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Short Story

The Day of the Bluebottle

Kevin Brooks confesses to insecticide.

I killed a fly today and I’ve been feeling guilty about it ever since. I was relaxing, stretched out on the sofa enjoying the peace and quiet of a weekday afternoon, shoes and socks off, favourite baggy shorts on, shirt unbuttoned and engrossed in a rattling good paperback serial killer yarn. Pure bliss. The fly didn’t bother me at first. It was a bluebottle, one of those big fat ones that buzz around the room with a big fat buzz and crash into windows with a resounding clack. First fly of the year, I thought, the beginning of summer. It was the intermittency of its buzzing that began to annoy me. Bzzz – clack – silence. Bzzz – clack – silence. Bzzz – clack – bzzzzz – clack – silence. Every time it stopped I found myself waiting for it to start again. It was toying with me. It stopped buzzing. I waited for it to start again. Bzzzz. It stopped. I waited for it to start again. And waited. And waited. Must have gone, I thought thankfully, and turned back to the pages of my book. Bzzzzzz. Damn! I tried opening doors and windows to let it out but although flies are able to enter a room through the tiniest crack they seem to lack the wherewithal to recognize an exit, no matter how large or obvious that exit may be. They are either incredibly stupid or incredibly spiteful creatures. All the evidence, as far as I can tell, suggests the former. Namely: 1) They eat poo. 2) You’re walking along and you spy a big shiny dog turd on the pavement festooned in happily feasting flies. As you approach the steaming stump the flies rise like a tiny flock of evil black geese and flee buzzing into the air. What do they think you’re going to do? Stamp on them? Splat your foot down into a big pile of dog poo? I would bet that noone has ever, since the dawn of time, anywhere in the world, stamped purposely on a pile of dog poo and squashed a fly. So why do they always do it? Why do they fly away? Because they’re stupid, that’s why. And 3) They’ve got about a thousand eyes, so how come they’re always crashing into things? And why can’t they spot an open window when it’s staring them in the face?

The fly really started to bother me when it developed a strange fascination with my legs. I was wearing shorts for the first time this year and my pale hairy legs were particularly sensitive after their long, longtrousered winter hibernation. Every time the bluebottle landed on one of my legs it felt as if someone was sticking a tiny sixpronged fork in me. I slapped and wafted at it and kicked my legs in the air like Jackie Pallo trying to escape from a headlock, I even whacked at it with my book, all to no avail. The fly carried on with its stop start buzzing and window-clacking and hairy legharrying and I lay there twitching and jerking my legs like someone having ECT. I also had a slight graze and the beginnings of a bruise on my shin from hitting myself in the leg with my book.

I realized I would have to terminate the fly if I was to enjoy the rest of the afternoon I remembered reading somewhere that the best way to kill a fly is to use a knife. Any knife will do, as long as it is sharp and shiny. The theory is that you wait for the fly to land, sneak up quietly behind it and slowly, slowly, bring the knife edge down directly over its head. Apparently, the fly’s compound eyes see its own multitudinous reflections in the shiny surfaces of the knife and it assumes that a thousand tiny fly chums have come to say hello. So it just sits there, waiting for the party to begin. You bring the knife closer and closer to the unsuspecting six-legged fool then – chop – straight down the middle. Sliced in two, as neat as you like. Just like one of Damien Hirst’s pickled cows. But smaller. And less valuable.

I chose the largest, shiniest, most evillooking carving knife I could find and set out on safari. I eventually tracked the varmint down in the kitchen. The killing fields. It was on the window, just standing there on its oh-so-clever sucker feet, casually cleaning its antennae, as if it owned the place. I moved stealthily, machete in hand, up to the window. I stalked the beast. I steadied myself. I slowly raised the knife above the fly then very, very gently began to bring it down towards the window. Closer and closer. It was working, the fly didn’t bat a compound eyelid. The gleaming silver blade was millimetres away from the fly’s thick hairy podge of a body, I was about to deliver the coup de grace, to consign the buzzing demon to insect hell, when something in the street outside caught my eye. It was old Mrs. Fethrington from across the road coming back from the Co-op. She was standing by her front door directly opposite my kitchen window staring at me aghast, her small gummy mouth wide open in astonishment and her piggy little eyes bulging with fright. I suppose the sight of her neighbour standing in his kitchen brandishing a foot-long carving knife at the window must have given her a bit of a turn. Or maybe it was the sight of my large pale belly wobbling in the window like a lard-filled balloon that had unsettled her. I smiled and waved a neighbourly wave with my knife-free hand in an effort to reassure her but she was already dropping her carrier bags and scarpering round the back of her house, her sparse grey hair billowing out behind her. Meanwhile, the fly had buzzed off.

I stomped back into the living room, still clutching the knife, and cursed. She was probably on the phone to the police right now. I buttoned up my shirt. Just then the fly zoomed right past me, buzzing, it seemed to me, in a particularly nasty mocking tone: zzz zzz-zz-zzzz-zz. I lashed out blindly with the knife and shouted BUGGER OFF! at the top of my voice. I heard, and felt, a metallic thwack. The buzzing stopped. I heard a tiny thump on the carpet. I looked down. The fly lay at my feet, on its back, legs twitching spasmodically, mortally wounded. The room seemed unnaturally quiet. I watched the fly jerking and struggling weakly on the carpet. I wondered if it was in pain, suffering, whether I ought to put it out of its misery. But I didn’t know how. Horses with broken legs you shoot in the head, I knew all about that. But flies? I didn’t have a shotgun anyway. I picked it up by one of its smashed wings and put it in the bin.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d done. I know it sounds pathetic, it was only a fly after all, but that was precisely the trouble. I couldn’t work out why I had had no qualms about killing it in the first place. I wasn’t going to eat it and as far as I knew it wasn’t endangering my life. How could I justify the taking of its life? I sat down at the table and thought about it. Why is it deemed socially and morally acceptable to kill flies?

1) Because they are annoying? Killing something because it is annoying is obviously not acceptable. If it was, then there would be a killing spree across the country of epidemic proportions: mini cab drivers, TV chefs, mobile phone users, actors, people who don’t fold the end of the sellotape over when they’ve finished with it, athletes, newspaper columnists who go on and on and on about their personal lives as if this is of the slightest interest to anyone but themselves, women who stink of perfume, people in advertising, managers, people who say ‘haitch’ and ‘very very much so’, disc jockeys, people who live in Norfolk, the list of potential murderees is endless.

2) Because they are stupid? Ditto above, plus footballers, students, and babies.

3) Because they are dirty and carry diseases? As Lenny Bruce once said, how many times have you heard someone with a disease claim that they caught it from a fly? Also, if it was alright to go round killing things which are dirty and carry diseases then that would mean that tramps would soon become an endangered species. We would have tramp-hunting, fat oiks with red noses galloping through the streets on great big horses leaping over pillar boxes and parked cars, yodelling tally-ho and blowing their weedy horns at packs of slavering dogs eager to rip the throats from terrified vagrants fleeing trampishly for their lives. Or tramp culls. Eagle-eyed marksmen employed by the council perched on the top of tall office buildings with highpowered rifles, peering through their telescopic sights at herds of unsuspecting tramps grazing peacefully in the park. Blam! Dirty and disease bearing is not justifiable cause for murder, m’lud.

4) Because there are millions of them? So what? What about young couples with children? There’s plenty of them about too. And old people, you can’t move these days without bumping into packs of doddery old farts staggering along at ten yards per hour moaning about how poor they are and how heavy the steering is on the new Citroen Xantia.

5) Because they do not feel pain? Who but the fly knows? Would it make a difference if they screamed horribly whilst being swatted (or sliced in two)? And even if they do not feel pain, why should that make it alright to carelessly kill them? Anaesthetized patients feel no pain, but they are not generally in danger of sudden, unreasonable death.

6) Because they are tiny inconsequential things? Yes, but only in comparison to ourselves. What if flies were as big as whales? Would we be quite so casual and carefree about snuffing out the life of a Moby Dick-sized bluebottle? And if size is a mitigating factor in the acceptability of insecticide, then how do we know where to draw the line? Do we have an innate mental yardstick that enables us to gauge the value of a life? A shabby folding-rule marked along its length with the simplistic outlines of all living creatures, ranging from unicellular organisms at the bottom to humans at the top, and with a thick red felt-tip line drawn somewhere near the bottom that marks the point below which life is worthless?

7) Because there is no law against it? Ah, now then. Cause and effect. I kill a fly – nothing happens. Therefore, I kill a fly if and when I so desire. I kill the milkman – I am arrested, charged with murder, tried by jury, sentenced and put in jail for the rest of my life. Therefore I do not kill the milkman (unless I am absolutely sure that I will get away with it). Who makes the laws? Not flies, that’s for sure. Nor milkmen. Hmmm…

I gave up. The unfathomable vagaries of human/fly philosophy were too complex for me. I decided I would just have to grin and bear my guilt whilst watching the cricket on TV. I had just started looking for the remote control when the doorbell rang. I opened the door and there stood two rather bemused-looking policemen. Behind them, across the street, I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Fethrington’s frail grey head peering out through a gap in her net curtains. I sighed and invited the policemen in. The Day of the Bluebottle wasn’t over yet.

© K.M. Brooks 1997

After a whirlwind romance and an over-hasty marriage, K.M. Brooks and Philosophy were divorced in the early 1980’s. Fifteen years later, they met again by chance at a deserted railway station, settled their differences, and are now living together in reluctant harmony on the Suffolk border.

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