Something on the bathroom floor – small, silent and black, with a lot of legs. It’s also perfectly still, but know it’s not dead, yet. Only a common house spider, not the sort to leap on a chair and scream about – but it should be out doing something useful like eating flies or weaving a web somewhere, not here, clashing with the pale tiles….A Daddy-Long-Legs spider would be doomed – all that darting about – but may let this one live.
I’ve killed a lot of pests over time – washed them down plugholes or toilets, swatted them on walls, smothered them with powder or unwittingly trodden them underfoot. Most encounters have been brief, at a distance or away from home. Like the rats scurrying on the tracks of the Tube or the Paris Metro or the urban foxes, glimpsed from a window – flashes of red in the dark – or copper-coloured bugs in a hotel bed. But in the London years, some pests came closer and multiplied, as if members of the community….
Camden, 1992 – 2008 The flat was in an old council block, riddled with vermin-friendly pipes and pathways, so infestations and visits from Extreme Environmental Services were frequent. Hit-men in masks sprayed the estate with pesticide and planted pellets in dark corners. This worked with the Pharaoh ants, which went back to Africa, but when the mice came, a battle began.
The official exterminators weren’t allowed to use ‘inhumane’ methods, so the mice led us all a merry dance, leaving droppings wherever they went. I stuffed every nook and cranny with wire wool and left no food exposed – not easy with two eating machines, my boys, around…..but the mice danced on, ignoring all the boxes with poison bait. So the residents held a meeting, then bought up all the known supplies of traps, the traditional ones with glue pads and metal springs.
One Christmas Eve, the three of us sat around the glowing tree in a rare moment of peace and harmony, shattered by a loud squeak and a snap. The sound of an execution in the kitchen. The trap set in a cupboard had sprung shut and broken a mouse’s back. My elder son disposed of the body.
But the case of the cockroach was worse. It was under a table – large, ugly, faceless. I grabbed a glass tumbler, placed it over the insect and left it to suffocate and shrink for several days, which is why I remember it. The usually kind can be cruel. No need for blood on their hands. Like rodents, cockroaches are contaminators, known to bite and infect the flesh of the living and the dead. So no remorse – but the law of Karma may yet rise up and exact revenge for it all and bring me back as a dung beetle….
The closest of all encounters were with one of the smallest of species – lice, or rather the empty sacs of their eggs, which lived on us for months. Letters and leaflets arrived from the boys’ school with helpful pictures of the head-louse – horrible, hairy, wingless – and I spent a fortune on foul-smelling lotions with names like Nitty-Gritty. It was what Child Benefit was for. We spent hours grooming each other’s heads, like monkeys. Still have one of the fine-toothed nit combs.
A long time later, thousands of miles away, on an island in the Indian Ocean, another blood-sucking parasite. The mosquito. Spanish for ‘little fly’. I was born because of one.
The Seychelles, April 2018. Where the younger eating machine got married on a white beach. The resort was sprayed every week to keep the pest population under control; my repellent plugs, oils and candles also kept the bugs at bay. In the evening, I’d hear the high-pitched drone of the female mosquito, made by the beating of her wings, but she never settled on my skin. I didn’t get bitten, but sometime in 1942, my father did. One of millions of soldiers saved from recurrent malaria by a wonder drug: quinine. When he met and married my mother in 1943, they wanted a baby – fast, but quinine can inhibit the human sperm, so he stopped taking it long enough to conceive a child. A daughter he was never destined to see.
May, 2018. The still-life on the bathroom floor – the spider – has disappeared, who knows where or how, with no visible holes or gaps nearby, but there’s another solitary being crawling by the basin, with a drooping, prolapsed-looking abdomen and the tiniest waist in all of creation. A wasp.
I’ve never seen the point of wasps, except to annoy and sting people, but there’s something pathetic about its erratic progress around the tap, tooth-mug and shower gel, so when it starts to fly around again, I open the window wide. Then wave a white flannel like a flag in its direction – edging the wasp towards the space and the sky outside and after what seems like an hour or more, watch it escape.