Five Things You Should Know Before You Marry a Biologist.

Please excuse the deafening silence. MM has hardly touched the ground over the last two weeks. Service will be back to normal soon. Or as normal as it gets around here.

If you have fallen for the charms of a biologist and you’re thinking about spending the rest of your life with him or her, here are a few things to consider before you say “yes”.

1. Biologists can get attached to the species they study. 

This is illustrated by the fact that like any other housewife, I said good morning to the Daltons this morning as I passed their tank. The Daltons are our snakes. Snakes are not cute or cuddly, and don’t get attached to you in any way (apart from wrapping themselves around your arm). Whilst other housewives brush their Westies and give the rabbit a carrot, I pick up snake poo and defrost mice. As I dangled dead rodents over the Daltons’ heads, it occurred to me that the plumber is coming this week to deal with the burst pipe beside their tank. I’d have to check if he was scared of snakes before I let him in. I often forget that the Daltons are there, and realise too late that my visitor is velcroed to the wall several feet behind me, eyes wide with terror as he or she points a quaking finger at the tank.

 "MM resolved to be clearer the next time PF asked her what she wanted him to bring back from his travels.  Rex certainly kept the children quieter than the stuffed toy she had ordered."

“MM resolved to be clearer the next time PF asked her what she wanted him to bring back from his business trip. However, it had to be said that Rex was certainly better at keeping the children quiet than the stuffed lion she had ordered.”

2. Biologists are a fountain of knowledge about nature. 

… and will willingly spout about it if you ask. It’s not just a job, it’s a 24/7 passion – and it’s infectious. A family visit to a zoo or a natural history museum requires rations for a week, camping gear and sleeping bags because PF explains the life cycle, knicker size and favourite TV programmes of every beast we clap eyes on. Any of you who have seen the wonder in a child’s eyes as they see a butterfly emerging from its cocoon should imagine a grown-up man doing the same. PF regularly runs in from the garden, muttering under his breath, and bombs back out with my camera. A cicada’s entry into the world last year seemed almost as fascinating to him as the birth of his own offspring.

3. Biologists never switch off. 

They read scientific articles in bed, correct their students’ exam papers at the kitchen table, and manage to find the only two hour-long TV documentary about traffic management in travelling dung beetle communities. Like little kids, they will find the remains of an insect during a family walk and insist on wrapping it carefully in a paper hanky and bringing it home to find out what it is. If it is unusual or rare, expect it to take pride of place on the kitchen window sill. Your biologist will only remember it once you have entrusted it to its final resting place in the kitchen bin. Childbirth is an event that is too cool for words – on top of the new daddy emotion, PF also got to see a placenta and umbilical cord, for realBiologist daddies don’t just cut the cord. They carefully inspect it when the nurse is looking the other way.

4. Biologists’ children inevitably get bitten by the bug.

I finally got my salad spinner back yesterday after my children hijacked it for use as a temporary hotel for a gang of huge, homeless tadpoles. Having a biologist parent can also cause problems at school: Little My went off her biology teacher recently when she told the class that all cells have a nucleus. Little My begged to differ, and the teacher laughed at her. No doubt eyeing her teacher as if she was an overripe heap of camel dung, Little My informed her that eukaryotic cells have a nucleus, but prokaryotic cells don’t. I suspect that my daughter’s homework will be handled like live ammunition from now on.

If the tadpoles survive, I'll have a good stock of potential Prince Charmings.

If our tadpoles survive, this is what they will turn into. I’ll have a good stock of potential Prince Charmings this year.

5. Biologist “business trips” are unlike all others.

Husbands in films go on business trips. They call from a tastefully decorated designer bedroom in a high-tech hotel somewhere in the vibrant centre of the business vortex to reassure their perfectly manicured spouses (usually prowling around their bedrooms wearing lipstick and cougar nighties) before going out to sign a corporate deal. They return home with perfume, silk underwear and Belgian chocolates.

For a biologist’s spouse, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Forget Richard Gere, and imagine a hybrid of Richard Attenborough and Man Friday. The last time PF went away, he eventually called me from an island lost somewhere off the African coast. I was clad in my Bob the Builder dungarees and was attacking the sewer from hell with my latest weapon, caustic soda (my eternal thanks to my hero, Papounet, whose miracle remedy has saved me from getting covered in raw sewage and paying huge fees to the local plumber). PF babbled enthusiastically about his hut on stilts boasting all mod cons (running cold water, a noisy fan and a mosquito net), mud, mangroves, crabs, baobab trees, multi-coloured geckos, fruit bats the size of seagulls and sandwich-stealing lemurs. Then told me he had to run – he was invited out for a meal beside the lagoon. Ok, honey, shit happens (in our house, whilst he’s away). He’d come home eventually – with a fridge magnet, sea shells, soggy, cast-off crab exoskeletons to put on the window sill, and a toy lemur. Cos that’s the way we roll.

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The Hottest Bitch on the Block.

She’s slim, sleek and blonde, with dreamy chocolate eyes. She shakes her booty with carefully calculated charm, and flicks her golden mane provocatively at any males within spitting distance. Her raw, animal whimper reduces them to quivering, libidinous heaps of testosterone. Her ears prick up and her snout trembles at the mere mention of the unmentionable. Meet Smelly Dog, the hottest bitch on the block.

People usually congratulate us on Smelly Dog’s behaviour. She walks at our heel without a lead, and politely sits and waits until we tell her it’s safe to cross the road. She gives her paw, rolls on demand, and doesn’t rip your fingers off if you offer her a morsel of cheese. But when Herr Hormone gets in on the act, Smelly Dog transforms into a she-wolf. A diabolical dervish with her butt on fire. Nymphodog.

Smelly Dog, the hottest bitch on the block. Forget the wining and dining, kiddo. This girl means business.

Smelly Dog, the hottest bitch on the block. Forget the wining and dining, kiddo. This girl means business.

As Lily Allen sang recently, it’s hard out here for a bitch. For ten days now, poor Smelly Dog has been glued to the front door. She has been possessed by a sudden gnawing desire to reproduce, and spends her day whining and making eyes at the line-up of drooling suitors waiting impatiently on the other side of the window. Instinct motivates her every move, and when she hears the door handle creak she will make a break for the door with a determination I would only show if there was a crate of beer and barrel of peanuts waiting for me on the other side.

Although I can’t smell a thing except the usual eau de mongrel, Smelly Dog’s presence  appears to be a glaringly obvious blip on the olfactory radar of the entire canine population within a 10km radius. They have all homed in on my dog’s pheromones and found their way to our home. The neighbour’s overgrown piece of land now has so many highways stampeded through it that I’m almost expecting toll booths manned by poodles to spring up soon. The day is punctuated by angry voices shouting at male dogs who insist on lifting their legs against the neighbours’ cars, garden furniture and pee-drenched gnomes in a bid to leave an olfactory visiting card for the fair maiden.

This situation makes the usually anodyne occupation of walking the dog a highly dangerous activity. It’s akin to walking a fig leaf-clad Scarlett Johansson through a high security prison, with the added complication of being tied to Ms J by a rope. She is driven by the combined hormonal force of 500 sex-deprived nuns, has no intention whatsoever to escape, and drags you into the fray with all the enthusiasm of a shopoholic crossing the threshold of Harvey Nichols on the first day of the summer sales.

Within five minutes of leaving the house, we are surrounded by mutts of all shapes, sizes, colours and race. This appreciative audience drools silently as Smelly Dog squats to do what a girl’s gotta do.  She pulls me at speed down the lane towards a four-legged lone-ranger, and I slalom between piles of dog poo as the gang of admirers behind us inhale the smell of her offerings with all the melancholy lovesickness of spotty teenagers sniffing a rock star’s sweaty T-shirt.

Remember the romantic Lady and the Tramp scene when two dogs share a plate of spaghetti? Well, forget it. It’s all lies. Smelly Dog is a modern girl: she homes in on her man, then calls the shots with remarkable audacity. Last year, we fixed up a few dates with Eros, the real hunk of a Golden Retriever up the road. The poor lad was soon completely overtaken by events – although Smelly Dog didn’t dress up in black leather and whip out (ar hum) a pair of handcuffs, she wasn’t far from it. She was outrageously flirtatious, and the poor beast was laid out flat on the ground like a spent Goliath every evening. But did she finally let him get his evil way? No way, José. Motherhood was not her cup of tea, and nor was arranged marriage. But teasing her suitor was right up her street. Bitch by name, bitch by nature.

When I took her out for her late-night wee yesterday, duly equipped with large stick and my best menacing voice, the amourous sheepdog was still hiding in a bush. He crept out and shyly flicked his ear out of his eye. It was all Smelly Dog needed as a come-on, and she belted up to him, stuffed her snout in his face as a perfunctory greeting, then did a neat 180. To his surprise, she flicked her tail sideways, niftily reversed and stuck her rump in his face. Shocking. No spaghetti dinner, no Italian music. She didn’t even ask what his parents did for a living. NADA. He couldn’t believe his luck. She turned her head, and I swear she winked at him. He jumped at the chance, only to be shooed away by a furious and determined MM.

Life’s a bitch. Ten more days to go.

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Rest In Pisces.

Jamie's last resting place.

Jamie’s last resting place.

“Dearly beloved.” It was worthy of a Sicilian funeral. Little My’s Best Female Friend cleared her throat and grinned at her pal from below the syringa tree at the bottom of the garden. The cicadas scratched relentlessly in the hot stillness of the Provençal afternoon. Sitting on one of the garden chairs that the girls had neatly lined up for the funeral, I repressed the urge to laugh at Gargamel, strategically positioned to spy on us through the hole he had crafted in his garden wall.

“Please bring me the deceased”. Little My rose from her chair and shuffled forwards. The recently bereaved goldfish owner was stylishly clad in a frilly black taffeta skirt, a spaghetti strap top and bright green flip-flops. She proffered the lifeless body of Jamie the goldfish,  nestled in the palm of a bright red washing-up glove: the matriarch dictator, alias yours truly, had insisted that Jamie’s state of decay required protection for her hands.

BFF opened a small wooden box, and Little My ceremoniously laid her fishy friend in the bottom. (Sorry, Granny, the box you kindly gave Little My several years ago was the ideal size for a goldfish coffin, and is now buried at the bottom of the garden. We sincerely hope that you bought it from the Salvation Army shop).

The funeral eulogy was short and sweet. “Jamie will be missed. He was a good goldfish. He loved water, and played in it every day. Rest in peace”. BFF flashed a smile at her pal, then they both dissolved into peals of laughter. As Little My peeled off her rubber gloves, she muttered: “Hey, you missed something out!” She spoke into the box. “Marie and Eva are both sorry you died too. Well, they would have been if they’d known, but they’re on holiday”.

BFF passed the miniature coffin to the bereaved owner, and enthusiastically grabbed the garden spade whilst Little My sanctimoniously closed the lid on Jamie’s 18 months of watery existence. The coffin was gently laid at the bottom of the hole dug by the girls earlier that afternoon. BFF shovelled earth over him, then the two friends stamped the earth down and laid pebbles in the form of a cross on the freshly turned earth.

Silence ensued. BFF’s anxious face betrayed the fact that she had noticed Little My’s distress: despite the fun they had derived from this unusual activity, her friend was now feeling sad. She stretched out her hand and gently squeezed Little My’s. The two little girls held hands and looked solemnly down at the grave.

“I’ll miss him,” Little My said with a wobbling voice. BFF didn’t say a word, and put her arm around her pal. I fought the lump that rose in my throat. BFF turned Little My to face her, and stroked her cheek compassionately. As tears welled up in my eyes, BFF said, “Hey, don’t worry. If you miss him, we can always dig him up from time to time”. Now that’s what friends are for.

One Fish, Two Fish? Dead Fish: Goldfish.

English: An image of a Common goldfish

RIP Jamie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jamie, the kitchen-dwelling goldfish, is no more. He is no doubt at the gates to that great goldfish bowl in the sky, finding out if he will spend the afterlife swimming around Paradise Plaice or grilling with the despicable small fry in the Deep Fat Fryer.

I found him flapping around his tank in distressed circles yesterday morning, bumping clumsily into his Easter Island statue. He then went into a slow tail spin that ended in a soft landing on his pottery fish. Neptune looked on with compassion as Jamie wallowed helplessly on his side like a drunk marooned on a park bench.

As I strode over to check him out, something viscous squished between my toes. Suffice to say that MM now has irrefutable proof that it is indeed unlucky to cross the path of a black cat, particularly if it has confused your kitchen floor with its litter tray overnight. With the relative hindsight of a whole day, MM can also assure French readers that walking in la merde with your left foot does NOT bring you good luck. Even (-or rather, particularly-) if the foot is bare.

Jamie was as off colour as a vibrantly orange goldfish can be, and I prepared myself to inform Little My that her finned friend was in his final death throes. I’m sure that the sensitive readers are no doubt already dewy-eyed, muttering “poor kid” and grabbing a box of paper tissues before continuing this post. Don’t bother. Little My has a very candid approach to life, hence her nickname. I was already sure that I wouldn’t have to deal with histrionics – a fish is a fish. A dying fish, however, is fascinating.

I called my daughter and brought her to the patient’s bedside. Her eyes widened in surprise. She put her hands on her hips, then stooped over the tank and bellowed with authority, “Oy, you! You can’t die now, we just gave you a bigger tank!” The kid is reality on legs. I had to agree with her. He had a groovy tank with fake plants, Neptune and his sidekicks to keep him company, a gravel bed to sleep on, regular food and water changes, and a REAL Easter Island statue (albeit a little one). It was downright ungrateful of him to try to die on us when he had the goldfish equivalent of Bucks Palace all to himself.

Whilst I ruminated about ichthyic ingratitude, Little My scooted over to the cutlery drawer and returned with a spoon. She carefully prodded the prostrate orange comma on the gravel bed. “There! That’s better! See, he’s straight!” Jamie flapped his fins bravely for the sake of appearance, then bellied up like a walrus, eyes bulging and gills heaving.

With the help of her faithful spoon, Little My transferred the patient to an improvised intensive care unit – the kitchen sink, filled with cool water. She gently sprinkled fish flakes over the surface, a little akin to a fisherman’s widow throwing flowers over the choppy black waters of the North Sea.

Operating room in the Elliot Community Hospital

The tender beginnings of goldfish surgery. (Photo credit: Keene and Cheshire County (NH) Historical Photos)

Meanwhile, a rapid diagnosis by a friend online had revealed that Jamie had a problem with his swim bladder. (Bladders are becoming a recurrent leitmotif on this blog.) Thanks to the link she provided, I discovered that all was not lost. The solution was easy: I could feed him a frozen pea to help him digest. I kid ye not. Pea sorbet for bloated bladders. Having no frozen peas available, the only other solution the website proposed was to take the fish to the vet for an operation. I was amazed. Do they operate under water with the help of a surgeon fish? Does the goldfish get the equivalent of an oxygen mask with water in it instead? Or does he have to hold his breath out of water, like in “Finding Nemo”? One day I will grow up. But not now, I’m having way too much fun.

Rugby-boy turned up, and they coached Jamie with enthusiastic fish physiotherapy. Aided by high-tech spoon support, Jamie swam a labourious lap of the kitchen sink, encouraged by raucous applause from my offspring. As Rugby-boy and Little My downed tools, victorious, Jamie rolled his flank sideways and bit the dust. Or rather, chewed gravel. (He’s a fish. Or was.)

“Mum,  I think he’s dead. Can we bury him in the garden?” Two enthusiastic little faces turned towards me. “Can we, Mum? Pleeeease?”

“Of course you can. Just make sure you bury him deep enough, or the cat will find him”.

They appeared satisfied. That was that, then – and family life immediately returned to normal. “What’s for lunch, mum?” The answer was automatic: “I dunno, kids… Anyone for sushi?”

A Tale of Fetid Fridges and Runaway Reptiles

MM is back after a fabulous week away, during which she avidly soaked up friendship, family, fresh air, open spaces and glorious views. Oh, and a few beers too. I slept like a log, surfacing to the sound of cow bells every morning for seven heavenly days.

The return home was gradual, as if we needed weaning out of our holiday stupor. We took the long road home along beautiful country roads. PF whistled happily and I realised that life was fabulous. My brow furrowed: if things are too good to be true, it generally means something is about to go awry.

On our arrival in our neighbourhood, a premonitory sighting of Gargamel did nothing to reassure me. He was parading on his terrace in his underpants, his beer gut drooping petulantly over his knicker elastic. We lowered our heads and headed through the front door to discover a strange smell. My brain ran it though the “least favourite smell” data base and found a match: rotting lemons.

English Electric Refrigerator Ad, 1950

MM proudly presenting the contents of her  fridge on her return from holiday (Photo credit: alsis35 (now at ipernity)

The kitchen was not only smelly, but ominously silent: the characteristic hum of the fridge was missing. A howl of anguish escaped from the living room as technological cold turkey hit Bigfoot. After a week sandwiched between a lake and a field of cows in the back of beyond, he had discovered that the internet was down.

Yes, folks…. Murphy’s Law had struck again. The long-awaited storm had finally arrived to clear the air-shortly after our departure for a holiday. The fuses had promptly blown, and the house had waited patiently in Provençal temperatures until I arrived home to flip the switch… eight days later.

The fridge was full of the food I had planned for our return home, all in varying states of decay. It was modern art: a desolate landscape of yoghurt pots stretched across the top shelf, their bloated lids straining at the seams. Below, a gleaming slab of cheese curled gently at the corners. Milk paraded as cottage cheese in the door, and a family of mummified lemons was hiding in the vegetable tray, each tastefully clad in designer coat of green fur. The carnage continued in the freezer, where a huge joint of wild boar, kept for “a big day”, diffused strong scents of venison, and the individual meals I had prepared for PF swam lengths of a freezer drawer full of water, their curved lids tauter than Rihanna’s buttocks.

If the fridge-freezer fiasco had been the only problem on our return, things would have been fine. But destiny had another trick up her sleeve. Whilst washing the yeast off my hands in the bathroom (tip of the day: frozen yeast grows beautifully in a dark, defrosted freezer tray if there is some warm melted water on the side), I clapped eyes on MG.

MG is short for Matière Grise: Grey Matter. MG is the cleverest of P.F’s four snakes*. He had apparently got through the crack in the tank door with as much ease as Bernard Tapie getting out of a lawsuit. He (MG, not Bernard Tapie) had set up residence between the toilet duck and the floor cloth in my cleaning bucket, his head draped nonchalantly across the scrubbing-brush. His tongue flickered lazily as he gave me the one-over like a drunken old man propped up at the bar in a night club. Before he had time to ask me what a great girl like me was doing covered in yeast in a place like this, I picked him out of the bucket and took him back to the tank…. where Jaypi, the dumbest of the python brotherhood, was waiting. Alone.

There is no need to be Einstein to know that 4 – 2 = 2 runaway reptiles. They had followed MG on his bid for freedom, and were on a jail break jaunt around the house. Little My found overturned picture frames in the living room, and Rugby-boy returned from his room complaining that it had been visited. We spent two hours hunting for them, to no avail: snakes are better at hide and seek than Yvan Colonna**.

The following morning, I was having my first caffeine fix when I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched. Escaped convict number two was inspecting me from his newly acquired luxury home below the dishwasher. As I moved in on him, he gracefully slid out of sight. Not to be deterred, MM dismantled the skirting board, evicted the disgruntled holiday-maker, and returned him to his cell.

Runaway number three had given away his location upstairs by knocking all the shampoo bottles into the bath overnight. My offer to bait him with pictures of Harry Potter was refused by the hunting committee. We finally got Nagini back to Reptile HQ on Monday night, when Little My spotted him curled up on the tumble drier, no doubt waiting for her to fill the bath so that he could have a swim.

Tank security has now been reinforced, and all occupants are counted at bedtime and breakfast. We are sure that they are already planning their next great escape…..

*  In light of a recent event in Canada, I would like to specify that our snakes are legally acquired, one metre long, docile and inoffensive.

** Yvan Colonna is a Corsican nationalist accused of assassination in 1998 who fled and avoided arrest for five years. 

Snapshots

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MM is back after a few days away from the ranch. Here are a few pics of what I saw there.  Back to service as usual soon – now I’m going to get my head around all the stuff you lot have written in my absence…..

FEED ME.

Murphy

Murphy.

Murphy minced his way through the front door, his rubbery legs crisscrossing in a delicate cat walk strut. He sat down at my feet, curled his tail neatly around his butt and stared up at me. A sphinx-like black statue. He meowed delicately – a quiet, meek squeak. His eyes widened, apparently surprised by his pathetic feline performance. He got back up on his paws, stretched lazily and padded around me, rubbing provocatively all around my legs with his black tail stuck up at ninety degrees like a flagpole. Sat down in front of me again. Stared up at me. Then let loose a loud, grating yowl.

FEED ME!

It occurred to me that Murphy doesn’t care much about anything. He can eat stinky cheap cat food at any time of the day or night. He couldn’t give a monkey’s uncle about meal times or his weight. He has no issues with eating week-old leftovers from the kitchen dustbin. He doesn’t care if his bed is covered in hair, and is a nocturnal nomad – he will even swap sleeping places all night without losing his sense of well-being. He rolls in the dust when he feels like it, licks himself clean and starts again. I want to be a cat.

Best of all, he doesn’t care. Nor does he love anyone. No care, no love…. no regrets. No existential dilemmas. No feeling bad about scratching a kid who tried to impose a hug on him. No angst. Just food, sleep and leisure on his own terms. The simplest possible way to exist. We are just the hands who feed him. When he decides. Stroke him. When he decides. He doesn’t have any feelings for us, or for anyone else. I am the cat that walks alone. Feed me, and I will tolerate you. Stop feeding me, and I’ll go elsewhere. He only shows emotion when other animals venture into his territory. Then he renews his vows with the dog and chases the intruder off the property before returning and asking for food.

FEED ME!

Murphy demands again. The yowl has developed into a gravelly and insistent miniature roar that is edged with irritation. I comply. He throws himself at his bowl, and noisily wolfs down his food without the slightest sign of thanks or recognition.  Animal instinct. Then he pads softly into the lounge; curls up in a neat ball on the armchair and transforms into a soft toy. He languorously licks his paws, and inspects me as I open the mail, tut, curse and shred the paper into confetti. His baleful eyes observe me from the depths of a compact black fur ball. Detached and free of emotion. He sniffles and snores as I make phone calls, press stars and hashtags and see my time go by as I wait for a stranger to reply. To give me a solution or to create a new problem.

Murphy’s paws twitch in his sleep. Does he dream? Does he awaken with his stomach flipping over like a greasy egg when he thinks about what lies in wait for him each day? Does he summon up his courage before stretching and stepping out? Does he decide again and again to be a new cat, to stop doing this and start doing that? No, he’s just true to himself. I want to be a cat. Eat. Sleep. Play. Meow.

FEED ME!

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