Monday, December 26

Stick Insects

ONE DAY Sarah Levitt came in to school and told us all, when the teacher was occupied at her desk, that she was going to be selling stick insects. Some of the other children asked questions—“What’s a stick insect?” “What do they eat?” Do they need a big cage?”
She rubbed some dried glue off of her fingers and replied—“They’re these insects that look just like twigs. You can hardly see them. It’s perfect camouflage. They eat leaves. And, nah, they don’t need a big tank—not a cage. I’ve got mine in an old fish tank.”
After Sarah Levitt had answered our questions, fired up our interest and peeled all of the dried glue from her fingers, she got some more of the white glue on a stick and rubbed it back on the same fingers. She repeated this process again and again, and always seemed, from what I saw, to derive a great deal of untold pleasure from it. One boy asked—“How much?”
“Ten for a fiver, my mum says.”
It was not that difficult to ask for five pounds from my mother. Of course I had no means of repaying her but was very interested in insects & wildlife & what-have-you, so she understood my excitement at these stick insects. I told her everything Sarah Levitt told me. My mother told me the stick insects were to stay in my room. That was my intention. From my bed I would be able to observe them constantly.
Sarah Levitt lived up the road, not too far, but she never came out to play with my friends and I. I do not know who she played with. Her house could not be seen into from the street. It was white but the white was dirty, the windowsills were littered with old lamps, beer cans, empty glasses, and then behind them were stained lace curtains. The front lawn was rarely cut but grew long, yellowed, and then died. Through the grass were two trails where her father parked his car. Even Sarah’s skin, like the frail white paint of her house, was dirty and permanently had a hue as if she were tanned.
First thing the next morning I gave her the five-pound note and told her I wanted some stick insects. She told me “O.K.” and put the note in the pocket of her grey school dress. At that age one endows such small amounts of money with great value, and I was slightly upset and anxious to see it stuffed—in what I may tell you was not the most careful of actions—into her slim pocket.
Although some others in the class put in their order, none of my friends did. Henry said, in his typical brutish manner, that he wasn’t interested in any damn stick insects. Carl and Oliver could not get the money from their parents. And Nigel, though he would not admit it, was rather terrified by creepy-crawlies, and frugal to boot, so would rather spend the five-pounds on a new football or something. It did not matter to me. The day could not pass fast enough. Reminding Sarah every half-hour not to forget my stick insects, I dreamt up names, remembered a disused fish tank my father kept in the shed, and thought of where I could place them for observation but could not decide on anywhere better than my bedside.
That evening, walking home with the wind dislodging drizzle from the sky, I contemplated taking a slightly different route so that I would pass Sarah Levitt’s house. Then, thought I, she might offer to give the stick insects to me that very evening, to save me waiting through the night, if I knocked and was polite. After all, she certainly had my money. It was a brilliant idea. I would even get my stick insects before the other children who had ordered them.
It is a curious feeling to walk a different route home from school. It is as if time has, in some way, altered, but I cannot, even now, speculate as to whether it slows or speeds. Down her road was the inconspicuous post box that I sent my letters to Santa Claus from last year and would send from again that year. It was nearly covered with ivy and the red was damaged by moss. It was a quiet road and there was no one else about. Some grey light still shone but it was getting darker.
As I got outside the house I heard loud shouting coming from inside. Sarah’s father’s car was parked at the end of the two worn strips through the uncut grass. The shouting could be heard very easily from the street. It was clear to me that the argument was between Sarah’s parents. I stood still and stared at the house, trying to block out the shouting and the swearwords. After a number of minutes I decided that I would not knock. I walked off feeling sorry for Sarah and the stick insects.
The jar that she presented me the next morning was an old
coffee jar. It had been washed but some of the label still stuck to the glass with glue that wouldn’t come off. Inside the jar were some leaves.
“Where are they?” I asked, having slowly turned it in my hands twice.
“They’re in there. Look.”
She showed me.
They looked just like twigs. Green twigs, clinging to the leaves with thin green legs that could barely be seen. They hardly moved.
Sarah Levitt stared at me with big dirty blue eyes.
“Are you OK?” I asked her.
She shook her head and silently moved off to give a jar to someone else. I heard them complaining about paying five pounds for it. Sarah argued a little, then started crying and ran to the toilet.
On the windy playground my friends and I crowded around the jar and watched, with underwhelmed silence, the fractional movements of these wispy stalks of green.
“I would never pay five-pounds for those,” said Nigel.
Their movements, slow though they were, seemed sad, too, in the way that something without eyes or a mouth could seem. And from that house as well. . . I thought of Sarah, scooping out the insects, jarring them up, screwing the lids on, while her parents fought downstairs. My parents never fought like that. I did not know what it was like. I turned the jar to see what the stick insects on the other side were up to.
“Let’s play football,” said Oliver. The pine trees that grew next to the playground rustled. Their needles had fallen and been blown very tidily by the wind into piles of brown fur.
My mother bent down to look into the fish tank that stood next to my bed. In there I had arranged some leafy twigs and branches. I chose the freshest, greenest leaves I could find from the trees near our house. I wanted soft leaves for the stick insects. They must not have anything that was difficult to chew. I felt, in my childishness, an awful pity for them and their slow, fragile movements. Looking at them, I did everything I could to stop from thinking of Sarah Levitt. I thought of her in her bedroom and the sound of her parents and the way, at school, she constantly applied & reapplied glue to her fingers before letting it dry and picking it off. She was obsessed with that white PVA glue and the smell of it and picking it off of her fingers. Carl told me that she would even taste it from time to time. I wonder what she saw in that white PVA glue.
The stick insects clambered in slow motion, leaves sticking to their hooked feet. I counted them. Eight. I counted again. Nine. I counted again. Eight. I counted a few times before I saw all ten.
All the names I had figured for them were no longer important.
On my windowsill were a collection of turtle and Ghostbuster figurines that my mother refused to allow to collect dust. They stood in the precise pose I had positioned them in many months ago. They were colourful the way that children characters are before they age. Beyond the silhouette of the figurines was the blue sky that was faded by an almost undetectable layer of cloud. What was Sarah Levitt doing now? Why wasn’t she playing outside? I hoped that her parents had settled whatever it was they had been arguing about.
The leaves rustled and some of the stick insects quivered on their perch as I placed both of them back into the jar that Sarah Levitt had given me. The jar did not smell of coffee. It had a smell but it was indistinguishable to my nose. While I put, as gently as I could, each stick insect into the jar, I counted them and my lips moved very carefully over each name. Buster. Tangerine. Van Gogh. Renee. Hermann. Percy. Lancelot. Lightbulb. Celine. And last but not least, Stan. I named the last one after Stan Lee, the comic book artist. When I arrived home from school that day, jar in excited-hand, my mother had informed me to move all of my comics out of the dining room. I had put them there a week ago after an ill-fated attempt at drawing one of the heroes from them.
My father would be home in a half hour. My brother sat rippling in light before the TV. My mother was stood over the hob, with peach-coloured apron strings tied behind her back. I snuck out of the front door, with my jar & the stick insects, to the woods where I had picked leaves an hour earlier on my way home from school.

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