There was a time when I was pretty familiar with early morning BBC World Service programmes — 1996 in fact. It was part of the night-feeding routine of our first-born, daughter Lillian. Just a few months old, she took a bit of settling after a feed, so we worked out a division of labour — Catrina would breast-feed her, then I would take Lillian downstairs and walk about until she burped and fell back asleep.
Sometimes it would take quite a time, so in the gloom of the moon-lit 4-o’clock kitchen I would shuffle a hypnotic triangular path — fridge to cooker to sink and back to fridge — with Lillian slumped over my shoulder. And as I walked, I’d listen to the radio on its lowest volume, reports from Ulan Bator, Bokhara and Vanuatu, and all the other weird out-of-the-way places in which the World Service specialized until Radio 4 came on air at 5.30.
Apart from the soporific drone of the radio, it was silent in Nunhead; too late for yowling cats, too early for the dawn chorus. But on this one occasion, there came an unfamiliar rattle of the cat-flap. We had one of those fancy flaps — magnetic rimmed, a key-coded lock set to the high-tech collar tags of our own animals, but keeping out the unwanted smelly ferals, and it had a clear plastic door.
What peered in through the flap that night, though, was no cat. Narrow pale head, pointed snout, tiny flat ears, more rat than cat it looked. I peered out through the window and was met with the sight of a small, slim creature slinking about outside the back door. A polecat? A ferret?
Lillian was now asleep. Perhaps some people would have gone back to bed and mentioned it, in passing, at the breakfast table:
“Oh, I saw a ferret in the garden last night.”
“Did you dear?”
“Yes, the poelcat kind.”
This would not have fitted my character. So instead I took Lillian back up to her Moses basket, settled her down, and went off to capture my quarry.
A large wicker basket, with a flip-down lid, home to various skeins of wool and knitting needles, would be a make-shift cage; I left it open, in readiness, as I unlocked the back door and padded outside in my bare feet. Mr ferret was still there, taking an interest in the French windows leading in to the living room now. It was at this point that I considered the likely outcomes of my avid curiosity.
My Uncle Geoff used to keep ferrets. A third- or possible fourth-generation Kent farmer, he had a half-dozen that he used for rabbiting. As children, visiting, we were never allowed to open the cage — they weren’t pets, they were ferocious working animals and I’d regularly seen them rip a pigeon or a handful of sparrows tossed into the cage, to nothing but a few floating feathers, in less than a minute.
I contemplated the delicate skin on the back of my hand and wondered whether I’d be ripped and bloody in a similar time. I knew how to hold a cat by the scruff of the neck; I took a deep breath and moved in for the grasp.
My fears were groundless. The soft little animal went limp in my fingers as I lifted it up by the nape and carried it indoors. Nary a frustrated grunt or timid squeak did it make as I plopped it into the wool basket and fastened the lid with a couple of clothes pegs. I could hear it examining the inside of the container, but it was obvious this was a mild pet, and not a savage hunter. Stage one complete, but what was stage two going to be?
In the more civilized hours of the morning the RSPCA and Battersea Dog’s home were moderately interested, but not very helpful about our find. No-one had reported a missing polecat ferret in Nunhead, but they might consider looking after it until an owner came forward. As it happened, this would not be necessary; pulling back the draft-proofing curtain across the front door revealed a worried and heart-felt circular stuffed through the letterbox.
NOT A RAT, NOT VERMIN, NOT DANGEROUS were the phrases that stood out. The worried owner awaited our call. The relief in his voice was palpable, and he was round in 45 seconds.
I’d never spoken to Mick before, even though he only lived three houses down the street — a big, beefy man, with a round bald head, he cut a slightly menacing figure, leather jacketed, shod in metal-trimmed boots, as he roared off on his large, loud motorcycle every morning. Today he shuffled timidly into our living room and looked anxiously as I opened the wicker lid; then he scooped up the ferret, clutched it to his chest, kissed it on the forehead and muttered: “Oh, Bill, Mummy and Daddy have been so worried”.
Bill, it seems, had slipped his tether when ‘Mummy’ forgot to take him in after a sunny day gamboling on the lawn. Convinced he’d be bashed on the head by some frantic rodentophobic neighbour, Mick had been beside himself with worry all night. But all was right now.
After that I was on good nodding terms with the biker in the street. And when it happened again, a few months later, I was able to trot round in the early morning darkness, still humming the Radio 4 theme tune, ring on the doorbell and hand Bill to my bleary-eyed neighbour offering: “I believe this is yours”.