Street Life: Horror that lurked in my dream kitchen


I SHOULD have known better than to let him in. For, as the old Flanders and Swann song warns, once you let a workman into your home, you can expect a disaster that will require corrective measures from another clumsy workman and so on ad infinitum.

I was not thinking of this when the doorbell rang and a bearded dwarf in a fluorescent orange jacket announced that he was a safety inspector from Mosgaz, the Moscow branch of the gas board. Rather, my initial reaction was to be pleased that someone was paying attention to safety in a country where buildings regularly collapse in gas explosions. I was even ready to forgive him for tramping across my hall carpet in filthy boots.

"Tut, tut, tut," he said after glancing cursorily around the kitchen, "I am going to have to fine you." The on-off switch for the gas mains was not immediately visible and he accused me of having walled it up behind my "Euro-remont", as the Russians call any fitted kitchen or other home improvement executed to West European standards. "A lot of people do this when they have their fancy kitchens put in," he said, sneering. "Well, let me tell you, it's illegal. The switch should be accessible."

I was reasonably confident that my switch was accessible, only I could not immediately put my finger on it. Before I managed to find it, tactfully hidden at the back of a cupboard, the poisonous little man was unscrewing the white panels that make up the washable walls of my "Finnish-style" kitchen.

Now I must admit that I have had the odd cockroach in my home. In Britain, this would be as bad as admitting that I never wash or have some other disgusting personal habits but in Russia everybody suffers from cockroaches. When one person poisons them, they crawl to the neighbouring flat and seek asylum there.

However, when the panels came off, it became clear that here were more than one or two cockroaches. My "hygienic" kitchen was just a Potemkin Euro-remont, a facade like the cardboard villages that Potemkin built for Catherine the Great to convince her that the provinces were flourishing.

In the gap between the facade and the original wall, there was a heaving nest of cockroaches, as in the film Alien. Just as I made this discovery, the gas man satisfied himself that the on-off switch at the back of the cupboard was in order and announced: "Everything's fine then, sorry to have troubled you, I'll be off." As he exited, leaving more dusty footprints on the carpet and the liberated insects to overrun the kitchen, he added: "That's a nasty cockroach problem you've got there."

In the past, I have tried various products to get rid of cockroaches. I bought some white powder from the market but my cat only rolled in it and went crazy, as if he had snorted cocaine, while the intended victims multiplied. A friend gave me some special Chinese chalk, with which I was supposed to mark the walls, but the impudent cockroaches were so indifferent to this that they actually nested inside the chalk box.

Now matters were serious and I was going to have to call in a professional exterminator. My husband suggested "Vicious Vlad", a punk rock singer whose day job is vanquishing vermin. He arrived with canisters of highly poisonous chemical spray and said that, after I had emptied the cupboards, it would be advisable if the cat and I stayed the night somewhere else.

Dr Death did his job but, like all workmen, he failed to clean up after himself. When I came home the next morning, the kitchen floor looked like a battlefield, strewn with corpses and a few limply struggling survivors. It was so foul, it was fascinating.

"Die, die," I intoned as I crushed the last of the living and swept up all the bodies into a bin-liner. The grim thought struck me that, in just the same way, the gods will deal with all of us.

I was satisfied. My kitchen was clean. The cockroaches would be back, of course, to make a sequel to the horror film. But the surviving insects would escape now to the neighbours and it was they who would have to cope with the endless consequences of the gasman coming to call.

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