When you work as a nurse as I did in my previous career you notice odd little things that mere Muggles don’t, there are certain rules that most of society adheres to but you won’t find this in a nursing manual or a social work book, I call it the ‘inverse pet wealth’ rule. This is a blatant generalisation but ask any community nurse who’s got more than one days experience and they will nod their head sagely. Broadly speaking, the lower the socio-economic group you belong to, the more pets you will own. When I did my community nursing I spent a few weeks in Purley, South of London, a very well-heeled area, large driveways, big houses, well-manicured lawn and well-manicured ladies and no pets, definitely no cats, but perhaps the occasional small expensive pedigree dog, a show dog, never a huge brute of a monster with snarling teeth, never some rescue dog from Battersea Dogs Home, always a dog that was easy to carry in delicate arms, one that didn’t clash with your expensive clothes, one that wiped it’s own butt after a dump.
However, I spent the following few weeks in Thornton Heath, grotty housing and council high-rise tower blocks, the sort of place that required a police escort when you were with the mid-wife and you needed to go check someone’s stitches.. You didn’t choose to live there, you were sentenced there, forget Guantanamo Bay, this place makes Guantanamo Bay look like Butlins Holiday Camp. I was sentenced to live in student nurse accommodation there for a number of years, it makes my current dive seem like a mecca in comparison – and that’s saying something. But, the interesting thing was, at every single house the mid-wife and I visited, there were numerous children and even more pets, none of them pedigree, (including the kids), all of them of mixed origin, (again, including the kids), all of them running wild and most gnawing at my trouser legs for good measure (again, including the kids). It was the sort of place that even if you could find a space to sit down on the settee you didn’t want to because you would stick to it and get up dirtier than when you sat down. And no matter what, no matter how hungry you were, you always politely turned down any offered food or tea incase you got botulism. Or worse.
And the other rule community nurses and midwives will be aware of; the higher up in the tower-block a family lives, the more pets they will have. The bottom floors are always elderly, long suffering couples, they will not have any pets as pet food is too expensive on a pension but they will have nice curtains and window boxes bursting with flowers, they will know their neighbours and be up at dawn making a cuppa tea and reading the morning newspaper. But go up higher than the first floor and it’s like a bloody farm, I’ve been to the 13th floor in Kuala Gardens (odd name for a block of flats!) and it’s like a friggin petting zoo; dogs, cats, gecko’s, birds in cages, birds not in cages, cats chasing birds not in cages, dogs chasing cats, toddlers chasing dogs, father sitting in armchair reading the Racing Post, wouldn’t surprise me if a pony came out of the bathroom.. “I hope ya flushed that bog!”, actually ponies in tower blocks are not completely unheard of if you live in some parts of Dublin and occasionally you’ll get a donkey in a hotel room too, this story is hilarious and true.
I can pen all this with some confidence because I have insider knowledge, I was brought up in one of the roughest, toughest council estates in Northern Ireland and consequently lived with my own menagerie of four legged furry friends, not all of them my six brothers and two sisters. Growing up in what seemed like the cast-offs from a Doctor Dolittle film set, we had a large range of pets, mostly cats and dogs and once the younger brothers reached school age they started trading mice, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits with their school chums. One friend had a pet snake, thank god it wasn’t a breeding pair, my youngest brother suggested we cut it in half and take one half home because when you slice worms in half they continue to live.. I just about stopped him from doing that.
We had a cat that was partial to sitting on top of the gerbils’ cage and tormenting them, we called it ‘Cat TV’, it could never get in but I think it was just praying to some great cat god in the sky that one or two would manage to escape one day. Personally I wondered who should actually be in the cage, the gerbils or my younger brothers. Then Terry, my younger brother came back from school one afternoon and the cage was empty, there was no sign of the gerbils – or the cat. The cat’s prayers had obviously been answered. After five nanoseconds of tears, Terry went out and got two hamsters from his school friend. There’s an episode of Star Trek called The Trouble With Tribbles and it’s really a homage to hamsters everywhere because as far as I can see, all hamsters do is eat, shit, masturbate and try to shag your leg when you’re watching the telly. I’ve no idea where hamsters come from, man must have invented them because there is no way they could survive out in the wild, they have absolutely no brain cells and no survival instinct, I think the whole ‘shag anything that doesn’t move’ and ‘shag anything that does move – just to be sure’ strategy is the only way hamsters have survived for so long, they breed ferociously and it’s safety in numbers me’thinks. And then there was the rabbits, they followed a similar ‘safety in numbers’ strategy too, every time I looked in the rabbit hutch they were at it like…well, were at it like rabbits, I think Mr Duracell got the idea for his advertisements from our rabbits. A rabbit’s life may be short but believe me, it’s sweet. Between thou and I – I’m deeply jealous!