The Surprise Gift (1)

James beamed the widest of wide smiles. His eyes sparkled and his whole face was a picture of pure joy.

He had always loved animals – his bedroom walls were covered in pictures neatly clipped from magazines, and his shelves were loaded with animal encyclopaedias and novels (Dick King-Smith was his favourite author). And now…at long, long last, his dream was going to come true: he was going to have his own, real, live pet.

James’ grandmother, who lived in California, had been planning to visit them for the summer but, unfortunately, she had had a fall in her garden and broken her ankle. It was not a bad break, but the visit had been cancelled to the disappointment of all.

James had felt particularly dejected because a visit from grandma also meant a visit from her lively black Labrador which he could take for long walks and play with to his heart’s content. His sadness had been short-lived, however, because, by her next e-mail, grandma had told him the wonderful news that, to make up for his disappointment, she had managed to persuade his parents to allow him to have a pet (that she would pay for) all of his very own. No, it was not going to be a dog, she hadn’t been able to persuade them that far, but it was going to be something he could stroke, play with and really look after. It was to be a guinea pig.

Grandma had been to Peru the previous year and had seen guinea pigs in the wild. Now she had searched on the internet for “guinea pig” and found an internet site for the New Guinea Pig Trust. The pages had informed her that the trust used profits from the sale of animals to support workers looking after the delicate environment in that part of the world. It seemed a very worthwhile cause and she had made her very first internet purchase.

James was over the moon. For the next week his feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground and, on the day his pet was due to arrive, he was a bundle of nervous excitement.

“Can’t you keep still for just one minute?” complained his mother for the umpteenth time that day.

“But when’s he going to come?” asked James.

“For the twentieth time – I don’t know! And how do you know it’s going to be a he?”

When the knock at the door finally came, James was seated, relatively still, in front of “Tarka the Otter” (his favourite film of the moment). He fairly leapt off the plush sofa in the corner of the lounge and threw himself at the door. His excitement evaporated quickly, however, when he found that it was only Mrs. Smith from next door – probably wanting to complain to his mum again about the number of times she found one of his footballs decorating her precious flower beds which surrounded her meticulously groomed lawn.

Having fetched his mother, James returned to “Tarka” only to be called back by a sharp, “James!” from his mum. His heart fell. Would he be grounded? Would his pocket money be stopped? Worse, would he have to apologise?

But no.

Joy of joys! Mrs. Smith had come to say that his pet had arrived! It had come that morning – left at Mrs. Smith’s house by mistake while she was out.

James sprinted down the drive, around the corner and stopped with a start. He was still standing there gaping when Mrs. Smith, accompanied by his mother, appeared.

James had expected a large parcel or box but what faced him was an enormous wooden crate, twice the size of his wardrobe, completely blocking the entrance to Mrs. Smith’s garage.

“It can’t stay there,” Mrs. Smith was explaining, “because I need the mower out and I haven’t weeded yet today. I’ll need to get my fork and rake from the garage, you know!”

“Don’t worry,” replied James’ mother. “It’s only a guinea pig. They’ll have packed it carefully with proper insulation for the flight. I expect there’s a cage, bedding and feed in there too.”

“But how are we going to move it?” asked James.

“I need it out of my way, double quick!” interrupted Mrs. Smith. “Have you seen the greenfly on your roses? I’m spraying mine this evening to make sure they don’t spread to my exhibition blooms which are next to your fence.”

James’ mother blushed. “Well, if you’ll let us dismantle the crate here, we’ll be able to carry all the contents back to our house and everything will be out of your way.”

This was agreed.

The first real clue that anything was seriously amiss came after James had already taken five or six huge hits at the weakest looking plank with his father’s claw hammer. Later, his mother admitted that the snort that came from the cage had been much deeper and very much louder than she would have expected from a guinea pig.

Then everything happened so quickly.

The noisy squealing, the heavy bumping, the panicked stomping…and the splintering of wood as an enormous beast burst forth from its wooden prison, knocking over James and trampling the toes of his astonished mother in the same split second.

They were both left staring in bewilderment, mouths open, unable to speak, watching this animal now rooting contentedly in one of Mrs. Smith’s pristine flower beds.

Looking from crate to animal and back to crate, James stood, open mouthed, trying to understand. A piece of folded paper fluttered gently from one of the broken slats. It was the delivery note. This explained everything. They had expected a guinea pig and they had…well…it was a pig and it was from Guinea, (well New Guinea, actually). But a guinea pig it was not.

To be fair to the pig, it was not what Mrs. Smith called it either!

Red in the face and gasping for breath, she said some very bad words indeed as the pig, brown snout plastered with black mud, busy mouth exploring the delights of marigolds, geraniums, and those precious, precious roses, wreaked havoc on her pride and joy.

All James could think about was his guinea pig; his small, furry pet to be cupped in his hand and gently stroked. This pig, magnificent though his was, could never be his pet. True, James would have loved to keep him, to look after him, but that was an impossibility and an idea that didn’t even enter his mind.

James’ eyes scanned the scene of devastation around him. Delicate pink rose petals, so recently part of a neat flower-head were strewn across the garden. The beautiful lawn, a lush green carpet just a few minutes previously, was now punctured with trotter prints and stained a deep brown. Crumpled paper, polystyrene packaging, vegetable peelings and other rubbish from the overturned dustbin was now providing the material for an excited pig’s treasure hunt and, in the process, was being spread to all four corners of the garden.

Mrs. Smith was now beyond words – even bad ones! And James couldn’t imagine how the whole mess could be sorted out. But sorted out it was – and in a way, which was beyond his wildest dreams…

Mrs. Smith’s other neighbour took charge.

The RSPCA was called, the pig cornered and captured, and taken to the City Farm in the centre of town. Things had started to look up for James when the sympathetic RSPCA Officers had allowed him to travel with them in the van to deliver the now much more settled pig to its new home. James had been a regular visitor to the City Farm for many years and had always enjoyed admiring the animals from the public side of the fence. But this time he was allowed inside the pen. The farm owner was so pleased with his new pig all the way from New Guinea and the interest shown by his young, former owner that, to James’ delight, he was invited to visit the farm every single Saturday – not to look around but to really help with the animals: to feed them, groom them and clean them out.

And a pet of his own?

Believe it or not, there was a new litter of guinea pigs at the City Farm, and just three weeks later, when they could be separated from their mother, James had not one, but two guinea pigs of his very own.