Sunday, September 21, 2014

Termite Theory 2.0

Collapsing House Nightmare (2011) by Pants

For months now I've been convinced that my house is being devoured by termites. Well, it's ever since I had it painted, to be honest. What termite wouldn't want to get its mandibles around a newly painted house? They've probably been lying in wait - counting down to the moment when the AM radio bleats no more and the stench of turps fades to lavender, I reasoned. Termites live underground. It doesn't get more sinister. They are the guerrilla fighters, assassins even, of the insect world. They exist for no other reason than to make you homeless - like a miniature on-line betting syndicate, but without the remote possibility that you could win something.

I imagined that I could hear them chomping away as I lay in bed at night. Curse the peace and quiet of a rural community! That my house would fall down seemed inevitable. What was even holding it in place anyway? I might just as well have built a gingerbread house on Sesame Street.

Larrikin's End is a termite-prone area and my house, except for the roof and windows, is made entirely of wood. I don't think that there is an insect that has evolved to eat either glass or Colorbond. Then again, a roof and windows are not much good to you on their own. If you live in a termite zone - or TMZ, if hyperbole is your thing - and are foolish enough to buy an edible dwelling, you are advised to have a thorough inspection once a year. As I generally like to live fast and loose with safety, sanity and financial security, I've always waited three.

Termite guy came this week. It had been nearly three years since his last visit. I was prompted to call him in when I found actual evidence in a dead tree stump that something might have had a bit of a naughty gnaw. In my head, I'd constructed tunnels from that stump to my house that were so extensive and sophisticated that they might feasibly be used in a Battle of the Somme re-enactment. My mind kept flashing back to a television programme I'd seen where a young couple had paid nearly a million dollars for a house that was only being held up by Gyprock. They hadn't had a pest inspection. At least I'd had the sense to do that before purchasing Seat of Pants.

But it's not enough to do the right thing once. One has to maintain regular compliance in order to avoid being slain by the terrifying unseen forces whose job it is to do that sort of thing. I'd already projected myself into a shelter-cum-punishment-facility for homeless people who really should have known better and have no one to blame but themselves, where I would be given a daily lecture on responsible home ownership along with my VegeMITE sandwich. I would surely have to hang myself rather than face that kind of humiliation - but would the beams hold up for long enough!

Termite guy found no evidence of termites in my house, the shed, the fences, the heavy wooden planks that define the garden beds or even that suspect stump. Wood rot or maybe some kind of borer that has no interest in making me homeless - nothing, that would have me sleeping in the Pantibago anytime soon. His exact words were, 'as good as it gets.' No termite infestation or ants or spiders or cockroaches or silverfish or any type of organism that is likely to disrupt serenity. See you in three years, termite guy. You have a bug-free day now.

Why was I so worried? I talked to Ma Pants who'd been through a similar process recently. She did, in fact, have a tree stump that termites had briefly partied in. And she had a friend whose kitchen renovation had just uncovered an infestation. It's safe to say that termites were upper mind. The pair of us talked it through and decided that the state of world affairs, as filtered down to us via the limited points of view that we get in the mainstream media, leaves no alternative but to fill in the gaps with ladlings of doom and despair. Where is the hope? Where is the future?

'Does he have beagles?' queried Sis Pants. No, just a hammer, a screwdriver and a torch. What if termite guy had missed something? He wasn't even sniffing. Sniffing surely is essential. All genuine existential threats are thwarted by animals with extrasensory gifts, are they not?

'They bring a termite in a jar and let it go in the house,' Sis Pants informed me, 'so that the beagles can find it and get their reward.'

'What if it escapes and lays a billion eggs?' I was suddenly glad that termite guy is lo-tech. At times like this, you want faith in the old methods. A hammer. A screwdriver. A torch. Tools you can trust.

I had almost gotten over myself and prepared to chill for at least a year when the news broke of early morning raids on 'terror suspects' involving 800 police and resulting in just one arrest for a terrorism offence. The person charged is Omarjan Azari, a 22-year-old with no previous record. He was apparently intercepted in unguarded 'chat' agreeing to carry out the beheading of a random civilian. 

We are all understandably jumpy, given the recent public decapitations of three Westerners - none of whom were Australians, incidentally. These events have dominated the news and colonised the headlines. Australians are particularly edgy about beheadings because of atrocities committed during World War II by the Japanese, particularly on the notorious  Death Railway. Prisoners of war were frequently beheaded by sword. Many were Australians. More were Dutch. Most were British. 

Australia lacks both a quantity and quality of significant war milestones. Those we do have loom very large. Australia also lacks self-confidence and a sense of security. The latter might go some way to explaining, but certainly not justifying, our legendary hysteria over refugee arrivals. We are still very much a nation in progress and we are easily spooked.

'All that is required to carry out a terrorist attack in Australia is a determined individual, a knife, an iPhone and a victim, PM says.'  Really? Gosh, I could almost manage that myself. Determination? 'Go ahead, make my day,' ring any bells? Knife? My SwissChamp will suffice at a pinch. It certainly stepped in valiantly when my can opener broke. Victim? Should I make a list? Damn it, I don't have an iPhone! Does it have to be an iPhone 6? Is Stephen Fry a threat to national security? Lord, I hope so.

I received a petition on a couple of days ago informing me that every week a woman is killed in a domestic violence incident. By my crude calculation, a woman's chances of being killed by someone she knows intimately in Australia are about 150,000:1. Her chances of being beheaded by a terrorist on a city street, supposing one should exist with that intent and ability are about 5 million:1. 

We are presently being groomed for tougher anti-terrorism laws, which appear to sanction torture provided neither death, serious injury nor sexual abuse results. Human rights lawyers are, quite rightly, up in arms. Domestic violence quite often involves all three. Advocates try to kick the subject up the headline ladder. Occasionally, they succeed, insofar as someone sort of commits to sort of commissioning a review if they get sort of elected. No one is up in arms about that.

The concept of a terrorist threat scares me far less than the possibility of a termite invasion. I experienced over twenty-five years of living with periodic terrorist events in London. I understand that, if these these things happen, people cope. I was travelling on the London Underground when the bombs went off on 7th July 2005, and also two weeks later when a follow-up attempt failed. I've written about that at length here. I learned that when the threat turns into a visible challenge, we humans manage to deal with it, generally with sense and compassion. I've never had termites. The worst kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Terrorists and termites hold the allure of being undetectable until they devour your house or your state and/or your peace of mind. Supernatural threats provide a useful metaphor for the inescapable feeling that there are forces bent on taking away what you have - e.g. your privacy, your right to breathe clean air, your belief in the public health system... When all the while, these invidious forces are telling you to stop being so silly, they mean to do no such thing, it becomes necessary to construct a narrative to illustrate the feeling of anxiety that somehow does not disappear with these palpably false assurances.

It almost seems as if we're born backwards, like Benjamin Button. In the absence of a plausible explanation for why everything feels like shit, we latch onto any story that will validate our fears. In that sense, we're not that different from the neo-medievalists we're so eager to condemn. We are also products of those legends and are not so far removed from them as we'd like to believe. The real answer to our latent timidity is, I suspect, a much greater effort on the part of all of us to strongly assert our citizenry and get politically angry - oh, and remember to have regular termite inspections.