor, a nest box and yards of pink flexible tubing. From the top of the pen hung a green bucket on a rope and a fleecy pink and purple hammock. In one corner was a stainless steel bowl of food.
Mrs Meredith lifted Ferret from his box and set him down in the pen. Ferret snuffled about, did a few experimental jumps and began crunching a piece of food.
"He'll be fine while we look round," said Mrs Meredith. She bolted the door and they began moving down the line of pens. A huge polecat-coloured ferret ambled up to the wire. Mrs Meredith picked him gently out and gave him a hug. "This is Hobbit," she said. "He was dumped by the canal in a sack with four others, all starving and covered in lice and ticks. Thank God they didn't throw them in. They're all here to stay. We will never rehome them, they've been through too much."
"Can I 'old 'im?" he asked. He grasped the huge placid ferret in a bear hug, burying his face in the soft fur.
Afterwards, it seemed to him that the afternoon passed in a blur of many-coloured ferrets. Lithe jills, plump hobs and lively groups of rolling, scrapping, wrestling youngsters. All had been homeless and unwanted. All were now loved, protected, warm and well fed. His favourite was a newcomer. A tiny monkey-faced polecat jill who gripped his finger tightly in her claws, nipped his arm and tugged playfully at his anorak sleeve. Like Ferret, she was wandering in the city. She hadn't yet been given a name.
Then it was back to the kitchen for orange juice and hot mince pies. The afternoon was closing in when they went to the barn for Ferret. It had been a very special day. Now he stood in front of the pen, clutching his battered cardboard box. Ferret was curled sound asleep in a blanket in the nest box. His claws were neatly trimmed, the rest of the ticks had been removed and he had been bathed in a special shampoo.
He looked round at the spacious brightly-lit pens. It was coming up to feeding time and expectant faces lined the front of the enclosures. He looked at Ferret, stretching sleepily on his fleecy blue blanket. He made a decision. Turning to Mrs Meredith, he said: "Will you take 'im?" The words choked him. The mesh blurred through his tears.
"No," she said. "We won't take him. No one will. He's yours. If he stays here, he will expect to see you very often."
"You mean I can come back? See Ferret and maybe help with the others?"
"We're counting on it - and so is Ferret," Mrs Meredith said,
"Can Ferret stay in this pen, I think he likes this one?" he said.
"Of course. It's his home now. I'll take him to the vet tomorrow for his operation and he'll be ready for visitors by Christmas Eve."
Two days later, he was back at the rescue centre. Mum brought him on the bus and thought he could manage the half-hour trip on his own next time. He rushed ahead of Mum and the Merediths down the path to the barn. Ferret was snuffling round his pen. Already his coat seemed glossier and he smelled of clean straw. Mrs Meredith said Ferret would be still be tender underneath but the scar was healing nicely.
"He'll want a friend to share his home with," she said. "Have you any ideas about that, Tommy?"
Already, he was running to the other side of the barn. Clipped to the monkey-faced jill's pen was a Christmas card. It read: "Merry Christmas Tommy. Would you like to adopt me? Remember, a ferret is for life, not just for Christmas."
Later that wonderful Christmas Eve, while Mum and the Merediths were having tea in front of a blazing log fire, he carried Ferret out of the barn and under the apple trees to a stone wall at the edge of the garden. He looked across the darkening fields to a distant clump of trees. A single star was out.
"Look Ferret," he said: "You can't see the tower blocks."
(First published in Ferrets First Dec/Jan 2001/2)