Some relationships are destined to last. Others end in tears, mass destruction or an intractable skin rash. My love affair in the winter of 2002 was doomed from the outset.
We arrived in New Zealand earlier that year. The object of my fascination: ants, the social insects that in the end proved too sociable.
As a child, I’d spend hours reading about our six legged friends, social insects in particular. I liked ants more than bees. They didn’t have a sting. In theory, I loved leaf-cutter ants with their fungal farms. Foraging ants in nature programmes, navigating vast distances using scent trails, were equally fascinating. I adored aphidherding ants fictionalised in stories, feeding on honeydew secreted by their charges.
The bees got a look in too. How intriguing were those skinny forebears from the Pleistocene era fossilised in amber? And the navigating waggle dance of their living counterparts? How could you not love them? Very easily, it seems, once you encountered them in real life.
I’d seen ants in the flesh of course, back in the U.K., the country of my birth. But they were small and insignificant, and rarely ventured indoors. Some people said they made their skin itch, but I’d never had such a problem.
A bee stung me on the neck on a trip to the beach in nineteen sixty-three. It might have been a wasp, but I wasn’t equipped to tell the difference. The Beatles screamed She Loves You on my cousin’s transistor radio, and I screamed blue murder next to my sandcastle. The incident confirmed my belief that ants were superior to bees.
I came to New Zealand ready to love the ants of this nation.
Within six months of moving to Cashmere, my childhood admiration evolved to indifference and then loathing.
It is said the combined weight of every ant in the world is greater than the weight of all the human beings on the surface of the planet. I can believe that, because I likely disposed of twice my bodyweight of the things, as my relationship with the two millimetre wrigglers soured. Those who have experienced Doleromyrma darwiniana will know exactly how sour.
But my first encounter happened before the hate set in.
I fell in love at our house-warming party that winter. Guests arrived sporting sixties and seventies fancy dress. Bottles and plates wound up the fifty-four steps that led to our eyrie perched high in the Port Hills.
On the deck, Dolly Parton’s tequila-laced breath misted the crisp air. He scratched his beard and bagged a durrie off Mick Jagger. One of the Monkees inexplicably climbed onto the vertiginous roof and sat there cross-legged until his wife (Twiggy with a weight problem) coaxed him down for fear he would die of hypothermia. Jackie Onassis danced with Bruce Lee on the mezzanine floor, where Farrah Fawcett passed a dubious looking roll-up to Queen Elizabeth the first. (Her husband had written the invitation details down incorrectly.) The house-warming turned into one of those parties that was talked about for years.
Our home attracted people. It relaxed them and made them sociable. After half a lifetime of urban sweat and decline in English cities, we’d found Nirvana nestled in the hills of Christchurch. The city’s lights twinkled to the north, and the urban hum was comforting, despite the occasional squeal from a boy racer. We loved that house.
Shortly after three in the morning, the last guests meandered down the fifty-four steps and went home. There was a loud bang as one of Dolly Parton’s boobs exploded.
My partner and I cleared plates. Jackie O stayed to help. I asked her to scrub the barbie. It was mean of me, I know, but I’d been baking chocolate cake since the crack of dawn. I was tired.
It was when I was wiping a clot of ganache from the tiles under the dining table that I saw them: a single file of black dots weaving in and out of the brown goo.
“You’ve got ants,” Jackie O said, tight-lipped as she wiped sausage fat from the front of her vintage lace dress. “Odd for this time of year.”
“They’re amazing,” I said, mesmerised as they twitched and squirmed to and from the ranch-slider.
“You won’t think that in a few months time,” Jackie O grumbled, as I removed my mirror shades to get a better look.
My partner eventually coaxed me out from under the table. “You’ve been there for half an hour. What are you doing?” Half an hour? How was that possible? Farrah’s smoke must have permeated down from the upper floor.
Jackie O was right. As the weather warmed up, the blighters were everywhere. I sealed anything I thought they might like in plastic containers. We’d found ants in breakfast cereal, bags of nuts and in the saltcellar. Yes, the saltcellar.
Ant-human tensions escalated when the creatures violated a cake I’d left to cool. Thousands of black dots crawled in and out of the three-dimensional maze that was my nine-year-old’s birthday cake. Unperturbed by his loss, my son was spellbound as they crawled along the table leg, in and out of an invisible hole in the floor.
The boy made them a home. He drew an ant dormitory on a sheet of card, added ant toilets and a kitchen with blobs of banana that turned black within an hour. After he went to bed, I added an ant mortuary as I wiped the vermin with my disinfectant-soaked cloth. The stench of formic acid filled the air. I wondered how something so small could create such a stink. As soon as I cleared them, more appeared. It was like Peter Jackson had come to my house with an army of Orcs, only on a smaller scale.
I rang the neighbour for advice. We’d become friends after I offered to pay for her retro lace dress to be dry-cleaned.
“Sounds like Darwin’s ants,” she said. “They’re Australian,” she added, as if this explained their behaviour. “They come over the Port Hills from Lyttelton.”
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Have you got bait?”
The neighbour came round that night. Together we smeared green gel into numerous metal caps off beer bottles. We placed them at strategic points throughout the house. We had to drink a few extra bottles to ensure we had enough tops. I’m very determined when it comes to that sort of thing.
In the morning the gel was all but obliterated by clusters of wriggling ants on their way to the afterlife. The boy was sulking. I asked him not to shout because my head was sore, and offered to buy him Pokémon cards as compensation for the loss of his ant-home.
“I don’t want Pokémon cards,” he said. “I want my pets back.”
That evening, I accidentally tasted my boy’s pets. An acrid acidic tang filled my mouth. Who would have thought ants liked corn chips? I checked the bait stations. Most of the gel had gone. What was left was black with partying ants.
The gel wasn’t doing the trick. I bought some of the extra strong stuff that professionals use. It came with fancy tubing and a mortgage. After spraying around the house, I pulled my facemask off with grim satisfaction to discover my tongue had gone numb. The next day, I saw a black line snaking its way between the tiles to the rubbish tin.
Over the years I’ve tried numerous strategies. None of them have worked. We’ve coexisted in an uneasy truce since I bought hundreds of screw top jars, and entombed every morsel of food.
In the end, both parties lost the war. Instead of a messy divorce between Homo sapiens and Formicidae, there was a general retreat.
The house in Cashmere was red stickered after the quakes, destined to become rubble.
We’ve moved away from the Port Hills. Away from my anthill.
I don’t go back there anymore.
But it will always be remembered as home. Home to me and millions of other souls.
It’s just that most of those millions were uninvited.