21 MARCH 1987, Page 43

Home life

Toad away

Alice Thomas Ellis

oor Janet's toad, Michael, passed away the other day and she was very upset. Don't give your heart to a toad to tear. Now her fish have got white spot — a fell disease — and she has discovered 13 of them floating belly-upward. She took the survivors in a Tupperware container to a fish expert and he shook his head gravely, giving her a bright blue substance to put in their water, but not holding out much hope. At Someone's behest I have been reading Herodotus, and for some reason this reminds me of the chap who was blinded by the Gods for thiowing his spear at the Nile in a rage. They said he could be cured by applying the urine of a woman who had slept only with her husband. He tried his own wife's first and it didn't work. Oh Lord. Picture the scene. He tried absolutely umpteen ladies before he found one who proved efficacious. He married her (don't know what he did with her husband, poor fellow) and put all the others, wife included, in a place called Red Clod and burnt them to a crisp.

The Egyptians used to shave their eye- brows off when their cats died, and all of themselves, including their heads, when their dogs died. Cats were embalmed and buried in sacred receptacles in Bubastis, dogs were buried in sacred burial places in their own town, and so were weasels. Fieldmice and hawks, forsooth, were taken to Buto and ibises to Hermopolis. Bears and wolves were buried wherever they chanced to be discovered lying dead. We know the Egyptians were nuts about burying things, but to go all the way to Buto — wherever that may be, but it's bound to be a long way from somewhere carting a deceased fieldmouse seems to me excessive. Perhaps Herodotus got it wrong, or perhaps the natives were telling him fibs. I was myself informed in Alexandria that Alexander the Great had, with his own hands, presented the mosque with its magnificent chandelier. On the other hand I remember taking a ruined teddy bear all the way to Wales in a shoe-box to be buried under a tree, and many the hamster and fallen fledgling who have been des- patched with due ceremony by my weeping children, so perhaps this is only another, largely forgotten, aspect of human nature.

I asked Janet, in view of all this, how she disposed of her spotty fish, and she said she had stood to attention by the loo, singing the Last Post. I don't think she need have gone so far as embalming them, but this does seem a little casual — though then again perhaps a watery grave is suitable for a dead fish. She hardly dares go home and look in the tank because home is beginning to remind her of a necropolis. Her cats are always carrying in rats — alive and dead and I must ask her if they bring in fieldmice. I never made it as far as Upper Egypt and if Buto should chance to be round there we could hop on a plane and go and bury them. She is particularly worried about Sybil, her catfish, who has grown to a great size and mainly eats — of all things — cat food. I don't think Sybil sounds like a very nice fish since she also ate her mate, Bruno. Once day he was there, said Janet, and the next he wasn't. Not a whisker, not a sign of him. She peered under the stones and even exam- ined the surrounding carpet in case he'd leapt out, but Bruno had completely dis- appeared and only one possible conclusion could be arrived at. Perhaps Sybil thought he'd been sleeping with other catfish. If you're only a catfish it is perhaps no more reprehensible to eat your unfaithful hus- band than it is as an ancient Egyptian to burn your faithless wife, and at least she only ate the one. The interfering King Pheros, after all, burnt dozens of other people's wives as well. Perhaps Bruno was Pheros passing through the fish course of his reincarnations. What a cheering thought.