Lessons in Death

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

“Mum,” I call from the hutches. “Mum!”

She comes running out of the house and into the extension my Dad put up 10 years ago as a quick fix. This is where we keep the guinea pigs, all 14 of them.

I look round to her, holding the door of the hutch open. “I think he’s dying.”

“Don’t be melodramatic.” I wasn’t being melodramatic. I’d seen guinea pigs die before. I could see Piglet, my two-tone guinea pig who could have been a double for the star of Dr Dolittle, was weaker than I had ever seen him before.

Piglet was the first guinea pig we ever got. Looking at the hutches now, we have quite a few. Almost as many as the shops where we buy them from. Last time I counted we had 19 pets: 14 guinea pigs, one rabbit, two cats and two gerbils. It is practically a farm. The guinea pigs and the rabbit are lined up in this conservatory in a tower block of hutches. Some of them share and some can’t be trusted to share. The adult male guinea pigs have to be separated so they don’t try to kill each other and they have to be separated from their families so they don’t try to breed with their daughters. It’s complicated but we know them so well, there’s no chance of either of those things happening again. It was Piglet and Eeyore, another adult male with a gloomy outlook, who had had a fight. Eeyore came off worse with half his left ear taken in anger.

“I’m sure he’s not well, look,” I show Mum my one test to see how ill the guinea pigs are. I poke him straight in the eye with my finger. His response is non-existent.

“Fine, we’ll go to the vets.” She sounds annoyed. These guinea pigs cost us a fortune and we don’t have all that much money, but I know she can’t bear to see him suffer.

I had put some of the guinea pigs out in their runs already. Each household has a cage on the lawn my Dad built, with chicken wire walls and a shelter at one end. They have been arranged so they can still see each other outside whilst they graze on the fresh grass. It was due to be a warm day, it was late August after all, so half of them were already out by the time I had got to Piglet. I would have to get them in again before we take him to the vets.

I have an old doll’s pram, it may have been mine, it could have been my sister’s but now we don’t play with dolls it’s fine to use for the guinea pigs. I taxi them from the runs back to their cages, their faces are filled with confusion. They must have only been out less than half an hour. They will have to stay in their cages until we get back from the vets. We can’t risk leaving them out unsupervised.

We lost a baby guinea pig last Summer. Her name was Honey. She was a gorgeous golden colour with a funny tuft of hair on her head. We had only had her a few weeks before a cat got into one of the runs in the garden and ran off with her. She was an easy target. She was no bigger than large mouse. A neighbour called round after her cat dropped its gift in the garden for her. She was horrified. We all were.

Piglet looked sad in the corner of his hutch. He had nestled himself in layers of fresh hay, hiding from his inevitable trip to the vet. The other guinea pigs are squeaking in protest. “Don’t worry, you can go out again, once we are back.” I place a carrot into each of their chicken wire windows, to keep them occupied while we are gone.

I take a blanket out of the pram and wrap Piglet in it. It is a dolls blanket, the delicate knitted stitches in baby blue and pink hues contrast with the thousands of droppings scattered all over them.

Mum snatches her keys from the table and I follow her with Piglet out to the car. We don’t talk about what is going to happen. We have been through this many times before, like a well-rehearsed play. The vet will say: there’s nothing we can do and Mum will ask me what I think we should do. I say, perhaps we should let him go; a decision that she will agree with. I’ll say it’s not fair to keep him alive. It is the kindest thing to do. He’ll be in a better place. I don’t know if I believe the things I say. I think I do.

It is so hot in the car. I don’t want to smother Piglet so I lay him on top of the blanket on my lap. He falls on his side in the dip between my thighs, his eye stares up at me. He is lifeless. I watch his ribcage rise and fall with sparse, shallow breaths. I don’t take my eyes off him, monitoring his breathing as Mum negotiates the mid-morning traffic.

A tear rolls down to the tip of my nose. I realise I am crying. I wipe my eyes. I don’t want to attract any attention. I don’t want Piglet to be scared. I wonder if he is in pain. We drive for a further ten minutes. The car is warm, but it is not overbearing. It’s going to be a nice day.

I look down to see Piglet has become still. I poke him in the eye with my index finger, there’s no response. I think he’s gone. I jab him again, more urgently. “Piglet! No….”

Mum looks over at me. She swiftly pulls into a parking space. I realise later that we are parked just behind the vets. I start to cry; we are too late.

“He’s gone to a better place,” Mum pulls a phrase from her repertoire. She taps me on the shoulder before getting out of the car. She takes Piglet from my lap and wraps him like a baby in his knitted blanket. I hear her rustling with bags in the back of the car. She must be placing him in a shoebox she found earlier. It is a well-rehearsed play, after all. I hope he has a comfortable spot for the journey home.

We don’t hug. I don’t really ever hug Mum or Dad. We just aren’t a huggy family. I am shaking. Mum slides herself back into the driving seat. We will have a cup of tea when we get back, it will help with the shock.

It will be Dad’s role later, to dig a hole in the garden and lay Piglet to rest in amongst the rose bushes at the end of the garden. Piglet isn’t the first guinea pig to die and he won’t be the last. I want to get back and have cuddles with the others, I can tell them all one by one, that Piglet won’t be coming home.

We are silent for most of the journey. My tears have subsided. I know he is in a better place.

“At least he saved us some money,” I joke. Mum laughs. I know she’ll be grateful for that at least.

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