In a motel shower in Tauranga, one of those cubicle-less numbers, with a shallow depression for a floor and an encirclement of curtains and room for a waterproof wheelchair. I was there to teach - in Tauranga, that is, not the shower, though showers as we shall see can be instructive.
It was a while since I had taught a day of high school classes so, in the shower, I was mentally rehearsing approaches that might work on kids who hadn't seen me before and wouldn't again. Teaching as an unknown entity is different to teaching as a familiar one.
I was soaping myself, abstracted by thought, whilst relishing the amniosis of steam and warmth, when I sensed, out of that attentive angularity from the corner of my eye, movement.
Movement, when you're alone, is always of interest. Movement when you're alone and also naked is even more so. We are the least naked species. At birth, we're snatched away and swaddled against a hostile world and we remain in clothes or under blankets for the rest of our days and nights. There's a perpetual barrier between us and reality. Naked is vulnerable.
So when I sensed movement I started. Nerves went jangling, involuntary, primitive nerves, nerves that readied me for something, anything. That old reptilian brain, the amygdala, in all its primitive simplicity, was up for this.
The source of the movement turned out to be a praying mantis. It was up near the ceiling on the rail that supported the shower curtain, It was perhaps an inch and a half long (in metric terms that's about a thumb) and the sort of vivid green that makes it invisible against fresh foliage and unmissable against a motel ceiling.
The mantis clearly wasn't happy. Perhaps the steam was stressing it. It kept climbing a short bracket that attached the curtain rail to the ceiling, but it couldn't manage the spider trick of walking upside down and it kept slipping back.
A small frosted window was ajar. Beyond it I could just glimpse motel vegetation. The beast had clearly taken a wrong turn and found itself in a world of baffling sterility.
Having determined there was no threat, the amygdala settled back down. It is a selfish organism concerned only with the fundamentals of survival - eating, fighting, having sex and running away (which all remain of intense interest, as the rest of this paper will testify).
But the parts of the brain that evolved later are sometimes capable of a little kindness. What evolutionary advantage there is in taking pity on a mantis I don't know but I felt a low-temperature sympathy for its plight. I had no faith in its ability to find the small and distant window it came in through. If I did nothing it would die slowly of starvation or of a cleaner's casual squirt of caustic chemical.
I swept back the curtain, stepped out of the steam and fetched a tooth glass and my toothbrush from beside the sink. I reasoned that I could use the brush to nudge the mantis into the glass and thus return it to the outside world where it could continue to prey on whatever it is that praying mantises prey on.
Even as I made this plan and advanced upon my quarry I remember wondering whether later that day I might be able to base a lesson on the difference between praying and preying and deciding instantaneously that I could not.
I stretched up towards the insect, both hands above my head, one holding the toothbrush, bristles towards me, the other the tooth glass. The floor of the bathroom was some sort of synthetic substance, easily cleaned no doubt, but also, when one's feet are wet and both hands above the head, easily slipped on. I slipped.
Just at the moment that I made contact with the mantis my front foot slid fiercely away from me. I grabbed at the shower curtain to break my fall, realised it was not designed to take the sudden application of 91 kilos, felt it giving, let go and crashed to the floor, narrowly avoiding the toilet bowl with my skull. I was winded but not wounded. I was down but not out. I hauled myself up. I found the glass and the brush in the shower. Any damage to the curtain was not immediately noticeable.
And the mantis? It was on the floor behind the u-bend and below the cistern. Where I left it to take its chances in this life.