One thing that defines me is my dislike, no I’ll ‘fess up, my fear of spiders. I have always believed them sneaky, scuttling things that startle and need to be stomped on. Jane, my wife, will pick up large specimens and put them outside, personalising them all as Sammy, I prefer to rename them Splat.
This may have derived from my Uncle Bert who dairy-farmed near Shepton Mallet. To us city-dwelling Bristolians this seemed many miles away and deep in alien countryside. In fact this was only 27 miles, but back then it felt like a visit to another planet, or an earlier age.
We didn’t visit often. My memory is of his parlour dominated by a large scrubbed pine table but I was perhaps five years old so it may not have been quite as large as I recall. Above it were hung a dozen or so rabbits, shot by Uncle Bert to control the myxomatosis that was rife at the time. These were nothing like pet bunnies. They sickeningly hung there, sightlessly and silently, their skinny bodies distended and rear legs stretched by their own weight as they steadily dripped blood onto the table below. The family gathered around the table talking of I know not what; my attention was fully taken up by these furry cadavers.
At some stage I needed the loo and was shown the route to the outside privy. We had one at this time too, but ours was just across the porch directly outside our rear door. This one was many cautious steps away over an overgrown patch of uneven earth and vegetation that was down-trodden by marauding cows whose swollen gait appeared awkward and unpredictable. The privy had a door that did not fill the gap, leaving six-inch voids at top and bottom, which effectively meant you were still connected with that backyard full of threat, hearing the furtive movements (both sorts) of the cows.
The privy was a simple brick-built affair, the walls distempered long enough ago to be cracking and flaking. The big cistern was precariously hanging about seven feet above the pan with a long rusty chain that looked capable of bringing the whole contraption down on your head. Uncle Bert was obviously ‘posh’ because he had a roll of shiny single-ply Izal toilet paper (few other brands existed back then) on a piece of wire. Cut pieces of newspaper held together by a piece of string were still prevalent at that time, sourced from those newspapers not commandeered by the chip shop.
But that wasn’t what held my attention. It was the huge cobwebs in every corner and across the ceiling. Each was presided over by a fat spider, appearing older and wiser than me. These spiders were not the modern spindly type, they looked fat and fleshy enough to take down and consume a sparrow. They were all studying me from their eyries with their eight (or ten?) legs and many eyes, just a short leap or abseil away. I was quick, did not trust the flush and was out in a flash. The memory remains fresh.
Leaping forward forty years we were living in a typical Fulham terrace with a front ‘garden’ less than six feet wide. Jane often disposed of the regular house spiders by throwing them out through the front door. I would point out that if I was walking down the pavement and hit by an ejected spider, I would be eternally scarred.
A dozen years later than that, living in Spain, we met a phenomenon that no-one had warned us to expect. At a certain time of the year tarantulas would appear at the bottom of our pool, apparently dead, but actually in a protective cocoon of air, cooling themselves. When I relate this anecdote Jane interjects that these were small tarantulas but they were quite big enough for me. A neighbour was bitten by one she disturbed under a pile of dead leaves and described the damage as like a ‘paper-cut’. None of this changed my views.
The very first tarantula we encountered I scooped out with a net and went to our wall, looping the net over my head to fling the intruder onto some wasteland. When I went back indoors (to recover) I looked down to find it clinging to the back of my bare calf. I yelled in horror but fortunately I was wearing heavy sandals and rapidly dubbed it, ‘Splat’!
As I write this, the one continent we have yet to visit is Australasia – can you guess why!