Some of you may be aware that once, in days of innocence and honest living, I was a pest controller, which is one of those jobs that no-one wants to do but everyone wants to hear about.
I loved it.
So far, we've covered 'roaches, rats and Bonzo, as well as more rats and thermos flasks, but today, allow me to relate a tale of hymenopteran struggle, of the war between human technology and insectoid foe, indomitable creatures of the swarm versus a man in a Ford van. Today, it is the turn of . . .
Sit back dear friends, unless you can't see your monitor so well, in which case sit forward a bit. Not that far forward. You're too close now. Back a bit. A little more. Tilt the screen a bit, out of the sun. Yeah, like that. Now sit in that exact position, and I shall type you a tale.
Jeremy was a boarding student at a college for people with mental health problems. He was about the same age as me, and his psychological make up included having to deal with autism, learning difficulties and a shoddy memory. He was very interested in people, and would bombard the visiting contractor with questions, finally culminating in his succinct interpretation of your place in the universe.
To me, after half an hour of relentless interrogation whilst I worked my way through the entire site checking rodent monitoring boxes, insect execution machines and almost completely pointless wasp traps, he nodded sagely and concluded "God made you with big hands."
I took it as the compliment I think it was meant to be, and the questions moved on to another topic. That of my job.
Jeremy decided he liked it and immediately promoted himself to Assistant On-Site Pest Control Technician, which involved following me around the college site, taking great interest in the equipment, asking lots (and lots, and lots) of questions before completely failing to store many of the answers in his slightly faulty memory. Still, he was enjoyable company and I would let him carry the more innocuous of my equipment after discovering from his Mum that he had a penchant for eating new things.
Eating your stock isn't necessarily a hindrance to the modern professional, if you're a baker or prostitute maybe, but not great for a mammalian pest controller carrying stuff designed to kill mammals.
One Summer, back in '95 I think, the college became a recruiting ground for ants. Ooh, black as the ace of spades they were. Ruthless, cunning, and utterly intent on achieving their own aims and objectives. In desperation (and perhaps because their contract included ant treatments) the staff at the college put the call out, and I arrived, tooled up, bag in hand and sprayer on back, to have a ganzy.
They were everywhere.
A combination of weather, poor hygiene and presumably some sort of tactical genius Ant general had allowed them to inundate the kitchens, the common rooms, the dormitories and patio areas. Jeremy appeared, utterly excited and overjoyed by the challenge, pointing at every ant on every surface and telling me what species it was.
Once more unto the breach, I thought wearily (as it was nearly lunch time and I hadn't eaten since ten) and primed my spray tank with the customary hilarious wrist action.
Jeremy offered his services, and I accepted. An ally would be helpful, and he had a box of Quality Street I was willing for him to share. I explained that the ants were probably being attracted to sweet food at this time of the year, and that they would be particularly interested in sugar. Recalling Jeremy's less that perfect memory, I reiterated that sugar was the key issue here as spillages were common at the college. This was the nineties when everyone took sugar in their tea.
We used hygiene, poisons, even proofing. We lifted many slabs adjacent to the buildings and waged terrible war against the ants. The carnage was considerable. So . . . many . . . deaths. The silent screams, the twitching legs and startled compound eyes, the collateral woodlice. It was shock and awe, to a limited value of shocking awesomeness.
You might laugh, but you weren't there man!
You weren't there.
And then, suddenly, after a few visits, peace broke out. We had won.
But at what price?
Bare ant trails in the gardens. Morsels of food abandoned twixt kitchen and mound. Silent, echoing chambers 'neath patios where once a multitude of inhabitants crawled.
The peacefulness . . . of DEATH!
That's right. Of DEATH!
But that's what I was paid nine grand a year for. The ants competed with us for resources and we competed back, a natural, brutal dance that echoed down the millennia. For the moment,we were winning, although I was well aware that this was just a battle, not the war. The ants were smart, in their own way, and had achieved increasing levels of immunity by cleverly dying in such large numbers that only the resistant ones were left to breed.
I left a report, with advice on preventing a resurgence, and indicated I'd be back in a month to follow up but wasn't expecting anything too exacting. I shook hands with Jeremy and away I went, chewing on one of the long yellow toffees that he wouldn't have eaten anyway, congratulating myself on a job well undertaken.
Oh, how prideful the pride that comes before the fall. How eggy the facial egg. How unpalatable the words that must be eaten. Also, the hat. For, a few short weeks later, on my follow up visit, they were back.
If OMG had been invented, I would totally have said it.
The trails were alive once again. The kitchens re-infested, the morsels of food scavenged and fed to the next generation underground. I'm sure there were even tiny celebratory mariachi bands and raucous pool parties, but my memory of this is a little hazy. It could've just been miniature piñatas.
"But . . . how . . .?" I stammered, thinking of all the work we'd put in. I walked in a daze into the kitchen, barely stopping to put my white trilby on, and immediately, the cause became apparent.
There was grit under my feet.
I knelt, drew my finger over the tiles, and brought it to my eye, to my nose, then to my tongue. My head snapped up as I spat out the residue.
Good shit too. Tate and Lyle.
But with this half answer, only more questions arose. I still had no idea why there was so much S around. The kitchen staff told me they were having to mop three times a day but it wasn't enough, simply dissolving to leave a crystalline layer of sucrose in the corners which the ants adored. You could tell by the minuscule guitars and fireworks.
"Ants!" came a familiar voice, from outside the kitchen. "Ants!"
"Jeremy?" I shouted, "Have you seen all this sug . . ." I stopped and stared as he walked in, a spring in his step and a grin on his fizzog.
In his left hand, a huge bag of sugar was open like a small paper sack containing many granules. I watched in dawning realisation and subsequently dawning horror as Jeremy's right hand dipped in, grabbed a handful and send it scattering across the floor in graceful, horizontal parabolas, a rain of goodness for the enemy, veritable manna from heaven.
"Jer . . ." I whispered, but my voice cracked like some sort of embryo-carrying device made of calcium dropped from a height, "Jeremy. What . . . have . . . you . . . done?"
He walked past me, pushing through the chain curtains of the kitchen door to go out into the garden patio. "I've been controlling them." He practically sang. "Like you told me. I've been controlling them. With sugar."
He strolled across the paving slabs of the patio, generously spreading ant-food over a wide area, a striding god providing for all. Tiny sombreros whizzed into the air, thrown by the ants in their unbridled joy. Possibly.
I fell to my knees in front of the herbaceous borders, and raised my clawed hands to the sky. "Why?" I implored the uncaring cosmos, "It's nearly lunchtime!"
Sighing, I got to my feet, gently prized the sugar away from Jeremy's grasp and went to get my sprayer, it's silver sides reflecting my own grim determination to do what had to be done.
"Ants!" Jeremy pointed out, following me.
"Yes mate." I agreed. "Ants."