Pulp.net - The Clock and the Hamster

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Donald Hiscock
Any minute now I’ll make a start.

‘Hello mate,’ I say to the cage.

When my father knew that he was going to die he bought a hamster. I’ve just realised what he intended. Don’t hamsters have a life expectancy of about eighteen months? My father, I’ve only recently learnt, was told that he had two years tops before the cancer would finally overcome him. I reckon he bought this hamster because it had roughly the same time to live as he did. He could try to outlive it.

Well, the hamster has won. He’s still going strong. He’s into old age because you can tell by his grey hairs and his slow movements, but he gets into that wheel and gives it a go. He’s still alive. My father is in this plastic container. A weight of ash. Bloody heavy. I was surprised when they gave it to me. ‘Sorry to hear about your loss’ and then handed me what looks like a sweet jar, only it’s made of purple plastic. Purple, I’ve noticed, is the new black when it comes to death. There are purple curtains at the windows of the undertakers and a purple sofa in reception. The stained glass window in the chapel of rest cast a purple glow. A purple haze. What remains of the old man is now encased in purple plastic with a screw cap. Way to go Dad. I was surprised that he would end up looking like this. Not the ashes. I knew about that. I mean the purple jar.

So it’s me, the hamster and my father’s ashes. Some people get a house or an art collection or medals or a car, but what do I get? An elderly hamster called Colin.

Oh and that bloody clock with only one hand that he wouldn’t throw away because I bought it for him when I got my first job and was feeling flush that first Christmas. A clock for the mantelpiece seemed a very grown up thing to buy. Even though he didn’t really like the thing he wouldn’t part with it. He told me on more than one occasion that he didn’t need a bloody great clock that chimed the hours. But he kept it, even when the minute hand fell off. He wound it up every night before bed. It was a useless object, but it continued to sound the hours and take up space over the fireplace. It was hardly noticed. Until just now.

I can hear it ticking. There’s no other sound. The hamster is asleep. Why did he call it Colin? When I asked him he smiled and said he once worked with a bloke with that name who had big cheeks. Everyone called him Hamster. It was as simple as that. My father went raiding some humorous recollection of the past to give a name to an animal that would end up dozing contentedly in a future he wouldn’t experience. And, probably, he knew that the damn thing would outlive him and end up becoming my property. Perhaps it was a way of getting his own back about the clock. Unwanted gifts and all that. But now I have the clock as well.

It ticks loudly. That bloody clock. In a minute I am going to get up from the sofa and start to tidy things up. This is a council house so it will be needed fairly soon for some other old bugger to live out his days. Once I’ve arranged for all the stuff to be cleared out the council can come in and spruce it up. But that clock can go straight in the bin. In a minute.

I know what is meant by the expression ‘the air felt heavy’ now that I sit here. I’ve read it in novels on a few occasions, and I’ve always thought I understood what it meant. Actually, I just accepted it and moved on through the book. I took it as a measure of impending doom, of oppression. It worked. But now I really know what it means. The air does feel heavy. And it’s got a lot to do with that bloody clock. It sounds muffled. That’s the really annoying thing about it. It sounds like it’s struggling to tick. It’s like I’m hearing it through a gauze or a muslin, as if it’s been covered over. And with this dull ticking the room seems to have developed a faint buzz. There are two sounds that make me feel as if there is a build up of pressure. The more I sit and listen the more I feel how heavy the air is above me. You could call it a staleness. Undoubtedly this is true, as the place needs a good clean. It has been empty for the last couple of weeks. While the death thing happened and then the funeral and all that. There’s still that familiar damp smell. Also it is stale, but it’s also heavy.

I can feel it.

I’ve only just found out that he only had two years to live. The stupid old sod never told me. But then what would knowing about it have done for me? Perhaps he was trying to be kind. But then I knew he was dying. It’s just that I didn’t know there was a time limit on the process. His trips to hospital and his pronounced weaknesses whenever I visited him were signs, but I interpreted them in a hopeful way, the way he encouraged me to think. He said he was going to be all right, that he was a fighter, that he would get through this, that the drugs were making him better. He said it was the drug treatment that was making him weak, not the cancer. Once he got past the treatment he would start to recover. I didn’t really believe that, but I didn’t not believe it either. I buried it at the back of my mind. There was no reason to worry about it. It’s not like someone had said to me that he only had a fixed time to live. That would have been different.

Hang on, how would it have been different?

The woman who cared for him told me. She was very kind and said some nice things about the old man. And then while pouring out a cup of tea – which I was quite fascinated by because she used one of those brown betty tea pots with a woollen cosy and had brought it out of the kitchen on a wicker edged tray – she said that he told her not to tell anyone.

‘He was adamant that no one else should know,’ she said. ‘Garibaldi or digestive? Or mix and match?’

I declined a biscuit and formed the word ‘why’ with my mouth. I wasn’t aware that any sound had come out but Eileen seemed to have heard it, or at least had anticipated my question.

‘Because he didn’t want to trouble anyone,’ she said. ‘And especially not you. He thought the world of you. He was always going on about how well you had done, with that job of yours in the bank and those business trips to exotic places.’

In the past couple of years I have been to Aberdeen twice, Newcastle, Truro and Belfast on three occasions. And he thought these were exotic locations?

‘He didn’t want you to know,’ repeated Eileen while thrusting a plate of Garibaldis at me. It was difficult to say no. It is very difficult to say no to a middle-aged woman who comes at you with a plate of biscuits. It’s that look they put on. It’s that don’t-defy-me stare. And it’s also difficult when they are talking about your dearly departed father and how wonderful he used to think you were. To decline a fruit encrusted dry slab is tantamount to denying one’s loyalty to the deceased. Oh, how cunning it is the way people mix up food and death.

Colin has woken up and makes another attempt at spinning his wheel. The air feels heavy. Colin looks heavy. The effort is too much for him. He turns and noses up against his water bottle. I’m sure he shot me a glance.

‘Hello mate,’ I hear myself say out loud. It’s the only human sound there’s been since I’ve been here. I called the hamster ‘mate’. And then I realise that, just as the memory of Eileen fades and I come back to the present. I snap back to the past. I look at the purple jar. Of course, that’s what he always said when I came in the door. The moment I got a whiff of that damp smell mixed with cheap after-shave. And then I’d turn the corner into the living room and there he would be, studying form in the racing guide, a piece of cigarette paper stuck to his chin. Every time he shaved he cut himself. And in that moment when I got that familiar smell and then noticed the dried up blood spot on the paper stuck to his pink face he said, ‘Hello mate.’

From where I’m sitting I can see the jar of ashes resting on the coffee table, the clock and Colin’s cage. It’s not a very big room.

‘Have you got time to pop down to the chemist?’ he would say. Of course, I always said that it was no problem. But he always asked. Did I have time? ‘If you haven’t I’ll get Eileen to go. I need some razor blades.’ I got sent for men’s things. When it wasn’t razor blades it was hair oil, after shave or foot powder. Eileen was trusted with the drugs and the dressings. All the things to do with sickness. The things that were associated with deterioration. I got the accoutrements for the bits that were still growing. Hair, stubble and toe nails. The bits of the body that just keep on going.

The clock’s still going. So’s Colin. And I take a deep breath, so I know that I, too, am still going. But then that’s bloody obvious. But I checked didn’t I? Like all those nights I lay awake in bed as a young child feeling my heart and waiting for it to stop. I was worried that it might stop in the night. Well, things like that do happen. It was up above this room, the one I shared with my brother. Must get in touch. Tell him that I’m chucking most of this stuff out. Giving some of it to charity shops. I know he doesn’t want any of it anyway, but I’ll be polite. I don’t want the hassle of sending things off to Canada, so he’d better not change his mind.

I used to listen to my heart just after mum left.

But the hamster doesn’t acknowledge my greeting. I think I said ‘Hello mate’ just to break up that buzz of silence. Yes, I said it just to put some life back in the room. Colin has hidden himself under his bedding.

I should make a start. I’ve brought bin liners, rubber gloves and cardboard boxes. I should start taking all this stuff apart. This is my inheritance. All I need to do is open those cupboards at the bottom of the dresser. I’ve not looked in there for years.

So, I mustn’t put it off any longer. The sooner I start the sooner I’ll finish. Oh dear, that’s what he used to say. That was one of his sayings. What’s the big deal? Words and phrases have been pre-owned. They are passed on from generation to generation. They are always useful. Where would we be without them?

‘Hello mate.’ Another thing he used to say. So I got this. This handy greeting.

Any minute now I’ll make a start. The sooner I start the sooner I’ll finish.

‘Hello mate.’

© Donald Hiscock 2006