Digman Marley works for Antman Exterminators. He used to work at the old chemical factory on the hill, before it went out of business. His life is hard, dull and predictable. But something is happening up at the old factory, and the ants he’s called to exterminate are acting strangely, and, although he doesn’t know it, this week things are going to change forever for Digman Marley.
The short story, The Ant Man, is Neil Davies’s tribute to both the Black & White B-Movies he still enjoys watching and the pulp fiction he still enjoys reading. He just hopes he’s done it (and them) justice.
“Are you the ant man?”
Digman Marley heard the question and chose to ignore it. He could feel all of his 53 years, and the extra weight of his bulging waistline, as he climbed out the company van and stretched his back. The week was already turning out to be full of shit, even without stupid questions, and it was only Tuesday. Yesterday the papers had come through from his wife’s solicitors filing for divorce, that morning the boss had told him they were laying people off and everyone else had to take a pay-cut and he should be happy he still had a job and, before the week was out, none of that would matter because things would happen to change his life forever.
Not that life-changes, his own or anyone else’s, were even close to being on his mind as he enjoyed the rare warmth of a sunny Welsh August morning and gazed, with a nostalgic smile on his face, at the building high on the hill rising behind the houses.
Tigges Chemical Factory stood, as it had for sixty years, a gaunt angular silhouette astride Bwgan Hill, dominating the skyline. The town of Melltith nestled at the foot of Bwgan, the original buildings hugging the narrow River Dirwyn, newer buildings spreading out from there covering most of the floodplain. Away from the hill the Welsh countryside, with its patchwork of fields, stretched as far as anyone would care to look, but always the eye was drawn back to that dark shape leering down from its vantage. To some its padlocked gates, broken windows and stripped interior were an eyesore. To local children it was a forbidden playground and home to the monsters and ghosts of their nightmares. To Digman Marley it was the keeper of his young adult life: straight into the factory from school at 16, losing his virginity in one of the outer sheds a few months later, meeting his future wife on the line twelve years after that, and still working there when, just after his 50th birthday, the management announced they were closing the place down and everyone was being made redundant. From then on his adult life had taken a decided downturn.
“I said, are you the ant man?”
Digman glanced at the large, black ant logo on the side of his van, the one-foot high lettering alongside it spelling out ‘Antman Exterminators’, and at his own overalls, the back emblazoned with the same letters and logo. He forced a smile as he turned.
“Yes,” he said to the elderly lady standing at the bottom of her garden. He was impressed that he’d managed to keep the sigh of irritation out of his voice. “I’m the ant man. Are you Mrs Wright?”
“I’m Mrs Wright.” The old lady turned and headed back into her house, slippered feet shuffling over the paving stones, her slim, almost emaciated, frame unsteady, stick-thin ankles barely able to take her slight weight. “You’re late. Come on.”
Digman checked his watch. He was late, couldn’t deny that, by all of three minutes! This was going to be a tough one. He turned to the van and found his workmate still sitting in the cab, almost invisible behind the bright reflections off the windscreen.
“Are you not working today?”
The van’s passenger door opened slowly, and Eric Saxon slid from the seat to the road. He was thirty years Digman’s junior, slim, untidy and only recently given a full-time contract after six month’s work placement. Digman felt the boss had paired him with Eric out of spite.
“Tell me Eric,” said Digman as the younger man slouched his way towards him. “Why exactly did you want to work with Antman Exterminators?”
“Them,” said Eric quietly.
“What d’you mean ‘them’?”
“The film, Them!?” Eric snorted. “Don’t you know nothing? Them! 1954. James Whitmore, Joan Weldon.” He waited, shook his head at Digman’s obvious confusion. “Giant ants for God’s sake. It’s a classic.”
“Never heard of it,” said Digman. “More of a comedy man myself. Norman Wisdom, that kind of stuff. Now stop dawdling and let’s get this job done.”
“Are you coming?” Mrs Wright had reappeared at her door, having noticed that no one followed her inside.
“Coming Mrs Wright,” called Digman, forcing a smile. “Just getting my colleague started. Takes a while first thing.”
They followed her into a narrow hallway, stepping round untidy stacks of free local newspapers, through to a small kitchen with cream wall units, yellowed with age, and a stainless steel sink overflowing with uncleaned plates and pots. The house smelled of stale air, unwashed clothes and grime. It took some effort for Digman not to gag.
“My husband died a year ago,” said Mrs Wright. “Selfish bugger. Leaving me on my own.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Digman.
Mrs Wright stopped, slipped on an old pair of scratched glasses and peered at him with a sudden intensity.
“You look familiar,” she said. “You always worked for the exterminators?”
“No,” said Digman, feeling uncomfortable under her stare for no reason he could identify. “I actually used to work at Tigges Chemical Factory up on the hill.”
“Knew it!” she cried with a smile so broad it bordered on crazy. He half expected her to break into a jig she seemed so pleased. “See, I’m not senile. No problem with my memory, whatever the doctors’ say. I worked in the offices until they retired me in 2000. Knew the faces of everyone on the factory floor back then.”
Digman nodded. He presumed she was right. She wasn’t in any way familiar to him, but then he had seldom strayed to the upstairs offices in the factory.
She turned, folding her glasses back into her faded pink cardigan pocket, happy with her feat of memory. They followed as she pushed open the back door, red paint peeling from the warped woodwork, and stepped into a small, paved back yard. Tall brick walls, in need of some maintenance but sturdy enough, stood on three sides. The fourth was provided by the rear of the house. A wooden gate hung loose on its hinges ahead of them, leading into the alleyway that ran behind the old terraced houses, and alongside the gate stood a brick outhouse, an old toilet of the kind Digman hadn’t seen since he used to visit his Nan, before her house was condemned and torn down. He doubted Eric had ever seen such a thing, being as unappreciatively offhand about the wonders of indoor plumbing as the rest of his generation. The door to the toilet looked even more unsafe than the gate to the alleyway, and through a gap at the bottom he could hear the buzzing of flies. The occasional breath of a slight breeze wafted smells of sewers and memories of the worst public toilets he’d ever visited.
“Here they are, little buggers,” said Mrs Wright, pulling Digman back to the job at hand.
Digman and Eric looked to where she pointed, at the back corner of the outhouse where the ground under the paving slab had, at some time, subsided and the slab had cracked. Ten, maybe twelve, ants scurried around, in and out of the crack, over the slab. Hardly an infestation as she had claimed on the phone, but company policy was clear: Even if there was only one ant, spray the thing and charge the hourly rate.
“We’ll have them cleared up in no time Mrs Wright,” said Digman, forcing a cheery smile onto his face. “They won’t bother you after today.”
The spraying was quick and easy, not requiring the full HAZMAT suits they sometimes wore, although Digman did insist they both wore masks and that Mrs Wright stayed indoors. The poison, exclusive to Antman Exterminators, was a variation on a chemical created by Tigges Chemical Factory some years back and, despite assurances from Mr Banks, his boss, that everything toxic to humans had been removed, Digman could still remember the precautions taken on the factory floor. He saw no reason to take risks now.
“Nice easy job to start the day with,” said Digman as he started the company van and pulled away from the kerb. “Keeps the old lady happy and, with luck, we’ll never have to go back to that shit-hole of a house again.”
Eric nodded. “It was bad Digman, and not in a good way.”
Digman shook his head, having long ago given up trying to understand every word his younger workmate said.
“Check the list Eric, and let’s see where we’re off to next.”
Two days later, Digman and Eric were sent back to Mrs Wright’s house. The ant problem hadn’t gone away after all; in fact she claimed it had got worse.
“I’m surprised the old girl isn’t out here waiting for us,” said Digman as he pulled the van to a stop opposite Mrs Wright’s gateway. “We’re at least 30 seconds late.”
Eric didn’t smile, but he nodded. Whether it was in serious acceptance of their tardiness or in appreciation of the joke, Digman could not tell and had no intention of asking. Neither of them were looking forward to this re-visit, but someone had to answer the call, and they were familiar with the problem.
“The real problem here isn’t the ants,” said Digman. “It’s the house and the old lady. Let’s get this done shall we?”
Digman climbed from the van, feeling once again the passing of time, the increase in his waistline and the unusually long-lasting hot spell. By the time he had opened the gate and was half way down the path towards the front door, Eric had reached the pavement and was shuffling after him.
“Mrs Wright?” called Digman, his initial surprise at her non-appearance now edged with concern. “It’s Antman Exterminators. Mrs Wright, are you ok?”
Eric caught up with him as he stood, listening for a response that never came.
“Maybe she wants us to just go in?” said Eric.
“And how do we do that, genius?” said Digman, wiping droplets of sweat from above his eyes. “Unless you have some kind of magic key, how do you expect us to ‘just go in’?”
Eric, unaffected by the heat and his partner’s sarcasm, raised a finger to point at the front door and uttered the two words guaranteed to both embarrass and annoy Digman.
Digman said nothing, simply stared for a moment at the front door before pushing it fully open and calling out once more, “Mrs Wright? Should we come in?”
“Maybe she’s in the back with the ants,” said Eric, proving once again to Digman’s surprise that he had more common sense than his appearance would suggest.
Digman nodded and, followed by his young workmate, stepped into the house. His walk was hesitant. It didn’t feel right entering someone else’s house without their express permission. But the door was open and they were expected. Wasn’t permission to enter implicit in that? It still didn’t feel right.
He continued to call for Mrs Wright as they squeezed through the hallway and into the kitchen. The clutter and the smell were as bad, if not worse, than before. Sunlight shining through the window was quickly rotting the scraps of food on the unwashed plates in the sink. A carton of milk had been knocked over on the draining board, the contents lumpy and curdled. He was beginning to feel nauseous, and he hoped this would be another quick job. If they were lucky, it would be the last call-out here, at least for him and Eric.
“She must be out back,” said Eric. “That’s why she can’t hear you calling.”
Digman nodded. Eric was full of sense this morning. If Mrs Wright were in the house she would surely have heard them by now?
The back door stood open and Digman, as eager for fresh air as he was to find Mrs Wright, hurried through into the yard. Eric was close behind, bumping into Digman as the older man stopped suddenly, rigid, his stomach cramping in fear and horror.
Sprawled in the back yard lay Mrs Wright, as untidy as her house, mouth open, eyes staring, one slipper standing empty nearby, the other hanging off a foot. Digman thought he saw her move. Something moved. An undulation beneath her cardigan, a rustling in her hair. It was hard to focus. She seemed strangely blurred.
He heard Eric groan “Oh shit” behind him and in that moment saw the reality. His vision cleared. The fuzziness, the indistinct nature of Mrs Wright’s features, the movement beneath her clothes and in her hair, was caused by the hundreds of ants crawling all over her.