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I had been working in pest control for several years and always tried my best to be as ethical as possible; made easy by the company I happened to be working for. It was a small firm that insisted we only spray an apartment with good reason. Some other companies would spray on the flimsiest premises available, anything to make a few pounds: even if they knew that the bugs the clients insisted on believing were in the flat didn’t exist, and that it was either something biting them from elsewhere, a skin rash or just in their mind. Somebody I knew who worked for another company said perhaps by spraying an uninfected flat we would at least be giving them peace of mind. I wondered whether he wasn’t finally much more in danger of robbing himself of his own. But just over a year ago maybe I set in motion an incident that for a brief period of time left my own mind less than at peace.

My colleague and I were called out to a flat in Marchmont, near the centre of Edinburgh. The woman phoned and said she had found a small mite biting her skin and dropped the specimen off at the lab, and they had called her the previous day saying they believed it was a bird mite. The lab suggested she get pest control to clear any old bird nests out of the space above her top floor flat – that was probably the source of the problem. She was a tall, pale woman from north western Spain who seemed to live alone, and as we arrived at about nine thirty in the morning she was wearing clothes that looked somewhere between nightwear and day wear – the sort of clothing she presumably felt comfortable in as she worked at home most of the day. She said she was finishing off her PhD, gesturing towards the papers lying all over the couch, the books and journals studiously littering her desk. Her prettiness lay firstly, though far from exclusively, in her eyes: they were light and startlingly clear, even though in her general demeanour she looked like she had only recently got up. I felt sure she must be around thirty, yet her eyes weren’t remotely bloodshot, and I thought of my own: that at thirty three I felt as if for much of the day my eyes still seemed slightly red. But there was also her hair, gypsy black and straight, and that continued long past her shoulders, and was as flowing as the long skirt she wore that was broad at the bottom and firm around her waist at the top. My colleague said we had better get to on with the job after we’d all been talking for a couple of minutes, and she gave us the key to the attic lock and up we went.

We manoeuvred around on our stomachs looking for anything that resembled a nest, but found nothing. We had a torch and as it was a bright day so we were aided by light coming in from the hatch, but there was only about a foot and a half of a gap between the roof and the floor: as we came down we were covered in dust and muck.

When we went back to her flat we said we couldn’t find anything at all, and so it wouldn’t be a good idea to fumigate the place without knowing the source. She looked dejected and hitched up her skirt to the knee and showed us several nasty bites, conspicuously red against her pale skin. The legs themselves were beautiful, with elegantly shaped carves that suggested either good genes or good exercise – though probably both. She came up with another possibility concerning the bites. She said that her boyfriend stayed on a street nearby, that he lived on the top floor and that he also had been sometimes bitten. Perhaps the bird’s nest might be there, she offered.  My colleague looked at his watch and said we could probably fit it in. He hated being delayed and would rarely chit-chat for long with the customers, but he also liked as he would say to get to the bottom of things. We had a flat to fumigate at eleven: we had about thirty minutes to spare. She quickly phoned her boyfriend and luckily he was in. She said that the pest control people would be popping across to take look in the attic and see if he had any nests. She said this not in Spanish but in English, and I wondered what this boyfriend looked like and where he was from.

As we knocked on the door a dishevelled man presumably about my own age answered and stood there with his hair rumpled, his shirt half-undone and his eyes as bleary as mine probably still were. As my colleague and I briefly explained that we would take a look in the rafters, I noticed a girl pass behind him and make her way into the kitchen, which looked much roomier than Maria’s. Indeed the whole flat seemed much bigger.

Afterwards we climbed back down the ladder and chapped on the door. We said we couldn’t find any bird nests in his attic either. I talked for a couple of minutes hoping to catch a glimpse once again of the girl that had passed behind him, but could see nobody. I explained that we could fumigate the flat anyway but really didn’t see the point. What he needed to do, and what his friend needed to do – for some reason I didn’t use the word girlfriend – was find out the source of the problem. Was there anywhere they were working that might have pigeon’ nests, I wondered. He couldn’t think of anywhere. I went on to say that we could fumigate both flats but it would cost them in the region of a hundred pounds for each apartment, and the problem might recur in three months’ time. It wouldn’t be a permanent solution. He said he would talk to Maria about it, and they would get in touch if they wanted us to go ahead. Usually I would have protested more strongly: explained that it was probably going to be a waste of money, but this time I chose not to – and as we returned to the van, my colleague was surprised that I didn’t offer my usual ethical spiel about other companies’ placebo fumigation and the like. I asked him if he saw the girl in his flat. He said that he didn’t – and smiled at me and merely uttered the words, Maria, Maria, Maria.

My colleague, Rob, was in his mid-forties, had been doing the job for almost twenty years, was married with two children, and never missed an opportunity to make me feel younger than my years and him older than his. Not that he was condescending; more that he was tired, tired of the work though he was a perfectionist in it, tired with the obligations of marriage and kids though he wouldn’t want it any other way and did everything he could to make sure his family was happy. But I was one of life’s idealists he often said, someone who still hoped to be surprised by life at an age, he would sometimes say, when I should be consolidating it. When he repeated Maria’s name three times it was his way of saying enter the real world.

But then Rob never knew me when I briefly entered it. After finishing a biology degree at Edinburgh my girlfriend at the time and I went out into that real world, travelling for over a year before returning to Edinburgh, getting employment gainful enough to pay for the mortgage on the small flat we bought, and where we were waiting to live the life assigned to us.

However, after three years of working, three years of living together, and six year of a relationship, I found the marketing work I was doing dishonest, and my emotions towards my girlfriend ambivalent. I eventually left the job and left the flat, and had been working in the job I am doing now for over three years, living in a shared flat with six others in Bruntsfield, and practising enforced and yet hardly reluctant celibacy. It was probably this combination of work that was essentially menial despite having a degree that promised better things, living in a rented flat with numerous others, and my absence of a girlfriend, that allowed Rob to see me as an idealist; though perhaps that was a flattering term for what he really felt: that I was, essentially, a loser.

I would probably have said I was neither one nor the other but something in between. I remember reading the Italian writer Cesare Pavese say that most of us stop expecting things after we reach the age of maturity. “They say that youth is the age of hope, simply because then, in a confused sort of way, one hopes for something from other people as well as from oneself…” I think the reason why I didn’t hold to Rob’s idea of me was that I had done maturity already and didn’t find it to my liking. But what did I find to my liking? I enjoyed the job; it took me into people’s private worlds, into their very homes, and somehow it seemed the antithesis of the marketing job which dealt with superficialities, with the way people wanted to perceive themselves. For example on one marketing campaign we aimed to convince people that they needed to buy milk that was neither local nor organic, and yet we had to market it as if it were healthier than organic, and more ethical than buying locally. It was a suspect act of ingenuity we pulled off, and one of a series that made me want to do something else with my life.

So what I did was de-infest people’s flats, and in such a way that we wouldn’t do so without justifiable reason, lest I would find myself back with the ethical problems I had in marketing, but by other means. However in the time that I had been doing the job there was nobody whose flat and whose person attracted me as much as Maria’s. The flat was decorated obviously on the cheap, and I suspected it was a flat she had rented empty and filled with second hand bits and pieces. In the small sitting room there were a couple of rugs on the wall, an old couch with a throw over it, and a wooden table with a couple of chairs. Next to it was a box room with space for a desk and a wall of books. I noticed that she had Pavese’s diaries.

It was a few days after this visit that we received another call from Maria, saying that she wanted us to de-infest the place anyway. As I talked to her over the phone she also said that the person whose flat she asked us to look at wondered if we could do a special deal for the two flats. I said we could take around twenty per cent off. That would be fine she said. Now whereas before she mentioned specifically her boyfriend, this time she simply said the person, and I wondered if she knew that he had somebody else in his flat that morning. I said we could come the following afternoon, and explained that she needed to cover all food items and put away glasses, cutlery etc, and that of course she would have to vacate the flat for several hours.

Rob agreed that he would do one flat and I would do the other; and I said that of course I would de-infest the Spanish girl’s and he could do the boyfriend’s. When I arrived she was all ready to go out, dressed in a pair of tight jeans, boots and a thick burgundy woollen polo neck that seemed to bring out her lips; though there may have been a trace of lipstick. As it so happened she didn’t leave straightaway, and asked if she could make me a cup of tea before she went out and before I started de-infesting: it was the last job of the day so I was in no hurry. I said that would be nice, and as we started talking as the kettle boiled, and as she handed over the tea, I sensed that she wanted to talk more, so that is exactly what we did do for another twenty five minutes. What we talked about was something I’d read in the paper at the weekend – the idea that people today spend most of their time getting out of relationships that drag on forever. It was true that I had read an article in the paper, but it was also true that I brought it up to see if it might reveal any problems in her own relationship. I’m not so sure if I didn’t also use the other girl’s presence in her boyfriend’s flat to aid my argument, without of course actually mentioning that I had seen her there. I said the contemporary couple needs to believe in fidelity the way earlier generations believed in God. One of the reasons I supposed relationships were constantly failing, and often not even failing but stalling for years an end, was that people didn’t belief enough in being with one other person. Many people today also have numerous friends of the opposite sex, I suggested, and this contributes to the opportunities available. At this point she seemed especially interested and she asked me to continue, her head leaning forward in the chair, as I leaned back on mine across from her, and sipped my tea.

A couple of minutes later I looked at my watch and said I must start the fumigation process, but it would be really nice to continue the conversation some other time. I seemed to offer it almost as a favour, when of course it was on my part a strong desire. She said that would be lovely, started putting on her jacket, and said, perhaps coyly, perhaps not, that I had her number, and I should ring. Just as she was going out the door she asked, practically, what time she should return to the flat. I proposed that she shouldn’t return for about four hours.

I phoned her at the beginning of the next week and asked first of all whether she thought the fumigation had been effective – had she been bitten since? She thought it had been and that she hadn’t. I asked her if she would like to meet up and continue the conversation, and she paused for a moment, and then said yes that would be really nice, but in a way that indicated no flirtatious intent. I felt slightly deflated but pushed on and suggested a time and a place. She said that she wouldn’t be available till Friday evening, but that she could meet me at the designated location if the day suited. I said seven would be good for me. She said she would see me there, and the rest of the week I was filled with cheerful, if slightly pathetic, expectation.

As she came into the café on what was admittedly a cold evening, she seemed bundled up and as she sat down and took off her coat there seemed to be several other layers as well. Was this merely the cold or also some sort of statement? I felt that she wanted to talk but at the same time wanted to remain at one remove – and I asked how she ended up in Edinburgh. She said she came to improve her English a couple of years earlier, met someone in the city and decided to stay. She in turn asked me a few questions, and I responded with more forthrightness than she, partly to see if as a consequence she would then answer my questions more forthrightly in turn. I didn’t want to ask questions that would seem intrusive but hoped that my lack of caution might make her more open as well.

After about an hour we had finished our drinks and the café was warm. It was the moment where if she were to take off her thick jumper, and accept the offer of another drink, that I was sure our talk would become freer, and so I asked if she would like something else. She said she would have the same again, but insisted it was her turn to order, and, before going to the bar, took off her jumper. She was wearing a blouse and a vest underneath it. As she stood at the bar I watched as she rolled her head as if taking tension out of the neck. I wondered if she did yoga, I wondered how old she was, I wondered if she was still in the country because of the man whose flat my colleague had fumigated. I had asked Rob the next morning if her apparent partner had again another woman in the flat. Rob said he hadn’t, but that he seemed harassed, preoccupied, as though something untoward was happening in his life. Rob had smiled at me and said perhaps his girlfriend had finished with him. I myself tried to recall that morning when we had gone over to his flat and looked in the loft. What did I remember of him and what of the girl? I remember him being in his late thirties, and I suppose attractive in a slightly messy way. He was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that showed arms lightly tanned, or darkly skinned, and they were thin but muscular. He looked Spanish but sounded British. The girl didn’t say anything, but she was blonde and looked more obviously Scottish or English than he did. I had gone over their body language on numerous occasions since that morning, but could far from conclusively assume they were lovers, but if she were merely a friend, who was visiting, why didn’t he leave the flat to her if she was looking for a place to stay?

Whatever complexion I gave to events, the overriding thought was that Maria was a lonely person, in or getting out of a relationship where she hadn’t been loved or cared for enough. Yet as she returned to the table, her body language almost insouciant, her eyes as clear as in the morning I first saw her, and her smile relaxed, I wondered just how resourceful this woman really was. We talked for a further hour, and then Maria looked at her watch and said that she really ought to go. She had a yoga class first thing Saturday morning. I was about to offer her a lift home when I suddenly said instead that I would walk her home if she liked. She asked where I stayed, and I replied over in that general direction. Though I had the car parked not far from the bar, I felt instinctively that she would be more likely to accept that I walk her back than if I were to suggest giving her a lift. This could have been my projection, but I’ve often thought there is something possessive and assumptive about people who take somebody out using a car. It indicates one person is very much in control of the other, and how much freedom does a woman really have if she is in such a situation? So I left the car where it was and walked Maria through the Meadows and as we arrived at her flat she quickly kissed me on the cheek, thanked me very much for walking her home and said she enjoyed the evening and that we would have to do it again sometime. As I walked away I heard her not unlocking the front door but buzzing up, and as she lived alone I wondered who she had waiting for her in her flat at what was now almost eleven at night.

This strong urge to know led me to do something that I would have found inexplicable several years before but this may be what loneliness can do to somebody; or perhaps it as readily came with the nature of my job if one happened to be lonely. Over the last three years I think I’ve undeniably become more an observer of life than an agent within it; and I am not sure whether it was the job that created this sense of observation or my personality gravitated towards work that involved spending time in other people’s flats while they weren’t around. What I would often do in people’s flats wasn’t anything out with the remit of the job, but at the same time I didn’t do the job disinterestedly. As I de-infested I often had to open cupboards and drawers and I couldn’t help but look at what was in them. I often wanted to know something private about the person; wanted to see whether they were on a good wage, what clothes they wore, what they hid in their cupboards as opposed to what they left out for everyone to see. But though there were many people whose houses I had gone to, and a number of women I had found attractive, while I wasn’t disinterested, neither was I emotionally attached. Yet with Maria I was becoming emotionally very attached, and what I did that night was probably what led to me leaving the job not long afterwards.

I walked back through the Meadows and picked up the car, and drove back over to Marchmont and parked the car across the road not far from Maria’s flat. I set the mobile on my phone for seven thirty in the morning, and fell asleep in the car. I awoke to a frosty darkness and turned the engine on for twenty minutes to warm the car up, and waited to see if Maria would leave the flat for her yoga class. Had she lied to me I wondered, and if she had was her lie any more a lie than my withholding of information? I hadn’t told her that her boyfriend had somebody in the flat that first morning, though I had used the information nevertheless in our conversation at her flat, and when I said I lived in her general direction that was only a half truth, since I lived a further three miles out past Marchmont and that was why I had taken the car.

It was shortly after eight that I saw Maria leaving the flat, but she wasn’t alone. She was with none other than her boyfriend, and I felt a jealousy I was hardly entitled to as they kissed each other goodbye and he went in the direction of his flat not far from where my car was parked, and she went presumably off to her yoga class. I don’t know why I didn’t make myself less conspicuous as he moved towards the direction of the car. Maybe I thought he wouldn’t recognize me. I had only met him once and so very briefly, but as he came within a few yards of the car he looked into it, saw me and waved. He smiled and then walked on. The look on his face was that of someone in the world; and what was the look on mine? The look I suspect of someone who was surprised that he was in the world also, as if these last three years being single and rummaging around people’s apartments had left me feeling I was not only anonymous but also invisible. That smile he offered was like a video delivered through my letterbox revealing my private actions of the last three years whilst I believed I was acting in complete secrecy.

What did he make of my sitting there in the car? Presumably he knew that Maria had gone for a drink with the man who had de-infested her flat, and probably thought that my sitting outside her flat all night was a sad and desperate gesture. How could I disagree; how could I even claim it was simply an occupational hazard when of course Rob would at that moment have been eating breakfast with his wife and kids?

The following week I handed in my resignation. I knew that after I had split-up with my long-term partner and left my previous job that I wanted in some way to retreat from life, but knew now that I had retreated too far, that the balance between being an agent and an observer had been lost, and that the shame I felt being an observer so casually exposed was a feeling that would take many months of agency, I believed, to alleviate.

A few weeks after I had resigned, I started a job working in a book shop on Princes Street, and it would have been a couple of months into it that I saw Maria. I was working on the top floor next to the café and she came in with her boyfriend, the blonde woman, and another man who looked like the woman’s partner. After they had ordered their drinks and were about to sit down, Maria looked over in my direction and, saying a couple of words to her boyfriend, looked again across the shop. I remember reading someone saying that there was “nothing more physical than shame. It was as if he wanted to get away from himself but couldn’t.” Perhaps if I had seen her several months ago, shortly after sitting outside her flat in the car, this would have described my feelings perfectly, and yet now it was as though I had made decisions in my life that left me a slightly different person than the one de-infesting flats, and the shame that rose up inside me was barely physiological at all. Added to which, instead of simply standing there and laughing at me, Maria came over.

She asked me how I was and said that she was surprised I hadn’t been in touch again. She asked me how come I had changed jobs, and there was nothing in her visage or body language that suggested her partner had said anything to her about my waiting outside her flat all night. She said that she was sitting with her boyfriend and his brother and his brother’s partner, and did I have a break due. I said it was nice of her to offer but that I’m sure they would all want to speak in Spanish. She said that she would be the only Spanish speaker – the others were Portuguese. I said if they were still there when I had my break in half an hour or so I would join them; if not I might give her another ring and see if she wanted to meet up again for a chat. She smiled again and walked back over to the others. As I returned to my work rearranging the art section, I mused over several things. That maybe Maria’s boyfriend didn’t say anything because he wanted to protect my embarrassment, or simply that while he might have recognized me, his smile was merely an acknowledgement, nothing more. Maybe he assumed I was waiting to investigate another flat for possible mites. There were lot of possible reasons; and the most obvious one may have been the most cynical. Maybe he knew that it was me sitting in the car outside the flat that morning, yet knew also that I saw him with another woman in his flat who was the girlfriend of his own brother. He may have known that I was becoming friends with his girlfriend and may have worried that I would tell her about his possible infidelity. Seeing me sitting in a car outside Maria’s flat gave him something on me, as I had, he perhaps thought, something on him. Yet such was the feeling of well-being I possessed at that moment, I barely gave these permutations more than a few seconds of reflection. That I didn’t dwell upon the incident also added to this sense of well-being, as though what mattered wasn’t the cause and effect nature of the events, but my own instinct to leave the job and regain the balance I needed to live in the real world and my own mind. As the boss asked me if I was ready to take my break, and I said I would take it later, I looked across once more at the table Maria and the others were sitting on, and then lost myself in the work.


©Tony McKibbin