For the last two years I’ve joined in the #atozchallenge, namely to post every weekday in April using each letter of the alphabet in turn. In 2015 it was places I’d been to, in 2016 it was London themed. This year it is a dictionary of my family, recounting incidents small and large that have taught me lessons down the years, caused me consternation or generally seared themselves into my memory. I hope you enjoy them. To find other bloggers doing the challenge and maybe be inspired yourself, check out the A to Z Blogging Challenge Blog, here.
One of dad’s passions was collecting insects, mostly butterflies and moths. He bred them too. Now that was both fun and a great lesson in patience as we waited for them to go through their full cycle. Once we found these wonderfully hairy caterpillars and brought them home. I think they were of the Buff Tip moth. Dad spent some time carefully transferring them to a suitable vessel in which they could feed and eventually pupate.
That night his eyes puffed up and his skin turned blotchy. He was allergic to their tiny hairs which they shed as a protective measure. ‘Urticators’ was the expression, I think.
Being subjected to insect weaponry was just one downside of this family hobby. My earliest experience of the pain that insects can inflict has to be chasing around the garden and disturbing a wasp nest. The assault was Trump-like in its surprise and comprehensiveness. Mum had this bag thing with some blue goo in it. I was an indigo Dalmatian for sometime but I think it help reduce the stings. Was it then I learnt vinegar neutralises wasp stings and bicarbonate of soda sorted out bee stings? All these useful life lessons.
I’ve had this way with wasps ever since. I led a scout troop as a youngster. Eagle Patrol. On a camp in Scotland we were told to lead our lads on a run and then a dip in the river. I took my responsibility seriously unlike my team who dawdled and hung back, moaning. They knew what they were at because I trod on a wasp nest while sporting a pair of maroon budgie smugglers and a frown.
They watched, amazed as I threw myself into the river to escape the mad hoards. The sting on the back of my neck was the worst. That seemed to go on for ever. But what I really remember was having wasps fly at me with their torsos bent and stings sticking towards me ready to slam into me. Truly frightening.
Since then I’ve probably disturbed three or four more in the garden and had the defenders fly in that twisted terrifying way as I’ve retreated, sharpish, for a distant shed. We did a similarly stupid thing in a Gite in France once but this time it was a hornets’ nest. If there’s one good thing about hornets – and there aren’t many, frankly – it is they are slow flyers. This time I could easily out run the B52s of the insect world – but not before they invaded the kitchen leaving me to clear them out.
Probably the worst insect invasion was in Bath. We were just out of uni but still attending student parties; this one was in a flat in a tall Georgian house overlooking the weirs right in the centre.
It was probably in early September and very sunny. The party was boozy and finished about 3am with people crashing out all over. I awoke about 7, dehydrated and went in search of a glass of water in the kitchen A woman I didn’t recognise sat on the floor outside, looking distraught. When I asked what was wrong, she said, ‘my boyfriend is trapped in there,’ indicating the kitchen.
I still drank my share of booze back then so, hungover and squinting into the strong sunlight that flooded the doorway as I opened it, I stepped inside. It was madness. Somewhere, just outside there must have been a massive wasp nest. The warm, spilt drink had acted like a magnet and with the windows thrown open the night before they had had free rein to fly in and get themselves utterly potted.
The apparently trapped boyfriend lay on the floor with a tea towel over his head, fast asleep while about 100 wasps mingled around his carcass like some weird piece of performance art. I wish I had had a camera. Meanwhile, through the slightly open door I could hear the woman moaning, ‘oh god he’s dead’.
Now this is one of life’s moral mazes. One, it wasn’t my flat and I could easily get the water I needed in the bathroom. Two, the boyfriend was patently alive and indifferent to his situation. Three, the wasps seemed perfectly content to kill themselves with booze. Four, it was seven stupid o’clock, I was still almost a teenager who needed lots of sleep ending at midday and didn’t need to be awake at seven on a Sunday, having ingested my body weight in cider within the preceding 12 hours.
On the other hand the woman was getting more hysterical.
Please don’t think too well of me; okay I was well brought up to react to the damsel + distress conundrum. So helping was the default position, But if I’m being honest it was mostly because I can’t stand whining. I shut the kitchen door and surveyed the scene again.
‘Surveyed’ is a glamorous term for peered through slitted eyes and tried to find a small part of my brain that functioned.
Ideally the noble gesture would have been to act as ‘amicus curiae’ to these besozzled insects and helped them leave whence they came to sleep off their sugar highs.
In practice some form of mass slaughter was the only sensible idea that was cranially supported at that time. I eased my way to the sink, manoeuvred the hoards from a glass, swigged a half gallon of water and addressed my problem.
Option one was spray. At home mum would have something deadly under the sink. But this was a student flat; all that the ‘under the sink’ cupboard contained was one packet of Rizlas, a half eaten pork pie and a small, sad psychology student called Gareth who claimed he was escaping the tyranny of the thought police but later I found out had just missed the deadline on his dissertation. He was also allergic to wasp stings, or so I gathered when he said could I please hurry up and get rid of the little sods.
Option two was to try and persuade the jolly little winos who, by this time were singing Kumbaya in strangely high pitched voices, to go back out of the window; the only trouble being that more were coming in the same way and they wanted the party to continue and not find that some 5 foot 10 lump of booze-marinated grizzle wanted to close it down.
So I was left with Option three which, in truth had been plans A, B and C from the start. I shut the window, I tied two rather sticky but strangely invigorating tea towels round my head and face and dampened a third. For the next 30 minutes it was carnage. Emotionally I was wrecked; you don’t kill that many little lives without it having some sort of impact. I mean, you get lost in the slaughter. When the battle is so one sided you de-insectise the opposition, and it becomes an almost scientific experience as you consider the most efficient ways to impart death; you challenge yourself to kill multiple times with one blow. Undoubtedly you become inured to what you are actually doing.
When it was done I swept up the victims into a bin bag; I couldn’t count how many but it ran into dozens, hundreds even. Halfway through the boyfriend awoke and watched me for a while. Eventually he prised himself upright and nodded to the door. ‘Piss’ was all he managed to say before leaving. I heard the woman ask if he was ok. ‘Sweet’ was all he managed.
At 8.30 my host appeared. ‘Jim said you might need a hand. Wassup?’
I was sat at the table, drinking tea. I don’t think anyone could really help me then. Well only one person. I handed said host my cup and went and joined Gareth in the cupboard.
Of course, while wasps have generated this post, if we want to discuss the worst, most persistent and evil insect when it comes to biting it is the Scottish midge, the only species that I know of that has evolved to attack the denizens of a country, namely the English. But that polemic is for another time.