Things newborn – meet Flora Finching

20180316_205316Out of this month of blizzards, loss and hair-raising journeys, the stress of Crufts and the passing of our old friend, Bailey, at least some sunshine has supervened. Our newest family member has arrived: Hammy Flora. Early days yet, but she seems a friendly, gentle little soul, relaxed and happy in her new environment which she is busily making her own under cover of darkness. Every night, once she’s up and doing, Kemo Sabe makes a point of bringing her a bowl of fresh vegetables, taking the opportunity to get her used to human touch. So far, so good. She is extraordinarily open to being stroked gently, and never flinches in fear.

20180320_171931Whereas Hammy Bumble was easily disturbed and slept very lightly, Flora is flat-out from dawn to quite late in the day, which makes meeting her a bit of a challenge. Although she has explored all her extensive demesne, she seems to be concentrating on two out of three areas, and has taken to rolling up in a ball to sleep in the connecting tube, plugs of wood shavings and kapok above and beneath her. She is but a baby, of course – but eight weeks old, we think – and obviously feels more secure there, despite in one way being so exposed. This morning, before she curled up for her daytime sleep, Kemo Sabe managed to grasp Flora gently but firmly (and without any hint of a nip!) and bring her out of the cage for her first proper cuddle.

20180316_205455The colour of pale caramel or biscuit all over, Flora takes her Dickensian name from the warm-hearted character in Little Dorrit who acts (and dresses) much younger than her age. As we write this, our Flora is dreaming and making tiny noises in her idiosyncratic nest. Many hours remain before she is ready for her nightly interaction with the rest of the gang; it’s early days, but so far everyone is pleased with her integration into the complicated world of beds, bowls and feeding opportunities which constitute being one of us.

Sleep tight, little bear

20180223_214556Hammy Bumble died last night, some time between eight and nine-thirty. He was still breathing when Kemo Sabe, Barnaby and I left the study for some time by the fire downstairs; he was warm and comfortable in an impromptu nest we improvised for him upon his wheel, to which spot he had moved by first thing Friday morning. When, before bed, we found him still and lifeless, we gently brought him out from under the kapok and shavings and took this picture. First thing this morning, he was buried near Uncle Johnny and Hammy Jo, with Barnaby and me in attendance, close to where a wonderful yew tree is shortly to be planted, and surrounded by daffodil bulbs bursting into life. In his box, for his journey, there are some of his favourite nuts and dried fruit.

20180224_085410And so another little friend joins the others beyond the rainbow bridge in that undiscovered country over which so much speculation has been spent. Looking close-up at last at his beautiful finger nails and tiny front teeth, his minuscule pink pads and once opulent pelt, it takes some doing to dismiss his being as of minimal significance. Once again we are reminded of how tenacious life is, and what a privilege it is to embrace it.


Spinning that wheel

20180202_075638It seems that little Hammy Bumble’s life is maybe drawing to a close. Over the last month or so he has withdrawn into himself, slowed right down and, as we write this, he is where has has remained recently, in the new-found bedroom he (and we) have put together for him in the part of his labyrinth nearest to the computer. He was making the occasional venture between his various houses until last week but now he has, it would seem, taken to his sick-bed, and indeed we can hear him cough very quietly to himself, now and then. In early February it actually seemed as though he had developed a really serious infection, so stressful was his breathing and so confused his demeanour. But he seemed after a couple of really bad days to overcome the worst and rally into a kind of extreme old age, bed-ridden and with little desire to move far.

20180202_075643It is about two years ago since Hammy Jo went. His was a truly gruelling end, probably a form of pneumonia, and we all hope that Bumble is spared that dreadful gasping, long-drawn-out finale. He still raises his beautiful head and pokes about in his vegetable bowl a couple of times a day, but all the usual routines are now abandoned and he is actually eating very little. It’s unlikely he can endure much longer, as tiny as his resources are, if he persists in this way of living, so like our elderly relatives who withdraw to the comfort of bed, pull the covers up and wait for the call. Mostly his eyes remain at least half-shut now; he is obviously weak and has lost interest in the world he has called his own for so long. Nevertheless, we continue to prepare and serve him every day with his favourite herbs, fresh veg, dried fruit and nuts – never did another hamster eat quite so well as Bumble, who always seemed so anxious about food. Habitually he emptied every bowl, wasting so much because so much of it was hidden, lest anyone else should take it (one can only ponder quite who that might be, in his little imagination). Now most of it gets thrown away, when a fresh selection is offered. Such sadness, once again. Such a dear, sweet, tiny little soul. Doing what all living souls must one day do.


Notes from the underground

20160323_181238Since we all returned from Crufts we’ve been under the weather and no mistake. Speaking for my own medical case, I know this is not a good look, but at least I’ve been spared what Barnaby calls ‘the cone of shame’. I like to think of this soft, protective cushion as the doughnut of comfort and so far it’s served me nicely, stopping me from nibbling my wound and giving me something reassuring to rest against. I acquired it on returning home after a day at the vet’s for what  – everyone tells me – is a routine operation. I note with interest, however, that none of the others knows anything about it.  I am sore, though, and feeling more than a bit delicate which is empathetic of me, bearing in mind how ill the humans have been for the last couple of weeks.

Like my own poor Kemo Sabe, however, I can at last feel the life force returning, in recognition of which I’ve now been allowed to exercise with the others in the morning once again. Oh the joy of smelling the salty sea air! The fellowship! The fun! Being a responsible boy, I haven’t pushed myself too far and, as the nurse at the vet’s said during my check-up yesterday, things are healing nicely. The humans have really had to stagger through this winter, with its record grey skies and mild temperatures; it’s no wonder these virulent germs have been so difficult to vanquish and I have had my own down days, too. The sun has all but abandoned the country this winter – a record-breaking year of days without sunshine –  and in particular the post-Crufts weeks have been a kind of twilight zone for us all, overshadowed by Hammy Jo’s empty cage and the lassitude that overwhelms the unwell: sleeping badly, coughing madly and yet – ironically – longing always for bedtime! How sad it makes us to see them brought so low.

20160325_102133(1)Thus, despite returning home after our Crufts adventures dying to tell the big news about what happened to our friend, Sebastian the dalmatian, fate intervened and, one after another, the troops went down and I have laid aside the composition of my paean of praise for a couple more days. As I write this, Hammy Bumble is as active as ever in his demesne. Whatever the time of day, whenever we enter the study, he is always awake, or ready to rise, never fully relaxed, always ready to run around madly, his own particular silliness being to roll over and over, as though doing somersaults. Bit by bit he is learning there is nothing to fear, as must I, in my comfy doughnut. We must hope and move forward, despite the darkness, despite the unknown fear. For despite everything, day after day our fragrant meals have been provided promptly morning and afternoon; our routines honoured; our needs met – Hammy’s initial training included. How blessed we creatures are to be put first, and sometimes at such cost.

Look who’s here!

DSC01529Resting in exactly the same spot our dear-departed little Jo loved – right at the foot of his long tube – the new arrival is sleeping (more or less) at last. Or on and off, at least. When he was placed gently into the heart of his distinguished forbear’s extensive complex, he spent the rest of the day (and probably half the night, too) exploring. At first tentatively, creeping cautiously along each tunnel and around each bend, peeping out from openings, but always on guard. Welcome to your world, little Bumble!  We’ll hear more of you once you’ve settled right in.

How hard to speak of it . . .

smaller hammy detail 2Funny isn’t it, that when we are very young it’s gigantic beasts  – the tyrannosaurs – that fascinate us? As we grow up, though, we begin to notice and appreciate the tiny ones – the worms, the shrimps, the bees and butterflies and birds – creatures who swarm, and sing, squirm and swim within the various pools of life. Running across the rocks this morning – our own ancient Dry Salvages which are bejewelled with fossilized worms – we saw within a splash of brackish water right up at the foot of the dunes- a long way from the sea – a life force barely half an inch long, darting and busying himself with his morning tasks. Some kind of pool dweller, some insignificant crustacean perhaps, thrown up by the last tide, or fallen to earth from a shower of rain; getting on with his life, his routines, as do we.

This morning, like yesterday, there was one less routine to perform: ministering to Hammy Jo. Some time after the tide turned at 23.22 on Friday 4 March and before 3.45 on the 5th, his life force left him and he passed through moonlight’s shimmering vagueness – it was a night amazing with stars – and left us to it. Now the growlery he called his home is stripped of his spirit, and feels as frigid as an empty box. His obsequies on Saturday morning were followed by a thorough cleaning of his labyrinthine cages and tubes; every nook, cranny and joint of his home of the last two years was taken apart, washed and replaced. Reassembled, with fresh shavings on the floors, it sits ready to receive a new member of the family, when the time is right. For now, though, it is his absence which is palpable.


Here he is, in the lovely little box Jeoffry donated for his burial beside Uncle Johnny, lined with shavings and kapok, a selection of his favourite nibbles to get him to the underworld, some rosemary for remembrance and a tiny fresh rosebud found blooming alone in the front garden. He had spent Friday night gasping for breath, cradled in warmth beside Kemo Sabe; in the background was playing Morten Lauridsen’s incomparable  ‘O magnum mysterium’, that homage to the worthiness of wordless creatures. Let cynics fly and remember these words from St Matthew:  ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

Hammy, little one, how we miss you. Now you can dream, as someone famous once said, in the green of your time.


Things dying, things newborn

hammy Jo 3.3.16The house fell silent yesterday after our friend, Busy Biscuit, left for home. What larks we all had when we were together during his stay: what barkings, what humpings, what games of chase and fetch and come and go! The place had rarely seemed livelier, or more full of the joie de vivre dogs cannot help but express.  On the beach at Low Newton with the seaweed; in the Bamburgh dunes with the muddy pools; in the garden, down the lane – it was all new to our young friend and he enjoyed every minute of our time together, discharging himself with honour, sleeping at each day’s end right through the night, warmed by the stove in his own, cosy nest, his head full of dreams, and plans of fun and frolic yet to come.

cage 2Upstairs – in his own cosy but ever dwindling world – another tale has, unfortunately, been unfolding: tiny Hammy Jo’s life is drawing to its end. How can such a small decline evoke such heart-rending sadness?  Our previously chubby fellow, with his wonderful pelt, would patrol and organise his extensive demesne on a continual basis but especially throughout the night; accumulating and grading his supplies, according to size and shape; selecting successive latrine sites for reasons best known to himself; seeking out new treats suspended hither and yon; transferring bedding from one living area to another, again for reasons best known to himself. Gradually, over the last several months, however – his second birthday upon him – his perambulations and his aegis have diminished. First he abandoned his other two-storey cage, restricting his activities to the upper and lower floors of the right-hand one. Connecting tunnels lie dusty and unused, like sad pedestrian underpasses. Then he eschewed the mezzanine, where he came of late with increasing regularity to slate his thirst at the smaller of his water bottles and where his little freestanding house, once a burgeoning  horreum stuffed with tuck, where he would shuffle and snuffle and seek the particular nut or fruit he really wanted, now sits empty and untouched. It might as well be boarded up.

Hammy and the boysToday he seems to have stopped eating much at all, even though Kemo Sabe brings him fresh veg, grated cheese and blueberries night and morning, clearing away (what used to be left-overs) on each occasion. For the last two days there has been no need to clear away the shavings soiled with pee or pooh, as he has ceased to eat or drink and all we do is tuck the lovely soft kapok round his frail form, and watch that brave heart beating beneath the straggly fur, once so lustrous. We gather beside his little bed, watching over his final adventure as families have always done since time before memory. While there’s no further need for those clothes pegs, to stop him escaping through the roof, his tiny hands have such a hold on life.The vacant interstellar spaces await a new, tiny presence. He will fill them when he is good and ready.


A little life, long-lived

IMG_2356This morning we have been giving Hammy’s considerable estate a thorough clean and refresh, working in stages across the various activity levels and living areas, as the tiny fellow moved around to make room for his housekeeper, who removed soiled shavings and scattered a thick layer of clean, warm flooring in its stead. No expense is spared. Hammy Jo enjoys the warmth and softness of real, natural kapok which is provided for him both loose and also in pods, so he can forage for it for himself. Food supplied is copious and varied: nuts of all shapes and sizes, seeds likewise, dried fruits of all colours (including the sliced banana which I so enjoy as a treat, when Kemo Sabe and I are alone together), coconut slivers, shrimp ‘cookies’, fresh spinach, rocket, broccoli, grated carrot and cheese – delicious mouthfuls which are carefully cleaned up every morning, once the little chap has retired to his nest after a night’s fun and frolic. Within his aegis, he has about five or six little caches, supplies for a rainy day which we know – though he doesn’t – will never come. He is, indeed, greatly loved and given every care, quite out of proportion – some would say  – to the contribution he makes to the world. After all, not only is he a tiny rodent, he also spends most of the day asleep in his bed, while we write and read and gaze occasionally across when we hear him  – like Barnardine – rustling in his straw. Now nearing his second birthday, Hammy Jo is looking older, particularly when he gets up for a quick drink of water or a nibble on a Brazil nut during the day, when his eyes aren’t properly open and his duvet hair is really in evidence. He is obviously very used to and comfortable with us all, despite the proliferation and range of dogs here, unaffected by barking and jumping up just as little as he minds Jeoffry’s sidling in and out of the study when he’s looking for attention. Our lives here in this warm and comfortable home are so privileged, so protected – as I have often had cause to ponder. Beyond our homely little world, where we bigger boys are never permitted to roam unattended or undisciplined – our freedom is not that much greater than Jo’s really – deprivation and struggle for survival are evident everywhere, even when you look out at the birds, feeding hungrily on the seeds and fat-balls provided in the garden. In a world wearily dragging its feet towards the winter solstice and the sense of hope we believe the return of the sun will bring; where so many displaced and suffering people demand our help, on our own streets and across the continent; with so much to induce despair and the sense of meaninglessness, our kindness is measured here at home in the life of ease offered to a tiny hamster, in his contemplative cell a couple of feet from where I ponder now.