“I told her she was talking to the organ grinder instead of the...what's the other one? The oily rag one?”
“The engine driver. Or is it the monkey you're after?”
Shireen doesn't look up from her magazine. No change there, then. Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga have got one over on me as usual.
“I said, what with the recession, we'll just have to tell them we can't fulfil.”
“Fill what?” Shireen does look up for a minute, but she's still planning the evening's viewing and what to download on her iPhone and she's not connecting with my dilemma.
“If pets were properties...”
“If our pets were properties, it might make sense to rent rather than buy in the current climate. That's all I'm saying.”
“Take these five words and put them in order: thought, haven't, this, you, through,” Shireen is raising her eyebrows in that way she does when I'm having one of my brainwaves. “Have you, though?”
I've lost her to media mindless again, if she ever came back from there in the first place. But now I'm firing on all cylinders. It makes perfect sense to me. The customers could rent a pet, say, a shoal of guppies, a dog, a chinchilla, a guinea pig and have all the advantages of not owning it. We could offer monthly food subscriptions, vet insurance, all that day-to-day stuff. We could have a dog-walking service for if they're too busy for the pooper-scooping malarkey jazz. Virtual pets were all the rage a decade or so ago, so it's a small step to this, really. A little bit virtual, a little bit 'a dog's not just for Christmas.' Best of both worlds.
Shireen doesn't look that convinced, yet.
I print out some flyers and stick them in the shop window after lunch. Shireen shouts to me while I'm mucking out the gerbils. Sounds like she's taken it in this time.
“What's all this, 'Recession-Busting Pet Rentals' business?”
“What I said. Here comes our future. Well, for the present, anyway,” I say, trying to work out whether she's digging it or about to phone for the men in white coats.
Then a woman comes in with a little kid. I'd say grandson, because, I'm not being funny or anything, but there's dentures involved, to be honest and quite possibly mint imperials.
I go straight in for the hard sell. I know Shireen is barely resisting a surreptitious head-bang to 'Applause' because I can see her doing that Gaga swan-neck thing off the video, inside her head, so she's probably not going for the big sales pitch any time soon. The little boy is fingering the counters and eye-balling the Bearded Dragon. I don't anticipate that becoming a sale in real terms, so I do a bit of a redirect.
“How would your little lad like to rent that Beardie Weirdie for a month to see how it goes, madam?”
“He's not mine, love, he's our Linzi's. Stop touching the glass, our Callum, you'll frighten that lizard thing.”
I was going for a smidgeon of flattery, there, but she doesn't seem to be biting. So I try again.
“We're offering a try before you buy, madam. You can do a rental of the Bearded Dragon on a month by month basis. For an extra premium, we do the feed thrown in. Can't say fairer.”
“Callum!” The woman seems more bothered about him picking his nose than getting him the best bargain this side of Animal Magic.
“Has he had a pet before?” Now it's time to focus and do a spot of compare and contrast, swings and roundabouts, checks and balances. Need to get Grandma going for the renting rather than buying scenario.
“He won a goldfish when he was little. It only lasted about a month. I think it got fed up of going round and round. Mind you, it came from a stall just next to the roundabouts, so I suppose it should have got used to that, by the time our Callum chucked his quoit over the plastic duck. You're a right little marksman, aren't you, our Callum?”
Callum's glaring through the glass at the Bearded Dragon and sticking his tongue out. I think he thinks it's trying to insult him but we're here to educate and inform.
“How long do you think Callum would like to rent the Pogona for?” I say, wondering if going for the Latin name's maybe trying to blind them with science a bit too soon in the seller-client relationship.
“It's actually a Pogona vitticeps,” Callum has transferred his glare to me, “This one's a Central, or Inland Bearded Dragon. It basks on rocks and is found throughout semiarid regions of Australia. Why does this label say 'female'?”
I can see Shireen has pulled one of her soundproof earbuds out. This could develop into better entertainment than Big Brother eviction night, in her book, who knows?
“Well, because it is. Female, I mean.” I'm just a tad on the defensive now, because, from Callum's tone, I can tell this could get personal.
“It's a male,” Callum sounds like Chris Packham when he's doing that thing where he sets himself up as a connoisseur of all things mammal poo. “I can understand your mistake. They aren't very strongly dimorphic.”
I might be getting a bit flustered, as I haven't got time to Google, but I'm keen to keep my end up.
“It's hard to tell the difference, you'll find, Callum, as the male and female are very much alike.”
This doesn't wash with the bastard offspring of David Attenborough and Michaela Strachan. I'm a bit distracted by that image of genetic pick-and-mix, so maybe I take my eye off the ball for a moment, because Callum's straight back in under my guard.
“You can tell them apart, actually. The male has a wider cloacal opening and if you really look at the tail, you can see it's wider at the base than a female's would be. This is a male because it also has too big a head to be female. See the big black beard?”
I want to stay aloof from what is developing into a lecture, but I feel obliged to keep swimming. I can see out of the corner of my eye that Shireen has taken her other earbud out, like she thinks it's the final of Britain's Got Talent and I'm the unpopular one singing songs from the shows, pitted against the dancing dog.
“He knows his stuff, does our Callum. Don't you, our Callum?” Grandma looks like she's about to go into that 'back-of-the-net' pose from Alan Partridge.
“Plus, the clincher is that the male has a hemipenis.” Callum points this particular feature out. I'm ashamed to say, Shireen starts giggling, which rather lets the side down.
“Lovely,” I hear myself saying, “so if you know all about it, you'll be eager to get your hands on this fine specimen, then.”
I turn my attention to Callum's grandma again, who looks as though she could march him off for a nutritional sit-down burger treat at any minute, so the stakes are pretty high, at this juncture.
“Shall we say three months rental at twenty-five pounds a month, per calendar? That will be seventy-five pounds in the first instance. I could do you a nice little package, including food, for another tenner per month, taking us to a hundred and five pounds. For fifteen pounds extra, we can do Callum a nice little printed certificate with his name and the Beardie's on, to say how well he looked after it for the quarter. All for one hundred and twenty pounds, no hidden extras. What do we say, madam?”
“What's the name of the Pogona vitticeps, then?” Callum is looking at the label and I'm already seeing a fly in this particular ointment.
“Well, as you can see, its name's Veronica, at this time, but as a special concession to you, we can call him Veronic instead.” My mind's going down the same route as Fred the Blue Peter tortoise metamorphosing into Freda with a lick of white paint.
“I wanted a female. The label said this was a female. I didn't really want a male,” Callum is saying. My mind wanders onto Lulu the Blue Peter elephant, with me fulfilling the role of her hapless handler sliding about in the...
“She tells me it comes with a nice hutch.” Grandma is looking at the cages section with Shireen who seems to have laughed herself out of her catatonic stupor.
“It's a vivarium, Grandma,” Callum says. “We'd want something off for it being a male when I didn't want a male, wouldn't we?”
“I could do you the three months for, say, a modest knock down price of one hundred pounds.”
“Would that be with live insects to feed it with?” Callum is really pushing it now.
“No. We do pre-packaged sealed boxes of insects dusted with vitamin and mineral powder.”
“That's not actually like it would be in their natural habitat. We'd want something off for that, wouldn't we, Grandma, for it not being fully authentic nutrition?”
Callum is taking the proverbial, surely, but Grandma nods sagely. My options are swimming off up the Swannee without a paddle.
“You said ten pounds a month for food, but that's not the proper food, so that would thirty pounds off, like only seventy quid. Then we'd have to be using Granddad's aphids off his roses and taking moths out of Uncle Ian's moth-trap and everything, to keep it healthy. That'd be us feeding it, so we'd need thirty quid like you said.”
“I make that,” Grandma's got her mobile out and switched on the little calculator under 'organiser-apps', “forty quid.”
I see Shireen putting her earbuds back in, trying to look like she's not really listening any more, but she's not fooling me, because I can see she's got Lady Gaga on pause.
“The other pet shop we went in, Animal Magic on the High Street, was offering a package of special reptile-safe disinfectant for all our hand-washing and hygiene needs, for fourteen pounds ninety-nine for a big spray.”
I'm beginning to lose the will to live, but Callum's on a roll.
“Plus they were offering us a really good book on 'Caring for your Bearded Dragons, Lizards, Terrapins and other Exotic Reptiles' at half price, that's ten quid with loads and loads of full colour plates. On top of that they said we could have the latest DVD of 'Vivariums: Reptiles in da House' Region 1 and PAL for just twenty smackers.”
“Our Linzi's bloke calls them smackers, doesn't he, Callum?” Grandma turns to me and adds, “I think that's a fiver you owe us and you can put Veronic in the back of the car. We're just parked round the corner. Bring him back the last day of August, shall we? Callum will be back to school soon after then, so he'll be wanting something he can take for walks.”
I let Shireen fill out the paperwork while I walk round to the car with Callum and a bloke who comes in with tattoos up to his neck. That's Linzi's bloke, apparently. He breeds Bearded Dragons. Says he could flog me one cheap if he's got any going when they bring Ronnie back. That's what Callum's wanting to call his new temporary pet.
I probably won't be going ahead with Rent a Pet, just at the present time of asking. Seemed like a good idea at the time.