People react to the death of their pets in different ways. Thirteen years ago, when we lost a puppy in a freak anaesthetic accident, Matthew, citing the perfectly good, almost new, dog bowl that would otherwise go to waste, was on to the breeder within a matter of days ordering a replacement animal.
Louis's approach to mourning, however, owes more to Queen Victoria. When Skittles, the female of his two leopard geckos, passed away in June after a brave battle against parasitic infection, he took it hard. During the funeral service in the garden, Matthew, who had recently, if briefly, found Buddhism, read from the poetry of Khalil Gibran ("And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance") while Louis whispered to me that Skittles was irreplaceable and therefore she would never be replaced. Each day for the following fortnight he would sprinkle flowers on the grave. It has taken until now for him to end the official period of mourning and accept Matthew's offer of a trip to Chiswick Pets.
They return with the news that they have bought a baby leopard gecko, to which Louis has already given the puzzling and slightly pretentious name of Cadmium, and that he will be ready for collection the following day.
Faced then with the challenge of sorting out the new arrival's living quarters, I begin to appreciate the complexities of urban planning. How poor old John Prescott ever got such a job in government is beyond me. The problem is that Cadmium cannot share a vivarium with Skittle's widower because, according to the experts at the pet shop, he will get beaten up. I find this hard to believe because I have yet to meet a more lugubrious or benign creature than Grillo – even more so since the death of his wife. Then again, anyone witnessing a twinkling, happy Matthew watching Are You Being Served? on UK Gold would be lulled into a false sense of security until they happened upon him bellowing obscenities at the Eggheads on BBC2.
The only option, then, in order to avoid cohabitation, is to upgrade Grillo to the larger vivarium currently occupied by my tortoise, Miles. Miles, who spends much of the day tripping people up in the sitting room, is moving to a new, super deluxe vivarium, complete with plunge pool and Alpine-style log cabin for his quieter moments. Caddie will move into the old marital home.
Where all these vivariums – or vivarii, as Matthew insists on calling them – will go is one of the conundrums, or conundrii, facing me at the moment. The other is getting the temperature right in the various vivarii. Matthew has called Farzan, the Iranian who looks after everything electrical in this house, and he is coming over tomorrow evening to wire it all up. The animals must all be rehoused before nightfall.
Farzan has been with us for an hour and 47 minutes without once opening his tool box. He and Matthew have been discussing matters of medicine at the kitchen table and drinking beer. Matthew is very fond of Farzan, despite his habit of charging a fortune for every task he performs, however quick and easy (he is used to wiring up sophisticated TV and hi-fi systems in the houses of Chelsea bankers.) This admiration stems from the fact that Matthew believes Farzan to be the most gifted hypochondriac he has ever met apart from himself. He sees him as both protégé and patient.
As I watch and wonder if any of the animals will be sleeping soundly in their beds tonight, Matthew is unfurling his stethoscope (Valentine's Day present from me, 1999), tapping Farzan on the back and listening to his heart. "No, all fine there," he says, reaching for his blood pressure testing kit (a frippery I picked up at John Bell & Croyden in Wigmore Street for Christmas 2003).
"Hmm, well, as I always say, better low on the blood pressure front and risk the odd fainting fit than high and risk a thrombosis. I'd suggest some iron tablets on the off-chance of mild anaemia, but otherwise it all sounds good to me."
The extraordinary thing about this vignette is that Farzan looks genuinely relieved. "You're sure it's nothing serious?" he says. "Oh no. I did think for a moment that you might have a leaky valve, but it was just a bit of fluff in the stethoscope earpiece."
Buoyed up by the good news, Farzan proposes we all try the food from a Persian restaurant he knows. So we have a take-away. It's delicious, especially the lamb stew with limes, and even I manage to over-eat, despite sitting as I am with a tentative tortoise on one knee. Farzan eats more than anyone, and then complains of a severe pain in his upper digestive tract. Matthew diagnoses indigestion in Latin before saying: "Well, Farzan, you must be on your way. Come back tomorrow if you like and sort out the menagerie, you must be exhausted. I am sure we will manage for tonight. I can't thank you enough and you must tell us what we owe you."
"Well, £150 so far," says Farzan, "and I will come back early tomorrow and finish off." "Yes!" cries Matthew, "come for breakfast!"
At 2am, I am awake, not as the result of anything Matthew could diagnose in Latin ending in ii, but because I am under intense pressure to lie absolutely still with a full hot-water bottle on my stomach. Sleeping soundly, giving little, regular breaths atop this hot-water bottle, wrapped up in a tea towel, is a tiny, currently homeless baby gecko who must not, on any account, be disturbed.Reuse content