When I was 19 I lived in a small room next to a man who was much older than me. He always had his door cracked, and when I passed on the way to the showers he would emerge and say things like, “I had a five-year-old daughter”. How do you respond to that? “Splash fuel everywhere and this place still won’t burn. It’s made of asbestos,” he told me one day. Which was simultaneously heartening and alarming. Another day he stepped out and said, “Croatians. Serbians. Croatians.” I thought it might have been a word pattern he wanted me to solve and quickly responded, “Serbians”. He looked furious; as if I’d stolen the punchline he’d laboured over.
Many a night I woke with him sitting on my chest, pounding my head with a bottle of Jack Daniels and shouting at me to for Chrissakes listen to what he was trying to tell me. But that waking was just part of the nightmare I was having, an elaboration of its terrors, and when I finally awoke properly, slick with sweat, I could hear him snorting and chuckling in his sleep safely on the other side of the asbestos sheet that separated us, and the bottle of Jack was still by my bed.
I decided we needed some kind of rapprochement – just to kill my fears. Maybe there was a way of understanding him. Perhaps his conversation was just the mental meandering of a lamb-like chap whose mind had been deprived of oxygen and education. This is what I was hoping for – to unmask a good egg. “I had a five-year-old daughter once … until she turned six.” Maybe his message about his girl was that innocent. And surely the alternating Serbs and Croats could be explained. I was hoping to find him afflicted with nothing more than the type of wan lunacy that allows people to enjoy cats and Cats.
So I invited him to join me for lunch on the main street of our minor town. We sat outside a burger joint at a table in sunshine, both enjoying one with the lot. And we seemed to be getting on. Until I screamed and leapt to my feet and spat my mouthful of the lot all over him. Need I remind you the lot contains: cheese, onion, beetroot, gristle, egg, bread, bacon and lettuce. All of it pulverised and glistening with sputum and cannonaded over his shirtfront and in his eyes. He began shrieking and swearing and lunged at me, upending the table.
Two cops were walking past when our hybrid pas de deux/coup d’etat kicked off. One seized my lunch companion in a chokehold, which made his threats to cut me to pieces hoarse and unlikely. I pointed at him and began shouting nonsense. My tongue wouldn’t work. The second cop drew his dog-beater from its scabbard and laid its tip in my jugular notch to keep me at a distance.
Eventually, they all came to see I was pointing out the mauled European Wasp I’d spat onto my companion’s shirtfront. It lay there dying in the burger scree, atop an ad for Kenworth trucks. The insect had landed on my burger and when I’d taken a bite it had stung me on the tongue. Hellish, inexplicable pain had made me spit my lunch on my new friend. I didn’t know what had happened until I saw the stripy beast on his shirt, its abdomen pulsing like the heart of a sated Lothario.
The police realised the danger I was in, that anaphylaxis might swell my tongue and choke me. One frogmarched me into a nearby pharmacy hollering for medicine. To my surprise I knew the pharmacist. One night my brother had thrown a handful of bullets into an open fire we were sitting around and she had panicked and slapped his face. She reacted more sensibly in this wasp crisis. “Go next door to the milk bar and buy an icy pole,” she said. I did. It helped. I bought one for my neighbour as well, who licked it lovingly while half-heartedly trying to talk himself out of a charge of affray.
After our aborted lunch he and I became friendly. We had shared a trial and could laugh at the crazy misunderstanding. A wasp, ha ha. A wasp was at fault. We lived with a thin asbestos sheet between us for the next four months. And I never slept a wink.