Bear with me for a while; it has been so long and I forget so many things. I forget, for example, exactly when I realised Micah was different to other boys I knew. When the doubts began, or the first glimmer of enlightenment – I really cannot judge.
Let me see – was it the spider? Yes, I’ll tell you about the spider.
Micah and I, we had been friends as long as I could remember, because in Ollershaw – in the small village community where we grew up, every possible playmate was friend or enemy. Naturally, age had a lot to do with this. Matthew Carrell would be an example. Matthew was two years older than me – therefore Matthew was my enemy. So when Matthew tied me to the silver birch tree at the back of The Common, leaving me there in the rain, although I might have been frightened and vocal it was the least I had learned to expect. It was Micah who broke those old, unwritten rules. It was he who cut me loose with a penknife his stepfather gave him for his birthday, even though Matthew warned him to desist. He braved Matthew’s wrath to save me.
We were children. I was seven or eight, Micah’s birthday was a month before my own. We all lived by a children’s code which was a part of our growing and as old as time itself, so Matthew was only acting in accordance with that code when he sought vengeance – something Micah surely anticipated. In a quiet moment, in one of those places only children seem to know, Matthew took Micah’s knife from him, pinned him down while he went through his pockets and found it; then he took the knife along the mill path that leads down to the river (and is there still despite all the new development of houses on the riverbank), and he threw the knife into the water. And Micah followed him, and Micah watched.
Micah did not cry. Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever seeing Micah cry.
Now it was after school maybe the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week, when we were playing in the backyard of my house, that Micah and I came upon the spider. There were empty apple boxes in a stack beside a brick lean-to shed my father always promised he would pull down, but never did. We liked to fashion all kinds of fantasies from those boxes; they were made of thin wood and they were wide and flat, so we could stack them or arrange them in all sorts of ways to make pretend cars, or boats, or a secret den. That evening I think we may have had it in mind to construct a spaceship, when, turning over one of the boxes from the bottom of the stack, Micah suddenly paused and gestured to me that I should be very still.
“What?” I asked.
“Come and see, Quietly, now.”
I came, I saw. In one corner of the box my friend was holding, amidst a small nest of dead leaves, was the largest spider I had ever seen. Wide eyed, I took in its long front legs, its thick grey body, the spread of its six remaining limbs. I could clearly see the stalks that supported its eyes and two white stripes that ran either side of its thorax and abdomen. It had no web. We both understood that the small cluster of leaves was its home.
Micah whispered. “Get me one of those Cocoa tins from the kitchen rubbish.”
“You’re never!” I said. Micah didn’t answer.
I brought the tin, removing its lid as I returned to the boxes.
Perfectly calmly, as though it did not require as much as a second thought, Micah reached into the box, nipping the creature between thumb and forefinger as he plucked it into the open. It curled up, tucking its legs so it resembled a ball, and I held the cocoa tin at arm’s length, closing my eyes as Micah dropped the spider inside it, and fastened the lid.
“We’ll have to make air holes.” He said.
“Are you going to keep it?” I asked.
Micah regularly came home with me after school in those days, because both his parents worked full time and he was not considered old enough to be allowed home on his own. We became close friends of necessity; two boys of similar age thrown together by circumstances will usually end up that way, even if there are differences. I knew, right from the beginning, there were differences.
When you are young, with little experience of the world, there are a lot of important things that pass you by. My mother and father were, I suppose, a satisfactory match: My dad was an engineer whose work took him away for long periods, sometimes many weeks. Letters from him would scatter on the doormat. He always wrote letters when he was away, even if sometimes he arrived home before they did; and my mother would sit at the kitchen table reading them, her face twitching with a mysterious smile I did not comprehend. She kept them all. Much later in life, when she was gone, I found the letters amongst her possessions; I read only one, discovering with each successive word a side to my parents’ relationship that, as a child, I would have considered profoundly shocking. I burned the rest of the letters without reading them. There was a privacy of language within them I did not want to expose. At the time, they were just letters from my father with colourful foreign stamps upon them which I collected, in a desultory fashion.
“Does he mention me, Mummy?”
“Of course he does, darling. He always remembers you.”
I would look forward to his return from those longer expeditions. There would be a gift – a carving, a wooden toy or a doll, sometimes sweets.
“I’m not supposed to bring these into the country, Sprog. But they’re delicious, you just have to try them!” I felt so important then, because he had chanced capture as a smuggler, and he had done it for me! I would imagine him on the run, fleeing across the windswept moor clutching my little bag of sweets, with police and dogs chasing him; although of course they were unable to prevent his heroic escape.
As I said, in the innocence of childhood much about the lives of those close to you may pass unnoticed. Nevertheless I knew that Micah’s home life was neither as happy or secure as my own. Being ‘comfortably off’ for a child merely means food on your table, a warm bed and toys; Micah may have enjoyed these, but his family was not ‘comfortably off’. My Dad’s car was new, large and almost silent, my Mum had a car of her own, so when the weather was bad I rode to school. Micah’s step-dad drove his family’s only car, which was old and temperamental. He never gave his stepson rides to school, so Micah and his mum would walk the mile from their home to the school gates, and they got wet: a lot.
Once in a while, usually at weekends, I was invited to Micah’s home; on which rare occasions I was, of course, too polite to mention the paucity of furniture, or the absence of toys. Micah’s mother would sit us on an aged sofa in their little sitting room, made fiery hot by a blazing coal fire, winter or summer. We watched, sweating, through hours of cartoons on the ancient television before I could make excuses and leave. I don’t think Mrs. Pallow (Micah’s surname was Pallow) resented my presence particularly; in all honesty, I sometimes wondered if she even noticed I was there, but neither did she make me feel welcome. A nervous, shifting quicksand of a woman, I could see her mind churning its way through every waking moment – stabbing a poker at the fire she claimed was necessary to ‘heat the water’, fussing around the inexpensive china statuettes that were her hobby, or crashing and slamming in her kitchen. Did I ever see her smile? No, maybe I didn’t.
Personally, I never saw the spider again. It left my home that Wednesday or Thursday evening in its new accommodation, tucked under Micah’s school blazer. I believe it must have entered our school the next morning in similar fashion, though I have no specific memory of this. I certainly remember when it turned up again, although I was not present.
Ours was the village school; albeit quite a smart one. The uniforms were distinctive, the discipline strict, a burden upon Micah’s family which they must have found extortionate, yet they struggled to provide him with a new uniform each year, and finance the materials we needed. So they obviously valued their son – something which seems quite curious, when I recall. Atypical behaviour – not what my own upbringing was conditioning me to expect. At school Micah and I were juniors: as yet more concerned with basic reading, writing and explorations in clay or cardboard. Matthew Carrell was in the upper class, among those nine and ten-year-old children ascending the final upslope towards senior education.
We left our lessons at the school gates, Micah and I, whereas Matthew had ‘homework’. Nothing very specific, though it did involve written exercises in school books, and handing work in to his teacher, the quite lovely Miss Comfort, whose name said everything about her that needs to be said – everything but one very specific thing.
Quite when Matthew left his homework exercise book unguarded, or why, I cannot say. Any more than I can explain how someone contrived to cut the centre out of all but the first and the last few pages of that book to make a rectangular space, lidded only by its cover page and a few leaves of carefully written essay. And how our spider came to be occupying that space when Miss Comfort opened the book to peruse Matthew’s work I would rather not speculate. I doubt anyone could have known Miss Comfort was an arachnophobe. Micah and I, we were at music practice in another classroom, bells and triangles and a flat piano; yet we still heard the screams – all of the screams.
Mrs. Carrell collected Matthew that lunchtime. She was very, very annoyed. As they passed us by, as we stood in the playground, watching, Matthew turned his hung head to throw Micah a look – a look that was almost fearful. It communicated an understanding which would spread amongst us all. Micah did not live by the rules.
Then I remember distinctly how I shared a glance with Micah and saw his face twitch in a mysterious smile. It was a smile that reminded me for one moment – just that one moment – of my mother.
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