When Beetle Spray came on the market, I was nine years old. I was so excited I cried. Mum took me to the shops and I queued as patiently as a nine-year-old, in tears of excitement can. I paid for my two cans of Beetle Spray – I had already heard from the highest authority on such matters; the playground, that you needed two cans in order to make them fight – and ran home as fast as I could, pausing only whenever mum called for me not to go too far ahead without her.
When we reached home, I ran straight up to my bedroom and locked the door. I dived under my duvet. Somehow it seemed like the most fitting place to inspect such a precious prize.
As I pulled the quilt over my head I lit my torch. Its light danced across the side of the can, settling on a label that simply read ‘Beetle Spray’. There were some instructions on the side, which I half read, pausing only to take in the words ‘shake before use’.
Balancing the torch upon my lap, I shook the can. I held out my little palm and hesitated. I pressed the nozzle. A colourful little vapour cloud formed in the air, just above my palm. After a few seconds it began to change. A few seconds more and the colourful little cloud transformed itself into a colourful little beetle.
Wow! I had the cutest little beetle that I had ever seen in the palm of my hand. I pulled the quilt from my head, letting a cool breath of air, free from the sickly smell of bubblegum, caress my face. Scrambling around, I found an old chessboard and placed it on the bed. Carefully I set the little beetle down. It seemed to do a funny little dance, before shaking its rear end and settling down, like a bird hatching an egg.
As quickly as I could, I shook the second can of Beetle Spray. This time I aimed the nozzle at the surface of the chessboard and pressed. Another little beetle, quite different in looks and colour from the first Beetle, formed as the vapour cloud took shape.
I started to laugh. I laughed and laughed as these two little beetles began to fight each other. It reminded me of the ancient Tom and Jerry cartoons that I had seen in the museums.
Eventually, after a spectacular no holds barred struggle, the first beetle overcame the second beetle. Defeated, the second beetle suddenly vanished. I watched, open mouthed, as the first Beetle did its odd little dance and settled down once more.
I played with the Beetle Spray for the rest of the day and the whole of the next. The very first beetle I sprayed earned a prize place on my bedside table only to vanish about three hours later. During that time I discovered that any two beetles sprayed from the same can refused to fight one another. I also had immense fun when I figured out that you could have gang beetle battles; at one stage I had four on four and the fight lasted a full twenty minutes. All this was too much for my nine-year-old mind, and I remember sleeping that night in the midst of a dream battlefield of giant beetles.
The next day was Monday, a school day. Needless to say, nearly all the kids had cans of Beetle Spray. I don’t think anyone had realised how many different varieties there actually were.
I had a friend at the time called Dylan. It was Dylan who showed me how to train the beetles. By shaking the can in various ways before spraying, it was possible to produce beetles with differing skills and strengths. Straight away Dylan had a knack for it. Within a day he was spraying beetles that could take on three others at a time. And it didn’t stop there. By the end of the week, he could produce beetles of any colour on request.
Dylan never said much, so I used to speak for him, he didn’t seem to mind, we had our own way of communicating. He had this smile though, and no one, not even the teachers remained untouched. When Dylan smiled you just felt good. He managed to win everyone’s friendship with that smile. The kids at school decided that this was how he got the beetles to do what he wanted. One time, Dylan secretly told me that it was more to do with how you thought about the beetles just before spraying. I didn’t understand, so he held out my palm, shook, sprayed, and smiled.
Everyone loved Dylan for what he could do with the beetles. Children would spend entire lunchtimes following him around as he shook cans for them and sprayed myriad varieties of colour, size, skill, strength, and he could train them up to do unique victory dances. He even got one variety to break-dance! It was great, a wonderful beetle and then a wonderful smile. Never a word.
Dylan would only spray the golden beetles for himself. When anyone dared to challenge Dylan to a Beetle Spray battle, he would produce a small golden beetle of about half the average size. This one beetle had absolutely no problem in taking on a whole can of fifteen at once. And the beetle wouldn’t vanish for an entire day. Everyone started calling them ‘Dylan’s ninja beetles’, because that’s exactly what they looked like; little martial arts experts. Dylan as always, just gave a humble little smile and continued to spray.
With the massive popularity of Beetle Spray, competitions began to pop up in various places. I remember that we all begged Dylan to enter the one at the local youth centre. No one would mess with our school when they saw what Dylan could do with the beetles. And we were right. Without a word Dylan produced a solitary beetle that beat off every beetle in every can of Beetle Spray in the entire competition. We went wild and Dylan became the school hero. He reached God like status when his name appeared in the Beetle Spray magazine directly after the competition.
Over the next few weeks, Dylan became more and more obsessive about the little beetles. He was silent almost all of the time, but we still went around together constantly. The times that we did speak were always in secret, as though he was telling you something to cherish. And whenever he spoke, he gave you a beetle. Even if you thought you didn’t want one you’d end up accepting the wonderful little creation. It was as if he loved to see people happy as much as they loved to see him smile, the beetles just became a vehicle for that.
It was one of these rare, secret conversations in which Dylan told me that he was trying to create the ultimate beetle. When I asked what the ultimate beetle was, he said that I wouldn’t understand. He smiled and gave me a golden beetle. I felt honoured, as far as I knew, Dylan had never given anyone a golden beetle before. I said thanks and told him how much everyone loved these. I remember the look in his eyes. It was sadness. I had never seen it before; I had only ever noticed the smile.
‘No, not everyone loves the beetles,’ he said.
When I asked him what he meant, he was silent Dylan again, spraying beetles and smiling that pure smile.
Shortly after that, Dylan stopped coming to school. The teachers told us that Dylan had moved and gone to a new school. Everyone was sad. No more golden beetles, no more golden smile. It was amazing; the hole that everyone felt had been left, at the absence of one so naturally quiet and withdrawn. In vain we searched for a glimpse of his name in the editions of the Beetle Spray magazine.
Time went by with no word from Dylan and slowly but surely, the important business of growing up took over.
A few years later I learned the truth about Dylan. He had been removed from our school and taken into care. Apparently his father was a violent man and used to beat Dylan and his mother. Apparently he used to cover Dylan with a wet towel so there wouldn’t be any bruising. No one suspected anything for years. I don’t know how he was caught in the end.
That was twenty years ago.
I’m holding in my hand a tiny beetle. It is so small that if it were not for its brightness, it would not be possible to see it with the naked eye. I’ve had this beetle for six months. It came from a can. It is like a tiny star. Its brightness never diminishes and it refuses to fight any other beetle.
Six months ago I met a man in the street. I was in such a hurry, that I almost knocked him to the ground as I turned the corner and walked straight into him. I apologised, but the man just stared at me. I began to feel uncomfortable and tried to leave, but he held me gently by the arm. Continuing to stare straight into my eyes, he took my hand. I saw him produce a little can from his pocket, which he began to shake. He sprayed something into the palm of my hand. I looked down; it was the tiny star beetle, shining intensely. I looked up at the man’s face. He was smiling.
And I began to weep.
He is my friend.