Lemur Goes Missing

The PR day at Mr Smithson's city centre pet store had been a great success. Alison and her small band of helpers were delighted with the response - and the full collection box. Children had clustered round the rescue centre's stand to stroke a ferret and to received a free care leaflet and balloon. Tommy proudly showed Ferret to eager families and answered numerous questions. "Oooh, isn't it sweet. Does it bite? Does it smell? Can I hold it?" Lemur was on show in the travelling cage, still not quite trusted to meet the public

Mr Smithson's eyes gleamed happily behind his large spectacles. Business had been brisk in the run-up to Christmas and today had gone very well indeed. And still another four shopping days to go. Mentally he rubbed his hands.

Now it was almost closing time. In the ensuing bustle, a helpful staff member offered to load Ferret and Lemur into Alison's 4x4. Darkness was falling by the time everything was packed up and Tommy and Alison were crossing the car park to the vehicle. The back door had been left open. Tommy felt a pang of unease and hurried forward. To his horror, he saw that the hinged door on the ferrets' travelling cage had sprung open.

The cage was empty

Tommy gave a cry of anguish. Alison grabbed a torch from a compartment and searched the interior. "Look underneath," she told Tommy. There by the front wheel was Ferret, snuffling about, quite unconcerned.

"Thank God," said Alison. Tommy scooped him up and put him in the cage. Then began a frantic search for Lemur in the gathering gloom. The pet store staff came to help and Mr Smithson bustled about trying to soothe and console.

"I'm so sorry, laddie," he said to Tommy. "But, after all, it is a wild animal. Nature will out, you know. The call of the wild and all that. How about a nice hamster instead? I can do you a special discount on a Golden Abyssinian Climbing Hamster. Just the thing for a kiddie's Christmas present. Now, what do you say, young man?"

As Tommy opened his mouth, Alison hastily interrupted: "That's very kind of you.." she began.

"What did the laddie say?" asked Mr Smithson, who was fortunately rather deaf.

"He said we'd better be off. To look for his ferret," said Alison.

Mr Smithson drove away in his BMW and the store staff, expressing sorrow and regret, made their various ways home. The car park backed on to streets of terraced houses, their narrow yards swallowed up by the December darkness. There was a busy road at the front and rush hour traffic was speeding past.

Tommy felt sick. His beautiful Lemur.

"She'll be dead," he said. "Squashed. I'll never see her again."

Tears sprung up in Alison's eyes. Tommy was almost certainly right. How could the tiny polecat survive alone in this dangerous world? She put her arm round Tommy. They stood by the road; lit by yellow headlamps, the rumble and swish of traffic in their ears.

"She came from the city," said Alison. "She'll come back to us from the city."

Tommy hardly slept. When he woke, a wave of despair swept over him. He and Mum took the bus to the pet store. They hunted all day and put leaflets through doors. Alison rang the RSPCA and other rescue centres. She appealed on local radio and came and joined the search. They looked in garden sheds, behind wheelie bins, under parked cars. Alison had already checked the roads. If Lemur had been run over, there was no trace of her.

That night, Tommy looked out of his bedroom window at the endless bright lights of the city' "Lemur," he whispered. "Where are you? Come home to us."

Next morning was frosty and sunny. It was just three days to Christmas and the city was thronged with shoppers. There were carol singers, a festive market and a funfair. Tommy saw none of them.

Then the call came. A dark-coloured ferret had been handed into a small wildlife hospital on the edge of the city. She was injured and in a poor state. With hope in their hearts, Alison and Tommy rushed to investigate. The tiny polecat was on a blanket in a small cage. She had a wound to the side of her body and she seemed to be in shock.

"Oh Tommy!" cried Alison. "It's Lemur." But as Tommy bent closely over the small form, despair again came over him. "It isn't," he said. Alison looked again. The jill's markings were almost identical to Lemur's but she was thinner and her coat was sparse and rough. "No," she said flatly. "It isn't Lemur."

"It still needs a good home," said the hospital manager. "Ferrets aren't wildlife. It shouldn't really be here."

Alison looked again at the tiny jill. The jill looked back at her with Lemur's beady black eyes. "Not now," she said. "I'll be in touch."

It was the day before Christmas Eve. Tommy had been eagerly awaiting his second Christmas with his ferrets. Now his world had collapsed. He wouldn't eat, couldn't sleep. He took the bus back to the pet store. He walked the streets, asking people, searching in the growing dusk. He thought of the present he'd bought for Lemur, a tartan sleeping bag. Mum had embroidered her name on it in gold thread. Now Lemur was dead. He sat on a low wall and wanted to die too.

"Hey mate! Hey!" Two younger boys approached with a battered cardboard box. "Is this wot yous lookin' for?" Hardly daring to hope, Tommy looked inside. Two black beady eyes stared back at him. It was Lemur.

"We found it in't outside toilet. We fed it cat food but someone sez you was lookin' for 'un." "Thank you," said Tommy, quite calmly. "it's my ferret. Here," he fished out a 20 note Mum had given him to 'go buy yourself something to cheer you up'. Only when the lads had gone gleefully away with their reward did Tommy cry tears of thanks into the rich black fur.

Lemur spent the night in Tommy's bedroom. He woke many times, reaching down through the darkness to touch her soft coat.

The next morning, Christmas Eve, he took Lemur back to Holly Tree House. Just like last year, a tall Christmas tree sparkled in the hall and Alison was baking. The warm kitchen was redolent with festive smells. There was a powdering of snow in the orchard and icicles round the barn door.

Lemur was as lively as ever. She playfully pounced on Ferret, bouncing round him with arched back, eyes glowing with mischief. Tommy was silent, watching her. Then he turned to Alison. "Come on," he said. "There's somewhere we've got to go."

At the wildlife hospital, they looked down at the tiny jill. She seemed thinner and weaker but she still looked up at them with Lemur's eyes.

"It's Lemur's sister," said Tommy. "I know it is. They're just the same. I didn't want her. I left her here."

Alison gently picked up the little polecat.

"Come on," she said. "You're coming home."

There was a blazing log fire at Holly Tree House that Christmas Eve. Michael and Alison were holding a drinks party and Mum had come over to join them. She looked very pretty with her dark curls and new red party dress. She was on her second gin and tonic and enjoying herself hugely.

The tiny polecat was curled up asleep in a cosy cage in the warm kitchen. She was so like Lemur that she could be her twin. Only her skinny body and thin coat betrayed the difference.

Tommy hovered over her. Tucking her blanket round her, stroking the sparse fur. Alison had assured him that she would be fine but he still felt guilty about abandoning her. He vowed that from now on he would always be there for her. The beady black eyes opened and looked up at him

"Merry Christmas," said Tommy.

(First published in Ferrets First Dec/Jan 2002/3)

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