The Bruised Heel Healed

by Theodore Dalrymple (October 2012)

There is a baby in the world that seems never to get beyond its ninth month. It has been following me for at least forty years, but it makes its appearance only when I board a long-distance aircraft, when it is to be found in the row immediately behind or in front of me, and proceeds to scream unconsolably for what seems like an age from the moment of takeoff. All manner of paranoid thoughts then come into my mind: for example that the airline has designedly, though for reasons that I cannot fathom even in my paranoid moments, disturbed my peace and prevented me from reading by seating the baby there, very close to me. In any case, why does that wretched creature never grow up? For if there is one sound in the whole world that cannot be ignored or screened out by attention to something else it is that of a baby crying on an aircraft.

Those who patronise reptile pet shops are usually dressed and adorned in a conventionally unconventional way: tattooed, pierced and beleathered. (Leather clothes are to man what scales are to reptiles. It is no coincidence that the NKVD and Gestapo liked leather coats.)

The performance was conducted by two travelling Germans, Dieter and Uschi, the former to handle the animals, the latter to provide the commentary in good, but not native, French.

Dieter started with the giant scorpions, taken out of a Tupperware-like box. The audience gasped. With swift and practised movements, Dieter provoked the vile creatures into activity, and then brought them close to the audience for their inspection.

Next came the giant spider. I was at this point strongly reminded of a film I once saw high on the Bolivian altiplano, in the Teatro municipal of Uyuni, called The Invasion of the Giant Spiders, in which the eggs of vast spiders fell to earth from outer space to hatch and take over the world. The only thing that stood between the giant spiders and world domination was the US Air Force, and the audience cheered the spiders on to victory which, however, was not in the end theirs, though it very nearly was.

The show ended with the exhibition of a caiman, a crocodilian only a yard long, but nevertheless when seen up this close a formidable beast. Uschi told us that the caiman was intelligent, though added that this was only by comparison with snakes. Dieter allowed the caiman to walk in our direction, pulling it back when it was almost within lunging distance of those tasty morsels, our legs.

There were many questions that I should much have liked to ask Dieter and Uschi after the show. How did they embark upon this strange life, how long had they kept it up, and did they now do it because they liked and enjoyed it still, or were they trapped into continuing it because they could do, like Luther, no other? Did it bore them to repeat the same performance over and again in out of the way places, before small audiences of utter provincials? (Uschi gave no hint of boredom, quite the reverse, but I suppose a professional can hide or disguise his or her boredom.) I did not approach them to ask, being too shy.

Dieter and Uschi were fine people, despite their probable membership of a subculture that I do not in other circumstances much admire, for they brought to the faces of the children expressions of happy wonderment in a world in which premature disenchantment is so often taken as evidence of maturity and sophistication. If only there were more Dieters and Uschis! The world would not be tidier, but it would be more enchanting.

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