Ade stared at the ceiling and sighed. In a dim corner at the very edge of his field of vision, a spider was spinning its web. He shuddered. Shelley’s cleaning skills meant that too often he had inadvertently thrust his hand into barely visible cobwebs — nasty, sticky nests of what felt like old man’s hair. He hated spiders: the way they ran out of nowhere at speed, changed direction randomly without warning and fell out of unexpected places where they had no business being – bath towels, dressing gowns, slippers.
He closed his eyes. He was hot and his heart was beating too fast. There was so little moisture in his mouth there was no point but he licked his cracked lips anyway and swallowed air. It hurt. He wondered when Shelley would come and see him.
He wished he’d looked after her better when she was poorly. Then again, if she’d been a better wife none of it would have happened. Had she taken more care, their house would not have become the veritable haven for arachnids that it was.
Coming across one any bigger than a sequin from one of her acrylic tops would have Shelley screaming as though she were being murdered and Ade rushing to her rescue. He’d always tried to be a man about it and not let on to his wife that he, too, was afraid. Each time he’d had to deal with an offending co-resident, he’d coaxed himself through the task, talking himself out of what he knew as an irrational fear: Come on Ade — it’s seven million times smaller than you. We’re in England, not Australia. It’s not gonna hurt you.
Then came the news that there was a native species of spider that could, and would, bite humans.
“Look here,” Shelley had said one evening. He’d been trying to watch the football highlights. “Ade. Ade!” she’d nudged him until he’d looked at the newspaper article she was holding up. “Man Bitten by False Widow Spider Close to Losing Leg” screamed the headline. There was a photograph of the poor fellow, his mouth in an exaggerated downturn to dispel any doubt about the painful nature of his predicament in the event that he might be able to find someone to blame and sue. Next to that was a picture of the actual perpetrator who could never, alas, be summoned to court. ‘The cupboard or false black widow spider,’ read the caption, ‘properly called Steatoda nobilis which means tallowy and noble.’
“It’s the size of a mouse!” shrieked Shelley. Ade squirmed in his space on the sofa. It did look big. And hairy and fat-bodied — the kind he hated most, the ones that thought nothing of speeding across the living room at the most inopportune moments such as just when Mel was about to announce the next person to be kicked out of the Bake Off tent.
Ade took the newspaper from Shelley who’d got up and was scouring the living room. According to the article, this wasn’t a new species but one that has blighted these shores for more than a century.
“Stop panicking Shell! You won’t find one here. They’re in the South West it says. It’s always a degree warmer down there. Shell? Where you going?”
“To turn the heating down.”
Ade followed her into the kitchen. “Even if they were around here, it says this bloke was unlucky. He’s had an allergic reaction. It’s just like a bee sting to normal people. Anyway, they’re not aggressive. It’s really rare for them to bite.”
At breakfast only weeks later, Shelley had read aloud from an article about the species growing in number and spreading.
“I’m sure I’ve seen one in the front room,” she’d said, wrinkling her nose up.
He should have paid more attention. But then, he thought, what would he have done differently anyway? Become a man and hunted it down instead of lying to Shelley that he’d found it and got rid of it? He gave another deep sigh.
“Other husbands visit every day,” Shelley had told him, her eyes brimming. He’d had to force a neutral expression when he looked at her. The swelling had gone down but now her face, neck, arms and hands were covered in pustular sores.
“Sorry, Shell. But you know how I hate hospitals,” he’d mumbled.
“No one likes them, Adrian, for goodness sake,” Shelley said, then licked her thumb and turned over another page of the magazine he’d bought from the hospital shop. “They’re full of sick and injured people. But if it were the other way around, I’d come and see you every visiting time. That’s all I’m saying.”
Aside from the horrific sight that was now his wife, there were other things that had kept him from visiting her as often as he should have. After the local paper had printed the interview and picture of Shelley in her sick-bed, a tide of divorcées had washed up at Ade’s door, including Shelley’s flower club mates. A man alone at home needed looking after. He hadn’t been too surprised. After all, he was a good-looking… well, aside from the pot belly, not a bad-looking… Look, he ran his own successful scaffolding business so he wasn’t short of a few bob.
He should have been visiting and tending to Shelley of course, but it was more of a female thing, wasn’t it, nursing and caring for people? He did have to work and the home-cooked meals they brought made life easier. But it hadn’t been long before he was enjoying more than their pies and stews.
If only it hadn’t been Angela, Shelley’s very oldest and best friend, that she had caught him with. Adrian winced at the memory. He had left his mobile on silent so that they wouldn’t be disturbed. He had missed all Shelley’s calls, missed the sound of the taxi’s engine running outside, the click of front door as it shut behind her.
Ade had caught sight of his wife’s face, still more purple-red scab than pink skin, appear and disappear when he looked past Angela’s left shoulder as it moved up and down. Before Angela had cottoned on to her best friend’s homecoming, she had moaned with pleasure at Ade’s repeated ‘Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!” Finally she’d understood her lover’s distorted features were an expression of horror and performed such a quick dismount that she feared she’d pulled a tendon or two — and not just her own.
What happened next was the last thing Ade had expected. He thought he’d heard a whispered ‘sorry’ from Angela as she’d raced past Shelley and exited the bedroom, house and relationship. Shelley hadn’t responded or even looked at her former friend. She had locked her gaze on Adrian from the moment she had entered the room and there it had stayed.
“Babe, babe, I’m so sorry! It didn’t mean anything, honestly, I… ”
Shelley had straddled him at this point, still with that unnerving, unwavering stare. She placed a forefinger gently on his lips.
“Shhh. Stop talking,” she’d commanded. “I’m home now.”
Afterwards he remembered Shelley lying next to him, wittering about the damned spider that had bitten her. She must have read a lot about it. She sounded like an expert.
“Did you know that in some species, male spiders literally impale themselves on the female’s fangs after getting her pregnant? They’re called ‘sacrificial males,’ and they do more than provide food for their offspring, they become their children’s food… ”
“Honestly, Shell, you’re starting to sound like a female Steve Backshall… ” he’d managed to say as she’d clambered on top of him again. He’d noticed as she heaved herself up that her abdomen was more bulbous than usual. Then she’d smiled. He’d just registered that her canines were way longer and sharper than normal when she sunk them into his neck.
A burning pain had spread through his veins before he’d passed out. When he came to, he couldn’t move. He thought he was paralysed before he worked out that he was bound up tightly from neck to toe with just his head uncovered. At first he’d fought to free himself but soon learnt that his bonds tightened with every wriggle so he’d forced himself to remain still.
At last, he heard her race up the stairs. Perhaps she’d brought water this time.
Shelley looked up at him and made her usual joke: “Still hanging around up there, I see.”
Her voice had become high-pitched, squeaky. She ran up the wall and poured water over his face. He managed to drink some of it.
“Shell, please, Shell, I can’t feel my legs. What’s going on?”
“Gotta feed the mum-to-be, hun. So long as there’s plenty left for the little ones when they come,” she said, smiling as she patted her rotund belly.
Header photograph: By RickP (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons