A hot December day. Kyabram, Australia. A dark haired, eight-year-old girl dressed in a yellow swimming costume is in her garden, running towards the swimming pool. From the house, her father yells loudly after her, “Remember … don’t touch the sides”!! She knows what this means. The oval-shaped pool is a cheap design; half submerged in the ground, half above ground. To enter it she has to climb a ladder and the sides of the pool are infested with spiders – mostly redbacks. She performs a balancing act on the ladder to enter the water without making contact with the pool’s edge; exiting will be even more acrobatic and at no point during her swim will she go near the border. The year is 1985.
…. 26 years later. Bendigo, Australia. In the living room a commercial break interrupts the news.
ME: Have you got a key I could use while I’m here?
MUM: Sure! The spare key’s in the usual spot in the garage.
ME: Oh, good.
I remain in my seat. My mother’s tired and I should leap to get the key myself, but I know the garage and I can’t face it yet. Only 24 hours ago we had arrived from the airport. Pulling up to the garage my mother had stopped the car.
MUM: “I’ll let you out here and then I’ll pull in”.
ME (smiling at our mutual understanding): “Thanks, there’s no need for me to go in there unless I have to”.
MUM: “It’s okay if you don’t look up. They never drop down”. (Our family mantra for avoiding spiders. Apparently if you don’t see them, all is well, despite the fact that the ceiling is crawling with them).
That night I’d slept sporadically, awake from jetlag. I kept my eyes averted from the window. The room’s spotless and prepared for my stay; fresh linen, polished mirrors, wardrobe space cleared. I know that my mother would have used a broom to clear cobwebs from the window frame and all creepy crawlies would have been ruthlessly destroyed. An unspoken ritual: she knows what must be done.
My father, on the other hand, was never so competent when hunting arachnids. We’d spot the creature – by spot I mean scream and run from the room. We’d hear banging and a few obscenities yelled, and then he’d emerge announcing the spider was dead. Inevitably it had escaped and would be seen hours later – dancing gleefully and laughing at us. Our only way around my father’s lie was to demand to see the crumpled corpse; the unity of two sisters fight against the eight-legged is not to be underestimated.
Two species of spider favour our house: redbacks and huntsmans – huntsmans my greater foe. Harmless, but the size of a tarantula, a huntsman is spotted monthly, staring defiantly at us from a large blank wall, never even attempting to hide.
In the garage, ostracised by the household, both species (and quite a few more) angrily lurk. It takes stoicism to enter this space and endure the hatred radiating down from countless eyes. Currently, sitting in my mother’s living room, I can’t face it. Of course in a week I’ll have my broom at the ready, the trained child soldier returning, deadened heart and nerves of steel. Australian mercenaries are cultivated early; I’ve witnessed my then-four-year-old niece voluntarily kill with a shoe – that’s a close up, intimate weapon of choice and earned my full admiration.
Eventually my mother rises, heading to retrieve the key located in a nook that’s certainly home to Aragog himself. As she stands, I look at her and smile, ”Need a broom”? “No, it’s okay, I just won’t look up”.
Since writing this, my mother has informed me that redbacks are far more prevalent in her house than huntsmans – I think this was supposed to be reassuring. Immediately following this conversation, I saw (and drowned) a daddy-long-legs in the bath (in Australia, daddy-long-legs are spiders not insects). It’s going to be a long six months.