“Gladys!  Come in – it’s so good to see you.  It’s been far too long.  You look wonderful – how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine, Eleanor, fine.  Lovely to see you, too.  Sorry I’m a bit late – the storm yesterday blew one of those old trees down, right onto the main dragline, and they had to cut that section out and re-build it.  Gosh, the place looks great!  Are these new tuffets?”

“Yes, what do you think?  We were a bit worried about the colour – ordered them on the web.  But I think they fit in all right, don’t you?”

“Yes, they look great!  Ooh, and just the right height.  Plump enough to be comfy, but perfect for keeping a claw on the floor for vibrations.”

“Can I take your palp-bag?  And would you like some tea?”

“Oh, I’ll just stow it over here out of the way, if you don’t mind.  Just in case my phone goes – I’m expecting a call from Robbie’s OT sometime today.”

“Sure, sure – is everything all right?”

“Well, yes… you know, they’re both going through this rapid-moult phase at the moment.  Tina got a leg stuck last time and was home by herself, poor thing, and she’d worked herself into a panic by the time we got home – almost pulled the leg off herself, but we managed to get her out.  Well, I think Robbie got a little scare, so his latest moult went a little more quickly than usual, but then when he got out, he just didn’t flex his legs enough before they hardened… ”

“Oh, dear…”

“So yes, he’s walking a bit stiffly for now.  We’ve told him it will all be normal again after the next moult (and I don’t think he’ll make that mistake again!), but you know how it is – he feels awkward about it, and I’m sure the other kids laugh, so we’ve taken him to see an OT to see whether we can loosen up the joints at least a little in the meantime.”

“Ah.  Well, I’m sure it will be fine, and as you say, the next moult should fix everything anyway.  Sorry, did you want tea?”

“Oh, yes, thank you, I’d love some!”

“I’ve got some fresh beetle-bars too, if you’d like to try one?”

“I really shouldn’t, but your baking’s always so divine…”

“Oh, go on, there’s nothing really bad in there.  As if you need to worry about that tiny waist!”

“Well, all right then, thanks.  New recipe?”

“Yes, it’s from my old standby, Just Good Grubs. You know, I’ve made so many things from that book, but never noticed this one before – and I have to say, I wish I’d found it sooner!”

“Ooooh, yes, just the right crunch – do you use fresh wings, or dried?”

“Well, the recipe calls for dried, but I only had fresh – I did throw them in the oven for a little while to brittle them up first.”

“Well, they’re delicious.  Can I have the recipe?”

“Of course!”

“So, how’s everything with you?”

“Oh, well, can’t complain, really.  I did lose a contact last week, but I’ve got a new one on order.”

“Oh, not too inconvenient in the meantime, I hope?”

“No – it was one of the rear ones, and they’re almost the same size as the front four, so I just moved one of those around – I find it less distracting to have three in the front than just one at the back.  And the large ones are the most important, of course.”

“Still, a bit of a bother.  Have you got any spares?”

“Well, I did, but then I found out Rosie had taken my last one and used it to trap and watch humans with – like a little observation dome.  She has a bit of a fascination, I’m afraid, but it really was rather clever – she showed me.  She just drops it over one of the small ones and they’re perfectly trapped underneath.  She can photograph them and everything!  Of course, I couldn’t exactly wear it after that.”

“No, of course.  So… you still have a few humans around?”

“Yes… especially now that it’s getting colder.  It’s not exactly an infestation, but there do seem to be more of them inside in the winter.  One the one hand, I don’t really mind – they do help to keep the pigeons under control, I suppose – but I’d rather not see them all over the place.  They’re just a little, you know, creepy.”

“I know – I think it’s the way they move, so jerkily.  Just not enough legs!”

“Yes, exactly.  And not enough joints.  Ugh.  I did consider installing one of those intermittent humanicide-sprayers up in one corner, but it’s bad for the fish tank and I’m not sure it’s entirely safe for the kids either, whatever the adverts say.  I’m getting better with humans, anyway.  I don’t go out of the way to kill them any more – Rosie has a fit, she always wants me to call her so she can put them outside – and they do tend to leave a nasty red smear when you smash them.  But, well, I don’t mind saying, if they get in the way when I’m vacuuming, I’m afraid I can’t be held responsible.  Their nets do look so messy, and you know, sometimes the pigeons hang there for days – so unsightly.  But at least I don’t wash them down the sink anymore.”

“Well, that’s good.  I don’t really like to have them around either, especially with the kids – they’re going through a phase where they’ll try biting anything, and the human adults get so territorial – I know they’re not usually dangerous, but I just don’t like to think of their pointy little sticks coming anywhere near the kids’ faces, you know?  Especially the hairy ones – I think they’re the females?  We almost had a disaster the other day, in fact; I caught Tina playing with a small human, just as the adult came running over – well, I’ll admit, my mothering instincts kicked in and I stepped on it.  And then Tina claimed I’d caused the rain the next day!”

“Funny myth, that one.  I wonder where it came from.”

“No idea.  Perhaps it’s distantly related to that ‘Itsy-bitsy human’ song?”

“Yes, perhaps.  Interesting how rhymes and legends get passed down like that – everyone knows them but no one knows who spun them first or why.”

“Yes, odd, isn’t it.  Say, what kind of tea is this?  It’s delicious.  And how’s your sister?”

“Oh, you like it?  It’s a cicada-peppermoth blend.  I bought it on a whim and I have to say, I’m rather fond of it too.  Judith is well – busy with the wedding planning, as you can imagine.  Some new drama every time we talk.  She’s taken it into her head now that she doesn’t want to wear silk.”

“Really?  Why not?”

“Thinks it will look too home-made, or some such nonsense.  I told her not to be ridiculous – after all, there are at least nine different kinds of silk, and I’m sure the designers are always developing more!  How can she just dismiss them all?  I even suggested silk worms – such a lovely texture, and of course they’re delicious when the job’s done! – but she wasn’t having any of it.”

“Well… good luck to her.  I’ll be interested to hear what she comes up with in the end.”

“Yes, although she’s got plenty to think about besides her wedding.  Have you heard about those ‘vegetarians’ in Central America?”

“Vege-what?”

“There’s this tribe that’s just been discovered, with the strangest eating habits. They mostly eat some kind of plant protein nodule – a few ant larvae on the side, but mostly, these nodules.  It’s just not natural.  And now, Judith’s daughter Beth has decided that she wants to be ‘vegetarian’ too.  Judith is worried sick that she’ll be undernourished and never reach her final moult.”

“Goodness.  What’s she eating at the moment?”

“Well, not very much.  First she insisted on what she called ‘quick-kill’ food – nothing bitten and left hanging to liquefy for a few days, you know?  Someone at school put this ‘insect rights’ business into her head.  For a while she was campaigning against storage cocoons – honestly, we all know they just go to sleep, or at least I’ve never seen one wriggling longer than a few hours – but she was marching around, wearing buttons that said ‘GL bugs me’ (‘GL’ is for gradual liquefaction, Judith informs me), but now she just wants to order this plant protein and give up her natural diet entirely.  Judith is at her wits’ end – she’s starting to pull her bristles out over it.”

“Let’s hope it’s just a phase.  Perhaps when some nice boy brings her his first offering, she’ll reconsider.”

“Yes, that’s what my mother said.”

“Oh, how is June?”

“Oh, she’s all right – getting a bit grumbly, worried about small things, the usual.  She’s afraid her eyesight will fail and she won’t be able to keep her web tidy enough for the neighbours’ tastes (or to avoid the neighbours’ tastes, I should say) .  And she still has rheumatism – mostly in the coxa-trochanter joint, she says, but I think it’s all stiffening up a little.”

“Well, at least she’s around to see her grandchildren.”

“True.  As long as they don’t sneak up on her – she’s less sensitive to vibrations now, but once she knows something’s there, there’s nothing wrong with her bite.  Although she’s convinced her venom is weakening, of course.”

“Poor old dear.”

“Yes, but that’s enough about my tribe!  You mentioned Tina and Robbie, but how’s Morrie?”

“Oh… he’s fine.”

“Wait, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing… I… no really, he’s all right.”

“Well, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but if you need to get anything off your sternum, you know I won’t tell anyone.”

“I know, El.  It’s just hard to talk about, but maybe I’ll feel better.   He… well.  Rosie’s almost as big as he is now, and although he’s really good with her, I think he’s starting to get a little nervous.  And since the accident, you know, he only has the one palp left – I think it looks rather rakish, actually – but he just seems to have lost confidence in himself.  It’s like he’s worried he’s not good enough anymore, like he thinks I’ll turn on him one day and just eat him, like some kind of monster.  It breaks my heart – I get an actual pain, all the way down my abdomen, just thinking about it.  He’s the gentlest male I’ve ever met, El, but he’s always had that quiet strength, and to see that ebb away… I just don’t know what to do.”

“This is going to sound harsh, Gladys, but have you thought about doing the kind thing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you have Rosie, and she’s such a darling.  And if I read your appetite right, you’ve got another sac in the making, am I right?”

“Well, yes – is it that obvious?”

“Not to just anyone, but we’ve been friends a long time, Gladys.  Congratulations, by the way.”

“Thanks, sorry, I should have known you’d know.  Sorry I didn’t tell you outright.”

“Don’t worry, I can see you have other things on your mind.  So, have you considered the fact that one day, he might leave in the morning, and just never come back?”

“Oh, he would never run off, El, never!”

“Yes, but a small male, with one palp left and low confidence… someone could just take him.  I know it’s hard to think about.  It’s ok, let it out – here, would you like a lacewing?  They’re quite absorbent.”

“Thanks.”

“Of course.  So, all I’m saying is… you have a family already, and you’ve had such good times together… maybe you should think about… whether he wouldn’t rather that someone just be you.”

“How awful – I can’t even think about it!”

“Well, all right then, don’t, if it’s that upsetting.  Maybe things will get better.  I’ve heard that loss of a palp can cause depression, but that sometimes the post-recovery results are… pleasantly surprising, if you know what I mean?”

“Actually, that seems to be true…”

“Oh, really?  That’s wonderful!  Well, maybe all you need to do is gently suggest that he spend more time at home?  I’m sure you could suggest it in a way that would make it appealing – a little wiggle of the spinnerets would probably do it, you sly thing.”

“Oh, stop it, you’re terrible!”

“Well.  What did I say about that tiny waist, after all.  I hope you’ll forgive my suggestion earlier – I was only trying to help.  Hope I wasn’t too blunt.”

“No, it’s all right.  I know that some females are like that, but I just couldn’t.  But I know you were trying to be kind.”

“I was.  Are you all right now?  Would you like more tea?”

“No, I should be scuttling off, actually.  I need to pick up some cabbage moths on the way home – they’re Morrie’s favourite.  Unpleasant after-effects, of course, but it’s still nice enough to sit outside the tunnel after dinner, thank goodness.”

“Oh, you’re too good to him.”

“I know, but I can’t help it.  He’s such a sweetie.  Say, I know he’d love to see you – would you like to come around to our place next week?  Same time?  This is such a lovely tradition – we should keep it up.”

“Well, sure.  I’ll check Rosie’s schedule – she’s moving to the next level of artistic weaving, but maybe not until week-after-next.  I could bring that recipe along, if you like.”

“Oh, perfect, thanks!  Only if it’s not too much trouble to copy it out?  You have such lovely, spidery writing.  And that’s wonderful for Rosie.  She’s so talented – takes after her mother.”

“Now, stop it.  Did you get your bag?  Good.  Shoo, now, you old flatterer, and give Morrie a big hug for me – four legs’ worth.  I hope he keeps improving, and in the meantime, well, enjoy yourselves!”

“We will – don’t leer at me like that, you’ll give me the giggles.  Thanks again for tea, it was gorgeous.  Hi to Robbie and Tina.”

“Sure – wait, isn’t it Rosie’s birthday soon?  Maybe we’ll get her a human farm.”

“Oh, don’t!  You’ll only encourage her.  But nice of you to think of it.”

“All right then, take care, now, and I’ll see you again next week.  I’ll drop you a line in a few days to confirm.  Watch out for that sticky patch on the left – I had to refresh it this morning and it’s still a bit gluey.  Rosie’s supposed to do it as part of her chores – it’s her end of the deal for the weaving classes – but it doesn’t always get done.”

“Ah, kids.  Well, as they say, ‘fangs again.’ I’ll keep a few eyes out for something tasty for next week.  See you then!”

“You’re most welcome, and feel ‘flea’ any time.  Ta-ta, Gladys.”

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