On the morning after the children left home, I opened the lid on the ant farm. It would be some time though, before the first of the ants would venture outside of their plastic enclosure and begin to tentatively and methodically explore the surrounding territory. It reminded me of when they’d first arrived – queen and brood in the test tube, delivered by the postman in a jiffy bag.
The children had been excited, nervously anticipating the ant’s escape as we attempted to transfer her from the tube to her new home. We had cautiously removed the stopper and laid the test tube down in the bottom of the ant farm, expecting her to make a break for it and move out her brood straight away. In the end though, we had been disappointed – she had not moved them out at all. She had waited for them to grow and to orchestrate the move for themselves. Only after many weeks of industry had she had been escorted from the tube to the new nest and chamber they’d prepared for her – in a long, slow, procession of obedient offspring. By the time that this passage eventually came about, the children had long since lost interest in the ant farm.
Within a few minutes of delivery into our own nest, the generic queen had become ‘Queenie.’ In the eyes of the children, she had been domesticated then – the transformation from science experiment to pet transacted neatly and simply, with the investiture of a name. She had worked the hardest the first night they came. With one cocoon and a small group of pupa, she moved them from place to place all evening – continually repositioning the odd pieces of grass and insect carcass that had arrived with her in the tube. Late that night, when I closed my eyes on the day, hers was the first image that came to me. I slept fitfully, but she was there intermittently in my dreams too – ever methodical, ever industrious – building her empire one small step at a time.
I began to be influenced by her from the start – it was as if she was gradually creeping up on my consciousness from the inside out. Up until then, I had always kept a rather tardy house – I used to joke with friends over coffee that I was a bit of a slut when it came to housework, wearing the label with a touch of pride even. It wasn’t as if I made any conscious decision to be more like her – it was just that it was almost impossible to carry on as usual whilst she continued to toil with such selfless and slavish devotion. Even now, I struggle to explain the transformation that came over me – it was not guilt that drove me, more like a kind of warped mimicry. I was no longer queen of my own brood, my own home – I was supplicant to her.
She arrived in the first week of September and, with the shortening days, progress in the colony was slow and incremental – as was my own. I could remember reading an article once about a fat woman who had become anorexic. She had not deliberately set out to become anorexic of course – only to drop a stone or two. First she had cut out sweets and snacks, then meat, then dairy and such like – until, eventually, there was almost nothing left that she could eat without a portion of self-loathing thrown in for good measure. So it was with me – I began with catching up on all the jobs that that I really should have been doing all along, but had never quite seemed to find the time for before. At first, it was just a case of organising my time a little better – being honest with myself about where I was choosing to put the hours in. Christmas that year was the best we’d ever had – I was more on top of things than I’d ever been, and almost relished the sense of purpose that the children’s mess invested my daily existence with.
In the New Year though, when the days began to lengthen once more, activity in the colony became increasingly frenzied – and so did my own. When there really was nothing left to clean, the only next logical step was reorganisation. My sleep patterns began to change – I would work for long periods through the night, and catch up on sleep through brief phases of restfulness at odd moments during the day. I could sense that Jake was beginning to worry, but he was postponing the inevitable confrontation – pushing it to the back of his mind and saving it for some other time that might never come. The truth was, our sex life had never been better – it was as if I could not get enough of him to satisfy me over those weeks; as if there simply was not enough of him to satisfy me. He never turned away from me – not even once – but he did begin to look somewhat furtive around his laptop. I thought at first he was having an affair, but then I found a page open one day with the heading ‘Living With Bi-Polar’ – and I realised it was far more serious than that. Looking back, I wondered if that woman who was fat had known she would become anorexic all along – if she had actually set out for it to happen after all. I wondered if I had been waiting all my life for Queenie and her brood to come and take me over.
I began to have a sense that she was working through me, that I was becoming part of the hive mind. I began to be hardly conscious of my workload, so that I no longer had any logical explanation for my actions – or any need for one anyway. One day, commenting on the honeycomb of boxes lined up along the hallway and leading up the stairs, Jake asked me if I was creating a tunnel network or something. I thought for a moment he’d lost it – until he started randomly pulling boxes away from the walls, and I felt my newfound sense of security shifting; moving and falling apart against the weight of his focus.
I didn’t really notice Daniel was ill at first. Looking back, I can see now that there were some days when I did not talk to the children at all. They would get in from school, watch TV, play with Lego maybe – and I would move with a quiet resilience into the kitchen to cook their dinner. When it was ready I would silently deliver it to the table and, without a word, the children would get up from the sofa and disinterestedly work their way through whatever I had managed to find in the cupboards. I no longer took any responsibility for shopping, and I could not even remember the last time I’d left the house. Katie and Sophie’s Mum (two doors down) called for the children promptly at 8.20 each morning and deposited them back again at approximately 3.30 p.m. each afternoon. Sometimes they would come home clutching a packet of Spacedust or a Freddo each, and she would say ‘I hope it’s ok, Jo – only I promised the girls, and it didn’t seem fair to leave them out.’
I would smile politely and say ‘No – it’s fine. Thank you.’
She would nod slightly then, ushering the girls away in hushed tones – the unexpressed contempt barely supressed beneath her smile.
I had been cooking their tea in the kitchen as usual – microwave cottage pie. Jake had taken to buying mainly frozen ready meals – which I had thought was odd at the time, since it was me who did all the cooking. Looking back, I wonder if maybe they’d complained to him on the quiet about some of the slightly more unorthodox combinations they’d been presented with. Lucy had long since given up standing in the kitchen doorway to chat so, when she quietly came up behind me at the cooker and tapped me gently on the arm, I was startled.
‘Excuse me, Mrs – sorry – Mum,’ she said. ‘It’s Daniel – he’s not very well . . .’
Wordlessly, I had taken down the jar of honey I kept in the spice cupboard for the colony and made my way out into the study where Daniel lay shivering on the sofa. By the time Jake arrived home from work some two hours later, the jar was empty and Daniel had drifted into what I thought was a fitful sleep.
I cannot remember if Jake asked me to come to the hospital with him or not and, by that time, I would have been unable to leave the house anyway. He scooped Daniel up and rushed him straight out to the car, without even so much as removing his coat first – briefcase dumped unceremoniously in the hall. Almost as an afterthought, he ran back in to pull Lucy out as well. I do not think they left me then, at that moment – rather at some nameless point in the night or early hours of the next morning, when Daniel’s condition stabilised perhaps.
I did not know if my son was alive or dead until the next evening – when Jake came back to collect some things to tide them over. He’d looked at me more in bewilderment than contempt. ‘Meningitis, Jo,’ he’d sighed. ‘That was what it was – meningitis, if you’re at all interested. I mean, how could you have missed that rash for Christ’s sake?’
After he left, I locked the front door – leaving the key in the lock, so that it would take a locksmith in order to open it again from outside. Jake’s briefcase was still lying in the hall, where he’d let it drop the night before – and I used it to form the foundation of the barricade against the door. There really wasn’t much left to do then in the rest of the house – the cupboard under the stairs having already been prepared in anticipation of this eventuality some weeks before.
It is dark inside the cupboard, of course – but my eyes adjust quickly, just as I had known they would. I have been stockpiling supplies in here for some time – and I make use of them now, to fashion a wall against the door. I had considered a small camping stove but, in the end, settled for food that could be eaten at an ambient temperature – UHT milk and crackers mostly. And honey, of course. Gas would have presented something of a safety risk, I felt – and was unnecessary anyway.
So now, my little one, it is just the two of us. Just for now, it is just the two of us. At last, I feel you stirring – deep within me – in the place where I had first anticipated you stirring. Soon I will succour you, and sustain you, and I will give all of myself to you. I am your servant, but I am also your queen. In time and turn, my princess, you will give all of yourself to me. You will go out into the world and do for me what I cannot do for myself. You will gather for me, and bring home to me, that which is rightfully mine – that which I have earned. Together, we will build a new family – a new colony.
Humankind may wonder how I could so easily have let my first children go – but that is the way of nature, isn’t it? Sometimes things go wrong – miscarry, in the true sense of the word. Sometimes the light gets in, and something dies. Sometimes, we are beset by tragedy that eludes any kind of scientific reckoning. Sometimes we must lose everything, if only to start again tomorrow.