A few years ago, when we lived in the art-deco flat in Double Bay, I was woken by a mysterious night visitor. It was the week before Christmas and as I lay in my bed in a state of alarm the red numbers on the digital clock clicked forward to three thirty six am. I remained very still, almost without breath, listening carefully, but I couldn’t stop my mind from ricocheting wildly.
Is it under the bed?
Does it know I’m here?
What is it doing?
Was I dreaming?
And then there it was again, the sound that had woken me. The scuttling of claws on wood. It scurried into the room, dashed under my bed, did something, I don’t know what, and then scurried out again.
Where did it go?
Is it in the kitchen?
How big is it?
I lay in bed, besieged, unable to move. I was too scared to put on the lamp. Irrational, I know. It was probably just a mouse.
It could be a rat.
Maybe it’s Santa.
A bit early.
This went on for several nights until finally I summoned the courage to get up. I crept into the kitchen and flicked on the light, determined to catch it out. But there was nothing there. I had been expecting to see something large and furry, somewhere between a mouse and a possum. Hopefully not a rat. But if it had to be a rat, perhaps it could be a native rat. Perhaps some yellow-footed antechinus; some remnant of ancient rainforest life. But as my eyes adjusted I realised that my kitchen was a veritable menagerie of night life. Christmas beetles flying suicidal missions against the window pane, moths vibrating against light fittings, spiders gliding astutely behind objects, and cockroaches….
I hate cockroaches.
… scattering, much more slowly than I would like into the dark recesses under the bright kitchen appliances. All except one fellow, a particularly large, particularly shiny one, that calmly continued to clear the crumbs off the kitchen table. And when I swatted my hand at it, it didn’t flinch. It was comfortable, unafraid, completely habituated to living off my leftovers. And as I stood there I felt a little miffed.
Am I the stranger here?
Another spider, a good sized huntsman, crouched at the sink, watching me. They’re supposed to be natural pesticides. They trap and eat insects. I have a good relationship with these spiders, as long as they stay on the ceiling. But this one had decided to come down for a drink of water.
The cockroach was still on the table. I acted swiftly, grabbing the can of insecticide that I kept on top of the fridge, and spraying a jet of poison right at it. I kept my finger on the trigger until the force of the spray pushed it right off the table.
This is my home. I don’t remember agreeing to share it with these strange creatures.
On the floor, having landed on its back, the cockroach struggled for a few seconds and then managed to right itself; but the chemicals had done their job, and it took only a few wobbly steps before it stopped.
The spider was still watching.
Why is it still watching? What does it think I’m going to do? Let the cockroach keep eating off my table? Where would that end? Already the house is invaded by these pests. They are actually waking me up. It’s only a matter of time before they eat me alive. I have nothing to feel guilty about. Tomorrow I will ring the pest control man.
I picked up the dustpan and broom and swept the dead cockroach into the bin. Then I washed my hands carefully in the sink. I didn’t want to breathe in pesticide while I slept.
Pesticide. Insecticide. Matricide. Patricide. Suicide. Homicide.
From the Latin, to cut down, to kill.
I noticed that the spider had gone.
But as I turned, I swiveled awkwardly, coming down on the side of my foot, because there it was, splayed in all its furry geometry in the centre of one of the floor tiles. My foot had almost come down on top of it.
Why was it on the floor? Did it want to eat the cockroach? Didn’t it know that’s dangerous?
Seeing as I was trying to second guess the random thoughts of an arachnid, I decided that it was time to go back to bed.
Over the next few days, as I lay in bed each night, I once again heard the scurrying back and forth of my mysterious visitor. The claws tapped in and out of the room in the dark but I didn’t get up. I just remained still, exhibiting the patience of a spider, watching, waiting, wondering.
What does it do under my bed?
I listened to the sounds outside. The occasional bird woken in its sleep; a bat crying as it ranged from tree to tree; what might be the low hoot of an owl as it landed on a wire, waiting the arrival of its next mouse; and the ever present snuffle and growl of possums. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to find out what this creature was up to. Because then I would have to do something about it. And the killing of the cockroach, witnessed by eight eyes, had unnerved me.
I’d looked up Huntsman spiders on the internet the day after. They don’t have webs, which I knew. But they have eight eyes, which I didn’t know. Most spiders have four but the Huntsman has eight. I got so fascinated by my research that I forgot to ring up about the pest control.
After I learnt about the spiders I willed myself to look under the bed. There was nothing there. Nothing but the usual clutter that fills this conveniently out of sight storage area; fold up chairs, suitcases, rolls of leftover Christmas wrap, a set of golf clubs, the vacuum cleaner. And what looked like large tumbleweeds; strange balls of fluff made from human hair, dust and other detritus.
I don’t remember storing them there.
I will have to vacuum.
And then, two nights before Christmas, I was woken again, but this time not by claws clicking under my bed but by the sound of a glass shattering. It sounded like one of the wine glasses. The good ones that were standing next to the sink waiting to be washed. And when I flicked on the kitchen light, there it was. Rather large. Much larger than the cockroach. And very furry. And very fast. I watched it race across the space between the splashbacks and the sink, and leap into the gap behind the stove. A gap I’d never noticed before. And as I leaned over the stove to look into the gap, I noticed that the counter next to the stove was covered in hundreds of tiny repeating paw prints with little claws, like a screen print.
So the next morning I went to the supermarket and bought a wooden rat trap, plastic gloves and a huge bottle of disinfectant. It was Christmas Eve and the woman at the check out made a joke that someone would be delighted with their presents tomorrow. I managed a thin smile. I had an important task to do before I could indulge in the spirit of Christmas.
When I got home I searched the internet; cheese wrapped in lettuce is apparently the most effective bait. I set the trap on the floor, right next to the kitchen stove. Then I filled a bucket with water and poured in a huge amount of disinfectant. I opened the double cupboard doors under the sink to get out a cloth rag. I was determined to scrub down every inch of counter and floor, every inch of kitchen, every inch of my bedroom, every inch of the house. I had to get right down on my hands and knees, and reach behind bottles and plastic bags, to get at the rags. I couldn’t find them so I had to pull everything out of the cupboard. And that’s when I saw it.
It looked like a small sculpture. A soft grey-blue felt bowl.
Are they the rags?
It was like something that a mother would carry a small child in; or an ancient artefact, like a primitive form of basket weaving, that you might see under glass in a museum; or a whole lot of hair and fluff pulled out of a vacuum cleaner and woven through with strips of gnawed fabric.
It’s a nest!
This is what it’s been up to.
Is it planning to move the whole family in?
My heart was beating very quickly. I had to act now. There was no room for anyone else at this inn. I got the vacuum cleaner out from under the bed, plugged it in, switched it on, and aimed the plastic brush head straight at the object. It was like watching a python swallowing a small bird. With a gluttonous roar the vacuum cleaner sucked that beautiful object into its belly. When it was over I switched it off and closed the cupboard door. Then I took the tea towel from the rack, soaked it in the bucket of disinfectant, and eliminated the pattern of paws from the counter top. That’s all it took. It was all over. Now I could get down to the business of preparing for Christmas. I had presents to wrap and a trifle to make.
But later that afternoon, as I was spooning a layer of custard over the top of the sponge finger biscuits, and sipping some of the sherry that I’d reserved for the trifle, my eye caught sight of the rat trap wedged in between the stove and the sink cabinet, with its gift of cheese and lettuce. And on the cupboard door, just beneath the overhanging ledge of the counter, was the Huntsman, eyes wide open, watching, waiting, wondering.
Haven’t you done enough damage?
Do you really think you’ll sleep tonight?
Will you ever be able to wash this stain from your soul?
I was a little unnerved. I didn’t usually communicate telepathically with spiders. And this eight eyed, eight legged anthropod was accusing me of killing one of the glorious creatures of this mysterious universe, created by God, or whatever else, and simply going about its daily survival.
Very quickly, before the rational part of my brain could question my assumption that a spider could practice thought transference, I stepped on the foot pedal of the nearby bin and jammed the lid open. Then I gingerly reached for the rectangle of wood that was quietly waiting to slay the innocent rodent. Using the tines of a fork I released the catch which had held the lethal spring back and let it snap shut. Relived that it hadn’t crushed one of my fingers in the process, I threw the trap into the bin and securely lowered the lid.
And so, with a lighter heart, I took up my spoon once more and ate the rest of the custard, warm and straight from the bowl. And then I drank the sherry, so as to be merry, when I welcomed my faithful friend once more, on that night before Christmas.
The images used in this blog post are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons – “Santa’s arrival” by Clement C. Moore; “A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary with butterflies, a bumble bee, beetles and other insects” by Jan van Kessel the Elder; Illustration by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville from Hetzel edition of 20000 Leagues Under The Sea; “Control of rats and mice” by Tracy Storer, University of California Davis Libraries; “Marley’s ghost”, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. Illustrations by John Leech.