It is not like people expect. Most people think, as she probably did herself, once, that the moment that green pest control van parks up outside their house, their problems are at an end, and they give over their cupboards, their attics, the backs of their bathroom cabinets, with the same unblinking trust as they would unbutton their trousers for the doctor. Maybe it is the uniform. Or the armory of traps and poisons, wire wool, gases, neatly packed inside the holdall. They have no idea at all what it is actually like. The careless, cack-handed, sloppy don’t give a shit attitude most of the department is ridden with. They are — a favourite phrase of Shaun’s — being kept in the dark.
What surprised her most, in those first few weeks, was the cruelty. It was rife, spreading over all parts of the department, showing itself in their plots and schemes, their nasty little games, always trying to get one over on somebody, as Shaun would say. Derek and Aidan, for instance, were on a two-man mission to put out of business all the Polish shops and restaurants in South London. They were on seven, so far. They had a chart. Each time a Polish place came onto the database they would take it, and they would begin to lay down empty bait boxes, or line the underneath of floorboards with sandwiches and packets of biscuits, slowly rotting fruit, until after a few weeks the infestation would get so bad Derek and Aidan had no choice but to pass the property over to the health and safety boys as “unfit for business.” There were some Polish in the department, and of course they must have known about all this — it wasn’t like Derek and Aidan made an effort to hide the chart — but they never said anything. They just quietly got on with their work. She thinks that is probably the main reason they keep themselves separate, and never play Best Pest.
She wondered sometimes if Derek and Aidan had got into pest control just for that reason, to wage their underhand war against the Polish, or if they had fallen into the job simply by chance, as she had. Of course, her father would tell stories about how she used to be fascinated with the nasties as a child, always in the garden with her nose under a rock, but that was just an invention. In the same way, he said that her brother, an English teacher now, always had his nose in some book or other, but that wasn’t true either. Parents like to make up these stories to convince themselves they know their children. From what she remembered, the only thing her brother ever had his nose in were the porn magazines he kept stashed under a loose piece of his bedroom carpet.
Still, Shaun liked the story about the bugs under rocks, and he didn’t hesitate to tell their friends whenever he got the opportunity. She had been in the job two years now — recent enough that all the cards for her last birthday had snails or spiders on them again, but long enough it had attached itself to her, as much a part of what people thought about her now as her now as her quiet, flat way of talking, or her chubby cheeks. The Hamsters, Shaun liked to call them. She was of some small novelty interest at parties, briefly, when Shaun introduced her to new people, but she rarely had any good stories to tell them and they always wandered off eventually in search of the toilet, or Michelle, who had been in “Holby City.”
The only good stories she ever had were about Best Pest. And she didn’t even tell them properly, according to Shaun.
On the last day of every month the department would gather together in the middle of the office and each put forward a Polaroid of their entry — the most unusual, or most revolting, pest they had found that month. Of course, the airport boys usually won. It didn’t seem to matter how hard she tried, how many jobs she took, how thoroughly she searched, and searched, she had never come anywhere close. She was mostly on domestics and restaurants, was why. However big the rat, or rare the breed of cockroach, it was never going to compete with a long-tailed rattlesnake. It knocked your socks of sometimes, the things the airport boys found down there. Kingsnakes; a Japanese giant salamander; flesh-eating toads that came only from one part of the Madagascar rainforest the size of a football pitch. Most months they’d turn up something strange enough you had to pretend you’d even heard of it.
Sometimes she wondered how these exotic pests found themselves on board a plane. If a giant salamander can get through customs, then surely a drug dealer, or a terrorist, could smuggle something over. But Shaun says she’s a fool if she thinks that sort of thing doesn’t go on all the time. We just don’t get told about it. Shaun thinks London is riddled with terrorists. He thinks there is one living four down from their house, he is going to report him to the police next time he sees something suspicious. Shaun believes these things are important. He is a floor manager at Debenhams.
If ever Shaun took an interest in her work, it was only to hear about Best Pest. He listened greedily, hoarding stories he could use to impress the till girls. He did not understand her own grim obsession with the competition. How desperately she wanted to win it. She didn’t expect him to. She had never told him, anyway.
By September the airport boys had already won six Best Pests. Of these, Andy had won four. He was an Australian, most of the airport boys were Australians, and he took a bullish pride in his victories, not that he ever admitted it. He would sneer at the other entries, declaring he had seen two of those pests last week, he just didn’t think they were worth the bother, and he was always telling stories about the “real” pests back home, the dingoes, the bulldog ants, the poisonous spiders. Even his own winning entries were just small fry compared to what he was used to. It was all such a front. He was more bothered than anyone, he was so protective about the whole thing, it was as if he considered it as his right to win, that the competition belonged to him somehow. He was the one who organised it, if that wasn’t proof enough, the one who collected the photographs, and sorted the budget, buying the six-packs the day before so they would be cold and ready for when they all gathered round. She imagined him, in his flat in Crystal Palace, lining up his prizes on top of the television, the plastic alligators mounted on small blocks with their cheap metal plaques — Best Pest, July — that Andy had himself arranged with the trophy shop.
He was a fake. A bully and a fake and a cheat and pretty much unbeatable, really, always turning out the most incredible pests, sometimes so unusual they had to look them up on the Internet, when the best she had ever come up with was an oversized sewer rat.
She had arrived ten minutes early and was waiting in the van, parked out of sight round the corner from the restaurant. It wasn’t like doing a domestic. She knew what they were like in restaurants if you turned up early. Caught on the hop, defensive, as if you were the last person they expected coming through the door. She decided to stay put a while longer.
Maybe it would be something unexpected, not mice. The card just said: rodent infestation. It was possible. Sometimes, in small, old premises you could find black rats, or noose-tail mice, especially if there was plentiful food, warmth, lax standards.
By the time she went in they were ready for her. The place was silent, grumpy-looking waiters stood about in clusters, annoyed because they’d had to come in half an hour early and clean rodent shit from behind the microwaves. It was always like this. It didn’t make sense, really, when you thought about it — her job would be much easier if they didn’t try hiding it. It was a very English attitude, Shaun said once, and he was probably right. It was like her mother, who would spend the longest time brushing and arranging her hair before she went to the hairdressers.
The manager was prepared for a fight. He was an ugly little man with stained teeth and small red scabs on his neck and cheeks where he had shaved off the caps of his spots.
“You’ll have to be quick, service starts in half an hour.”
“Okay,” she said. “You’ll just need to show me where the bait boxes are.” And she added, trying not to seem overly interested, “Is it mice?”
“Yes. But only downstairs, near the kitchen.”
A couple of waiters smiled at each other.
“The chef will show you,” he said, pointing at the stairs. Then he walked away, motioning at the barman to tuck his shirt in.
The chef was younger than she expected. What the Twat hadn’t told her, he said, was that two tables walked out without paying last week because a mouse ran underneath them during their meal. He then eagerly showed her all the places he had seen them himself. She followed him into the dry store, noticing small, hard pellets of shit nestled amongst the tinned tomatoes and the boxes of cheese biscuits, and into the kitchen, where clear plastic bags — labelled, steak and kidney mix — were defrosting on the worktop. They came from under the oven, he said. She asked if she could see behind it, and then watched as the chef, together with a quiet, muscular kitchen porter, shunted, with some difficulty, the oven forward from the wall.
Underneath, partly hidden by onion peel and hardened black pieces of dropped food, was a small hole in the floorboard. She asked if the kitchen porter would mind pulling at the wood. Rotten, it gave quite easily, the board coming away in his hand, and he stepped back sharply as he saw the source of problem. A nest of some ten or twelve baby mice were squirming over and around each other, quietly squealing at the sudden intrusion. They were pink, vulnerable, like testicles. Like Shaun’s testicles, she thought, picturing him at the sink brushing his teeth, naked, each morning. What would the till girls say if they could see him like that, ugly and exposed without his pure silk ties and his carefully prepared stories? They probably saw it anyway, though, saw right through all those neatly put on layers.
The kitchen boys were stood back, unsure what to do.
“Whoa, fuck, wait till the Twat sees this.” The chef ran excitedly up the stairs. She took the mesh entrapper out of her holdall and placed it swiftly over the wriggling huddle, pulling on the rod to draw the mesh together and bag up the mice. The kitchen porter looked on with silent horror as she lowered the writhing bald family into a metal case, ready to be taken away, gassed, and safely disposed of.
She sprayed the empty nest and laid fresh bait boxes in the kitchen, the food stores, behind radiator panels, while the Twat fussed around her and she imagined Andy, what he would say. Mice, was it? You’ll be entering this month, then. The slow drawled laugh. Checking ’round to see his goons are impressed.
She knew about the cheating. She had been sat at her desk surfing the internet for other competitions when she first found out — Northamptonshire County Council, Best Pest, October of last year, a photograph of a brown recluse spider, the same photograph that Andy had entered the following month, and won. There was a network of them, Andy’s friends, in different pest departments around the country. She had heard him on the phone, talking about sports and the girls and pests back home. She had never said anything, of course. It would look like she was trying to get one over on him and they would all hate her for it, they would probably ban her from the competition. They weren’t keen on her doing it in the first place. None of the other women did. The airport boys didn’t think there should even be women in pest control, full stop. They discussed it quite openly and made sure, whenever a new woman started in the department, to tease her with scare stories, or bugs dropped jokingly into her handbag. One woman, Debra, made the mistake when she was fairly new of going back with Andy to his flat in Crystal Palace. It was Debra who had told her about the alligators lined up on top of the television. Ever since that night she went back with him, Andy and the others talked about Debra in free and foul detail, as if she was a cockroach infestation.
It was when she didn’t even have an entry to put forward for that month’s competition that she made her decision. Requisitions. Clear-outs. She put her name forward, and she was assigned two the very next week, because of course nobody else wanted them, not out of choice. But for her, unknown to any of the others, this was an opportunity. She had heard the stories — the filth, the decay, the infestations unchecked and run rampant for months, years. She was allocated a green boiler suit and a pair of Kevlar-lined rubber boots and gloves, and she started working, nervous, but expectant, as the pest officer in a team of cleaners, health and safety, and repatriation, sifting and sorting the insides of properties declared unfit for human habitation.
Despite the stories, it was still something of a shock. Her first assignment was the tenth-floor flat of a middle-aged man who had, according to a woman from repatriation, cracked. It had been decided that he was no longer able to sufficiently care for himself and he had been taken away, forcibly, to the hospital, and his flat reclaimed by the council.
It hadn’t seemed at first to be in too bad a state. There was a smell, it was hard to tell of what, but the toilet was almost unsmeared and the worst of the kitchen, which, the cleaners would have you believe, was the part you usually had to brace yourself for, was a blocked sink and a pile of take-away boxes on the sideboard. Maggoted, nothing worse. It was as they went further down the corridor that the smell got worse, although the first of the main rooms they came into was, to her surprise, completely empty. No furniture, television, rubbish, just an old carpet with a path mark worn into it leading to the next door, and a single slanting word written on the wall with red marker pen — desertstorm. She was beginning to suspect all these stories she had heard were probably laid on a bit thick, and she had gotten her hopes up in vain, when the cleaners opened the door to the final room and it became immediately clear the woman from repatriation had been right. The man had cracked.
The smell, she now realized, was the damp, rotten mulch of newspapers, thousands of them, filling the room from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, blocking out the light and the air. They later understood he had been collecting the newspapers for more than a decade because one of the cleaners found a yellowed copy of the Sun from as far back as 1993. It had more tits in those days, the cleaners agreed. After clearing a space past the doorway, they discovered a tunnel through the paper the man had used to belly towards a small den, where, from the toilet evidence and the packing together of the pages, he had lived. And not alone. With pigeons. They heard them before they knew what they were, and she had cleared hurriedly towards the chaotic rustlings on the far side of the room to find, to her disappointment, a crowd of them squatting underneath a broken window. This, they decided, accounted for some of the smell.
They cleared a wide path to the pigeon corner so that she could get to work, laying poison, disinfecting, nailing wire mesh over the window to keep out the evicted birds, who seemed not to notice it had gone up, so that the clearing work took place to a constant backdrop of twanging thuds as the pigeons flew into the wire. At one point, as she shoveled the pigeon shit into thick plastic bags, she glanced at a headline — Joy for local pensioner at six figure payout – that she recognized from a couple of years ago. An eighty-year-old widower won the lottery and took his family on a year-long cruise around the world. She remembered thinking what a nice thing for him, getting to spend time with his family like that, but Shaun had said it wasn’t a responsible use of the money, an amount that size should be put to some good. They had been in the car on the way to the supermarket and Shaun was annoyed because she hadn’t checked the fridge and the cupboards like he had asked. If he won that amount of money, he said, he would build a school in Africa, or buy a house.
She wasn’t going to win Best Pest with a pigeon, she thought, watching them through the wire, but this was promising, it was a start. By the afternoon, they had all gathered on the roof of a nearby house, swarming and squabbling until every while an angry-looking bald man leaned out of a window and threw something up at them and they scattered. She wasn’t frustrated it was just pigeons. The conditions were perfect, it could have been anything. If there were more places like this. She just needed to be patient.
Before long, she was on three, sometimes four clear-outs a week. She hardly did any restaurants or domestics these days, but that wasn’t the end of the world; it meant she didn’t have to deal with people any more, for one thing. The only people she was concerned with now could be seen in what they had left behind — the ghosts of the old, the dead, the insane or, surprisingly often, the extremely lazy. She thought she could sense a change in the office, the way they were with her, but she couldn’t quite tell. It was very slight, something to do with how they looked at her as she packed her holdall for an assignment, as if they had finally discovered the truth about her, that she had some unpleasant secret they always suspected but never quite put their finger on, that she was a pervert.
Shaun didn’t think she was a pervert, but that wasn’t to say he was entirely happy about the whole affair. He had taken to calling her “the garbage inspector” and sitting sulkily on the other side of the living room whenever she left her laundered boiler suit on the sofa, like it was an unwanted relative come to stay with them.
Not that she minded any of that. She was under a spell. The squalor of it. Shock. The small thrill of opening a door and not knowing what you might find. Most of the time it was the usual pests, only more far gone — pigeons, cockroaches, mice, squirrels — but she knew it would come, some horrible discovery, a perfect treasure. And she could see that Andy knew it too. He was curious, now, with what she had treated. He would come over to her desk and poke fun at her rats and her cockroaches. This went on for some weeks, and she began to doubt she would have an entry for that month’s competition, until, on a Tuesday morning in Deptford, it happened.
The man was, according to the neighbors, bloody lucky. He could have been left to die there, broken-hipped at the bottom of his stairs. It was the neighbors who found him. They told her all about it over the cracked wooden fence while the cleaners did a preliminary. He shouldn’t have been living on his own, was the wife’s opinion, the husband nodding beside her, flicking cigarette ash on the ground, scratching at his belly. He was too old. It was the family’s fault, truth be told, leaving him on his own like that. Sad, really. You wouldn’t expect it, because they usually look after their old, and it wasn’t like he didn’t have any — there was a whole horde of them, used to come and visit him once upon a time. Like feeding time at the zoo, it was. All of them out the car, squawking over the road. Her husband thought he must’ve cut them out of his will, the wife told her. He nodded agreement. Bloody disgusting, he said, tossing his fag end over the fence.
Apparently, it was the husband they had to thank for finding him. He had gone round at three in the morning because the television was still on, coming through the walls. He went in eventually, after he didn’t get any answer, and that was when he saw him, just lying there not able to get up and turn it off. It must have been blaring non-stop like that for days, the poor bugger.
One of the cleaners came out then to fetch her. “There’s fucking dog shit everywhere,” he said. “Place is a fucking stink.”
It wasn’t just the dog shit needed cleaning up. There were loaves upon loaves of molding value bread spreading with green fur, tumbled out of the cupboards under the weight of scavenging mice, joining each other now on the sideboard, like a rockery. Bread was all he ate, it seemed, and ring-pull tins of baked beans. There were multi-packs of them lined up on the shelves. He must have stockpiled these things, so he didn’t have to go to the shops too often. She imagined him, slowly placing the tins into his trolley, the familiar walk to the bread aisle, the blank-faced ridicule of the till assistant waiting for him to finish packing his bags. She was thinking this, and how Shaun would no doubt later tell this old man’s story to his own till girls, when one of the cleaners, a pale, sinewy man with the Millwall lion tattooed on his neck, came up to her. “Got something for you down here,” he said.
She followed him to the hallway, avoiding the soft heaps of shit on the carpet, past a row of framed embroidered silks, ornately decorated in unknown writing, to a door under the staircase, and more steps down to a basement. There, lit by a single bare light-bulb, was the dog, lying on its side on the stone flags, panting heavily, and, moving slowly over its belly and its legs and the floor beside it, three enormous brown worms, each the length of the dog’s body. She turned away, her stomach knotting with the sudden urge to retch. The cleaner was walking back up the steps. “That is fucking rank,” she heard him say. She took a moment before looking back, and it was clear to her then that the worms were occupied with the body, coursing around it, sliding over each other. The dog was obviously still alive, so the worms must have been gathering, waiting for it to die, else they had been living inside the dog. That was when her stomach lurched a second time, as she looked at the backside of the dog and saw, protruding out of its anus, the head of another worm. It did not move, and it seemed, she thought, as though it was looking out, watching her, inquisitive, until suddenly it retreated inside.
She bent down, her eyes not leaving the body, and unzipped the holdall. She took out the Polaroid, moving closer in, and crouched down beside it. You didn’t get this in an airport. She waited, stock-still, the shit-stinking air filling her lungs, and, after a couple of minutes, the worm poked its head out again, just a little, then further, further, until a thumb’s length was showing, and she took the photograph. Then she moved to the other side of the body and took another. The dog closed its eyes as the camera flashed, looking, for an instant, peaceful.
Eventually her fascination gave way to something else, and she felt an urge of sadness, guilt, photographing the poor creature lying there, those blank staring eyes, the plastic food bowl empty in a corner next to neatly stacked cardboard boxes of his owner’s things. Some of the top ones had open flaps through which she could see maps, a picture frame, dusty porcelain bowls. Another, neatly taped up, marked — Yaminah.
They were tapeworms, the vet said. Big ones, too. The dog probably got them from eating undercooked meat, or fish, but it would be fine soon enough, the worms were leaving its body anyway because there hadn’t been any food passing through for days. He pointed out one of the piles of shit and she saw that, very slightly, it was trembling. Larvae, he told her. All the faeces would need to be disposed of safely, probably incinerating.
When the vet was gone she looked more closely at the turd and, with a pencil, pushed out a very tiny round yellow egg. She collected a dozen or so of them in a sample tube, ignoring the larger, hatched, maggot-like larvae. Then she carefully bagged up the three homeless tapeworms for destruction and went back up the stairs to see to the kitchen.
Shaun looked disgusted when she showed him the photograph. He handed it back to her almost as soon as he had taken it, as if the worms might somehow get inside him if he held it too long. “You probably think you’re in with a shout this time, do you?” he said, in a distant, quite patronising way, she thought, the same way she had heard him talk to children, or the disabled.
“Nobody’s ever entered one before,” she said.
“Oh,” he replied, taking his dinner through on a tray to the living room.
She put the photograph back in her holdall and zipped it up, before following him through.
Even before she placed her photograph in the pile, tucked somewhere into the middle so that it wouldn’t lay exposed on top, she could sense a difference in the atmosphere of the room. They felt her threat. Normally they seemed hardly to notice her as she sat quietly to the side and they joked together about each other’s chances in the competition, but today there was a change. The airport boys all looked over at her with suspicious glances from where they were stood talking in a huddle, as she took her seat and waited. Andy even had a word for her, after he had brought the cans of lager out from the kitchen and handed them round and she, as always, declined. “Been to some dumps, I bet.” He didn’t smile as he said it. It was a challenge. She nodded. “Yes, I have.”
They formed a hushed circle while Andy numbered each of the Polaroids, not looking to see the name written on the back of each. She couldn’t see the pictures as he went through, but at one point she was sure he paused slightly, hesitating, the tapeworms. Then, as was the custom, the photographs were passed around the circle and each competitor marked down a top three on their secret slip. She was convinced they each lingered longer on one entry, her entry, one of them uttering “fuck” as he got to it. This was her competition. To borrow one of Shaun’s, it was in the bag, almost.
When the photographs came round she could feel their eyes on her, and it was all she could do to resist a smile. None of the other entries even came close. A stag beetle, black millipedes, a scratty-looking fox. There was one, of Derek, a manic grin on his face, holding up two huge river rats by the tails. He and Aidan often did this, a joke entry, one or other of them in some comic pose with a badger or a dismembered squirrel. They weren’t laughing now, though. They sat glowering over at her as she passed the pile on, unable finally to stop the small smile coming to her lips as she filled out her secret slip.
When each competitor had made their choice, Andy collected up the photographs and the slips and retreated to the kitchen to count the votes. A few minutes later he returned, and asked another of the airport boys, Frank, to come into the kitchen with him. This was not normal. Andy always did the counting and announced the result himself. It was very rare that he, or any other competitor, requested a re-vote, and this was certainly the first time there had ever been two people in the kitchen. It was probably against the rules, she thought. Her picture, no doubt, was the reason. They couldn’t bear the thought of her winning and they were thinking how to rig the votes, alter the secret slips, stop her.
Nobody in the circle spoke at all while they waited. They drank their cans in silence, conspiratorially, it was as if they were all in on it. She would demand a revote, she told herself, if they cheated her out of her victory.
Five minutes later, Andy and Frank returned. Andy had the pile of photographs in his hand.
“Sorry, boys, keeping you waiting. Something a bit different today.” He held up her photograph, displaying it to the circle. “We think this should be disqualified. We need to put it to the vote.”
He had his back to her; she couldn’t see his face. Aidan whispered something to Derek and Derek smirked.
“Rules state the infestation has to be a premises, and that’s not what we’ve got here. It’s the dog is infested here.”
The backs of his ears twitched up and she knew he was grinning. A couple of the airport boys smiled.
“All those, think this photo has to be disqualified, raise their hands.”
She placed the letter on the kitchen table for Shaun to open when he got in from work. Dear Shaun, sorry to tell you like this but I thought it might be best in a letter so you’d have time to think about it and let the dust settle rather than us having a humdinger. Humdinger. That was one of his. She definitely would not have said humdinger before she knew him. Or, let the dust settle. In an odd way, it didn’t even feel like her letter, it felt like his — somewhere along the line she had lost herself, and now there was a letter on the kitchen table that Shaun had written to himself. Well, old boy, no easy way of saying this but it looks like our time is up.
She put her suitcase ready by the door to take to her parents and went into the utility room to the freezer. The tube was where she had left it, hidden inside a Viennetta box next to Shaun’s chicken Kievs. She put it into her coat pocket to defrost, picked up her suitcase, and left the house.
She arrived at the department early, before anybody else had got in. The only person there was the cleaner, hoovering behind a cactus plant. She went to her desk and collected her things — her mug; a cartoon cockroach paperweight her father gave her; some pens — putting them in the top of her suitcase. She checked the cleaner wasn’t about to change rooms, and went to the kitchen.
Each and every single one of those hands had gone up that afternoon. The following morning she wrote out her notice. Then she kept her head down, got on with the last of her clear-outs, ignored the sniggering of Andy and the others, and spent a good deal of time surfing the Internet. She now knew near enough everything there was to know about tapeworms. That they are hermaphrodites, fertilising themselves without the need of a mate. That the eggs can remain alive, frozen, for over a month. That as many as ten can live in one intestine, and each grow inside their host to lengths of up to thirty feet, feeding of the sludge of digesting meals.
She took the tube out of her pocket, defrosted now, unmisted, so she could see the small collection of minute yellow eggs inside. She moved the six-packs from their usual position in the bottom of the fridge onto the tabletop, and began. It was like a science experiment, carefully picking up each egg with the eyebrow tweezers out of her bathroom cabinet and placing them, two inside the lip of every can, in front of the ring-pull. She took her time, the reassuring sound of the hoover down the corridor, until both six-packs were complete and she put them back in the fridge exactly where Andy had left them the day before. Then, with a smile, she left, wheeling her suitcase away from the department, that image of the worm’s head — motionless, for a moment seeming to look out, inquisitive — before slipping back inside the rim of its new home.