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We need to talk about Susan

1 Feb

I spend a ridiculous amount of my time talking about Dog Bounderby nowadays, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that we don’t have any other pets.

You’d be wrong.

I don’t know if you recall my ongoing struggle to own some goldfish, several years ago? It became, rather, an ongoing struggle to keep any goldfish alive for any length of time whatsoever.

I’m sorry to report that not long after I’d saved Belle and Sebastian’s lives, they died anyway. In fact, Belle died, leading me to heartlessly purchase a replacement (Belle 2). Belle 2 proceeded to slightly bully Sebastian, and to give him some kind of horrible disease from the horrible pet shop. Even though I separated them, keeping Belle 2 in a bottle for a while, he still died. And so did she. In maybe a couple of weeks.

I realised that although the pet shop I’d got them from had given me such a comprehensive interrogation before allowing me to adopt any of their precious fish, their fish were rubbish.

My relaxing goldfish project had left me stressed and heartbroken. Everyone told me to give up on the goldfish. Everyone except Tom. Tom had once kept a goldfish alive in a vase for a whole year and cherished it as his closest confidante – until he went on a trip and someone killed and replaced it and insisted for months that it was the same fish. (Uncool.)

So I went to a better pet shop and bought Cagney and Lacey.

Cagney and Lacey were much hardier fish. They were a plucky duo who doubtless solved plenty of crimes together, and once got a shout-out on national radio.


I left all my friends in Oxford, apart from Cagney and Lacey. They came with me on a lengthy and awkward road trip back to Bristol, slopping water all over my car in the process. There they lived in my (reluctant) parents’ kitchen while they were trying to pack up to move house.

But while I was away on holiday… Cagney died.

I think I’ve forgiven my mother for this. I mean, she didn’t replace her and insist it was the same fish or anything. I don’t think she was purposely trying to get my fish out of the damned way.

I mourned. And watched Lacey uneasily.

Then I had to move house again. I guess I can see how a person less attached to their goldfish might think that moving house with them isn’t really worth it…

The tank is too heavy to lift. So you have to empty most of the water out of the tank and store it in a bucket with a lid (because it’s so much better than regular tap water). You probably don’t have a bucket big enough so you have to use loads of slightly leaky ice cream tubs.

You can’t let the filter dry out, so that has to go in another tub of water from the tank – with the plug hanging out.

Then you put the fish in another container of water, and strap all these leaky vessels into your car with insufficient towels. You carry heavy buckets up and down stairs; you get soaked; your sole surviving goldfish isn’t grateful.

Well, maybe Lacey was grateful – it was hard to tell. What was more obvious was that after all of these house moves she was looking sort of sickly.

I went on holiday again. Lacey died.

Around that time, Tom asked me to marry him, so that cheered me up. I put the fish tank away for a while. Waiting until our lives were more stable.

A few months after we got married, we thought it was time. Time to get our own fish. Enter: Karl and Susan.

Karl was a fancy goldfish with silly little frilly fins, not really suited for any kind of serious swimming; the last of his kind left at the shop. Susan was a comet goldfish, sleek, streamlined; the fastest of her brethren. I asked the guy whether they’d get along okay. “Sure,” he said, “they’ll be fine.”

Within about three days, Susan had bullied Karl to death. She took all his food, she bodyslammed him into the gravel, she chased him for no reason. We separated them to no avail.

You see, Susan is a monster.

We moved house with Susan. Susan survived.

We went on several holidays without Susan. Susan survived.

We bought a dog and forgot to clean out the tank for months on end. Susan survived.

Susan developed a huge tumour on the side of her face. Susan survived.

The truth is, Susan’s still with us after two and a half years, but we don’t really talk about her. Do we love Susan? Probably? Are we scared of Susan? A little bit… When Susan sees us, she races to the glass and throws herself at us angrily, mouthing soundless underwater obscenities, cursing us: “Let me out! I’ll take you all on! ALL OF YOU!!”

I wanted a goldfish that would survive for a decent length of time. I just didn’t realise that in the brutal, fish-eat-fish world of nature, what I was asking for was an angry, bullying, psychopath.

Be careful what you wish for. Susan is waiting.




Things I have learned about dogs

19 Apr

This is my dog, Bounderby.


We got him on New Year’s Day and he has sort of taken over our lives.

I think I probably knew quite a lot more than the average sane person about dogs beforehand, but having this furry person in our family has taught me (and Tom) a lot of new things about dogs. Here are some of them.

1) Puppies are really violent.

Whenever you see puppies on films or in books or on the internet, they are always lying around looking fluffy and adorable, licking people’s faces or being cuddled by small children. Why is it that nobody talks about the main thing puppies do? BITING. Puppies LOVE biting. It’s what they spend almost all their time doing when they are awake. It’s the only game they know. Biting your hands, biting your feet, tearing your clothes, strangling you with your scarf – and don’t even think about trying to cuddle. Cuddling = opportunities for biting your face. I worried that perhaps Bounderby was a small dangerous maniac when he liked to greet us by biting our faces and would leap up and grab hold of our arms in his teeth like a fluffy police dog. Twice he made my leg bleed through my jeans. They seem to believe you will come to love this game if they just bite you enough. No. Nobody loves that game. Eventually they sort of get the hint and give up.

2) Dogs are more polite than 1920s English gentlemen.

Puppies aside, I think dogs might be the most courteous people on earth. They have a strict sense of etiquette and feel bad if it’s not adhered to. A dog has to greet you, even more than a gentleman has to shake your hand. They also dislike anybody getting too boisterous and overbearing, and will do things like lie down, turn away, or quietly step in between two rowdy dogs to calm the situation down. They avoid conflict in a very English way. I think that’s why some dogs don’t really like puppies, in the same way that some adults can’t cope with screaming, running, whooping toddlers.

Another thing I love is that they have a word for “joke!” It’s this:

Play bow

This bum-in-the-air by Bounders (on the right) means “play with me!” But they also do it during play to say, “I just punched you in the face with my paw but it was just jokes!!” This polite system allows them to play like they’re fighting without anybody getting upset. Bounderby does well with this one – he has a very persuasive waggly tail.

3) Dogs are obsessed with Facebook.

Like human children, puppies enjoy being with their parents and biting on stuff. But then they reach their teenage years and suddenly become addicted to social networking. Dogs have to go out and check Facebook (lamp posts, tufts of grass, walls, etc.) in case anybody has posted anything. “Ooh, Milo was here three hours ago after his breakfast”. Then they check in and leave their own status update. “Bounderby was at Greenbank Cemetery – feeling hungry.”

4) Dogs are surprisingly sarcastic.

I always thought dogs were unbearably sincere and enthusiastic about everything, but it turns out they do a good line in withering looks and melodramatic sighs.

5) Dogs are masterful mime artists.

Our dog often comes across as a person who just can’t talk. He will give you an expressive stare, willing you to psychically read his mind and work out what he’s trying to tell you. Most of the time it’s very obvious what he wants because he is also an accomplished mime and not at all subtle. For instance, while we are eating dinner, he likes to go and stand by his food bowl, looking from us to it as if he thinks we are so stupid that we have forgotten to feed him and he needs to show us what to do. He must think we are really thick when we don’t respond. Dogs are experts at body language and live their lives in mime. I think it’s kind of nice that he is trying to bridge the language barrier.

6) Dogs love routine. And sleep.

I didn’t know this before, but dogs really are creatures of habit. Having a routine makes life with a puppy a lot easier because they just learn that it’s nap time after lunch time, allowing you to actually get on with your own life! Bounderby has learnt what things happen in his day in what order, which means it’s easy to fool him about what time it is, e.g. by taking him for a walk an hour earlier so that he will nap an hour earlier when you want to go out. Sucker.

And dogs need to sleep for 16-18 hours a day otherwise their brains overheat. Fact.

7) Dogs are really very intelligent.

Like, more than I’d thought. Bounderby can learn a new trick in 1 or 2 tries, if I’m clear enough with the instructions. He learns things like that much faster than most people I know. It’s kind of scary. On the other hand, he has not yet learned that some doors open inwards. I don’t know why.

8) Dogs know that they are dogs and we are wizards.

Even though he is smart, if I present Bounderby with a new puzzle (maybe a closed box with food in), his first course of action is not to try and work it out, but to sit down and look straight at me as if to say: “I am dog. Cannot do this. Wizard help please.” He comes to get me if his ball has got stuck somewhere he can’t reach, or if he doesn’t understand how to do something. I read that this is the secret of dogs’ success – they know what they can’t do and how to get help. Having a personal wizard as their friend enables them to do way more than any old wolf could do. And I quite like being magical.

In conclusion, I think I’ve learned why dogs and people get on. Dog society is a lot like human society. They just have fewer taboos about eating poo.

Well this is an unusual situation.

4 Nov

You know how, just sometimes, you find yourself sitting somewhere, looking around, and thinking, “Well this is an unusual situation”?

Yesterday, Tom and I went to a quality wedding in London. I didn’t realise til we stepped off the train that it was in Tower Hamlets, a place I’ve heard interesting things about. We needed lunch, and there was not a deli or coffee bar in sight – what are two middle-class people dressed in black tie supposed to do?

We went to McDonalds. Dressed for a wedding. In Tower Hamlets. I couldn’t help but wonder what on earth the other people there thought of us.


We had an engagement party the other weekend, in the self-styled People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.

Stokes Croft is an… unusual place at the best of times – a mixture of bohemian ideals, artists, brothels, independent cafes, bakeries, riots and graffiti artists working on commission from the police. On a Saturday night near Halloween, the streets were busy and one in three people was a zombie.

After a fun, reasonably normal time at The Social, we went to try and see some ska but were surprised and defeated by a long queue. So instead, the five of us who were left cast around for another cafe that might be open at that time of night for a nice cup of tea.

What was open was the Runcible Spoon, a tiny, inexplicable cafe that seems to serve amazing food, if you can find somewhere to sit. We tried in vain to peer through the steamy windows and then pushed our way in. The one table was occupied. There was a counter by the window with some stools, but the counter was covered in large pies, presumably cooling. It looked like we’d just walked into somebody’s kitchen. After a few moments of puzzled staring, Claire asked the chef if we could sit there, but what about the pies? He replied somewhat vaguely that he could move the pies. Truth be told, he seemed sort of surprised to see us. We felt sort of rude for making them tidy up.

So we hung out there for a while, perched on some stools, smelling the pies, drinking a big pot of peppermint tea, and listening to the hordes of zombies shuffling by outside. From the Bristol streets, somewhere beyond the steamed-up windows, the cry of “Braaaaaiinnss” punctuated the night.

“Bristol seems to have a large zombie community,” Mike remarked.

“It’s a diverse cultural area.”