‘I want a dissecting kit for my birthday, gran,’ said grandson, aged nearly six. Noooo – I had a flashback to upper fifth biology, the teacher poised over a dead cockroach, its tiny black feet stiffly aloft, the scalpel in her hand glinting under the fluorescent tube light – noooo. Yes, sometimes grandchildren say something that brings back memories you’d rather stay lost in the mists of time. But a dissecting kit didn’t sound like something grandson would be into – he’s a fan of live ‘creatures’.
I emailed my daughter: ‘Is it that Operation game where you use plastic tweezers to lift plastic bits out of a plastic body? ‘No, a dissecting kit,’ came the reply. ‘Something off the tele with a spider,’ and she sent me a link to nothing with a spider but a kids’ Gross Science Eyeball Dissection kit: ‘Create and dissect a gruesome gooey eyeball’ it said on the box. What? Yuk, yuk and triple yuk. And there was Beating Heart Kit too: ‘Fill the squidgy heart chambers with fake blood’ – OMG, noooo – it looked like the bit in Holby City where you cover your eyes as Ric or Jac, scrubbed up and snapping at their rubber gloves, hover over a patient’s throbbing innards. There was also a Zombie Hand Dissection Kit, slightly less grisly, but by then I needed a little lie down.
‘Why do you want a dissecting kit?’ I asked grandson when I felt calmer. He took a deep breath: ‘Two boys saw a bug, gran, and it was a centipede and they tried to kill it but it wasn’t dead and there was a giant spider in a pile of leaves but they thought it was poisonous so they put it in a jar but one of them let it out and they tried to kill it but it wasn’t dead and one of the boys was having a bath and the other boy saw the spider and before that the dog saw the spider and the boy put a cup over it and flushed it down the toilet,’ he paused for breath. Oh nooo, did it crawl back up? I tried to stay on message: ‘What about the dissecting kit?’ I asked as he was about to launch off again. ‘The spider was in the dissecting kit which was under the bed, gran,’ said granddaughter 3 helpfully. Granddaughter 2 saw my face, yawned and added in a world-weary way: ‘It’s from Deadtime Stories, gran.’ She’d obviously seen it more than once.
Aha, I reasoned, grandson didn’t want a dissecting kit per se, as they say, but the free live spider that obviously came with it – pheew! So maybe I should just get him a spider, as a pet, you understand. I put ‘pet spider’ into google. Up came ‘Buy Tarantulas Online’ – noooooo. Maybe I could catch a bog standard spider – but I didn’t fancy that much. A different creature then? Ping! Up came ‘Twenty stick insect eggs to hatch out at home’ – wow! But it said they take two months to hatch, that’s a bit long for a six year old on the move. Or 10 silkworm eggs – but they have a complicated hatching schedule which might clash with his mum’s who’d defo end up looking after them. But then: ‘A butterfly garden and five live caterpillars’ – now you’re talking!
I had another flashback: a shoe box with holes in the lid and inside brown hairy caterpillars I’d found, munching leaves as I waited for them to turn into butterflies. But, oh god, didn’t they all curl up and die instead? But these kit ones came in a jar with food and a big net container with space for them to turn into painted lady butterflies. And grandson could hold it up to the sky, like Rafiki did with Simba in The Lion King, as a cloud of orange and black butterflies fluttered out into freedom – fantastic! ‘And it’s all very low maintenance,’ I assured my daughter.
The caterpillars were being sent via Royal Mail in ‘two to four working days’. Blimey, how does that work? The post is a bit unpredictable these days and they’re living creatures. Supposing they dropped on the floor through the letterbox. Or got left outside in the sun and, hell’s teeth, there was a bank holiday too. And supposing they curled up and died in my care like before. I cancelled all engagements. Halleluya, they arrived alive (signed for) and with detailed instructions: they needed a stable environment, no drafts or direct sunlight and a temperature of 21-26 degrees. Oh no, we only have the house at 19 degrees in the winter. I checked the thermostat – 18 degrees. I turned on the central heating.
On his birthday grandson was truly excited about the caterpillars, but was slightly distracted by Let’s Dance 2015 sent by his uncle. But granddaughter 2 took the caterpillars under her wing, her bedroom then a haven of tranquility with only the hum of the mini-fridge where she keeps her beans now she’s a veggie. Round theirs for grandson’s party last Saturday, four chrysalises dangled from the lid of the jar and one was lying at the bottom of it. ‘I think it’s dead, gran,’ said granddaughter 2. A white cupboard door was lying on her bedroom floor with paint brushes and sundry tools strewn around. White emulsion cat paw prints led from the door, over the carpet and down the stairs.
An update: 1) the zombie hand (yes, I got the kit as a back-up in case the caterpillars kicked the bucket) constructed by grandson with granddaughter 3’s help, is out of the freezer and waiting to be dissected with a plastic knife; 2) granddaughter 2 has glue-gunned the chrysalis feigning death to the lid with its mates; 3) My daughter reports that having waited for ‘two days, or maybe three’ she ‘decided to glue-gun the jar lid to the top of the net contraption’ – she’s very scientific – but I fear the caterpillars have been slightly higher maintenance than hitherto predicted.
Ps Last week, I saw grandson sitting on the floor gazing into the plastic Bug Catcher (with integral magnifying glass) his big sister, granddaughter 1, had bought him from the pound shop for his birthday. Crawling about inside it was a live spider – yes, he’d got one at last. ‘Mum, mum,’ he cried excitedly, ‘we’ve caught our first creature to interview’. Well, she is a journalist.
*Granny on the frontline is Jill Garner, grandmother of six.