Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Nostalgia Factory (i)

Tales from my youth... Observations of the past...

Part One: Harvey

People with kids shouldn't have favourites and people with pets probably shouldn't either. Even my current bunch - the four dogs of the apocalypse - have things about them that have firmly chained them to my heart and while none of them will probably ever achieve the heights of my first two dogs, none of my dogs will ever quite match Harvey...

Harvey's story started an indeterminate amount of time before we got him; we had no idea how long he was bumping around Ted's garden. The old Resource's Manager at Lings School had been someone I spent a lot of time with when I was there and he'd, through the synchronicity of the world, become friends with an old acquaintance of mine who was engaged to the wife's sister. Ted died after a short illness and my wife's future brother-in-law was one of the people responsible for clearing out his house - a strangely anachronistic old place situated near Weston Favell Mill. In the garden, full of fruit trees was this average sized grey rabbit.

He might have been a pet, but the brother-in-law couldn't see it; Ted wasn't a pet kind of guy. The likeliest scenario was the rabbit had either escaped from the nearby Billing Aquadrome, found the mini orchard and thought it was his birthday, or had somehow escaped from a garden, crossed the busy A45 dual carriageway and into Ted's garden. No one knew how old he was either, but what the people clearing out Ted's house did discover was this rabbit had little or no fear - of anything.

Now just recently a friend of mine on Facebook was posting in memoriam of a beloved cat and true to form, everyone who has ever had a special pet believes their pet to be the most crazy/ intelligent/ clever/ cheeky/ whatever you could wish to meet and I believe that all animals serve their purpose when they become special to their 'owners'. For me and the wife, Harvey was this animal. He was quite remarkable and I don't believe I have ever owned an animal with more intelligence and I doubt I will.

My parents were having a rough time in Maidstone. My mother had just been diagnosed with emphysema and they were thinking of getting out of the club trade and returning home to Northampton, so the wife and I began a search for a new home, one that would eventually take 2 years to achieve. One of the first houses we visited was a ramshackle shit hole of a house on Cyril Street, near the town centre. It was a perfect house for our needs, despite not having the biggest back garden, but it had structural problems - the rear wall was bowed and it would need some extensive re-modernisation. The price was good, but my brother, recently an estate agent, came to viewing and essentially put us off. However, in the garden, in a raised hutch, was this beautiful rabbit, who looked like he'd been living on his own droppings for a few weeks. He had no fresh water and no food. We were appalled; the young estate agent was a bit bemused and we told him to tell the owner's we didn't want the house, but we'd rescue the rabbit and we would come back in two days to collect it - the house, by the way, was empty, the owners' had moved to their new house.

When we returned, the rabbit was gone. I'd like the think the owners realised their cruel and wicked mistake and made amends; but the wife, who had set her heart on owning this orangey brown buck, was desperately upset. Three days later Ted died.

The wife's sister called us up; we had acquired a second hand hutch for the rabbit that never was, and offered us this grey bunny that lived in Ted's garden. Later that same day, arriving in a box with some holes was this solid dark grey rabbit, not big, not small, with a white mark on his ear and a small white slash on his nose; everything else was a graphite colour.

He took up residence in his new hutch and quickly took over the garden; it was the beginning of the summer, I was not working and for long spells I'd sit in the lounge, with the back door open watching this new addition to the household bumping about, checking out the four corners of the room, but never venturing up the stairs, or down the hall way to the kitchen and front door; he acted like these places didn't even register to him.

The first few weeks we had him, he'd come inside, sniff about and then settle down right by the open back door - good for being in the house, good for easy escape into the garden. Our neighbours Brian and Elaine decided that having a rabbit was a great idea for their toddler Gemma, so they bought Oy (it's all Gemma would call her) and Oy bit and scratched and growled and was anything but a fluffy bunny. The wife and I were both young - I was only 23 at the time - and we not only agreed to take Oy off their hands, we also stuck her in with Harvey and surprise, surprise, 30 days later, the newly renamed Clover dumped a litter of 8 baby bunnies on us; of which most of them would go onto have their own adventures (we kept track of all of them).

This gave us a problem. We had only one hutch, no money to buy a new one and a serious overcrowding issue. There was only one thing for it, Harvey would have to live in the house. We discussed it for days; trying to work out the best way of achieving it, while all the time potentially risking the lives of all his babies, because male rabbits often kill their young, especially if their in close proximity. This was never an issue with Harv, he seemed to dote on his offspring as much as Clover, but still, we couldn't have 10 rabbits in a hutch designed for one.

The wife had this harebrained scheme to house train the rabbit so it could come into the house full time. I was pretty much convinced she was talking out of her arse - you couldn't possibly house train a rabbit, surely? Oh yes you can. Except it wasn't like house training a dog or getting a cat to use a litter tray; these tend to take time. Harvey already had stopped dropping pellets in the living room within days of coming in and he had never, ever taken a piss in the house; so the wife figured he'd take to a litter tray for wet toilets. He did, for about three days. She put him in it, he bumped about a bit, lifted his tail, took a leak and bumped out. He did this every day for three days and then on the fourth he went and stood, not sat, stood by the back door. For a laugh, I said, 'Do you want to go outside, Harv?' and opened the door; he bumped out the back, jumped up onto the raised flower beds and went behind one of the miniature conifers and took a wee. I was gobsmacked, but couldn't believe it was anything more than a fluke. From that point on, he would wait by the door only if he wanted to go outside. He would return to the same spot every time and do his business - which as any one who knows about wild rabbits will tell you is perfectly normal; you see 'dump mounds' all over fields where rabbits live. But to us this was remarkable; he had no intention of soiling his home.

The initial plan was to keep Harvey in the house until we could afford to buy two more hutches, but after a successful two week trial we decided that as he was pretty much perfect in the house, he could stay. It was a Sunday afternoon, we had our friends Steve, Gareth and Vince round and we were being entertained by Harvey's new game; grabbing a piece of newspaper and draping it over his head, then running around the living room literally blind. It was a truly bizarre sight; but one he never stopped doing and one we never grew tired of. We'd just got a new hutch and the babies were almost weaned, so the wife was preparing that hutch for them to move into. I walked back into the house and Harvey was lying sprawled under the chair I sat at at the dining table; over the weeks of his trial he had gradually gotten closer and closer to me when I was sitting there, until he finally used to sit directly under my seat.

What happened next was truly remarkable and if it hadn't been the fact we had independent witnesses you'd probably think I'd smoked too much drugs. I told Harvey he could live in the house permanently. He cocked his ears, sat up and ran directly down the hallway; somewhere he had never been before; he checked it out, rubbed his chin along the skirting boards and left two small pellets on the coconut mat. He then turned round, came back down the hall, stopped at the foot of the stairs, looked at them and took off up the stairs, one step at a time. He had never been the slightest bit interested in the stairs; he'd seen me and the wife go up them late at night, but by that point he was puffed up under my chair, with his ears back.

We all sat there pretty startled; our guests had grown very familiar with this odd fellow living in the Hall house; but had never seen him quite as... determined. I followed him up the stairs, the wife in quick pursuit, and there he was, sniffing and chinning the skirting. He checked out our bedroom; looked in there, turned on his heels and came out; he checked the spare bedroom, which would have a succession of lodgers in it and then he checked out the box room, which stored a lot of my folks stuff and had a single bed in it. Harvey walked, not hopped, into this room, sniffed around, walked under the bed and settled down. We stood there looking at him, slightly stunned; but after a short discussion and a check to make sure there were no overt wires around, we left him there.

An hour later, as our friends were getting ready to go, he reappeared; bumping down the stairs like he'd been doing it all his life and over to our guests to say goodbye. We had all worked out he liked having his head stroked and he sought out this fuss from any one prepared to give it to him. By the time our friends had gone, Harv was back upstairs in his room.

Now, one of the bizarre things about having an intelligent pet is your start to talk to it like you would a precocious child and shortly before 10pm, the wife thought that perhaps Harvey should go outside for his nightly wee; something she does most every night with our dogs even today. She shouted up the stairs asking him if he needed to go out and bump bump bump there he was, down the stairs and across the room in no time, straight out the door and under his conifer. We looked at each other completely gone out.

For the two years we lived in that house, Harvey took himself off to bed at 10pm every night. It was his bed time and he did it without fail, whether we were in or not. At 10pm, he'd take himself upstairs to his room and settle down under the bed. he'd have a bowl of water and some food and we left his tray in there in case of any accidents, but he never used it. Every morning at 6.30, when the wife got up, he'd follow her downstairs and wait, silently, by the door to be let out and he'd stay outside until I got up; checking out the garden, his missus and kids.

This was just the tip of the iceberg for this rabbit; his adventures were the stuff of cgi films and I'm not over egging the pudding; they really were...

For all of his intelligence - think Brian the dog in Family Guy - he was still pretty much a rabbit and he liked doing stuff that rabbits did, like digging holes, shagging and beating up cats... We'd had him about two months and he was sitting in the middle of the fenced back garden, just minding his own business on a rather dull summer's day, when a local cat sprang up the fence, walked along the top and spied him sitting on the grass. There was no malice in the cat; he just jumped down and wandered over to Harv who had his back to the feline. The cat got about two feet from the rabbit when I was about to spring for the door and shoo it away, but I saw one of Harv's ears stand up. He knew he was not alone. What followed was like something out of a Bruce Lee film; he rocked forward onto his front legs and his two powerful back legs flew out, connecting with the cat full in the face and literally knocking it into a backward somersault; I have never seen a cat look so surprised and we never saw that cat or another in the garden again. It was like word got round; there's a mean mother of a rabbit living there, stay away.

Yet, he liked dogs. On his own terms. The first time I saw Harvey's terms I almost died of shock.

As I said, the garden was fenced, but I was pretty reckless and used to play cricket in the garden using a potato bound in tissue paper and masking tape, which allowed us to play cricket without much risk of breaking any windows; but if bowled hard enough, this spongy package could punch a hole in the flimsy wood panelling; holes large enough for commando bunny to initiate escapes. The house that's garden ran adjacent to ours belonged to a girl I used to go to school with and she had a dog called Judy, a Labrador/Collie crossbreed with the dopiest face in the world.

One day, I'd got back from probably signing on and I couldn't find Harvey anywhere; after a frantic search I spotted the hole in the fence and rushed up to the top of the garden. Oh God, what if Judy got him? Judy might be stupid, but Judy is a dog and dogs kill rabbits! What I witnessed for the next few minutes was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. Judy knew of Harv's existence long before the hole in the fence; she sniff and whine and get really frustrated because she got really close to him but could never catch him. Put the two of them together in a garden and you had to pinch yourself. They were chasing each other up and down the garden. First Harvey would chase Judy and then she'd turn round and chase him back down the garden. There were no hackles; no bared teeth, no grunting or growling from the rabbit either; they were just... playing.

As soon as he saw me, he made a bee-line back to the hole in the fence and jumped through; Judy stood looking forlorn at the hole in the fence and I felt my pulse rate drop; despite it being one of the sweetest things I'd seen. Judy positively loved Harvey; I'm not sure he felt the same way because he often used to bite her; but he was probably just putting her in her place; which was always going to be behind him. I tried to play chase with Harvey in the garden and was amazed when he started to play back. I'd chase him, in a comical big way; turn round and he'd chase me back. If it was possible, we had a rabbit that thought it was a dog and long before he ever met one.

We'd often get home and find him missing. Now, he was given the name Harvey by us, but he answered to it within a few weeks of being called it; so standing out the back calling him was not as unusual as it sounds, even if others thought we were mad. One day, he'd disappeared completely and I'm standing on the patio calling his name when the woman at #22 called over. "Is Harvey a grey rabbit?"
"Yes. Yes, he is?"
"He's here. Well, he isn't here, he's upstairs on my bed." Huh? Harv rarely got on our bed, but it seems he'd tunnelled out of #26, skipped #24 and found #22's door open so went exploring. When he found the woman, doing her make-up, he decided to go and introduce himself. She was, fortunately, only impressed, not scared; she had her own rabbit, in a hutch in the garden; Harv had introduced himself and gone to find the owner - owner's usually had food.

On another occasion, he got as far as the show home about 150 yards from the house. I think he got lost and confused because when he heard me, he came belting up the road and jumped onto my lap. Something he did often when he was freaked out by something (which, I'm happy, but sad to say, didn't happen very often), but he did like a cuddle, especially with either me or the wife; he didn't like the mother-in-law and she almost killed him. It was in his later years and she decided he'd let her pick him up; he had other plans and wriggled his way out of her arms; unfortunately she was by the back door and the drop was about 3 feet and the extra 4 feet he was off the floor; he landed awkwardly and almost broke his leg; maybe even his neck; he never went near her again.

Now, rabbits like to chew things and Harvey was no exception. Fortunately there were no loose wires he could latch on to, at least not until his first Christmas. Suffice it to say, he saw the green wires of the lights and thought he'd check them out. I'm surprised he didn't kill himself, but he did look a little like he'd been playing with a Van der Graf generator for a few days.

Possibly the most sensible question I was ever asked by a vet was, "How on Earth do you discover that a rabbit likes Maltesers?" In that, 'you've been feeding them to him, haven't you?' kind of way. Moira, our best vet, like many other doubters, looked in slight disbelief when I explained to her that Harvey ate what he wanted; he was like a force of nature if you had food and he wanted some. You would be metaphorically beaten up until he either managed to get at whatever it was or you succumbed and showed him what you had and allowed him to make up his own mind.

It started with a Curly Wurly...

I was a head. I liked my munchies and I was having a particular fixation with this Cadbury's combo of chocolate and caramel. Harvey, who rarely ventured off the floor, saw me eating it one day and decided it was his. Tug of war ensued. You have never seen anything quite as funny as a grown man wrestling a rabbit over a chocolate bar, but once Harv had sunk his teeth into that sweet goodness, it was his and no one else's. He eventually lost the battle, but probably went on to win the war. His only achievement that day was to get a mouthful, but it was enough to hypnotise him. His most unbelievable tales of eating are to come, but first I have to tell you about... tea.

Harvey loved his tea. This was discovered by an all too boring fact. My mum used to put her tea on the floor, next to her feet; Harvey being inquisitive, checked it out, tried it and from that point on, whenever my mum had a cup of tea, she would pour some into the saucer and that would be Harv's tea. He loved my mum and who wouldn't, she treated him like a small grey son, giving in to all his demands and if he wanted something he'd let you know. He'd grunt, stamp his feet and generally run round and round in circles making his feelings clear - temper tantrums. He also had a thing about tea bags and would fish them out of the bin - yes, really - and then run around the house or garden with it hanging from his mouth - tea was this animal's nicotine.

However, back to chocolate and beef burgers...

Probably the craziest stunt I've ever seen Harvey perform was one evening while the wife and I were lying on the sofa watching TV. I had pulled a packet of Maltesers out of the fridge and we were helping ourselves to them and he seemed uninterested. Yet, as it was, he was fully aware of everything going on around him and was planning his next move. He nonchalantly wandered around the edge of the room, in a uninterested kind of way until he disappeared behind the telly and the end of the sofa. Suddenly, there he was, on the arm of the sofa and he charged up the length of the sofa, using us as his road. He leapt from the sofa onto the coffee table, landed on a newspaper and slid across the table, as he passed the Maltesers, he reached out, grabbed the packet in his mouth and as the newspaper shot off the edge of the table, he landed running. It was like something out of Die Hard and he never looked wrong footed. He landed on all four feet and was running for the safety of the dining room table, with his bounty (he also liked them) taken. We sat there wondering if this animal would ever stop amazing us.

Several days later, while I was out and the wife was in the kitchen doing some washing, she heard rustling in the lounge and walked in to find Harvey in the bin, head first, with his legs up in the air, trying to lick the insides of a chocolate wrapper. we had a monster in out midst.

I rarely had takeaways, but one night I opted for a Mid-West American Styled Hamburger from the now ancient shop on the Wellingborough Road. I got back, sat down and began to eat my food. Harvey saw me eating and hurtled for me, up the sofa and up my front, where he sank his teeth into my massive burger. Now, rabbits tend to have very inexpressive faces, you can't really tell what they're thinking, but this evening, the look on Harvey's face was remarkable. It was like the thought 'uh-oh, what have I eaten?' came into his head and he ran off shaking and a bit cheesed off. From that point onwards, he'd go outside if we were cooking meat; it was like a protest.

The more people that met Harvey the more wanted him. We were offered £500 once for him by a friend who thought he could turn the rabbit into a TV star, but we weren't getting rid of my boy, not for ten times that amount. I started to think people just came to see the rabbit.

He got a little slower when we moved to Wellingborough and the upheaval freaked him out a bit; he became very much a doorstep bunny again, rarely venturing past his new dump mound. He still had his moments; attacking dogs that came into the house and fathering a couple more litters - from which came Bugsy, who in turn was the father of Chester, who I will tell you about one day, because she was everything her granddad was and quite a bit more, but considerably less intelligent.

While I had the shop, Harvey got ill and we almost lost him. He'd developed fluid on the lungs and it was touch and go with him for a few days. It was the only time he ever wee'd in the house; the day we brought him back from the vet who saved his life. He had to get rid of all that fluid somewhere and on the kitchen floor was fine by me.

His favourite things in the world at the new house were the fire place, which he'd roast by on cold nights and the fridge, because he knew all his favourite things lived there and that was where Paula found him the morning he died. He wanted one more Malteser before he went off to bunny heaven. Jesus... It still chokes me up now. When we lost Giff and Meg 5 years ago it left such a yawning hole in our lives, we never thought we'd get over it, but Harvey's death - the death of our first real child/pet was devastating. I don't think I've cried so much in my entire life. I'd lost my best mate; because that was what he was; my constant companion for so many years; always by my feet, always willing to sit on my lap and give me a cuddle while basting my jeans (something his granddaughter did as well). The words, "Phil, Harvey's dead." reverberate in my memory all the time; they were the three worst words I'd heard up to that point in my life and we buried him at the bottom of the Ashfield Road house and thankfully, because I sold the house to one of our best friends, I still get to go and stand in the garden, quietly and have a few words with my boy.

A lot of the people reading this might remember him; it was a long time ago now, but he was such an important little man in our lives that we'll never ever forget him and like I said, I've never met another animal with the intelligence and understanding that rabbit had and I doubt I ever will.

1 comment:

  1. That was wonderful Phill. I feel like I know Harvey; what a character!