Soldier Ants
    Charles Lambert
He had forgotten the monster would be there.

He ran round the gate into the yard and found a dark green van, the size of an ambulance, parked by the door to the shed where the hens were kept. The side windows of the van were painted white on the inside of the glass. There were scratches in the paint, like nail tracks, and behind them dark. He hitched his satchel back onto his shoulder and began to drag his feet towards the house. He kept to the wall, scraping it with his sleeve. His face and hands felt hot and damp. As he took off his cap and pushed his hair from his eyes, he could hear the low throb of the two big ventilators from the hen house, the muffled, metallic clucking of the caged birds. He stopped for a moment by the shed where his father kept sacks of sawdust and meal, breathing heavily, folding and stuffing his cap into his pocket. He wanted to turn back to the gate, to walk back across the yard until he had reached the road, and run away. That was when he saw his mother.

She was watching him through the glass panel of the door that led out to the yard. A vertical flaw in the glass was folding her face into two, like a paper mask that had been torn and taped back together with one eye lower than the other, the mouth and nose all twisted. He looked away, towards the ground, and saw as his gaze fell that she was wearing one of her special dresses, dark with buttons up the front, the kind she wore for church and visitors. This one had a small white collar and a white belt where the buttons stopped. It made her look like a teacher or a nurse. Her split and folded face was watching him as he crossed the last part of the yard, past his father's car, and climbed slowly up the steps to the lawn. She pulled the door open towards her, stepping back into the hall. She was in shadow now, her face back to normal, but he could see that she was angry.

'Where on earth have you been, Danny? I thought I'd told you to be good this morning,' she whispered urgently. 'Now get in here right now and stop all this dawdling. Right this minute. Everybody's waiting.'

'I've got to change into my play clothes,' Danny said. He stepped back, his mouth flinching, as his mother stretched out her arm towards him. Her hand paused in the air, then fell. She had never hit him, they both knew that. She touched his hair with her fingers and sighed. Danny stared at the floor.

'Well, hurry up then, for goodness' sake. You know how important this is to your father. I want you downstairs in the living room as quickly as possible.' Her tone was irritated, but pleading, which gave him hope. Perhaps she would forget he was there, or pretend to. But then she started again. 'How many times do I have to tell you? Do you understand?' She took his satchel from his shoulder as he wriggled past her, ran through the kitchen, towards the stairs. The living room door had been closed but he could hear voices. One of them was his father's. Another voice, one he didn't know, belonged to a woman.

He sat on his bedroom floor and took off his shoes, then lay back on the carpet with his hands behind his head. The wallpaper was covered with a pattern of tepees and smoke signals, cowboys and Indians, herds of buffalo and outcrops of rock; his father had brought some spare rolls back from one of the jobs. Danny began to count the number of times the pattern repeated across, then down. Twenty-six. Twenty-seven. He was still there, lying like that, when his mother came in. She walked across the room and put his satchel carefully down beside his desk before turning round.

'What a weight,' she said. Then: 'Are you coming down?' Her voice had changed. She sounded tired. Perhaps she didn't care any more, he thought, with another flutter of hope. She sat on his chair and looked down at him. She seemed big, yet far away. Danny shifted his eyes slowly from the wallpaper, towards her, but she had turned her head in the direction of the window. It was hard to see what she was thinking. It seemed to him that she was alone in the room, that he was a ghost or a spy, that he had been forgotten. Suddenly, to his surprise, she slipped down onto her knees beside him; her hand whipped out and caught him by the ankle. He tried to pull away.

'You're being a very naughty boy,' she said in a funny, wheedling tone while her fingers pressed into his leg, into the bone. Her voice confused him, it had nothing to do with her hand. She seemed to be hurting someone else. He wanted to cry.

'I'm scared,' he said; he could barely hear himself. His mother's face flushed red.

'And I'm ashamed,' she said. After a moment, as though she was talking to herself, she added quietly: 'If only you realised how lucky you were.' He wondered what she meant. Why was she ashamed? Why was he lucky? He didn't feel it. Turning her head away, his mother murmured, 'My poor boy. My poor, poor boy.'

'I'm coming,' he said in a whisper, wanting her to let him go, forget him. He wondered: Did she mean him? His ankle hurt, but he was scared to try and pull it away from her, he thought her grip might tighten if he did. He had never seen his mother like this before, as though he was there and not there at the same time. He turned his head to look away from her, where she was kneeling on the floor, and saw that the sky was getting dark outside the window. It felt like hours had passed since he had seen the van.

Her fingers loosened gradually and fell away. Danny sat up and rubbed the redness where they had been, moaning a little under his breath, testing her for sympathy. But she didn't seem to notice.

'You must come down,' she said when she had stood up, more gently now, more like herself, stroking the creases out of her skirt. He felt a wave of relief, like something hot and wet beneath his skin, despite her words. 'You're being very cruel, you know, and selfish,' she said, but her voice was soft and she brushed his hair of his forehead with her hand as he sat up. Then, oddly he thought, she added, 'I'm so proud of you, Danny.'

He slipped off his tie without undoing the knot, looping it onto the back of his chair, then took off his school shirt and trousers and opened the wardrobe door. There was a mirror inside the door. As he reached in for a tee-shirt he saw his reflection and paused. He pulled the door wide open and stood there, looking at himself. His shoulders were narrow and bony, like the bones of birds. His arms were thin, with sharp red elbows, and white. He crossed them to make a muscle, hiding his hands in his armpits. Some of the other boys had hair there, but he was still smooth everywhere, the way he imagined a girl must be, under his arms, between his legs. His legs were soft and round. When he sat down in the back of the car his thighs looked fat, squashed out against the leather of the seat. He hid his small hands beneath them, pushing his legs together with his forearms to make them look thinner, to make himself look tougher. Now, naked except for his underpants, he looked at himself as though he were somebody else looking. He felt numb. He seemed to have forgotten everything. With a shiver he pulled on his tee-shirt.

Danny came slowly through the living room door and saw a long white table, high, with a tablecloth that came down to the ground. Looking more closely, though still at the door and with his sweating hand clutching the knob, he saw that the monster was lying on the table and that the table was a kind of stretcher, with legs and wheels. It shouldn't be in his house at all. It was a thing that belonged in a hospital.

The monster was partly covered by the tablecloth, which, he could see now, was a sheet. The part that wasn't its head, no longer than Danny's arm, had the sheet laid across it. The sides of the sheet hung down like wings. Everything else was its face, which was turned towards Danny, its damp red eyes and its forehead like a long white bag with a tiny fringe of hair. The mouth was very small and wet. As Danny stared he saw it move. He saw that the monster was trying to smile. The part beneath the sheet seemed to heave and twist around to face him, but nothing about it made Danny think of a body. There were no arms or legs that he could see, nothing but bundled sheet and lumpiness and the white wings moving against the stretcher. He was frozen. The monster opened its mouth and dribbled slightly. To his horror Danny knew that it was about to speak.

'Hello,' it said, the voice high-pitched and weak, like the thin metallic squeal of a piglet, and moist. 'Hello, Danny.'

There was a flurry of movement in the room. Danny's father suddenly approached him from behind and laid his hand on the boy's shoulder, moving him into the centre of the carpet, nearer to the stretcher. A woman Danny had never seen before leant forward from the sofa and put her cup and saucer on the table. Danny heard his mother speaking and a man reply. He stood on the carpet and felt the heat of the fire burning his legs. It glistened red and orange on the steel of the stretcher. Danny tilted his head back slightly, willing himself to look up, and saw the fire light up the sweating face of the monster.

'Say hello to Richard, Danny,' he heard the strange woman say with anxious insistence, recognising her voice from before and feeling his father's hand tighten on his shoulder. But how could it have a name? thought Danny. How could he speak to it? He felt his father's hand pushing him forward slowly but firmly towards the stretcher. He wriggled, ducking and turning to the left, but his father's hand was too strong for him. He stifled a whimper as it rose in his throat, like sick, not daring to close his eyes. When he turned his head to look for his mother, his father's hand slid round to his neck and pushed his cheek. He had no choice other than to look ahead, at the stretcher, behind it the sofa and bay window, a bowl of roses, beyond that the road and Fletcher's tractor shed. The room was entirely strange to him. He found himself no more than a foot away from the monster. The sheet moved. With horror, Danny examined the small white teeth, like rat's teeth, the watery eyes.

That night Danny woke up and found that his left arm had gone to sleep. He lay there in the dark and waited for the prickly feeling to come. It was the feeling his mother called 'soldier ants'. 'The march of the soldier ants,' she said when her legs went dead on the sofa, and she wriggled with pretend horror, and waited for them to arrive. He lifted his dead arm up with the other hand and dropped it onto his body. It lay there, but all he could feel was the weight of it on his chest. He moved it up and down himself with his living hand. It was like being stroked by someone else. It made him feel funny, as though there was someone else in bed with him. His eyes began to adjust to the darkness. Pushing off his bedclothes he looked at his body. It was long and thin, pale in the moonlight, it seemed to go on for ever. And then the soldier ants began to march. His fingers crawled with pain. They felt as if someone had put them in a vice. He imagined all of him in a vice, pulled long and thin, then being screwed up into a ball, a lumpy ball like paper. The soldier ants were at his elbow. He was a heap of twisted bones. Suddenly he began to cry. He tried to send his arm back to sleep, so that he would sleep too. But then the pain went and his arm was his again.

Charles Lambert was born and brought up in England. He now lives in Italy, where he works as a university teacher and editor. He has published stories in Paris Transcontinental (France 1997) This Is: The Poisoned Chalice (UK 1998), the anthologies The Freezer Counter (UK 1989) and Fabulous Tricks (UK 1992) and the e-zines Pig Iron Malt (2001) and The Richmond Review (2001). 'Background Noise' will be appearing in Harrington Gay Men's Fiction Quarterly (2001). He was among the prize-winners of the Independent on Sunday/Bloomsbury short story competition 1997 and the winning story, 'Beacons', appeared in IOS (Bloomsbury, UK 1997).


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