Vincent was king of the bugs – and finally he had a way to lord it over the girl who had treated him with contempt…
Early January, Christmas barely over and already a woman was complaining of a flea infestation.
“Pets?” Vincent asked, sketching a wasp on the pad he kept by the phone.
“None. I’ve just moved in. Perhaps the previous owners had some – there was a smell of cat when I arrived. When can you come?”
Her voice was familiar. It had that tone of entitlement.
People always spoke down to pest controllers. But this year Vincent resolved to be a new man. This year he would become somebody people respected.
Vincent Browne had grown up here and had stayed after his peer group left.
He knew the area intimately, its crevices, its drains, its gutters.
He knew where rats hid and the routes they took into people’s houses. (Sewers, U-bends, mains pipes.) He knew the life cycle of fleas, the crannies wasps liked to build their nests in, the gestation period of mice, the life cycle of cockroaches.
He destroyed ants’ nests and exterminated silverfish. He could rid a house of bed bugs. And yet still people spoke down to him.
Not this year though… this year would be different.
“Karen Mayhew, number three, Heath Drive. How soon can you come?”
Karen Mayhew. The name he had heard during roll call every morning back at secondary school all those years ago.
She had been clever, but not as mouthy as the rest of the popular crowd. She was a shy girl, pretty, but unaware of it. While he had given up on others who rebuffed him, he had persisted with Karen.
She was lucky that he continued to be interested in her even after she left home. Loitering outside her house when she came back in the university holidays, he figured that if didn’t give up, she would eventually give in.
He had been as determined as some of the pests he now dealt with. And yet… and yet it had got him nowhere!
He remembered how he had become enraged by her refusal to pay him any attention. One cold November night he rang her bell, asked her to go to the pub with him. She had shut the door in his face.
He stayed outside and when her cat slunk past, he stamped hard on its tail.
If you can’t punish the person, punish something they love, he’d thought.
The cat though, had yowled, jumped up, stapled itself with its claws to his arm, then slithered to the pavement leaving red rivulets in his skin. He still had the scars.
To add insult to injury, it deposited a flea that had bitten him and driven him mad itching for days afterwards.
On the phone to Karen Mayhew, all these years later, he realised their roles were reversed.
Once, he had thought he needed her. Now she was the one who needed him. Once she had left him upset and rejected. Now she was the one in distress.
Vincent took his time. He wasn’t going to rush to help Karen Mayhew after the way she had treated him. It might have been years ago, but it
was like yesterday in his freshly inflamed memory.
“I’ll see if there’s a space in my diary next week,” he said.
“Next week? But I’m going crazy, I’m being bitten,” she bleated. “I have a dinner party at the weekend. I can’t invite friends to a flea-infested house. The things will jump all over them. They’re already driving me mad.”
It was the phrase “driving me mad” that gave him the idea.
Vincent drew up in his van outside number three, Heath Drive. A very nice address. Karen Mayhew had done well for herself.
Would she recognise him? He had changed a lot since school. He had gone straight from lanky boy to maturity, missing out the phase other men got stuck in – vainly working out and pathetically grooming their facial hair.
Not that he hadn’t also taken plenty of time to wash and apply a good smelling aftershave that morning.
His hair was receding, giving his forehead height, like the carapace of a cockroach. His eyes were large and slightly protuberant, like those of a house fly. He looked more like a forty-five-year-old than someone in his early thirties.
He was pleased with how he looked. Women liked mature men.
Vincent rang Karen Mayhew’s brass doorbell. The sweet scent of hyacinths drifted from her front garden. Winter jasmine crept up her latticed porch. She was the kind of woman who enabled things to flower even in mid-winter.
Still slim, she was blonder now than he remembered her. She barely looked at him – the kind of self-absorbed woman who doesn’t give you a second glance.
He was still a nobody in her eyes!
She showed him around her house, bare polished floorboards and a kitchen overlooking a small but perfectly groomed back garden. A tidy house, nothing out of place.
“They are worst in the bathroom,” she said. “That’s where they seem to bite me, on my way to or from my bath.”
He took his time inspecting the house. Everything spoke of privilege. Of success. And of taste. A free-standing bath in her small bathroom, spotlights, candles. Bottles of perfume.
At last he went downstairs where he found her pouring herself a glass of white wine.
“Well?” she said.
She didn’t offer him a glass.
“There are no fleas,” he said. “I’ve inspected thoroughly.”
“They hide,” she said. “Then, suddenly, they’re everywhere. It’s usually when I put the heating on. Their eggs lie dormant and then, when it gets warm, they hatch and start jumping.”
“That’s true,” Vincent said, irritated by the way she assumed superior knowledge about his subject. “But fleas leave marks, miniscule faeces that I identify with my magnifying glass. I’ve checked and there’s absolutely nothing. Zero,” he added for emphasis. “Zilch.”
“But I can feel them! Please will you spray the house!”
“Fine, I’ll spray it if you want, even though there’s nothing there. You’ll need to go out, though. It’s toxic stuff. Needs a few hours to work.”
The call, as he expected, came from Karen the following week.
“More fleas have hatched!” she wailed. “They’re biting again. You’ll need to have another go with the treatment.”
Again he went to her house, again he asked her to leave it while he sprayed.
“I’m not being funny or anything,” he said as she opened the door to him for the third or fourth time. “But my treatment should have destroyed every last flea by now. If there were any to start with.”
“Of course there were to start with!”
“Not to be disrespectful, but I’ve seen this before. The feeling that something’s biting you. That there are insects crawling over or even under your skin. There’s a name for it – it’s one of them things – a syndrome.”
“So you’re telling me that I’m imagining the fleas.”
“Not telling you. Suggesting it.”
“What should I do?” Her voice had an edge of desperation to it. She was begging him to help.
He liked it this way round.
“I suggest you see a doctor.”
“Yeah… maybe sort of a head doctor.”
She looked as though she might cry.
It felt good. This was what he’d been planning. Some power, some status.
“What… what do you think is wrong with me?” she asked.
“I looked it up. It’s called delusional parasitosis,” he said gravely. “It’s like when someone gets obsessed that something’s biting them when there’s nothing there.”
Panic and despair contorted Karen’s beautiful face.
“To be fair, it’s not uncommon in women,” Vincent continued. “The patient becomes convinced there are insects crawling over their skin and obsessed with inspecting their home for evidence but there’s nothing there.”
He watched her grow pale, and felt a rising sense of intense excitement at his newfound power.
“Occasionally the patient believes they can see insects that aren’t there. They drive themselves insane, picking at their skin to try and fish out the creatures crawling beneath it.”
Over the next few days Vincent enjoyed hiding outside Karen Mayhew’s house in his van, watching her leave or return. She had grown even thinner, and haunted looking.
He felt triumphant when she stopped to scratch at her ankles, to pick at her skin. He could see how this syndrome he’d told her about was eating away at her mind, at her sense of sanity.
A week or so after the last “treatment” of her house, he went to bed, full of a sense of glory. He pulled the covers up over his naked body. He began to fall into a shallow sleep, then jerked awake.
His shins were itching. His thighs, his buttocks. There were things crawling all over him, he could feel them.
It was impossible; he was a pest controller, he would never allow fleas in his house, he would never, ever have bed bugs. He was scrupulous.
He’d never had pets – Karen’s cat had put him off for life. He was careful about cleaning, used every repellent he had ever advised his clients to invest in.
He got up, threw back the bedclothes, inspected the sheets for bugs. There was nothing. No sign of an infestation.
No insects. No fleas. But something was biting him.
And over the following days, whatever it was continued to bite him. He itched like a crazy person.
He inspected his sheets, he vacuumed, he boiled his bedclothes, he sprayed flea spray, he used bed bug powder.
Nothing worked. He was in despair.
Vincent began to miss work appointments, in order to search the floor with his magnifying glass for evidence of the fleas that were jumping all over him, biting him, making him itch frenetically.
He began to dig at his skin, trying to unearth the parasites he knew were eating away at him.
The horrible realisation was dawning on him – he had caught delusional parasitosis from Karen Mayhew. It was as bad as really being bitten. Worse!
It was impossible. You didn’t catch a psychosomatic illness. Anyway, she had never had it! Her fleas had been real, jumping. They were everywhere. He had never treated them.
When he had asked her to leave the house he had taken the opportunity to rummage through her drawers, watch the fleas jump all over the slick, expensive clothes. He had not once used spray on them. But in his house there really were no fleas, no bed bugs, no vermin, there was nothing.
Over on the other side of the neighbourhood Karen Mayhew put away the remains of the tin of flea spray she’d bought at the vets and used herself. The fleas had gone the minute she took matters into her own hands.
She’d recognised the scars – the thin, raised lines on the pest controller’s arm. That was when she knew he was Vincent.
The boy – now man – who pestered her all those years ago, threatening her, frightening her for refusing to go out with him. Driving her into such a state of terror she almost stopped leaving her home.
It all fell into place.
She coolly got into her little shiny Fiat, drove down to the shop she had gone to as a child with her friends, where they sold fake cigarettes and whoopee cushions and ink sweets, and bought a tin of itching powder.
She crept into Vincent’s garden – she knew where he lived, he’d never moved in all these years – sprinkled the powder over his sheets, his saggy underpants, his greying T-shirts on the washing line.
Then she settled back in her flea-free home to observe how imaginary pests could drive a real pest out of his mind.
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