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.


Hammy Jo’s first Christmas

IMG_2351One of my favourite daily routines, after returning from our run and eating my bowl of breakfast, is the morning ritual of making Jo comfortable for the day. Everyone loves Jo, for his sweet nature, enchanting heart-shaped face, extraordinarily charming fur coat and his tiny, perfect nose. At the drop of a hat we Dickens Dogs will rush upstairs and congregate in the Growlery where he lives, crowding in and hoping to see him come out, like the groundhog on that special day. And all this, despite the fact that he does very little to court our affection, confined as he is to his (albeit extensive) hamstery world of tunnels, nests and copious food supplies, Byzantine in the complexity of location and content. As I write I can see that a new pantry is developing along the connecting tube, weighing it down with peanuts, sunflower seeds and the various coloured biscuity shapes from proprietary hamster food which he actually likes (the rest being thrown to one side immediately his bowls are filled).

IMG_2356Every morning I alone am allowed to participate in the housekeeping routine. I sit patiently nearby as any remnants from his suppertime veg are retrieved, soiled wood shavings are cleared out and the surfaces cleaned; his red playroom and wheel are gently disinfected,  his tiny poos removed and fresh litter scattered about. This daily labour keeps him fresh and spotless and takes a little over five minutes while saving Jo from the major upheaval of the usual massive clear-out which he finds really disconbobulating. During the procedure, Jo begins rustling about in his deep, warm nest and pokes out his pink nose, as soft as a raspberry. He stretches forth and emerges, ready to eat something extra from Kemo Sabe’s hand – some dried mealworms, perhaps, or pumpkin seeds – and if he is particularly in luck (as he was today), he’ll get another monkey nut to strip down and store, even though he’s already got loads blocking the tunnel. When it’s all over, I get a slice of dried banana, which I love, my bonus and a secret between Kemo Sabe and me.

IMG_2353Hammy Jo is one tiny insignificant little creature in a world of millions such, yet his life is dignified and his care and comfort are important, perhaps all the more so because he will not see many Christmases (Kemo Sabe’s first hamster was with her but a year and a day, as in a fairy tale). Hammy Jo’s routines, morning and night – when he gets his beloved salad leaves, plus grated carrot and something gorgeous, like fresh jewels of pomegranate – calm me wonderfully and make me ponder on grace abounding, as it does despite everything. In the simplest things.

Something about Jo

IMG_2079As we prepare for the tail-end of hurricane Gonzalo, the first strong winds to be predicted this Autumn, the sun is shining but, despite some gutsy gusts, we’re not too concerned as yet. On the beach this morning we ran towards Newman’s pool in the murk, the sun having another half an hour to lie-in before he needed to be up. Sand scudded across from Monk’s House, where the dunes decline and there’s no shelter to be had, but despite a recent haircut I feel warm and wonderful – no need to place my head upon the hearth as yet as it is unseasonably mild. Out on the islands, National Trust warden David Steel is battening down the hatches, and the growing seal pup population is leaning hard against the rising tide, even as I write.

But though we are led to fear and to prepare, and the news is full of dread, betrayal and pestilence, tiny chinks of glorious light are always visible: the goodness in a human hug, leftover casserole gravy – all rich, delicious vegetables and meaty mouthfuls – on our dinner, a bright blue sky above me as I race to catch the fig leaves as the wind blows them into the pond; the thought that someone smaller than me may soon be joining us; knowing the sand will be rubbed away from my eyes, that they will think of it before it troubles me.

IMG_2077Within his convoluted labyrinth, within his considerable demesne –  which stretches by way of lengthy tubing between two large ‘cages’, over six levels where he can rest, feed or doze as the whim takes him – tiny Jo sleeps:  downstairs today, in his enormous bed, directed by the same logic which day by day leads him to sort his food stores by size and quality within a tunnel, or move them round to suit the mood. Corn kernels, stripped from tiny dried cobs, shelled peanuts, sunflower seeds.  Tiny and perfect life form, blessed creature, be happy and content, cleaned and tended daily, you the smallest and, as some might say, the least of us. All is safely gathered in. A happy harvest festival of his own.