Last Monday week, at midnight, I came home from my weekly bar job to find that one of the benches in my kitchen had been overrun by ants. I was surprised: ever since I first moved to Melbourne, when I shared a fairly run-down house with, among others, a woman who had a habit of baking bread then leaving it unattended in the kitchen overnight, I’ve been careful never to leave food out. The kitchen in that old house in Fitzroy was overrun by House Mice (Mus musculus), and although it wouldn’t be fair lay the blame for the problem entirely on my housemate – who, I hasten to add, was in all other respects an excellent housemate and a lovely person – I don’t think the fact that there was regularly a loaf of bread on which to feed helped discourage the mice at all. So nowadays, even though after cooking I rarely do the washing-up until a day or two later, I’m always careful to tidy up uneaten food.
Not careful enough, though: the ants last week were obviously attracted by something. I couldn’t see what it was, but, because I was too tired after working all night to do anything other than stare at them, I observed from their behaviour that their sudden appearance on my kitchen bench was not random: although there were several ants scattered about, the greater number of them were following a set route to and from some mysterious food source. I couldn’t see what it was – whatever they were attracted to was, literally, invisible to me – but it was obviously there, as the ants arrayed themselves carefully in a circle around a particular part of the bench, like cattle around a waterhole. Perhaps I’d unknowingly spilled some juice there the previous week at breakfast.
I’d never had ants in my kitchen before, so I was at something of a loss as to how to deal with them. I’m reluctant to kill animals needlessly at the best of times – the ants weren’t presenting a physical threat to me, and I wasn’t going to eat them, so destroying them en masse seemed a massive overreaction – so, because I was tired and it was late, on that Monday night when I discovered the ants I decided to let them be for the time being and see what the situation was like in the morning.
The situation in the morning was somewhat different, and one might argue somewhat worse. Monday night obviously represented the ants’ first significant foray out of their nest: there were so many of them, and the workers were well-protected by soldier ants. The soldier ants were astonishing: while the workers were tiny, the soldiers were enormous: at least three to four times the size of the workers, and with massive block-shaped heads. Only the ants’ shared colour, a light tan, and the tolerant proximity of the workers and the soldiers to each-other, provided any indication that they were of the same species. Though the ants – whatever species they may have been – were very small, only a few millimetres long, even at such a diminutive size the soldiers appeared formidable.
On Tuesday morning most of the soldiers had gone. Most ants will send out a few workers – scouts – from the nest to search for food. When those ants find something significant, they’ll immediately return straight to the nest, laying down a pheromone trail as they go which will then be followed by a great column of workers, who will break down the food source and carry it back to the nest. Presumably this first mass expedition can be perilous, which I suppose is why the soldiers were so present on the first night; by Tuesday the ants must, somehow, have concluded that the area was safe for them, and so the soldiers had largely returned to the nest, wherever that may be – beneath my floorboards, behind my cupboard, inside the walls of my house.
The workers were very busy on Tuesday morning, and throughout the rest of the day. As I passed back and forth through the kitchen – to do the washing-up; to put away shopping; to make a cup of tea; to make myself breakfast and then lunch and then dinner – I’d stop to watch the ants for a few moments, still unsure what to do about them but assuming that the food source on my kitchen bench couldn’t last forever. Most of the ants were still circled around it, but a few had found similar puddles of whatever it was elsewhere and were feeding at that; more were coursing to and from the nest; frequently an ant stopped to rear itself on its hind legs, as if it had something to say, and would then proceed to scrupulously clean its forelegs and its antennae.
I only had time to observe the ants in passing, however. The week before Christmas is always busy and I had a lot that I wanted to do before leaving Melbourne for Canberra on Saturday morning. Although I work in a bar on Monday nights, that particular shift actually represent the least part of the job: I work as a kind of “beer scout” for the bar, and throughout the week I spend a lot of time contacting brewers and distributors and dashing all around town in search of interesting beers. It sounds like a dream job but it can be surprisingly frantic – in part because I make it so. Nobody has forced me to take the job so seriously, and most of the work I do I do for free. I’m in the process of negotiating a rate of pay which is more commensurate to the work I’m doing, but so far that hasn’t eventuated. Neither I nor the bar’s owners quite know how or how much I should be paid for what I’m doing. For now I’m doing what I’m doing largely out of love, or pride, or a stubborn need to be thorough.
And because it keeps me busy. I live alone – although I’ve had a housemate for the last couple of months, she has her own life and her own concerns and I’ve rarely seen her – and I work from home, as I have done for the last seven years, so sometimes I feel a great and pressing need just to get out of the house. Perhaps for that reason I’ve taken to this new bar job with greater enthusiasm than I might otherwise have done: it takes up more of my time, and so far for less financial reward, than I’d like, but at the start of July this year my main job – what I still think of as my main job – was reduced from full time to only fifteen hours a week, and the search for additional or alternative employment has so far been so fruitless, and so frustrating, that the opportunity to make myself feel busy – to make myself feel constructive – has been something that I’ve seized upon. Sometimes a whole day goes by, and all I’ve really done has been to think about beer. Sometimes I wonder where the time goes.
By Wednesday last week, the third day of the infestation, the ants had become more haphazard. They were splintered across numerous sites on my kitchen bench, with groups feeding at each. Other ants were wandering around on the bench-top, following their own paths as they searched, presumably, for fresh food sources. I noticed that a few of the feeding ants had greatly enlarged abdomens. I was reminded at once of Honeypot Ants such as Camponotus inflatus, found in central Australia, in which the abdomens of some individuals become greatly engorged with a nutritious liquid upon which their fellow ants feed. The abdomens of the ants I observed, though, were not as large as that: perhaps they were merely budded with a secretion, or an excretion, from excess eating.
It was four days before Christmas, and three days before my father’s birthday, and I still hadn’t finished doing my shopping. The need to buy presents is perhaps too deeply ingrained in me: I was determined to have something to give each member of my family, even though for the last six months I’ve had to keep a close eye on every dollar I spend. I’d managed to save myself two or three hundred dollars, at least, by getting a lift in a car with friends from Melbourne to Canberra and back, rather than booking a flight.
Money’s precious right now, more precious than usual. My bar job has meant the difference between earning slightly less than my weekly rent, and earning slightly more – but it’s a slim difference, and what I earn is still not adequate. I’ve spent so much time chasing up beers for this job – this job which is still, officially, only for four hours every Monday night – that it’s left me little time to search for other jobs. Ideally I’d like to work two more days a week, which would bring me up to full-time – official full-time – and leave me, though poorer than I have been in previous years, at least more comfortable. But it’s summer in Australia, and jobs are few and far between, and I haven’t had the time to commit to the search as much as I should have.
By Thursday last week, the 22nd of December, the ants were almost all gone. Only a scattered few remained, remnants of the previous workforce, stragglers perhaps. The numbers were even fewer on Friday, no more than half a dozen – few enough, at any rate, to barely draw my attention, and had I been absent from the house through the week and seen only those ants on Friday I’d have had no inkling at all of the activity that my kitchen bench had hosted over the previous four days. On Saturday morning that ants were gone, and as I hastily cleaned the kitchen before being picked up by my friends to drive home to Canberra for Christmas I wiped down the bench upon which the ants had been, cleaning up any food that may still have been there – but, perhaps, leaving unseen remnants behind.
I never stopped to watch the ants for more than a few moments. I always meant to but I never quite got around to it. I lived with the ants for almost a week, and by the end of that week I’d accommodated them within my life: they’d invaded my main kitchen bench, the bench upon which I prepare all my meals, but while they were present using that bench wasn’t an option so I worked around them. I prepared my dinner on other, smaller surfaces: I made sandwiches for lunch on the kitchen table, clearing newspapers and other debris out of the way to make space; at breakfast time I balanced bowls precariously on the narrow bench next to the pantry, upon which sit all my canisters of tea and which I almost never use. All the while the ants pursued their tiny lives on the bench next to the stove, in front of the book holder where I place cookbooks at dinner time, beneath the switch for the kitchen light. They found their food, and claimed it, and returned to their nest, leaving my life touched in some small way by their presence and yet strangely unaffected.
It’s not been an easy year, and perhaps I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut, but it was soothing, in a way, to share my living space with the ants for a few days. To know that they were just a passing obstacle, and that for a few days they would be present to enliven my life, was in the end a great pleasure. At the start of 2011 one of my many hopes was to secure for myself a publishing contract, or even just an agreement to publish one of the two manuscripts I’d completed at the end of 2010; but due to a confluence of circumstances old and new 2011 proved to be a horrendous year in Australian publishing, and other setbacks throughout the year gradually sapped the enthusiasm from me until I started to view 2011 as a year simply to be endured, to be lived through until I graduated, at the end, into the fresh hopes of a new year.
Amidst all this disappointment, in the middle of winter I started this blog. I’d never previously thought to do such a thing, not on such a scale or with such regularity; indeed I’d always rather disdained bloggers for their navel-gazing. I don’t pretend that this blog is anything different – but it’s kept me writing, and it’s kept me engaged with the world, and it’s kept me awake to the infinite wonders and joys that continue daily in this world regardless of our indifference, our self-absorption in our own troubles and concerns. No year is wholly good; no year is wholly bad. Some years are more one than the other – but even the most repetitive and wearisome of years can have its joys. At the end of 2011, a difficult year, I find myself, unaccountably, unexpectedly, and with some delight, grateful for a brief infestation of ants.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org