If it were not for Fred and George, I would probably not be here.
It’s a reasonable assumption. I had no real ambition to be a published (or blogging) author beyond that vague feeling that ‘there must be a book inside me’. As far as I knew I had the ‘wrong sort of brain’ for writing fiction. Yes, I knew I loved writing, but I had been told that my only attempt at fiction was rubbish, and I believed that.
Then Fred and George came into my life.
I was looking for a pet, since I had changed job and location, and felt I wouldn’t be travelling much, so I could give a good home to an animal. Whether I was a suitable person to take responsibility for an animal troubled me a little. What if after a couple of years I felt it wasn’t working? What if my infamous failure to commit to things meant I grew tired of being a pet-owner? I researched the most suitable animal for me and decided on guinea pig for some good reasons. I could see them, unlike hamsters, which are so small I thought I might sit on one by mistake. They are not very long lived, which means if I got it wrong and I wasn’t a good pet-owner we could part company at the end of their lives and I could go on as before (how naive can you be?). Above all, when I went to a store which had some in pens for sale, I thought they were extremely cute. Especially the ones with a little rosette on their heads. After doing my homework I looked around and realised that guinea pigs, like most other animals, are abandoned or mistakenly bred or just ‘lost interest in’ and available in ridiculous numbers for adoption. Why we allow people to breed companion animals when there are so many excellent companions in rescues looking for a new home defeats me. However, that’s not the point of today.
Fred and George were born on 13th June 2007. I started looking for my perfect adoptees about two weeks later. I found the local rescue, who had an older guinea pig called Beaver, who they were just pairing up with a youngster called Bear. Beaver was adult, a pretty cream colour, and Bear was small and dark brown. They didn’t have crests, as I had learned those head-rosettes are called, but they needed a new home, so we started the procedure towards adopting them. I went to collect them in July, and the rescue owner told me that Beaver had developed a skin condition, and she didn’t want to release him until it had cleared up. Would I be interested in two of these six-week olds who had just come in from fostering?
Three small, very fast, sleek, dark ginger guinea pigs, one of whom had a crest. My heart leapt. Which would I like? “The one with the crest and whichever one of the others you can catch.” I did check that I couldn’t take all three brothers, but she assured me it was best to take just two, and she’d find a home for the other with no trouble. I often wonder what happened to him.
Well, they were ginger, and they were twins, so of course they were Fred and George. This was 2007, remember!
It is fair to say that Fred and George and I taught each other a lot. They were very patient with me. They let me corral them to a corner of the cage to pick them up, and then they seemed to enjoy being stroked. I nearly panicked about four weeks on when George started a strange vibration when I stroked him. Was he ill? Had I done something to hurt him? The following day he purred for the first time, and I discovered that the vibration was the early stages of contentment, eventually being vocalised as a guinea purr. I am not the first person to panic over that vibration!
Soon after that I discovered an online forum where I could talk guinea pig all day long if anyone else was there. To say I was obsessed with these two personalities – and by now those personalities were shining through – would be an understatement. I was finally getting my own back on all my friends for the years of baby talk to which I’d listened politely!
I watched the boys a great deal to try to understand their interaction with each other. It was clear that while Fred was the boss, it was a partnership between him and George. Fred did a lot of staring into the distance and thinking, or listening to what was going on outside. He would pick up any bird alarm calls and relay them inside. George had a more practical bent. He moved the cage furniture about, chewed new holes in it to provide different views and entries, and generally got on with his own engineering projects. The web forum adopted him as their engineer, and he started to blog as a result.
Then George became ill with a tooth abscess. We went through an operation with the first vets I used, and it cleared up for a while, with careful nursing and a lot of extra feeding. I was still learning, and I’d have done it differently now. But we got through, with help from friends, and I realised just how much these chaps meant to me.
In fact I was so obsessed with them I decided to get two more to spread my emotions a little (that doesn’t work, by the way). I adopted Hugo and Victor, whose owners had turned them in to the rescue when they lost their home in the recession, unable to keep up the mortgage. That was happening a lot in 2008.
Back on the guinea pig forum, I met another person who had a pig who looked exactly like Hugo – he was called Mariusz, and he lived in New York. I live in the UK. Most of the other regulars on the forum were in the UK. We had one of those threads where someone starts a story, and the next person takes it on, and on, and so on. One of these threads involved tunnels linking all the guinea pigs on the forum, so they had adventures without us knowing. Another one had the hero going down a tunnel and discovering a world running on strawberry juice (my contribution), with a mystical white guinea pig called Rumour involved. I forget the detail.
But somehow, I got the idea to write Fred and George’s adventures in a magical world with no people, only guinea pigs, living in their own castles, full of their own politics, tragedies, inventions and love affairs. I imagined it having three parts – one with a time tunnel, the next with pirates, and finally a lost city. And through 2009 I wrote all three adventures. And because I’d made Hugo and Mariusz the same character, called different names depending on where they were in the world, I could only use him in the first book. So he wanted his own story, which became book 4.
So Fred and George became the Princelings of the East. As other authors have found, your friends egg you on to get them published, and I started on that journey.
Many people have included their pets in their stories. Some of us blog about them to a greater or lesser extent. I’ve seen many posts here featuring cats as protagonists, often writing first-hand of their experiences, moving the pens of their owners/slaves in mysterious ways.
The other day the Ape sent me a link to a post which included talking of networking with other authors like yourself. Well, I’ve made good friends with Max the cat, and Oscar the cat with a rat problem, Katrina and Stanley (and their friend Zorg), and plenty of others who have included their companions in their books, but I think I’m the only one that has them in a fantasy world. But maybe when we include our pets in our stories we have something very special, which is the record of those ‘people’ as we saw them, and wrote about them, so that when they finally move on, we have a very special memory of them in our books.
So when the other guinea pigs who followed Fred and George demanded attention, the series extended, and extended, until I decided how it should end. Fred and George, and Hugo, Victor, Humphrey, Colman, Kevin, Dylan and Dougall, who followed them, are all in the books, now numbering 8 of 10, along with the successors to Mariusz, and my other friends’ pigs who feature in my stories.
You may think it’s sad to be living in the past with them, but it’s a sure way to have some very distinct characters – because you’re writing about people you know. What’s more, they aren’t going to complain to you about that!
So, thank you, Fred and George, who would have been ten years old this week (six is a ‘good’ age for a guinea pig). You changed my life in so many ways I can’t imagine what it would have been without you. Even if I get dementia and can’t remember the detail of your lives, I’ll always have you in my books. And I would never have started writing without you.