We first met Spotty in a local church hall on a Friday night about twelve years ago. Tessa and I were dropping off a box of clothes we didn’t want anymore to the leaders of Tessa’s Girls’ Brigade, who were setting up for their annual church fair. I would be returning in search of bargains the next day, but Tessa had something else on. So when she saw a box of pre-loved soft toys she asked me to spend her savings (a coin given to her the week before by her grandmother) on one of the animals in the box - preferably a cat, preferably this one. I duly purchased the small snow leopard the next day and he came home to live with us.
Like most kiwi kids of her generation, Tessa has had numerous soft toys over the years. The first were gifts from her parents’ friends when she was born. The next arrivals were exotic, handmade creations brought home by her grandparents from overseas trips. Later came rag dolls, then cute puppies and teddy bears Tessa couldn’t resist buying or that her friends gave her as birthday presents. I didn’t know, when Spotty first joined the fray, that he was special.
But within a few months it was always Spotty who accompanied Tessa on sleepovers and camping trips. And Spotty who held pride of place in Tessa’s bedroom: either perched decoratively in front of her pillow on days when the bed was made, or, more often, and equally demonstrating Tessa’s preference for him over other cuddle mates, lying on his shoulder on the floor, legs in the air, where he’d fallen out of bed when Tessa rolled over in the night.
Given how important Spotty was to Tessa, I always worried he might get lost when out in the world. His closest call and greatest adventure so far came on a tramp up Mt Holdsworth in the Tararuas when Tessa was seven. Camped near the summit, we sat on the hillside in the evening as I read aloud to the children, Spotty tucked under Tessa’s arm, where I’ve seen him so many times. Somehow, afterwards, perhaps in the novelty of brushing teeth outdoors, Spotty was left on the hillside alone. By the time we realised he was missing, it was dark outside and a howling gale was blowing. Convinced that Spotty was gone forever, I tried comforting Tessa with elaborate descriptions of Spotty’s new life as the beloved nest-mate of a family of forest birds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this had the opposite effect to what I intended, so that between the noise of the wind and Tessa’s sobs and the wall of the tent blowing onto us, no one got much sleep that night. The next morning, Tessa was off and away in search of her friend as soon as it was light. I was astonished when she returned, only moments later, with Spotty once again tucked under her arm, a smile lighting her face. I still marvel at how Spotty clung to that hillside through the gale, while our tent poles acquired a new bend that remains today.
Over the years, Spotty’s whiskers have been loved off him and his tail doesn’t stand as straight as it once did, but he looks after Tessa as well as ever, and their exploits continue. Spotty’s first taste of international travel was a trip to Australia for the Oceania Climbing Championship. Head poking out of the top of Tessa’s backpack, he seemed to look with interest on the scenery of New South Wales as we drove north from Sydney to the competition. His next overseas jaunt was to Fiji, Tessa's companion as always, and with her grandparents in train on this trip.
The summer before last, Tessa and Spotty went to Canada on a three month student exchange, experiencing life in the snow. This year, they’ve been living in a student hostel. Was it just a symptom of haphazard packing methods or was it a sign of changing priorities when Spotty lay forgotten on the bed after a weekend home that finished in a rush to catch the train back to campus? Apparently unruffled, Spotty waited the three weeks till Tessa’s next visit home, and travelled back to campus squashed in a by-now-familiar suitcase.
After they're done with study, who knows? Perhaps Spotty will be Tessa’s partner on her next journeys, or perhaps the sacrifices a budding international backpacker makes in order to travel light will mean that Spotty is left behind, and he and I will wait together for our beautiful girl to return to us.