I’m in the car, driving to rural Kent to write a magazine article on Ferreting. Yup, I know, but I AM OUT OF THE HOUSE! And I’ve just had a text from Mandy’s Baby Whisperer arranging a call at lunchtime today. It’s time to get my boobs back.
But until then Blagorodna is looking after Sienna (2.5) and Granny has come along to help with Vita (7 months) who still needs breastfeeding about 10 times a day even though she’s starting proper food.
Granny isn’t quite ‘with it’ yet (anything before 9am is the ‘middle of the night’) and she is furious with Grandpa Roger, who fled to Wiltshire with Simon yesterday afternoon after spending a ‘bloody awful night’ on Mandy & Buck’s futon (having almost been eaten alive by a blow-up mattress the night before.)
I stop the car in a secluded lay-by where I’ve arranged to meet Tim-the-Ferreter. Granny is irked. “Do you meet strange men in lay-bys often?”
“All the time,” I reply.
Granny: “That’s not right. They could be perverts or murderers.”
A red transit van up pulls up behind my battered estate, flashing its lights. The ferreter jumps out and walks up to my driver’s door. I put the window down, he leans in and the stench of stale tobacco invades the car. “Vanessa?” He smiles to reveal an interesting dental arrangement, with every second tooth missing, Tim is Ashford’s answer to Billy Bob Thornton.
Tim: “Follow me.”
I get a rush of adrenaline as I follow the red van at speed along mud-splattered country lanes, Granny holding on tightly to the roof handle. Finally we arrive in a stable yard of a huge stately home. I park up. Granny has brightened considerably. “This looks far more salubrious.”
I get out, dumping my notebook and SLR camera on the roof of the car, whilst I put on my boots and green waterproofs, haul the Bugaboo out of the boot, assemble it, take Vita out of her car seat, strap her in and reinsert her dummy. And breathe. She smiles at me with her bee-stung lips and my dopamine levels go up three hits. “Everything’s in the nappy bag, Granny: – dummies, rice cakes, change of clothes, wipes, pouches, raisins…. If she needs a feed, call me.”
Granny: “Oh, so that’s it? What am I supposed to do?”
Me: “Take her for a walk while I go ferreting.”
Granny: “Well, how long will you be? Where will you be?”
“We’ll be working the woods over there.” Says Tim pointing with an unlit rollie.
Granny: “I need a coffee…”
Tim: “I dunno if Lady T’s in but you could knock on the door.” Granny smiles. Yes, that is exactly what she will do. She turns the buggy around and heads towards the grand house in search of coffee and aristocracy.
Tim opens his backdoors; inside are four portable wooden cages containing around 15 ferrets. He lifts out two cages, a knapsack of nets and a spade and we head off (with his Collie, Betty) towards the woods where the rabbits live. As we yomp across a field, it feels good to be out, walking at pace without a baby or toddler slowing me down, or running off, or dropping their cuddly toy…. And then I realise I’m the one carrying the spade and nets, which in the movies never ends well, especially, after meeting a stranger in a rural lay-by.
We enter the woods scrambling over dead-fall and brambles until we come to a large mound with a rabbit super-warren. Tim pads around the rabbit holes quietly, kneeling down at one opening and inspecting some droppings. He nods at me to confirm they are in and he sits on a tree stump, takes out a flask and pours coffee into two tin mugs. He then rolls a cigarette. I really want one. I must be starring hard at the rollie because he offers it to me. He gets up to pass it to me, then leans behind me to light it, his crotch touching my shoulder gently like a branch in a light breeze.
So I break the monumental awkwardness in the only way I can thing of: by telling him I’m breastfeeding and that ‘I really shouldn’t be smoking’ so now he has an image of my mammaries in his mind as well as his… branch against my shoulder. I keep talking, telling him – a single man with no wife, no children – that “I don’t know why but Vita just won’t take a bottle. My first daughter, Sienna did from six weeks…” I know it’s too much information but I just can’t stop rabbiting… Rabbiting! That’s what I’m here for.
I ask a question about rabbits.
Tim: “Yeah, rabbits are amazing animals, the ultimate survivors, but a dozen rabbits can graze as much as three sheep which can be a nightmare for farmers and gardeners alike.”
Me: “And do they breed like… rabbits?” I say making notes and finally finding a professional gear.
Tim: “A healthy doe will produce up to two dozen kittens a year – unchecked the population would explode,” he says getting up and drawing hard on his cigarette.
He starts to open one of the ferret boxes. I check my phone signal surreptitiously, the Baby Whisperer will be calling in two hours. Tim gets his ferrets out – four ‘jills’ called Ferris, Edna, Hilly and Bodge and a ‘hob’ named Bernard. He passes me Bernard. “Have a stroke,” he says. He wriggles in my hands, his claws needling my skin.
“It’s their teeth that do the damage, but they won’t bite you unless something’s wrong or they’ve been mistreated,” he says. “But when seeking their prey they’re guerrilla fighters – they take the battle to the enemy, beat them down until they can get the fatal bite to the back of the neck and then it’s all over.”
Wow. And then I remember the spade.
I hand Bernard back and Tim puts a leather collar with a transmitter on so he can locate him underground and dig him out if necessary. He then spreads a small hemp net over a rabbit hole, pegging it like a tent at the top. I get to work too and when we have finished netting around 20 holes, he puts Bernard to work.
90 minutes and two coffees later… NOTHING has happened. Not a squeak. We have tried all five ferrets in all sequences of holes and, as I explain, I really need to start heading back. “Problem is it’s end of season, you should come in October – we get 20-30 a day,” he says mortified we haven’t got a rabbit. I have more than enough for an article I say, but he wants to carry on, his ferrets are good, no they are the best and we can’t end on a low, we need a rabbit.
So he takes me to another warren on the way back to the car.
This time we get to work immediately netting the holes. I’ve covered four, when I see Granny walking towards us with the buggy, waving frantically. I beckon her over and then my phone rings. It’s the Baby Whisperer. I take the call. “Hi Helen, Thanks so much for calling. Yeah, it’s a great time.” Tim hushes me, telling em there are rabbits, but I doubt that very much – he said that last time.
Helen from Huddersfield listens as I explain my problem with Vita taking a bottle. Then she espouses her wisdom: “Easy. You need a Mam Bottle, Teat Number 2.”
I repeat the info as I write it down down. “Mam Bottle, Teat 2… Empty my boobs fully, okay…”
Tim is looking over. I start to move further away realising I’m still being too loud. He has netted another 10 rabbit holes and is getting ready to put his prize-fighter, Bernard, down a tunnel. Betty the dog is pacing and sniffing at several holes, it’s the most animated she’s been all morning. Granny arrives with the buggy; Vita takes one look at me and starts to cry – Tim waves her away. “Too much noise – it’ll scare the rabbits,” he hisses.
What fricking rabbits?
As Tim puts Bernard down the hole, I can see Granny watching him from behind a tree. However, nothing prepares me for what happens next; she is quietly observing him, when he reaches down into the rabbit hole and she – quick as a flash – bends down stiffly, un-pegs a net and chucks it behind a tree. She then un-pegs a second net.
Me: “Sorry hang on a minute… (To Granny) What are you doing?!!”
“Saving Peter Rabbit.” Whispers Granny her eyes flashing. Suddenly Betty starts barking wildly and a young rabbit shoots out of a hole near Granny with Bernard-the-ferret in hot pursuit.
“Jesus! Sorry.” I say trying to continue my call with The Baby Whisperer. “So TV on or some kind of distraction and get someone else to feed her. Got it…”
The Rabbit escapes and Bernard comes to a stand still near a stone wall, distracted by another scent. “Damn it!” Says Tim darting after his beloved ferret.
Me: (On the phone) “Thank you so much, Helen. Bye. Bye.” I end the call. “Oh my god, I am so sorry. That was the Baby Whisperer.”
Tim looks at the nets on the ground. “You didn’t cover the holes!” He picks Bernard up, checks him over, removes his collar, gives him a kiss and pops him back in his cage.
“I did.. I… I…” I look at Granny, she shakes her head for me not to ‘dob her in’ BUT I am sorely tempted. Urgh, but then she’s helped me with Vita and done loads of babysitting… “I am so sorry, Tim. Baby brain. Doh!”
Granny: “What a shame. I love rabbit stew.”
Tim: “Me too.”
We walk back in silence, Tim carrying the ferrets and all paraphernalia.
At the van, I suggest that maybe I could come back in October? Tim pulls me to one side out of earshot of Granny and says, “Yeah, just you. Don’t bring yer Mum. I know she did the nets.” He smiles at me, puts two rollies and a lighter in my coat pocket and high fives me.
Thank god for that.
Back home, I have a MAM bottle with teat #2 full of warm b-milk and Cebeebies blaring on the telly. I hand Vita and the bottle to Granny and she sings ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ as she gently puts the teat to Vita’s mouth. The baby thumps it away like Mike Tyson. Granny tries again and this time, miraculously, Vita starts to take the milk. She drinks and drinks and drinks until the bottle is EMPTY.
I’ve done it.
Granny’s done it.
We’ve DONE it!!!
(And now I need to express my boobs again before they explode…)