Kevin was a grumpy bugger. He bit my dad.
My mother was in the midst of telling the school how to educate her daughter, by bringing in a Latin teacher and dropping cookery lessons, so she bandaged my dad’s finger absent-mindedly.
Quite soon after the biting incident, Kevin, the hamster, went to live on a farm in the countryside, and we went back to the garden centre we bought him from.
My parents had shown a mite more originality when the cat tried to claw my eyes out around the age of seven.
Penny, who was in fact a boy, had been attacked by a fox. His tail hung limply and off to one side. I should explain, I named the cat before he arrived, hence my seven year old self couldn’t bear to rename him. I’m sure he wasn’t bothered about gender norms and nomenclature, and it gave the vets a giggle when they determined that no-one in our house could recognise testes.
The vets did a lovely job of realigning Penny’s wilted tail, charged my parents a fortune, and then we discovered, in fairly short order, that he’d become possessed. He was not a happy little chap any longer. He was a cornea-seeking scratch-monster.
Rather than tell the traditional lie about a nameless farm In the countryside, that for some reason no-one could ever visit, my parents told me that Penny had gone off to be the cat in the opening credits to ‘Coronation Street’.
I was a child, with the attention span and televisual understanding of a child.
It didn’t begin to occur to me that the production people would only need to film the cat, crouching under the guttering once, and then everything would be tickety boo until such time as a focus group felt a need to jazz up the opening titles. Surely, they would not need to film the cat, doing the exact same pose, underneath the roof trim, for every single episode?
Disappointingly, this thought didn’t come to me until I was every day of twenty-three.
So, we weren’t cat people. We weren’t hamster people. We got through an outrageous number of guinea pigs, again – due to the foxes. And my mother had broken her heart over Nibbles, the rabbit with his jaw-locking, ingrown teeth.
Rupert, the dog of my childhood and best friend, from three months old until early secondary school, was still going strong.
I think I’m right in saying that my parents wanted to expose me to all manner of pets, to make sure I wasn’t allergic and to ensure I wouldn’t embarrass myself socially. If someone had an unusual animals, I would surely not make a face. Of course, we had only had the usual sus-pets. (Yes, I know, that was weak.)
Nothing in the world would compel my mother to accommodate a spider. Even a small snake, skink, tortoise, could move in up the road, happily, but not in our chalet bungalow, thank you very much.
However, not wishing to warp me against the unusual, now ten years old, we went to the garden centre.
They had a pet department, clearly, and my mother enjoyed breezing past all the thousands of orchids, roses and climbing pretty things that she would buy up with abandon if the money was a little freer flowing. She looked longingly at a fruit tree. My dad looked at her, at once knowing that she thought one little apple tree, perhaps a quince, could fit quite readily among the plum and pear, the three other apple trees, the cherry and the wall of privet.
Nothing doing, we continued to the animal section.
It was decided as soon as I saw the sign: INDIAN STICK INSECTS. These were not the large, armoured insects, the sharp-backed green dudes, nor the black and red scorpion imitators; these were the khaki thin guys.
They ate privet, the garden centre chap told us. We had a wall of it. A light spray of water was all that was required, he said. We had a spray bottle. And a tap. Oh, the opulence! They would need an enclosed, breathable space. My mother made bottle gardens, open topped but sealed with stretched granny-brown stockings.
What the chap didn’t mention was that these were nymphs – old enough to be moved healthily, but not so far from sexual maturity as might be imagined.
The dance of the sexually interested stick insect is something to behold. Not sexy in the slightest, they bob up and down, soundlessly flexing their knees, and then, one morning, there are eggs. Hundreds of them. They hatch, and maybe some of them don’t make it, but most of them do. And then, dear reader, you have dozens upon dozens of stick insects. And the knowledge that they will soon be nymphs and then, the dance will begin again. The privet may not be depleting especially rapidly, but you might begin to wonder how many rounds of sexy time the sticks can go through before you’ll have to move house.
All this came later, of course. In the meantime, we were at a checkout, buying half a dozen stick insects and an aquarium figurine for the middle of their enclosure, so they wouldn’t get lonely. Again – I was ten.
As we exited past the fuchsias, we caught a glimpse of Adam Faith. My mother, starstruck and wordless, gave him a thumbs up before explaining to me who he was. I didn’t know because my parents always sent me to bed with the opening credits of ‘Love Hurts’.
So, what became of all these thousands of stick insects? What an excellent question. They didn’t move to a farm, or into prime time television. I sold them back to the garden centre, and that was my first job: purveyor of stick insects.