By Inez Tan
Boon lay in bed, counting the length of his inhales and exhales. The goal was to slow his breathing enough to fall back asleep, though that rarely happened. Phyllis lay next to him with her yellow satin eyeshade on and orange foam earplugs stuffed into her ears. She made no noise at all. Early in their marriage, he'd woken up fearing she'd died in her sleep. Now he was afraid of that he'd wake up and find her gone. He climbed carefully out of bed, washed up, and went outside. The darkness and dawn were equally weak, tingeing the weedy garden the color of a bruise. The air was cold but already muggy. His hands felt clammy. None of his neighbours' lights was on. The Straits Times lay on the driveway in a plastic bag. He carried it in, made a mug of instant coffee, toasted a slice of white bread and spread it with a thin layer of kaya. He sat down to eat at the kitchen table and read everything except the Classified section. Inflation was at a nine-month high. Hospitals were seeking new measures to cope with the rising number of elderly patients. The Singapore Lions had lost 6-0 to the Philippines. What news. He allowed himself a look at the clock hanging over the doorframe. The hour hand was barely beyond six, the minute hand between one and two.
At 7.15am, Phyllis swept in, wearing a dress with a pattern of bright green leaves and a necklace of red plastic beads. "Good morning, Boon," she said.
"Good morning," he said. Now he had the Classified section in front of him, spread open to jobs in shipping and management.
Phyllis moved around him, opening and closing cupboards. Boon kept his eyes on the page he still wasn't reading. He heard her prying open the tin of Anlene milk powder, clinking the teaspoon three times against the side of her mug before she placed it in the sink. She taught music to primary school children; everything she did had a little music and rhythm to it. As she edged around him to get the bread out of the fridge, she froze.
"Boon, the floor is covered in ants again!"
He looked down at his feet. A clump of black ants twitched busily on top of a breadcrumb that had fallen to the floor. Behind them, a line of ants crept carefully along the base of the cabinets and out the back door.
"Sorry," he said. "I'll get rid of them." He plucked a tissue out of the box on the counter, got down on his hands and knees, and picked up the crumb with as many ants as he could get. The others fell into a panic, each breaking out of line to run in crazy little zigzags. He watched them, mesmerized.
"Yeee," she said. "I can't stand it. I feel like they're crawling down my back and on my arms."
"You don't need to look at them." He pinched the rest up one at a time into the tissue. "Anyway, they're just ants."
"Yeee," she said again, with a shudder. She was excitable; when she talked to her sisters, or her students, she positively foamed over. Mrs. Phua, Mrs. Phua: yes, children, what is it. All of them loved her. On the other hand, he knew she was making an extra effort to be effusive around him, as if her high spirits might be contagious. Once, they were. But since he'd lost his job eight months ago, nothing seemed to lift him out of himself.
Boon crouched with his face close to the floor, peering over his spectacles at the ants. He wondered where they'd come from. They'd moved in fast.
Phyllis stood by the sink, finishing her Anlene. She tipped her head back, swallowed, and filled it with water from the tap. "I'll eat my sandwich in the car," she said. "I'm running late." She transferred her assembled bread and kaya to a clear plastic bag and washed her plate and mug.
"I can get that," Boon said, his own unwashed dishes still on the table.
"No need, I'm almost done," she said briskly. She picked up her breakfast and paused in the doorway. "What are you planning to do today?"
He looked up, still kneeling by the back door. "Stay home, I think," he said lightly.
He felt her wariness, though she hid it well. "Not meeting anyone for lunch?"
"Not today." For the past few months, he'd tried to meet up with someone a few times a week, at Phyllis' suggestion and for her sake. Some were old contacts, others were just old friends. It hadn't been fun to begin with, but by now, everyone had heard that he was jobless, and it was considerably worse. They fought him for the bill. If he won, they became resentful; if he let them win, they looked at him with pity. No one had offered him a lead so far. Even his two closest friends had started making excuses not to see him. He had become unclean.
"Do you have any errands to run?" he asked her.
She paused to think. For months he'd carried out every repair they could think of, everything from reapplying the white caulking around their shower box to changing the batteries in their electric doorbell. After a moment she said, "One of my colleagues says there's a special type of ant food you can buy that poisons them slowly. Instead of dying right away, they carry it back to their nest, so it kills more of them that way. Maybe you could try looking for that."
One line of ants probably didn't merit the use of special ant food. Still, Boon knew that his wife hated the thought of him staying all day inside by himself. "I'll go to the shop," he promised.
He wondered if she'd say anything else. For the first few weeks, she'd made a lot of passive aggressive remarks about him looking for work. He'd lashed out, describing how many jobs he'd applied for, how none of them got back to him once they saw his age. They'd got into such bad fights that now they mostly just tried to give each other space. She left for work earlier for work and came home later. He had never spent so much time alone.
But all she said was, "Close the gate behind me?" He nodded. Before, he'd dropped Phyllis off at school on his way to work. Now, she drove the car, and he'd been given this pitiful task she could have easily done herself. She left, and he heard her starting up the car. It wasn't even seven thirty.
He sat staring at the Classified section even after she'd gone. It was always a long time before he could bear to look at it, and a longer time before he could bear to look away. When the company he'd given his life to for the past 19 years was bought over by a bigger shipping firm, his position had been squeezed out. His boss, who had received a promotion, said he was sorry, but he'd give him a good reference. Still, he felt a general haze of uselessness hanging over his person. He was 42 years old.
In the months prior to their wedding, he remembered finding out about a rumor among Phyllis' relatives that he was very rich. Why else would she marry a man almost 10 years her senior? The two of them had met through a group of friends who were both older and younger than they were; the age difference hadn't seemed to matter. But it did now that he was out of a job, and she still had a career that she wouldn't be squeezed out of anytime soon.
When it was fully bright outside, well into the heat of the day, and the school buses had picked up the children, and the neighbors had driven to work, and the old retired Sikh man at the end of the road had gone for his morning exercise, and the maids had come back from walking the dogs, and no one was there to see him, Boon finally went outside to close the gate. It was really two gates that met in the middle, each with a bolt you lowered to the floor to prevent it from swinging. He hooked the big bronze Yale padlock over them and snapped it shut. Then he remembered that Phyllis had asked him to buy the ant poison.
He thought of the effort it would take to go back inside the house, change his clothes, get his wallet and his keys, unlock the gate, and lock it behind his again. Perhaps he could buy the ant poison tomorrow. But then what would he do for the rest of today?
He felt like laughing. He felt like screaming. Instead he went back into the house to get his wallet.
He walked to a provision shop below a block of flats, not far from the Serangoon MRT. Trains rumbled to the station on rails atop concrete supports. He could've taken a bus, but the bus would have cost him money, and he had all this time. Behind the counter was a PRC, talking on his mobile phone. Boon asked him where the insect poison was and he didn't know. The young man grudgingly got up from his stool and together they walked up and down the aisles until they found it. Boon carefully studied the shelves of tall green and orange cans of insecticide spray, the plastic packages of pellets, cardboard boxes of mosquito coils, fat tubes of gel. They depicted ants, cockroaches and mosquitoes in various stages of death and agony, with big black exclamation points and jagged explosions in the background. One packet did in fact show cartoon ants carrying the little brown pellets back to an anthill, a mound full of more ants, including one that wore a crown the queen. Boon read all the labels carefully. Then he bought one of everything. The young man, still talking on his mobile phone, rang up the sale almost three hours of Phyllis's current salary. Everything had gotten so expensive nowadays.
He walked back home, passing multiple construction sites, where workers were digging, drilling, and churning up dust. The red plastic bag bumped against his leg, the thick plastic sticking to his skin with sweat. It was past lunchtime by the time he got back, so he heated up half a packet of kway teow noodles leftover from the previous night's dinner. While the bowl hummed in the microwave, he belatedly thought to wash his hands. He sat at the kitchen table and ate out of habit rather than hunger.
As he chewed, he looked down at the floor. A few ants lingered around the area, but without any food, their wandering seemed aimless. It seemed a pity to drive them out when they were doing no harm. Reluctant to finish with his one task of the day, he sat in the living room and watched a few hours of TV. There were back-to-back episodes of a dubbed Taiwanese drama on Channel 8. The characters went to a fashion show, a hospital, a café, a park, and absolutely nothing happened. It was July, coming up on National Day, so in between episodes, the channel played National Day songs in Chinese and English. Where I belong, where I keep my heart and soul, where dreams come true for us. Where we walk together hand in hand, towards a future so bright. It was bright. The room was striped with the glaring, lateral orange rays of the late afternoon. A different show featured two hosts travelling around Singapore in search of the best hawker food, but none of it looked very appetizing. This is home, surely, as my senses tell me. This is where I won't be alone for this is where I know it's home. An advertisement for Listerine mouthwash.
Boon went back to the red plastic bag which he'd left sitting on the counter and took out his purchases one by one. He wouldn't use the sprays now it took hours for the odors to dissipate. He was intrigued by the gel poison would the ants really be tempted to eat it? but settled for the brown pellets that they'd supposedly carry back to their nest. He sprinkled the pellets in a pile by the back door, taking care not to touch them with his bare hands. They had no discernable smell.
After five, he went outside and unlocked the gate in preparation for Phyllis's return. He went back into the house by the front door, but came back out again by the back door, struck by an idea. Bending low, he followed the sparse trail of ants all the way to the garden in the front of the house. He and Phyllis had been thrilled at the thought of having their first garden when they came to view the house, which had appeared on the market just months before their wedding. The garden was nothing now but a rectangular patch of coarse cowgrass and weeds, the height of two men long and one man wide. Phyllis had placed a few pots of orange bougainvillea along the tiled edge, which often flowered, but that had more to do with the hardiness of the plants than his and Phyllis' intermittent care. The back area had no plants at all, just a concrete washing area and plastic poles on racks for hanging their clothes. Now Boon tracked the trail of ants to an anthill in the corner of the garden where the soil was exposed. The anthill was a mound of oddly grainy dirt surrounding a very dark deep hole. Ants marched steadily in and out, waving their mandibles in each other's faces. Some were the regular black ones that went to the kitchen, just two or three millimetres long, while others were significantly larger, about half a centimeter long, their bodies thicker and more bulbous, with much larger heads. Boon watched until his back ached and his neck developed a cramp. He hadn't looked so closely at an anthill since he was a boy. As he had then, when he'd had enough, he used the heel of his slipper to push the sides of the hill deep into the hole, filling it. The ants started swarming in confusion, the ones inside unable to get out. He could do this: rile up creatures that couldn't scream and had no hope of fighting back. As if on cue, a fat raindrop hit the back of his neck, and before he could blink, rain was splattering on the concrete in dark irregular circles. He turned and went back inside his own home, where the people on television were still chattering away.
Phyllis came home with packets of rice with pork, tofu, and green vegetables. "The stingy uncle," she commented, as Boon unsnapped the red rubber bands and transferred the food from Styrofoam boxes to plates. "He always gives so little gravy. I should stop buying from him." She said this as if it were a gruesome punishment.
They ate. Phyllis kept glancing over at the pile of ant food in the corner. A few ants had gathered around the pellets, and again the line went out the door. More would come after Boon and Phyllis left.
"How do you think they find it?" he asked her. "How do they know?"
"By smell, I suppose," she said, looking away. "They communicate through pheromones. They can't think the way we do, as individuals."
Boon cleared the table and carried out the trash. When he came back, he saw that Phyllis was eyeing the crumpled red plastic bag, which he'd left on the kitchen counter. He hadn't realised how much he'd bought until he saw Phyllis's reaction to it. "It's just to get rid of the ants," he said quickly. He remembered that one of her brothers had swallowed rat poison as a teenager. He was still alive, he'd just never fully recovered. But Phyllis didn't say anything.
Later Boon sat up suddenly in bed, only to find it was nowhere near morning. It was getting to be a pattern with him. Perhaps a hot drink would help him go back to sleep in any case, it would give him something to do for a while.
He turned on the kitchen lights. To his surprise, there were ants all over the floor, roving wildly. He'd never seen ants behave this way. The pile of pellets was gone. Perhaps this was some kind of celebration. Like an ant discotheque, he imagined himself describing it to Phyllis over breakfast. Discotheque. He knelt and pressed his palm down on one ant, killing it, then raised his hand and sniffed it. There was a faintly metallic smell, though he decided it was more like pesticide than anything else he could name. He remembered it from when he was a boy. He started stamping on the floor with his bare feet, going row by row on the tiles to cover every single section. When he stopped, flat black ants dotted the tiles, and the soles of his feet were covered in them. He picked up the bodies with tissues. He washed his feet outside with water from the plastic hose. Then he went back to his bedroom and lay down next to Phyllis. Tired from his labours, he slept.
The ground smelled like the previous day's rain. It made him think of Phyllis saying how they did everything by smell. It gave him an idea.
After Phyllis had come in wearing a dress with a pattern of orange flowers, after she'd said, "Morning, Boon," as he pretended to read the job ads, after she made her mug of Anlene, bagged her sandwich, and drove away, Boon walked to the MRT station and took the train to Bras Basah. He needed to go to Popular Bookstore. There were probably branches located nearer, but he was familiar with Bras Basah Complex because Phyllis sometimes went there to shop for music books. Other shops sold assessment papers and previous years' exams from various schools. People who had children knew it well. On a Tuesday morning, though it was quiet, with only a few mothers browsing.
The air conditioning in Popular made him shiver. He took his time browsing, examining many types of stationery, and trying out shiny gel pens that he had no intention of purchasing. Finally he paid for a child's wide plastic ruler, bright orange with a pattern of teddy bears and set with a plastic magnifying lens, plus a very narrow paintbrush with soft white bristles, as fine as the point of a pencil.
Returning home, he searched in the kitchen until he found two small, clear plastic containers that had once held tau huay. He carried them out to the anthill, which had reformed again, its sides higher and more askew than before. Crouching down by the anthill, he pressed one end of the plastic ruler to the ground and waited for an ant to climb on top. He then lifted the ant and dislodged it into the first container, covering it with the lid. He caught 30 ants this way, taking care to replace the lid each time. Then he opened the second container. He repeated the process, but this time he made sure to drop each ant right into the center of container, where he cut it into half with the end of the ruler. He did this again and again for another total of 30 ants, until he had a little pile of the crushed dead. That pesticide smell was in the air again.
He went inside, sat at the kitchen table, and set both containers down. Using the back end of the paintbrush, he pounded the dead ants into a rough paste, the way he'd seen his Peranakan great-aunts crush chillies, garlic, lemongrass and ginger with a mortar and pestle to make beef rendang when he was a boy. He gently swished the tip of the paintbrush over the mucilage. It wasn't as wet as paint, but the fine bristles must be picking some of it up. When he was ready, Boon pried the lid off the container of live ants. Working quickly, he painted each ant with the scent of the dead ants, refreshing the brush after each one. Any time an ant tried to crawl out over the edge, he used the ruler and paintbrush to knock them back in. This wasn't easy, because the ants were in a frenzy, and several times he had to snap the lid back on just to prevent them from escaping. Given their frantic, erratic movements, Boon couldn't be certain that he'd dabbed every one of them, but he did his best. At the end, he scraped the remaining paste into the container of live ants and shook it vigorously.
When he was done, he hid the container under the kitchen sink, behind a cardboard box of cleaning products.
After another Taiwanese drama where a young man lay in a coma, after more National Day songs, after Phyllis returned home at 5.30 with dinner rice with fish, eggs, and green vegetables after she said, "That stingy uncle," after she did not ask if he'd met anyone for lunch that day, when Phyllis was in the toilet getting ready for bed, Boon knelt on the kitchen tiles and retrieved the plastic container of ants. Behold. They looked like any normal ants, continuously active, benignly curious. Boon quietly searched for bait. In the fridge there was an old box of pineapple tarts left over from Chinese New Year. He set an entire cold pineapple tart in a corner near the back door. Then he lifted the lid off the container of live ants, set it down nearby, and turned off the lights.
Phyllis was reading in bed. She looked up at him when he paused in the doorway. He thought she looked strangely vulnerable, alone in their big bed wearing thin flowered pajamas.
"I'm feeling quite awake," he said. "I think I'll watch some TV."
"Now? So late?"
Her voice, high and thin, seemed to startle them both. She lowered her eyes for a moment, embarrassed. They let a silence go by. Then in a gentler tone, Phyllis said, "Maybe I'll join you. I haven't watched any TV for so long." With one hand, she flipped the blanket aside. Her pajama bottoms didn't match her top. His stomach twisted.
"No need," he said. "You're tired, you should sleep."
After a moment Phyllis nodded, strapped on her eyeshade, twisted her earplugs into her ears, and burrowed under the sheets. He turned off the light and closed the door.
"Boon," she called out then, and he jumped. He opened the door a crack.
She was sitting up in bed with her eye mask pushed up, squinting in the light. Timidly, she said, "It won't always be like this."
"I know," he said.
"Something will come through. You just have to keep on trying."
"I know," he said again, and this time he sensed her displeasure. He gained no satisfaction from it. He backed out of the room and shut the door.
It would take a little more time. He switched on the television and kept the volume on low. He watched two episodes of CSI. Then he went into the kitchen.
A hairy swarming mass of ants writhed on the kitchen floor. The pineapple tart was blackly enfolded. The tart was far too large and heavy for them, so the ants on the surface were busy breaking it into crumbs. Boon watched them work with no sense of time passing, and soon he saw what he was looking for. In the thick parade of crumbs, some of the ants held a live ant aloft. It was struggling frantically, feelers and legs scrabbling away at the air, yet the others didn't seem to notice. They had no way of accounting for a live ant that all the rest treated as though it were dead. How would you know that you weren't?
He started. Phyllis stood just beyond the doorway, her shirt sliding off one shoulder to reveal a thick white bra strap. He saw her look with horror at the seething black mass of ants, the now-empty plastic container, and her husband, squatting there.
"I did this," he said. "Look."
She put a hand over her mouth.
"Look," he said again. He stretched out his hands to her, a plea. Please. But she shrank back. Ants were crawling up both his arms, so lightly that he almost couldn't feel them.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 4 Oct 2015