It was a cool July evening when Erinaceus europaeus finally accepted my offering.
That’s their scientific name. The hedgehog. I learned it just in case he responded to it, but I still had to look it up again to remember how to spell it.
I’m doing more of that since Horatio died. Not just with scientific words that you wouldn’t expect an 85-year-old retired seamstress to know anyway; but with simpler words like ‘fruitcake’, ‘newspaper’, ‘remorse’, and ‘lodger’. The difficulty with that last one struck when I was trying to place an ad for a new one. Not only did my husband go and die on me last year (prostate cancer – they said in the service that he’d battled it, though it was hard enough to even get him to lay a trap down for our mice visitors), but the nice quiet Asian I’d let what used to be Horatio’s study out to told me he was moving on to pastures new.
A sweet boy, that Sim. We had an agreement – reduced rent in exchange for helping me out with some chores. And the non-verbalised arrangement of giving me some actual company. Folk had flocked around to supply me with more meals than I had the freezer space for and to tell me how sorry they were but the food avalanche ceased after a few weeks. I eventually got Sim to take all the empty food boxes back to their owners, as I wouldn’t have been able to bear the cycle of “I’m sorry”s starting up again.
Chores. Or “activities of daily living”, as I noticed my orthopaedic surgeon had written in my discharge letter. “Activities of impending dying” I tend to think of it as (mainly as I know Horatio would have done one of his belly laughs at that, the sort of laugh that would send the pigeons scattering from the birdbath outside our kitchen window).
The departure of Sim is how I found myself staring at cartons of hedgehog food in the supermarket that rainy Tuesday following my physiotherapy appointment. The cheeky mare, when he was through getting me in a twist with those giant elastic bands they have, recommended lifestyle and dietary changes. Which had thankfully reminded me I was running low on crumpets, so I headed to the shop.
I’d gotten so used to someone else doing all the remembering for me.
It was about a week ago – no, it was two weeks ago, because it was the same day Christina had invited herself round on the pretence of sharing the flapjacks she’d accidentally made too many of and then waited until my mouth was too full to protest before whipping out the sponsorship forms for her knit-a-thon from her hiker’s rucksack. I should’ve guessed something was afoot when she turned up with that tatty brown lump on her back. Put her eyes on stalks and she’d be unmistakable from the snails whose homes I try to avoid crushing every time I put the bins out.
Yes, it was two Wednesdays ago because I’d tossed the flapjacks out for the birds to finish because the diabetes nurse had given me strict instructions about my blood sugars, a copy of which I’d pinned to the fridge. Funny how one minute the fridge door is all fingerprint art that the kids have done that you have to pretend is in the running for a Turner prize, then it’s all notes to remind yourself what not to eat, after years spent doing without what you want anyway so the kids could have more on their plates. I whispered my own strict instructions to the birds to polish off the flapjacks, which had rapidly turned to slabs of cement and that once they were through dining, to fly over Christina’s car with a view to giving it a new paint job.
Only person on the whole street who can afford to run a car, yet always has her hand out. Isn’t that always the way.
I was up before the birds the next morning. I went to top up their bath with fresh water – they’d be needing it to give themselves a chance at unsticking their beaks from whatever superglue she’d put on those flapjacks – when I heard a rustling, just beneath the hedge at the far end.
Nowt wrong with my ears. Yet.
At first I thought it was next door’s oddball toddler, who I once found lying in a heap crying because he’d tried to climb up a sunflower and fallen off. He was babbling about golden eggs. Great to know they’re still teaching the classics. Would be even better if they started teaching about trespassing laws.
But then I saw the little dark spikes, attached to something about the size of a foot. An actual honest to God hedgehog. Last time I'd seen one of those I could still manage to put a bra on without running out of puff. I crouched down, saying “hello hedgehog”, but off he scarpered, his little bum wriggling through a hole in the fence. I blinked and looked around, to see if anyone had seen it. But of course there’s nobody else around.
I went back in my kitchen and got him his own dish of water, as I didn’t think he probably had the leg muscle to scale the pillar of the birdbath. I pulled a few scraps of fruit and veg out the compost and set those in a separate bowl. It felt like a long time since I had put out plates for anyone other than Sim, who always looked perplexed by things like cottage pie and beef Wellington. He offered to cook for me once, but I told him I was scared of putting my eye out with those funny sticks.
It took a while for my hedgehog to bite. I guessed he’d been doing the rounds and getting his fill from other people’s gardens. I like to sit on my back step and talk to him. It’s not madness – it would be true madness if he ever spoke back, though. If I ever tell you that that's happened, you have my written permission to refer me to psychologist. I’ll add it to my list of all the other ologists I see.
The list that’s pinned to my fridge of course. Along with a photo I printed off when I managed to catch my little spiky friend, the midnight wanderer, on camera. I may have to stay up past my bedtime, but I get a great listener in exchange. And best of all, he never tells me how sorry he is.