a n t f a r m ?
I remember as a child watching an episode of Macgyver, which featured
rampaging killer ants. Marching on some human stronghold somewhere in
the jungle for some unknown reason, they overcame whatever he could
rustle up to stop them. At one point, whole squads even travelled on
leaves across a moving body of water to get to the other side. They
devoured Macgyver's friend when he had the misfortune to fall into one
of their nesting pits. And they just rampaged on, intent in their
collective consciousness on munching on a piece of Richard Dean
Insects and bugs, and images of them, infest our popular cultural
psyche, sometimes as heroes but usually as villains. The surprising
angular exteriors, shells and exoskeletons, reflecting the equally
peculiar quality of eusociality. A series of Wyndham Lewis' World War
One paintings depicts gun crews with hardened features, swarming but
working in uniform coordination around the barrel of their mother
cannon. Every villain ever in 'Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers' was some
kind of mutant bug. David Cronenberg's film of 'Naked Lunch' features a
memorable scene with a giant sodomising centipede, for instance. Bugs
capture the popular imagination whether they infest it (Alien), or
condensed into one colossal alien (any of Godzilla's enemies) invading
sanitary planet Earth.
I used to have nightmares as a child about bugs and insects. Mostly
though, my nightmares were populated by swarms of tiny albino
scorpions. Often it was the scenario of waking from the dream whilst
still in it, realising that everything was okay before the stab of
horror. A cold burn at a point under the ball of my toe, then as I lift
my foot I find a tiny crushed scorpion. Its body is squashed like an
intricately sculpted soft-boiled egg, oozing its yellow insides. The
stinging tail is, however, intact and has snapped in the opposite
direction to the flow of the miniscule puddle of blood. As I lift my
gaze I see hundreds of them sweeping in waves towards me. I remember
thinking how strange their scuttling looks across the soft navy carpet.
As the first one reaches my right foot the epiphany of numbness?
Like an unconscious narrative device that lets me know I've pinched
myself and not woken up.
And so I remain here all hooked up, and it seems like I have acquired
my exoskeleton in the same moment that I got my insides squished. My
fragile physical and mental condition depending on external equipment
and information, like a Frankenstein's monster, reduced to mechanics
the external is now inside me and as such I monitor myself without
really knowing it. And yet I know it. It's an iron lung condition and
amongst everything else I must also adjust to the idea that the ways in
which I recuperate are recorded as the outcomes of various kinds of
And in the meantime this random collection of images and stories of
insects runs like a perpetual B movie at the back of my thoughts. An
antfarm, a mental ornament on a mental shelf, that I keep for the sake
of my sanity. Because I observe it, I know that I can know again. Its
my junior science experiment.
At the same time I'm not entirely used to the liberating qualities of
my condition. Unable to understand how the objects and people around me
interconnect to shape this thing that I'm learning to call my life. I
am living in cross-section. In order to massage my sense of
self-history, Dumuki has started to relate dinner party-style anecdotes
to me. Like how, after a youth spent abusing my synaptic pathways with
all manner of psychoactive alkaloids, I will nowadays only consume
caffeine in the form of green tea. A non-smoking vegan, flavoured
oxygen breathing health nut. Yet still nothing.
I don't even recognise my property in the bathroom - the brand of
mouthwash I've bought for twelve years, or the scrubbing brush in the
shape of a dolphin, which sits next to the bath taps. There's a number
of me working through the antfarm but I don't know how they work
'Robert, how are you feeling this morning?'
'Okay, 'Muki. Nothing new.'
Last night neither of us were sleepy, so we saw a film on late night
TV. In 'Seconds' a man visits a mysterious organisation, where he
undergoes plastic surgery in order to start a new life as a hip artist
played by Rock Hudson. Rock has to discover the identity and motives of
the enigmatic agency that has rewritten his life. Under the
circumstances, not necessarily the wisest viewing choice.
I have found that one of the things that either charms or mortifies my
'nearest and dearest' are the choices that I now make in relation to my
old habits and preferences. If I have a choice of a white or a blue
shirt, I'll choose the blue. By some reflex or other, I still call
Dumuki 'Muki'. But on the other hand, requesting scrambled eggs upon
waking from nine years of veganism didn't go down too well.
To offset this sense of being lost amongst the familiar, I have made a
concerted effort to escape the burden of being myself in favour of what
I perceive to be a career of absolute routine. The knowledge of self
through spatial habits. Yesterday I wrote to London Transport asking
how one would apply for the role of bus conductor, and have been
listing job possibilities ever since.
'What do you think of postman?'
'Sounds like a great idea.'
'Is it? Do you think so?'
'I think you should go for it.' Dumuki bends to pick up my cup as I
reach for the Yellow Pages and the local phone book. I thumb through.
'Do you have a pen?' she calls from the kitchen, clicking the button on
'Er?yes!' I have an old biro by the pad on which I've been making these
I'm well aware that you usually only see the extremes of my condition
in old film noir and airport thrillers. In the last two chapters you
find out that I either did or didn't kill the dead man, the revelation
of which depends on a subliminal image burned onto the retina prior to
the event of memory loss. No such luck.
'Robert, its good to see you making lists again.'
I look up from my pad as she sits opposite me and places a cup of green
tea on our glass coffee table. I smile briefly before finishing the
contact details, and then glance out the window to see what the
weather's like. Sometimes we would catch neighbours or people stuck in
a traffic jam on the main road watching whatever they could see us
'Its what you used to do, and you're still doing it. It's nice. You're
always doing "To Do" lists, like everything you have to do for all your
'So what did you think of that film?'
'Yeah it was good, it tensed me right up. Apart from the plastic
surgery, that was hilarious!' Muki sips her nut-flavoured coffee, and
the aroma is driving me crazy. But apparently I don't drink that shit
anymore. How could the old me resist it? There's a scene in last
night's film where Rock is in the early stages of making his new life,
and strips naked to join a bunch of nubile young hippies in a
grape-treading orgy. You sort of get the feeling that Rock is freed
from the impotent choices of his past experiences. Lucky bastard.
'What sort of name is that anyway, Rock?'
Muki laughs. 'A suitably butch one!'
'So what's happening at the hospital tomorrow?'
'They just want to check the medication and do the physio.'
'Robert are you sure?'
'Of course?why wouldn't I be?'
'You have to trust them with the treatment, Muki.'
'I know, its just that they seemed to tire you out so much with the
physio last time?and they just seem to be content to let everything
else drift. That's all.'
'Sweetheart, at this stage using my arm again could be as important as
anything else, you know that. As long as I can keep feeling useful,
right? It takes me so long just to write these names and addresses at
the minute, its doing my head in.'
'I just want everything to keep moving?'
'And it will, I promise. But you heard what they said. They said that
time is the best thing initially. That's how you come back to yourself.
You heard them. And if not, then we know what there is to do about it.
But I need to feel useful. That's me, not anything else.'
I'm lying. What use is anyone without a history? I can tell that Dumuki
is thinking this.
She flicks on the stereo and presses play from the remote. The sound of
Gladys Knight and the Pips' 'Midnight Train to Georgia' starts up at
low volume. She rolls her refill lighter over in her left hand,
betraying the fact that she's run out of Benson and Hedges, staring out
the front window at the trees below. 'Sorry. Its just that we have to
do all the physical stuff, and it just feels at the expense of, you
know, the memory stuff.' One of the few things that remain in my mental
map of our relationship was that Dumuki is always trying to give up
smoking and permanently understocks her supply. Now it feels like a
gesture of mourning to the old me.
'I know?ultimately they do know best though.'
'But are they really? I know what you're like. It's your life, and the
sooner we get back to the old you, the better. Just don't be scared to
get back to yourself. We have to keep working on it.'
I flick the corner of the phone book with my thumb. Dumuki doesn't say
anything for a moment. She loves the pause between 'midnight train' and
'to Georgia'. Muki is a Gladys Knight addict and listens to this song
'Robert, I'll take you there if you want.'
'But I thought you were going back tomorrow. And besides, its such an
awkward start, just before lunch, and you know how you need to work in
'Please Robert,' Muki asks, leaning forward, elbows bent into her
stomach, hands on her knees. 'We have done everything together so
'This stuff is different though, isn't it?'
'Its just a lift!'
I just breathe out, and take a big gulp of green tea, and even though
it burns the top of my throat and the back of my tongue, I let out a
satisfied 'Aaah', behind which all the remaining tense oxygen is
'Well if you need me, you know where I am.'
Muki, like the rest of the world, has been reading Harry Potter books.
There's a stack of three of them on the coffee table. Suddenly I feel a
pang for consolation, and have to grab the top one to stare hard at the
back cover in order to force back tears.
She is the one in need of support, I tell myself, the one who needs to
be helped through the fact I cannot be the old me, at least for
sometime to come. The tears are squeezing harder round my eyes, so I
stare even more. If I am silent for too long now, she will take it as a
sign of potential head trouble, or (just as bad for me), as a sign of
rejection. 'Yes, yes,' concurs the voice in my head that realises this,
'Think of a question about Harry Potter. Quick.' I clear my
'Can I read this?'
Silence again. Gladys Knight is singing another track, but I don't know
the title of this one. Dumuki seems content to just watch the traffic
and the wind blowing the trees outside the window. I don't quite know
where to put my eyes, in need of some unknown information as I feel,
but yet not wanting to pursue a conversation where we try to pin each
other down, playing on each other's weaknesses without saying what we
mean. The last thing I want to do is upset her.
Without this conversation though, I truly don't know what I want to do.
I'm looking around the room and everything feels alien: the geography
of the house, just four-walled rooms, building blocks assembled like
Lego to make a living space. The contents of the kitchen drawers, the
knackered old chairs in our bedroom. These shapes are strange to me.
The space outside the window that puts us in the position of observers
of the world passing through, where people and their cars are far away
enough to look like insects.
On my first night back in the house we had played a game, breaking the
ice in some sort of way. From the early evening onwards, when it was
becoming darker outside, we left the lights off and spent a couple of
hours watching the house over the road. Like us he has a big sliding
window upstairs, and we spied on his life as temporarily lived in that
frame. It was very entertaining watching the mannerisms of him and his
(we assume) girlfriend as they spent the night in. Today he has a net
curtain up, although our window remains unveiled.
Dumuki and I snap away from our silent reviews of the mobile
'What were you looking at?' we ask each other at the same time.