When I was 6 or 7 – no older as my youngest sister hadn’t yet been born – my grandparents took me and my other sister to Twycross Zoo. My memories of the day are like the recollection of a dream: both vivid and yet fragmented and incomplete.
I know that it was a blazingly hot summer’s day. The kind we don’t seem to get anymore when you can feel the heat bouncing up from the grass. I know my mother had dressed me in the ubiquitous seventies combination of open toed sandals and really short shorts. Both were brown and I daresay I’d been put into an orange t-shirt as well. Coupled with my National Health spectacles I must have looked like a street urchin from one of Gene Hunt’s nightmares.
I have vague recollections of watching the chimp’s tea party – this was back in the days when such things were accepted as normal and not at all cruel or detrimental to the mental health of the animals. I remember the chimpanzees as being very smelly, very noisy and very messy. My recollections of the day start to run dry from this point onwards. I don’t remember seeing any of the other animals, or the car journey there and back and though the faces of my grandparents are strongly imprinted in my mind I can’t quite picture them on this day though they were undoubtedly there. It’s like they’ve been blurred out, pixelated.
The one overriding memory of this day that I do have is of being allowed to buy something from the zoo gift shop. I went for a “huge” (probably only a foot long) rubber spider. It had long dangly legs that were covered with little rubber stipules giving it a hairy appearance. And it was on a piece of elastic which meant it could be bounced like a demonic yo-yo.
I loved that spider.
Inevitably, like all favourite toys, it was unwisely taken into school. It caused a great stir. I can remember causally getting it out of my satchel to show my best friend at the time (John McCrae – hello if you’re reading this) and hearing a glass shattering screech from somewhere to my left. Mrs Reeves, one of the hardest teachers in the school, was stood pole-axed, looking at me. Or rather looking at the spider. Thankfully she realized I wasn’t deliberately trying to give her a heart attack and laughed it off in that way that teachers have that is neither laughing nor quite forgiving you even though you haven’t exactly done anything wrong.
The spider accompanied me everywhere for weeks. Either in my satchel or stuffed up – a wriggly, brown rubber ball – in the pocket of my parker. It naturally found its way into break time games. The favourite of these was John and I using it as some kind of ball or bizarre projectile. Throwing it to each other or, even more stupid given its eventual fate, using the elastic to swirl it around at high velocity and then releasing it upwards into the air.
It was John who in the end misjudged the release. My last memory of my spider is seeing it sailing over the school yard wall into the back garden of one of the gloomy houses that backed onto the school perimeter. It fell through the air, legs fluttering behind its body like a black comet, and made an insignificant crater somewhere amongst the scary shrubbery of the forbidden garden.
I peered through the gate many times but could never see it. It was gone forever and the mindset of a child seems to skip over any possibility of asking a grown-up to help or even just knocking on the door of the house to see if the owner would hand it over. In all honesty it never crossed my mind. I feared we’d get into trouble for throwing it over the wall in the first place (the owners of the nearby houses were always moaning about footballs ending up on their property) and I couldn’t see Mrs Reeves being very sympathetic.
It took me a long while in kid’s terms to forgive John. At least a week.
The school is now long gone. It was converted years ago into some sort of horrible hi-tech media training centre and I daresay the surrounding houses have been renovated and new owners come and gone. But every time I walk by I always wonder what happened to my spider. Was it callously binned or did it find itself another appreciative owner? Sadly I don’t think they make toys like that anymore. Certainly I’ve never come across any and I do look occasionally.
I do think that if I’ve kept hold of that spider my subsequent education would have taken me on a completely different career path - botanical scientist or wildlife conservationist. Instead, thanks to one erroneous twang of the elastic, here I am: up to my spiderless arms in alarms, toilets and maintenance.
Oh what a tangled web we weave, eh?