When I was a little girl, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be, ‘starving artist’ wouldn’t have even been on the list. Most likely I would have told you ‘a dinosaur’ or ‘an astronaut’ – and later, when I realised that children couldn’t become dinosaurs and brown girls from New Zealand couldn’t become astronauts, I would have said ‘a teacher’ or ‘a nurse’.
At school I got progressively worse at every subject but English and Art, but in my teens my aunty got me a part-time job as a cleaner at the local hospital. I thought at the time that the money wasn’t too awful, and I was good at it. I enjoyed cleaning; even if sometimes what I was cleaning was explosive diarrhoea or blood-laced vomit.
After a while you got used to most of the smells. Well, except for Clostridium difficile – otherwise known as ‘C. Diff’. But thankfully I rarely had to clean up after one of those patients.
Eventually my minimum wage salary let me quit school and rent a tiny, grimy, one-bedroom place in a block of concrete flats. When I wasn’t working or sleeping, I made art, to sell down at the markets on Saturday morning.
And so I became a poor, part-time artist.
There are certain staples every poor person needs in their cupboards. Potatoes and rice were mine; both were dirt cheap and could be made into a variety of dishes. Growing up with equally poor parents and strictly enforced gender roles meant that mum had taught me early on how to cook dishes that would stretch for several meals.
“Rice is great,” she had said, “you can have it sweet for breakfast and you can have it plain for lunch and dinner.”
And cabbage. Everything seemed to have cabbage in it.
But I still had my little luxuries in my tiny flat; a jar of peanut butter, some wild Manuka honey comb from my uncle up north and a big jar of raw sugar for my cups of tea.
You’ll understand then, why I was upset when ants started coming inside.
They were really small things, some of the smallest ants I’d ever seen. When I got up in the morning, they would be swarmed around the tiniest crumb of dropped food, dividing it up and carrying it back to their nest in a steady brown-black pilgrimage of little bodies.
I didn’t begrudge them at first – I knew what it was like to be hungry. And I could appreciate more than most people that they were cleaning up my mess, doing me a service.
But when they ate a hole clean through the paper of my spare bag of raw sugar, I decided I’d had enough.
Borax and sugar, I discovered, was a good home-made ant killer.
We had plenty of borax-based cleaning products at work, for clearing drains and dissolving really stubborn filth. So I mixed up a solution as the internet instructed me, then left it in a saucer on the kitchen bench.
It didn’t take long for my tiny unwelcome guests to find it; an hour later, a pair of ants ambled across the clean white formica and found the saucer.
According to my research, they would feed on it, then carry it back to the nest, where others would join the chain, until the poison had filled their home. All going well, they would be dead within a week, and I wouldn’t have a bug problem anymore.
So when one ant supped at the poison, then settled down on the edge of the saucer beside a companion, I wondered if I’d mixed it too strong and killed the ant outright.
But continued observation showed it was still alive, grooming its antennae and legs, patiently waiting under the apparent supervision of its friend.
Using the opportunity to study a rarely quiescent ant, I took out my sketchbook and started drawing them, while I perched on the sole chair in my flat.
By the time I was yawning and craving my bed, the two ants were still sitting patiently on the edge of the saucer.
In the morning, when I emerged for a cup of tea after my shower, the saucer remained untouched – only the body of the poisoned ant remaining, its little legs curled up against its body in strangely fetal death pose.
My attempt to poison the nest had failed.
The next week, they ripped another hole in the sugar bag (which I’d placed inside a plastic bag) and emptied half of the contents.
Incensed, I hung the bag from a hook in the laundry roof.
The next morning, the empty bag lay forlornly on the floor, not a single grain of sugar remaining.
Frustrated, I went out and bought some proper ant bait from the supermarket – along with another bag of sugar. When I got home, I placed the bait on the floor of the pantry and the sugar bag in a bowl, which was in turn placed in a larger bowl full of water.
The family of sugar thieves was about to get their comeuppance.
I slept fitfully, the bedroom door wide open, irrationally listening for the sounds of tiny intruders. Some part of me was convinced that they were conspiring against me; I had fragmented dreams of oversized ants crawling through my cupboards, chewing holes through glass and plastic, eating all the food they could find.
Eventually I got up, unable to sleep, and stumbled to the kitchen for a glass of water.
As the light flickered on, I saw movement.
The sugar bag had been removed from the bowl and lay sideways on the bench. Ants scattered madly across the counter, scurrying away to any crack or cranny they could find – their mouths no doubt full of my sugar.
Thinking quickly, I grabbed a glass from the sink and placed it over the top of one of the trailing ants, who had just emerged from the nearly empty bag.
I’d caught one of the little thieves.
It was definitely watching me.
Wherever I went, it positioned itself so that it had a clear view of me through the glass. If I came close, if I looked at it, the ant would rear up on its legs and tap the glass with its one good antennae – the other one had been bent by the glass coming down on it.
“I’m not letting you go,” I told it, “not until you stop thieving my sugar.”
Tap, tap, tap.
I realised that it was much, much bigger than the ants that had first come into the house. This one was glossy and dark, as though freshly polished with bootblack. The enlarged features lent its face anthropomorphic qualities that made me uncomfortable keeping it in the glass prison.
“I could kill you, you know,” I continued, “but I’m not going to. I’ll make you a deal; I’ll put a little bowl of clean sugar outside the front door at night and you can eat that. Just leave my stuff alone.”
The ant stared at me through the glass.
Tap, tap, tap.
With a sigh, I lifted the glass. The ant’s good antennae wiggled furiously for a second, then it industriously trundled away and disappeared into the crack between the stove and the bench.
Whether it had truly understood me, I don’t know, but the outside feeding bowl was working.
At night the ants would crowd around the bowl, then chaingang the entire contents back to their nest. As though satisfied with this arrangement, they left my kitchen alone.
I laughed at the whole idea; it was like a tiny, insectoid mafia racket. So long as I gave them their cut of the sugar on the regular, they left me alone.
But even though I was happy enough with the deal, someone else wasn’t.
My neighbour Charles.
An older gentleman of European heritage, Charles didn’t have much time for people like me. If I had my cheap portable stereo up too loud, he would hammer on my door with his walking stick until I turned it down. I couldn’t even watch T.V. at a decent volume, so instead I just watched pirated movies on my crappy phone with headphones in.
The commotion outside definitely included the strident, petulant voice of Charles yelling about something.
Opening the door, I found him on my doorstep, a smashed sugar bowl kicked halfway down the concrete path and the squashed bodies of fat ants strewn around my threadbare doormat.
“You stupid darkie,” he roared at me, “you bloody ignorant savage!”
“What the hell are you doing feeding ants, you stupid woman?”
“Keeps them out of the house,” I started explaining, but he cut me off.
“I’ll tell the ruddy landlord about this. He’ll have your guts for garters – you’ll be evicted by the end of the week, you mark my words.”
“Goodnight, Charles,” I said, smiling tightly and closing the door in his face.
He ranted for a while after that, then fell silent, heading back to his flat.
In the morning, all the bodies of the ants were gone, and a completely repaired sugar bowl sat neatly on my doormat.
I didn’t hear anything from the landlord, nor from Charles. I didn’t dare feed the ants again, for fear of causing more trouble.
Almost three weeks after the incident, a lone fat ant wended its way across the kitchen bench and sat beside my cup of tea.
With its one good antennae, it touched the surface of my cup.
Tap, tap, tap.
Then it ambled away, unconcernedly, and disappeared down the crack it had crawled from.
That night I left a bowl of sugar outside, and in the morning there was a surprise for me.
Sitting in the empty bowl was a beautiful creamy-white pendant.
I’d tried my hand at bone carving, but despite my artistic talents, I’d never been very good at it. Whoever had made this piece was a true artist; it was a flawless double spiral covered in tiny, intricately etched whorls and patterns, much like the ones worn by my ancestors.
And every morning after that one, a new bone carving appeared, just as beautiful and cunningly crafted as the last.
They sell well at the market, the pendants.
Well enough to keep my little friends in sugar for a lifetime.
The police never found out what happened to Charles. They say that forensics could find nothing – no sign of forced entry, no signs of a struggle. It was as if the old man had simply disappeared.
The new neighbour turned up on Saturday, a sour-faced old woman. On the very first night she bashed on the wall and yelled obscenities when I turned on my T.V.
I can’t wait to take her to market.