One hand reached for the light switch to his left, while the other covered his mouth, mid-yawn. The last of the five remaining light bulbs flickered into life above his head, casting a sickly yellow hue over the bean-stained hob. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands and waited for them to adjust to the artificial light.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake!’ he shouted, as he caught sight of the ugly speckled worktop, invisible beneath an army of tiny, black creatures. A conveyer belt of ants carried crumbs of last night’s leftovers to their checkout point.
His legs gave way under him, his bum landing with a dull thud on the stained linoleum floor. He traced the procession. His eyes narrowed on a small hole in the bottom corner of the skirting board, partially hidden from view behind the rusty, metal bin. He’d tried to block up the hole last summer after spotting a couple of them crawling over his blackened bananas. He’d asked at Alan’s corner shop about getting something to properly kill them off, but Alan wanted five quid a can and offered him a number for an exterminator. He’d bought a four-pack of Basics toilet tissue, refused to take the number, and left can-less. He had fashioned a make-shift blockade out of a wad of toilet tissues, an old, holey sock, and a bit of masking tape from a do-it-yourself paint job last year.
‘Fuckin’ ‘ell,’ he muttered, as he clambered to his knees. He pulled open the cupboard under the sink and scanned the contents: Aldi’s own washing-up liquid; a dusty, yellow cloth; a can of ten-year old Mr Sheen; a half-empty bottle of hand cream; a spindly-legged spider and a collection of discarded plastic Netto bags. ‘Never got bloody anythin’ in this flat!’
He slammed the cupboard door shut. Undeterred, the ants carried on. He ripped at the toilet tissue that masqueraded as kitchen roll, scrunched it into a ball and dipped the edge into the crumb-filled water in the sink. He hovered the soggy weapon over the line of unwilling victims before dabbing violently at each one like it was a difficult game of Whack-a-Mole.
‘Absolutely,’ he grunted with each blow. ‘Fucking. Disgusting.’
He turned the disintegrated tissue over in his hand, examined the result and threw it into the overly-full bin. He repeated this five more times until he could no longer see the scurry of tiny insects trying to camouflage themselves against the work surfaces.
‘What a shithole,’ he said, flicking the switch of the kettle a little too harshly, causing the stagnant water to slosh about. He closed his eyes and lowered his body to the ground. He pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes, just hard enough for the familiar black spots to form. Digging his chewed fingernails into his forehead, he squeezed rhythmically in time with his hurried breathing, and waited for the kettle to roar.
He pulled the edges of his corduroy jacket around his body and kept his head down as he walked towards the deserted Post Office at the end of the street. The small bald patch on the crown of his head took the brunt of the summer chill. He had it timed now that if he left at precisely eight-twenty then he would be first in line. Quickly in, quickly out, like the bargain hunters on Next sale days.
They hadn’t opened the doors yet. The shutters remained on the ground; the lights behind the windows glowed dimly; the judgmental voices of staff could be heard within when he listened closely. He propped the collar of his jacket up around his neck, tucked his chin in against the dirty, faux-fur lining and took up his usual spot against the railings.
One by one the group arrived, each with their card in hand. Some wore pyjamas beneath parka coats; some arrived drunk from a heavy session the night before; others laughed loudly, enjoying their catch-up, oblivious to the symphony of irritated tuts. No one spoke to him. He stared straight ahead at the graffitied shutters; Emma loves Seffo, apparently; I.D.S.T, whatever that means.
The inside of the Post Office smelt like urine. Five cashiers were seated behind reinforced glass panels, each wearing an expression that mirrored the dreary atmosphere of their surroundings. The crowd of regulars snaked around the retractable barriers, close enough to smell the lager on the breath of the person next to them. He tapped his foot impatiently on the gum-splattered floor.
‘Cashier number three, please,’ said the mechanical voice, as a red number three appeared above his head. The congregation inched forward collectively, as though stepping into their graves as quickly as they could.
The woman behind the protective screen didn’t glance upwards at his approach.
‘Book, please,’ she said, her bored-already voice tiny behind the see-through barrier. He didn’t like to engage in small talk anyway.
He dug his hand into the depths of his pocket and pulled out a tattered book. He placed it onto the metal tray at the base of the window and pushed it through the allotted gap.
‘Just a withdrawal,’ he said. ‘The full amount.’ He had already mapped out the week: a tenner on the horses; milk and bread; gas and electric top-ups. That would leave him with eleven quid. He thought about the invaders waiting for him at home. Five quid a can.
‘There’s nothing in your account, Sir,’ she said.
‘‘S’cuse me?’ He placed a hand on either side of the metal tray and leant in towards the tiny air holes bulleted into the glass.
‘There’s no money in your account to withdraw at the moment,’ she repeated.
He stared at her through the window, his mouth hung open like a gull snatching up the last chip from a makeshift newspaper tray.
‘I would suggest getting in touch with your bank,’ she said, sliding his useless book back through the two-centimetre gap. ‘There may have been an error with your account.’
‘Are you takin’ the piss?’ he said, maybe a little louder than necessary.
‘Sir, I would -’
‘I said, are you takin’ the piss?’ he repeated, jabbing his finger into the glass.
‘I’m going to have to ask you to calm down,’ she said, leaning back in her chair.
‘This is fuckin’ ridiculous!’ he shouted, grabbing his book from the metal tray and thrusting it back into his pocket. ‘And exactly how am I supposed to cope in the meantime?’
The jangling of the bell sounded as he pushed open the heavy door. A blast of hot air smacked him in the face as he stepped into the corner shop. Alan stood behind the counter, surrounded by chewing gum and scratch cards. He spoke animatedly to the old lady he was busy serving, his hands moving to demonstrate his words. Alan never spoke to him like that.
He walked the length of the far aisle of the shop, scanning the contents of the shelves. He eyed the Pot Noodles, bags of crisps and four-packs of cider, before moving towards the ant repellent that hadn’t moved since last year. He reached his hand into his pocket, thumbing the loose change that he had left over from last week. Five quid a can.
The jangle of the door sounded once again. He glanced over his shoulder, picked up the can, and shoved it under the front of his jacket, wedging it firmly in the waistband of his Umbro joggers.
‘Can I help you?’ Alan asked, stepping out from behind his station.
He jolted upright, turning on the spot to see Alan, standing with his hands firmly in his pockets.
‘No, no. You’re alright. I was just -’ He glanced around him, searching for an answer. ‘Was just looking to see if you had any of that ant shit.’
‘Back again, are they?’
‘Aye,’ he replied, his hand moving to cover the bulge under his jacket. He scratched the nape of his neck with the other.
‘You ought to stop leaving food out for them, then,’ Alan said, as he moved closer towards him. ‘I’m sure we had some left.’
‘Yeah, well. Don’t matter. I’ll try again tomorrow,’ he said, as he edged his way around Alan, twisting his body to avoid grazing him on the way past. ‘I’ll just grab one of them scratch cards. The quid ones.’
Alan turned to look at him, his eyes making their way up and down his body, hesitating slightly at his belly.
‘Right. Okay,’ he said, as he entered through the knee-height door. ‘That’s one pound then.’ Alan pulled the scratch card out of the back of the machine, tearing the perforated edge as slowly as he could.
He emptied the loose change from his pocket onto the counter, five and ten pieces clattering against the wood.
He twisted the key in the lock, gave the bottom left-hand corner a kick, and threw back the wooden door. He shrugged his jacket down his shoulders and stepped awkwardly out of his trainers, leaving them in a heap on the frayed, red carpet.
He slumped against the wall. The artex wallpaper scratched at the bottom of his back. The draught from the open front door whipped at his ankles. The can of ant repellent slipped out of its holding as his bum hit the floor, landing with a clunk against the chipped skirting board. He placed his elbows on his knees and ran his fingers through his thinning hair.
He stared at the filthy carpet beneath his legs. He hadn’t gotten around to buying a runner. The brown splotches of mud had become the only decorations in his otherwise bare flat. His eyes scanned the edges of the skirting boards, where a thick line of dust had collected as a result of his half-hearted attempts at hoovering. Small pieces of gravel mixed in among tufts of grey and crumbs of food.
He sat upright and wiped his cheeks with the discoloured sleeves of his t-shirt. He picked up the can, turning it over and over in his hand. Using the wall to stabilise himself, he stood up carefully. He pushed the front door shut with his hip, listened for it to click into place, and kicked aside the heap of clothing in the middle of the hallway.
He made his way towards the kitchen. One hand reached for the light switch to his left, while the other clutched the stolen can. The last of the five light bulbs flickered above his head before it too, died out.
He stepped into the room, eyes fixed in the direction of the blackened leftovers of last night’s tea. With his free hand, he pulled the cord for the blind, allowing the room to be flooded with natural light for the first time since he moved in. A small spider scurried into the top corner of the window. He leant forwards, his face inches away from the surface.
‘Come on, ya little buggers,’ he coaxed, placing his free hand onto the counter. ‘Let’s be havin’ ya.’
He felt the scurry of tiny feet tickle his skin as it circled the back of his hand. He turned it upside down and watched as the ant crawled into his palm.
‘You really are ugly fuckers, aren’t ya?’ he said. Squeezing the can between his knees, he pulled off the plastic cap and threw it onto the floor.
‘It’s time to go now,’ he said, raising his other hand, and the ant, on level with his face. He glanced back towards the worktop. ‘See, they don’t even know you’re missing.’
‘I can’t promise it won’t hurt,’ he croaked, ‘but am sure that you’d thank me if ya could.’ He raised the can aloft, his hand shaking slightly. Aiming the nozzle, he closed his eyes tightly, and pressed down as hard as he could.