Can You Smell Burning?
My grandmother always said you had to wear a clean and chaste nightdress, because what would you do if there was a fire? I never had the guts to tell her what I was thinking once I got past about the age of 14. That if I was stark naked, I would probably be one of the first ones rescued. I did tell my mother though, and she nearly wet herself laughing and then talked about grounding me.
I can say I do actually know what I would do if I was naked in a fire. In my case, it was wrap a dressing gown around myself and one around my daughter and bolt for the door. The fire was a dryer full of nappies and we had been in the bath when the alarm went off. I was standing on the lawn, valiantly trying to hold the dressing gown shut (I have never known where the belt was on any dressing gown that has been through the wash since I was about ten), trying to make sure all the pets and most importantly, my daughter, were out of harm's way.
My husband had reacted in perfect calmness, turning off the electricity, getting the hose and eventually putting the fire out, managing the whole thing, while I sat on the fence and coughed. As an asthmatic, the ambulance and fire brigade were a bit worried about the smoke I had breathed in while rushing back into the burning building to get my dog out, then going back in again for the car keys so I could move the car out of the garage and away from laundry. They were even more worried when I remembered my grandmother and started laughing so hard I almost choked. I can still remember the fireman's worried face as I flapped away his concern and tried to catch my breath. She was always worried I would be caught naked in a fire, and what do you know, the one serious fire I was in and I was.
That was one of the times in my life that confirmed my basic philosophy in life. Life can kick you in the teeth but if you turn around, you can use that same foot to give you a kick in the butt and get yourself going in the right direction. Everything in life is just a matter of focus and timing. The stories in this book just go to show how true that is.
There is a saying that if life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Whoever it was that first said that had the right idea. I remember my own childhood version of that, "when life hands you dead fish, make a terrarium".
I was about 12 or so. As a school project, I had to take care of a living thing and write a diary project on how it grew. As luck would have it, a nearby garage sale had a cheap fish tank for sale, so I decided I would raise gold fish. After all, how hard could it be? For all of you that watch Top Gear, please groan now.That phrase is the equivalent of chocolate left down on a table in a house full of dogs. It just screams trouble.
It all started well enough. I set the tank up by the front door, reasoning that I would see it every day and be reminded to feed them and make notes in my diary. The tank even had a little ledge that was perfect for holding my notepad and pencil. So I borrowed a book out of the library on how to raise goldfish and carefully followed the steps. I let the water settle, treating it for chlorine. The book didn't say to take out the little bits of river weed and one of the small wormy/eel like thing that came out of the tap, but I used my initiative and took those out too. After all, it was drought time and you had to make allowances.
Once the water was ready, I placed my fish gently in the tank, letting them grow accustomed to the water before removing the bag that they had been in for the short trip from next door's outside pond. (Stop thinking that, I had permission.) It was all going rather well, I even had colourful stones for the bottom left over from a different project and a small frog figurine from a school fete lucky dip in there to keep them company.
Now we had previously found that mammals did well as members of our family, but birds were a complete wipe out. We had killed so many budgies over the years, my mother refused to ever get another one. But we hadn't tried fish before and there was no little ladder for a fish to strangle itself in, or a little bell to concuss itself on, and fish can't fly into windows, at least not these types of fish, so I figured we should be OK. What I hadn't counted on was the cat.
It seems that bright orange fish are an irresistible draw card to a curious cat. She wasn't really ever that interested in eating them, but she did watch them very closely. Fearing the abrupt end of my project, I made sure I put the cover firmly on the tank. That would keep her out and keep my subjects safe. And it worked, for a while. Till all the cat fur clogged the filter and the fish suffocated. There was a tear filled farewell held in the bathroom as we gathered around the porcelain coffin and I went to ask the neighbours for some more fish.Luckily, they had quite a few.
Now adding a few knickknacks to the top of the tank would stop her from sitting on the tank and getting fur in the filter, right? WRONG. What it did was cause her to slip and land heavily on the cover, adding dangerous shards of glass, and piles of knickknacks, to the enraged pile of cat that fell into the tank. Flush two fish, wash and dry cat, get a piece of board for a new, stronger tank cover and start again. After all, I still had a few weeks before the assignment was due.
OK, week three and all was going well. New fish were gathered from the obliging neighbour and the water was once again strained of errant mozzie larvae and treated. Everything was back on track. Except...remember how I said I had placed the tank near the door? Well apparently, fish are susceptible to shock, especially the shock of a door that didn't quite close properly and managed to slam open leaving the fish open to the harsh wind and forty degree heat (that's 40oC for my American friends). It turns out, that although that temperature is not quite enough to boil tank water, it is enough to cook goldfish in the time it takes for you to get home from school. Flush fish, start again.
This time I thought to move the tank away from the door and under a shelf low enough that the cat would not fit on the top of the tank. Good idea you think. Huh! Apparently, a mere dunking into water surrounded by shards of glass is not enough to deter the cat, she was a cat of determination. It was enough to make her cautious though and change her station for studies of the tank to the top of the TV. This was fine, until a loud gunshot from a cowboy movie caused the cat to jump straight for the shelf. The shelf containing a pot plant. The shelf containing a pot plant that was heavy enough to go straight over the shelf and through my new tougher, stronger cover and turn the tank water into mud.
I was trying to find the fish amongst the shards of pot and strands of dying plant, musing that I really should stick to mammals and wondering if I could coax my mother into allowing me to have a guinea pig. As a farmer's daughter that had been through a mouse plague or two, it was probably a big ask. And a rabbit was not going to happen as the last one "ran away" when I found that it could kick right through a shirt leaving a four inch long scar across your chest. And it was not cute and fluffy when doing it. Feeding it carrots also meant having to clean up the resulting throughput. Rabbits cannot be house trained. So what to do? I doubted my teacher would allow me to report on the cat or dog, living animals or not. And baby goats really do eat your homework. Maybe an ant farm?
My determined effort to find the fish was successful though fruitless and I was forced to consign them to the briny deep via the flushing funeral home. I was wondering how to drain the tank when my mother came home carrying the remains of yet another plant killed when the cat, terrified by the sound of shattering pot plant and dying fish, had leapt through the door, forgotten a similar plant on the step and smashed it too. "Now where am I going to get another pot?" Mum moaned. Finding plants was never hard, after all, walking the dog while carrying a plastic bag and a pair of pruning shears meant you could liberate any number of cuttings and indeed, our entire garden closely resembled anything in a three block walk that grew close to the fence line. But pots cost money and that we did not have. After all, we had spent all that money on the fish tank.
A long moment passed as my mother and I watched the little light come on behind each other's eyes. An idea had sparked. A trip to the public library later and I was the proud new owner of a terrarium. And guess what, the cat didn't care less about plants until one fern had the misfortune of growing higher than the edge of the tank, and by then, my project was finished and handed in. Besides, who said you can't include cats in a terrarium?