Ladybirds are meant to be lucky, but lucky for who? (2024)

‘Look, a ladybird!’ This was how it started. My family were staying the night in a bed and breakfast near friends in rural England – we had driven through a landscape the colour of butter to park under a hillside upon which the shadows of clouds passed like curtains closing. I was medicated, pleasantly, can you tell, in a hangover from the most painful migraine of my life, and the clouds reminded me of the visual aura that flickers across your vision just before the headache begins. We put our bag on a chair, and there, inside the window frame, was a ladybird. And then, look, there was another one. The children gathered, by the window ready to be enchanted.

A group of ladybirds is called a “loveliness”, which, to me, sounds suspicious. Sounds problematic even. As if they have named themselves. A “conspiracy” of lemurs, that’s a good one, implies darkness, intelligence. A “bloat” of hippos, relatable. A “destruction” of wild cats, you’ve got a whole story there, beginning, middle, end. But a “loveliness”, please. Perhaps it’s my own must-work-on-it tendency towards tall poppy syndrome, perhaps I am inordinately disgusted by the ladybirds’ cloying self-satisfaction – I find the term embarrassing. However, there it was, a loveliness, crawling all over the window frame.

One ladybird, exciting. Two ladybirds, magical. The children’s faces changed, a cloud started to pass over them. Three? Great, four, yep, five, OK, six, mm, seven… The closer we looked, the more we saw, the less we thrilled. “Shall we help them fly… away?” suggested my daughter and we shuffled the sash window open, at which point someone possibly me, screamed.

This was not lovely. This was not lovely, this was a writhing red mass of legs and wings, like one of those benign tumours you hear about with teeth and hair. A wet-seeming segment fell off and someone screamed again, through my mouth. I sat heavily on the bed. The migraine had arrived a few days earlier with its usual dull fanfare, the aura, the déjà vu, and I had diligently filed my work and gone to bed. I was awoken around 2am by something sharp attempting to peck its way out of my right temple. I’m not a stranger to migraines, I will have bored you perhaps with these kinds of stories before, but this time the pain, which lasted beyond the heavy painkillers, was different – it was like a knife being sharpened.

I have come to find pain uniquely fascinating. It’s something that is common to everybody, part of the human experience, but remains just as difficult to describe or quantify as love or grief. Like both, pain is coming for all of us and yet it’s only fairly recently that scientists have begun to try to understand it. That night I had a sense that each pain I’d felt in my life was related to the next, a “herd” of elephants plodding slowly up my spine, from heartbreak, to headaches, to giving birth, to stubbing a toe. This migraine was reminiscent of labour pain – I moaned grimly into my pillow as my boyfriend rubbed my back, and we were transported suddenly to 2014, our old flat above the chicken shop at dawn before the baby came. I thought about hammering my temple with a rubber mallet, or pressing something round and hard, perhaps a snooker ball, into a vulnerable area of brain, all the time making these noises, these cow-ish noises and feeling unmoored from myself and the night.

By the time we arrived at the hotel I was in the sad and languid stage that follows a migrainous episode. The drugs make me feel as though I’m hidden under a wet towel, my speech is sometimes adorably slurred, and I am slow to get jokes. But what also happens is I briefly see the world like a poet might. Not a great poet, admittedly, more adolescent than that, an internet poet, eyes trained to dissect nature in ways that might succinctly summarise a clickable emotion, and metaphor everywhere. This is how I came to the ladybirds, the loveliness of ladybirds, on a borrowed window frame, disgusting.

They were crawling over their living and their dead, a mass of bugs about the size of a hot cross bun, and the black spots on the red gloss had the appearance of more, tinier bugs, riding on the backs of their hosts. My first thought upon my second scream was, what does this mean? Ladybirds are a symbol of luck, but does the symbolism multiply or diminish when there are hundreds of them, maybe thousands? This didn’t feel terribly lucky. I had a flash of the evening that the migraine hit, eating the offal and loins of a large Lindt bunny – was this scene, like that, an example of what happens when you get too much of a good thing? Or was it, I wondered, sent to cure my kids of wonder? In the same way that the point of getting children a kitten is to train them in death, was this swarm of ladybirds a lesson in the vivid horror of nature? The creeping, falling, flying, blood-coloured truth? A sign beyond the window offered, with some desperation, woodland for sale. Were the ladybirds, my son asked gently then, eating each other?

We adults exchanged a short dark look. While I pointed out the complimentary biscuits on the dresser, with a single swoop he closed the curtains, anaesthetising the view, and I decided quickly that nothing meant anything, actually, and everything would be fine.

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Ladybirds are meant to be lucky, but lucky for who? (2024)


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