'Ferret Goes Racing'
Sunlight gleamed through the apple trees, dappling the grass with varying patterns of light and shade. Tommy and Ferret were wandering in the orchard at Holly Tree House. Ferret, snuffling along in his red harness, already knew every turn of the flattened grass path, bordered in late spring by great clumps of bluebells.
Now summer was here. Tiny green apples fell from the leafy boughs and bees hummed round the hive next to the mossy green wall.
Tommy spent every Sunday at the rescue centre. He sometimes came on Saturday afternoons as well, and occasionally he caught the bus to the village after school. He had learned how to clean out the ferret pens, treat bedraggled newcomers with flea and tick repellent and give them a welcome - or not so welcome - bath. He carefully cleaned ears and clipped the ends off long sharp claws. He knew every ferret by name and all were special to him.
His Ferret was now the picture of health; big and well-muscled in his sleek summer coat. Tommy's bond with him grew stronger by the day. They spent happy hours pottering together in the gardens and under the apple trees.
He had called the monkey-faced jill Lemur. She had been spayed and was living happily with Ferret in his pen. Lemur's beady eyes shone with mischief. She was tiny and lean, and still likely to give a sharp nip when she thought she wasn't getting all the attention. She was the darkest polecat at the rescue centre and strikingly beautiful.
Tommy was sitting under his favourite apple tree, looking up through the gnarled branches at the blue sky while Ferret rootled in the long grass, when Alison called him. He collected Ferret and trotted to the open kitchen door. Alison was consulting her diary.
"It's Greenham Country Fair next Sunday," she said. "There's a ferret show and ferret racing. We usually take some of our ferrets to meet the public as well as entering the competitions for a bit of fun. Michael can't go this year. Would you like to come with me?"
Tommy was delighted but puzzled about the ferret racing. "'Ow do they get 'em to stay in't lanes?" he wanted to know.
Alison showed Tommy some lengths of brown pipe stored in an outbuilding. Together they laid three pipes parallel on the lawn and Alison brought out two of her jills, Candy and Popcorn. The lithe little albinos were placed in the mouths of two of the tubes and, seconds later, two white heads were poking out the other end of the pipes. Alison explained that the ferret's whole body, right to the tip of the tail, had to emerge from the pipe before it could be declared a winner. Candy suddenly backed down the tube and popped out tail first at the end where she started. Popcorn peeped cautiously about and walked from the tube to be declared the winner.
"Ferret can race!" cried Tommy excitedly, placing his pet in the entrance to the third tube. "Come on Ferret!" Ferret paused. He peered lazily about him, took a step back and began sniffing the grass.
"This isn't the same as a proper course," Alison said, as Tommy tried to coax his reluctant ferret down the pipe. "They have starting boxes at the show and the tubes are much longer, with mesh part-way down so you can see who's in the lead. This is useful to practice with, but I wouldn't build up your hopes. The racing cup always goes to Alex Bancroft from Greenham Manor Farm. His jill Bracken is the best racer in the area.
The racing cup! Tommy pictured it. Tall and gleaming on an imposing plinth. How proud Alex Bancroft must be to have fastest racing ferret in the area. He pictured him too, grinning broadly with the victorious Bracken.
Ferret had left the lawn and was pottering about by the compost heap. Grass clippings stuck to his whiskers and he wore a dead leaf as a hat. "Come on," Tommy told him. "We'll practice again. An' this time, try an' 'urry up a bit."
On the morning of the fair, Tommy arrived early at Holly Tree House to prepare Ferret and Lemur for their first show. It was to be their first outing in the roomy green, blue and yellow travelling cage his mother had bought him for his birthday. It was already warm and sunny and Tommy bathed his ferrets on the lawn, letting them roll in large towels before putting them in the cage. He clipped their front claws the weekend before. Alison had told him that the judges marked down ferrets with rough, scratchy, nails cut just before an event. He had also checked that their ears were clean. The ferrets loved the fleecy hammock he had stretched between the cage bars and were soon settled for the short journey to the show-ground.
Tommy's excitement grew when he saw the marquees and heard the brass band. There were fluttering flags, decorated heavy horses, rows of vintage, veteran and classic vehicles, a steam traction engine and, in the main ring, a line-up of cattle on coloured halters. The show-ground smelled of steam, hot dog vans and farm animals. Everywhere was thronged with people.
The ferret show was on the bottom edge of the field, beneath a large tree that provided welcome shade. Tables laid out in the open air were already being covered by rows of plastic carriers and metal cages. Four lanes of blue tubing, each with a wooden starting box at the top end, were laid out in a roped-off arena. Mesh was inserted into them at intervals so the ferrets' progress could be cheered on. A knot of people clustered around a woman seated at a desk under a green and white gazebo.
Alison and Tommy secured two tables and arranged their cages in a row. They put out a big board telling people about the rescue centre, leaflets on how to care for a ferret and a collection box labelled: '50p feeds a homeless ferret for a week'. At last year's fair, Lettie, a plump polecat, raised £45 in three hours by sitting placidly in her cage next to the box. This year, it was the turn of Fergus, a huge albino, to appeal to public generosity.
Very soon, a man appeared in the arena with a clipboard calling for entries to the ferret racing. A crowd gathered as the first four ferrets were put into the starting boxes. When the order to 'go' was given, nothing happened for a few seconds. Then a handsome silver mitt popped his head out of the box and began making his way down the tube. He hesitated half way along and was overtaken by a big purposeful polecat that trotted from his pipe to earn a place in the next round.
The next heat was won easily by a sandy jill that sped down the tube. "That's Bracken," said Alison. Tommy watched a confident looking fair-haired boy in blue shirt scoop up his winning ferret and return to his friends.
Then it was Ferret's turn. Tommy saw two albinos and a dark polecat also being carried tot he start. Nervously he put Ferret in the red starting box and shut the lid. When the order to go was given, he quickly slid up the little door to the tube and waiting hopefully for Ferret to get under way. None of the four were keen to start but eventually an albino hob appeared in the mesh insert and ambled slowly along the course, urged on by eager owners. "Come on Snowy," yelled an excited small girl. Cheers rose from her family as the albino made his way steadily down the course and out at the other end. Ferret hadn't even left the starting box. Tommy was sick with disappointment.
He collected Ferret, turned away from the next heat and made his way sadly to where Alison was standing. "Never mind," she said. "Jim says they are still taking entries. Why not try Lemur?" She's quick and confident and the man who rescued her spotted her coming out of a drain. That has to be a good omen."
Tommy returned Ferret to his cage and picked Lemur gently from the hammock. Her slender body quivered and her liquorice-black eyes shone.
"Final heat," Jim was shouting. "Fred, Sixpence, Toffee and Lemur."
Tommy chose the yellow starting box in an outside lane. He pulled up the wooden flap and rushed to the side of the tube to see Lemur's pretty mouse-shaped face and its coal black mask already peeping out at him. "Come on Lemur," he called urgently. She hesitated and a silver hob began pottering down his tube. Lemur started down the course. Tommy called her again. The silver had reached the end but he was reluctant to leave the security of the tube. Lemur pattered swiftly down the pipe. Her head emerged and then her whole body. She was declared the winner. Tommy was thrilled and Alison shared his delight.
Jim announced that the eight heat winners would run in two races, with the first and second in each going through to the final Bracken was an easy winner of the first race, with the purposeful polecat bustling along to secure his place in the final.
Tommy secured his lucky yellow starting box, and waited tensely for the 'off'. Again, Lemur's head was the first to appear from the box. The other contestants were banging on the race tubes to urge on their ferrets. Lemur set off, faster and faster. Two of the others were now under way but Lemur didn't hesitate. The tip of her black tail cleared the tube. She had reached the final.
Jim immediately called the four finalists to the start. A girl with a long lean albino had bagged the yellow box. Bracken was next in line, then Lemur. The big polecat was in the end lane. The crowd pressed forward on the ropes.
Bracken's head appeared first with Lemur a moment behind. Both jills whisked down the tubes, reaching the end in seconds. Their heads were out. Lemur heard the roar from the spectators. She paused. Bracken flicked her tail clear.
Now the lean albino was challenging Lemur. His broad yellow head was poking from the end of the pipe. "Come on Charlie!" yelled his owners.
"Lemur!" pleaded Tommy. "Lemur!" She stepped forward. Her tail cleared the end of the pipe.
"Second," called Jim, then: "Third," as the albino emerged, with the polecat close behind.
A steward stepped forward with a sheaf of bright fluttering rosettes. Jim collected two trophies from a nearby table. Tommy was presented with a blue rosette and a trophy.
He was in a daze, as Alex Bancroft turned to congratulate him. "That was close," he said. "That's a nice little ferret. She'll do well in the showing."
Tommy was bursting with pride. He showed Alison his beautiful rosette and his silver cup with 'Ferret Racing - Runner-Up' engraved on the plinth.
They took Lemur back to the cage. She and Ferret were given Dentabits as treats and Alison freshened their water from a big container.
The racing tubes were cleared in readiness for the showing. "Polecat hob," called Jim and Alison picked Hobbit from his hammock. "He never wins anything," she said. "But he'd be hurt if we left him at home."
Tommy watched as the judge moved slowly down the line of ferrets, examining teeth, ears and claws. He was fascinated by the way he blew up the backs of the ferrets to part the coat and then rubbed his cheek against the fur. He returned to several, re-checking muscle-tone. He pointed to four entrants and they stepped forward. Alison was not among them but she was quite unconcerned and share a joke with another contestant. The judge handed out the rosettes, starting with fourth place - green, yellow, blue and then the winner's red.
"Polecat jill," Jim called. Tommy had trusted Alison with his rosette and his trophy, making her promise not to let them out of her sight, even for a second. Now he stood in line of about ten contestants, with Lemur's fur shining blue in the afternoon sunlight. It seemed an age before the judge reached him. He took Lemur and began his thorough examination. He blew up her back, parting the black guard hairs to reveal the creamy-yellow undercoat. He checked her perfect white teeth, carefully clipped claws and ears that were clean but not scoured out. Alison had told him that judges do not like unnaturally clean-looking ears.
When the judge had looked at every ferret, he made his way slowly back along the line, putting out his hand to re-examine several. He took Lemur again and ran his hand down her body.
He stepped back, pointed to three people in turn - and then at Tommy. "And that one," he said. Tommy joined the elite group in the centre of the arena as the other entrants filed away. Again the judge started hard at the ferrets while the steward waited at his shoulder with a pile of bright rosettes. Tommy's heart raced as the judge took a green rosette and handed it to the woman next to him. Then the yellow and the blue were given out. Finally, the judge handed Tommy the red winner's rosette." Well done," he said. "That's a lovely ferret."
Tommy felt he was the proudest and happiest person in the world. He could hardly take his eyes off his cup and rosettes as he minded the ferret cages while Alison and Candy came second in the albino jill class.
To his disappointment, Ferret was not picked out from a long line of coloured hobs. "I wish he could 'ave got a rosette," he told Alison.
His wish came true in a big rescue class when Ferret was awarded third prize. "I'm glad he got the yellow one," Tommy said. "Now I've got all diff'rent colours."
He lovingly arranged his three rosettes and his trophy along the top of Ferret and Lemur's cage and thought how proud Mum would be.
"This is my best day ever," he said. "Except for when I found Ferret."