We left our heroine with her new husband in a breeze-block cottage on the campus of the University of Papua New Guinea, in scenic (sic) Port Moresby, contemplating the nature of cockroaches.
You remember: really big, really fast cockroaches.
There was one in particular that tormented me deliberately, waiting until I was halfway across the room before dashing across in my path (preferably when my arms were full of breakable groceries) or running up the wall just as I sat down, so as to make it impossible for me to relax with this reminder of a Presence just behind the hanging clock or the wall-mounted shelf. And to vary things a little, he’e2’80’99d occasionally launch into the air with a bang of his hard little wings, just to remind me that he could. I called him Buster. As in ‘e2’80’9cBuster, you’e2’80’99re gonna die.’e2’80’9d
It’e2’80’99s not that I have anything against Nature, honest. Those of you who have been here for a while will remember that I had nothing against the skunks that moved in except that I literally couldn’e2’80’99t breathe when they were around, and when we lived in the Punjab we had a couple of geckos that shared the quarters with us, entertaining my 18 month-old daughter and taking care of any stray mosquitoes that made it past the stapled-up netting on the windows.
But geckos are slow and skunks are cute, and Buster was neither.
His favorite place was under, or inside, a freestanding sort of shelving unit against the wall of the dining area, designed probably to hold table linen although this one had accumulated a lot of quasi-kitchen stuff, mismatched table mats and stupendous salad bowls more appropriate for a dozen goldfish’e2’80’94the sorts of things left behind by temporary residents who didn’e2’80’99t want to take them back to Australia (called by all Oz.) And because most of the UPNG guests were from Oz, they probably hadn’e2’80’99t taken much notice of a large startling creature that after all didn’e2’80’99t have poisonous fangs or large teeth. (Bryson’e2’80’99s IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY may not be a novel, but it certainly counts as comic, I agree.)
But my nerves were going. So the next time we ventured into town I went into one of those odds-and-ends shops and asked for something that would kill a cockroach. The small Oriental man behind the counter knew just what I wanted, and brought out an ancient aerosol can missing half its label, and assured me it would do the job. The way he handled it put me off just a little, with the very tips of two fingers, gingerly placing it as far on the other side of the counter as he could, but it wasn’e2’80’99t actually rusting, so I figured it wouldn’e2’80’99t blow up in my hand. I took it.
When I got back from the shops I let myself into the house, and deliberately took a step inside, then another. Sure enough, with a scuttle of tiny claws Buster zipped across the entranceway, under the dining table, and disappeared under the storage unit.
Out came the mysterious aerosol can, and I laid down a cloud of its contents under, behind, and inside the unit. Coughing and wondering what I had just done to my own chromosomes, I retreated to the bathroom, the next door on, to scrub my hands and face’e2’80’94and brush my teeth for good measure, since my mouth tasted of something I’e2’80’99m sure Rachel Carson wouldn’e2’80’99t approve of.
My husband, in the meantime, had lingered behind to talk to one of our professorial neighbors, and had seen none of this. I should perhaps mention that he was born and raised in India, where women are strong but demure about it, and moved to England, which has its own forms of feminine behavior. He’e2’80’99d lived in California less than ten years, and was still not completely accustomed to the Amazonian attitudes of Californian women. (See CALIFIA’e2’80’99S DAUGHTERS for a development of this theme.)
In other words, I would occasionally find him standing back in wonder at something I had said or done. Still do, for that matter, nearly thirty years later.
So there I am in the bathroom brushing my teeth vigorously, door open. I hear him come in the front door and turn to call, rather foamily, that he might want to open a couple of windows, when I see movement out of the corner of my eye.
Now, Buster does follow some very clear rules: kitchen only, no knocking over the pans at night, and don’e2’80’99t actually attack the humans, just scare the crap out of them. But here he is flapping wildly about and coming straight for me in a small room. The hand that has come down with the toothbrush in it jerks faster as I let out a most-unAmazonian squeak. All right, a shriek. The toothbrush flies through the air, bounces off the floor a couple of feet from Buster (who my mind has finally registered is in his death throws, not attacking me) and skitters off into the living room.
My husband, meanwhile, has just entered the dining room. He sees the flying toothbrush, follows its trajectory back and sees the dying cockroach, and then I come out of the bathroom, staring down at the twitching bug.
My wife, he thinks, has killed a cockroach with a wickedly accurate thrown toothbrush. He looked at me in awe.
And still does.