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  • Published: 27 September 2019
  • ISBN: 9781529112924
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 112
  • RRP: $16.99

The Cockroach



That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature. For a good while he remained on his back (not his favourite posture) and regarded his distant feet, his paucity of limbs, with consternation. A mere four, of course, and quite unmoveable. His own little brown legs, for which he was already feeling some nostalgia, would have been waving merrily in the air, however hopelessly. He lay still, determined not to panic. An organ, a slab of slippery meat, lay squat and wet in his mouth – revolting, especially when it moved of its own accord to explore the vast cavern of his mouth and, he noted with muted alarm, slide across an immensity of teeth. He stared along the length of his body. His colouring, from shoulders to ankles, was a pale blue, with darker blue piping around his neck and wrists, and white buttons in a vertical line right down his unsegmented thorax. The light breeze that blew intermittently across it, bearing a not unattractive odour of decomposing food and grain alcohol, he accepted as his breath. His vision was unhelpfully narrowed – oh for a compound eye – and everything he saw was oppressively colourful. He was beginning to understand that by a grotesque reversal his vulnerable flesh now lay outside his skeleton, which was therefore wholly invisible to him. What a comfort it would have been to catch a glimpse of that homely nacreous brown.

All this was worrying enough, but as he came more fully awake he remembered that he was on an important, solitary mission, though for the moment he could not recall what it was. I’m going to be late, he thought, as he attempted to lift from the pillow a head that must have weighed as much as five kilos. This is so unfair, he told himself. I don’t deserve this. His fragmentary dreams had been deep and wild, haunted by raucous, echoing voices in constant dissent. Only now, as this head slumped back, did he begin to see through to the far side of sleep and bring to mind a mosaic of memories, impressions and intentions that scattered as he tried to hold them down.

Yes, he had left the pleasantly decaying Palace of Westminster without even a farewell. That was how it had to be. Secrecy was all. He had known that without being told. But when exactly had he set out? Certainly it was after dark. Last night? The night before? He must have left by the underground car park. He would have passed the polished boots of the policeman at the entrance. Now he remembered. Keeping to the gutter, he had hurried along until he had reached the edge of the terrifying crossing in Parliament Square. In front of a line of idling vehicles impatient to pestle him into the tarmac, he made a dash for the gutter on the far side. After which, it seemed a week passed before he crossed another terrifying road to reach the correct side of Whitehall. Then what? He had sprinted, surely, for many yards and then stopped. Why? It was coming back to him now. Breathing heavily through every tube in his body, he had rested near a wholesome drain to snack on a discarded slice of pizza. He couldn’t eat it all, but he did his best. By good luck it was a margherita. His second favourite. No olives. Not on that portion.

His unmanageable head, he discovered, could rotate through 180 degrees with little effort. He turned it now to one side. It was a small attic bedroom, unpleasantly lit by the morning sun, for the curtains had not been drawn. There was a telephone at his bedside, no, two telephones. His constricted gaze travelled across the carpet to settle on the skirting board and the narrow gap along its lower edge. I might have squeezed under there out of the morning light, he thought sadly. I could have been happy. Across the room there was a sofa and by it, on a low table, a cut-glass tumbler and an empty bottle of scotch. Laid out over an armchair was a suit and a laundered, folded shirt. On a larger table near the window were two box files, one sitting on top of the other, both coloured red.

He was getting the hang of moving his eyes, now that he understood the way they smoothly swivelled together without his help. Rather than letting his tongue hang out beyond his lips, where it dripped from time to time onto his chest, he found it was more comfortably housed within the oozing confines of his mouth. Horrible. But he was acquiring the knack of steering his new form. He was a quick learner. What troubled him was the need to set about his business. There were important decisions to be taken. Suddenly, a movement on the floor caught his attention. It was a little creature, in his own previous form, no doubt the displaced owner of the body he now inhabited. He watched with a degree of protective interest as the tiny thing struggled over the strands of pile carpet, towards the door. There it hesitated, its twin antennae waving uncertainly with all of a beginner’s ineptitude. Finally, it gathered its courage and stumbled under the door to begin a difficult, perilous descent. It was a long way back to the palace, and there would be much danger along the way. But if it made it without being squashed underfoot, it would find, behind the palace panelling or below the floorboards, safety and solace among millions of its siblings. He wished it well. But now he must attend to his own concerns.

And yet Jim did not stir. Nothing made sense, all movement was pointless until he could piece together the journey, the events, that had led him to an unfamiliar bedroom. After that chance meal he had scuttled along, barely conscious of the bustle above him, minding his own business as he hugged the shadows of the gutter, though for how long and how far was beyond recall. What he knew for certain was that he reached at last an obstacle that towered over him, a small mountain of dung, still warm and faintly steaming. Any other time, he would have rejoiced. He regarded himself as something of a connoisseur. He knew how to live well. This particular consignment he could instantly place. Who could mistake that nutty aroma, with hints of petroleum, banana skin and saddle soap. The Horse Guards! But what a mistake, to have eaten between meals. The margherita had left him with no appetite for excrement, however fresh or distinguished, nor any inclination, given his gathering exhaustion, to clamber all the way over it. He crouched in the mountain’s shadow, on the springy ground of its foothills, and considered his options. After a moment’s reflection, it was clear what he must do. He set about scaling the vertical granite wall of the kerb in order to circumvent the heap and descend on its far side.

Reclining now in the attic bedroom, he decided that this was the point at which he had parted company with his own free will, or the illusion of it, and had come under the influence of a greater, guiding force. Mounting the pavement, as he did, he submitted to the collective spirit. He was a tiny element in a scheme of a magnitude that no single individual could comprehend.

He heaved himself onto the top of the kerb, noting that the droppings extended a third of the way across the pavement. Then, out of nowhere, there came down upon him a sudden storm, the thunder of ten thousand feet, and chants and bells, whistles and trumpets. Yet another rowdy demonstration. So late in the evening. Loutish people making trouble when they should have been at home. Nowadays, these protests were staged almost every week. Disrupting vital services, preventing ordinary decent types from going about their lawful business. He froze on the kerb, expecting to be squashed at any moment. The soles of shoes fifteen times his own length slammed the ground inches from where he cowered and made his antennae and the pavement tremble. How fortunate for him that at one point he chose to look up, entirely in the spirit of fatalism. He was prepared to die. But that was when he saw an opportunity – a gap in the procession. The next wave of protesters was fifty yards away. He saw their banners streaming, their flags bearing down, yellow stars on a blue ground. Union Jacks too. He had never scuttled so fast in his life. Breathing hard through all the trachea on his body segments, he gained the other side by a heavy iron gate seconds before they were on him again with thunderclaps of hideous tramping, and now catcalls and savage drumbeats. Seized by mortal fear and indignation, an inconvenient mix, he darted off the pavement and, to save his life, squeezed under the gate into the sanctuary and relative tranquillity of a side street where he instantly recognised the heel of a standard issue policeman’s boot. Reassuring, as ever.

The Cockroach Ian McEwan

Kafka meets The Thick Of It in a bitingly funny new political satire from Ian McEwan

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