T"hat doesn't count."
"Caterpillars aren't pet's. Go on, shove off!"
They were my pets. I had forty-two in a jar filled with mulberry leaves. I knew, I took them out and counted them regularly. I had also risked life and limb acquiring them, being as how the bush they lived on grew on our neighbours property.
"Auld Blue Nose" (I had no idea what his real name was, but there was no disputing his huge purple-blue nose) worked the night shift. He and his wife shared a dividing wall between our two properties, one they constantly hammered on from their side. In their mid-fifties and childless, I'd been a constant torment to them since the day we'd first moved in. Seven-year-olds have high pitched squeals, scream when they laugh, and shout more than speak to their friends. It got worse if ma chased me out in to the garden. Auld Blue Nose slept with his bedroom overlooking our back yard, just one bounce of my ball was enough to set him to screaming from his open window.
I knew far better than to stray onto their property, but the lure of those caterpillars held just too strong a temptation. So long as Mrs. Auld Blue Nose wasn't at her kitchen window, I found I could usually do a quick swoop and soon be in and gone with no one any the wiser. The first time I got caught, I nearly died of fright.
Mrs. Auld Blue Nose came charging out her back door minus both wig and false teeth, her face naked of the three-inch pancake make-up she usually sported in public. This toothless, bald old crone bore no resemblance whatsoever to the woman living next door, this here was a witch, and one most surely hell-bent on the eating of me!
Thankfully witches are no where near as fleet of foot as scared witless kids are, and this caterpillar thief lived to steal another day (but not without after receiving a swat from ma once she'd heard of my exploits).
You can understand why I was very, very proud of this caterpillar collection, it had been hard come by, and had involved some huge personal risk to my well-being to acquire. Little wonder I was so annoyed at it being belittled as a fair trade for membership into my bruv's small pet's club.
"You've got Cecil, what's he then?"
Cecil the spider lived in a glass jar behind the locked clubhouse door. He shared living space with a white mouse with sparkly red eyes, a lime-green slimy frog, a brown and white fat Guinea pig, a tortoise and a hedgehog (both hibernating, so pretty boring to date), and the two small blue speckled eggs that I had on good authority were about to hatch any day now. There was also rumour of a rabbit, but that I took at their word, never having seen him.
"Tarantula's are pet's."
"Cecil isn't a tarantula."
"His cousin is!"
I hated my know-it-all big brother. He wasn't about to budge, the deal was either I contribute a gerbil to the club, or cough up a penny a visit. Not having any reliable weekly pocket-money to call on, I had hoped the caterpillars might make do.
Ma was far from sympathetic, I already washed the dishes for free, what else was I good for? I appealed to Da, promising my soul and eternal slave labour for just the princely pittance of two small bob. In an unexpected show of generosity, for some reason this day he took pity and quietly slipped me one and six pence (on condition I told no one). Hardly believing my luck, I went skipping off to find big bruv' before Da up-ed and changed his mind.
So it was Jimmy-the-First entered my life. Course, he was just "Jimmy" then. He was beautiful, his sable-brown coat was soft and warm, he had sweet little paws that were pink and agile, and his cute little face melted my heart the minute I set eyes on him. We fashioned a cage with a run and a wheel, soft bedding was laid, and a water feeder and food tray put down.
But see, thing is, Jimmy was mine.
I wasn't so keen on this limited access lark of keeping him in the shed. Besides, having discovered the Guinea pig was psycho and the frog had long since scarpered, when the rabbit turned out a myth, and I realised the speckled eggs were unlikely to hatch, the allure of the small pets club fast lost it's appeal.
I bailed out and took and Jimmy home with me.
Worried about ma, I started small, sneaking him up my sleeve to let him snooze at my nape. She spent the entire evening together with us without so much as a clue. I snuck his cage under my bed, since there was so much junk under there anyway, it proved easy enough to lose. Everything was going fine until Ian ratted me out. You can never trust a sibling scorned.
"Aye, and she's got those mangy caterpillars up there an' all, y'know Ma!"
Oh, he was treacherous, so he was! Jimmy was relegated back to the clubhouse, and for good measure the caterpillars were rehoused there too, but the victory of having the lock removed from the door did provide some small consolation. In the garden, Jimmy lived up my sleeve more than in his cage. He even came on my raids for fresh mulberry leaves.
I should have explained to Jimmy the dangers of entering enemy territory. When Mrs. Auld Blue Nose came charging after me, I never meant to drop him, she probably never meant to trample him either.
Past caring if I am next, I drop to my knees. He lies still, a bead of blood at his nose. I hear a howl erupt from the back of my throat. She's killed him, she's gone and killed my Jimmy and I hate her, I hate her for all I am worth. Scooping him into the palm of my hands, inconsolable and sobbing, I run back to the house to tell my Ma. She agrees, Mrs. Auld Blue Nose is a nasty piece of work and I'm to keep well clear of both her and of her stupid garden.
It was a beautiful funeral. Very sad and sombre, dignified. I went into mourning by refusing tea, it seemed respectful.
You can picture my betrayal then when, arriving home from school the very next day, who do I find sitting nice as you please, sipping tea out of our very best china, but none other than the very same black-hearted murderess herself, the evil Mrs. Auld Blue Nose, she, the slaughterer of Gerbils, comfortably perched without an apparent care in the world, right there on our sofa. And there's my Ma, happily smiling and nodding back up at her, acting as if they two were suddenly the bestest of best buddies in this whole, wide western side of the hemisphere.
"Ah, come on in here, Carol, Mrs. Purvis wants a wee word with you."
I had never figured my Ma for a traitor.
"I came over to say how sorry I am about your pet, dearie."
Like she cares! I refuse to look her in the eye.
"I know it'll never be the same, but.." She lifts a white cardboard box up - the same type with holes in it that I had first brought Jimmy home in. "Maybe a wee friend of his might help to cheer you up a bit?"
Turns out Mrs. Purvis wasn't such the evil old witch, after all. As it happened, Jimmy-the -Second helped to cheer me up no end. We made our peace that day. Not overnight, granted. She said, so long as I was mindful of the flower-beds (which I had had no idea I'd been careless of) I could happily come and harvest her caterpillars without any more fear of reproach.
True to her word, she even smiled to me as I did so, from her kitchen window. One day she came out to join me, chatted. I'd never seen her laugh before.
When she was out weeding one day, bored, I called over, asked if I could help. That sealed it. Soon I was coming home with cuttings of my own, even with the odd packet of seeds she had picked up for me. We were an unlikely pair, her and me. But I had a troubled home life, and I guess she was lonely. Auld Blue Nose (as he always was to me), rarely poked his head around the door, and if he did, he largely ignored me. But Mrs. Purvis and I spent many hours together.
She would pull out all her treasured souvenirs and postcards from the distant far-flung exotic places she had been to, telling me of all the amazing sights and places she'd been. She also taught me how to bake too - effortlessly turning out custard tarts and jam sponges, scones and fairy cakes, and never with so much as a need for any recipe. I came to think she really did have a bit of magic to her after all, but a good magic, the kind that brought me returning back there, time and time again.
I had never heard classical music before, and to be honest, when she first laid some out on her gramophone I wasn't that very impressed. But she was so passionate about it, explaining to me about all the different instruments to the orchestra, often pausing the piece by lifting the arm of the needle to ask me to listen for when the (whatever it was) came in - she also described the stories behind the music, what the composer was telling us, painting all the scenes vivid and alive in my mind.
And her cat! Her cat was her baby - a big, sleek black puss with the purr of a foghorn. She made tents out of newspaper and lined up cardboard boxes, we spent hours laughing at his antics, he was a sheer comic delight, so he was.
Ma and Da never stayed too long in one place. Mrs. Purvis called round with a box of chocolates for me when it came time to say goodbye, and she cried as we hugged.
I sure did miss Mrs. Purvis, for the longest of time.