As a child my passions included dinosaurs, cars, geography and outer space. I also loved reading about animals. All sorts of animals. At one point I planned putting together an encyclopedia of animal life, but became daunted by the task, and didn’t make it past the first page. My friend, Ashley, shared my interest in animals for a time, and joined me in expeditions to the nearby creek and fields in search of insects and reptiles.
One spring, a vacant block near Ashley’s house yielded a tremendous number of grasshoppers. We collected dozens of specimens, and took them back to Ashley’s house, where we placed them in various boxes and jars, along with the butterflies, crickets, bugs and praying mantis already on display.
There were so many grasshoppers that we ended up putting some of them in a large plastic boat we pretended was an ark. One of the grasshoppers was unusually large and, unlike the rest (which were green), a dusty brown. We called this grasshopper Captain Hoppy and kept it on the deck of the ark where it could navigate the ship around the room.
But the prize specimen in our ‘miniature zoo’ at that time was a tiny pale-skinned gecko. The gecko was given the most lavish ‘cage’ of all the creatures – a ‘fortress’ made of Lego. It even had a Dinky Toy car in the driveway, and submarine in the adjacent ‘harbour’. Ashley and I took turns in looking after the gecko.
One afternoon, not long after the grasshopper ‘harvest’, Ashley and I got into a fight over the gecko. One of us accused the other of hogging the gecko. Of course, this was denied, and the argument went back and forth until tempers flared and things got violent. A full-blown fight erupted and we ended up thrashing around on the floor like a couple of feral cats. Legs knocked over jars, heads and elbows crashed into boxes. We rolled right over the ark, splitting it in two, and freeing the grasshoppers trapped inside.
When Ashley’s mother came to find out what the noise was about she was greeted by a swarm of emancipated insects.
Ashley and I didn’t talk for a long time after this, even when the school finally announced the dates of an upcoming Pet Show. Before the fight we’d talked about the Show and had decided to work together in winning a prize or two. Now, we were likely to be intense rivals.
I knew that Ashley planned on entering his two stumpy-tailed skinks – Dino and Bronte. I also had stumpy-tailed skinks – a family of them – but decided to take only the biggest and most impressive of the group, a dark, sleek individual called (sarcastically) Speedy. On the day of the Pet Show, my dad helped me put Speedy into a box and carry the lizard to school. I filled out the necessary entry forms, found a spot in the display area, and stood proudly as parents and children filed past to look at my pet.
It didn’t take me long to realise that I didn’t stand much of a chance at winning a prize. There were guinea pigs, chickens, ducks, galahs – even a goat – along with the usual dogs and cats. And Raymond Jackson had bought along his cousin’s bearded dragon, a far more impressive and exotic reptile than mine.
Of course, Ashley was there. As expected, he’d brought along Dino and Bronte. I could see him out the corner of my eye, looking very awkward and uncomfortable. The reason for this, as I was delighted to discover, was that his sister had insisted on tying little bows around the lizards’ necks. She stood next to him, beaming, while her friends milled around them giggling and petting the lizards. Ashley looked like he was on the verge of strangling someone.
To my amazement, I won second place in the ‘Most Unusual Pet’ category. Anita Wood won first prize with her bantam hen, which was fair enough, but Ashley won nothing, and Raymond Jackson’s dragon didn’t even get a mention.
Ashley had left as soon as the winners were announced. I saw him storming off with his silly sister in tow, poor Dino and Bronte, still beribboned, bouncing around in their box.
It was a pity he left, actually, as he would have had the ‘last laugh’ as far as our short-lived rivalry was concerned. For when I went to collect my prize, I discovered that the judges had run out of ribbons, and I was given one that didn’t actually describe the prize I’d one.
My ribbon was pink and silver, and read – ‘The Prettiest Unusual Pet’.
Ashley’s sister would have loved it.