KATHRYN VAN BEEK
Caroline Sharp walks home after her doctor’s appointment, noticing the tap tap of her black ballerina flats against the pavement, the cirrus clouds in the sky, and the – hedgehog rolling down the street?
She stops to see if the hedgehog has the sense to make its way to a berm. It does not. If it continues on its current trajectory it will meet a sticky end. She steps onto the road and stands behind the animal like a bodyguard.
‘You alright?’ Caroline looks up and sees a young man standing in his garden. ‘Need a hand?’
A car appears on the horizon. Caroline crouches down – pencil skirt pulling, incision throbbing. The hedgehog curls into a sea urchin. Caroline wraps her hands around it, beneath the quills, touching surprisingly soft fur. She braces herself and gets to her feet, the warm ball of spines cupped in her hands.
‘I guess I’ll take it home,’ she says. ‘It’ll get killed out here.’
She steps off the road, onto grass dotted with daisies and buttercups. The car roars behind her and she disappears down her side street.
The hedgehog in her hands is very still. It’s very small. And it must be having a very bad day to have ended up in the middle of a road without its mother. Caroline steps through the rose arbour into her front garden. A cardboard box on her veranda indicates that her avocado delivery has arrived. A second parcel could be the TradeMe Zambesi she ordered, or perhaps the Karen Walker trousers she’d thought would be good for work – “only worn once”.
Ignoring the packages, Caroline walks around the side of her villa and lowers the hedgehog beneath the pōhutukawa tree.
‘Go to sleep,’ says Caroline. ‘You’re nocturnal, didn’t you know?’
‘Peep-peep-peep!’ The hedgehog sounds its alarm. ‘Peep-peep-peep!’
It’s surprisingly loud. Perhaps its mother will hear it and come to its aid. Caroline watches as the hedgehog staggers through the flowers, collapsing in a patch of light as though sunbathing.
She walks up the stepping stones to her back door, unlocks it, and washes her hands in the laundry with antibacterial soap. She pulls out her phone and searches – what to do with a hedgehog?
The first website is no good. It says hedgehogs are pests in New Zealand. It heavily implies she should have left the baby on the road to get squashed. She tries a UK website. In the UK, hedgehogs are protected. The Hedgehog Education and Defence Group Incorporated of England’s website says to make sure your hedgehog is not staggering or sunbathing. If it is, it’s hypothermic and needs to be kept warm in a box.
Caroline hurries down the hall, opens the front door, picks up the packages and returns to the kitchen. She opens the avocado box and transfers half the contents into a fruit bowl and half into the fridge – work lunches for the next two weeks.
With a craft knife and an old towel, Caroline transforms the box into a nest. She returns to the garden where the hedgehog is lying splayed in a clump of alyssum, limbs twitching. She reaches for it and it hunches. Ever so gently Caroline picks it up, places it in the box, and carries it inside.
She takes it into the room that was once a guest room but is now her dressing and Sudoku room. The spare bed has been replaced by a wing chair and a bookcase, and the wardrobe is open to reveal the Kowtow, the Hailwood, the Juliette Hogan. Timeless pieces in quality fabrics – most thrifted, many old, but none dated.
Caroline places the box on the floor and locates the stash of heat packs the nurse gave her after the operation. She bends the metal discs inside two of them. The gel solidifies and clouds over as the packs heat. She slips them into the folds of the towel and watches as the hedgehog snuggles into the warmth. Its body shudders and spasms, its legs stick out at odd angles, and Caroline wonders if they are malformed or broken. But then the shaking stops and the hedgehog falls asleep.
The animal lies on its side, its front paws tucked under its chin. It has velvet cheeks and an upturned snout. Its head and body are covered in soft, cinnamon fur, and its quills are dark chocolate and honey. Beneath all those spines, the hedgehog itself is really very small.
Caroline returns to the HEDGIE website. It says to feed baby hedgehogs tinned cat food and lactose-free kitten formula. Obtaining these life-saving foodstuffs is clearly not a mission that should be undertaken at walking pace. Caroline leaves the house, unplugs the shiny green car she calls The Aphid, and backs very cautiously onto the street (imagine hitting the mother hedgehog on the way out!).
Caroline’s home is near the top of a hill, and the cove at the bottom of her street shines like a jewel. As she winds around the water she passes purple poroporo, red rātā, kererū on powerlines, and banana passionfruit vines dangling like strings of lanterns between the bushes.
She judders over the railway line and turns right at the council flats, driving along the main street of her little town. The vet clinic is located halfway down.
The young receptionist looks familiar. Fuchsia. Before working here, she had a casual gardening service.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs. Sharp,’ says Fuchsia. ‘Busy weekend? Keeping those weeds under control?’
Caroline remembers that Fuchsia once cleared the old bramble patch for her. Geoff had loved those wild blackberries, but Caroline disliked having to soak them in cold water to make the worms crawl out. Anyway, there’s a beautiful bed of dahlias there now.
‘Not a weed to be seen.’ Caroline brings the cat food and kitten formula to the counter and waves her eftpos card.
‘Not cheap, is it?’ says Fuchsia. ‘But we love our fur babies, don’t we.’
Caroline hurries back to her car and loops home. She closes the front door, heads to the kitchen and opens the tin of kitten formula to find a sachet of milk powder, a measuring scoop and a miniature bottle with a red collar. She makes up some warm milk and pads into her dressing and Sudoku room.
The baby hedgehog is jammed into the corner of the box. It’s not moving. Caroline stares at it, hoping it will breathe. It doesn’t. She stares some more. It still doesn’t breathe. She leans closer and notices a faint movement, the quiet rise and fall of tiny quills. The animal opens its eyes. They are warm black with inky blue sclera, and looking into them, Caroline feels her heart leap.
She offers the bottle. The hedgehog grips the teat in its mouth and sucks urgently. It drains the bottle, shuffles away, and goes back to sleep.
Caroline sits in her chair and tries to read. Outside her window tūī gleam between the leaves of the pōhutukawa, the changing tides of the distant sea reveal and conceal green sandbars, and the sky turns from blue to pink. At last the hedgehog stirs. Caroline fetches some cat food, spoons it out onto a saucer and sets it down before the box. The hedgehog’s nose tilts into the air. Its quills shiver with excitement. It hurries from the box and feasts like a king at a banquet.
It finishes its meal and skips across the room, tunnelling into the heavy curtains, scampering beneath the chair, and running into Caroline’s closet. It seems to have made a full recovery. HEDGIE would be pleased. Caroline should be pleased.
‘Oh well,’ Caroline says. ‘I’d better take you outside.’ She steps towards her closet and peers in. ‘Hedgehog?’ Caroline looks behind umbrellas and boots. ‘Hedgehog?’
She searches between the garment bags that shroud her wedding dress and Geoff’s old suits. She looks inside her shoes. Perhaps hedgehogs can climb? Caroline works her way up the wardrobe, feeling between the pressed legs of her trousers and the pleats of her skirts. She runs her hands across the clothing rail, over sunhats and scarves. The hedgehog is nowhere to be found.
Realising she’s hungry, Caroline temporarily suspends the search. She puts some odds and ends from the fridge onto a serving board. She used to make lasagnes, stews and casseroles – but these days, with the hours she works, cooking for one is a hassle. She chases the meal with a cup of tea, and then returns to the dressing and Sudoku room and looks for the hedgehog in all the places she’s already looked.
She combs her bedroom, the bathroom, the lounge, the dining room, the kitchen, the laundry. At 11 p.m she calls off the search. The night’s still warm, so she opens the back door. Perhaps the hedgehog will find its way out. She leaves a dish of cat food on the doorstep to encourage it outside. She goes to bed.
The next day Caroline can’t see the hedgehog in the wardrobe or the house or the garden. The cat food has disappeared but this is inconclusive. There are at least six cats in the neighbourhood – she knows because they use her vegetable garden as a litter tray. She tops up the cat food throughout the day. It keeps disappearing. She spends the day in her pyjamas.
At 7 a.m the alarm goes off and Caroline gets up and does her stretches. She goes to her wardrobe and picks out her armour – the vintage Zambesi dress, an Untouched World merino and possum cocoon coat, sheer black stockings and stack heel pumps. She adds piece after piece of jewellery until she feels like a queen. She searches amongst her shoes for the hedgehog. It’s not there.
Caroline gets in The Aphid and drives past the purple poroporo and the red rata. She drives over the railway line and turns left at the council flats, curving along the side of the harbour. Around the hills and bends the city looms, old buildings rising to meet dark clouds and casting black shadows on grey streets.
When she arrives at the office building, Ted the handyman is in the foyer. He tips an imaginary hat.
‘Looking sharp.’ He’s been making this joke for forty years.
Caroline goes to her desk. The other members of her team smile solemnly, except the pretty intern, Mia, who keeps her eyes fixed on her keyboard. Caroline turns on her computer and opens Finance Plus. At the sight of the familiar orange screen, her heart pounds violently.
When she started in this role, everything was done by hand on carbon copy paper. Her tools were a pencil, her calculator, and a metal spike to impale receipts upon. She’s since learned how to use typewriters, answerphones, fax machines, computers, conference calling equipment, online collaboration tools, smartphones, and numerous different computer programmes – what makes them think she can’t learn Finance Extra?
She presses the tab key with unusual force as she works. Tab, tab, tab. She processes invoices methodically, trying not to think about the meeting at 10 a.m.
It’s 10 a.m. Caroline sits in the ‘People and Culture’ room. It’s one of the few private meeting rooms in the building. Becky is there. She’s Caroline’s ‘People and Culture Business Partner’. Becky wears clothes from EziBuy and shoots ducks for fun. Lynda is there. She’s the head of Caroline’s directorate. She wears clothes from ASOS and has a shares portfolio that supports armament manufacture. Tony is there. Tony’s the IT guy and Caroline’s union representative. He wears a faded black business shirt and has tā moko.
Becky sets some papers on the table. She talks about Caroline’s years of exemplary service. But times are changing, aren’t they? They’ll need younger-
‘Younger?’ asks Tony.
Becky clears her throat. They’ll need trained staff to operate the complex new Finance Extra system.
‘Why don’t you train the staff you’ve already got?’ Tony asks.
Regretfully, Becky explains that training would take too long, so long that Caroline couldn’t possibly continue in her current role on her current salary while she learned how to use the new system. Furthermore, Becky says, succession planning and business sustainability are of course top of mind – not that either of those things have anything to do with Caroline’s age. However, they would love to offer Caroline the role of Junior Finance Extra Analyst! What a great learning opportunity for Caroline!
Tony looks at his papers. ‘Caroline’s currently a Senior Finance Plus Analyst,’ he says. He turns to Lynda. ‘Is this all really necessary?’
Lynda stares down at her manicure and says the words ‘fit-for-purpose’, ‘future-focused’, and ‘responsive to market’. Caroline sets her notepad on the table and looks at Lynda.
‘I sat on your interview panel,’ she says. ‘I chose you.’
‘Alright, don’t have a hernia,’ says Becky.
The room is silent.
‘Sorry?’ says Caroline.
Becky tilts her head. ‘Don’t have a hernia. This isn’t personal.’
Caroline looks out the window. Office buildings fill the skyline. Behind them is the sea. Perhaps a tsunami will rise up and engulf them all.
‘Becky, Caroline just had a hernia,’ says Tony.
‘I know, that’s why I’m saying don’t have a hernia,’ says Becky. ‘Like, don’t over-react.’
‘Caroline isn’t over-reacting, and she just had an actual hernia. That’s why she was off last week.’
Lynda flexes her fingers, admiring her French tips. ‘That’s right, Caroline had a hernia,’ she confirms. ‘She had an operation.’
Becky looks puzzled. ‘I thought you were on stress leave? A hernia? What even is that?’
Caroline opens her mouth. ‘It’s–’
‘Okay, this isn’t about your hernia, Caroline. This is about the restructure. You must be getting the pension. If you don’t want to take the role we’re offering, don’t you think it’s time to step aside?’
‘Um,’ says Tony. He indicates the phone sitting on the table. ‘Remember I told you I’m recording this conversation?’
Caroline pushes her hands into the deep, soft pockets of her cocoon coat. Her hands touch something warm. She moves her fingers around the object, feels its spines.
Tony turns to Caroline. ‘Shall we talk redundancy? And damages. I’m absolutely sure you’ll get damages.’
Caroline nods. Tony talks about maximum entitlements. Becky and Lynda look bored and annoyed. Caroline widens the opening of her pocket, peers surreptitiously into it. A little snout emerges. Two shining black eyes. Caroline stands up.
‘I have to go,’ she says.
‘Take all the time you need,’ says Lynda.
‘But be back at your desk after lunch to finish training Mia,’ says Becky.
Caroline slides her hand into her pocket, runs her thumb over the hedgehog’s velvet head. It nestles into the curve of her hand.
‘You’re entitled to take leave, you know,’ says Tony. ‘You’ve got so much sick leave owing – you don’t actually need to come back.’
Two tiny paws clasp Caroline’s fingers. A little tongue licks her hand. Caroline turns to the door, leaving her notepad on the table.
‘I don’t think I will,’ she says.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kathryn van Beek has an MA from the IIML and has won several awards, including the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize, for her plays and stories. In 2020 she released a collection of short stories, Pet, which is also available as a podcast.