Great-aunt Jane was an animal hoarder. All the family knew for it was no secret. Jane couldn’t be quiet enough to be a ‘secret’. She went out and about, flamboyantly dressed in mismatched prints – yards of them – all stitched together from prized charity shop finds. Two blouses melded into one, two dresses likewise, though the shawls were the most fun: ending up as a plethora of crazy patchwork shapes after being cut up and pieced together into a bigger shawl or blanket, which she wore round her shoulders on colder days, the edges fixed together with her mother’s amber pin. She was a larger lady but of course didn’t need to dress so.
It was on this fine but chilly autumnal day that she ventured outside with one of her small creatures under the crazy patchwork shawl. She met my mother and me in Tooks, the old cafe in the marketplace of town, that is no longer there.
At seven years of age, I was really into chips with lashings of tomato ketchup and iced buns which were drunk down with some sort of fizzy drink. Mum ate salads with cups of tea as she dieted most of her life although already thin.
“Hello.” Jane said, all smiley friendly teeth, as she loomed over the table, the ends of her shawl almost ending up in my mother’s tea.
“Aunty! Do get off your feet, sit down with us.”
Jane flapped the shawl about, dispensing different kinds of animal hair in every direction as she parked herself on a chair. I remember her sitting outside of the tables, away from the walls, because they had the most space around them; unfortunately, most times people had to awkwardly squeeze through to get to their table – or ask for her to move. Then, there would be the whole flapping the enormous hairy shawl thing again. And, if it was a busy cafe, people would curiously stare. There seemed to be nowhere optimal for her to sit.
But, Jane was unflappable as the shawl was flappable. The staring never seemed to bother her and she always politely moved herself if she was obstructing the way.
As the animal hairs – and I believe I saw a budgie feather amongst them too – settled, Jane drunk her cup of tea in one go. She and my mother were exchanging chit-chat words; familiar and non-familiar names of relatives – close and distant – fed into my ears. It was when I was biting into my iced bun that I noticed Jane’s shawl move.
I stared harder. Nothing.
Had my eyes been mistaken?
Then, when I was about to look away, came the unmistakable rippling of the fabric caused by something moving underneath it. My childish heart raced with excitement: what kind of creature was under Jane’s mysterious shawl?
We weren’t allowed pets at home, my parents didn’t see the point in them. And, so, the ordinary cat, or the Heinz 57 dog, or the £2. hamster remained exotic. Apart and unattainable – except via Jane, who wisely kept a small menagerie of them at home. Lovingly and properly looked after.
“James, eat your bun.” My mother chastised.
However, the icing on the bun wasn’t as sweet as what creature that was under Jane’s shawl.
Jane winked at me in such a way Mum didn’t notice. Did she know I noticed?
My strict parent soon had her eyes back on the cup of tea she held while listening to Jane’s talk of Gordon moving back in with his wife of thirty years – the woman he’d previously left a year ago for a younger replacement.
“Men are fickle!” My mother exclaimed, but in hushed tones, so as to not cause probable offence to any males in the cafe.
“No, not all Silvy.” Jane said to which my mother looked surprised.
“I know, I know. Men have never been for me. Not that I never wanted one, mind. But I don’t care about that these days, I have my little animals for companionship. I would always choose a dog over a man.”
“Well, they’re more faithful, aren’t they.” My mother said.
This exchange confused me. My parents seemed happy together and we didn’t have a dog, yet my mother was saying, in effect, that dogs were better.
She nervously glanced over at me, noting my apparent interest in their conversation. Jane gave me a small secret smile – of which I returned with my larger crumb-filled one.
“Don’t open your mouth with food in it!” My mother said aghast.
The smile died and I pretended to study the crumbs on my plate so they would go on with their adult talk.
“Enjoy them while they’re young.” Jane said softly.
“I dread he will turn out like him.”
“I know, I know. You’re hurting, but it’ll pass.”
“Will it really? I can’t imagine it.”
A group of people, holding a screaming young baby, tried to push past Jane’s chair. She got up; the cloud of animal DNA re-emerging. No one but I seemed to notice, except the woman holding the little one sneezed.
A long ginger hair, with kinks in it, landed amongst the crumbs on my plate.
After a polite exchange of words with the strangers, Jane nestled back into her chair. Some kind of expression crossed her wide face.
The shawl rippled into stronger movements. I tried to keep my face from expressing my awe, so I wouldn’t get another telling off.
Thankfully – and I felt Jane’s discomfort too – Jane said: “Oh dear, it looks like I’m out of tea.”
Tooks was the kind of cafe with only self-service, no one came to the table to ask what you wanted. My mother leapt up. She would do anything for great aunt Jane, she loved her that much. “Stay put Aunty!”
Jane didn’t look like she was budging. The only movement coming from her, was from under the shawl. Of which my mother was clearly oblivious to.
“Stay put, I’ll bring you a tea. Sorry, I should have realised!”
Excitement bubbling in my heart, making me dizzy, we both watched her leave our table for the counter.
“James,” she said, confidingly, “I know it must be difficult and sometimes lonely being an only child…?” The sentence came as a question.
I nodded. My heart thumping. The issue of words not forthcoming.
She had her hands – the fingers devoid of any rings, the nails unpolished and neatly trimmed – reaching under the vast shawl of crazy patchwork pieces.
The material didn’t ripple or move in strong movements now, it shook.
“You know your parents love you, don’t you?”
I nodded. The shaking fabric subsided into quieter ripples as her hands came into contact with whatever it was.
“You weren’t allowed a pet before, were you?”
“Well, they said you could have this one. But, really, I wasn’t supposed to bring him in here. They don’t allow them in cafes, you know.”
I will never forget what happened next.
The edges of the shawl that were usually held together by great-aunt Jane’s mother’s amber pin, moved apart, to reveal the hidden mystery.
Shiny black eyes, a smooth ginger coat, ears half-cocked and a black nose that kissed my outstretched hand.
“He’s a Chihuahua,” Jane explained, her voice hushed against the background noises of the cafe. The clacking of the tongues and the cutlery. “You can name him yourself.”
Actually, Jane and I both named him, Calamity, that day. My mother – then, so highly embarrassed – never forgave us for being firmly told to leave the cafe.
~ Please let me know if you enjoyed this story. ~
Writing prompt: N/A
Writing inspiration: Twiglet (his photographs above + right) + my great-great-aunt who carried pet mice in her sleeves.
What’s a Chi Tale?: A short story or verse (under a 1,000 words) with doggy references.
Copyright Faith McCord 2016
Story and artwork belongs to Faith McCord who is the author and artist holding the copyright. This is not a public domain work. Worldwide rights.