I have never really been afraid of insects. For sure, if a spider emerges from underneath the sofa and scuttles across the room with no warning I’ll perhaps shriek in surprise and shock. I usually then laugh, pick up a glass and a piece of paper and rescue the poor thing. However, I’ve never been afraid of them, nor have I ever really understood why others are. It’s probably because I grew up surrounded by pretty large insects and none of them ever harmed me. Well, apart from being stung by bees a couple of times. I’m sure it’s also got something to do with the fact that my parents refused to show any fear of insects in front of us. My mother has a theory that a lot of children see their parents fear and then fear the same thing. Whatever it is, it seems to have worked.
Insects were my first pets. They’re there in abundance, wherever you look and I’ve always found them fascinating. I used to play with them in the garden, making woodlice curve into their little balls, or trying to count the legs of a millipede. Shongololo’s, we’d call them. I went years thinking it was a made up word that the children at the nursery came up with, however, upon Googling it it’s a common term, from Zulu and Xhosa ukushonga meaning to roll up. No one ever told us not to play with them, and so we did, discovering a whole new world underneath leaves, stones and logs. It was fascinating.
When I got older I used to catch flies. I genuinely believed that they would grow back their wings, probably through watching too many cartoons, and I used to pluck their wings off one by one. I was truly devastated when I discovered that they didn’t, and that I was actually the cause of them dying. My catching then became humane. I’d catch them in my hands, then set them free outside, upset whenever an adult got there before me and squashed them with a fly swat. In our front garden we had a small pile of bricks. I think they were possibly left over from when we had a wall knocked out in our house. They may have been there for longer, I can’t really remember. I’d put the bricks together and make a house for the grasshoppers. Prowling the garden for a while, I’d chase the grasshoppers until I caught one, placing it in the house, trying desperately to keep it as long as possible. I’d check back later only to discover that, much to my disappointment, they’d escaped. Determined to make a much better house for them, I’d try a different style of abode. Yet they’d always escape. When our dogs had flee infestations I’d catch them, and again try to keep them in some container or something. It’s probably a good thing I never came across any stray animals or else my parents would have been constantly going to the local SPCA to hand them in.
Alistair was the same. We could spend hours out in the garden investigating what was living in between the blades of grass. The front garden was the best place to look, because the dogs lived in the back garden, overcomplicating things. One day my aunt Linda was visiting. Alistair and I had been out in the garden, but Mom had called him for some reason. He went up to my aunt and asked her to look after his bug, please. She agreed, thinking it was just a plastic toy, and so he placed it gently on her lap. My aunt is scared of spiders and insects. Whatever Alistair had picked up from the garden moved. She screamed at the top of her lungs and threw it off of her. A few minutes later he came back, hands opened and asked her to please give him his bug back. She had to explain to him as his face fell that the bug was gone. He was more than a little upset, as he’d trusted her to look after the bug, and she’d failed in that request. She was equally quite upset, partially from the shock of the bug moving on her, but also because, she told us years later, the way he looked at her, with big sad eyes, broke her heart a little.
My parents never discouraged this. I was never forced to wear pretty dresses and stay clean and Alistair was never told to stay still for fear of hurting himself. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted (within reason, of course), as long as we stayed within the front garden. Alistair would regularly flout this rule. We had a housekeeper called Alisha who would clean our house, do our washing and cook our dinner each evening. Alistair adored her. Every night she’d wander down to the train station to catch her train. Every night he’d follow her on his plastic black bike, little legs pushing it along the pavement calling “Alisha! Alisha! Come, sit on my bike! I’ll take you to Khayelitsha!” (a township on the edge of Cape Town). Every night I’d stand at the gate telling him he’s going to get into trouble, and indeed he would. However, he was determined that one day he was going to give her a lift home on the back of his small plastic bike.
My love of insects also corresponded to a love of all other creatures. We had a cat and a dog, expanding later to two cats and two dogs. My mother’s cat, Blackie, we had from when I was very young. I can’t remember us getting her. I do remember she’d come and curl up under the covers on a cold winter’s night, and but then bite me when she’d gotten too warm and then run away. She was an affectionate cat, but, much like most cats, had little patience for small children who just wanted to cuddle. Later on, when my grandparents died, my mother got her childhood cat, Sooty, who was old and cantankerous. She didn’t meow or hiss. She had this really odd barking noise that she’d use whenever she was irritable.
Then there was Jock. When I was about 5 my father asked if I would like a dog. I very enthusiastically said yes. Dogs are a common pet in South Africa. Everyone has a lot more land and bigger properties than you do in the UK. At the same time, they’re good for practical purposes. While South Africa isn’t as dangerous as the media would have you think, property crime is still pretty high, so dogs are brilliant to have to guard the house. As the weather is mild they also tend to live indoors, making them relatively low maintenance. I don’t think we had to house train the dogs as they only came inside for bonfire night, as the fireworks terrified them.
So, I said yes to a dog. I was told it would be a boy, and that we need to come up with a name. I couldn’t think of anything, really. Eventually, after much discussion and scratching of heads we came up with Jock, after Jock of the Bushveld, the protagonist in a story about a dog (Jock) and his owner. A few days later my father brought Jock home. He was a beautiful border collie, all intelligent eyes and wonderful personality. He was perfect. Friendly to the family, and loving to those who came into our house, he was also fiercely protective of us all. When we moved house he absolutely hated the swimming pool. He discovered very quickly that he could push through the fence around the pool and get through to the other side. A dog after my own heart. As we swam around, he’d run laps around the pool, occasionally barking in disgust at our actions. He bit me once. I was leaning on the pool, my hands resting on the side, facing back into the pool. Next thing I knew Jock had grabbed my hand and was trying to pull me out. He obviously thought I needed rescuing or something. He never broke the skin, and he stopped as soon as I yelped in pain, and so my parents didn’t feel like he was a danger to us. In fact, I think that made it more clear to them that should we get in any difficulty and they weren’t looking, he’d jump into the pool and drag us out. My 6 ft 5 uncle said that when he was doing laps in the pool, he’d come up for air on the other side to see Jock lunge towards his head to try and grab his hair and pull him out.
My uncle Allan had a dog when he lived with my grandparents. The dog was called Shandy, following on from the tradition of naming pets after alcohol. When he moved out of my grandparents’ house he couldn’t take the dog. And so we got a second dog. She wasn’t quite as intelligent as Jock. Hyperactive and sweet natured, she always wanted to play, often getting on his nerves. As Jock ran around the outside of the pool, Shandy would do laps around the fence, not realising that she could probably jump over the top of the fence if she wanted to. It’s a good thing she didn’t realise this, as, unlike Jock, she loved the pool and would jump right into it. One of the dogs persisted in digging holes in the back garden. My father has always been obsessed with getting the grass to grow perfectly in the back. His other gardening skills are terrible, he has no idea about what looks nice, nor does he want to learn. But the grass must be perfect if it can. This vision of his was constantly being foiled by one of the dogs. He was convinced it was Shandy as he’d come home from work to find her sitting proudly by a freshly dug hole. One night he must have come home far quieter than usual. We had big French doors leading out into the back garden, and he walked up to them. He saw Jock digging a hole. Once he was finished he slunk around the side of the house to feign innocence. Shandy then went and sat down next to it, looking pleased as punch. All this time she’d been getting into trouble for doing something that Jock had done.
We didn’t really interact with the dogs quite as much as we do our current dog. They lived outside, they were trained to sit and not jump up, and to have very basic manners, but that was it. There was no real need to train them in much more depth. Essentially they were guard dogs first and family pets second. And so, even though we had two cats and two dogs, Alistair and I persisted in trying to make pets out of the insects and various other living things.
One of my favourite things about the school I went to were the gecko’s that would sun themselves on the wall outside our classroom. They were beautiful things, brightly coloured and fascinating to watch. Each morning as we waited to be let into the classroom we’d watch them and trade facts about them. Someone would try and pick them up and the rest of us would let them know that they must be careful not to pick them up by the tail as their tail as it would break off and the gecko would run away. Instead we would all try very hard to try and get them to climb onto our hands of their own accord. Again, we just wanted to make friends with these animals, we just wanted them to be our pets.