C H R I S P A L I N G
The ant killer
On Saturday evening they’d been invited to dinner at the Myers’ who’d recently moved in across the road. The invitation came on a postcard which Jenny Myers must have picked up free at the local independent cinema. There was a promo on the front for a new film by Lars Von Trier and, in the small space for a message on the back, Jenny had written that she hoped the Moores could join them for a “fun supper” on Saturday. ‘Don’t bring anything, just yourselves.’ She signed off with “Jenny” and enclosed her name in a heart. Susan left the postcard next to Graham’s set of keys on the kitchen table.
“Do we have to go?” Graham said.
“We’re not doing anything on Saturday,” Susan told him. “It might be fun.”
“You can’t say that.”
“I can. I’ve seen his golf clubs in the garage. I can’t have a ‘fun dinner’ with a man who plays golf.”
“Well I think we should go,” Susan said. “They don’t know anybody round here and I think it’s the neighbourly thing to do.”
“Why did they pick on us? Why couldn’t they have invited Mike, or Ron, or that freak who lives with his tiny kid at number 5?”
“Stefan. You’ve known him long enough. You know very well what his name is.”
“Yes, Swedish Stefan. Why couldn’t they have picked on Swedish Stefan?”
“They picked on us because I saw Jenny yesterday and she promised she’d invite us round.”
“So you’ve already accepted?”
“Yes. I suppose I have.”
“So why did you ask if I wanted to go?”
“I don’t remember asking. I just left the invitation for you to read.”
Graham made a noise through his nose. She’d never heard anybody else make a noise like that: it was a bitter, dismissive snort.
Later they ate with their plates on their knees watching the news on Channel 4. Graham forked the pasta into his mouth. She had to hold herself back from saying something that would provoke an argument. Recently she had spent so much time holding herself back that her neck had become stiff and she’d been aware of a tension creeping around the bottom of her spine, locking her vertebrae tight.
“So why did she come here?” Graham said, when Jon Snow promised more after the break.
“Who?” Susan said, although she knew he was talking about Jenny.
“She wanted to borrow some ant killer.”
“Because they’ve got ants in the kitchen.”
“She hates ants too?”
“I don’t know.”
“But why did she come here? I mean they live across the road at least six or seven houses away. Why didn’t she try Stefan?”
“She did try Stefan. But Stefan didn’t have any.”
“I bet Ron has.”
“Ron wasn’t in.”
“Mm. So you gave her ours?”
“Yes. I loaned her ours.”
“What if we need it?”
Susan stood up and carried her plate of half-eaten food to the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” she heard Graham say, but she didn’t answer him.
After the news Graham went upstairs to his computer. Susan watched the television but she wasn’t really watching. She went upstairs after washing up Graham’s plate, which he’d left by the settee. He was in the back bedroom, slightly hunched over the computer screen. There were three empty lager cans on the floor, one on its side. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to different lengths. She could see that his hair needed cutting and also washing. There were pouches hanging over the waistband of his trousers she hadn’t noticed before.
She went to the bedroom and took off all of her clothes then she returned to the hallway and stood naked just outside the door to the back bedroom.
“I’m going to bed,” she said.
“I’m going to bed.”
“Won’t be long.”
She waited a moment longer at the door. He didn’t turn. She went to bed but couldn’t sleep. He came in an hour later, making no effort to do so quietly. Within seconds he was asleep. The last time she looked at the glowing numerals of the alarm clock, it was 3.54. She must have fallen asleep after that because the alarm woke her at 7.30.
“What?” Graham said over breakfast. He caught her watching him when he looked up from his newspaper.
“You seem angry today.”
“I didn’t sleep very well.”
“It took me hours to get to sleep too. It’s too hot.” He returned his attention to the newspaper, then he said. “That’s why they’ve got ants. Judy and whatsisname.”
“Jenny and Richard.”
“Yeah. We might need it back. The ant killer.”
“She’ll give it back to us.”
“Mm. I doubt it.”
Graham went to work. Shortly after, Susan left the house too. She worked locally, part time in a doctor’s surgery. A tragic waste of her education, as her mother constantly reminded her. Graham worked seventeen miles away in the planning office of the council. They had lived in their current house for eight years. Three years ago they had had the kitchen extended. Graham had supervised the work. The project consumed him. When it was over Susan watched him return to the Graham he had become a year or so after they had married. They had no children. Once she had wanted them. Now she wasn’t so sure. At her next birthday Susan would be thirty-four years old. Graham said he would have liked children too. There was a time when he would say and do things to make her happy.
That evening, Graham was late back from work. When he came in, he pressed a beery kiss to Susan’s cheek. “Sorry,” he said. “I should have called.”
“Yes,” she said.
“We were just going for a quick one but then Charlie insisted we have another. And then I was in the chair so . . . anyway. Do you want a drink?” He went to the fridge and tugged at the door. The seal suddenly released its hold. He fell back a step. The bottles rattled. Graham took out the half drunk bottle of Australian Chardonnay and went to the cupboard where the glasses were kept.
“You’ll lose your licence,” Susan said.
“Naah,” Graham said. “Not at this time of night. They don’t pull people over when it’s still light. Want a drink?”
Graham poured two glasses, handing the less full one to Susan.
“Cheers,” he said, and clinked glasses too hard.
“Cheers,” she said.
“Soooo . . . .” He slumped into a chair at the kitchen table. “Still on for tomorrow night?”
“Yes. They haven’t cancelled.”
“Well I’m looking forward to it.” He smiled in the way he did when he was drunk: a joyless, bemused smile.
“You’ve changed your mind have you?”
“It’s always good to meet new people.”
“You really are pissed, aren’t you?”
“Naah.” He took a long sip of wine. “Oh yeah. I nearly ran Stefan over.”
“He was playing football in the street with his tiny kid. Why doesn’t he go to the park?”
“I don’t know. Ask him.”
“What’s wrong with him anyway?”
“I don’t know. A growth defect I think.”
“Mm. Is that why she left him? What was her name? Because of that?”
“I don’t know why a mother would ever leave a child.”
“Maybe she left him and forgot to take the child with her.”
“Do we have some decent wine to take tomorrow?”
“Yeah. But Judy said not to bring anything. Just ourselves.”
“People always say that. They don’t mean it.”
“So why say it?” Graham’s head bobbed from side to side like a nodding dog in the back of a car. “And another thing.”
“That postcard. I mean what was all that about?”
“It was a free postcard. That’s all. She probably just had it in her drawer.”
“She used it because she wanted to let us know she’d been to the local flea pit to watch some crap foreign film.”
“Well so what if she did?”
“Why do you always do this?”
“Spoil things before we’ve even done them.”
“I can’t help it if our new neighbours are pretentious.”
Susan woke early the following morning and got up. Graham continued to sleep. The bed was warm and humid as he always made it when he had had too much to drink. She had kicked him three times in the night to roll him over to stop the snores. The third time she did it, he called something out in his sleep and she felt guilty. She cooked breakfast for Graham and took it up to the bedroom. He was still asleep, lying on his front, his right arm hanging from the bed.
“I’ve made you breakfast,” she said gently to wake him. He didn’t wake, but rolled over to face the wall. “Graham, it’ll get cold.”
He didn’t reply so she left the tray on the floor and went back downstairs. An hour later she heard a crash and curse.
“Why did you leave the tray by the bed?” she heard him call. “I could have severed an artery.”
“I wish you had,” she said.
When Graham finally came downstairs he told Susan that he had a headache.
“I wonder why,” she said.
“Have we got any Paracetamol?”
“You know where they are.”
He found them in the cupboard beside the oven and grimaced and retched as he tried to swallow them.
“Better?” she said.
“No. Worse. We might have to cancel tonight. I’m ill.”
“We will not cancel tonight. We said we’d go, so we will go. OK?”
Graham didn’t reply but just stood there beside the sink, pale and sorry for himself.
“OK?” she said again.
In the afternoon he watched the rugby on the television. She knew he was feeling better because she heard him shout when somebody scored a try. By the evening he’d rallied further and by the time he’d had a shower and a large scotch he seemed almost happy. She showered after him, collecting his discarded towel from the bathroom and putting it in the laundry basket along with his socks and the shirt he’d thrown on the bedroom floor.
He was watching a game show on TV when she came down.
“Cor,” he said.
“Do you like it?” She turned to show off the back of the dress: linen, black, very well cut and more expensive than she would ever admit. He looked her up and down.
“It’s a bit short,”
“It’s supposed to be. Am I too old for it?”
“No,” he said. “Come here.” She leaned down towards him, offering her lips. Instead, he removed a hair from the shoulder of her dress.
“Want a drink?” he asked her.
“Why not,” she said.
He stood clumsily.
“Graham,” she said.
“It’s only seven o’clock. Slow down.”
“OK mum,” he said. And now he did kiss her – on the cheek.
“All right, Stefan?” Graham called when they passed Stefan’s house. Their neighbour was in the dark recesses of the garage pumping up the rear tyre of his bike.
“Oh, hello.” Stefan peered at them nervously, as he had a habit of doing.
“We’re going to meet the new neighbours,” Graham announced, too loudly. “We’ll report back.”
“All right.” Stefan returned to his kneeling position beside the bicycle. It was only then that Susan noticed that his tiny son was sitting in the passenger seat of the car, which was in the drive. The boy was reading a book.
“And how are you two?” Susan called.
“We’re fine . . . Fine.”
Graham led off towards the Myers’ house. Susan smiled towards Stefan. He went on pumping up his tyre.
“Well . . . have a nice ride,” Susan said.
“It’s tomorrow,” Stefan said. “We are riding for the foundation.”
“Well have a nice ride tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Stefan said. “It is for charity, not for pleasure.”
“Can’t it be for both?”
“No. I don’t think that is possible.”
Susan caught up with Graham at the end of the Myers’ front path. The sun had dropped away behind the house and now back-lit the lounge and the dining room where Jenny Myers was standing looking at the dining table. They saw her reach down and pick up a glass and polish it with a napkin. Then she looked towards them and her face was no longer inert.
Richard met them at the door. A large, jovial man wearing a floral shirt and a cravat. “Welcome! Welcome! Do come in. Do come in,” he said. He was holding a bottle of wine which was beaded with moisture. Graham held out his offering and Richard took it before launching a kiss at Susan’s cheek. Jenny was standing beside the settee and Graham kissed her and they sat down. Richard held up the two unopened bottles in the air and asked for votes as to which one they should open first. There was a tie, so Richard announced he would open both and went out into the kitchen and Jenny and Susan fired pleasantries across the width of the room at each other. Graham sat in silence, politely, his hands on his lap. Jenny brought him in with a question about his job and, for a few moments, he managed to be both entertaining and self-deprecatory. When Richard arrived with a tin tray of wine glasses the atmosphere became bright and brittle. Graham sat beside Richard on the sofa and they talked and it reminded Susan of the way Graham spoke to his father although Richard could barely have been more than five years older than her husband.
Jenny apologised her way out of the conversation and into the kitchen and Richard smoothly turned his attention to Susan. He revealed, in answer to her prompting, that he was an academic. He had been offered a lectureship which is why they had moved into the area. They had found the house prices surprisingly high and had been disappointed to have had to move to a smaller house but were in the process of choosing a conservatory. Graham insisted the houses on the road were not actually that small. Not in comparison to many in the locality. It was left to Susan to mend the atmosphere by asking Richard about their previous house and life. It transpired he had three children. His relationship with Jenny had caused the break-up of the marriage. Losing contact with his children was the price he had to pay for his new life but it was a price he said he was happy to have had to pay. He went to the mantelpiece and fetched a photograph of three blonde-haired children in matching woollen sweaters. Their eyes shone with happiness. Susan took it. She didn’t offer the photograph to Graham. When Richard took it back, he looked at it again before putting it carefully back at the centre of the mantelpiece. Jenny came in as he was doing so. They exchanged a look. Jenny asked why their guests’ glasses were empty.
Susan was over-effusive about the meal although the slow cooked lamb was overcooked and dry and the vegetables boiled beyond flavour. Graham made no comment. Richard implored everyone to eat up, as there was plenty more. When the cheese was brought out Susan saw Graham’s eyes flex and lose focus and when they had finished he demanded to help clear the table. Jenny protested but he insisted, standing with some effort and noisily stacking the cheese plates. They watched him sway towards the kitchen door. Richard redirected his look of concern towards Susan, and twisted it into a sympathetic smile. Susan tried to smile back.
Not long after Graham left the room, they heard the slaps of his leather soles on the quarry tiled floor. Jenny pushed back her chair and tossed her napkin onto the table. The stamping continued for a moment after she had left the room. Then it stopped.
Richard leaned towards Susan and said, “I’d love to show you round the campus.”
“One evening, perhaps? We could have a drink in the union bar.”
“Just you and I?”
A sharp admonishment came from the kitchen, after which Graham came back into the room, his head a little bowed.
“Ants,” he said. “Hundreds of them coming under the . . .under the door.” He slumped into the seat. “Need a proper door seal.”
Jenny returned to the table. “I will never get that floor clean,” she said. “I’ll try tonight. I know I won’t sleep anyway.”
“That’s not necessary,” Richard said. “Not necessary.”
“. . . I don’t think so,” Susan said to Richard.
There was a brief pause. “What?” Jenny said to Richard. He didn’t answer. “What?” she said to Susan.
“Richard was asking . . .” Susan paused, reading Richard’s face, “What was it you were asking?”
“I . . . I was . . .” Richard waved a hand vaguely in the air.
Susan said, “Richard was asking if the couple who lived here before were happy.”
“. . . Yes,” Richard said, “That’s what I was asking.”
“Who’s not happy?” Graham said. He was suddenly on his feet again. “Another one!” He made for the tiny speck moving across the dining room floor.
“Don’t,” Jenny said. “Just don’t!”
Susan supported Graham down the street. It was 11.45. The light was on in the front bedroom of Stefan’s house. A fox ran from Ron’s back garden and disappeared into the darkness.
“I can’t hate foxes,” Susan said. “I know they’re supposed to be vermin. But they are so beautiful.”
“I hate, hate ants,” Graham said. “Little bastards.”
Graham got up twice in the night to be sick. Susan listened to him without sympathy. Although she had drunk the best part of a bottle of wine she had remained sober. The following morning she was up at eight. Standing in the lounge window she saw the paperboy cycling up the street so she went to the front door to intercept him. The boy was thirteen or fourteen. He blushed when she opened the door and took the heavy wad of news and comment from him. She was wearing a nightdress after all. It wasn’t as though she was naked.
“Thank you, darling,” she said to the boy, and laughed as he dashed back towards his bike.
Across the street she could see Stefan putting on his cycle helmet. He was wearing tight leggings which accentuated his crotch and a hi-viz jacket. His tiny son was already sitting on his tiny bike, waiting patiently to leave for the charity event.
When Susan turned away, she saw the tin beside the front door step: the tin of Ant Killer that had been left there overnight. Susan looked around her feet. She knelt to look beneath the bush. She looked on the other side of the step. But there was no note. Nothing. Not a single line of acknowledgment of the previous evening. Just Graham’s cold tin of ant killer. She would make him breakfast. Something warm and gentle for his stomach and she would suggest they build a conservatory onto the dining room and he should design it. It would be elegant and beautiful and the doors would fit flush in their frames. At least there would be one room in the house that they would be safe from ants.