My Chameleon Called Chloe by Malcolm D. Welshman
The reptile first caught my attention when I spotted her just outside my bedroom window, swaying along a branch of bourgainvillea, semi-hidden by the bower of purple blooms surrounding her. Had that been in Bournemouth, my home town, it would have been a surprise. But not here, in Ibadan, Nigeria where my father was stationed in a two-year army secondment; and where, at that time, I was visiting my parents during the Xmas school holidays. I was used to the constant parade of animals that lived around and sometimes invaded my parents’ army bungalow. That was to be expected in the tropics. Wildlife was always on hand. Small or large. This time it was something small, about the size of my hand. Something I hadn’t seen before. A chameleon. During the rest of my three-week stay in Nigeria, that chameleon continued to reside in the bougainvillea and made a delightful companion which I could wake up and say ‘Hello’ to each morning. I called her Chloe.
There was no mistaking Chloe’s characteristic features: the head with the bulging, fused eyelids from which each pupil peeped out of a pinhole; the prehensile tail coiled under like a spring: the feet, each with two pads, that squeezed together like pincers, giving a vice-like grip to branches and vines.
Fascinated by her and not wishing to part company, I persuaded my parents to let me fly home with her. They reluctantly acquiesced and so I brought her back to the UK, smuggled in a large Oxo tin, the lid perforated with holes. During the journey, that tin was tucked inside a BOAC flight bag, crammed under my seat.
My auntie, with whom I was living at the time while attending the local grammar school in Bournemouth, was delighted when I arrived at her house and unzipped my flight bag to give her a present of a bird, carved from a cow horn. A dark-grey and cream, curved, hollowed out object, the tip of the horn being the tip of the bird’s beak, the base its feet.
‘How kind,’ she said hesitantly, rolling the crudely carved bird in her hand. ‘Oh, and something else?’ she added as I slid the Oxo-cube tin onto her kitchen table.
‘Chloe,’ I said as I carefully levered the lid up. My auntie’s face – not generally the most expressive of physiognomies – took on a pallor a ghost would have been proud with features worthy of a frozen mammoth. From that, one could safely assume the contents of the Oxo tin was not the ‘stock’ she’d been expecting.
I was diligent in ensuring I set up the right quarters for Chloe. A terrarium with all the trimmings fit for a lizard that had travelled three thousand miles from the comforts of a bower of bougainvillea. Albeit it to land up, unfortunately, in the dingy, draughty stair-well of my auntie’s house – for that’s where she decided Chloe had to reside. Illumination was via by a small fluorescent light. Heat via an infrared lamp. And humidity via a dish of water. Branches from my auntie’s apple tree provided the perching places. Vegetation from her garden the hiding places. A clump of primulas. Some pansies. Strands of ivy pulled off the garage wall. Not quite a tropical paradise. But the best I could do under the circumstances.
Nutrition was to be an important factor of course. I made sure I did my research to ensure Chloe’s dietary requirements would be met. Herein, did lie a problem. Chameleons like live food. Chloe was no exception. We were talking live locusts and grasshoppers. Flies. Mealworms. Each with the potential to hop, fly or wriggle into my auntie’s living room. And many did. Hence the occasional mealworm discovered in a slipper. A grasshopper on the back of the chair. And up to three or four bluebottles – having hatched from the grubs I’d bought from the pet shop – forlornly droning round the room or alighting on the television screen to parade up and down over Coronation Street. And once I had one stuck, upturned, in a sticky sea of strawberry jam spread on a sandwich, its legs waving at me as I was about to take a bite.
Looking back, I’m not sure Chloe had much of a life to start with. From her quarters, on the edge of our Nigerian bungalow’s veranda, she would have looked down the slopes of a garden ablaze with the orbs of orange marigolds, the clustered striped heads of pink zinnias, the crimson blades of canna lilies offsetting their dark purple leaves. Auntie’s hallway had little to offer in comparison. A row of hooks on which were mounted a monochromatic array of winter wear – which screamed dullness as soon as you saw it. An umbrella-stand with two black brollies in it. And a hall chair covered in dark-brown baize.
Nevertheless, Chloe’s life ticked by peacefully enough at the foot of the stairs. It was always fascinating to watch as she fixed her eyes independently on a fly ahead of her on a branch. Those eyes could rotate and focus separately so that they could see two different objects at the same time. One eye could be looking upwards and to the left, the other might be wandering downwards and to the right. It meant Chloe could scan most of her terranium for food without moving her head. Once a fly was spotted, she’d creep forward, foot in front of foot. Then stop. Poised ready to strike. Mouth suddenly opening. Tongue suddenly whipping out, lightning-fast, uncoiling from the front of her mouth to stretch and strike the fly. Recoiling swiftly with fly pinned at the tip of it, glued in place by an ultra-sticky spit, 400 times more viscous than ours.
She often changed colour. Her basic hue was a mid-green. But could turn a dark grey. Contrary to popular belief any changes are not attempts at camouflage. More to do with controlling body temperature. So, the times Chloe went dark grey was when she was wanting to warm herself up and, as auntie’s hallway wasn’t the warmest of spaces, Chloe did have her occasional grey days. So, I was always careful to ensure the infra-red lamp was functioning correctly to keep her cosy as possible.
I read that another cause of skin colour change is to do with communication. A means of letting potential mates or rivals know what’s on a chameleon’s mind.
So that when Chloe suddenly was enveloped in bright yellow spots, I knew what was happening. She was ready to mate. At that point, I suddenly felt guilty. It wasn’t much of a life being stuck in auntie’s hallway with no chance there of finding a hunky boyfriend. Hence, I contacted our local small wildlife park hoping they might have a willing partner for her.
Chloe’s luck was in. The park did indeed have a chameleon of the same species. And yes, they’d be delighted to have her as an addition to their spacious vivarium, and so allow Chloe the chance to have some rumpy-pumpy in the jungle.
And so, she moved home and was soon well-spotted by her new admirer. A sign of some baby Chloes to come.