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Nature Abhors a Vacuum

IN 1977, when I was repeating my O’Levels in England, there might have been six people watching TV in my guardian’s London flat, all squirming with the need to pee, everyone craving a cup of tea, and no one willing to get up first, because, the moment a bottom left a chair, a chorus went up of, “I’ll have a cup!”

In the time of covid, my wife and I have approached domestic chores similarly, each of us trying, not to outwit, but to out-wait the other. With only two of us playing, though, the game of thrown-my-back-out-and-can’t-mop begins as a showdown at high noon and grows in tension from there; all we need is a blues harp soundtrack and a couple of tumbleweeds and we could be Western gunslingers.

Still, our lockdown approach to housekeeping has largely been to cut one another slack and let sleeping dustballs lie. We’d need a lot more than global despair and community ennui to provoke one of us to pick up a mop. (My wife, with dustpan-and-broom, does make daily US Marine-style search-and-destroy missions against the Vietcong lizard droppings, but she’s only ever delaying the last helicopter leaving the roof of the embassy in the salon.)

When it comes to finally admitting the vacuum has to be passed, like Joe Biden’s covid relief bill, through the matrimonial equivalent of reconciliation, and certainly not in a bipartisan manner, I have the advantage, since I wear slippers indoors and she goes barefoot. Grit on the floor doesn’t bother me until there’s enough to make my flip-flops start rolling. My wife, though, is a yoga instructor and has sadhu-like patience I would admire if it didn’t mean I was the one to fight up with the sandbars in the corners of the gallery.

The cobwebs billowing in the breeze in the windows looked like we’d installed diaphanous new grey drapes. I observed loudly how much dust there was everywhere but my wife, earphones on, came out of chair pose and slid gracefully into cobra pose. I reluctantly got up from my more or less permanent sofa-in-front-the-football pose and went to get out the battered old Electrolux, like any other condemned man headed for the gallows.

Luckily, music can rescue any mood and when I pressed “play”, by sheer serendipity, Humble Pie’s Rockin’ the Fillmore album blasted into my ears: “I want to tell you/ Even you people behind the glass plate at the back of the hall/ I’m ready”.

I was.

The spiders weren’t.

Our stairwell spans three floors, all filled with windows and, ergo, corners, and, ergo-ergo, cobwebs. In the three weeks I’d attempted to out-wait the Happy Namaste-er, the spider economy had boomed. Thick webs festooned the window frames like Columbus-era sailing ship rigging. Dead flies and moths, wrapped in webbing, dotted the webs, like ornaments on a Christmas tree, spider food silos storing subsistence for future spider recessions.

In the twinkling of a compound eye, their vast richness, the fruits of an economy that had soared for multiple generations, vanished, sucked down into a brand new bag.

The Electrolux blitzkrieg was over before before the guitar solo.

By the time I finished the upstairs windows, I’d lost count of the number of spider warehouses I’d disappeared, the economic havoc I’d wreaked. In any population, any sharp reduction in food supply results in death for some or for many; you try getting a box of mixed Nature Valley granola bars at PriceSmart.

There were just too many insect warehouses to avoid. The spiders had simply done too well in their period of peace and prosperity, precipitated by us lazing about watching Columbo and Chelsea.

What was clean windowsills for me would be famine for spider.

In shock, they skittered across the window panes; it was dead easy for me to imagine a naked little girl, napalmed clothes shed, arms flung wide, running.

My iPod shuffle offered up Jimi Hendrix’s 3rd Stone from the Sun, a musician and a tune I never skip, but I pressed the double forward arrows. The Beatles wanted me, I was so heavy. Skip. Bob Marley wondered whether this was love. Skip. J Geils Band’s angel was the centrefold. Skip. Mournful drums, funereal beat, sad melody, almost too poignant harmonica.

I let David Rudder’s Haiti play.

That evening, my wife, grinning with delight over cleanliness she had nothing at all to do with, said, “We shouldn’t let the place get so dirty again”.

“No,” I agreed. “It’s an extinction level event for arachnoids.”

“Eh?” she asked.

“Another episode of Columbo?” I said, picking up the DVD season one boxed set.

We wrapped up warm against the strong cold breeze. Peter Falk squinted at us from his one good eye.

Life was good.

And would remain so.

Until one of us wanted a cup of tea.

BC Pires is a flamethrower with the US Marines on the Insect Offensive

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