SMOKE: Creepy Crawlie

Originally published: 10 May 2004

Every few months or so some freak is discovered living in a backwater somewhere in Wisconsin with a house-full of maddened, crazed animals and the floors stacked knee-deep in faeces. This month is no different.

Some arsehole (in Wisconsin) has been discovered in a house with about 200 animals, including scorpions, ducks, carnivorous beetles and alligators, which she fed by going out onto the highway and scraping up roadkill. About 70 ducks were discovered in a downstairs basement - elsewhere they found snakes, turtles, toads and rats.

The neighbours tipped the cops off about the stench emanating from the apartment, the cops investigated, the chick protested she was an animal lover, they didn't listen, and her menagerie was cleared out. The usual story.

I wonder what the psychological condition is called? It's a definite 'thing' - some folks have a deep need to share their houses with wild animals and insects, and it has to come from somewhere. It's barmy.

All I've got is a Jack Russell, and I'm one evil mindgame away from electro-shock therapy and a lengthy turn in an asylum - there's no way on Earth I'd cope with 70-odd ducks crapping and quacking in my basement.

I'm not scared of much - death is my biggie, and I do occasionally worry about Mahendra - but other than sharks, rhinos and the police I'm pretty cool with most stuff.

But if it's got more than four legs I turn into a whimpering baby, and I'm ashamed to admit that the only way I can kill a cockroach is to unload six slugs from a .44 Colt at the mother, or hurl a molotov cocktail at it from the safety of the kitchen counter.

No way I'd ever get close enough to it to hit it with a shoe, and in fact - just the thought of hitting it with a shoe and having it pop and crackle beneath it is altogether too much to bear.

Same thing with spiders. I've loathed them since I can remember, particularly after a tale my mother related involving her, a slice of toast with jam, a great hairy spider losing it's footing on the ceiling above, and so on.

My spider loathing is so bad that I was unable to play The Lion King beyond the sixth level on my old Sega 64, because the animated, 2-d spiders freaked me out too much.

One of the worst has got to be the Parktown Prawn. Essentially it's an oversized cricket, but bigger even than a locust, and it feels nothing for ripping into your jugular and feasting on your throat.

When I lived in Pretoria our garden was a field of nasty surprises. You'd be strolling casually of a summer's day - with a pocketful of hands, a scuff in your step and a whistled, carefree tune - and some bright red Prawn would ambush you from behind the doringboom, leaping four feet from the long grass to your throat while flailing savagely with its two-inch mandibles and staring with insane rage into your eyes.

It's the reason I left Pretoria, never to return. You have no idea, man.

The more legs the worse the monster and creatures like crabs, lobsters, locusts and spiders are creatures that deserve extinction, and a painful one at that.

But there's just something about the cockroach, isn't there? It's the lion of the insect world - indestructible, unimaginably vicious and king of all it surveys, and it's also the ugliest, most aggressive invertebrate there is.

I've got more cockroach horror tales than anyone has a right to, but two in particular are never far from the fringes of any given nightmare.

I went to Durban in the summer of '97 and it was a big mistake. Friends of the family owned a hotel on the Durban beachfront (called the Killarney) and offered to let me stay there at a greatly reduced rate, and it was a 20-minute walk from the theatre where I was performing.

I was pretty stoked, because it meant I could save more money to take home with me after my three-month contract.

What I didn't know was that the Killarney was a one-star, run-down, filthy hovel of a place, filled with cheap bus tours of kids from the Natal Midlands who spent their afternoons pissing all over the lifts.

And the place was infested with cockroaches. I am fully aware of the dictionary definition of the word 'infested', and it's not a word I use lightly or without careful consideration, and believe me when I tell you that it is the only appropriate word to describe the truth.

When I got back to my room late at night (usually blind drunk, at around 4am) I would open my door and literally hear the sound of them scurrying for cover, and flicking on the light would reveal the walls covered with rapidly-disappearing cockroaches. Most of them weren't all that big, but the sheer weight of numbers was appalling.

I had two weapons at my disposal - a huge can of Doom, and a can of Brut 33, which - when used in conjunction with my lighter - was a highly effective flamethrower.

But most of the time they crawled into the numerous cracks and fissures in the walls and around the ancient skirting boards, and eventually I would have to lie down in the sweltering heat - naked - and know that as soon as I was still they would come creeping out again in the early light of morning as I slept, covering my walls once more.

I don't know how I managed three months there, particularly considering my natural aversion to the bastards. It was December and January, and in those months Durban is sticky with humidity, and as hot at 4am as it is at noon. Ideal conditions for cockroaches.

My lasting image of the Durban Cockroaches is not of the ones on my wall, but rather a shocking sight I saw while out one night. We were driving over a bridge and on the side of the road was a corn cob which someone had obviously thrown out of their window, and it was black with big, moist, feverish cockroaches.

They were streaming out of a nearby drain, and formed a path a foot thick between the drain and the cob. Crawling all over one another in a frenzy of feeding. Shiny wings lit up by the moon.

My face is itchy just describing it.

The other cockroach horror tale I have is one from a few years ago, when I lived in a huge house which was 150 years old. The floorboards were old, and the drainage system outside ineffective, and we were regularly given nasty surprises by Cape Cockroaches trying to get in.

Tashi was very good with the drains - armed with buckets of caustic soda and other industrial cleaning products she would regularly flush the drains, and as such the problem was kept largely under control.

But on occasion we'd spot one, and the ensuing debate as to who was going to kill it was always complex.

One evening I was alone at home, and had just awoken from a late afternoon sleep. The sun had gone down and I walked into the kitchen and switched on the light, and on the far side of the room - at the bay doors - were three enormous cockroaches coming over the top of the doors.

I made a dive for the poison cupboard and grabbed the Doom, only to discover that there wasn't any left. By now the three raiders were coming down the doors and I grabbed a mop for self defence, and then the unthinkable happened - two of them launched into the air and flew at me with a whirr of wet wings.

It was like their sole intention - from the moment they saw me - was to get me, and I back-pedalled into the bedroom, forgetting to shut the door. One of them flew in and made a beeline for me, and struggling to control the surge of terror I swung at it with my mop, knocking it onto the bedside table.

I raced for the side door and barely made it before the second cockroach came in (they hunt in pairs), but I got out and ran round to the telephone table. Fortunately the third cockroach hadn't yet had time to cut the cable, so I was able to get through to Tashi, who was in the middle of a drama class.

Screaming down the phone - insane with horror - I somehow managed to convey the urgency of the situation, and the poor woman was picturing the house crashing down under the weight of a thousand mutant cockroaches by the time I was done.

She fortified herself with an armful of poison on her way back, and like an avenging angel swept through the house on a mission of death. By the time she was done the gutters ran red and the only sounds were the moans of the dying, and the burbling of the madman in the corner.

Chicks, huh? Sheesh.

So I'll take my Jack Russell, thanks. Mindgames and all.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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