This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Part 1 - The Early Days
I have two given names. The human one, courtesy of my owners, is Robbie Bobtail. My rabbit name has no translation, which is unfortunate, because it’s the name I would have preferred to use in telling my story. It was given to me by a very special rabbit, who transformed my life, and, without whom, there would not have been a story worth telling.
I am a pet rabbit. My colouring is black and white, and, in my prime, my fur was as sleek and shiny as any rabbit I have ever known. I used to spend a lot of time on my grooming, but, then, I had a lot of time to spare. I have never met another rabbit bigger than me, although I understand there are other breeds, which would make me look quite puny. I have not lived a particularly long life, and other pet rabbits can expect a good many more years than I have had. However, the existence of a pet rabbit is a mostly dull and unrewarding one, and I have been fortunate enough to enjoy experiences, which I would certainly not want to exchange for an extended life.
One of those experiences has been to learn the rabbit language. After generations of living with humans, pet rabbits have lost all knowledge of their true tongue. We use the human language to communicate, and, although, when we talk to each other, it is outside the range of human hearing, our own range is wide enough to be able to hear our owners. This is just as well, because, without the ability to understand our keepers, our lives would be so empty as to be almost not worth living, especially for those who have no rabbit companions. Listening to and watching humans is our main form of entertainment, and, in that respect, I have fared better than most.
I was born in the back yard of a pet shop, a gloomy place of cages and brick walls. A place which saw the sun for only a small part of the day, and the only vegetation was a few scraggy weeds growing through the cracks in the concrete floor. I have never lived anywhere that was as awful as that back yard. Fortunately, at the time, I knew no different, and so didn’t appreciate just how bad it was
The real victim, however, was my mother. She had lived her entire life in that yard, her sole purpose as a breeding machine to supply the shop. Of course, that meant she had never known any alternative either, but now that I have, I feel sad and sickened that she, and so many like her, have been forced to live such an unnatural existence. She had never seen a tree or a bush. She had never felt anything beneath her feet other than straw and the wooden floor of a hutch. Never, for her, the wonderful feeling of lush grass between her toes, or running water cooling her paws on a hot day. The only other life forms she had any experience of were sparrows, starlings and pigeons, and the occasional mouse scrounging for pickings, which had fallen out of her hutch.
Perhaps worst of all, she had been denied the company of other rabbits, except for a buck for the short time it took to conceive, and her litters until they were weaned and taken away from her. I never met, nor even saw, my father. He lived in the yard, but in a hutch out of sight from the one that I was born in. He too must have led a wretched life, and it saddens me to know just how much both my parents missed.
My mother had given birth to several litters before mine, and, having had each one taken from her as soon as they were weaned, she had developed a detached and emotionless approach to her role. She fed us well enough, with her milk, but it was a duty, rather than the act of love it should have been. She even refused to give us names, in order to avoid becoming too attached to children, who, in a short time, she knew she would never see again. And, sadly, this indifference affected me. Not only can I not remember what my brothers and sisters looked like, but also I can’t even remember how many of us there were.
My mother’s lack of experience also meant there was not a great deal she could tell us, to prepare us for our life ahead. She knew we would be taken away from her by the pet shop owner, who, incidentally, was the only human we ever saw in the yard, but what happened to us after that, she had no idea. As far as she knew our future would be just like hers.
There was one thing she told us, which, at the time, given my extreme youth, and great fear of what was going to happen to me, I didn’t take much notice of. It was certainly a long while later before I had cause to remember her words, and feel even more regret for how much she had missed.
She told us that this life with humans was not the way rabbits were supposed to live. There was a time, long ago, when rabbits controlled their own destinies, living in large communities, where humans had no place at all. This she learnt from her mother, who in turn had learnt it from her mother, but that was all she could tell us. She wanted it to be true, because, surely, there had to be a better life than her lonely existence, where her children were taken from her so early, and she was never to know what became of them.
Also, from time to time, she felt urges she could not understand. The one she was best able to explain involved her feet and legs. There were times when she wanted to dig her way into the floor of her hutch. It was a strong compulsion, which caused her much anxiety and frustration, because there was no way of fulfilling her need. The best relief she could achieve was by scraping straw into the corner of her hutch.
This, then, was the life I was born into, and, mercifully, a life I only had to suffer for a short time. One morning, a few days after we had been eating solid food on a regular basis, the pet shop owner appeared in the yard with a large box. My mother had seen this box before, and knew what it meant. It was time for us to leave. She did not say a word, and just crouched in the corner, with a look of hopeless resignation on her face, as the owner took us one by one and placed us in the box. Whilst I waited my turn, I desperately wanted her to say something, to give us some reassurance, even though it would have been a lie. But she would not even look at us, keeping her head turned away. Then I felt a hand grab the scruff of my neck, and I was lifted into the box. The last I saw of my mother, she was mostly turned away, but I caught a glimpse of one side of her face, and there was a tear in her eye.
I have always remembered that last image, and I am glad there was still some compassion left in her. It had not all been driven out by the grotesque life she was forced to live. I have no doubt that she continued to produce litters for that pet shop, until she was too old to breed. After that I do not like to think of what might have happened to her. But I hope that she retained that small vestige of emotion each time her children were taken away. Even if she kept it to herself, it at least showed that her spirit had not been entirely broken. And, even in the direst situation, that is good for the individual, as well as for all rabbit kind.
There was very little time to dwell on the abrupt separation from our mother. Our arrival in the pet shop was such a shock that I am ashamed to admit that I very quickly forgot about her. The back yard had been no preparation for the onslaught to the senses that hit us as we were carried into the building. I could see nothing from inside the box, but there were plenty of sounds and smells to contend with. The noise, particularly, was almost too much to bear, after the comparative peace of the yard. I recognised bird sounds, but there were many more than the one or two I had become familiar with. Most were no worse than the sparrows or starlings I already knew, and one or two were even quite pleasant, but some of the others were terrible. Two in particular dominated; one, a harsh squawking, was the most offensive, the other, a loud piercing whistle, whilst a very pure sound, pierced deep into my head.
There were other noises as well, all new to me, and, then, as the first of my siblings was removed from the box, a fresh one started, closer than any of the others and the most terrifying so far. I waited anxiously for my turn to be lifted from the box, realising that whatever it was making this new sound, there was more than one. There turned out to be three, black puppies, which were not even as big as my mother, but, as they stood on the back legs, with their front paws on the wire that separated us, yapping and showing plenty of sharp, white teeth, I wasted no time in joining my brothers and sisters in the furthest corner.
The puppies kept up their yapping, and pushing against the wire, as we huddled together, too frightened to move. They desperately wanted to join us, and we equally desperately wanted them to stay right where they were. Finally, they tired of their game, and wandered away from the wire. One stopped for a drink of water from a bowl, before lying down with the other two on the far side of their cage. We waited until their eyes had been closed for a good while before we allowed ourselves to even think about moving from our corner. Then, keeping well away from that dividing wire, we were finally able to relax, and take a look at our surroundings.
We were in a large cage on the floor, right in the window of the shop, and, now that the puppies had ceased their yapping, the other sounds that I had heard from the box were once again audible. Looking back into the shop, all along one wall there were cages full of birds, of all sizes and colours, which kept up a constant barrage of twittering, squawking, and singing. On the opposite wall were more cages, containing a variety of creatures, including hamsters, gerbils, mice, and rats, and, towards the back of the shop, were rows of tanks filled with fish and reptiles. The fish rivalled the birds for their range of size and colour, but at least they did not make any noise.
The harsh squawking and the shrill whistle had both stopped when the puppies had started, and I looked around trying to guess which of the birds was responsible. The whistler was the first to reveal himself. He was not in a cage, but was standing on a perch on the shop counter. He was a little bigger than a starling, with glossy, black feathers and a yellow beak. As soon as he let out his first whistle, the squawker rejoined the chorus. He was a much larger, multi-coloured bird, with a powerful looking hooked beak.
As I looked around, it was obvious that each creature was able to communicate with its own kind, but I could not understand any of it. So, imagine my surprise when Squawker suddenly came out with words that I knew. I was not sure, at first, that I had heard correctly, because what he said had come out distorted and scratchy. Then he repeated himself, and, yes, it was definitely human. Mind you, what he said did not make a great deal of sense. ‘Give us a kiss’, he repeated several times. Then he went on to ‘Hello darling’, followed by ‘Cor blimey, mate’. And that seemed to be the extent of his human. The same three phrases repeated over and over again, and when he tired of that he went back to his squawking.
I turned my attention to the window. From my position on the floor there was not much to see, mostly the legs of humans as they passed by, and the occasional face of a young human as it bent down to peer in the shop. There was a little noise coming from that direction, but it was muffled, and there was no smell. Until the shop door opened, and then a cacophony of sound rushed in, accompanied by awful stenches. The sounds were reasonably tolerable, certainly no worse than Squawker and Whistler, but the smells, which were certainly not made by any fellow creatures, were horrendous. Rasping odours reached right to the back of my throat, and made me feel quite light-headed. At first I thought I was going to pass out, but relief came as soon as the door was closed, and, with each subsequent opening, the effects were slightly diminished
Humans were coming and going in the shop all the time. There seemed to be as many shapes and sizes as the birds and fish. I had only heard the shop owner speak a few times, when he came to our hutch in the yard, but the shop was full of talk, mostly, it seemed, of children wanting and adults refusing. They came to our cage, the adults remaining standing, looking down at us, but the children getting down on the floor, putting their faces up to the wire, and pushing their fingers through, trying to stroke us.
It was not long before I realised that, despite the experience of the puppies and everything else that had happened that morning, no harm was going to come to us, and I settled down to eat some of the food that had been put out. Things did not seem so bad. I still had no idea what was going to happen to us, but there was plenty to eat, and the warmth of the shop was very relaxing. Of course, it was too good to be true.
It started with a little girl leaning over the cage, pointing, and saying ‘That one and that one’. Before I had a chance to understand what was happening, two of my siblings had been plucked from the cage by the owner, and, for the second time that morning, placed in a box. They had been sold, and that was the last we saw of them.
This continued throughout the day until, amazingly, by the time the shop shut, I was the only one left. I had mixed feelings about being the last rabbit in the shop. Partly I was upset, because the others had been preferred to me, but I was also pleased to have delayed my turn for going out into the street, and the unknown life beyond. By the next morning I had changed my mind. My brothers and sisters had been the lucky ones.
For the first hour or two after the shop was shut, whilst it was still daylight, everything was much as it had been during the day, with most of the noise coming from the birds. The owner had taken Whistler away, and so I was at least spared his tiresome scream. As dusk fell, the birds began to quieten until, eventually, there was almost total silence on that side of the shop. The puppies, there were only two left now, were sound asleep. They had come across several times during the day to bark at us, but even they had eventually realised it was a waste of time, and lost interest. The silence was wonderful, and, even though I was on my own for the first time, I felt better than I had at any time during the day.
Then it began. The creatures on the other side of the shop, the mice and hamsters and gerbils, which had been quiet all day, began to wake up, and, unbelievably, they made even more noise than the birds. It was not just their ceaseless chatter, which, of course, I could not understand, but also their activities. They scrabbled about in their straw, constantly scratched at their cages, and the noise they made when eating was quite disgusting. Some of them had exercise wheels, most of which had an irritating squeak worse than Squawker’s screeching.
The puppies seemed oblivious to this racket, and never even stirred. I realised that I would just have to try to ignore the noise, and, after an hour or two, as tiredness finally took over, I drifted off to sleep. It seemed barely minutes before I was awake again, when loud banging on the window echoed through the shop. Three male adult humans were the cause of the disturbance. They were laughing and shouting as they continued hitting the window, and they seemed to have trouble standing up, holding on to each other for support. It was impossible to understand a word they were saying, but the effect in the shop was devastating. The puppies woke and began yapping. Then Squawker joined in with his repertoire, followed quickly by all the other birds. The noise was horrendous.
Having caused the mayhem, the three men moved off down the street, leaving the shop in a state of turmoil. The puppies quietened down quite quickly, but the birds kept up their row for much longer. Squawker seemed determined to have the last say, and continued shouting and screeching well into the night. I hoped that the next day would bring someone who wanted a seriously traumatised pet rabbit.
The following morning was a complete contrast to the night before. Most of the birds seemed tired after their nocturnal activity, and were very subdued. There were not many customers, and the owner spent a lot of his time at the back of the shop, tending to the fish tanks. The sun was shining, straight in through the window, and I stretched out on my straw to make the most of it. After my sleepless night, it was not long before I began to doze off. I did not hear anybody come into the shop, but I suddenly became aware of voices above me. I looked up to see two boys staring down at me. The older one was a skinny kid, with a mop of brown, curly hair. The younger one had blonde hair and a little more weight on him.
‘I like the black and white one,’ said Skinny.
‘No,’ said Podgy. ‘I prefer the black and white one.’
‘Don’t you think the black and white one’s a better colour?’
‘Nah, black and white stinks. I think the black and white one’s got a much nicer colour.’
I was confused, and still half-asleep. I looked round to see where this other rabbit was, but I was still alone in the cage. I heard the boys giggling, and realised that they were being silly. Not silly because they could not help it, like Squawker, but silly for silly’s sake. This was new for me. There had been no humour in my short life so far, and I was experiencing it for the first time. I liked it.
‘Okay,’ continued Skinny. ‘Let’s toss for it. Heads it’s the black and white one, tails it’s the black and white one.’ He took a coin out of his pocket, and flicked it in the air, trapping it on the back of one hand with the other. ‘Heads,’ he said, showing Podgy the coin. ‘I win.’
‘Best of three?’ said Podgy.
Their laughter brought the owner out from among the fish tanks.
‘How much is the rabbit, please, mister?’ asked Skinny.
The boys crouched down on the floor beside me, and emptied their pockets.
‘Right, we’ve got five pounds sixty. We need eighty pence for the bus fare. That means we’ve got four pounds eighty.’
The boys went up to the counter.
‘We’ve only got four pounds eighty,’ said Skinny to the owner.
‘Well, since he’s the last one, I think I can let you have some discount. But you will look after him properly, won’t you?’
‘Yeah,’ said Podgy. ‘We’ve got a hutch for him already.’
So, finally, like my brothers and sisters yesterday, I was plucked from the cage by the scruff of my neck and placed into one of the cardboard boxes. Skinny and Podgy handed over their money, and it was time to go. The box had a few small holes in the walls for air, but these were not very big, so I could not see very much. This was probably just as well, because the forthcoming journey turned out to be quite an ordeal, and I was much better off not being able to see what was going on.
As we left the shop, the first thing that hit me, of course, was the sound and smell of the traffic. What had made me feel light-headed through the shop door was ten times worse out on the pavement. The roar of the passing vehicles felt almost solid to my sensitive ears, and the fumes made my eyes water and my nose and mouth dry. The buffeting I received from all the people passing back and forth compounded my discomfort. Skinny was carrying my box, but it was obviously hard work for him, especially as he also had to watch out for his little brother. Two small boys carrying a box did not seem to command much respect from the other pedestrians, and I was constantly being thrown about as people bumped into us.
Eventually, we reached a bus stop, and Skinny put me down on the pavement, right next to a fresh dog turd. It helped reduce the effect of the traffic fumes, but it was really only the lesser of two evils. The arrival of the bus at least provided relief from both traffic fumes and turd, but as soon as we sat down, Skinny and Podgy began fighting over whose lap I was going to sit on.
‘You carried him from the shop, so it’s my turn now,’ said Podgy.
’That doesn’t count, ‘cause I’m the only one big enough to carry the box.’ Then Skinny came up with a compromise. ’I’ll hold him ‘til we get to The White Hart, then it’s your turn.’
It all went quiet then, and I assumed that Skinny’s solution had been accepted. But I was about to be introduced to the mathematically minded colossus that was Podgy.
‘That’s not fair, it’s eight bus stops to the White Hart, and it’s only six from there to home. We should swap at The Maypole.’
Skinny had no answer to this, and so it was agreed that I would swap laps at The Maypole. The two boys celebrated this triumph for diplomacy with a chocolate bar each. I celebrated with a pee!
The cardboard was quite thick, and it took a few seconds before it started to soak through, which meant that Skinny felt the dampness gradually. I have to give him credit for his deviousness. He realised what had happened, but did not say a word, knowing that if he did he would never get Podgy to take the box when we arrived at the swap over stop. When the bus reached The Maypole, Skinny dutifully fulfilled his part of the agreement, and handed the box over to Podgy.
‘Urghh!’ cried Podgy, ‘It’s all wet!’
‘Yeah, ’ said Skinny, ‘I think he’s wee’d himself.’
‘Thanks a lot. Why didn’t you keep him, instead of us both getting wet?’
‘Well, you said you wanted to carry him after we got to The Maypole.’
There was a sulky silence for the rest of the journey, and I have to admit I felt quite pleased with myself.
By the time we got off the bus, though, the bottom of the box was sodden, and in danger of giving way. Skinny took it back from Podgy, and carried it with his arms underneath to stop me falling through. As we were walking up the road, I heard Podgy groan.
‘Oh no, it’s Britney!’
Britney was a boy, not a girl, and, as I learned later, he was also the local bully. His real name was Ray Spears, but all the local kids called him Britney, though never to his face.
‘What you two got there?’ I heard him say.
‘It’s our new pet rabbit,’ replied Skinny, ‘But he’s wee’d himself, and it’s all over me.’
‘That’s disgusting,’ declared Britney, and walked away.
The boys were obviously relieved that he had gone.
‘Well, that’s one way of getting rid of him,’ said Skinny.
‘Yeah,’ said Podgy, ‘Perhaps we should carry a box of pee around all the time in future.’
Laughing, the two boys turned into their garden, and, at last, I had arrived at my new home.
We had made it just in time. I was half hanging out of the soggy bottom of the box, and Skinny’s arms were obviously aching. We went down the side of the house to the back garden, where the boys’ mother was hanging out some washing. When she saw the state they were in, she quickly ordered them indoors for a shower and a change of clothes.
‘But Mum, we’ve gotta see to the rabbit first,’ complained Skinny.
‘Just put him in his hutch, he’ll be fine for a while, and on your way in put that box in the dustbin.’
The hutch in question was standing on bricks, against the wall of a large shed. Still grumbling, Skinny put my box down on the ground, whilst Podgy opened the door. He then lifted me out, put me inside, and Podgy closed the door again.
‘Can we just get him a carrot, please Mum?’ pleaded Skinny.
‘When you’ve had a shower. Now get yourselves indoors.’
The two boys did as they were told, and disappeared into the house, entirely unaware of my new anguish. I was not the first rabbit to have been in this hutch. Others had lived in it, and they had not been happy rabbits. These rabbits had known great fear, and had suffered violent deaths. The hutch told me this. It was there, in the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. The memory of the horror poured out and washed over me, so powerful it felt like a real weight pressing down, and there was no way to escape it.
There were two compartments to the hutch. One was a living area, with a wire-mesh door, and this led through to a smaller sleeping area, with a solid wooden door. The boys had left me in the living room. Slowly, I made my way through to the sleeping room. The death memory was no less powerful in there, but the reduced light seemed to ease the oppression slightly. The previous occupants had passed into a darkness, and, in the gloom, I now felt a little closer to them. I had no idea why, but it seemed right that I should try and join with them in this way. I lay crouched in the corner, on a bed of straw, wondering about the fate that had befallen those other rabbits, and fearful that the same fate awaited me. The only small hope I had to cling to was Skinny and Podgy’s assurance to the pet shop owner that they were going to look after me.
Half an hour later the boys returned, and were obviously disappointed to find I was not in the living area of my hutch. The door to my sleeping room opened, and I saw their faces peering in.
‘Come on boy, we’ve got some food for you,’ said Skinny, and put a bowl down in front of me. I was not interested in eating, I just wanted to be out of that hutch.
The boys’ mother joined them.
‘He doesn’t look very happy, and he won’t eat anything,’ said Podgy.
‘I expect he’s frightened and confused, after what he’s been through today,’ replied their Mum. ‘Leave his food in the other part of the hutch, and let him settle down. We’ll see how he is in the morning.’
The door was shut, and I was left on my own in the dark, surrounded by the horrors, which the hutch seemed determined to share with me. It was a long and unpleasant night, during which I did not move from my corner of the sleeping area. I was tired, especially after the previous night, but I was terrified of falling asleep. Each time I closed my eyes, and began to drift off, I could feel the dreams waiting for me. They wanted to show me what had happened in this terrible place, and I was too scared to face them.
Eventually, dawn arrived. Maybe it was relief at having survived the night without succumbing to the dreams, but it seemed the death memory had diminished slightly. Not enough, however, for me to leave my corner. Skinny and Podgy appeared a little later, still in their pyjamas; so keen were they to find out how I was. I am afraid I disappointed them.
‘You haven’t touched your food,’ said Skinny, as he opened the door of my sleeping room. ‘Look what we’ve got for you, a carrot.’
I had never seen a carrot before, so I could not have shown the excitement that Skinny obviously expected, even if I had been inclined to. He waved this large orange thing in front of my nose, but when I showed no interest, he dropped it on the straw.
‘Shall we take him out?’ asked Podgy.
‘Please, please, take me out,’ I pleaded with them, although I knew they could not hear me.
‘No,’ replied Skinny. ‘You know what Mum said. We’re to leave him to settle in, and if he’s not better in a day or two, we’ll take him to the vet.’
I didn’t like the sound of that. What was a vet? Did it have something to do with the death memory?
The boys left, and for the rest of the morning, apart from an occasional checking up visit, I was on my own. By midday, what I had put down to wishful thinking at first light, was no longer in doubt. The death memory was fading, and, by late afternoon it had disappeared altogether. I did not know at the time, of course, but it had been waiting for my arrival; not me specifically, but any rabbit. Those who had suffered and died had passed away with no one to mourn them. The hutch had become the guardian of their terror, holding it until it could pass it on, and thus ensuring that those poor creatures did not go beyond unrecognised.
With the passing of the death memory, and the lifting of my gloom, I began to realise just how hungry I was. I turned my attention to the carrot that Skinny had left me, and gave it a tentative nibble. Suddenly, all the horrors of the past twenty-four hours were forgotten. The carrot was wonderful. I had never tasted anything so good. It was soon all gone, and, feeling a lot better, I began to think about grooming myself. I moved into the living area of the hutch, where the sun was shining in, and settled down to a long overdue clean. As I was finishing, the boys returned, this time with their parents.
‘Look,’ said Skinny,’ He’s better now.’
He opened the door to my sleeping room.
‘And he’s eaten the carrot.’
‘Yes,’ said Dad. ‘Another six months, and he’ll nice and fat for the pot.’
‘No!’ cried both boys together. ‘He’s our pet.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Mum. ‘Dad’s only kidding. We’re not keeping any more rabbits for eating.’
This explained the death memory. The family used to keep rabbits for eating. I had imagined many things that might have happened to those rabbits, but that had certainly not been one of them. I suddenly felt quite sick again. Fortunately, Skinny and Podgy had seemed very upset about the thought of eating me.
‘Have you got a name for him yet?’ asked Mum.
I have already explained why my mother did not give me a name. If this family felt the need to give me one, then it must be a good sign. Surely you don’t give a name to someone, and then eat him. However, I was disappointed that I could not contribute to the decision. I did not actually have any suggestions of my own, but I would have liked the right of refusal.
’How about ‘Britney’, after what he did for us yesterday?’ said Podgy.
Not a promising start.
‘No,’ said Skinny. ‘It’s bad enough having one Britney, we don’t want another.’
Narrow escape number one. Skinny had an alternative.
’How about ‘Thumper’?’
‘No way,’ cried Podgy. ‘He’s a poofter!’
I had no idea who Thumper was, and I had no idea what a poofter was, but it was obvious from Podgy’s reaction that it was not a good thing to be. It was also obvious that Podgy should not have known what a poofter was either, judging by the clip round the ear he received from his mother. Narrow escape number two. However, that was not enough to deter him from another suggestion.
’I think we should call him ‘Robbie Bobtail’.’
Things were going from bad to worse.
‘Come on Skinny,’ I pleaded. ‘Come to my rescue. Narrow escape number three, please.’
‘Yeah, that’s it, Robbie Bobtail. That’s what we’ll call him.’
Skinny had let me down.
‘Hi Robbie,’ he said, bending down to look in my hutch. ‘What do you think of your new name?’
I thought it was a pile of pooh, but I had no say in the matter.
‘My name’s Andy,’ said Skinny. ‘And my brother’s called Chris.’
Yeah, well, that’s as maybe, but since they had lumbered me with Robbie Bobtail, they were always going to be Skinny and Podgy as far as I was concerned.Start writing here…
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