COCKROACH: Priscilla Shorne

Jerry had gone. She had not been an easy guest and I was relieved as I walked to the car. It was hot and had been hot for days and the carpark simmered with radiated heat and the sky was a dry blue. You expected there to be dust even when there wasn’t.

Jerry had given up, given in and gone home. She was not about to live a life free of constraint after all. Personally I did not care what she was going to do so long as she was not going to do it with me.  I had had enough.

A plane passed overhead and I guessed it was hers. With a little luck I would never have to see her again.

Jerry and I had been friends or maybe sort of friends for a long time. I was not sure. When did someone actually become a friend? I know she thought we were friends but I was less certain; I think I tolerated her more than liked her but toleration brought its own obligations.

When she emailed asking if she could come to stay, I could think of no good reason to refuse. I had the space, I had the time, sort of, and it was often pleasant to see someone from my hometown. I thought she might be fun for a while and help me revive my old wild child ways.

But the Jerry who arrived was not the Jerry I had expected. She was not out for a wild time or even a good time; she just wanted an ear with alcohol. Well I had expected there to be alcohol, there always was and lots of it. Jerry liked a drink or three and so did I but as for the rest …

The first night was great. We sat and drank a couple of bottles of good red wine, talked and reminisced the sort of reminiscing that brought back shadows of youth and for a while we could forget who we had become. I could not at first remember clearly some of the people we talked about but the alcohol revived the memories though I am not sure that is what it is supposed to do. It felt cosy to have an old friend around and to think of the life that was.

I had to work the next day. I hadn’t taken time off as I was not sure how long Jerry was going to stay or how long I could tolerate her. Everything seemed okay so I thought I would give myself a few days off. I was certainly owed plenty.

Jerry had spent the day pottering around Fremantle but she was rather unenthused. “It was all right,” she said “but I think I would rather have rested. Life has been rather exhausting. I think I might stay home tomorrow.” Anyway that night we drank again, watched a bit of TV and talked about the “good old days” once more.

The next day Jerry did not get up. “I’m going to spend a while in bed,” she said. “I need a rest.” “Okay” I replied, “I’ve got a few things to do anyway. Would you like a cup of tea?”

Jerry stayed in bed all day with the door to my spare room closed.  Occasionally I made her a cup of tea or coffee and a sandwich for lunch. That night she rose to watch a bit more television and we drank more wine. And so it continued, staying in bed all day in my spare room with the door closed and getting up at night to watch TV and drink. It was hardly wild times or even good times.

It was hot. It was very hot and the spare room did not have air conditioning or much ventilation. I could not understand how she could bear to stay in there and just get up at night. By this time, we had finished the first carton of wine. Things were getting serious.

“What on earth do you do in there all day? Why don’t you get up and we could go to Kings Park or something?”

“I don’t want to; I’m happy staying here.”

“But what are you doing?” All this with a closed door between us.

“I’m transitioning.”

“Transitioning. What the hell is that?”

“I’ll tell you when I know.”

I was worried.  Jerry must be having a nervous breakdown.  What was I going to do?  Should I ring her family? I did not want to have to deal with this.  I don’t do sick people, not even myself. Maybe denial was the way to go.

The next day she did not come out at night. I had gone back to work as it seemed a waste of time if she didn’t want to do anything. I did not know what she did in the day time but I suspected it was more of the same … and so it continued.

I rang her husband but he said she had left him and was never coming back.  He said she had come to Perth to find her true self.  She had been reading a self-help book called the Way of Life and it had changed her. She had said she was going to change, that she wasn’t going to be who she had been, she was going to transition into a new being. He said he didn’t mind, he rather liked the peace of living without her.

Well I was not going to get much help there; her friends were not much better.  She had alienated most of them and those who weren’t, were concerned but too busy.  “I am sure you will cope”, they said.  “Just let her be”, they said. “She’ll come right”, they said. So I let her be.

She was not a demanding guest.  I did not see her or hear her though there was an occasional rustle or bump from her room.  I got on with my life and tried to ignore everything.  I had lost a room but I did not use it much anyway.

One day, I thought I was being ridiculous. I banged on the door asking Jerry to let me in. There was no answer at first. Then a muffled voice told me to go away. “I’m not ready to see anyone yet.”

“You’ve not been ready to see anyone for some time. Let me in I want to see if you are all right and I want to know what is going on in my room. In my house.”

“Look if I let you in, you have to promise not to freak.”

“Why would I freak? What have you done?”

The door opened a bit and I pushed it further open and stepped in.  Then I nearly stepped out again. Jerry was there but she was looking very brown and shiny. Did she have a sunlamp in here? But even a sunlamp could not account for the colour and sheen.

“What have you done to yourself?”

“I told you I was transitioning and I am; this is just a process I am going through at the moment.”

Weird I thought, very bloody weird. I did not understand what was going on and whatever it was I was sure that I did not like it.

“I have decided to become a cockroach,” Jerry said. “I have always loved Kafka and Metamorphosis in particular. I thought if Gregor could do it then so could I even though he did not plan it.”

“Well couldn’t you transition into something more …” and I searched for the right word “socially acceptable?” Silly question really, that would be the last of Jerry’s concerns.

“Well why do you want to transition anyway? What’s wrong with you? What’s happening?”

“Why a cockroach besides Kafka?”

“Well I haven’t had much joy being a woman and cockroaches are supposed to inherit the world so I thought that being a cockroach with my brain ought to make me ruler of the universe eventually.”

“I think you’re still a bit big to pass as a cockroach. At the moment you just look grotesque, like a well-roasted version of yourself sprayed with oil.”

“Don’t worry, it’s coming,” and she pointed to a tiny feeler that I hadn’t noticed before. “I expect I will get smaller as the transition proceeds. Anyway I have to stay here as I can hardly go anywhere looking like this.”

She had a point.

There was nothing I could do so I decided that denial was more than a river in Egypt; it would be the state I lived in. I decided to let Jerry get on with whatever she was doing while I got on with my life.

It seems incredible but I almost forgot about her. I was at work and I came and went as usual. I did not know if she came out of the room when I was not there but I didn’t seem to care. Maybe my indifference was turning me into a cockroach as well and I checked myself for any sign of brown shiny patches but there were none.

For some reason, I had been unwilling to look into her room but this particular day I thought I should. It did seem rather ridiculous that someone decided to transition to a cockroach in my spare room and I just pretended nothing was happening. Residual politeness made me knock on the door but there was no answer.

I opened the door, there was no sign of her; the bed was made but rumpled. I opened drawers and cupboards, looked under the bed, checked the window, which was closed but nothing. There was a strange smell in the room and a few black seeds on the floor.

The smell was explained by the room being closed up but the seeds looked remarkably like cockroach droppings to me. I googled cockroach droppings and it said that cockroach droppings could be the size of a grain of rice and were black or brown. They had to be droppings.

It struck me that this room might be a bit on the disgusting side and that maybe I should clean it. I went to get the vacuum cleaner to give the room a good clean while Jerry was not here. Then I saw a large cockroach scuttle across the floor and I suddenly realised that this might be Jerry. “Is that you Jerry?” I asked but there was no reply.  Had she lost her voice in her transition or was I just imagining that she had turned into a cockroach? I put the vacuum away.

A few more days passed and I was starting to get edgy. Was Jerry a cockroach or not or was she going out when I was there? I checked out her room again and her clothes were still there or at least some of them. Still she would not need them if she had become a cockroach.

I fretted. Who could I tell such a silly story? I rang her husband again  but he did not seem concerned. “Sounds like Jerry,” he said. I could not think of anything positive to do so I just kept the door shut and pretended the room was no longer part of my house.

One evening when I was watching TV, the front door opened and there was Jerry. “Good day mate. Can you take me to the airport tomorrow?”

“Where the hell have you been, I thought you were a cockroach?”

“Well I was going to be one but I felt like a beer one day so I slipped out and went to the pub and then I started playing pool and the brown bits started to vanish. I hooked up with some guy from the pub and we were having such a good time that I didn’t want to come back. I mean I don’t want to be rude but all you do is sit around and watch TV and drink and I’m meant to be on holidays. Anyway we went to Kalgoorlie for a couple of weeks.”

“So where is he now?

“Oh I dumped him and now I’m going home. Jack won’t mind – he never does.”

© Priscilla Shorne 2021

Priscilla Shorne is a long time Fremantle resident with many ancestral connections to the place though she was born and raised in Adelaide.

She has worked in a range of areas including arts administration, teaching Drama and Maths at high school and Community Services at TAFE, market research and other odd jobs and in a variety of locations both around Australia and in London.

Now retired from the official workforce, she is as the cliché goes, busier than ever. She devotes her life to being a maker specialising in jewellery and silver smithing. Besides this, she is a knitter and a sewer as well as making a range of jams, pickles and chutneys. The urge to create is never far away.

While not a prolific writer, Priscilla has had a steady career in word-based projects as she taught English at High School and Professional Writing in the Diploma of Community Services at TAFE. She has written book reviews for magazines, media releases for organisations for which she has worked and lots of grant applications and reports which prepared her well for creative writing.

While it is not her major passion, she hopes to continue writing when she has time and might even finish the novel which she started so long ago.

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