After my husband died I gained a friend, Kafka is his name. One would suppose that having a cockroach is somewhat akin to having lice or genital crabs, a tabooed parasite that will ultimately tarnish a lady’s reputation and habits if discovered, but Kafka is a special kind of companion. His favourite place is atop the kitchen radio where he habitually gyrates to Jazz FM in the early hours of the morning, watching me drink cheap Chardonnay and speaking to me reassuringly in the sweet-butter voice of Jeremy Irons. Before I was enlightened to his more practical uses, I admittedly went through a spell of being rather ruthless; I wanted to kill him, but in the most decent, kindest way for everyone involved. So, naturally, I concluded the obvious. Flushing. Yes, flushing him down the toilet in a vortex, much like a flume at Water World except with feces and used tampons at the end, a cockroach’s paradise. So I tried. I dutifully dropped him in the toilet and flushed, watching rather sadly as he spun. But the little chap just coughed, spluttered softly, and crawled back up. I discovered after that they can live for up to a week without their head, a month without food, and can hold their breath for forty minutes at a time; a species that would undoubtedly survive an apocalypse. They are resilient, gregarious creatures. So of course, in time, Kafka soon had a friend, a wife perhaps, and spawned a tribe of lovers and cousins and acquaintances and one-night-stands. I began to realise Kafka’s army were quite efficient at cleaning up my often neglected messes. Far more so than my old Henry Hoover friend, with his can-do eyes and pleasing suction trunk, that now just sits looking forlorn, gathering dust. Cockroaches eat crumbs, dust, hair, sewage, decaying matter, and even each other; they are the perfect companions to a less than perfect housewife. Someone like me needs a helping hand once in a while. Try as I might I can never keep on top of the housework for long, being too easily lured by afternoon wine and my artistic pursuits. George, my late husband, used to (rather too sternly, if I do say so) remind me to ‘CLEAN YOUR F*#&ING ACT UP’, but there’s no one here anymore to keep me in check.
I wake with a jolt. Someone’s at the door. Sharp ‘rat-a-tat-tat‘s, like they mean business. I’m rigid as a board on my couch, wearing only my silk dressing gown that hasn’t been washed for months and there’s something rather unsavoury dripping down my leg.
I lie mute, my chest contains a thousand frantic moths threatening to break the cage. No. I simply cannot let anyone see my home like this. There’s a purple dildo standing proudly on the coffee table, objects in the sink that have grown mold so ferocious that I ought to name it, and you can’t even see the floor anymore. It’s a sea of black debris with constellations of ash and glass and dirt. Kafka’s on the radio, his antennae like a direct aerial to my panic; an interpretive dance of his sympathy and my shame.
Good Lord, a woman’s voice, calling through the letterbox. The rat-a-tats escalate to hard thuds.
‘Mrs. Miggs? If you don’t open up I’m afraid I’ll have to let myself in. It’s Glasgow City Council.’
I hear shuffling, and scraping against the door. A crowbar? In a momentary panic I call out.
‘My apologies! I – uh – hang on one moment, please.’
In a frenzy I sweep the top priorities; the dildo gets chucked in a cupboard, the weed in a drawer, the bedroom door’s mercifully shut, I’ll have to say the bong is a work of modern art and there’s nothing I can do about the blood on the couch now. I wipe myself down a touch and try to fix my hair which I’ve not brushed for over a month. Goodness, I’m not even wearing a brassiere, I have one breast up at my armpit and the other at my knee. I flap my arms like an injured swan and surrender, nothing more can be done at such short notice.
‘Hello there!’ I say in a saccharine voice, swinging the door open.
The woman on the doorstep is rather masculine, her mouse brown hair cropped short over her dome-like forehead. I think she’s around half my age, in her mid-twenties, maybe she’s a rebel too. I smile my widest sweetest smile.
‘Goodness, I am so sorry about this, I, um, work night shift… Yes, night shift. I’m a – ah – an artist, you see, and I must have fallen asleep on the couch.’
She stands there expectantly, her bovine brown eyes sweeping me from the top to the bottom. She coughs slightly, wrinkles her nose and lifts her hand to her face.
‘Ah, you perhaps don’t appreciate frankincense, not to everyone’s tastes, I know…’ I nod sympathetically, ‘my Mother used to ‘cleanse the house of spirits,’ with it,’ I titter, ‘silly woman-‘
‘I’m afraid I must come in, Mrs. Miggs. I’m Patricia,’ she flashes her badge at me and puffs her chest out like a plump pigeon, ‘there’s been complaints of a… smell. And the whole building is infested with cockroaches. Have you seen any?’ She brushes past me, her big brutish boots thudding against the floorboards. ‘How many rooms are in here?’
‘Um… Just the two, well three actually including the bathroom… The lounge and kitchen are combined, you see…’
I lead her through and watch her eyes widen to the size of dinner plates, her eyebrows raise an inch higher. My cheeks start to burn. The moths are deafening in my chest as she takes in the room.
‘I know,’ I say shaking my head, ‘I know… I have rather let myself go, haven’t I? Oh, it is a bit of a mess, Pat – I can call you that, can’t I? – If only I’d have known you were coming I would’ve… bought some biscuits in and things-‘
Her eyes wander to the corner devoted to my black bin bag exhibit. There’s around eleven of them piled on top of one another, incriminating contents spilling out onto the floor, some glued to the walls; empty ice cream tubs, cigarette packets, bloodied towels, banana peels, empty bottles of wine. Perhaps she’s an eco-warrior, and she thinks – oh, the shame! – that I don’t recycle.
‘I know what you’re thinking, Pat… It can be so easy to judge self-expression but as an artist, I transform rubbish into meaning. One woman’s waste can be so beautiful when artfully arranged… Treasured, in fact. It tells a story, do you see?’
She looks at me blankly. I think she’s trying not to gag.
‘This is going to have to be dealt with eventually, Mrs. Miggs,’ Patricia says gravely.
I smile thinly, I think I know what she wants. I need to get rid of her. ‘So… the cockroaches. I have one… Just one, really… Here…’ I point to the radio.
Patricia picks her way through the debris on the floor in her big black ugly boots, hand still covering her face. I get a distasteful view of her fat bottom as she peers at my beloved Kafka, his horns now frantically trembling at the sight of her big round face.
‘Okay…. Right…’ Patricia speaks slowly, calmly, as if she’s placating a child. ‘Is there any more, Mrs. Miggs?’
‘No. No more. Only one,’ I lie. ‘He likes the radio.’
‘Hm. Sure…’ She reaches inside of her bag and extracts a bundle of what looks like white cards. ‘I’ll need to put these all over the house, so we can see how big the problem is. They’re sticky, see?’ she stomps over into the hall again, clears her throat, ‘is this the… bedroom?’
The moths are thrashing now, millions of tiny explosions inside my ribs. ‘No!’ I shriek, ‘No! You simply cannot go in there. I– I’m working on something, VERY important,’ I’m shrill now, rude even, lunging to grab her arm, ‘I’m an artist, you see and, and no – NO – NO–‘
She’s swung the door open before I’ve had a chance. The stench hits you like a truck before the eyes make sense of the sight. Patricia starts retching, holding onto the doorway whilst heaving multi-coloured jets of bile and undigested food onto the floor. From the looks of it she must have had spaghetti for lunch. I sigh. I’ve always prided myself on my strong constitution. Much like Kafka, I can withstand any overpowering sensory apocalypses.
‘OH MY FUCK, FUCK-‘
I wince at her curses, she gasps for air looking like she’s trying to smother herself with her own hands. I lean on the doorway as she gawks at the room. I accepted a long time ago that some people just don’t appreciate art.
George lies on his back like a beached, bloated seal on the bed. He’s around twice his natural size now, skin moth-grey and marbled, seeping various vile substances out of his every hateful orifice, much like in his life. The cavity in his stomach is the most marvellous spectacle; half eaten away, enshrining a pulsating, writhing ball of Kafkas; a scuttling, skittering, scattering mob that splutter out over the sides of his belly like a waterfall of coins when somebody wins the slot machines. The only thing that throws the symmetry off is his head, his misshapen blobby, bloody head, where I buried the ashtray over and over and over again. That was the last time he called me a slob.
Patricia stares at me. Her hand is still over her mouth and her eyes are now piggy small, streaming ugly tears rolling down the sides of her plump green cheeks.
I pat her on the shoulder. ‘I know…’ I say softly, ‘I’m a bit of a rebel, you see, not really marriage material… I’m an artist.’ I look over at George’s shrine, like a massive canvas blotted and splattered with a million beautiful hues of reds and greys and browns. ‘I call this, The Metamorphosis. It’s rather ‘Tracey Emin’, don’t you think?’