Will Self: PsychoGeography

In the company of creeps
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The Independent Online

Ralph's drawing doesn't show Cimicidae lectularius to scale; if it did, it would be pretty uninteresting to look at - really just a scattering of minute ink blots on the page. His caption is also fairly over the top, with its claim that "Nobody can escape". I've managed to avoid bedbugs most of my life; indeed, I can't recall ever being sucked by them, save for in the scummiest of squats and the lowest of rental accommodation - baked mud hotels on the fringes of the Sahara, fleapits in the slums of Seville. But these were mere sleepovers with the nippers, not for me the Orwellian nightmare of Down and Out in Paris and London, wherein the Old Etonian lay, in a torpor of inanition, watching columns of the ditsy blood-letters wend across the ceiling.

Nevertheless, there is something at once revolting and comforting about the notion of domestic parasites. When we awake in a strange place to the itch of flea bites, it yanks us back to an early epoch, when no one's kith came without their own kin: lice in their hair and running in slick rivulets along the seams of their clothes; ringworm forming whorls like primitive tattoos on their hides; and perhaps even deeper infiltrators, slithering about in the darkness of their intestines.

We spend a third of our lifetime in bed. It is thus our true location: the place where we are most completely ourselves. Here we are born, copulate, expire, and dunk biscuits while reading old magazines. But mostly we sleep, lost in the coils of our own unravelling psyches, while minute incubi and succubi jump up and down on us. I sometimes wonder if our inability to "deal" - as they say in modern parlance - with intimacy, is a function of our loss of contact with these nighttime visitors. True, there are the mites which, despite the best efforts of the chemical industries, still live in our pillows and mattresses. However, they are altogether too useful to us - rolling flakes of dead skin into neat balls, pitchforking lint out of our navels with their specially adapted feelers - to be conceived of as true parasites.

I once wrote a short story called Flytopia, in which a man goes insane, and believes that he has entered into a beneficent symbiosis with all the insect inhabitants of his small, Suffolk cottage. The earwigs ream out the sweaty crannies of his crazed body - and the moths then flutter him dry with their wings. Echelons of low-flying wasps cruise the carpet for spoiling vegetable matter, while woodlice trundle through the weave. There is no beastie, no matter how superficially repellent, which is not transfigured - in his, loony eyes - by its utility. In return, the man takes down the fly papers, bins the Vapona wasp killers, and lays out raw sausages.

In time, the insects' pay-back becomes more exacting, and they inform him (via alphabetised silverfish on the draining board), that they require more fresh meat. Much more. The denouement is predictably grisly, but I won't give it away. Instead, go to the bookshop and read it for yourself, standing up in the fiction section. In this way, you will mirror the central conceit of the story itself, by becoming a kind of symbiotic bookworm, infesting the alimentary canals of commerce, and occasionally giving your host a pay-back through purchasing a skinny latte from its coffee shop.

No, since we exiled bed bugs from our beds, everything has gone to hell. Western humanity has the collective aspect of one of those tragic children, who are born allergic to everything, and have to live out their days in bizarre plastic bubbles, only being cuddled by their parents using robotic arms. We live in antiseptic spaces - our beds reek of ammonia from cleaning products, and our ultra-white sheets irritate our pristine skins. The only time most of us encounter a parasite nowadays is when one of our children brings home from school a slip of paper that proclaims "a case of head lice has been reported in your child's class ..."

Immediately an agitation of itching communicates itself throughout the family. A party is sent to the chemist to buy lotion and combs. The evening is spent in various states of undress, rubbing in unguents, then combing out the devilishly agile crablets. It has often occurred to me, seeing my family disarrayed thus, that the social anthropologist who proposed the theory that much of human chit-chat was a substitute for the grooming our remote and hairy ancestors were compelled to engage in, had got it about right. For during nit-combing sessions, apart from the occasional grunt of pain as the comb is yanked through a snaggle, there is almost complete silence.