things that live in the cellar
It all started innocently enough. It was during the summer, I was ready for bed and just doing something last-minute on the computer. The rest of the family had retired a good while ago and everything was quiet. There was a gentle breeze coming through the open (but fly-screen-protected) window. I heard a scuttling, rustling, scratching noise behind and above me and thought: ‘Oh no, one of the dragonflies has got in!’ It was exactly the kind of noise they make when they get inside the house and fly along the walls, trying to find the window again. I turned around and saw a huge, eight-legged creature scurrying along the wall behind me, just below the ceiling, its legs on the wallpaper producing the sound I’d heard.
My heart stopped, my breath stopped and I felt like screeching, but I didn’t dare move. The spider came to a stop in the corner of the room. Unfortunately, that corner was just above the door and I needed to use the door to get help. Slowly I stood up, knees knocking, my eyes fixed on the fleshy, hard-shelled critter and slowly, slowly I inched towards the door, keeping as far away from its corner as I could. I eased open the door, sure that any sudden movement would send it running off, and as much as I didn’t want it sitting above my door, I wanted it even less below my bed, behind my books or beneath my desk. That would have meant evacuating the room.
Once safely outside, I closed the door equally carefully and raced up two flights of stairs to get to my parents’ bedroom. The side of the bed facing the door is my Mum’s, and she is a very light sleeper, but for an emergency like this I really needed my Dad. I crept around the bed in the dark, trying not to wake my mother and got entangled in the carpet that the dog had thoughtfully rearranged earlier to make a big, soft, cushiony pile for his spoiled head to rest on and almost fell right on top of my Dad. He slept through it, but when I’d managed to rouse him (“Dad! Wake up! Right now!”) and had dissuaded him from his notion that either the house was on fire or one of us was on her deathbed, he was awesome beyond belief. I told him of my intruder and apologized for waking him as we hurried downstairs and he was calm and cool and just said: “That’s quite alright.”
I didn’t dare go in the room again, so he equipped himself with an old metal can that had at some distant past contained paint and a thick piece of cardboard and thus armed, bravely entered my room. I waited outside, nervously shifting my weight from one foot to the other, wondering if I could ask him to snatch my blanket and pillow if it got away and if I should seek refuge in my sister’s room or sleep on the couch. And then he came out, my Dad, my hero, gingerly holding the paint can in one hand and pressing the cardboard over the opening with the other hand. I hastened to open the door to the outside, so he could throw it out, and that’s what he did. He also admitted that it had been exceptionally large. I returned to my room, shut the door, shut the window, switched on all the lights, checked all the corners and finally fell into sleep. Yes, I left the light on.
This could be the end of the story, but actually, there’s more.
Two days later I opened the door in the morning, ready for another day, when, with my foot in the air, I realized that a spider – the first one’s brother, its cousin or maybe its father – was sitting right there on the floor, pressed against the doorframe, poised to storm my room. To this day, I’m proud of my reaction in that moment. In one leap, I jumped across the spider, while at the same time slamming the door shut behind me. Again, it was Dad to the rescue. This time, however, he messed up by dropping the can, so the thing could escape and hide behind the small cabinet in the hallway. I kept my room tightly shut for weeks, only opening the one half of the window that has a fly-screen cover for ventilation. And every time I opened the door, I peered out cautiously, checking the floor and the ceiling. (This spider fell prey- many, many weeks later – to a vacuum-cleaner-attack when it was incautious enough to show itself again.)
The next encounter with that particular spider family was in my bathroom. There isn’t a full bathroom down in the cellar, but there’s a toilet and wash-basin and while I was brushing my hair one morning, I dropped one of my hairpins, bent down to retrieve it and froze – another of the beasts was sitting right there, half protruding from its hiding place between the floor and the toilet fixtures, ready to pinch my hairpin. That’s what it looked like, anyway. I pride myself in how calm I stayed at that point. I left the hairpin to its spidery destiny and simply left the room, closing the door behind me. I went upstairs for breakfast and mentioned the spider, looking hopefully at my Dad. He seemed disinclined to be heroic before coffee, so my Mum got up and said: “I’ll do it. I’ve raised five children, I’m not afraid of a spider.” I tried to explain that this was no ordinary spider, but she only seemed exasperated by my efforts to save her. So down we went again and she equipped herself with the spider-removal tools (the paint can and the cardboard) and opened the door and I pointed it out to her and to my deep (and evil) satisfaction, she jerked back. “It’s certainly big,” she said. I said yes. (In my head, though, I said: “Yes!!! I told you so and you wouldn’t listen!”) She was absolutely heroic nonetheless and captured it, only to let the can fall again, so that we had to resort to the vacuum cleaner once more.
All of this brings us to last night. Last night, what happened was this:
I open the bathroom door, already in my pajamas, ready for bed and there it is, right in the middle of the hallway, with all the doors open. Probably not moving because it can’t decide which room to infest with its presence. I forbid myself to screech, concentrating on gathering my courage instead. First priority: somehow reach the door of my room so I can close it. I creep around it in as much of a big circle as the geography of the cellar hallway allows me, on tiptoe so it won’t feel the vibrations and scurry off. I manage that first and most important task. I even remember closing the bathroom door before I leave it. Now it’s only me and it. I feel a little like a Western hero in a standoff. The only way of escape is behind the spider and there’s nothing in my part of the hallway that I could put over it, no bucket, no paint can, no nothing. After debating with myself for a while and growing steadily colder with bare feet on the tiles, I finally manage to jump across it. Then I run up the stairs and get the vacuum cleaner down and carefully ease back into the hallway. I know my duty. There’s no choice here about whether or not I should call help, since the parents are currently enjoying the beaches of South India. It hasn’t moved. It’s mocking me. I plug in the vacuum, roll off enough cable so that I have freedom of movement, extend the arm to the fullest, switch on the machine … and everything goes dark.
At this point I’m freaking, my fertile imagination is painting technicolour pictures of a spider racing towards me, hundreds of spiders, the whole hallway awash in spiders, all intent on climbing all over me and I can feel a tingling, tickling sensation all along my legs and with one gigantic bound I fly through the air, out through the door, race up the stairs, heart pounding, sweat on my forehead, up, up, up until I reach my sister’s room, where I burst in on her, probably with my hair turned grey and my eyes rolling wildly. She’s in the middle of putting cream on her face and looks at me in dismay. I proceed to unfold my tale, which makes her two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, her knotted and combined locks part and each particular hair stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.
Alright, maybe it doesn’t quite have that effect, and she doesn’t have knotted and combined locks anyway, but I couldn’t resist. (Such a great picture of terror, isn’t it? Also, I’ve always wondered why the porcupine would be fretful, but that’s another story.) She looks at me and says: “There’s a spider and you call me for help?” I have to add at this point that my dislike of spiders is but a gentle breeze to the raging hurricane of her fear of them. “I only need you to fix the electricity,” I plead. She agrees to come as long as she doesn’t have to look at the terrible sight. So down we go. (At first, accompanied by the dog, trailing his cuddly blanket behind him and his face all mussed up because we’ve rudely wakened him from his first slumber, but he’s man enough to know his responsibility and accompany the womenfolk to the danger. We sent him back to his bed. He leaves, still half asleep.) My sister, the genius, clicks the fuse back into place and waits at the top of the stair. I descend, careful to check where it has moved to (nowhere, still the same spot, still mocking me), switch on the vacuum and do the evil deed. After that, I go through every reachable and almost unreachable part of my room, vacuuming hundreds of imaginary spiders before I give my sister the all-clear and finally retire to dreams that are mercifully spider-free.
The morale of this tale? If there’s nobody there to be a hero for you, you just have to be your own.