Stinky McGuirk will not be remembered as an exceptional guinea pig. Never really more than a novice climber, his problem solving skills were in the lower percentiles for the Caviidae family. Averse to water. His aroma, questionable.
He had the appearance of a perpetually shell-shocked rodent — twitchy, trembling. Bug-eyes staring vacantly into the middle distance. His ginger and white hair stuck out at every angle, like some demented throw-cushion.
The last guinea pig in the pet shop, he looked like he needed a good home. And Jessica, suffering twin indignities of living through high-school and her parents’ divorce, was in need of a loyal friend.
Dad had left in the middle of the night; the 15,000 watt security-light on the driveway alerting Jessica to the figure of him, carrying his golf clubs from garage to car with the demeanour of a much better man rescuing a Golden Retriever from a house-fire. Mum had taken to drinking cinzano in the afternoons, silently weeping while ordering home-gym equipment off the shopping channel.
Jessica’s younger brother, Dylan, had got a Playstation out the deal. Quite the entrepreneur, he’d figured out immediately that he could get Mum to buy him a Playstation, and Dad to give him the money to buy a Playstation.
Jessica, not blessed with such guile, had got Stinky McGuirk.
“Oh Stinky McGuirk.” said Jessica, cradling the warm little sack of fur to her neck. “You’re my best friend. Let’s watch The Last Jedi together and eat some hay.”
“How about we do some sketching first?” said Jessica, in Stinky McGuirk’s imaginary, high-pitched voice.
“That’s a great idea!” Jessica replied, turning them both towards her bedroom mirror, the better to converse.
“Draw me like one of your French Girls.” said Jessica, like a ventriloquist, before laughing uproariously to herself.
Dylan heard her and came to her bedroom door to give her the finger.
“Fuck off!” she shouted back, before apologising to Stinky McGuirk, who disliked loud noises. “I’m sorry Stinky McGuirk, that was too loud wasn’t it? It’s just Dylan is such a little shit isn’t he? Yes he is.” she smoothed Stinky McGuirk’s fur and made shushing noises to calm him. Stinky McGuirk purred and chirruped contentedly in her arms.
All creatures on this earth need love. Jessica truly believed that. But love is merely a human construct. The same snake oil that means we all obey the ATM machine which tells us whether we can afford to eat. The reason we sleep soundly in our beds, believing a pile of bricks and a few planks of wood will protect us from all the malevolent evil in the world.
It’s an idea we choose to agree on. A higher concept designed to ensure the continuation of our own existence, however insignificant it may be. Love is the vessel we climb aboard, so that we don’t all drift apart and drown. But the destination, the thing we’re all really striving towards is something far simpler, more primal — it is merely survival.
Nowhere was this theory more evident than among teenage girls in high school.
Jessica used to have a best friend, Louisa. Theirs was a Disney friendship — a fairytale world of hair, dresses, imaginary talking creatures, A cappella singing. Which overnight had somehow morphed into the fucking Sopranos. Deep, sedimentary layers of subtext buried under vicious posturing and murderous ambition.
The wider friendship group all followed a set of arbitrary rules but had no idea who made them up. They obeyed an unelected leader in Louisa, knowing her power was built on sand. They were told what to wear, who to hate, what to think. They were a pack of wolves; a black cloud of vitriol. Constantly threatening.
This week they all drank coffee, this week they laughed at lesbians, this week they were all about “empowerment”, this week it was “wellness”, this week they all bought skateboards.
Humans were difficult, girls were impossible. You could hold a guinea pig in your hand — a tiny, wriggling sock-puppet, stare into the blankness of his expressionless face, and get a sense of what he needed from you, who he needed you to be. The same was not true of people.
Jessica knew love was not the same as need, and need was not the same as desire. She knew she loved Stinky McGuirk, because she wanted to keep him safe. She knew Stinky McGuirk was loved, because he had everything he needed.
It was desire — selfish and human — which made her start writing Louisa’s name all over her exercise book in maths class on a Wednesday afternoon. She wrote it in every shape and style she could imagine, as if by tracing the outline of the name she might capture every facet of the person.
“Oh my God she’s a lesbian!” shouted Francesca Belmont, who was standing right behind her. The whole class burst into uncontrollable laughter, the teacher made a cursory simmer down gesture before apparently thinking fuck it and joining in.
Things only got worse as Dad’s scheduled weekend visits became more and more lacklustre. At a total loss for what to do on a rainy Saturday, out of the house, with two adolescents, he took them to McDonald’s for lunch. To Jessica’s horror, Louisa and her miniature McMafia had assembled there to drink cheap coffee and shelter from the downpour. When they started looking over and whispering, Jessica assumed they were talking about her. When Bethany Davies made an obscene gesture with two fingers and her tongue, she was certain of it.
There are no guinea pigs in the wild, they exist only in captivity. At that moment, Jessica envied the guinea pigs, and longed for the confines of her favourite bathroom-stall in which she usually ate lunch. She ached to be alone on a sawdust floor in a tiny cage, asleep in a cotton-wool nest.
“How come you’re not eating anything?” asked Dad. “Is it because you’re on a diet?”
“Um, I don’t know SCOTT…” replied Jessica, trying teenage rebellion on for size, instantly finding it didn’t suit her. “…should I be?”
Dylan almost choked on his Big Mac. Dad just looked slightly confused, a bit like Stinky McGuirk. Jessica had hoped that by adopting a foul, belligerent attitude, she might blend in with her surroundings and not be so noticeable to predators. But it didn’t work, the girls were still looking over and giggling. Jessica chewed some fries and prayed for death.
After a terse car ride home, Jessica ran upstairs to her bedroom, only to find Stinky McGuirk lying flat on his back, paws in the air, stiff and cold.
“OH MY GOD!!” she screamed. Dad had come inside for a discussion about bills or something and now raced in the direction of where (he assumed) Jessica was being murdered.
“Jessica? What’s happening, are you ok!?”
“IT’S STINKY MCGUIRK!”
“What? That rat of yours? Is he still alive?”
“Ah. Well now, hang on a minute. He might just be hibernating. We could wake him up. This happened to someone else I know.”
“GUINEA PIGS DON’T HIBERNATE DAD! YOU’RE THINKING OF HAMSTERS!!”
“They’re all the same.” said Dad, with a wave of dismissal.
Dad wrapped Stinky McGuirk in a tea-towel and placed him on the radiator. He then delicately stroked the fine white hair on his belly, up to his chin.
The whole family gathered round, eager to see if Dad could achieve redemption for his litany of failed DIY projects by successfully resurrecting a rodent. Even Mum, in spite of herself, leaned in, cinzano in hand.
After about five minutes, just as the situation was reaching peak ludicrousness, Stinky McGuirk wrinkled his nose. Next he wriggled his toes. Then he twisted his whole body and flipped over awkwardly, like a seal. He gasped a series of quick breaths, heaving the air into his tiny lungs as everyone realised — he was alive!
“OH MY GOD!” said Jessica, not even close to calming down. “HE’S ALIVE. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!”
It wasn’t clear if she was thanking Dad, or some higher power. But Dad was claiming the credit, regardless.
Jessica returned to her room, cradling Stinky McGuirk in her arms as they settled in for a Sci-fi marathon.
As she cuddled Stinky McGuirk close to her heart, Jessica thought of all the poor guinea pigs who’d been buried deep in the cold ground, when all they needed was to be warmed up.
The next day at lunchtime, she didn’t eat in the toilets. She bought a tuna sandwich and a can of full-fat coke and sat in the cafeteria, alone. She took out her sketchbook and pencil and spent half an hour doing a detailed portrait of Rey Skywalker, from memory. She only got called a lesbian nineteen times.
Just as she was putting the finishing touches to the piece, Louisa walked behind her, and in the quietest whisper she could manage while still being audible said, “looks just like her.” before scurrying off to join her cronies.
Stinky McGuirk died for real a couple of weeks later. The low temperature and rigor mortis were once again present. But the early signs of decomposition were a clear indicator that this time, he really had cashed his cheque.
Jessica decided to hold a remembrance service, and the whole Price family — Jessica, Dylan, Scott and Debbie, gathered to pay their respects to Stinky McGuirk. They laid him to rest beneath a willow tree in the back garden. Mum read a poem and Dad read a quote from Wittgenstein which no one really understood. Everyone had a small cinzano.
Cartesian philosophy tells us that only Man is able to contemplate his own existence (“I stink therefore I am”) and it is this awareness of our own mortality which separates us from our animal brethren. Maybe that’s true, or just something we like to believe, because in many ways we are not so different at all. We all need love, we all hope for sanctuary. But we are not all sailing — two-by-two — towards any kind of salvation. Life and nature, are simply too cruel.
We are fallen birds — migratory patterns scrambled by high frequency radio transmitters. We are skinny cats with matted fur and sulphur eyes. Our shedded claws strewn all around us — spent machine gun cartridges. We are the last polar bears, clinging to life as our habitat melts beneath our feet.
And perhaps it is only by looking at a small burrowing rodent, staring into the vast unknowable universe of his eyes, that we might catch a fleeting glimpse of what could rightfully be called a soul. That we might hope to see a truer reflection of ourselves.
(Some time around the release date of Stars Wars: The Last Jedi – 2021)
Rick White is a fiction writer from Manchester, UK whose work can be found in Milk Candy Review, Storgy, Trampset and many other literary journals. Rick also appears on the BIFFY50 list of Best British and Irish Flash Fiction and has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. Say hi! on Twitter @ricketywhite or visit http://www.ricketywhite.com