Notes from a niseach

Love-bites and other passions

Even though such moments are now receding into the dim and distant past, I can still recall chatting up diminutive, dainty young women who strained their necks to look up at me – no doubt peering their way through the clouds of tobacco smoke that so often obscured my face all those years ago. Clearly, as is the nature of such matters, there were some I found more attractive than others. Sometimes – let me confess – for the most silly and superficial of reasons.

Looking back, however, I can remember that a number of these ladies had quite a few features in common with one another. This included the way they tottered on higher heels than they could ever possibly command or conquer, anxious to communicate, perhaps, with the average sized man’s Adam’s apple. The other was the manner in which so many of them beamed up in your direction before coming out with a phrase they clearly believed to be both fresh and original.

“The best things come in small packages,” they would smile.

Now while this might have been true for girls who appreciated the tiny tinkle and sparkle of jewellery, there was little doubt that, during this period of history, this was not the view of young men. Big was definitely beautiful – especially in the form of cars, stereo systems complete with monstrous speakers, even platform soles and flares. Everything had to be massive. (Clearly, in this era of the iPod and the mobile phone, much has changed.) And it took a real act of earnest concentration to begin to convince any young man that the “best things came in small packages”.
Back in dem dere days, the evidence seemed all to the contrary – the most irritating things seemed to come all wrapped up in the tiniest of parcels.

Among examples of the things that came in “small packages” at that time, for instance, was the household fly. In the croft-houses of my youth, there seemed to be one particular fashion item that dangled in everyone’s kitchen window – the Vapona flystrip. And woe betide any fly that lacked the sense to retreat the moment he or she glimpsed it while buzzing round a room. Their days would swiftly come to an end twisting and writhing on its sticky, brown surface.

This did not, however, put an end to the menace they could cause.
Outdoors they had an endless right to roam and ramble. Sometimes they almost formed a thick black beard on my unshaven, adolescent chin. In his Devil’s Dictionary, the American writer, Ambrose Bierce has produced a far better description of that particular pest than any I could ever muster. He called him, her or it “a monster of the air owing allegiance to Beelzebub” and pointed out that “Alexander fought him unsuccessfully in Persia; he routed Caesar in Gaul, worried Magellan in Patagonia and spoiled Greeley’s enjoyment of his meals at Cape Sabine.” He rounded off his eulogy to its magnificent malevolence by declaring:
“He is the King, the chief, the Boss! I salute him!”

Yet even the fly pales before the power of another even more compact package: the Scottish midge. He has mastered men as far apart as Stornoway and the South Mainland. For all that crofters might flap at them with their cloth-caps, there has only been one possible result in the battle between man and midge. For centuries, we have been sent racing for cover even more quickly than a disgraced celebrity could flee from the attentions of the midge’s distant cousin, the paparazzi of our national press. On still days, we have all too often fought them on the beaches; we have fought them on peat-banks; we have fought them on harbours; we have fought them on hills and lochsides – and we have always surrendered.

And the wounds that the midge can afflict on us have been great. We can all recall some young lady who has dressed in all her finery to go to some late-night picnic on the beach, only to return the following morning with her face puffed and swollen because of the close attentions and love-bites of a horde of passing wings. How many nights have we performed the kind of physical gyrations Elvis Presley might have been proud of, when there was “a whole-lot-of-shaking-and-scratching going on” because a cloud of bite-sized beasts was feasting on our skin?

Yet, unpleasant though the midge might be, he has a greater and more powerful relative, one whose attentions I encountered one time on an island moorland. To be honest, I cannot even recall the moment when this particular visitor wriggled and jiggled and tickled up my trouser leg. Nor can I recall its bite. A few days later, however, there were a number of signs that an insect had landed, torn in and chewed. I felt completely exhausted, falling asleep time and time again in my chair. I also had a small red circle on my ankle, one that surrounded a small and suppurating wound.

Courtesy of my visitor, a small, black tick, I was suffering from Lyme’s Disease. It was a condition which at that time I knew nothing about, yet the doctor I visited told me that a vast range of problems could stem from my close encounter with that particular small package. They included the extreme fatigue I had suffered, problems with joints, depression, various skin disorders . . . He mentioned someone I knew from a nearby island who had been off work for nearly a year as a result of a tick’s close attentions. He also said that such cases were increasing all over the north of Scotland and were sometimes caused by the fact that a deer had previously played host to the insect. All in all, he told me, I had been very lucky that my initial symptoms had been so dramatic and severe. It allowed my illness to be easily diagnosed – and cured, courtesy of another small package, the one that contained a month-long course of antibiotic treatment.

So far, of course, this tick has yet to arrive in Shetland; its progress stalled, perhaps, by the lack of deer, the restrictions on imported sheep, even the width of seas around us. However, if any of the residents of these islands step onto a moor in the Hebrides or Highlands, they would be well advised to forsake their usual fashion sense and either stuff their trousers into their socks or wear gaiters like a local clan-chief.
Otherwise, they might discover once again that it is not only the best things in life which come in small packages.

Consider, for example, Hazel Blears . . .

Donald S Murray


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