I was born in a dark corner of the family linen cupboard beside the top of the hot water storage tank. It was nice and warm in my cot and would have been a pleasant existence but for the noise coming from the constant flow of traffic on the highway beside my bedroom.
The worker ants were always busy shifting food from the pine plank at the top of the cupboard down the highway to the kitchens and storerooms under the house. Another group was responsible for earthworks. They molded the tunnels and made the roads that allowed the food chain to maintain its twenty-four hour operation.
My childhood was short. It soon became evident that everyone in the colony, including kids, was expected to be involved in serving the Queen. I was delegated to the dirt gang and got to travel the highways carrying load after load of wet soil from the ground to the road maintenance crew. Everyone was friendly and we all nodded to each other whenever we passed on our journeys.
Life was fine until the day that nosy Ursula woman of the house decided to feel around the inner edge of her linen cupboard. Her hand brushed over some of the earth I had recently delivered and this left a gritty clay deposit on her fingers. I can still hear her shrieks ringing in my ears as she relayed her new found information to ‘Pea-Brain Pete’, her somewhat dense husband.
We had nicknamed him ‘Pea-Brain’ because we had often seen him in the confined space under the house, his body bent over double because of the lack of head room. He would be looking through his stored timber supply and although he was sniffing around our housing estate, it never seemed to enter his head we were chomping away on his soft wood collection. Talk about dense!
On one occasion, one of the blokes actually fell off the road laughing at him and landed in his hair. Ol’ Pea Brain must have thought he had been attacked by a killer tarantula by the way he reacted. He grabbed for his head. This movement jerked his bent frame into a straighter position than was possible in the restricted area. Sure enough! He whacked his back against a hardwood floor joist. Even we won’t attack hardwood unless we’re desperate, but good Ol’ Pea Brain Pete tried to embed himself into the fibres.
As he grabbed a timber stump for support he was blissfully unaware of our multi-carriage highway traversing the inside of the split in the rear of the timber. We all rolled around laughing as he stumbled out from under the house, swearing and mumbling under his breath.
Meanwhile back at the linen cupboard, nosey Ursula was not content to let sleeping ants lie. She had to attack her earthy find with a kitchen knife. She cut a swathe down a by-pass road and sliced into our dried graveyard area. More shrieks, as she found some family members visiting the cemetery. It was at about this point that I knew we were in for some serious trouble.
As I happened to be close to where the find had been made, I immediately dropped my load of earth and removing the drinking glass from my lunch box, I placed it against the cupboard wall. I had seen this trick performed in an old American movie while I was having a midnight feast on the little blocks supporting the plywood frame in the back of the family TV set.
My ear was pressed hard to the bottom of the glass. I could hear the nosy redhead asking Pea Brain if he knew the local pest man’s phone number. Oh, no! The blood drained from my already white face. Horrible Howard was the local pest control exterminator.
I vividly recalled how I had just managed to survive Howard’s fumes of death on his last visit. It had been one of those days when nothing seemed to go right, so on my way home from work I snuck into the corrugated box bar for a quick glue fix. Fortunately, I managed to find a vacant spot in a back corner of the bar and propped myself up on a stool. A couple of shots of Heavy (I don’t go too much on the Light variety) and I was away. As I slowly merged into my drug induced oblivion, I slipped off the stool and ended up under the bar meditating on all things psychedelic and the uselessness of one’s navel. It must have been at this time the massacre began.
Howard’s horrific vapors hovered overhead but for some unknown reason known only to Almighty Bull, the God of all ants, I was spared, while all those around me in the bar and outside perished.
I waited days for the mushroom cloud to dissipate and the fallout to become neutralised by all the pesticides and pollution already present in the atmosphere. I still have nightmares about the carnage that confronted me as I made my way out from the protective folds of my corrugated cardboard bunker. Where there had been feverish activity along our food chain highways, only an eerie silence remained. I crawled over the upturned dead bodies that lay motionless before me. Many of the ants were personal friends or mates I had come to know through work. I was utterly devastated as I picked my way through the sea of upturned legs towards my home. None of my family had survived the holocaust.
These thoughts flooded my mind as I waited with my ear to the glass hoping to catch any snippet of information as the nosey one anxiously spoke with Howard the exterminator. It was hard to hear with all the noise going on around me. The Rescue Squad was in attendance, along with many onlookers who had literally, popped out of the woodwork. Maintenance gangs were already working on the repair of the roads and members of the Accident Investigation Group were mumbling together as they took numerous measurements and made copious notes for their report to Colony Control Headquarters.
I heard the lady say, ‘tomorrow, you’ll come and look, tomorrow’. It seemed like we only had a day before the inspection would occur. There was no doubt in my mind the massacre would begin soon after. I had to move quickly, but I knew it would be extremely difficult to convince the Colony authorities about the authenticity of the conversation I had overheard using my primitive listening device.
Grabbing the nearest public phone, I rang the emergency triple O number and was connected to the Queen’s switchboard. The attendant, like a true public servant, would not be drawn into skipping the formalities and listening to the important information I was blurting out. No! first I must give my name, address and work gang number. This information I gave in quick succession. Too quick it seemed for the dutiful servant at the other end who had some difficulty finding a sharpened carbon spike.
Frustration must have been evident in my tone, because I was reminded of the need for clarity in handling such matters which may prove to be a threat to the Queen. I tried to repeat my story. This time at a pace which I thought might be more appropriate for the mentality of the tea drinker at the other end of the line. My slow pace was interpreted by the public servant as a form of sarcasm and before I knew what was happening, the conversation was terminated by a statement which referred to hoax calls being against the law. A click in my ear indicated I was no longer connected.
Leaving the phone booth, I tried telling ants I met on the road that the end of the world was near, but they didn’t seem to want to listen. Those who did pay attention to me just nodded and went off muttering things like, ‘religious freak’ and ‘repent brother’. I was getting desperate. No one wanted to know about the seriousness of the situation they would have to face within a couple of days.
As I approached her house, my mother-in-law was at her usual post, chatting to the neighbours. She interrupted her conversation when she saw how agitated I was and listened as I recounted what had happened that afternoon. At last, someone who had the capacity to get things done, was prepared to listen to me. I knew she had a comprehensive network of chat groups that would probably spread the news quicker than official channels. Anyway, the only concern I had was that my experience had proven that passing information from one to another often tended to get the original message confused. Nevertheless, I thought the seriousness of this message must warrant immediate action by those hearing it, regardless of how the details might be twisted by the story tellers.
Our house was just around the corner. It was under a softwood crate once used for packing white goods, but now left discarded over a damp patch of earth. This was my heaven. Normally a great place to come home to, but I knew we would have to desert this area, and quickly. Wendy, my wife was concerned when she saw me arriving home early. Before she had time to voice those concerns, I was telling her all about the happenings of the day.
I had found Wendy after I had emerged from the corrugated board bar following the last massacre. She was wandering around among the dead ants as if she were lost. She had only just returned from delivering a message to the Colony under the horse trough and had been spared Howard’s horrible spray. As we searched for survivors, it soon became evident we were the only two ants left in our Colony. We clung to each other for comfort and knew our responsibility lay in building up the Colony to the vibrant community it had been before the visit of Howard the pest man.
We did what was expected of us and of course our children also played their part. Wendy became a temporary Queen until a new one was born. She then enjoyed the freedom of the Colony for the work she had done in building it up to the strength it currently enjoyed. I had opted to keep working. I couldn’t see myself lazing about in retirement and I liked working with friendly ants who were busy achievers.
We packed our few possessions and prepared to head off into the wilderness with whoever was prepared to come with us. Many of our family were not prepared to move as they claimed they were too entrenched in their activities within the Colony. Try as we might, Wendy and I could only explain the utter devastation that was our experience of the pest man’s visit in the past.
After a sleepless night, we started to pack our meagre possessions into drag bags. We had tried to explain to as many friends as possible the seriousness of the situation. Some would be journeying with us, others decided to take their chances by digging in and hiding beneath the surface of the soil. They couldn’t believe the fumes of death could penetrate such defences. They were to learn the hard way.
By mid-morning we were ready to set out. A large group had decided to join us, including Wendy’s mother-in-law and many of her chat club cronies. We bade farewell to those who came to see us off and there was a tear in a few eyes as the kids from the local work study group presented Wendy with a bouquet of long fibred softwoods as we passed the Learning Centre.
Our aim was to get as far away from the workings around the hot water tank as we could for there was no doubt in our minds this would be the target of Howard the pest man when he dealt his death blow. We traveled overland until, at around dusk, we came to the great wall. While we rested, a scout party went on ahead to attempt to find a pathway through the massive masonry structure.
What we did not know was that the drought over the past five years had finally caused the soil under the wall’s foundation to shrink to such a degree that the foundation of reinforced concrete cracked and moved. The scout party returned excited at their find. Not far from where we were camped they had found a gnawing gap in the mortar through which, they claimed, we could drive a tank. There was no sleep for us that night. We entered the gap and trekked along the foundation between the two great walls.
The going was tough in the barren waste between the walls. There was no food of any sort. Nor was there any moisture from which to quench our thirsts. There was no way of knowing whether it was day or night, nor whether we had traveled far enough away from where we could be reached by the fumes from Howard’s death ray.
We stopped frequently for rests as the lack of food and unavailability of water was starting to tell on some of the older members of our party. During one of these stops I had propped myself exhausted against the rough brick wall when I heard the gurgling sound of a distant waterfall. Everyone was asked to keep quiet and we all strained our ears to listen for the direction of the sound.
We found the location of the sound and received a bonus for our efforts. The movement of the wall’s foundation had caused cracks to appear around the edge of the shower recess in the house bathroom. Every time the shower was used, a small trickle of water was escaping down the inside of the first of the great walls. However, the water was disappearing before it reached the foundation where we were located. This meant only one thing – there was another breach in the wall’s structure and it had to be up near the base of the timber floor. We knew we were in luck.
Climbing the wall, we sniffed out the presence of the water. The gap in the wall between the mortar was still wet from the last shower. I knew if we kept to the dry sides we could climb through the crevice and hopefully find food on the other side. We held a meeting and it was unanimously agreed we should give it a try. As we lined up to travel single file through the damp crack we heard a distant rumbling. It was Ol’ Pea Brain Pete attempting to sing over the noise of the shower. The shower! Watch out! I yelled, as the first of the tidal waves hit us.
Fortunately, none of our party had entered the crevice or they would have been swept to their death by the raging water. We flung ourselves back against the great wall and hung on for dear life while in the background Pea Brain’s attempts at a song called, “I did it my way” were nothing short of pathetic. As the sound built up to a crescendo, the water flow diminished. With his ablutions completed, he stepped out of the shower and, as always, he was unaware of what was happening around him. We were waiting for the water to subside in our brick cavern under the floor on which he was standing. He was powdering between his toes while we were waiting to cross the sea into the promised land.
The moisture was present under the floor joists, but this was hardwood and not the most desirable item on our preferred menu. We did not complain and immediately set up camp. Within the hour our new community’s organisation structure had been established and was operational. A search party found earth beside the great wall for construction purposes and other groups spread out looking for food.
In the evening we returned to our camp beside the sea of used shower water and eat a meal of moist hardwood. The next day we would start the softwood search. What must have only been a couple of days after our arrival at the new camp we heard a far off wailing and could only guess the sound meant the end of the old Colony as we knew it. Howard, the pest was doing his worst. It was quiet in our camp that night, for we knew we all had lost loved ones back home. No comment was made. What could be said? We had escaped and were alive. I looked at Wendy – she knew my innermost thoughts. We had both survived a second time.
The next day I took my search party further than we had ever been. By a circuitous route, through a weep hole in the great wall, we traveled in the dark under the inside stairs and then doubled back to the base of the door jamb that led into the family bathroom. And there it was! A great length of thick pine as tall as the ceiling. It was tucked away in the dark as a filler between the end of the great wall and the door jamb. Its location, disguised on both sides by a painted architrave, was superbly hidden and would be a sweet desert for the new colony. We gathered some sample fibres and returned to the base camp. That night we celebrated our good fortune with singing and dancing.
The days that followed were busy ones as we set up our food chains between the pine find and the camp. Roads were made and before long the Colony was operating with considerable efficiency. Week followed week. A new Queen was born, which relieved Wendy of her onerous tasks. Our numbers increased and it seemed our food source was so substantial it would last forever.
We must have thought we were indestructible living the good life the way we were. Our plentiful water supply came to us on a regular basis. We even learned to put up with Ol’ Pea Brain’s attempts at singing when it was his turn in the shower.
What we did not count on was that, as a result of her previous experience, nosey Ursula would be continually sniffing around the house on the look out for any telltale signs of what she referred to as ‘unwelcome intruders’. It was sickening to think that she had such a poor opinion of our little colony. Here we were, busily enjoying life and trying not to make our presence noticeable and all she could do was mount search and destroy missions against us.
There is no doubt our security was definitely slack. Whatever the cause, a thin line of gritty earth oozed out between the joins in the architrave timbers that hid our pine find. And who should happen to spot it? You guessed it – the nosey redhead.
I had heard that shriek before and shivers went down my spine when I heard it again. This time I didn’t need the glass up against the wall to hear the telephone conversation. Our pine find was close to the wall holding the communications instrument and the nosey lady was speaking to none other than Howard the Exterminator. The name conjured up past horrors and I felt in my bones that this time I may not be as lucky as I had been in the past.
Hurrying back to the camp, I explained what had happened. I was still discussing what we might do, when more of the workers returned to tell us that Pea Brain was ripping off the timber surrounding our pine plank. We had been exposed and lost many workers as the light penetrated our collection areas. The surface insect spray being applied by Ol’ Pea Brain didn’t help much either.
As we saw it, we had two choices. We could pack up and move off as we did before, or we could sit tight and hope that being such a long way away from the collection site would save us from being discovered.
A vote was taken. We chose to sit tight tucked away in our earth covered base camp under the shower.
Howard arrived and crawled under the house with his flash light in his hand. His trained eye was looking for the telltale signs of a healthy Colony. He took a couple of earth samples from the area under the hot water service which had been treated previously. He was happy with the lack of activity. His search switched to the area underneath where the current find had revealed a half eaten piece of pine at the end of the brick wall. He scratched his head. There was no sign of the little termites anywhere in the vicinity. Experience had taught him that the white ant will travel considerable distances to get food but that they need a source of dampness to maintain their survival. The flash light moved along the mortar lines of the inner brick wall. Still nothing.
Willie and Wendy were huddled close together when the light from the torch penetrated the thin covering of soil under which they were located. They heard a whistle as Howard poked a hole in the damp clay close to them. Their hearts were pounding. Would this be the end of their beautiful relationship?
After Howard had left, the members of the Colony decided they had better move, and move quick. They all ran for the crevice in the great wall and in their rush forgot only a single line could go through at a time. Willie calmed them down sufficiently to put some order in their retreat. They had all gone through and were heading down the long white electrical wire that festooned the inside of the great wall when a hammering in their ears made them stop in their tracks. Ol’ Pea Brain was drilling a hole in the outer wall. Willie wondered whether Pea Brain Pete realised that in his stupidity he was actually providing the Colony with an escape route. Everyone in the Colony gathered in the cement dust that heaped up on their wire after the hammer drill bit had broken through to the cavity between the great walls. They would wait until dark and escape.
As the drill bit was removed it was replaced by a metal cylinder with a small number of holes in its tip. Everyone in the Colony had been taught from an early age the horrors that could be inflicted by such an instrument. Some immediately started running but were halted in their tracks by the authoritative voice of Willie, as he yelled with all the volume he could muster for them to stop.
Outside, Howard returned to his truck, closely followed by Pea Brain who wasn’t about to miss out on any of the action. The chemicals had to be mixed in the right proportion and the pump started. Howard explained to the hovering, ever questioning Pete, that the final blow would be dealt to the little white marauders when the metal tap at the end of the wall spike was turned on. This would allow the deadly concoction he was mixing up to spray inside the cavity brick wall. Death would be instant.
Willie’s time spent in the back of the old television set had not been wasted. He recalled vividly a rerun of a James Bond movie when his hero had extricated himself from certain disaster by using a bare electrical wire against his enemy. Willie told the assembled trembling Colony that if they valued their lives there was only one way they could survive. They must do what they did best. Chew! Chew on the plastic covered wire that was resting on the top of the metal cylinder.
But which wire? One carried current to the power point under the house and the other took it away. Willie knew there would not be much time before the deadly spray was turned on. He called for the diviner, a respected member of every Colony. Without water they could not survive and a good diviner was a major asset. Fortunately, they had such an ant.
The old white ant stepped forward, his forked fibre at the ready. Willie explained how the diviner’s talents must be quickly used to find the direction of the current in the white plastic covered wire on which they were all standing. The old ant aimed his fibre at the plastic conduit beside his feet. His powers of concentration had been honed by years of practice and he was able to block out the noise of the panicking Colony around him. He had never had to perform this type of work before but he found the job relatively simple. His forked fibre had got wet on their escape through the chasm earlier and this allowed his task to be made easier. Within moments of him aiming the fibre, it started to shake and physically move him back toward the way in which they had come.
Willie’s suggestion that he try the other side of the cable brought him back to the group at the cylinder in the wall. Everyone gathered around the section of wire beside the cylinder. This was the plastic that had to be removed. They all chewed and spat, chewed and spat. Even Wendy, well advanced into her two hundred and fifty eighth pregnancy, was in there chewing and trusting that Willie was right. It was not the type of material they were used to gnawing on, but then, fortunately they did not have to eat it, for it tasted fowl.
Like birds sitting on exposed overhead wires, they were safe from the 240 volts of positive current they were gradually exposing in the form of a shiny copper wire.
In the distance a pump could be heard starting up and then Howard and Ol’ Pete’s footsteps indicated that they were returning to the wall. Willie yelled that it was time to evacuate. The munching came to a halt. The white ants needed no prompting to get away from the cylinder of death. They ran in all directions as fast as they could. In their panic many of them fell off the wire and tumbled into the dust along the foundations. Not worrying about minor injuries, they ran for their lives.
Outside, Howard was stationed at the wall spike. He looked back to check there were no kinks in the hose that carried the mixed chemicals under pressure to the small metal tap in his hand. Ol’ Pete was bending over watching the process and rubbing his hands with glee. This was the moment he had been waiting for. It was pay back time!
Howard slowly turned the tap to release the liquid. Ol’ Pea Brain was watching him shake and thought that the pump must be causing a pulsation along the hose. Pete looked again. Howard’s mouth was open but no words were coming out. And then he saw the rolling whites of the pest controller’s eyes. Ol’ dumb, dumb, Pea brain lent over and tapped him on the shoulder to ask him if he was OK.
Last seen, Willie and Wendy were walking off together into the gloom. She, with her low slung underbelly and he, the undisputed wizard of the white ants.
I’m Peter Mack and that’s the way it is.