Runner-up: RESCUE

By Clare Martin

Clare says: I live in Sussex with my partner and pets. Most of my story ideas arrive during long walks on the South Downs. I write about ordinary lives and what lies beneath. 

I never meant to be a mad hamster lady. When Nita moved out into a student house, she was desperate for something to love. I knew it would end in tears. 

Morty was her first. Deaf. Diabetic. Destined to die young. He’d climb on her shoulder while she studied, and he’d nibble her hair, eat seeds and treats from her fingers.

His end was sudden. Brutal.

She rushed back home for comfort.

Then left. 

Again.

Next, I heard she’d taken on Chunk. Unlike Morty, Chunk was NOT deaf and freaked out at the noisy, student lifestyle.

She asked me to take him. Of course, I said yes and home he came to Nita’s old room. Quiet since she moved out.

Chunk was cute.

He didn’t need much attention, ate what he was offered without comment and provided fleeting moments of entertainment, rushing through his tubes, clattering on his wheel and nipping my fingers.

Nita messaged almost every day. Avoided my questions about how she was doing, but hungry for hamster updates. 

How is Chunk? 

What’s he eaten today? 

Send video!

Straw-and-paper bedding found a home in the built-in wardrobe in Nita’s old room. Sand and food scraps got mixed up in the bag of old clothes she’d left behind. I’d taken out everything I could wear – the rainbow tees and baggy jumpers, still smelling of shampoo and teen-sweet body spray. All that remained were her short skater skirts and skimpy tops. 

The charity shop was pleased with that donation.

I cried when Chunk died, massive tumours taking over his tiny body. The empty cage mocked me, sitting in the corner of the room.

A sad but acceptable reason to message Nita. She’d moved. Again. She wouldn’t say where. Or with whom.

I rescued more. A pair this time, abandoned when their owners fled. Found by officers investigating a crime. 

“Hamsters with a police record,” I’d joke to anyone who was interested. Imp and Elf, age indeterminate, snuggling together in a ball of fur.

Until they fought.

Not just squeaking, bundling, chase-me-til-I-submit fighting, but full-on, silent rage. Poor Imp, nose hanging half off, had to be rehoused. 

Second huge cage purchased. Nita’s old room now almost full of hamster homes. Palaces really. You do your best for the abandoned ones, don’t you?

Word got around. “How are the hams?” friends and neighbours called out in the street. 

They used to say, “How’s your daughter?” They don’t ask that now.

Nita messaged to say she was on antidepressants and some addy diet.

Imp began to fade. Morsels of soft, protein-rich foods were gratefully accepted – homemade porridge with extra seed, scrambled egg with olive oil, hot herby mash sweetened with a little peanut butter.

All in vain. I knew it would be. Almost hairless, his sweet face still peeking out from his snug nest, he trusted me to do the right thing.

More tears. Another empty cage.

Midnight message from Nita. Therapy is bullshi,t and a string of angry face emoticons. 

I respond with hearts.

Imp’s cage, an exposed space where something live and warm should be, haunted me.

At the adoption centre, I fell in love with Errol. A fighter, a biter who rarely stands still, all twitch-and-quiver. A greedy little thing, feral Errol loves my porridge.

Nita doesn’t message anymore.

But I heard from the RSPCA again. Two more neglected furries need a quiet and caring adult home.

I have the space. 

I just need to get rid of Nita’s bed.