You turn off the light and climb into bed to the sound of helicopters circling council estates and foxes rutting in alleys and yards. Then you smell the gas, because you didn’t turn it off after dinner. You didn't do this, did you? Orange halogen saturates all the rooms. Carbon monoxide can kill quickly without warning. Blood is getting gel-like. You swear you feel this and it's livid and horrendous. You cannot bear it for more than a few minutes, so you go back down to the kitchen and sniff the gas hob and twist the knobs. You smell nothing because you're wrong and remember finishing dinner and turning off the gas. If you hadn't there would be large flames stripping the walls and ceiling or you would have suffocated hours ago. Of course.
But while down there you check and re-check the back door which is glass-panelled and very vulnerable. The key must never be left in the lock. After dark back yards crawl with nimble crack addicts looking for an easy way in to ransack possessions and penetrate private property with evil psychological intelligence. You don’t exactly want iron bars on all of your windows but then you don’t want to give them an easy entrance, or the excuse. So you end up surrounded by certified, state-of-the-art security: a revenge that lasts too long and starts to reverse. You get dispirited, cagey. Otherwise you live with the vulnerable glass-panelled door, and the dark hours have a broken, twitchy rhythm.
As you sleep, rats crawl out of the sooty river with hard teeth bare and thick whip-like tails twitching and bodies swollen with lethal disease. It's the tails and the teeth and the disease that make these primeval monsters deadly unconscious shadows. We have the fear from the ships they arrived on and the plagues they spread. This doesn't go as deep as Freud's anal aromas but it does go deep. They roam through and rule wastelands and labyrinths of pizza scraps, fried chicken bones, stale fruit, vomit, open bins. A permanent and pervasive scratch of motion below floorboards and behind cupboards, and enamel-coated teeth chewing through metal and masonry. This is a fervid and febrile Eden that we leave open and allow until we decide to kill, thus:
An associate who rents a flat in a Thames-side residential complex once went to deposit some rubbish in the communal basement bin and was attacked by an enormous, pregnant rat. As this grotesque mother squirmed across the basement floor, he smashed her to death with a bin liner full of glass bottles, aluminium cans and magazines. This was just instinctive: a swift descent into savagery and annihilation. He broke sweat with many swings. It was ugly and unnecessary, he later admitted. Except that it wasn't. It was psychologically sound. It was the correct reaction. (I was reassuring to him.)
In cold prehistory we organised ourselves into packs. We picked off mammoths and sabre toothed tigers by herding them towards cliffs and forcing them over the edge. This efficient destruction of our last great predators had purpose and justification. What we couldn't do with weapons we did by collective action: instinct married to intelligence. Refined, and finally augmented by technology, we made our war machine.
But that turned out to be the least of it. Despite progress, health and safety, diet and fitness, reams of restrictions and regimes, threats multiplied. They are now dizzying and incalculable, and mostly self-inflicted. Different factors, events and scares recede or revive: asbestos, latex allergies, musculoskeletal disorders, radiation, unsafe gas appliances, random violence inflicted by young people. Enemies internal and external, viral and micro biotic. No one knows what to expect next or what to fear or who or when. We are modern citizens, and we cling to pest control. It is our suffocating dream.PEST CONTROL
The Rat Catcher slouched into the old house weeks after lacing the floor with poisonous blue pellets. His skin was streaky and head matted with greasy strands of grey hair. He stood in the kitchen with an unpleasant, wry smirk, and observed: "The rat hasn't touched the bate."
"No, I replied, "it hasn't. Are you sure that the bait is irresistible to all
I didn't believe him and said, evenly, "the rat, if you will forgive me, seems to be resisting." A ripple of tension shimmered around the wrecked kitchen. These seconds were slow.
"What do you think the problem is?" I asked. "It's been weeks."
"The problem," he replied, with steady sarcasm and scorn, "is that the rat
is not eating the bait
The electricity had gone that morning because the house was falling to pieces and everything in it was dangerous, particularly the electrical wiring and fuse box. An old record player had short-circuited the entire property at dawn. No council would invest money in this heap of grey bricks and powdery cement, and my friends and I were buying time until we had enough money to move very far away and, with luck, never see each other again. This would be months and, meanwhile, there was a rat lurking and the Rat Catcher who announced, upon climbing out of the cellar, the slightly sick and creepy cellar with its horror flash of Fred West, "the rat will've probably entered the house through holes."
"Yes, we often find that rats get into houses through holes."
The Rat Catcher was mocking me. I remember thinking: this is entirely possible. Weeks later Rat Catcher 2 (this was my request) appeared.
"Is holes," he told me, "Big Problem."
"I know. I know about the holes. This is an old house."
"Big problem." The bait remained untouched.
"But how are we going to kill the rat?"
He was a big, milky-faced, Eastern European man. I didn't quite trust him to be competent but, unlike Rat Catcher 1, he seemed sincere if, unlike Rat Catcher 1, stupid.
"Patience, my friend. You must block your holes!"
"This house is falling to pieces, " I pointed out.
"This is a nice house."
"Yes, I know, but there's a rat
"I tell you now, I will kill rat for you."
"Good! It's starting to eat the cupboard doors."
Rat Catcher 2 was called Bolek. Bolek killed the rat. Or, at least, the pellets he
put down killed the rat. I knew this would be a great victory for him if and when it happened. And it happened one Sunday evening. I found the rat twitching violently in the back garden. I called Bolek in panic. "Czesc."
"Bolek!" I (nearly) screamed. "The rat...it's dying!"
"Bolek, the rat is dying!!!"
"I tell you so, yes."
"Yes, yes, Bolek it's dying! Right now! In my garden!"
"Rat dead. I kill it. Is good."
"Yes, but Bolek, you have to come
and kill it!"
"My wife cook dinner now. We sit to eat. I will come tomorrow. In the morning."
I think I was slightly mad and terrified that evening. Bolek arrived half an hour later in a bad mood, wielding a mallet.
"Why do you have a mallet?" I greeted Bolek. Bolek pushed me out of the way. I followed him.
Bolek marched into the back garden. "How we kill rat," he announced, to my alarm, "we smash skull. It will die instantly and we save it pain."
Bolek raised the mallet and swung it down. The mallet smashed the rat's snout and its body jerked convulsively as it jumped inches into the air.
"Bolek!" I shrieked.
Bolek's strikes got increasingly unhinged as he continued to miss the crucial spot on the rat's skull that would kill it quickly and without pain. With each clumsy mistrike the rat's dying body jumped a few more inches into the air. This became gruesome farce as Bolek broke sweat, clearly hungry, having not had dinner. Eventually the rat died because of the sheer number of body blows Bolek inflicted. But it was a bad death and I wasn't entirely convinced of Bolek's professional etiquette. I would not have trusted him to chop my head off cleanly had it been upon a block. But I paid him to get the fuck out of my house and take the rodent's corpse with him. Then I got drunk.LOOSE NUKES
Later, I noticed the parakeets. These had been cute and exotic when confined to the gardens of Kew and Eltham, but they were now invading Clapham and Hyde Park and going East and getting closer to the river. They were killing sparrows. The sparrow population flat lined as parakeets expanded their territory exponentially. This was a clear fact, a visible avian holocaust, but nobody paid attention. In Hyde Park, in the summer, the discreet and charming sound of digital radios and inept ball games got torn apart by the jarring parakeet screech. I watched these svelte shits tear around trees while sparrows lay limp and desperate on the grass.
It was a minor front, however. From the coast sewage-glutted herring gulls encroached. They scavenged through parks and city streets. They ripped KFC and Big Mac remains from bins and picked half-dead sparrows off lawns and park paths. They gouged and stabbed these things to pieces in broad daylight as shoppers and gardeners and strollers stepped cautiously around them. They demolished processed meat and scrappy corpses with long, dagger-like beaks. They settled on rooftops, strategically, with subtle imperial hauteur. They colonised tower blocks: four-faced cliffs safe from natural predators (skuas, falcons, snipers). In provincial cities they attacked dogs and pensioners. They got fat and large on this. This was a slow and deliberate escalation. It was a declaration that was ignored.
In parallel, foxes took to lofts and cellars and sheds and chimneys. Fox faeces and dead sparrows and gull carrion and rat spawn formed new and unprecedented vectors of disease. This caused a stir on council estates and private cul de sacs and the foxes came off worse being large and immediate and entertaining targets. Vigilante hunters took on the role of PEST CONTROL. At night they drove around town with infrared marksman rifles picking off the rutting and skulking foxes in the alleys and the back yards. Rumours of mass graves and pyres and dumping grounds in deep Welsh countryside circled but remained unsubstantiated. Meanwhile, otters swam upriver, violent swans flocked park ponds, muntjac roamed garden city grassland and urban allotments, while Alexa Cheung and various Geldolf girls leaked onto innocent inner city pavements. These stories got written up in free papers that people read on public transport while going home. The feeling of claustrophobia got worse. Far worse: even the undergrowth turned against us. Japanese knotweed exploded over summer, over everything, everywhere. Thick roots like matted muscle spread beneath the city then burst overground during flash floods and heatwaves. You could hack it back or pull it up or try to poison it, but it made no difference. Displaced by fly-tipping and floods, this asexual weed, imported for ornamental purpose centuries ago, tunnelled under the entire country. At virulent rates it ripped into roads and streets, attacked flood defence structures and archaeological sites, swallowed native vegetation and undermined urban foundations, increasing soil erosion and the possibility of landslides. A slow colonisation impervious to bioterrorism. Then red ants appeared from underground tunnels and swarmed.
Caught inside a city consumed and crawling with parasites and predators, we're on a scavenger hunt for terror. As if the air has been radioactive for years but only now, as you stare at your face in the mirror, do you notice strands of grease-strained hair and strips of streaky skin, and see the scale of the catastrophe. Everything awash with highly enriched uranium, encouraged by the state, and unacknowledged, and ignored. So suddenly the sickness hits: this is how it happens. (As to weapons, "it's up to you whether we...transfer them.")
You look out, at the city: it is consumed, crawling, colonised. Mercury is falling from the sky. Three times more mercury is falling from the sky today than before. Eating fish is the way we are exposed to toxic metal. Mercury exposure constitutes a public health problem. Increased mercury emissions from developing countries over the past 30 years outstrips decades in the developing world. Toxic effects in the human foetus. Newly evolved pathogens. Home owners go on a debt binge. People grab what credit they can. International trade in wild animals grows huge. Huge with hundreds of millions of wild animals and their products being traded globally each year. A big debt binge. Mercury is falling from the sky. We're on a scavenger hunt for terror. The influx is going to grow. The influx is going to