Tommy In Charge
Tommy burst into the flat and threw down his battered school bag. The summer holidays had started and in just two days he was to take charge of the ferret rescue centre
"We must go through our lists again," he told Mum. "And you mustn't forget to pack. You don't need much - just a few things. Have you bought those wellies yet?"
He looked doubtfully at Mum in her thin summer dress and strappy gold sandles.
"Alison wears leather boots and green cord trousers," he said. "It's what country people wear."
"I'm not in the country yet," said Mum. "I'm frazzling in this stuffy flat after a rotten day cleaning offices. Don't worry, I'm going to the shopping centre tomorrow to buy some boots. I was brought up in a village you know."
Michael and Alison were taking their first real holiday in years while Tommy and his mother looked after Holly Tree House. As well as all the ferrets, there were the two dogs, three cats and an assortment of ducks and hens to look after. Mum didn't drive and she had been worried about doing the shopping and coping in an emergency. While she hesitated and Tommy pleaded, news came that Michael's brother was due back from Saudi Arabia and had asked to stay for a few weeks. Charlie could drive the 4x4 into town and generally be a great help.
Tommy had been rehearsing his role as rescue centre manager for weeks. "I'm going to get up at six o'clock to feed and clean the ferrets," he told Mum for the twentieth time. "Then I'll walk the dogs. Then it's playtime and socialisation skills for the rescue ferrets. Then you make dinner. Then I'll show visitors round and maybe settle in a new arrival. Then you make tea."
Mum smiled. "I can't wait," she said. "Maybe I can sit in the garden if it's still nice."
Sunday was scorching. Tommy and Mum climbed thankfully from the roasting taxi, left their luggage in the cool hall and joined Alison and Michael in the garden. They were catching a night flight to Athens to join a two-week cruise of the Greek Islands.
"The freezer's packed with food and there's loads of other stuff in the pantry." said Alison. "Tommy, the animal food's in the big wooden shed. There's stacks of it." She turned to Mum. "I can't really thank you enough, Ellie. It means such a lot to us that you are here to look after everything."
"And mind you help yourself to a drink every night," said Michael. "You'll need it in this madhouse!"
When Alison and Michael had gone, Tommy took Ferret on to the lawn and lay down in the shade. Ferret shuffled happily about. He had put on rather a lot of weight and was the picture of contentment. Lemur had accepted her new 'sister' Linnet without too much fuss, much to Tommy and Alison's relief. "Mixing jills can be a nightmare," Alison had said. "It's handbags at fifty paces and sometimes they don't get on at all." But after a few days of scuffling and squealing, the tiny polecats were seen sharing a hammock and all was well.
Tommy walked into the orchard, with Ferret trundling after him. They entered a world of slanting gold light and moss green shade. Over the stone wall and across the rolling fields, the cattle and horses grazed the lush grass. It was a perfect summer's evening.
Next morning, Tommy was up bright and early. Another lovely day - and he was in charge!
He had often stayed at Holly Tree House and knew the routine, although it felt strange not to have Alison or Michael to chat to while he dished out the complete ferret food and freshened the water bottles and bowls. All the ferrets were lively and healthy except for one little albino jill who had recently been spayed. Her wound had become infected and Tommy carefully measured out her medication before making a special fuss of her. She was brighter today and would soon make a full recovery and be back with her three friends in their roomy pen. He meticulously updated her record card before moving on to feed and clean out 'The Hooligans' a boisterous gang of big rescue hobs - all health-checked, castrated and ready for new homes.
Tommy consulted the rescue centre's diary. A family were coming that afternoon to look at 'The Hooligans' and maybe take two of them home. Alison had done the home check and Tommy's role was to supervise the hand-over if all went well.
Meanwhile, there were dogs to walk and ducks and hens to feed. Then it was back to the big sunny kitchen for breakfast. Mum was at the Aga frying bacon and eggs. "You'll need a good breakfast now you're living in the country," she said.
The morning passed in a flurry of happy tasks. After lunch, Mum sat in a reclining garden chair on the large patio overlooking rolling meadowland. She looked very much the lady of the house, sipping a gin and tonic in her pink Lycra dress and sunglasses.
Just after 3pm, Tommy showed the family - Mum, Dad and two pretty girls - into the cool vastness of the ferret barn. He guided them with difficulty towards 'The Hooligans', the girls crying out in delight at the rows of furry faces and little paws at the wire. The girls provisionally selected Ambrose and Arthur, an albino and a polecat 'Hooligan'. Tommy placed the two hobs in a socialisation area in the centre of the barn where there were toys and tubes and straw bales for the visitors to sit on. Ambrose and Arthur immediately began bouncing and chasing, round and round, up and down, while the family laughed at their playful antics. The two ferrets then settled down on eager laps, proving they were gentle and sociable.
The choice was made. The paperwork signed and handed over and Ambrose and Arthur were waved off to a life of love and luxury in a market town six miles away.
Tommy joined Mum on the patio. He settled down with a glass of iced lemonade, the dogs panting in their shaggy coats, sprawled at his feet
"I love it here," he said. "Do you like it, Mum?"
His mother looked out across the sunlit meadows and sighed. "Oh yes," she said. "Very much."
Then she told Tommy about the cottage she grew up in, with a vegetable patch, apple trees and pigs. Her father had been a farm manager but he was already ill with the cancer that killed him when Mum married Tommy's dad and moved to the city. Three years later, when Tommy was two, she was a widow. Her husband died in a crash on the A1. He was racing with two friends, at 100mph they said at the inquest, when his bike span out of control and hit a bridge. Since then, Ellie had been on her own. Now at last she was back in the country
The next two days passed quickly and happily. Tommy bustled around outside and Mum spent hours cleaning the already spotless house before taking her sunbed in the afternoon with a well-earned drink and a magazine. The little albino jill was well enough to go back in with her friends. The glorious summer weather stretched on and everything was wonderful.
Then late one evening the phone rang
Tommy, who had just come in after a last check of the ferrets and poultry, answered it.
"Is that the ferret rescue?" The voice was gruff and urgent. "I've got a bag of ferrets. My mate wants rid of 'em. He said e'd hit 'em on the head with a 'ammer. I said I'd chuck 'em in the river for 'im instead. You've got to fetch 'em now, or I'll 'ave to."
"Where are you?" Tommy asked, anxiety knotting his stomach.
"The Reindeer, North Moorend. The bag's in't back of a blue van parked at the back. I'll give you an hour, else I'm back to me mate, empty 'anded, if you knows wot I mean."
"We'll be there," said Tommy.
The voice was suddenly suspicious.
"You're just a kid ain't yer?"
"It's all right. We'll be there."
The phone went dead
Mum was in the hall. Tommy turned to her white-faced. The gleaming 4x4 in the garage was no use to either of them and they knew no one in the area.
What about a taxi? Mum doubted if the driver would agree to transport the ferrets but at least they would be collected. Frantically, Tommy dialled numbers. It was 10.30 on a lovely Duly evening. They were all engaged or unwilling to help.
Tommy was near to tears
"Think of something!" he shouted at Mum. We can't let those ferrets die!"