Cockroach Crackers

Posted on May 04th 2021

My monkey is eating cockroaches again.

Squatting on the floor of the room she believes is a cell, in the furtive light of corners, she chews on what scuttles past. She is quick to snatch up the insects and they are good and resistant, good to the teeth, their caparaces unyielding and bitter, before she cracks into the pulp. The legs need to be chewed and chewed. Swallowing them is not the point.

There is food in her room, a table spread with breads and fruits, with green things and rich sweet fat. There are chairs around the table, and occasionally my monkey remembers she can climb up and sit. In those moments, she almost understands that the feast is edible – but then she catches sight of dark skittering below, across the grimy lino, and she is gone again, down to where there are things alive she can really get stuck into.

From the perspective of the floor, she forgets what the furniture is, sees the legs of table and chairs as bars. The cockroaches come past, unpredictable planets in chaotic orbit around her. Catching them shapes her time and fills it. They wriggle and split in her bite, it never seems over. Unlike a meal.

My monkey always finds something to chew on, even when all seems quiet and resigned. All those bits, legs, feelers, that stick in her teeth. Some things can't be swallowed.

At the famous drama school, our teachers worked hard to help us locate our vulnerability, to guide us towards being peeled and pulsing. It was seen as key to us becoming real actors, great actors, to allow the dismantling of what we had built around ourselves for protection. It was art, apparently. The too-thin girl, 18 years old, thrown into an improvisation about eating disorders, became visibly distressed, the skin on her face a patchwork of rosy distress. It was seen as a success. She left at the end of the first year. I guess she went back to Tasmania. 

One afternoon's session involved a kind of party game.

‘If you were a car/song/animal/etc, you would be a…’

The entire cohort of the year, 15 of us in a rehearsal room, decided each other’s essence through metaphor. Everyone chipped in. Suggestions were mulled over aloud until agreement was reached.

I remember definitively only one answer concerning my essence, although I think that possibly as a car the group may have designated me a VW Beetle. The one actor from our year who can be seen these days on Netflix, who would go on to become famous, was something fast and metallic, I seem to recall. A silver Maserati. Oh well.

The category I remember was dessert. My turn came and everyone looked at me. Silence. Longer silence.

Then Jon, my tall, fun friend, said “Cheese and crackers.”

Nobody laughed. They all concurred.

Oh my heart. I was 20 years old, and I was wanting, so wanting.

I hurt for not being something of fruit and rum, of ganache or meringue. Not even fucking bread and butter pudding.

Perhaps if I’d fucked a few of them – instead of fucking the History of Theatre tutor I ended up with for the next seven years – perhaps then they might have granted me a few berries. Shaving of dark chocolate. When I told my first therapist about it a few years later, when the relationship with the tutor collapsed, the therapist said gamely, “Well, there’s nutrition in cheese and crackers.” It was well-meaning but utterly unconvincing, and he was a helpful therapist, too, until he got struck off for sexual misconduct.

I carried the incident into therapy and yet it's such a small story, a tiny thorn of memory. These sparse shards of writing emerge, such dry biscuits. I wish they were rich with brandy cream, each one a croquembouche. But this is what is appearing on my plate, what I find on the table when I sit to eat.

A small insect, that won’t stop wriggling, no matter how much I chew.

In my lockdown dream I have painted a cockroach cockroach-coloured, my brush striping down its back, lacquering the wings. It looks the same, looks natural, but I realise the paint I have applied will kill it.

It escapes from my fingers and into a potted plant that has been over-watered, with inches of deep brown water in the pot.

The cockroach swims down, down. The paint begins to wash off its back as it submerges, swimming for its life.