Listen to this article
Reading this morning that the Harrods’ pet department was to close, once and for all, sent my thoughts straight to Spike, the iguana. Seven foot from nose to tail tip, he was once – how shall I put it? – a thorn in my side. I know I can’t talk but he was awfully grumpy. He lurked, judging you somehow, and every now and then, when you’d forgotten about him, he would bolt across the length of the room, sounding like a small charging army in tin boots. I am easily alarmed, in the ordinary way. I gasp and jolt when the doorbell goes or when somebody uses the word “eclectic”. So can you imagine how high I jumped when I was snoozing in front of the television and Spike decided to make one of his mad dashes?
I don’t know if this is true of all iguanas but Spike’s prehistoric air of superiority was maddening. There was wisdom in his dry and creased skin folds, he seemed to suggest, and don’t you forget it. He saw great distinction in his ancient bearing. Why, his ancestors had probably been dinosaurs! That is some heritage. How far back does yours go? You got the impression he could see through people. You exaggerated or embroidered a story to make yourself appear a bit more valiant or glamorous, and there he was in the corner looking at you as if to say, “Dream on, my friend.”
But my husband-to-be loved him.
People often write about what happens to four-legged friends following a divorce (recently I heard on the news that the fate of the pets in a split sometimes causes more friction than the children’s custody arrangements) but little is written about what happens to the pre-existing pets when a couple gets together, especially when the bulk of the affection lies on one side. Specifically, I’ve never read anything about what happens to a relationship that also includes an iguana, when the romance in question suddenly begins to feel “a bit crowded”.
If you have any vanity at all, you cannot walk into a house, and say, “You know what? It’s me or him.” There are rules about that sort of thing. Spike was there first, after all. He wasn’t unclean, although he did put away an awful lot of dog food. Was he happy though? Would he have been happier elsewhere?
“Hello Spike!” I would greet him cheerily, but there was a hint of sarcasm in my smile. I could not hide an involuntary homage to Elvis in my top lip. Spike was a challenge. “Remember: you like obstacles in life,” I told myself. “He’s not bad people.” In a funny way, I had the feeling that, as adversaries, we were rather well matched.
I used to browse the small ads in my local newsagents at this time in my life. I saw some great ones: “Gentleman seeks housekeeper to look after home and provide companionship. (Wife gone away)” stuck in the mind, but never did I once see: “Loving family seeks occasionally lively iguana with a superiority complex.”
“Do you think Spike is happy?” I would say now and then. “Does he not get lonely in the day?” Or just a plaintive, “Poor old Spike,” as I passed him lounging on his chaise longue. Sometimes my comments bordered on the far-fetched, such as: “You know, in certain lights he has the air of lost wealth.”
I started wearing a permanent expression of guilt. I was not plotting, but I often had a dastardly feeling, perhaps what people experience when they are trying to “encourage” an aged relative into the local branch of “Shady Pines”. Then one day it was suggested to me lightly that Spike might be happier elsewhere. He had never in his life looked happy but he looked even less happy now.
Once Spike was regarded as officially ailing, my desire to get rid of him vanished and I began to wonder how I could raise his spirits. One day I telephoned Harrods’ pet department, dimly thinking, “I bet they’ll know what to do.” They did. They told me they had regular dealings with an exotic pet sanctuary in the countryside staffed by people who would know how to cheer him. “They have other iguanas there. He’ll be among friends.”
We took a roll of film of Spike and then, making a sack of my childhood duvet cover with the pink moons and the yellow stars, we took him to the pet department at Harrods, up the escalator, his body moving wildly in his homely carry case. In the pet department we handed him over to the exotic pet sanctuary woman who seemed to love him straight away. When he saw her face his body ceased thrashing and something in him softened. He very nearly smiled.
I miss him.
More columns at ft.com/boyt
Be alerted on Life & Arts