Life Chez MacPhee during my time as an OU student wasn’t without what might be called ‘moments of interest’. Perhaps I should have stuck to mathematics and hard sums, but the lure of science, and practical science, proved hard to resist. Frances (my wife, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed) did not always see it that way. Take Biology, Form & Function, for example. More specifically, take the Home Experiment Kit for the course S202, Biology Form and Function…
I’d to measure respiration in maggots and relate the oxygen uptake rates to surface area. Problem: Where to get maggots? We were told we could probably grow them by leaving a small piece of chicken out in the presence of bluebottles near a dustbin or on a window-ledge, but that seemed like a lot of fuss and mess, so I opted for the second suggestion: go to a field sports supplier, where they sold them by the pound. All I had to do was take a sealable container and fifty pee. There’s a wee huntin’/shootin’/fishin’ shop somewhere off The Mound, in Edinburgh, and I went there on the Saturday morning.
You can tell the place has been there for years and years, and has customers that are as loyal as the wee man who runs it is knowledgeable and dependable. I found it easily enough, on the corner of a wee road with quaint cobbles. As soon as you go in, it’s a different world. Dark brown colourings, old fashioned counter, a cashbox with a crank on the side, wood and leather smells, shotguns of beautiful craftsmanship that cost more money to own than I’d seen in my life to date, fishing rods, knives, stuffed pheasants, things that made noises like a duck. I waited, slightly nervous and feeling out of place, until the old man finished with his customer then came to me. He must have been older than his shop, and nearly as old as his brown cardigan and fingerless grey woollen gloves. He looked me up and down quickly.
“Ye’ll be ane o’ thae Opin Yuneevarsitee fowk, then?”
I must have looked taken aback at his powers of deduction, though I suppose that the first rule of the hunter, like the shopkeeper, is ‘recognise your target’, and I was clearly not the regular fauna of a hunting shop.
“Aye!” he twinkled, “an’ I ken whit ye’ll be eftir tae! Maggits, am Ah right? Fur ane o’ yir wee sperrymints?”
“Aye, I have to get a tub of maggots for an experiment. I guess I’m not the first, then?”
“Weel, ye ken, Ah’ve hid them in an’ oot a’ here a’ wik, Opin Univarsitee stewdints lookin’ fir maggits. Ah’ve nivver sellt sae mony maggits in ae wik, an’ aw in thir wee plastic buckits, jeest lik’ thon.”
He must have spied my wee square plastic bucket – Tupperware’s best, for he poked at it with his thumb. I held it up, and confessed I didn’t know how many I needed.
“Dinna fash aboot that, laddie, Ah ken fine hoo much ye need fur yir sperrymint. Thir maistly a’ takin’ two scoop a’ maggits, so jist gie me yir buckit, ‘n’ Ah’ll sort ye oot.”
He picked up a scoop and turned to the floor-standing barrel right beside me, which I had for some odd, inexplicable reason thought to be full of rice, and which to my palpable distaste and closer attention turned out to be a seething, wriggling, extended mass of millions upon millions of creamy white maggots.
He shovelled two scoops deftly into the container, closed it, and the fifty pee changed hands.
“If ye dinna use them a’ at aince, dinna worry. Ye kin put them in the fridge ur ye kin even freeze them. Maist fowk dinna need ony mair thin yon.”
I thanked him, and left to cycle home with the box of maggots in a bag clipped to my handlebars.
Setting up the experiment was fiddly. I’d to measure the lengths of a set of maggots and group them according to lengths but, as predicted in the HEK notes, this proved awkward, because the little beggars twisted and wriggled continuously. In order to keep out of the way, but have access to water and the like for solutions, I disobeyed SWMBO’s Prime Directive and set up workbench in the kitchen.
This requires an aside. The Prime Directive was issued after the S246 Organic Chemistry experiment in the kitchen a year earlier. The experiment involved a tall narrow manometer-like glass tube held in place by lab clamps and retort stands atop a reaction flask containing a mixture of fairly unpleasant organic solutions, all heated gingerly by a meths burner. I overheated the solution, there was a dull thud, and they all shot up out of the glass manometer and all over the ceiling, from where the reactants proceeded to drip over the entire work surface area and surrounding floor. She gave me a dressing down, and told me that I was a blinking idiot and that on no account was I ever to do one of my blinking stupid experiments in her kitchen ever again. If you have gauged correctly the magnitude of my offence, you will realise that the words “blinking”, “idiot” and “stupid” are substitutions made here for reasons of genteelity and decorum.
So, while she was watching television in the lounge that Saturday evening, I set to work. I reasoned, fairly accurately, that if I put a selection of maggots in a second container in the fridge, they’d cool down to a state of torpor and I could measure their lengths more easily. At first it seemed to work, but the trouble was they warmed up very quickly on being handled, even with tweezers, and started wriggling again. Then I hit on the idea of not measuring their lengths at all, but their weights (longer maggots = heavier maggots). That way their wriggling didn’t matter (though the systematic error caused by the change of measure were sufficiently tolerable to leave the results valid).
Maggots grouped, classified, measured, and all tubes and flasks and cotton wool and thermometers and stopwatches and things set up and ready to go, I heard the dreadful sound. Footsteps. Had I had sufficient foresight, I’d have taken coffee and biscuits through to her instead of letting her come to fetch them. It took her about six seconds of staring disbelief at the array of hundreds of maggots on the kitchen table before she let out an ear-piercing scream. “Get those blinking things out of here now!” (Substitute vocabulary as before. “Blinking” is nowhere near what she actually said.)
I cleaned out the fridge completely, and put all the remaining maggots (which were most of them) back into the plastic box, which I then wrapped in a plastic bag and, as advised by the wee man in the field sports shop, took the securely sealed box out into the garage in stored it in the freezer. Back in the kitchen, I cleaned out, washed and disinfected the entire kitchen as promised, followed by myself, top to toe (if the kitchen was to be offlimits to Frances because of maggot association, so, it followed, was I). I also did all the cooking for the entire weekend as Frances made it lucidly clear she had no intention of setting foot in the kitchen until the peak of her ire had passed.
Exam time came and went. I passed, and better than I had hoped for. I needed a break from biology, however, and the next year had already been pencilled in as Database Design. We had seen the last of the maggots.Each year, in August at Festival time, it was the custom for myself and Brian and Davey and Henry and Ricky, all neighbours in the quadrangle, to go out for a night on the town. We’d save up through the year, then have a monumental bash on the last Friday night of the Festival, ending up in a night club after having inspected and quality-checked the contents of every public house in a one-mile radius of The Mound.
A year later, Database Design was likewise interrupted by the Festival’s last Friday. That evening, Frances was making up a special supper for herself and Eleanor and Cathy and Ruth and Fran, all respective wives of the afore-mentioned revellers-intent. I cannot recall what she was making, but I do know that she had to recall some ingredient or other from the chest freezer, which she had to thaw in preparation. By the time B, D, H, R & myself had got weekend fatigues on, wallets checked, name & address tags attached (for return in case of misdirection or temporary loss of memory), Frances had returned from the freezer.
You could hear the horrified screech in the kitchen from Calton Hill as she opened the Tupperware box and found a solid wedge of approximately six hundred frozen maggots.
Before she’d even time to catch her breath again and turn her seething rage on me, I grabbed the box of frozen maggots, fled out the front door with the other four husbands trailing and deposited it in the dustbins as we shot at high speed up the lane past Eleanor’s house and off towards the Town and relative safety.