The only time I’ve lived in a flat was in
America, King of Prussia
to be precise; a flat in a block that looked liked it had been built by a team
of Soviet workmen without the slightest trace of humour. To call that building
grey was to give it far too much colour, to call it flat and featureless was
giving it hills and rolling dales. Whoever designed that building did it with
only a ruler and a graphite pencil – no Bezier curves, compasses, or
watercolour washes for him. Flat, grey, no-nonsense utilitarian was the order
of his day; I’d have hated to see what he wore in bed.
The flat, or apartment as I guess I should call it, was comfortable enough - two bedrooms, two baths (one en-suite) a large lounge, a kitchen diner, a walk-in closet where I used to finish drying the washing I did in the basement laundry, and air conditioning; the noisiest air conditioning that can be imagined, noisy and centrally set by the building so that it could never be turned off – the heating in winter was just the same, but that’s another tale.
Anyway I arrived in the
US in the hottest, most humid, late
September on record; a hot 90+ degrees with 95% humidity. Hot and sticky? Melting
into a puddle of tepid glue more like; the very worst type of weather for me. So
despite the noise it made I was glad of the air conditioning, even though it
kept me from sleeping half of the night and more.
Then there came one night, or rather early morning, when I just couldn’t take it any longer. Rushing to the kitchen drawer I drew out the screwdriver I’d bought from the dollar shop in the Mall and, returning barefoot and bare-chested to the bedroom, stood in front of the bedroom air conditioning unit ready to do battle. I must have looked a pretty sight; near naked and clutching a small screwdriver, snarling at the air conditioning unit underneath the big bedroom window.
Heat or no heat I had to get some sleep, sticky or no sticky that unit needed to be stopped. The unit was a long, thin affair directly beneath the window where I’d often stand at night, watching the electrical storms on the hills far away in the distance – no time for that tonight though. Tonight I was the scourge of noisy air conditioning, dismantler of rogue units, Vlad the destroyer of too-loud machinery.
Reaching down I unscrewed one of the half-dozen ventilation grills that formed the top of the unit. There had to be a control knob under one of them or at least a fuse, a wire to cut, a condenser to rip out. There was nothing under the first one, or the second and third, and I decided to start at the other end as logically the controls, if there were any, would be at one end or the other. I unscrewed the grill and lifted it off and suddenly there was movement as hundreds of sleeping ladybirds were disturbed. They fell to the floor and crawled away, others flew off, still others climbed up onto the (obviously ineffectual) insect screen – up the curtains, along the walls, up to the ceiling, down behind the unit, dozen on dozen. An army of bright red ladybirds crawled across the beige carpet, the off-white walls, the bright-white ceiling, like hundreds of tiny drops of scattering blood.
I never did manage to turn the air conditioning off, I just got used to it; and the ladybirds were with me the whole seven months I spent in that apartment, crawling across the surfaces, turning up inside the bath, in my coffee mug. I once opened my book and found one squashed flat between the pages.
They became my companions, my friends almost, and each time I’d bump into one in the flat I shared with them, rather than them with me, I’d greet them with a friendly hello. They never replied though, and I guess in many ways that’s a good thing.
I hadn’t thought of them for years until on Sunday, sitting in my yard, eyes closed, sticky and waiting for the storm to come, they popped into my mind as sometimes things do, the whole memory rushing back clogging my mind for a moment or two. I smiled; and as I smiled felt a tickle on my hand. Opening my eyes I glanced down – and there crawling across my hand was a red ladybird, all black spots and shiny red shell.
“Hello” I said. I didn’t get a reply though.