I was taught some valuable lessons when I was a kid. Not all of them have necessarily been carried through to adult life, it has to be said; knowing that Tootles the Taxi would go anywhere was important to me as a four year old, but Tootles never seemed to be available when I was wandering the streets of London, inebriated, at three in the morning. He probably wouldn’t have gone south of the river anyway.
Some learnings were certainly more valuable than others. Like “if you put your hand on the side of an oven, you will almost certainly get burnt”. Admittedly I learned that one the hard way. And despite that, I still haven’t learned it particularly well. My hands currently bear four or five cooking-related injuries, including a particularly fine scar from pouring scalding hot oil on the back of my hand in the pursuit of the world’s greatest roast potatoes at Christmas. And I’ve burned my arms on the bars of the oven so many times that I have to mention my culinary clumsiness to strangers whenever I’m wearing a t-shirt, for fear that they will otherwise assume I’m a cutter or a heroin addict.
Brit Out of Water Sr taught me that it’s futile to attempt to stop the blades of a lawn mower with your fingers – a valuable life lesson that I believe we could all benefit from. And my grandmother taught me that even the most mundane thing could be made magical with the aid of a little bit of imagination. Any woman who could manage to transform an underpass in Chester into ‘The Secret Garden’ for her two grandchildren has to be admired.
But most of all, I learned that you should always be watching out for little insects in the middle of the night. After all, every night as she tucked me in, She Who Was Born To Worry would say, “Sleep tight – mind the bed bugs don’t bite.” And then she’d wander down the stairs, leaving me at the mercy of an unseen foe.
As a kid being brought up in Wales, the bed bug had a faint air of mystery about it. I wasn’t entirely sure they existed, and I’d never met anyone who had seen one. For all I knew, they could have been three feet long and neon pink. The only certainty was that one of them could sneak under my duvet when I was dreaming of marrying Agnetha from ABBA, and that it would be partial to sinking its teeth into me for a quick midnight snack. And frankly, the idea scared the living bejeesus out of me.
As I grew older though, I assumed that the bed bug was one of the many nefarious creatures that your parents invent in order to keep your behavio
ur in check. You know, the bogeyman who lives under the stairs and devours children who don’t eat their peas, or the troll who keeps a list of the naughty children who don’t say their pleases and thank you’s – that kind of thing. As you move through puberty and into adulthood, you slowly reali sze that these things don’t exist, and you slowly put aside your fears. Although clearly you still mentally file each of the creatures away in the category marked ‘things to scare your own children with in the future’.
But then I came to New York. And I found out that bed bugs really do exist. Essentially, one of the things that you will never read in any guide book about New York is that everybody – and I mean everybody – lives in fear of bed bugs. Pretty much every subway train carries an advert somewhere along it for infestation treatment services, all featuring huge magnified shots of the evil little blood sucking bastards. You often see all manner of bed bug repellent or protective products on the shelves of homeware stores, and stories on how bed bugs have ruined a person’s life are a regular feature in newspapers and magazines.
Fortunately we haven’t suffered with a bed bug problem, and touch wood we never will. Frankly, the idea of bagging up all my possessions and turning our home into a startlingly accurate recreation of the quarantine scenes towards the end of E.T. fills me with fear and dread. In an environment like New York, though, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the paranoia of it all. With leprosy, the affected had to carry around a bell warning others of their presence; for the bed bug-afflicted, it’s the appearance of an abandoned mattress and bed outside the home that warns all around of the possibility of impending doom.
Usually the embarrassed victim will mark the bed with a lurid “DO NOT TAKE – BED BUGS” or maybe a skull and crossbones alongside a tasteful artist’s impression of a remarkably lovable-looking insect. But all I can think about is the
pavementsidewalk looking like the bug equivalent of a rush hour subway platform after a train has been taken out of service because of a faulty fingernail; bugs everywhere, desperately casting around for a passing boot or stroller to give them a ride to a new abode, away from the chemicals and cold city streets.
Fortunately I learned another good lesson when I was a kid – always cross the road if you think you’re walking into trouble. If there’s going to be any biting in my bedroom, it ain’t going to be by an insect, let me tell you.