Charlotte

is a

Guinea Pig's Name

 

Whenever I arrive at my family home in Glen Waverley, Mum always asks me the same, endearing question:

 

“Awa de?”

 

This is a quintessentially Sinhalese inquiry, which plainly translates to “have you arrived?”

 

This always bothered me when I was younger. After all, the answer is obvious unless I happen to be phasing in and out of reality in front of her eyes, like I’m in one of those Star Trek transporters, and she’s just checking to make sure that my innards haven’t ended up on Romulus.

I imagine the phrase derived from countless sour-faced aunties of days gone-by who stood in countless doorways, arms crossed, contemptuously sneering at their husbands stumbling up the driveway at 3 am, bottle in hand.

 

“Have you arrived then, you bastard?”

 

“Yesshhh my love!”

 

Somehow, it has evolved into a cynical little term of endearment; something you might say to someone you’ve missed. The only equivalent I can think of is “Hello stranger”.

 

I kick my shoes off at the front door. Mum watches me from less than a metre away and dad stands in the hallway, further down, the noise of the doorbell having just processed in his slowing mind and compelling him out of his study like one of Pavlov’s subjects.

 

Over dinner we catch up. Yes, I am eating well. Work is good. No, the apartment isn’t too cold. No, I don’t need an extra Ventolin inhaler. No, we haven’t bought any lounge furniture yet.  No, I don’t need to borrow money. Yes, my new flatmate has finally moved in. No, I didn’t call my sister today. Yes, I miss your cooking. No, I don’t have a girlfriend. No, she won’t be a crazy person this time. No, I probably won’t put you in a nursing home. Yes, I’ll visit often.

 

I miss all this.

 

I look at the television set. Another Royal spawn; this time, a baby girl named Charlotte.

 

Mum chuckles to herself, “Charlotte … Remember Margaret, Violet and Charlotte?”

 

I do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 years ago

 

 

“Eeeww!” she said, as I picked up the tiny, shivering fuzzballs and dropped them to their hutch. Mum is conditioned to be repulsed by anything remotely rodent-like. She pulled a face, and I defiantly I held them against my chest for a moment, and gently stroked their tiny heads.

 

One was the colour of autumn leaves, large, bossy, and rotund, but docile in my hands; the other was teddy bear brown with a caramel stripe about her neck, smaller and more jittery, sometimes gently nipping my fingers when I held her for too long. They were both American breeds, smooth-haired and plump (like most Americans), and they were sisters. I chose female Guinea Pigs because they are more docile and enjoy each others company, while males are more inclined to get nippy, territorial, and hump everything that moves (like most males).

 

One day, when I am in the backyard cleaning their hutch for the first time, the brown, jittery one squirms out of my hands and motors away into the bushes by our neighbour’s fence. After some frantic searching, I spotted a small hole in the wooden palings; probably an opening for the neighbour’s old cat to makes his nightly sojourns into our garden. I gave up my search for the escapee. Maybe she'll come back one day when she feels like it.

 

The remaining one wasn’t happy. Over the next few weeks she sulked in her little plastic house and wriggled and struggled whenever I picked her up. She missed her sister and was probably annoyed at me for letting her go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One month later, she was joined by an Abyssinian Guinea Pig, half her size and age, but with the same caramel-coloured fur. Abyssinians have fluffy fur that sticks up all over the place, in the 'faux-hawk' style. They are adorable.

At first, the Abyssinian was regarded coldly and chased away with gnashing, chattering teeth. Eventually she was tolerated, and allowed to sit next to her much larger cellmate as they munched on grass. Months went by with no sign of the escapee.

 

On New Year's morning I sloped on the couch and reflected on the night before, with a dry mouth and aching legs. It was all a haze of laughter, dancing, and party shenanigans. The clock strikes midnight and a pair of red lips swirl towards me in a tangle of long, ginger hair and sweet perfume. I smiled and looked towards the back garden through the sliding door.

 

Movement in the bushes by our neighbour’s fence. From between the rustling leaves popped a furry little head, sniffing tentatively at the air. I sat up. Out hopped a tiny, brown body that snuffles away at the grass and stopped every now and then to sniff the air: the escapee.

 

My chance had come. I exited the living room via the laundry room door, and slowly crept around the house with bare feet. She had her back to me, munching away, oblivious. I tiptoed behind her, and slowly positioned my hands over her back. I grabbed her and she squealed bloody murder, and writhed around, trying to bite my fingers. She was thin and malnourished and felt like a soft sack of bones. She had claw marks on her hide, some still fresh, and her left ear was torn. Poor thing.

 

I placed her in a quarantine cage next to the hutch until she regained her strength. She froze for a moment and then bolted underneath an upturned ice cream container. The other two watched the drama in silence.

 

When the two sisters were reunited a few weeks later, and the three started living in harmony, Mum christened them 'Margaret' (the big one), 'Violet' (the escapee) and 'Charlotte' (the Abyssinian). I don't know why she chose these names. Perhaps it was the manifestation of a latent yearning to live in an English cottage covered in roses with three beautiful, posh daughters, and have tea parties all the time. If you’ve ever seen our rose-covered front garden, tea set, or living room couch, you will know that this is a definite possibility.

Every day I would release the trio onto our backyard lawn and cover them with the top half of a large carrier hutch. This way they could enjoy the grass and sunshine, and poop to their hearts content, in safety. I would leave them there for a few hours in the late afternoon, and bring them in before nightfall.

 

One summer day, I returned to find Charlotte on her side, eyes widen open, twitching, and struggling for air. The other two sat by the edge of the cage, as still as statues. I prised her mouth open and looked past her tiny pink tongue; but she wasn’t choking on anything. I poured water into her mouth, and gently rubbed her throat, but to no avail.

 

I placed her gently in the hutch, amongst the warm hay, and watched the last drops of life trickle from her tiny, convulsing body, which began to stiffen. I remember that night, amid the sorrow, thinking that it was strange how quickly a living being turned into a statue.

The next day, I blocked off any holes in the fence palings and released the other two to run free in our backyard. They lived inside a row of twelve wooden stumps that formed a semi circle around bushes and ferns by a large tree and a low brick wall. It was perfect. I didn't have to clean their cage every week, and as long as they kept their wits about them, they were protected from the elements and any prowling neighbourhood cats. We still fed them as usual, and every week or so, I caught them for a check up. Days, months, and years went by.

 

The first signs of old age in my Guinea Pigs began to show around the age of five. Violet’s hearing had deteriorated, and she no longer squirmed when I picked her up. A portion of Margaret’s front tooth had chipped off, and she had to be fed finely cut vegetables and grass.

 

I had half expected old age to render them grey and limp, and their eyelids to be half-closed to betray the world-weariness that comes with old age in humans. But as is the case with small mammals with fast metabolisms and short lives, they were as nervous and alert as their younger selves to the very end. It’s just that their bodies sometimes didn’t comply when danger presented itself.

 

I came home from university to find that Violet had died, and was now buried in our backyard under a big stone. When I asked Mum what happened, she speculated that a cat finally got her. I visited the stone and paid my respects to the escapee. I then searched for Margaret, and was relieved to find her in one piece. But there was something different about her There was fear in her eyes, and not just the usual twitchiness of small defenceless herbivores, but genuine fear, and even melancholy for days after.

 

A few weeks later I rose early in the wintry morning to feed Margaret. Normally the rattle of the screen door prompted the sound of soft, excited squeaking to emanate from the bushes, but that day there was silence. I searched for her among the bushes, but there was no sign.

 

And then a slight stench on the wind caught my nostrils; biology class rat dissections, iron, and damp grass. I looked towards the plum tree at the end of the yard and spied a clump of caramel fur at its base. As I drew closer, I noticed blood and pink innards scattered for meters around. Her head was all that remained intact. Her eyes were wide, and her tongue lolled out to one side. I leaned against the plum tree and was suddenly and violently ill.

 

I buried Margaret near the pumpkin patch, and sat for a while. I was upset, but I thanked my lucky stars that I had my little Guinea Pigs at all, and that they had the rare pleasure of growing old; a luxury not afforded to their wild cousins.

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It’s getting late and I make a show of stretching and emphasising how tired I am. At the front door, I lean down to kiss Mum’s cheek and pat my Dad’s shoulder, like a brave soldier leaving for war. She reminds me that I’ve always got a room at home if I ever feel like coming back, and I remind her that I’ve only been gone two weeks.