That day, the hedgehog came home with me. His spiky spines hurt my fingers. I gently smoothed them back to make a soft bumpy ball in my hands. He had a long nose and curly claws, but no breath or movement. There was a gravel path wandering through the old houses behind the main road. We called it a snickett and it led to the scruffy terraces where we lived. These were long rows of awful bleak little houses with small yards that saw no light. This was my home and I hated it. I knew no other place, but I knew I hated it. I was loved and treasured, but was already planning my escape. I wonder how many six year olds planned their escape to another life so early.
I was short on pets, my mother suffering from what I called cataphobia, although this extended to most four legged creatures. I, on the other hand, was planning to start my own zoo and when my small sickly brother was born, I was in a rage for days because I thought he was to be a kitten. He was always a disappointment in my childish mind for that reason.
On that day we had Nature Study, a ridiculous class where we did artistic things with leaves and acorns and learnt nothing useful. It was autumn and this exciting lesson rolled around each year after Harvest Festival, an event with corn sheaves and tinned peas. I had learnt that animals prepared for winter by burying nuts and we saw photographs of bears in a den. I had an idea the bears were in Scotland, because I have not seen one on my walk to school. Anything big and dangerous lived in Scotland, which I imagined was a very long way away.
I ditched my brother, who was a boy and therefore stupid, and wandered along the hedgerow leading to the allotments. Those hedges are still there, I expect, and five or six hundred years old at least. I had an idea that I would collect nuts and hibernate rather than face another winter of unheated rooms. School was my refuge, with the old low radiators to sit on and toast my legs, and the rich warm wooden floors. I think I did so well in my studies simply because I was driven to school by the need to be warm.
Right at the bottom of the hedge was a pile of red leaves and I dug into it in my search for acorns. And there he was – my own hedgehog. I had never seen one outside of a picture book. He was bigger than I expected and his spines were a mass of wonderful greys and brown and blacks. His paws were curled over his eyes and he was sleeping. He was hibernating – this was hibernation! Behind me on the path people were walking their dogs and I had an idea that once off the lead, a dog might eat my hedgehog. He was already my hedgehog and was in my care.
I scooped him up slowly, smoothing the spines so I could carry him and walked back along the path to my home. I went along the alleyway between the back-to-back terraces, as I wanted to put my new pet in box in the shed. If I went in by the front door as I was supposed to, my Mother might see him and might scream or faint. I made it to the shed and found a cardboard box and some newspapers. My brother arrived to see what was going on and got a sharp punch to keep him away. He would now run wailing to Mum and she would come to find me.
Quickly putting the creature under the workbench in a box, I went indoors and told some extravagant lies. I needed to stall for time, until my Dad arrived and could see my hedgehog and I could beg to keep it. I waited patiently all the time knowing my mother’s gaze might land on me as it did when she knew I was hiding a secret. I kicked my brother to keep him quiet and he was just about to howl when Dad came in and I ran to him for protection. His very dark eyes looked at me with that look of wonder and delight he always gave me. Later I asked him what that look had meant. He told me he used to wonder where I had come from and how I burned so bright in such a dull place. I dragged him outside and we both peered into the nest box. Mum followed with my wailing brother, looking tired out, but still so beautiful and so very, very young.
Dad knew the moment he looked into the box, but he understood a child’s heart and would not let it be broken so soon. We wrapped my hedgehog in some sacks to keep him warm for the winter. I promised not to peek, as he might get cold. In the spring he would wake and I should feed him. Then my Mother grabbed my arm and I was hauled off to the kitchen, and hands and face were scrubbed in the kitchen sink. She was not pleased and she knew I had got what I wanted.
I watched over the box until April. Then I asked to open the box and put food out for my pet. I never saw the sadness pass over my Dad’s face. He was about to lie to me and he knew I would cry. We unwrapped the box and I looked inside. There was just a pile of leaves. I screwed up my face and started to sob.
‘He’s escaped’, said my Dad. ‘He must have woken early and been hungry. He’ll be back in the hedge by now, you’ll see him tomorrow’.
He kissed the end of my nose as he always did. I cried in my disappointment and was comforted. I never knew and I looked in the hedgerow every day but I never saw another hedgehog. One night, Dad told the story of my dead hedgehog to some visiting relatives in the pub. I looked at him, and we locked eyes and smiled. I raised my glass to him. It was only at that moment I knew the truth.