Authors: Sally Grindley
For Sasha Parris
‘What’s it like putting your arm up a cow’s bottom?’ Joe Brook asked.
‘Warm and squelchy.’ Binti, his mother, grinned.
‘You wouldn’t catch me doing it.’ Joe pulled a face.
He was standing on the bottom rung of some metal fencing inside a barn on Mike Downs’s farm. His mother was the other side of the fence, dressed in her green overalls and wellington boots, her breath coiling upwards like steam from a kettle as she leant against the cow’s rear. Joe watched as she pulled her arm out and removed the long plastic glove that covered most of it.
‘It’s not much fun for the cow, either,’ she said.
‘If I was going to be a vet, I’d only want to look after small animals like cats – or wild animals like elephants, because that would be cool.’
‘So you think some of what I do is cool then, Joe?’
Binti smiled as she opened the gate and left the cow’s enclosure. Most of her work was as an international wildlife vet, but when she was at home she sometimes helped out if called upon by other vets in the area.
‘You might have to put your arm up an elephant’s bottom too, you know,’ she said.
‘To find out if a female is pregnant, or perhaps to check for digestive problems. Pretty much the same as for a cow.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t mind so much if it was an elephant, because they’re exciting and I’m half Tanzanian. Cows are boring.’
‘Not to a bull they’re not.’ Binti laughed as she scrubbed her hands. ‘Come on, it’s dinner time.’
‘I’m glad Dad does the cooking, knowing where your hands have just been.’ Joe smirked.
His mother cuffed him gently.
Joe shivered as they left the barn. It had become dark and very chilly. They headed back towards the farmhouse, where Mike Downs greeted them on the doorstep. Through a window Joe could see a fire burning brightly and wished he were sitting in front of it.
‘I can’t find anything abnormal, Mike,’ said Binti, ‘but I’ll send a stool sample off to the lab and see if they come up with anything. In the meantime, just keep an eye on her and give me a call if you’re at all worried.’
‘Thanks, Binti. I’ll try not to disturb your weekend any further.’
‘It’s all part of the job, Mike. We can’t expect animals to fall sick only on weekdays.’
‘Are you going to follow in your mum’s footsteps when you’re older, young man?’ The farmer winked at Joe.
‘My son doesn’t like getting his hands dirty, do you, Joe?’ Binti smiled. ‘Right, we ought to make a move. Bye, Mike.’
She linked her arm through Joe’s. They walked quickly over to their four-by-four and clambered in.
‘Turn the heating up, Mum,’ said Joe. ‘It’s got really cold.’
Binti switched on the engine and played with the dials. ‘You’ll have to get used to the cold where we’re going,’ she said, shooting him a glance to watch his reaction.
Joe looked puzzled. ‘We’re going home for dinner, aren’t we?’
‘But what about when you break up for half-term?’ Binti questioned.
Joe detected a whiff of excitement. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘We’re going to Antarctica!’
‘Not quite,’ said Binti. ‘But we
going to Russia.’
‘Russia?’ Joe wasn’t sure how to react. ‘Why are we going to Russia?’
‘I’m going to help train some of the young vets over there in how to anaesthetize tigers.’
‘But there aren’t any tigers in Russia, are there?’ said Joe. ‘I thought they were all in India and Sumatra.’
‘There are Amur tigers in Russia. They’re the biggest, and there are very few left.’
Russia had sounded like a boring place to spend half-term – until Binti mentioned tigers. Now Joe couldn’t think of anything better, even if it was going to be cold.
‘I’ll be working there for a month. You and Dad and Aesha will travel out with me and stay for eight days,’ his mother explained. ‘I know it’s not for long, but you need to be back for school.’
When they arrived back home, Joe ran into the house, where Foggy, their schnauzer, rushed to greet him.
‘Hey, Dad!’ he called. ‘Mum says we’re going to Russia!’
‘Does she indeed?’ Peter Brook replied from the kitchen, where he was stirring a large pot of chilli beef. ‘Just when I was thinking what a good idea it would be if there were the equivalent of boarding kennels for children for when their parents go away.’
‘Only for annoying little nine-year-old boys.’ A voice piped up from the next room. ‘Not for beautiful, intelligent daughters.’ Joe’s thirteen-year-old sister, Aesha, followed him into the kitchen. ‘I think that’s a great idea,’ she said. ‘Boys could be left there until they’re house-trained.’
‘You’re a fine one to talk about house-training, young lady,’ said Binti. ‘Your room’s like a pigsty.’
‘It’s lived in, that’s all.’ Aesha pouted.
‘You’ll be living out if it gets much worse,’ Binti replied.
‘At least my room hasn’t got piles of smelly socks and pants and soggy biscuits and crisps all over the floor,’ said Aesha.
‘It’s got piles of clothes and shoes and lipsticks and photos instead.’ Joe snorted.
‘I rest my case,’ said Peter. ‘It would be far more peaceful for your mother and I if we went to Russia on our own. I’ll speak to the doggery and see if they’ve got a spare compound.’
Joe said his goodbyes to Foggy at Waggy Tails Boarding Kennels.
‘Poor Foggy,’ he bemoaned. ‘He’ll be lonely.’
‘He’ll be spoilt rotten,’ said Binti.
‘It seems cruel to go away and leave him,’ said Joe.
‘What, in a five-star boarding kennel in the lap of luxury? While we freeze our socks off, he’ll be toasting his paws in front of that great log fire. I’m tempted to stay here myself,’ Peter teased.
‘Talking of which, I hope we’ve got enough warm clothes with us,’ said Binti as Peter herded them back into the car.
‘I’ll look like a massive beluga whale in that coat you bought me,’ grumbled Aesha. ‘And I refuse to wear that silly hat.’
my hat if you manage not to wear yours!’ chuckled Peter as he turned on the ignition.
‘Don’t encourage her!’ Binti chided.
‘Don’t wear it, Aesha!’ shrieked Joe. ‘You’ll look more ridiculous than usual if you do.’
‘Ha, funny, ha.’ Aesha scowled.
Peter began to sing the lyrics from
, adopting a deep, bass voice that they all tried to copy, chins pulled into their necks, their expressions like a bulldog’s, until Joe began to splutter from the effort. Aesha, blushing, adopted a sophisticated pose on spotting a group of boys in a car that was overtaking them.
‘Why did they change the name of Siberian tigers to Amur tigers?’ she asked, though she already knew the answer.
‘Amur is more accurate, since that’s the part of Russia where they’re found,’ Binti replied.
‘It’s funny how some tigers live in really hot places, like India, and others live in really cold places,’ remarked Joe.
‘But that’s just like people,’ said Aesha rather scornfully.
‘People can wear different clothes depending on the weather,’ Joe persisted. ‘Tigers have fur coats wherever they live.’
‘They’d look funny if they were bald,’ chipped in Peter.
‘Like you, Dad,’ chuckled Aesha.
‘Joe’s making a good point,’ said Binti. ‘We would wear fur in the cold, but not in the heat.’
wouldn’t wear fur at all,’ said Aesha, ‘unless it was fake.’
‘So tigers in India probably have very sweaty armpits,’ observed Peter. ‘Or should that be leg-pits?’
‘In fact,’ said Binti, ‘Amur tigers have thicker coats than Indian tigers, as well as a fold of fat running along their bellies to help keep them warm.’
‘Is that why Dad’s got a fold of fat running along his belly?’ chortled Joe.
‘I have not!’ Peter protested. ‘Bald I might be, but fat I am not.’
‘At least you’ll be warm.’ Binti turned to grin at him.
‘It’s a conspiracy,’ he huffed. ‘I knew I should’ve stayed at the doggery.’
‘What exactly are we supposed to do while we’re in Russia?’ asked Aesha.
‘I’ll be photographing anything that moves for a magazine article, and I expect you, my princess, will sit by the fire, filing your nails and looking beautiful,’ replied Peter.
‘I’m going to help Dad,’ said Joe proudly. His parents had bought him a camera for his birthday and he was keen to follow in his father’s footsteps.
‘I’m sure there’ll be plenty to keep you amused,’ Binti told Aesha.
Aesha frowned. She was excited about going to Russia, but she hated the cold even more than Joe did, and couldn’t imagine that there would be much to do in a place where it might snow even though it was only late October, and where the temperatures could drop well below zero.
‘I know about the tigers and the brown bear, but what other animals are there in eastern Russia?’ Joe asked.
‘There are more animals and birds than you would imagine,’ said Peter, ‘though many will be in hibernation. For starters, there’s the Himalayan black bear, the Siberian chipmunk, the Amur goral, Blakiston’s fish owl, scaly merganser, hooded crane, Japanese blue-and-yellow-rumped flycatcher, wild boar, Manchurian sika . . .’
‘Someone’s been doing their homework.’ Binti smiled, impressed.
‘Of course,’ said Peter.