She said that she didn’t love you any more, and this time you actually believed her. For once it had the whiff of truth to it – because oh, yes, she’d often say she didn’t love you, but you’d always known better; she’d shout it out sometimes, loud so the neighbours could hear – though she didn’t care, why should she care about such stuff when she had a strop on? – at the very top of her voice she’d scream that she didn’t love you and that she’d never loved you and that she just wished you’d go away. You’d beat a retreat then. Of course you would. You might nip to the pub for a pint or three, wait until she’d simmered down. And by the time you’d come back home, opening the front door very softly and creeping about on tiptoes – yes, you know the drill! – she’d be sobbing in the kitchen, so much easier to reason with, so much more pliable – all the venom out of her now, all that’s left the tears and snot. And you’d take her hand and squeeze it, but gently this time, you didn’t want to hurt her, and she might even squeeze back – but even if she didn’t, even if she didn’t, it was okay, you’d know it was okay, the shouting had stopped, you’d already won.
But there’d been no shouting this time. “Steve, I don’t love you any more,” she said, as calmly as you like, as if she’d been practising, as if she’d been taking lessons, and then she was the one holding your hand, giving your hand a squeeze, and looking so sympathetic you thought it might make you puke. And it wasn’t the quietness that alarmed you, sincere though it made it sound – it was the ‘any more’, I don’t love you ‘any more’, not pretending that she’d never loved you at all, in fact suggesting that there had been love once, accepting the basic fact of her love from the get go, accepting that all those other times she’d wanted you out of her life were just melodramatic freak-outs. But now it was real. This time it was real. It was real. And it was the ‘any more’ that clinched it and finally did your marriage in.
But, “Why?”, you couldn’t help but ask. And she told you you were useless. You were good for nothing. And there was no blame to it, she wasn’t accusing you, and so there was no way you could defend yourself. “Not useless at everything, surely?” you said, and you waggled your eyebrows at her, that would surely make her laugh, it always did, your little jokey attempts at seduction, it was only by joking you’d ever got her into bed. The way you’d pull your kissy face. Now she just stared at the kissy face as if she’d never seen it before, as if it were, what, something horrible, something like a stroke symptom. She conceded that you weren’t useless at everything. She’d been a little unfair. She thought for a moment, and said you were good at getting rid of the spiders.
You actually laughed at that. Just a bit. But she wasn’t joking.
And later that evening, staring up at the hotel room ceiling before turning out the light, and replaying the conversation in your head, and trying to work out what you should have said to make it end better, later on, you thought, well, fair enough – fair enough, you are good at getting rid of spiders. There’s a certain elegance to it even. The way you can sweep them up into a glass, quickly, without fuss, without snapping off any of their legs. Keeping your hand flat over the mouth of the glass so the spider can’t escape. Tipping the spider into the toilet bowl and flushing it away. You don’t think the spider ever suffered much – it looked only a bit bemused as it bobbed about treading water, then a good yank at the chain and it was sucked down the whirlpool and it was gone forever – and you’d tried to be kinder still, you’d use to tip the spider out of the window so it could live on in peace in the garden, but Sheila hadn’t liked that, she said the spider would find a way back in, the spider had to die – flush it away so there’d not even be a body. Because Sheila was scared of spiders, properly scared, and it was a real fear, you know, pretty phobic. And you hadn’t even noticed it when you were courting, maybe she was just braver then, maybe she was keeping it a secret – and as you stood at the altar, the vicar talking, ‘Do you, Steven Edward Baird’, and asking the congregation whether was any just cause or impediment, not one of your in-laws raised their hands, not one said, “Don’t go through with it, mate, she’s mental for spiders!” Mental for spiders indeed; after you’d used a glass to scoop the spider up she’d throw the glass away so she’d never run the risk of drinking from it, of her lips touching where a spider’s body had been – you’d get through a lot of glasses that way, she bought them in bulk cheap at the discount store in town. Because your house certainly did seem to attract a lot of spiders; more than your fair share, surely; every morning, more or less, you’d find one or two of the buggers in the bath or the sink, and there’d be telltale traces of cobwebs in the corners of the rooms and Sheila would just stare at them in dread until you’d get a broom and brush them away – and, oh, Sheila couldn’t sleep in a room that had a spider in it, there was no telling what a spider might get up to in the dark. Sometimes, you have to admit, that was when you could lose your temper. Sometimes, when it was late at night, and you were tired. Sometimes, but you could hardly be blamed for that.
Especially when the rest of the time you were good, you’d get rid of the spiders for her, you’d be her knight in shining armour. Even if you were her knight for only a couple of minutes each day. Or rather, you had been her knight in shining armour; but now she preferred you disposed of them without her knowing, she didn’t want to know a thing about it, you had to enter rooms and check them in advance, and subtly too, she needed you to check them but needed you to never to acknowledge you were, even mentioning the word ‘spider’ was enough to set her off itching. It was no good telling her that spiders couldn’t hurt her. No good saying they were more scared of her than she was of them – particularly this last, “Well, why do the bastards keep following me around then?” And it really wasn’t a clever idea chasing her around with a spider in your hands, just for fun, “look, it’s only a little one!”, telling her you were going to put it down her neck. That had been on the honeymoon. She’d hit you with a bottle. You’d needed stitches. It had been so awkward explaining what had happened to that clinic in Marbella.
But since she’d brought it up, you said to her, “Well, if I go, what will you do about the spiders?” And she said that Laura would have to get rid of them – and that was a joke, Laura, your four year old daughter, on her way to becoming an arachnophobe as bad as her mother – and little surprise of that the way Sheila carried on. You’d told Sheila that once, you told Sheila she was going to give Laura a complex, she already refused to sleep with the lights off in case the spiders came to get her, “you’re damaging our daughter!” – and you thought Sheila would be so angry, you thought she might hit you, or at least try to hit you, but instead it was worse. It was worse, she just sat down and cried. Oh, she must have recognised the truth of it. And now, as soon as Laura was mentioned, Sheila could tell she’d made a mistake – “It doesn’t matter, does it, we’ll sort it out,” she said, and waved her hand at you dismissively – as if you were the one making a fuss about spiders, as if it were your insanity, not hers – “Laura and I will cope without you, we’ll cope better without you.”
She told you she didn’t love you any more, and this time she made you believe her. And that’s why you straightaway go and pack your suitcase, numb as you are, and embarrassed too – putting in the clothes you’d thought you’d need, shirts, trousers, socks, what else? Underpants. She tells you there’s no rush, in that sympathetic way of hers, but there is a rush, you want to get out of the house as soon as possible, you think the faster you go the more sorry she’ll feel for you, the quicker she’ll tell you she wants you back. You carry the suitcase out to the car, and you’ve perhaps packed too much, what did you think you were doing, you’re not going on holiday! – and you should have used the new suitcase, the one with the wheels, but it’s too late now. And maybe you actually enjoy staggering under the weight of the case, maybe that feels good. You see she’s looking out of the window at you, and you pretend you haven’t noticed, she actually waves at you, and you don’t respond – where’s Laura? Couldn’t Laura have come to wave you off too? And you suppose there’ll be solicitors and things to deal with now, there’ll be all sorts of shit to arrange, but there’s a part of you that knows too, isn’t there, that you’ll never see your family again? That this is it? Which is stupid, because you’ll probably see them tomorrow, maybe you’ll pop back, you can at least swap suitcases. But as you pull of the drive, as you hit the main road, still not looking at Sheila, seeing through Sheila, you know this’ll be the last glimpse of your wife you’ll ever get and it isn’t nearly good enough.
You’ve never needed to look for hotels near your house before, and suddenly they seem to be everywhere. And you wonder why, who would want to holiday in a town like yours? You could stop right away, but you want to drive for a bit, and you put on the radio, and you listen to a song, and you say you won’t stop the car, you won’t even consider a hotel, not til the radio plays a song you like. And after an Elton John and something by a girl group you’ve never heard of you say that’s enough, that’s enough, the very next hotel you see. And there’s one, and it looks fine, it even has a nice gravel driveway that makes that nice crunching sound when your car drives over it, it’ll do.
The girl at reception seems to be too young to be working there. She asks you how long you want to stay. You say you don’t know. You say just one night, then you’ll see how it goes. She tells you there’s a special off-season discount, four nights for the price of three. She doesn’t make it sound special, not with that bored voice she’s got, she doesn’t care whether you take the discount or not. You take it. She gives you a key. It’s not like one of those swish electronic keys from that posh hotel you went to with Sheila on that last holiday of yours – and that was a good holiday, remember, you didn’t argue once, no one got angry – and when was that anyway, it must have been before Laura, that was years ago – sorry, no, the receptionist is still talking, but it’s just about what time dinner is served, and you don’t care, you’re not hungry and you may never eat again, and you turn the key over in your hand and it’s just an ordinary Yale key, old-fashioned, and old-fashioned feels reassuring somehow, and you like the feel of the key’s teeth biting into your skin. The receptionist tells you you’re in room five, you say that’s fine, she tells you it’s right down the corridor, and you say fine, and you go right down the corridor to find it.
The room is small. There’s no bathroom, just a sink in one corner. A cracked mirror is above it. There’s a little TV set on a table, one of those old-fashioned TVs, it’s got an aerial on top, it wouldn’t surprise you if it were black and white, and now old-fashioned doesn’t feel reassuring, it just feels somewhat cheap. The ceiling is polystyrene tiles, the walls are breezeblock. A small square window, it doesn’t open. A lamp on each side of the bed, but no tea service, no phone. And the bed is big, and that’s good, but it feels hard, and that isn’t – hard, and cold, and maybe a little damp, and maybe it’s because of that cold, maybe it’s because you let a little warm air in when you entered.
You decide you’ve changed your mind about the four nights for three discount. You’ll tell the receptionist in the morning. Provided she hasn’t left for school.
You take your clothes off. You wished you’d packed some pyjamas. You shiver. You look at yourself in the cracked mirror and you don’t see what looks so bad, not really, you can’t see why Sheila wouldn’t want you. You even wiggle your eyebrows. You don’t bother with the kissy face.
You lock the door, take out the key, put it on the bedside table. You wash. You climb into bed. You lie on your back, think about the day, about your marriage, think about whether if you had a job to get up for in the morning Sheila would still say you were useless. You stare up at the polystyrene ceiling and think right at it, direct all your thinking into it, hard – you count the indentations in it, there are grooves in the polystyrene, random, mostly shallow, it looks like the previous occupants of the room must have thrown things up against it for fun. You wonder whether it’d be fun if you did the same, leave some marks of your own. You think yes, maybe, maybe in the morning. You turn off the light. You pull the covers up. You sleep.
You wake, and it’s still dark outside – and normally you’d just close your eyes and go back to sleep, you’ve made yourself a nice warm patch in the bed, but there’s an unfamiliarity about the surroundings that disturbs you, and you remember you’re in a hotel room, and remember why you’re in a hotel room, and something churns inside.
Reach across to the watch on the bedside table. The clock face glares at you. It’s a little after three o’clock.
Your stomach churns again, and you realise it’s hunger. You should have had something to eat last night after all. You wonder whether they’d do room service – no, not in a little hotel like this, not in the middle of the night. Besides, there’s no phone, is there, no phone. Is there a kettle in the room? With sachets of tea and coffee and powdered milk, because sometimes they put a digestive biscuit in there. Sometimes even a custard cream. But there wasn’t a kettle in the room. You saw there wasn’t when you first came in.
You stare up at the ceiling. And see the bulge.
You don’t think about the bulge for a bit, you’re still thinking about the existence or non-existence of the kettle and its powdered milk and its potential attendant biscuit possibilities. But you start to focus upon the bulge, try to work out the shape of it. Is it even really there? It’s black on black. It’s not over your head, it sags down towards your feet. It looks to you like the ceiling is bending inwards somehow, as if a sheet of wallpaper has come free, and is dangling there limp – but no, not quite like that, because the bulge tapers back up to the ceiling again, it’s as if the wallpaper instead has an enormous air bubble in it. Hanging over you, wetly, because your eyes have adjusted, you can see now this black is a different black, there’s something oily about it – and it’s moving ever so slightly, it’s rippling. It’s peculiar what shadows can do.
And besides, you remember, there is no wallpaper on the ceiling.
You wonder whether maybe there’s a kettle after all. Custard creams, you could at least look. And you reach out for the bedside lamp. You blink from the light.
It’s important you don’t exaggerate what it is you see.
The spider does not fill the entire ceiling. It’s not that big. It might fill three quarters of it – and that’s because its legs are outstretched at the moment. If it were hunched up properly, the way spiders usually sit, it’d take up no more than two thirds, maybe.
Mind you. You freeze.
The first things you think of gives you flashes of relief. The spider isn’t directly above you. It’s mostly on the other side of the room. If you sat bolt upright now, you wouldn’t even touch it. If you were sitting on the end of the bed, though, you suppose there’d be contact, you suppose the top of your head would be grazing its belly. But you’re not doing that. You’re not doing that, so that’s all right.
(Belly? Abdomen? Is that the right word? Um. Thorax?)
The second thing is – it looks like an ordinary spider. It doesn’t have any strange colours on its body. No weird markings. You saw a documentary once, you think, or maybe it was a comic book movie, and it said that the really poisonous spiders had weird colourful markings on them, the nasty foreign ones. This is just a regular black spider – you can see bits of colour on it, certainly, but that’s because it’s so very big and you’re so very close to it, be reasonable – the abdomen (yes, you think, it is abdomen) is fleshier than you might have thought, there are lines of red veins on it. No, this is an ordinary spider, a safe spider, a house spider. Ordinary, of course, in the sense you ignore the fact it’s ten foot long from side to side.
You watch the spider, but it doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Maybe, you think, it’s asleep. Its body heaves a bit, but that’s just regular breathing, isn’t it? Or snoring.
You strain to hear. But the spider isn’t making a single sound.
You think you’re coping with this really very well indeed. Well done. Sheila would probably be panicking.
Your brain tries to send you another message of comfort. It’s not over your head, it’s not poisonous, Steve, you’re fine. You realise that the brain is trying a bit too hard, it’s doing its best to stop you from screaming. (Why shouldn’t you scream? No, don’t scream. Don’t scream. The spider. The spider wouldn’t like it. I won’t scream then. Good. Good. Don’t scream. Don’t scream.)
It must be asleep. It might be asleep.
If spiders sleep.
No, of course they sleep. (But how come they end up in the bath and sink every morning? What have they been doing in the darkness, to get there?)
You could make a run for it.
You could make a run for the door, especially if the spider is asleep. The door is on the far corner of the room. You could get out of bed – don’t run for the door, that might startle it, tiptoe to the door. The spider’s body isn’t blocking the door. There’s a leg near it, but still.
You’re naked. You’ve left your clothes on the floor. Near the sink. Near the TV. Near the mirror. Near the spider.
You really wish you’d packed your pyjamas.
It’s not that you fear running into a hotel corridor at three in the morning without any clothes on. Maybe you should, but that’s not the worry, you think a giant spider might be seen as extenuating circumstances. It’s just that – and this might seem an odd thing to realise suddenly, but – you’ve got skin, and it’s covering your entire body, there really is so much skin on you, it’s everywhere. And any part of the spider could reach out and touch your skin. And you know right away – you don’t want that to happen, not at any cost. You don’t want your skin touched. No touching of the skin, please. If you had your pyjamas on, that’d be your armour. You wouldn’t mind the spider touching your pyjamas. (Well. You would. But.) But not the skin. Not you.
You could make a run for it. If the spider is asleep. (But is it pretending?) You could make a run for the door. But you’re not going to.
You don’t want the light on. Suddenly, you don’t want the light on. The light might wake the spider up. In the light, the spider can’t fail to see you. And very carefully, very gently, you stretch your hand out from underneath the bed sheets. You realise you’ve tucked yourself deep down so that every last bit of you, right up to your eyes, is hidden. You hadn’t even known you’d done this. Now this single hand breaks cover, bravely it reaches out across the wide expanse between the safety of the bed and the glare of the bedside lamp – it grasps for the switch – it flicks it off.
Blackness again. And right away, you think maybe you’ve made a big mistake.
Perhaps the spider will leave. If you go back to sleep, it might be gone by morning.
And it occurs to you – only now – where did it come from? The window is too small, the door is locked. Not up through the sink this time, certainly – it’d have pulled up all the plumbing in the process.
And wide eyed you stare up into the darkness, try to make out the black bulge. Is it still there? You can’t be sure. You think you see something move – and then you swivel your head, fast, to your left side, and something in the darkness there shifts as well – and back to the right side, and on the right, the same – you close your eyes tight now, all you can see is the blackness in your head, the blackness you’ve made, and here, even here, you can see the faint outlines of shapes, and the shapes are moving, and the shapes are moving towards you.
You open your eyes. In a moment you’ve grabbed for the light. You think if you brush anything you shouldn’t, anything hairy, you’ll scream. You don’t. Because what you’re tracing with your fingers is the wire to the lamp, it’s smooth and plastic, it’s really nothing like a spider leg, and you’re pulling at it now hard, and the lamp is rocking on its stand, loud and clumsy so the spider can hear, and you’ve found it, you’ve found the switch, and you press it.
And the spider has gone.
There’s a thrill of relief to that. Just for a moment.
Because – of course – this means it wasn’t asleep. (You were right not to make a run for it. You were right not to make a run for it. Well done, you.) It wasn’t asleep, and it’s moved. It’s moved, lightning fast. Where has it moved to?
It’s not on the ceiling any more. It’s not on the walls, not to the left or to the right. And that leaves only one place, and you shift in the bed slowly, very slowly, because you know you’re right, and you don’t want to move at all because you don’t want to attract attention, but you have to be sure, and –
And three of its legs are now tickling the headboard behind you. And that’s not the worst of it, there’s another leg, and it’s longer than those three legs somehow, it’s on the bed itself, it’s nestled lazily against the side pillow. The side pillow that’s just inches away from the other pillow, the pillow on which you’d buried your head and pressed your cheeks and touched with your eyes and ears and mouth, oh God. Oh God, and you gasp. You can’t help it, and a gasp isn’t bad in the circumstances – but you’re so close to the spider, and the noise causes the spider to flinch. Maybe not even the noise, maybe flinching from the very breath from inside you, God, maybe it feels you’ve just spat on it. You back away, rucking up the sheets as you do so, yanking them free from where they’d been tucked in, damaging your fortress, damaging your cover.
And you’re so naked, all your skin.
You pant for breath. You try to be silent. The spider is silent. The spider doesn’t make a single sound.
And you wonder whether it can see you. Of course it can see you. It has eight eyes. Bulbous, and dark as oil. And you’re reflected in each of them.
You stare at its legs. You force your eyes down to the legs. And you remember how you took such care when you scooped spiders up never to break the legs, because they’re so vulnerable, and you wouldn’t want the spider to suffer. You never want anyone to suffer, not really. And the legs are now the thickness of bathroom pipes, but the funny thing is they still look vulnerable, you feel that you could still grab hold and snap one off. And at the thought of that, at the thought of the grip that would entail, of the tightness of that grip as you press against the spider, you dry heave. Your body can’t help it. And still you stare at the legs – and the hairs that cover them, at this size not so much hairs, more a coat of dark fur – and the fur is quivering, each tip of it standing on edge and dancing within the breeze. Except there is no breeze – the air conditioning is off – there’s no air getting in from outside – it feels like there’s no air to breathe (oh, you’re sharing the same little air with the spider, what’s been in its lungs is now inside yours) – so all this quivering, each single hair on the legs flicking back and forth, it’s something the spider is doing itself. Does it even know it’s doing it? Does it even know that as it’s flexing its legs, it’s causing all the hairs upon them to thrill? Does it care?
You stare at the legs, because you daren’t look up into the eyes again.
And then suddenly, before you realise you’d even decided to do it, you flee. You rush for the door. And as you do you feel something tugging you back, you feel the spider has grabbed you by the leg, and you’ve no choice, at last you do scream, and you jerk away hard – and your leg’s caught in the sheets, that’s all it is, but it’s tipped you off balance, you try to steady yourself but you can’t, over you go, over you go, you fall off the bed, and it seems you’re falling so slowly, but you hit the floor with a thump. And part of you knows it’s all over, your chance of escape over, you’ve squandered those precious seconds you needed, you should just lie there dazed and give up – but you don’t, you won’t – you kick yourself out of the tangle of bed linen, and you’re stumbling up into a run now, head down – and head down is good, because you can hear the spider now, it’s behind you, it’s chasing, it’s back upon the ceiling and skittering across the polystyrene tiles and they make light popping noises as its legs bore grooves into them – it’s good that your head is down, because if you were at full height it’d be skimming the underside of the spider’s body, and you don’t want that, you can’t have that, if it touches you you’ll die. And the room is bigger than you thought, but it’s really ever so small, and you’re at the door, and your hands are around the knob, and you’re pulling at it, and pushing at it, and it won’t open – and then you remember it’s locked – it’s locked and the key is on the bedside table, the bedside table which is now miles away, miles from you and the other side of an angry spider. And only now do you dare turn back. And you can see the bedside table. And you can see the key. And you can see the spider coming towards you, and it’s not racing, it doesn’t need to, but it’s still coming to you, and it’s still so huge. And once more you feel the urge to give up. Shall you give up? Just give up. And you can’t move anyway, and you wonder whether you’re caught in a web. And then you scream again, and the spider flinches too – and you’re away, you’re away from the door now, you’re past the spider, straight back to the bed, you fling yourself upon the mattress and pull the mess of sheets over your head like a naughty little boy who should have been fast asleep hours ago.
The spider stays where it is. Its torso now largely blocking the door altogether. But you don’t care. You don’t want to try the door again. Not for a long time.
You take hold of the key, but there’s nothing you want to do with it. Except turn it over and over in your hand. Tight and hard, you like the bite of the key’s teeth, don’t you?
You watch the spider. It watches you. It probably watches you.
Some time passes. A long time passes. You think, maybe an hour. You think, maybe lots of hours. Maybe it’ll be dawn soon. You don’t know what difference dawn will make. But maybe things will be better in the morning. Everything is better in the morning.
But the sun resolutely refuses to rise. It stays night. And the spider stays in its corner of the room. And you stay in yours.
You wonder why this is happening.
Is it your fault? For all the spiders you’ve killed. Is this some sort of revenge? You tried so hard to be merciful. You were never cruel. You were never, ever cruel. And had it been up to you, you’d have never hurt anyone. It was Sheila’s doing. It was Sheila. You were only following orders.
“I’m sorry,” you say out loud. And your voice sounds cracked, and you’re not sure whether that’s fear, or that you’ve not spoken for so long, or maybe it’s genuine remorse. Yes. That’d be the one, let’s go with that.
The spider says nothing to this. Naturally. But it repositions itself on the wall, adjusts its legs. As if better to hear what you might have to say. As if to get comfy for your story.
But you have no follow up. You try to think of one, but you can’t.
“That’s it,” you say.
And that too is the moment when the bulb on the bedside lamp blows.
For a second when you’re plunged into darkness you think that something much worse has happened – that this is death – that the heart that has been pounding away inside your chest all this while has finally given up the ghost and called it quits – that the spider has taken offence at your ridiculous apology and leaped halfway across the room in an instant and bitten your head off. And then you’re reacting, faster than you could imagine; all the adrenalin that has been coursing through your body hits the motherlode, and you’re throwing yourself across the bed, to the other side, to the other lamp – because you mustn’t let that spider hide itself in the black. And the light snaps on, and you blink, and the spider’s eyes are inches away from yours. And in those few seconds it did leap across the room, it did come for you, and a moment later it’d have been on your face, in your hair, it’d have wrapped itself around your body, who knows? – and the two of you are so close now, and as it quivers you can feel the motion against your own skin. And it stares at you, as if to say, “Well, what now?”, and even this near it is still silent, you think you’d be able to hear something but still there’s nothing, and you think you could bear it if only it made the slightest sound.
Then – sound; but it doesn’t come from the spider; it comes from behind it. And it’s so hard to tear your gaze away from the spider’s now, but you force yourself, you look through it, and watch as a beetle crawls up the breezeblock wall. It meanders, unhurried, unbothered.
It’s the size of your chest, and there was a time maybe when finding an enormous insect on your bedroom wall might have alarmed you. But now you want to call out to it – run away! Fast! Get back to where you came from! (Under the bed? Are there more bugs lurking under your bed? – and even though you’re face to face with a ten foot spider, you find yourself shrinking away from the edge towards it.) The beetle is an idiot. The beetle is a moron. The beetle is cheerfully strolling past a spider, and it’s not even trying to go in a straight line, it positively lingers, doesn’t it know what danger it’s in? And for a moment the spider too can hardly seem to believe the stupidity of its prey, it almost considers letting the thing go – and then it turns from you, it’s skittering up the wall after it, and for the first time you can appreciate how fast the spider is, it can turn its body about in an instinct, it can manipulate its eight legs with grace and skill that is frankly beautiful.
And the spider appears to squat over the beetle, and even now the beetle doesn’t seem alarmed, if anything it’s somewhat bemused to find something impeding its journey. Its struggles are of confusion, not fear – and then the spider draws out its fangs, and they’re wrong, they look wrong – they’re white, they’re white like enamel, they look like giant human teeth, a brilliant bright white sliding out of its black veined body. And the spider hesitates just for an instant, and you could swear it’s for your benefit, it’s looking at you, there you are reflected once more in all its oily eyes – what is it, a warning? What, showing off? “Look what I can do!” – and then the fangs speed downwards, and the force of them is terrifying, and the teeth pierce right through the carapace shell of the beetle, and there’s a blunt crack, and you can hear the punctured beetle groan – and you can’t help but hug your fleshy naked body, and you realise the pyjamas wouldn’t have worked as armour after all. And the beetle is shuddering now, its stupid eyes bulging out, and it seems to fatten and swell, as if it’s being pumped full of something, soon it isn’t just the eyes that start to bulge. And its hard shell seems to be covered with grease. Is it a spider that injects its victims with venom? Or is that wasps? Or snakes? The beetle is still whimpering, but now the spider caresses it with a single leg. And it could be just to hold its food in place, because moment by moment as you watch the beetle seems to be becoming less a solid and more a liquidy gloop – but there’s also something calming about it, as if the spider is trying to ease its distress. As if to say, I know you’re my dinner, and I know that’s pretty harsh, and I know what’s going on inside your dissolving body is hardly welcome to you. But I don’t want to be cruel about it. I don’t want to be cruel. And part of the shattered carapace comes off altogether, and drifts to the floor like a feather.
And when the spider starts to feed, at last it makes a sound. And you’ve heard it before. Sometimes you and Sheila would take little Laura out to a cafe. Laura liked to have fizzy drinks with lots of ice in, and suck them up through a straw. But it was always the straw that appealed most to her, not the lemonade or the Fanta or the Coke – she liked slurping noisily at the ice cubes. Other people in the cafe would glare at you all; you would tell Laura off – “Stop that, it’s disgusting!” Because it truly was, the greed of it, the unashamed demonstration she wanted to make that she was enjoying her drink and everyone should know, the way she’d smack her lips each time she swilled up another melting shard of ice. Sheila never even seemed to hear it. Or she’d say, “Leave her alone, she’s having fun,” or, “She’s not doing any harm.” And she’d look at you, and you knew what that look meant, this is my daughter, not yours; until you pay your way, until you find some use in this family, you don’t get any rights. And Laura would grin at you, she’d actually grin, because she could do whatever she bloody liked, because she had more authority than you, and you’d feel such rage towards her then that you could feel your fist itching, and you’d think, not again, and you’d think, why do they keep pushing me to this, and you’d think, not Laura, she’s just a kid, if you’re going to be angry, direct it at the mother. And you’d dig your fingernails into your hands, and that calmed you down a bit, you liked the feel of them biting at your skin, the little hurt – and Sheila would smile so blandly as if she didn’t know what she was putting you through, and Laura would just carry on, and she’d blow down her straw hard so that the dregs of her drink would bubble and froth.
You watch the spider as it feeds, as it slurps. And your stomach starts to rumble. You can barely believe it. Revolted as you are, seeing the spider eat is making you hungry.
The spider doesn’t notice at first. But now the rumbling has started, it won’t stop. Your stomach crying out for some little food, whatever it may be.
The spider pauses. It seems uncertain. Then it slowly crawls down the wall towards you. You flinch – and the spider seems to shake, no, not that now, no more of that. And you see that hanging from its mandibles is a piece of beetle.
You can’t be sure what that means. Not until it drops the piece of meat beside you, and turns back to its own dinner.
The chunk of liquefying insect inks a stain on the white sheets. And the spider resumes its sucking – then stops when it sees you haven’t touched your meal.
It comes up to you. What is it? Angry? Impatient?
You prod the goo with your finger. It’s sticky, and surprisingly warm.
The spider seems to wait as you put a little glob of it in your mouth.
It doesn’t seem to mind when you choke on it, when you bring it straight up again. Sheila would have minded. Sheila would have been very offended. But the spider is fine. It even looks pleased. It flexes its mandibles at you in encouragement. It’s giving you the kissy face.
That said, the spider won’t leave until you’ve taken another bite. This time it stays down. You try not to think of the food in your mouth as beetle. It’s like thick gravy. You don’t think of that. You think of custard creams. You think of custard creams, and how all the salty goo is just the custardy filling in the middle. And all the hard bits, you give no thought to what they might really be, they’re just little crumbs of biscuit. You swallow down the custard creams, warm custard creams, meaty custard creams, and your stomach growls with approval.
The spider’s back at its own meal now. The beetle is a husk. And as the spider sucks away one remaining surprised eye pops inwards, and that’s the last trace that the feast had ever been a living creature.
When you get up off the bed, the spider doesn’t mind.
You walk to the door, quietly, carefully. You’ve been playing with the key in your hand for so long now it feels odd to put it in the lock, for a moment you feel a little lost without its teeth sharp against your skin. You turn the key. It doesn’t move, it’s stiff, and you start to panic – and you shoot a look back at the spider, and it’s watching your antics quite cheerfully now, you’re pals, you can do what you like. So you take a deep breath, force the panic back down. You put the key in again, try it calmly, calmly. This time the tumblers move, the door gives.
And you suppose you could leave just like that.
The spider is surprised. So are you. But it looks up perfectly amiably as you approach it. And even now, you think you are maybe saying goodbye. And you’re wondering why you’re wanting to do that, and the brain, your poor brain that has tried so hard to keep you safe and sane, it’s sending you frantic warning messages – you’re free, Steve, you’re free, get out now, get out now whilst you can…!
You don’t want to touch the spider. You don’t want any contact with that creature. You can cope with the small ones, you always could. Catch them in a glass, flush them down the toilet. But the big ones, you’ve discovered, they can really make your flesh crawl.
You don’t want to touch the spider. But still. You punch it in the eye.
It squawks. You didn’t know a spider can squawk. It feels good to make a spider squawk.
It feels good that it’s making a noise at last. You hate being given the silent treatment. You always told Sheila that. She could shout at you all she wanted, but what drove you mad was when she sulked.
You punch it again, harder this time, harder now you know the eye isn’t hard like glass. It grazes your knuckles, but that feels good, doesn’t it, it always feels good. You punch it – no, not an it, it’s a her, you punch her, you don’t want to hurt her, but she’s had this coming. And on the third punch something gives way, something breaks inside, there’s that nice crunching sound you like like car wheels over gravel. And there’s wetness, and the smell of something bad, and what’s sprayed against your skin is thin and brown like weak tea.
The spider falls off the wall. And you want to give her a kick for good measure, you even swing back your foot to do so. But you really don’t want to touch those hairy legs, there’s something about them even in your rage that just revolts you.
You walk back to the door, and every instinct is telling you not to look back, don’t look back, you’ve had your revenge, given her her little punishment – now get out, get out whilst you have the chance. But you do look back, and you half expect the spider to be springing out at you, enraged. And do you know, you’d have so much more respect for her if she did? But they never do. She’s still in the corner of the room, her surviving eyes streaming with tears, and looking all oh-so confused, but-what-did-I-do, Steve? Oh, how you hate all those but-what-did-I-do’s, and you resist the impulse to go right back and give her one more slap. Her squawking now sounds less like pain, it’s disappointment, it’s betrayal. Or so you think, but how are you supposed to know? How do you know what a spider looks like when it’s confused, what are you meant to be now, some sort of spider expert? It’s not your fault.
But, “I’m sorry,” you say anyway, and the spider reacts the same way Sheila always does, she ignores you, she doesn’t even dare acknowledge you, and if only they’d acknowledge you, can’t they see you’re just wanting to make things better? It’s not nice to be ignored. And you know you won’t ever hurt them again, you won’t, you promise yourself you won’t. You’ve never wanted to hurt anything in the first place, you’re the one who’d even scoop up bugs gently so their legs stay on.
It’s not your fault.
You open the door.
You take one step out.
There are spiders everywhere. On the walls, and crawling over the ceiling. So many of them they’re stepping over each other, they’re knocking each other off and on to the floor. Further down you can see a mass of them blocking the corridor, that there are hundreds of spiders all jammed fast, as if they all got stuck trying to go through a revolving door at the same time, legs and abdomens and eyes all higgledy-piggeldy with no room to budge, legs and eyes and sharp white fangs.
And you feel a certain relief. Because whatever has happened, this looks apocalyptic. This has nothing to do with you.
It’s not your fault.
You think of Sheila. And you know how badly she needs rescuing. She can’t survive in a world like this. And you feel something cold and fresh in your head – Good. But Laura too, you think, your own daughter, what about Laura, how will she… Good, it says again. Good, good, good.
You know what? You know what? You just don’t love them any more.
You step back into the bedroom.
The spider looks at you balefully. She’s still crying the ruins of her shattered eye.
And then she does something that Sheila always did. She forgives you.
She extends a leg, seems to beckon. She forgives you. She wants you back.
You return to the bed. You wipe away the brown gunk off your chest, a little self-consciously. You did the same with Sheila’s blood once, that time you went too far. “Sorry,” you say again, and by God, you mean it. You’ll never hurt anyone again.
She wraps a leg around you, and your skin revolts to the touch of a spider, and at the same time it delights at the warmth of her fur. You’re cold, you’re so cold. And hungry.
She fetches you your dinner. And you settle down to eat.
Lorna D. Keach said:
Absolutely brilliant story.Thank you for putting it up for folks to read–I loved it.
Madalyn Morgan said:
How are we expected to go to bed and put the lights, let alone go to sleep, after reading that story. Still, I’ll be fine. I like spiders, really, I do, honestly… If there are any spiders out there, listening, I really really do like you…. Ahhhhhhhhhhh-brilliant!