From Fewer things, the opening story in The Stone Thrower
We go down to the beach at dawn to stop the chicks from choking. I put on jeans and a heavy jumper over my pyjamas. My pee steams in the cold bathroom, and the slate pinches my bare feet. Dad shakes the house awake with his footsteps. His head has lumps from the wonky doorways. Time to go, he says with one finger in his ear.
My face shrinks in the cold outside. I lost a glove yesterday, so this bare hand goes deep into my pocket, amongst the snotty tissues and the fossils. There are new flowers on the clifftop, and dad brushes them with the sole of his boot. I’m not sure what he’s checking, but he seems pleased.
Ours are the only footprints on the sandy slope. I once fell here, years ago, and sliced my face on the grass, which grows in tufts like buried pin cushions. The scar has faded to silver on my cheek. It is the shape of a bird’s footprint.
Dad does his long-legged run, and I keep back from the sand he kicks up behind him. He has already seen a tern chick, on the beach at the bottom of the cliff. At first, the fish stuck in its throat looks like a long tongue. The chick is flicking its head to the side, then lunging forward, gagging. It takes a few steps, stumbles under the weight of the fish, then quickly rights itself.
We have to do this at dawn, and we have to be fast, because we’re racing against the gulls and the skuas that wake up desperate with hunger.
Dad chases the little ball of fluff across the sand, then takes it up in his fingers, clamping its tiny head with one hand while gently pulling out the fish with the other. The chick struggles, pushing its grey webbed feet against his palms. He mumbles to the chick, soft sounds that are more like thoughts than words.
The knuckle-fish hasn’t gone too far down this chick’s throat. If the fish goes all the way down, the two barbs on its back hook inside the bird’s neck and it can’t be pulled out without tearing open the chick’s throat. There is only one thing that Dad can do with the birds when this happens. He makes the decision quickly, and without speaking. They are so fragile, it takes just a small tug, and then Dad slips them into his bag.
From Tamagotchi, also in The Stone Thrower.
My son’s Tamagotchi had AIDS. The virtual pet was rendered on the little LCD screen with no more than 30 pixels, but the sickness was obvious. It had that AIDS look, you know? It was thinner than it had been. Some of its pixels were faded, and the pupils of its huge eyes were smaller, giving it an empty stare.
I had bought the Tamagotchi, named Meemoo, for Luke just a couple of weeks ago. He had really wanted a kitten, but Gabby did not want a cat in the house. ‘A cat will bring in dead birds and toxoplasmosis,’ she said, her fingers spread protectively over her bulging stomach.
A Tamagotchi had seemed like the perfect compromise – something for Luke to empathise with and to care for, to teach him the rudiments of petcare for a time after the baby had been born. Empathy is one of the things that the book said Luke would struggle with. He would have difficulty reading facial expressions. The Tamagotchi had only three different faces, so it would be good practice for him.
Together, Luke and I watched Meemoo curled up in the corner of its screen. Sometimes, Meemoo would get up, limp to the opposite corner, and produce a pile of something. I don’t know what this something was, or which orifice it came from – the resolution was not good enough to tell.
From The 40-litre monkey, the first story in my collection Instruction manual for swallowing
I once met a man with a 40-litre monkey. He measured all his animals by volume. His Dalmatian was small, only 18 litres, but his cat, a Prussian blue, was huge – five litres, when most cats are three. He owned a pet shop just off Portobello Road. I needed a new pet for my girlfriend because our last two had just killed each other.
‘The ideal pet,’ the owner told me, ‘is twelve litres. That makes them easy enough to pick up, but substantial enough for romping without risk of injury. What did you have?’
‘A gecko,’ I replied. ‘I guess he was about half a pint.’
‘You use imperial?’ The man smirked and gestured towards a large vivarium in the corner. ‘Iguana,’ he said. ‘Six litres, and still growing.’
‘Oh right,’ I said. ‘I also had a cat. She must have been four litres, maybe more.’
‘Are you sure?’ He asked. ‘Was she a longhair, because they look big, but when you dunk them they’re small, like skinny rats.’
‘She was a short hair,’ I said.
‘That volume would have dropped anyway, unless you mixed tripe with her food. Did you do that?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘She ate tuna fish.’
‘No pet ever got voluminous eating tuna,’ he smiled, almost sympathetic.
‘What’s the biggest thing you’ve got?’ I asked.
‘That would have to be my forty-litre monkey,’ he smiled.
‘May I see it?’
‘You doubt my veracity?’