As I arrive at my babysitting job, making easy small talk with the ten-year old’s mother, the husband walks in tentatively. He pauses beside the mother and loudly whispers, ‘Flapjack isn’t moving’. For anyone who cannot guess the species for which such a poorly allotted name would be given, Flapjack is the young girl’s hamster. It’s evil, but not as vicious as her last one, Scribbles, whose name was a fitting reflection of its personality.
The parents walk into the kitchen, where the child is looking confusedly, at the hamster which lies motionless in one of the cage’s outer tubes. I stay at a cautious distance.
After the cage is shaken and the hamster, prodded, the father reveals that it is definitely dead.
The girl turns into her mother as she stifles her cries. ‘It’s okay to cry,’ her mother reassures, ‘You were a wonderful owner and Flapjack loved you very much’. I look at the floor, knowing that the earth beneath my feet will give way and I will be on my way to Satan if I laugh at such a critical time. I block out memories of vicious bites and attempted great cage escapes. I cling to the doorpost as if it gives me some form of occupation.
‘It must have died of old age, which is the best way to go,’ her father says. ‘We hadn’t had her for that long,’ her mother can’t help but observe. ‘…Well her time must have come early,’ he retorts.
‘We can always get another one in a few weeks’ time,’ he suggests. As a ten-year-old, I would have questioned his emotional disconnect, but she doesn’t seem to object.
Her father moves the cage out of sight.
‘Are you going to be okay if we go? We really can’t cancel,’ her Mother says apologetically. The girl nods bravely.
I walk over and sit down beside her, realising that my time has come to transition from the role of the passive, the comforted, the child and put on the uniform of responsible adult. I reassure her Flapjack’s end had been a happy one.
‘Why don’t you two go and watch tv in the living room,’ her mother suggests. Her father coughs, ‘The cage is in the living room’. ‘Well move it to the play room then,’ her mother hisses. ‘But the X box is in the play room’. The cage is eventually relocated to the utility room. Then as the parents leave, the child cries plaintively, ‘Do I have to go swimming tomorrow?’
As we settle down to watch tv it seems that my comforting words have worked wonders for the importance of the hamster’s death has diminished almost immediately.
I mentally question what will happen to the cage, the hamster, the paraphernalia. As the parents leave the house, one of the questions is answered for me. Just in earshot I hear the husband speculate, ‘I guess I’ll see if the shop will take back those two bags of sawdust we bought yesterday.’