Saturday 21 March 2020


by Jenny Palmer

a glass of elderberry wine

It was a mystery to me how they got in. I normally keep all the windows closed from September onwards.  Yet sometimes in the middle of winter, they’ll collect at the window, frantically try to get out. This year they were particularly persistent. I opened the window as much as I could, without letting in too much cold air. It was still frosty outside. However much I coaxed them to exit, they just wouldn’t budge. They rested on the windowsill, fluttering about, hesitating, content to stay in the warm, for as long as I’d let them.
I read on Google that red butterflies are supposed to be a symbol of passion or a promise of years of happiness to come.  I would be happy to settle for the latter. In some cultures, they are a sign of evil or danger. In Scotland they were once believed to be witches in disguise. Other cultures thought they appeared when people needed to be careful and prepare for the unexpected to happen.
At first, I thought mine were Red Admirals, but Google claimed that there are only two varieties of red butterflies that come into houses to hibernate: the small Tortoiseshell and the Peacock. The Peacock can easily be identified by the large spots on its wings, so they weren’t that. The small Tortoiseshell is often confused with the Red Admiral because it has black and white tipped wings, but it also has yellow stripes and is more of an orange than a red. I settled on that.
The small Tortoiseshell enters houses in late summer or early autumn to hibernate for the winter when it’s warm outside. Our houses are cool, sheltered and dry. They’d happily stay inside all winter, but the trouble is, when the heating comes on, they sometimes get tricked into thinking that spring has come early and are desperate to escape and start feeding again. Hence the fluttering.
Whenever I see a trapped creature, my first instinct is to help it to escape. I’ll put towels in the bathtub so that spiders can scurry up them, rather than be washed down the plughole. I’ll scoop us slugs with a shovel from the kitchen floor and carefully deposit them outside, even though I have a horror of them. I once untangled a sheep from the fence, when it got its horns stuck in the wire. I can’t stand feeling trapped myself. If I need to stay indoors for any length of time, I go stir crazy. So self-isolation was always going to be a challenge.
 Of course, I’d take the government’s advice. None of us wants to die. If staying indoors would stop the virus spreading, then I was all for it. For me, it was simply a case of replenishing my already well-stocked larder.  I always have a two-week supply of food in the house, just in case it snows.  I’ve been caught out like that before. I’d buy in some extra tins of soup, and some milk and bread to freeze. I had enough of everything else. I wouldn’t be doing any panic-buying of toilet paper or anything like that.
The first couple of weeks would be a novelty, I imagined, a bit like being on holiday.  I could watch all the programmes I’d missed, on catch-up, and read the books I’d never got around to reading. There were lots of jobs about the house to be getting on with, like putting up shelves for  the extra books I’d bought, tidying up my papers into neat piles or sorting out clothes, ready to be taken to the charity shop. I’d keep in touch with the world via the Internet.  And there was always the phone, if I felt like communicating with the human voice.
To avoid being bombarded by news, I’d restrict myself to one news programme a day and perhaps one of analysis. To keep myself in the loop, I could try upping my Facebook usage, by liking more posts from friends. It would be hard because I’ve never been able to understand why people insist on posting so many photos of their cats, and I usually avoid signing petitions, on the grounds that they are presumptuous. 
There are three stages of development in the butterfly: the caterpillar or pupa stage, the chrysalis and the final adult stage. On average, the lifespan of the adult butterfly is only two weeks. In summer they live on the sap from trees, fermenting fruits and nectar from plants. There was plenty to eat on my garden as I’d made a point of planting nectar-rich plants such as buddleia, sedum and lavender to attract them. 
It’s a natural inclination for any living creature to be outside in spring. When I saw the butterflies struggling to get out, I couldn’t help but assist them.  I wafted them towards the window with a newspaper, careful not to damage their fragile wings. It took a while. As they approached the open window, they’d just fly back inside again.  Finally, I was able to release them and watched as they flew off in all directions. I’d done my good deed for that day. 
Only later did I learn the correct way to deal with butterflies that have woken up inadvertently in winter. You should catch them, put them in a cool cardboard box where they’ll settle down and then you can re-house them in a suitable location, in somewhere like a garage or an outdoor shed. There they’ll peacefully see out the remainder of their hibernation. Without nectar to feed on and with the cold, frosty nights that ensued, the ones that I’d freed, would not have stood much of a chance, and would most likely have died of starvation or the cold.
Me, I’m staying put and focusing on keeping myself occupied until the coast is clear.  I buy a newspaper, whenever I go out shopping, just to keep abreast of the situation. If the epidemic follows the normal pattern, the scientists tell us, it will peak in a few months’ time and eventually die out. I hope I can hold out that long.  The worst thing is not having someone close-at-hand to share it with, and the feeling of unreality that engenders. But when I start to feel like that, all I do is remember the butterflies and the feeling soon passes.

About the author

In June 2019, Jenny Palmer published her first collection of poetry called ‘Pendle Poems.’ She has also  published  two memoirs  ‘Nowhere better than home’ and ‘Pastures New’ and a family history book ‘Whipps, Watsons and Bulcocks.’  They are all available from the Pendle Heritage Centre, Barrowford and from No 10 Literature and Lifestyle, Ciitheroe. Her collection of short stories ‘Keepsake and other stories’ was published by Bridge House in 2018, and is available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. Many of her stories are on the Cafelit website.    ‘A59’, ‘Fatal Flaws’ and ‘The Visitors’ are in the Cafelit anthologies 3, 5 and 7. ‘The Visitors’ is also in the  Bridge House anthology ‘Citizens of Nowhere.’

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