I remember clearly - at least, I seem to remember, although by now it is probably no more than the wraith of a memory, a recollection of having remembered - my father calling softly one morning from the back door, "Come and look at this - but quietly, don’t frighten them." Huddled in a corner of the garden were three little creatures, two dark, one pure white apart from a black tag to the tail. "It’s an ermine," my father said. "Normally they’re white only in winter, but this one’s kept its warm coat until now. I don’t blame it." And shivering, he went back inside.
I’ve always had an affinity with small animals (compensation, perhaps, for ineptitude in human relationships) and these three fascinated me. I inched forward, offering extended fingers - yes, inviting a nip, but I didn’t know or care. The two darker animals shrank back, but the ermine held its ground for a time, then itself came timidly towards me, sniffed at the finger tips, and eventually rubbed almost like a cat against the palm.
My mother had come silently up behind me and passed some scraps of raw mince that the ermine, after a little hesitation, tried and then ate eagerly. The two darker stoats scattered when more of the mince was thrown to them, but crept back gingerly and tucked in as though they had been starving for days. Quite possibly they had.
Over the next few weeks the three came regularly to be fed and gradually lost much of their nervousness. Indeed they seemed quite inquisitive, but only the ermine - we christened her Irma - would venture into the house. My mother, not relishing the idea of messes in her over-scrupulously cleaned household, was half intrigued, half horrified when it first happened, but there were no accidents, at least none worse than a few rather muddy paw prints near the door, and she was used to mine; after a little ritual complaint, her anxieties gradually faded. She even commented eventually what a lovely and surprisingly well-behaved animal Irma was.
When the weather improved and with it, presumably, the hunting, we saw less of the others but Irma still came, less for the food than for the company. It was extraordinary that she should so take to human kind, but perhaps her peculiarity of retaining the winter coat, as she still did, made her unwelcome to her erstwhile companions.
We discovered that she had a lair in a wilder part of the garden that my father mostly tended meticulously. Even so, she liked to see what was happening indoors, and would spend some time investigating my pockets. At a party one evening, the guests were startled when a little head with a pair of beady eyes popped up from there in the middle of the meal. Another time, when she hadn’t been seen for several hours and we weren’t sure that she had gone out for the night, we found her curled up in my school cap.
I did once take her to school, but her darting about upset the girls and distracted the boys, so the teacher firmly forbade any repetition.
She had been with us for quite some time when we had a family outing and I thought that she would appreciate a change of scene. Curiously - the mind plays peculiar tricks - I can’t remember exactly where it was. In later years I often searched for it, but with no success, and maybe I’ve mis-remembered some distinctive features of the approach or even imagined them, but there was certainly a wide valley with a stream and, beside it, a roughly conical hillock with a grassy hollow at the top. Another thing I don’t recall is why I decided to stay there while everyone else went on down the valley; maybe I had to prepare for an exam, or more likely, having scrambled up the rather steep slope with some difficulty and loss of breath, I simply didn’t want to waste the effort by coming straight down again.
It was a warm, windless, sunny day with scarcely a sound apart from the chirping of grasshoppers, the rippling of the stream, and perhaps some bird song; at any rate, the almost unbearable beauty of the violin part in "The Lark Ascending" still brings it back to me. I dozed over a book, and Irma, after ferreting around for a while, came back and rested in the shade of my discarded jacket. I must have fallen more soundly asleep, for suddenly there was a shout from across the stream, "Come on! It’s time to go home." I grabbed my jacket and prospected a way down. I was physically as well as socially nervous and awkward, the grass tussocks were slippery, and the descent took all my attention. At the bottom, Irma was no longer with me, and call as I might, she failed to reappear. The others joined in, but eventually there was no choice but to leave.
For weeks, I returned every time I could persuade anyone to take me to search and call, but without success. My father, gently as always, tried to wean me away from it and at last put his foot down. "She’s a wild animal after all. She’s probably gone off with others of her kind." More probably my instinct was right, and she had met with some accident. We never saw her again.
Time may dull the sense of loss; it never eradicates it. Sixty years on, after vastly worse events, it still hurts beyond all reason. But time can also bring a little wisdom. Given the disparity in life span, that loss, one way or another, was inevitable, and for a child it was perhaps better to be sudden than to watch a beloved creature age, sicken and die slowly. We do well to count our blessings. Looking back through tears, I can be thankful at least for what we were given; a presence of grace and beauty that was with us for a while at its best, and then went quietly away.
Peter D. Wilson
Seascale, 18 December 2001
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