Monthly Archives: February 2010

Mind the bed bugs don’t bite

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 behaviour 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 realisze 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.

I’m a lover, not a fighter

When the desire to get into a fight was given out, it’s fair to say that I was probably sitting underneath a table somewhere playing with an Etch-A-Sketch. Given that I never had the punching power of a Ricky Hatton, or the ability to flee from trouble with the pace of Usain Bolt, I used to simply put my head down and hope that nobody would bother battering an awkward looking kid whose biggest interest was collecting football stickers.

That said, though, it’s almost impossible to go 36 years without getting into some sort of fight. Incredibly, I’ve only managed two – and let’s just say that I’ve not shown the kind of talent to worry Manny Pacquiao just yet.

The first one probably came in 1987, in the entrance way to my school. Before school started, kids would throw their bags in a big pile at the side of the hallway, and then head outside to play footballsoccer with a tennis ball, or have a crafty cigarette behind the woodwork studio.

On the day in question, I noticed a kid from the year above me picking up my bag and flinging it across the room. After – erm – politely enquiring as to his purpose (using a succession of choice words from the 1971 edition of The Filthy Sailor’s Dictionary), the two of us squared up to each other.

Now, there are a number of important things to note here. Anti-confrontation though I may be, you have to draw the line somewhere. And for me ‘somewhere’ is just around the point you see your bag (covered in music and football scrawlings) sailing through the air in a perfect high speed arc. That said, I would not have taken matters further with someone a year older than me if it hadn’t been for the fact that he was at least a foot smaller and boasted a body shape that almost certainly made him the original inspiration for the Weebles.

What followed can only be described as ‘handbags at dawn’. Defying the notion that weebles wobble but they don’t fall down, the two of us ended up scrabbling around in the mélange of bags, pulling at each others hair and grappling for holds with all the effectiveness of a partially paralyzed wrestler. Who lost his sight three years ago. Along with a leg.

Finally I managed to hold the kid down with one hand, and pulled my fist back into the air to deliver the coup de grace fist to his irritatingly smarmy face. I took one glance back to admire my fist before it plunged headlong into the sinews and cartilage of my foe’s nose, and shuddered in horror as the face of my Latin teacher filled my vision. Mr Johnson – or “Dickchin” as his student charges so eloquently tagged him – shook his head, separated the two of us, and sent us on our way. I can only assume that he was so piteous of the manner of the fight that he couldn’t quite bring himself to punish us.

My second fight came almost nine years later, after a frankly regrettable evening with one of my longest-standing friends, who now makes his living by offering insightful analysis of the Asian money markets in one of the world’s leading financial newspapers. Back then, he was as easily influenced as me, as became apparent after the two of us headed to the cinema to see the B-movie schlockfest that was “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

For those of you who haven’t seen it (and I’m hoping that there are plenty of you), there’s a scene in the movie where the likes of Juliette Lewis and George Clooney sit around a table at the delightfully named Titty Twister strip club, drinking from a bottle of spiritsliquor. It was probably the one memorable scene from an otherwise forgettable movie, and when my friend and I emerged, we walked straight into the pub next door and ordered double shots of whisky.

Eight double shots and an hour or two later, the two of us found ourselves singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” on a snowy Cambridge street, in the general direction of the flatapartment occupied by my friend’s then-girlfriend. To be fair, she’s now his wife and mother of his two children, but from the expletives she issued forth when opening her third floor window, it was touch and go for a moment.

Barely able to focus, let alone walk, I zigzagged my way back towards home. For some reason, despite the fact that it was by now about 1am, I decided that it would be good to take a shortcut through a local shopping precinctmall. Strangely the doors failed to give as I pushed them (the fact that there were no lights on inside should have been a clue to me), and as I turned to walk away, a man sitting on the steps of an adjacent restaurant with his girlfriend laughed and swore at me.

Now, admittedly I shouldn’t have flipped him the v’sbird. But as I walked away I thought no more of him. Until he ran after me, that is. To be honest, I didn’t see his fist until it connected with my jaw. The second time he swung, I remember seeing his clenched hand by his side, but the effects of the whisky meant I didn’t see it again before it connected with my eye. At that point, my French side kicked in, and I legged it. My assailant didn’t bother pursuing me, possibly out of pity, which is fortunate given that I had as much ability to run as the aforementioned one legged wrestler.

Anyway, my point is that – one black eye aside – I’ve never had to bear the scars of battle like some fight-hardened individuals.

Until I became a new father, that is.

One thing that nobody ever tells you when you’re about to become a dad is that your newborn’s nails will grow faster than America’s national debt. Or that cutting them without causing injury is the 18th most difficult thing in the world (easier than getting a camel to peel a pomegranate, but more difficult than getting a New Yorker to say thank you).

Cutting a baby’s nails is like being a trainee bomb disposal specialist. You’ve read the books and seen the videos, but when it comes down to doing it for real, you’re so nervous that you sweat more than Tiger Woods when he’s lost his mobile phone. With each press of the clipper, you’re looking at the baby’s face for any sign that you’ve metaphorically snipped the wrong wire. Because, trust me, when you’ve nicked the skin around a baby’s nail, the resultant nuclear meltdown makes Chernobyl seem like an unfortunate domestic accident with a deep fat fryer.

The upshot of this is that clipping The Little One’s nails is a rarity. As a result, she’s starting to bear a startling resemblance to Edward Scissorhands. And now that she’s discovered reaching and grabbing, she’s single-handedly making me look like someone who’s been twelve rounds with Mike Tyson.

So far I’ve got an inch long scar down my right cheek, a mark on my chin vaguely resembling a knuckle duster, and multiple scratches on my nose. Thankfully her favourite move – inserting one finger into each of my nostrils and pulling as hard as she can – leaves no visible marks.

It’s the emotional scars that last forever though.

The killer in plane view

I have to tell you that I got it all wrong, dear reader. After all these years wishing that I’d become a spy, I’ve finally realiszed that I was aiming at the wrong profession. Because – frankly – if there’s a better job in the world than being an air marshal, I’m yet to hear about it.

Now admittedly my jealousy may in part have been caused by the fact that I have been bumped off my return flight from Los Angeles back to New York this morning by Delta needing to find a seat for an air marshal. But given that I found out about it moments before getting on board the outbound flight reminded me that I could spend the entire journey picking out that flight’s marshal from among the passengers.

For the uninitiated, an air marshal is a federal employee whose job it is to ‘neutralisze’ any terrorist on the plane. And to be honest, it would have been more difficult to pick out Lady Gaga in her full regalia than the ‘incognito’ undercover agent, such was the average age of the 16 people occupying the business class seats. I can only assume that LA was hosting a Golden Girls convention this weekend.

Infact, if it hadn’t been for a swarthy guy sitting across the aisle from me looking like he’d just stepped off the set of CSI Miami, I’d have been forced into the inevitable conclusion that I was the air marshal after all.

Still, sitting in such close proximity at least gave me the chance to observe what the marshal has to do during the course of the flight. And to be fair, from this exclusive log book that the marshal inadvertently left on his seat as he stepped off the plane, you’ll see that the job can’t be easy…

0930 Laugh at the plebs as I wander up to the front of the boarding line. Smirk as a fat man with some kind of McSausage McBiscuit starts audibly complaining about me pushing in. Idly ponder what his chubby little face will look like when I pop a cap in his ass if he steps out of line on the flight.
0942 Wonder if I can get away with a glass of champagne, but decide against it at the last minute. Order vodka and tonic instead.
1001 Attempt to blend in with the rest of the passengers by getting out some reading material. Always good to catch up with the latest news in Paid Assassin’s Monthly.
1029 Why does the guy across the aisle keep looking at me and taking notes?
1059 Order the granola for breakfast. I’d love the French toast, but find that a heavy stomach affects me something rotten when I’m trying to shoot terrorists.
1115 Look around the cabin at the other business passengers. Decide to keep a close eye on the grey haired woman in 2D. Wouldn’t be surprised if that cane she’s holding turned out to be an Uzi.
1201 Start watching Love Happens. Hope the guys back at the base never find out that I’ve seen every film that Jennifer Aniston has ever made. Twice.
1243 This holster is starting to chafe on my shoulder. Think about putting the gun in the overhead locker. No hijacker can get up at the moment anyway, as the captain’s illuminated the seatbelt sign.
1307 Flick through the SkyMall catalogue. Make note to buy video recording sunglasses on my next trip.
1341 Momentarily fall asleep, and almost shoot man in 3B when I’m woken with a jolt by the flight attendant dropping her tray of glasses
1401 Woman in the adjacent seat has decided to tell me all about her trip to visit her son in La Jolla. Attempt to feign interest, while hoping that she notices the six inch knife scar down the side of my face and decides to back off.
1424 Pilot says we’re coming into land. Thirty seven air marshal trips I’ve made now, and not a single opportunity to take down an Arab. On the plus side, my collection of in-flight headsets is looking superb these days,