The greenfly were the first to vanish, and the first clues to their decimation lay in the abundance of the roses, sweet peas and dahlias which were the usual first casualties of their relentless procreation each summer. All the neighbourhood gardens were resplendent in the variety and colour of the flora on display, and the local garden centre reported its worst annual sales of proprietary pest control spray in living memory. Local gardeners then began to notice the complete disappearance of other traditional pests such as Red Spider Mites, Wood Lice and, surprisingly, ants. Any new predator could feast upon the more vulnerable members of the insect kingdom, but it would take a particularly suicidal or ravenous species to tackle the ant. The gardeners, however, revelled for the moment in the riotous display of nature’s bounty whilst failing to notice the absence of the airborne army of pollinators which would guarantee next year’s ‘crop’. There were no flies, wasps, bees or butterflies and, curiously, no spider webs either.
Ernest Bailes had been an avid gardener for as long as he could remember, and had tried to pass his passion on to his son Johnny. His success was only partial for, although the lad enjoyed their time in the garden or at the allotment, his interest lay not in the plants and vegetables grown there, but in the wildlife which shared the territory. More particularly, he was a keen arachnophile and had studied all aspects of the life cycle, habitat and behaviour of the majority of the indigenous members of the British spider family. At the age of thirteen he already knew more about the subject than any of his teachers, and this had made him a figure of fun for the rest of his class, a matter which was causing him increasing annoyance as time passed. Today his attention was drawn quite suddenly to the rhubarb leaf on his right hand side where a Tubular Web Spider had appeared, a common enough sight in a garden environment, but what was less than common was the way in which it waved its front legs at him.
Placing his right hand up to the leaf he waited patiently as the arachnid stepped on to his palm as if some instructions were being followed. It was a handsome blue/grey in colour with a body size of about one inch and legs of around twice that length. Johnny never ceased to be amazed at the reaction which the species engendered amongst humans – what was the saying? ‘If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive.’ He knew that there were only two or three British spiders which carried a venom potentially harmful to man, but the general opinion amongst his peers was one of distaste and blind panic at the sight of them. This one now sat in the middle of his hand and once again waved its front legs in the air as if attempting to gain his attention. Johnny raised it slowly to his face for a better look and became aware of a pulsating sensation in his head. He frowned and cocked his head to one side as the gentle throbbing changed slowly but surely into a word. ‘Who? Who? Who?’
The spider had stopped waving and now sat quite still as if awaiting a reply.
“Johnny” he said.
The spider remained motionless for a while, and then repeated its performance. ‘Who? Who? Who?’ The gentle throbbing insisted again, and this time Johnny thought the reply. The arachnid was spurred into action and danced around his palm as if in celebration. More pulsing in Johnny’s brain as the spider turned to face Ernest Bailes and the same question with a single word reply ‘Dad’, progressed through his subconscious. The boy was astounded – was this spider communicating with him? If so, why, and why him? Too many questions for now and he needed to keep this arachnid for further study. Picking up a discarded matchbox he was about to pick up the Tubular Web when the spider amazed him by walking into the small container of its own accord as if it understood the box’s purpose. Putting it into his pocket as his dad called to him to help pack away the tools, Johnny had already planned out his evening and couldn’t wait to get home.
Dinner was soon over and both his mum and dad expressed surprise at the unusually clean plate which their son left before excusing himself from the table. Up in his room he took out the matchbox and freed the Tubular Web spider on to his bed side table. Over the next three hours, a rudimentary system of communication developed, and Johnny wondered if the spider would respond to some commands. He thought a series of basic instructions and was delighted when the spider performed each one without hesitation. He sat back on his bed and pondered this new-found power as a mischievous smile crept across his face. Ellen Farley, now there would be an interesting task for his new friend. The girl next door had made a point of belittling Johnny at every opportunity – maybe this was the time for revenge. No sooner was he aware of his own thoughts, than the spider was gone. He hadn’t even seen it move and was disappointed that his evening entertainment seemed to be over – how wrong he was.
Downstairs a while later as he sat watching television with his parents, the silence was pierced by a spine-chilling scream which seemed to be coming from the house next door. Outside in the street a number of neighbours had appeared, alerted by the same noise, and Johnny came out of his front door to see Ellen Farley rolling around on the front lawn in hysterics. Concerned parents were attempting to calm their daughter down as she pulled at her hair and thrashed at her clothing in a frenzy of panic.
“Off! Off! Get them off me! Mum, dad, help me, help me.”
It took almost a full hour for Mr and Mrs Farley to persuade Ellen that whatever it was that had scared her, had gone. Only then was it clear that a large number of ‘enormous’ spiders had dropped on to her bed from the ceiling and had run amok in her room. Johnny knew instantaneously that the Tubular Web was the culprit, but could not at first imagine where the others had come from. Only later when he returned to his own bedroom to find the spider waiting for him, did things begin to fall into place. From behind the curtain another six appeared, all of the same genus, and they lined up behind the blue/grey like some army platoon awaiting inspection. The pulsing sensation returned in Johnny’s brain as a single word whispered into his sub-conscious ‘Friends, friends, friends’.
Later, as Johnny Bailes settled down to sleep, the spider troop left the room and returned to their lair to prepare for the night’s hunt. They had no need to waste valuable energy resources in spinning webs any longer, and since they had started to work together there was food for all and some to spare. They knew where their insect prey was, and the hunting pack would flush them out into the waiting horde – it would be a truly memorable feast, an event to which they were becoming accustomed. Soon they would be able to seek out larger prey to satisfy the needs of their demanding ruling elite.
Back at school, the events of the previous week had become general knowledge and somehow Johnny’s name became linked with Ellen’s unfortunate encounter with the Tubular Web Spiders. The innocuous teasing gave way to a sinister and more serious treatment of his out of school hobbies. One or two of the larger boys began following him around school and it was not unusual for him to return home with a number of unexplained bruises each week. As a result of his last ‘instructions’ to the arachnid squad, Johnny had refrained from all thoughts of a similar nature in their presence, but with the escalation of treatment meted out to him out of sight of his teachers, he felt that the time was ripe for some payback. Almost as if they sensed his mood, the spiders appeared one evening shortly after the latest beating. Lined up on the table in Johnny’s bedroom they waited motionless for their assignment. He was not aware of any definite command nor were any names given, but the group vanished into the gathering gloom.
The three boys had arranged a sleepover and were alone in the house during an evening when parents were out. On a windless night, the keen observer would have found it curious that the grass on the back garden moved in a strange manner as if some breeze flitted across its surface. In reality it was the relentless march of an army of arachnidkind, single-mindedly heading for the upper floor of the house. The same observer would puzzle over the apparent growth before his very eyes of an ivy-like creeper up the back wall towards an open bedroom window. By the time that one of the boys had noticed the invading horde, something upwards of ten thousand spiders had crossed the window sill and were swarming across the floor. Once again the peace of the neighbourhood was shattered by a series of terrifying screams. This time neighbours were more reluctant to leave the safety of their homes to investigate, and by the time the local police arrived the upper floor of the house was a scene of carnage.
The one boy remaining alive told a story of a sea of spiders attacking from all sides as he and his friends sought to beat them off with anything which came to hand. Bloodstained cricket and baseball bats were discovered at the scene, but not a single arachnid was to be found. Clearly the boys had beaten at their supposed attackers with a fury which defied belief, but when the investigating officer found a number of partly smoked joints in the parents’ bedroom, the whole matter took on a different aspect. Despite the boy’s vehement denials the conclusion was one of an evening of Cannabis-induced hysteria which went disastrously wrong. Post mortem results on the two bodies later confirmed a lack of any narcotic substance, but for the present the police were satisfied that there had been nothing suspicious relating to the deaths.
Whispers around school the following week were that Johnny Bailes was at the heart of the incident and teachers were faced with a boycott of all lessons involving him. An announcement from the headmaster failed to change the mood of the pupils, and the boy was forced into staying at home pending a meeting of school governors. Up to this point there had been no evidence to connect Johnny either to the spiders or the two recent events, but when the remains of Mrs Gerrard’s cat were found in the Bailes’ garden a few days later, matters began to move quickly forward. The local vet had never seen injuries like them on a domestic cat, and called in a specialist friend to advise him. The marks on the corpse, and there were hundreds of them, were all made either by the same creature, or a number of individuals of the same species. In any case, the species was never in doubt – they were arachnid bites, and measurements showed that the spider concerned would be approximately the same size as a human hand.
Police and media interest now took on an intensified role centred upon the Bailes household, but despite meticulous searching of both the property and the surrounding estate no trace of arachnids of any kind could be found. One by one the caravan of television and radio equipment left the area and the police scaled down their efforts to trace the source of the infestation. Quietly the whole matter became forgotten and life appeared to return to normal in this outwardly peaceful corner of suburbia. The refusal of Johnny’s former school friends to attend classes with him forced the family to move away from the district, and there was a communal sigh of relief at their departure. Over the next six years his educational progress found him at university studying entomology and at the end of his second year he was well on the way to a first class degree. During the intervening time there had been no repetition of the symbiotic-like relationship with the spiders, and Johnny had consigned the memory to the box marked ‘File and Forget’.
All of his fears returned, however, one afternoon when rumours circulated the campus of a mysterious discovery at the end of the playing fields which backed on to the main road forming the perimeter of the university grounds. According to a shaken athletics student, he had seen what he believed to be a football left out from them previous day. He went across the pitch to pick it up but was horrified to find not a piece of sports equipment, but a rolled up and quite clearly dead spider. Its legs made it appear larger than it really was, but the size scared him so much that he ran back to the changing rooms and reported the find to a caretaker. The body was removed to the Entomology Department where Johnny and two of the staff were waiting. There was a collective gasp of surprise at the size of the spider and measurements revealed the body to be ten inches across. They were interrupted by the reappearance of the caretaker, who this time carried a black plastic bag.
“You need to see this, Mr Ronson I found it in the hedge bottom in the same field as the spider” he said to the more senior of the two department staff, and emptied the contents on to another table. It was a fox and a mature male at that.
“Thank you Mr Holmes, we’ll take care of it”
Leaving the spider for the moment, all attention focussed on the second body. It was covered in bites, thousands of them and had clearly died in some agony. They could only suppose that it had mistaken the arachnid for one of its normal prey during an evening hunt and had come off worst in the encounter. Turning back to the spider, their examination revealed another set of bite marks, far fewer in number and centred on the head and neck. They pegged both bodies out for post mortem examinations and prepared their instruments. Johnny had been watching whilst this was happening and now approached the tables. The spider was Aaraneus Diadematus the common garden variety, but its size was unbelievable and it was obviously a mutant strain of the species. The two staff returned and as he was their star pupil, Johnny was allowed to stay and observe. His attention focussed on the spider, and from the first incision it was clear that something was seriously amiss. Ray Brown, the senior entomologist stepped back from the table, dropping his scalpel in the process. The noise rang out like an alarm bell in the stillness of the laboratory.
“Butterfingers” Mick Parlour, his colleague laughed. The silence which greeted this comment puzzled him as there would normally have been some form of riposte. He turned to see an ashen faced Ray and Johnny standing well back from the examination table, wide-eyed in horror.
“What? What’s up then?” He walked across to them and followed their gazes to the table. The spider was spread eagled with its abdomen pinned open and Parlour could not believe what he saw.
“Ray, Ray…………….this can’t be. Do you realise what this means? The only thing preventing these buggers from being our size is their respiratory system. This bloody thing has lungs!”
They had often talked about the remarkable abilities and lifestyle of the arachnid, and frequently joked that the day they learned how to breathe would be the beginning of the end for the human race. On the table before them was clear evidence of a major mutation and the question which none of them dared ask was ‘How many more were there out there?’
The isolated and desolate scenery of the North Yorkshire Moors had formed the romantic backdrop for the novels of the Bronte sisters, but in reality it was the home for the most hardened of farmers and their animals. It was a tough life in an unyielding landscape, but here the sheep farmer eked out a living along with breeds specially developed for the harsh environment. Sid Barks was one such man, and he had farmed this land for forty-five years. He stared down in consternation at the carcasses of a dozen or more of his flock, shaking his head in the resigned manner of all truly Yorkshire farming folk. If money wasn’t tight enough already this was the last thing he needed, and so close to market day as well.
The hunting pack of seven wolf spiders approached from the western corner of the field, timing their attack to coincide with the setting of the low winter sun. The kill would be easy, and they were looking for a fresh taste from the tough meat of the moor land sheep. Sid Barks would never know what hit him as they made their slow, silent approach and all bodies would be removed to feed their growing and increasingly ravenous brood. There would be nothing left to indicate what had happened, but investigations would bring with them a fresh supply of unwary prey.
© Copyright 2016 Phil Neale 1952. All rights reserved.