From the top branches of the pear tree, Little Gold can see the red roof of Peggy Baxter’s shed. She knows Peggy Baxter is in there. Peggy Baxter is probably the person smoking a cigarette – the smoke is mixing with the summer evening smells of cut grass and spaghetti bolognaise. That’s Little Gold’s tea – the spag bol – and Mum puts in garlic and oregano. Little Gold can tease every smell from every sound from every sight from every feeling – like unpicking a tartan blanket. She doesn’t know that most people don’t bother – not yet – that’ll take her years to realise. Now, at the age of eight and a quarter, she has no idea that most people are passing through life in a hurried blur of impressions. But she can hear the sound of the water in the drain in the back yard now and that means Mum is straining the spaghetti, so she climbs down, branch to branch, and drops onto her bare feet on the cooling summer grass.
Little Gold sits on one of the ladder-backed chairs at the kitchen table and turns her fork slowly. The strands of spaghetti are wrapping and stacking in a fat wodge she won’t fit in her little mouth. The others are talking about Brian Clough, Mrs Thatcher and the cat called Tinker who has learned to climb from the back garden to the front over the top of the house. Malcy is picking a scab on his left knee as he shovels forks of chopped spaghetti into his mouth. His fork is hitting his teeth. He’s also stopping every now and then to say that Brian Clough is a divvy and a big head. Little Gold knows that Malcy’s knee would have the special, biscuity smell of lifting scab if she put her nose to it. But you can’t sniff other people’s scabs because that would make you a weirdo. So Little Gold just watches – waiting for the lovely peeling off and the pink, shiny skin underneath. A perfect pink like Tinker’s nose.
Peggy Baxter is cutting the long grass in her front garden with shears. Little Gold stops her bike to watch the shears biting mouthfuls of the waxy, green grass. Peggy Baxter has grey hair, curly on her neck, that looks like it would be soft. Peggy Baxter has a burgundy jumper and brown cord trousers that are wearing thin at the knee. The blades of the shears are oily and almost black, smeared with the green from the squashed grass. Peggy Baxter’s knees crack when she stands up. Her eyes are blue and watery and the rims are very pink. Little Gold likes them but they make her eyes feel watery too.
‘I found this.’
Peggy Baxter has a big leaf from the sycamore tree and she’s holding it out to Little Gold. It’s got those tiny red dots on that Little Gold thinks might be eggs or poos or something from a creature. But that’s not what Peggy Baxter is showing her. In the middle of the leaf there’s a shiny red brown thing. Little Gold thinks it’s a seed at first but then she remembers a picture in a book at home. She looks back at the watery blue eyes.
‘It’s a chrysalis, isn’t it?’ she says.
‘Yes. Something’s changing in there. Caterpillar to a moth, I expect.’
‘When will it come out?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. It’s a nice word though, chrysalis. There’s another word, pupa, but that’s not so nice, is it?’
Little Gold doesn’t reply. Sometimes Peggy Baxter seems to be setting her a test and, when she does that, Little Gold has decided not to speak. Peggy Baxter laughs then and Little Gold can smell cigarette and she sees the brown on the back of Peggy Baxter’s front teeth. Then she bends down again and chop, chops with her shears. There are little, tiny things flying in the sunny air around Peggy Baxter. Little Gold tucks her jeans back into her sock so they don’t get caught in her bike chain. Then she rides standing up – all the way to the traffic lights.
School the next day has powder paint mixing – gorgeous dusty, metal smells in the red and yellow and lumps that form and break as you stir with the bristly brush. It has Miss Spalding’s bust in her bright blue blouse – huge and pointy above Little Gold’s head in the lunch queue. Little Gold gets to stand beside Mr Thompson at the piano in hymn practice, to turn the pages for him. She can’t understand the music marks on the page – lines and black lumps and curls and numbers – but she’s a good reader and she knows when to turn because of the words printed underneath. Mr Thompson smells like aniseed and sweaty man smell and he has black dots on his nose and hair in clumps coming out of his ears.
At play-time Little Gold tries again to get her foot onto the sticky out flint in the playground wall so she can see over because it makes her cross that she can hear the buses and never see them. The flint has a white outside, like bone, and black stuff inside that’s like glass. Mrs Lamb, who has a horrible singy way of speaking, says: she must get down because she might hurt herself and we don’t need everyone climbing around the walls like monkeys do we and what would her mummy say if she went home with a tear in that nice cardigan from one of the sharp stones in the wall and did she see what happened to Adam last week when he banged his head in PE? Mrs Lamb has a nasty smell like fish and stinky stuff that comes out when you have a bad cold. But Little Gold feels bad for noticing so she notices Mrs Lamb’s brown pleated skirt instead. Little Gold likes pleated skirts because they look like fans. Then the whistle goes and, in the quiet minute afterwards, Little Gold hears the leaves moving on the elm tree by the front gate.
Little Gold has stopped by Peggy Baxter’s garden again. The leaf from yesterday is lying on the grass but the shiny brown chrysalis has gone. Little Gold wonders if Peggy Baxter took it indoors. Would it be wrong to do that? She pokes around in the messy cut grass to see if she can find it – maybe it rolled away. Maybe birds eat them. Then she sees something move on the grey top of Peggy Baxter’s garden wall.
It is pretty enough to be a butterfly but she knows it’s not, somehow. It’s green with pinky purple stripes and big – bigger than Little Gold’s palm – its wings spread in the evening sun. Little Gold wants to stroke the body, because she can see fur on it, but she just watches. She can see two long legs at the front and two feelers – like four pieces of thin white cotton. It’s the best creature, proper free creature, that Little Gold has ever seen. She has to say. She has to say to someone. So Little Gold goes up Peggy Baxter’s front steps and rings her bell. Peggy Baxter has little half-glasses on the tip of her nose when she opens the door and her front hall smells like polish and old cigarettes.
‘It hatched or something. It’s big like my hand and it’s pink stripy and green and I thought you’d want to see.’
So Peggy Baxter watched with Little Gold while the Hawk-moth dried its wings on her garden wall. Then she made them both a cup of tea and they had Jaffa cakes to celebrate. Little Gold showed Peggy Baxter how you could pick off the chocolate and hold the orangey bit up to the light and it was like the sun in photographs of Africa. And Peggy Baxter let Little Gold flick the wheel on her lighter to see what that sound felt like. And one day, years and years later, Little Gold wrote about Peggy Baxter and the hawk-moth and what it was like to be a small person who saw and heard and smelt and felt the world all around her.