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“You killed him.”
"Didn’t,” Wendy said.
"He’s dead, isn’t he?”
"And it was an accident.”
"You threw him against the wall!”
"It bit me,” Wendy defended.
"That’s because you were poking him.” Sal crouched down next to the peeling skirting board and plucked the furry ginger body from the carpet. “He’s gone all floppy.”
"Is it like a rag doll?” Wendy asked, chewing her gum faster. “Give it here.”
"Listen, I’ve got this brilliant idea of what we could play next. Let’s play vets.”
"No.” Sal held the dead hamster in her hands, torn between her desire to cradle it and her revulsion at its emptiness. Something fundamental had disappeared from it. She felt the small bag of fur deserved a new respect. “I want to bury Fudgie properly. We should put him in a box with some flowers and say a prayer over him.”
Wendy sat down on Sal’s bed and gave a few experimental bounces in time to her audible chewing. “I want to play vets or doctors. You can choose which one.”
She had played doctors with Wendy before, and if it was a choice between herself or Fudgie being subjected to the poking and prodding of her friend, then Fudgie was It. He was dead anyway. It was strange how quickly that had become a hard fact. The object she was holding so tentatively was already becoming a cold, light thing, like a discarded sweet wrapper. “Vets.”
"Okay!” Wendy bounced upwards to land on her feet. She swept the bottles and brushes from Sal’s white dressing table and threw them on to the bed. “You’re the assistant. Put it there and we’ll examine it.”
Her commitment to every game was total. Whenever they played together Wendy seemed to immerse herself so far into the fantasy that Sal always felt a little afraid. It wouldn’t have surprised her if, one day, Wendy produced a real scalpel or a syringe for her experiments instead of an imaginary one.
But with the fear came curiosity. She lay the hamster on the dressing table, on top of the hand crocheted doily, and stood back as Wendy bent over it in silent awe.
There was the tiniest of hesitations, and then Wendy’s thumb and forefinger closed over a front paw, manipulating it with professionalism. “Mmm… it’s broken. We’ll have to set it. Get some tape and a hairgrip.”
Sal retrieved the grip from her hairband tin on the bed and passed it over. Wendy positioned it parallel to Fudgie’s leg, stretching out the muscles so that a small hairless patch appeared at the juncture of its thigh. “Tape.”
"Haven’t got any.”
Wendy clicked her tongue between her teeth until she reached a decision. “Put your finger here.” She pointed at the thickest part of the leg and Sal obeyed with a mixture of fascination and disgust. With her free hand Wendy took a plug of chewing gum from her mouth and stretched it from her teeth to her thumb. It elongated and eventually snapped, leaving her with a long pink string which she wrapped around the hairgrip and the hamster with quick movements, as if reeling in a fishing rod. “Right.”
"Can I take out my finger now?” Sal asked. The warmth of the gum against the fur of the hamster was making her queasy.
"No. You have to wait for it to set in place,” Wendy said knowledgeably. “Hold still until I complete the examination.”
Sal dared not move in case the corpse twitched in response. She could feel the gum drying and hardening against her finger. Wendy was busy poking the stomach with tentative jabs, rubbing the fur the wrong way to expose the button-like nipples. Then she turned her attention to its head.
"We should check its teeth,” she said, fingering the tight black line of its closed mouth.
Something about peering down into the darkness that now inhabited the hamster body was too much for Sal. She shook her head.
"How old are you?” Wendy asked scornfully, and then prised the mouth open. It came slowly apart, the curved yellow teeth and the blue-veined tongue becoming exposed to the sharp spring light from the open window. Sal deliberately looked at the wall instead; at her framed picture of the happy little girl swinging a basket of flowers as she skipped along in an alpine meadow.
"Uck,” Wendy said. Sal had to look back at the corpse. Its mouth was still open even though Wendy had turned her attention elsewhere; she was pointing with her index finger at one of its eyes, which had come out of its socket and was lying on the furry pouch of its cheek. It looked like a tiny black conker that had been drilled and strung, ready for battle.
The object on the dressing table did not remind Sal of Fudgie any more. Hamsters did not have open mouths and eyes on stalks; only this thing had those characteristics. Part of her felt utterly detached from the matted ginger fur and rapidly blackening tongue, but another part still felt a stubborn desire to protect it from further examination, to try to put it back together again.
"What did you do that for?” she shouted, as loud as she dared.
"I didn’t! Honest! It just popped out!” Wendy touched the eyeball once. It moved slightly on the cheek and she squealed. “Weird.”
"Put it back in.”
"No way! You put it back in.”
"No!” Sal looked at the eyeball, trying to find the courage to act. Her finger was still caught between the chewing gum splint and the leg. The weirdness of that contact had passed; maybe she could feel the same about touching the eye. “We can’t bury him like this.”
"Well, you’ll have to put it back in then, won’t you?” Wendy said. She crossed her arms and raised her chin. “Go on.”
Sal leaned over the remains. The eye was too much to ask. But maybe, if she could just close the mouth, she would be able to bury it in the back garden and picture it lying peacefully there; maybe just next to the apple tree. Or underneath one of the rose bushes. She reached out with her free hand and inched towards the open hole, trying not to look past the teeth and the tongue to the ridges on the back of the mouth that slipped away into the darkness.
She wasn’t aware that Wendy had moved around her to stand by her shoulder until her friend grabbed the finger that was stuck to the chewing gum and the corpse, and forced it upwards towards her head as she bent over the dressing table.
Her own hand made contact with the side of her face, making a sharp, slapping noise that set off a momentary buzzing in her ears. Sal closed her eyes as a reflex. She could feel her finger, still matted with gum, sticking to her hair. It was causing a painful, dragging sensation that forced her to open her eyes and stare at Wendy, who had clapped one hand over her own mouth in a pretence of shock.
"Thanks a lot! Now I’ve got gum in my hair!” Sal said, trying to work out her finger. It brushed something soft. Something furry.
"Umm…” Wendy said. She looked as if she didn’t know whether to run for the door or burst out laughing. “That’s not all you’ve got in your hair.”
Sal jerked her finger and the hamster corpse swung round into her peripheral vision, dangling close to her ear. She felt the brush of fur against her lobe and panicked, pulling her finger hard despite the pain until it came free, with a clump of hair attached to it.
"Is it still there? Is it there?” she asked. “Get it out!” She couldn’t bring herself to touch it. Instead she leaned over and shook her head from side to side, hoping to dislodge it.
"You’re just making it worse,” Wendy said. “It’s all tangled up now. Sit on the bed. Where are your scissors?”
Sal obeyed instructions, sitting with her head tilted far over to one side. She grabbed her nail scissors from where Wendy had thrown them on the bed earlier and proffered them. “Quick. Get it out.”
"Okay okay.” Wendy approached and took the scissors. The look of concentration told Sal that she was in the throes of a new game; hairdressers. “Hold still.”
The snipping began.
The snick of the blades close to her ear sent shivers through Sal’s back. She forced herself to sit as still as she could, but her back would not stop arching away from the noise. She tilted her head further and put one arm on the bed to steady herself, brushing Wendy’s leg in the process.
Wendy started and the scissors clipped together as a reflex. There was a silence and Wendy stepped away, her hands behind her back, her mouth screwed into a tight purse. “Ummm…” she said.
"You made me slip!” she accused.
"I kind of stabbed it.”
"Just a little bit!”
"Get it out! Get it out!” Sal screamed, jumping up from the bed and clenching her hands into claws by her chin. Her voice was beyond her control now, becoming higher and louder as she imagined each squirt of blood. Wendy shook her head, her eyes wide.
"It’s going in your hair!” she squeaked.
Sal lurched to the dressing table, grabbed the doily, reached into her hair and cupped the ruined corpse. Then, before she could lose her nerve, she jerked her hand away as hard as she could. There was a moment of hot, tearing pain before she felt a patch of her hair come free in her hand, along with the doily wrapped bundle.
Then she threw the entire package out of the window.
Wendy rushed to her and leaned over the sill, following the trajectory of the corpse as it sailed through the air, resembling a large shuttlecock, to land on the opposite pavement. “Look!” she said excitedly.
A short woman dressed in a red shirt and faded blue jeans was the only person on the street. She was pushing a large pram and looking into its depths rather than at any mysterious flying objects. Sal and Wendy watched as she unknowingly approached the bundle in slow, even steps, the wheels of the pram lined up in a collision course. It was too much for Sal to watch.
She pulled Wendy back and shut the window with an unintentional bang, sinking under the sill to hide herself from view. “What’s happening?” she asked Wendy, who was staring avidly at the incident waiting to unravel.
"She’s coming up to it… she’s right on it… she ran over it!” Wendy told Sal. “She hasn’t noticed… she’s gone now. You gotta look… you gotta see this.”
Sal stood up cautiously and let her eyes work their way to the scene of the crime. The doily had rolled open and was flopping in the wind like a stranded jellyfish on the pavement. There was a tiny trail of red spots that led down into the gutter, and there, nestling against the kerb, was the little orange body that had once been her Fudgie.
Wendy was looking at her critically. “You need to wash your hair.”
"Yeah.” Guilt was threatening. Fudgie looked just as he always had at this distance. She could almost imagine him crawling around down there, wondering where she was, hoping she would come to take him home. She should have stood up to Wendy this time, his abandoned corpse told her sternly; she should have said no at the beginning and meant it.
"I’ve got to go home now,” Wendy said. “But I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”
"Okay,” Sal said.
Wendy walked to the bedroom door, looking once at the empty hamster cage as she passed it. “Remember to wash your hair and get a new hamster before your kids get back from school.”
“I think I’ll meet Jack at the school gates today. Do you want me to pick your two up as well? Give you more time to get cleaned up.”
“Okay,” Sal said. “Thanks.”
“See you tomorrow. Oh, and I’ve thought of a great game we can play!”
Wendy walked out of the room with a vague wave and a smile, and Sal turned to watch her leave the house from the window, noticing how her friend kept well away from the opposite pavement and the orange blob lying in the gutter.
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