The Red Ants – Prologue

©Martin Pevsner 2011

You wake though you can’t remember sleeping, one moment you’re hunched between lawnmower and wheelbarrow, sideways prone on damp shed floor, strands of dried grass clinging to your cheek, shivering cold in midnight hour. Then next you’re jerked alive, scrabbling to your feet, peering through smeary window at the pale dawn.

Someone’s lying in the garden no more than ten feet away. You peer more closely. The back is to you but the shape looks female. You are pretty sure she wasn’t there last night. You wonder if she could be asleep, imagine her stirring, sitting up, yawning. But you know it’s unlikely.

You stand for a few moments, your ear tuning in for sounds. At your feet lies the canvas bag filled with ipod and penknife, a few scrabbled clothes, your phone and the trumpet. You stand stock still straining to hear but the silence is eerie, no more screams of the hunted, no more back-and-forth calls of the huntsmen.

It’s time to leave, you’ve reached the point of no return, your own point, no one else’s. Because we all have our own point, don’t we?

You leave the shed, close the splintered door as best you can. It’s trespassing, of course. Breaking and entering, too. But the owners aren’t here anymore, won’t be coming back either. You slink through the shrubbery, squeeze through the splintered fence. You don’t want to take the road down to the bridge, it’s too exposed, so you cut across the playpark and disappear down the back alley that runs parallel to the main road.

There are two women lying face down near the bench by the playpark, another on her side near the alley entrance. She’s got a baby in her arms, two children at her feet. You have to step over more women in the alley, one fully-clothed, others half-dressed or naked. More children, too, eyes closed, limbs twisted, bodies distorted in positions that make no sense. Where are the men, you wonder? It seems they were dealt with separately last night.

There’s no ferry at this time of the morning, but you wouldn’t want to risk it anyway, far safer to weave your way along the shoreline, cross the estuary at the footbridge, then sneak through the woods and out onto the path that will take you beyond the headland to the cove.

There are more women outside the pub, seven or eight piled up on the pavement, there must have been some kind of makeshift checkpoint here. Others are scattered higgledy-piggledy where they fell, another stack of children next to the recycling bins before the ferry dock. It’s too early for the collection patrols, or perhaps they’ve just given up on them, no reason to hide anything anymore, it’s all out in the open now.

The final bend in the road, the last house before town becomes country. The street light is on, the first one you’ve noticed that’s still working, the sodium yellow a lone star amongst the browns and greys of this murky dawn.

You look over into the bay, spot the bodies bobbing like logs in the water. You’ve been seeing them for months now, ever since it started, but never in these quantities.

Still only silence and empty streets, the quarry in hiding, the predators sleeping off the night’s excesses. No need to rise early, nobody’s going anywhere, nothing that can’t wait until the morning.

You cross the footbridge, tramp through the woods until you reach the coastal path. It climbs up above the trees, offers a final view of the town before it curves out of sight beyond the rocky outcrop. Before it disappears, you turn and give the town a final look. There’s a taste of mist in the air, nothing heavy, just enough to soften the edges of the houses, the church steeple, the squat structures in the town centre – police station, post office, shops and offices. It lies, calm and placid, a sleeping dog exhausted by yesterday’s fervour.

By the time you leave the path, it’s morning proper, the sun’s halfway up and you are sweating. You scramble down between the rocks, out of sight. You feel safer.

The boat is where he said it would be. It looks too small to carry you across the water, you’ll need calm weather for a smooth crossing.

As you approach, a head pokes out over the boat side, your heart contracts, a moment of panic before you realise it’s Larry. You rush ahead, stumble on a rock, catch your balance. By the time you look up, he’s disappeared out of sight so you hurry down the pontoon and swing over onto the deck.

You find Larry down below helping a middle-aged woman apply a bandage to a young boy. It’s difficult to make out the figures in the muddy half-light but you think you can make out another two adults, men, huddled in the far corner. The boy groans, the woman makes a soothing noise. The smell of human waste is overpowering even from the doorway, you reverse up the steps, wait on deck for Larry to join you.

Are we taking them? you ask.

Not we. You, he answers.

What? What d’you mean?

I’m staying. I found these ones in the cellar next door. The boy was crying, he gave them away. If I hadn’t found them, they’d be dead. There are others in Ratthole, all around town, hiding for their lives. I can’t leave. I can’t leave them. I spoke to Old Luke, his boat’s in the harbour. He said he’d help.

I’ll stay with you, you say. I’ll help.

He shakes his head. Behind his impatience, I can read the fear in his expression, the exhaustion etched into his face.

No, Mole. I need you to get these ones away. Take them across the water, make them safe.

But… , you start. Larry’s the only figure of hope you still have, he’s your lifebuoy, you don’t want to let go. We’ll wait for you, you say. We’ll be safe here.

No, Mole. It’s too dangerous. Come on, mate. I know you can do this. I’m counting on you.

Defeated, you say nothing, nod, swallow hard.

I’ve got to go, he says. It’ll be OK. There’s fuel, water, a bit of food. I’ve left the charts for you, it should be straightforward. We’ll see each other the other side. Have you got the memory stick?

You nod, take it from your pocket and hand it over.

Good lad, he says. Can you do this? he asks. You can do this.

He looks at you, offers a tired smile. You can see he’s appraising you, you sense that his faith in you is slipping. You take a deep breath, return the smile. You try to speak but it comes out as a croak. Satisfied, Larry slaps you on the shoulder, turns and jumps across to the dock. Before he starts the climb up towards the coastal path, he turns, throws you a thumb’s up.

The other side, yeah? he calls.

You start up the engine, cast off, manoeuvre the boat away from the landing dock and out from the cove into the open water. When you’ve done the tricky bit and can afford to relax, you put on your ipod. It’s Miles Davis, of course. So What. You give it five minutes but something’s changed, it just feels hard and cold, leaves you nauseous. You slip off the ipod, reach over and toss the device overboard. As an afterthought, you take the trumpet out of your bag and throw it into the water. Your phone too. There’s no one to call. You don’t feel a thing. You don’t look back.


This is what you hear from Nano, this is the story she tells.

Once there was a woman who lived in the city. She was highly educated, a newly-qualified doctor working in one of the hospitals. She lived alone in the city, her family came from the sticks, the south-west of the country. It was a time of great unrest, one of those periods that have occurred with regularity ever since the time of the Social Revolution. The country was wracked by violence and unrest as countryfolk paramilitaries lashed out at their enemies, perceived and imaginary.

One day she treats a man for serious burns. It’s an assassination attempt, he’s a moderate lawyer working for consensus and compromise amongst the extremists. His condition is serious, he undergoes skin grafts that demand skilful, time-consuming post-operative care. As she treats him, a bond develops between the two, they fall in love. He had been engaged to a woman a few years before but she had betrayed him, had broken his heart and so up until now he has thrown himself into his work.

One day as she begins her shift, she sees a group of security officers entering the hospital, guesses that they mean to arrest the man and ‘disappear’ him so, with seconds to spare, she rushes to his ward, takes him to an empty room, swaps his chart for that of an innocent recently deceased. She arranges for an ambulance to transfer him under an assumed name to another hospital across the city, accompanies him in the ambulance, then gets the driver to drop them both off at her apartment.

He stays in her home. She treats him for his burns and he slowly recovers. Their love grows. Weeks turn to months. One day she discovers that she is pregnant. Meanwhile throughout the country the latecomer opposition and countryfolk moderates are hunted and eliminated. Finally, as the violence and fear spread, the ambulance driver betrays them, tells the security forces about the politician.

Before he can be arrested, she receives a tip-off, they go on the run, leave the city. The plan is to head south-west, to try and reach her family. It is that period in the country’s history before the Referendum, a period of mayhem and lawlessness. The couple hide by day, walk throughout the night. Eventually they arrive on the outskirts of our town. She gives birth in a barn.

The next morning the baby is discovered outside the local hospital. The couple are never seen again.

The baby spends a week in an incubator in the ICU. A nurse in the maternity ward tells her friend about the foundling. The friend is in her fifties, never married, too old to conceive. She decides she would like to adopt the baby. It is a time of anarchy, usual protocol has been abandoned. A few days later, the nurse calls her friend. When the friend arrives, the nurse simply hands over the baby, plus several tins of powdered milk, packets of nappies, some clothing and blankets.

Nano was the friend. The baby was you.

This is what you hear from Nano. This is the story she tells.


Memories are journeys without travel, voyages without destination.

The crossing was fine, the sea was calm. Months have passed. Months spent in that country on the other side of the water.

At first you were in a camp. There were many of you, all those who survived, mostly latecomers but some countryfolk too, those who refused to take part. You cooked together, prayed together, played listless games of cards together. But you were damaged, broken, so you grieved alone.

After some time, they closed the camps. You were separated, given one-bedroom apartments in towerblocks on the windswept outskirts of their cities.

Some adapted, learned the language, threw themselves into jobs, took advantage of educational scholarships. Cooks, cleaners, taxidrivers pulling twenty-hour shifts to help them sleep.

Some were not ready, too busted, living on benefits, numbed by cheap booze, prescription tablets and daytime TV, seeing out their three-score and ten with grim patience.

For a few there was a delayed realisation that matters could simply not be tolerated, an exit was better for all concerned, the tenth-floor leap of faith, the noose, the handful of pills.

Not everyone stayed in that country. For some it was too close to home, they told themselves that physical distance could help the healing, or perhaps it was simply instinct, a continuing escape reflex. They identified sympathetic countries, arranged travel visas, work permits, transcontinental flights.

And then there were those of you that decided to go home.

Of course, at the beginning, no one could conceive of a return. Apart from the psychological trauma, what was there to return to? The jigsaw pieces – friends, family, jobs – were missing or broken, the puzzle no longer fitted together.

True, the old government has been driven out, the new one makes great play of its reconciliation policy. But anyone who returns must be aware that though you may go back to the familiar sky above you, the recognizable trees and hills around you, perhaps even a known roof over your heads, life can never be the same, it will always be after the before.

But still you are coming home.

You’ve heard accounts from returners, the ordeal of living with countryfolk neighbours who tried to kill you, who murdered your loved ones, these self-same neighbours that lined you up for slaughter now nodding a morning greeting as they pass you in the street.

You’ve heard about survivors returning to find strangers living in their houses, running their farms and businesses, tending their vegetable patches, driving their cars.

You’ve heard about the alienation they feel, these returning exiles, shot by both sides. To the left they face their countryfolk persecutors, living side-by-side with them, heads averted, pretending nothing happened. They have turned the page in the history book, erased it from memory, the past is best forgotten.

And to the right they face the authorities, the latecomer government, those at the head of the police, the army, the business community. Latecomers yes, but not survivors, these ones have all grown up in exile, some even born abroad, latecomers that fled during the Social Revolution or in the years since then, returning only after the killing, sweeping in on the heels of the rebels, the liberators, your saviours. They know nothing of what you have experienced.

The politicians want power, the businessmen want wealth, but neither of these commodities are so easily earned if sleeping dogs are roused, old bones disturbed. So laws have been passed banning the discussion of ethnicity, the mention of terms such as countryfolk and latecomer and indigent. New ID cards are produced that do not indicate ethnic background. Henceforth you are all one group, one voice, one nation.

It seems everyone is happy. The countryfolk breathe a sigh of relief. The authorities enjoy uncontested control. The international community congratulates the government on its attempt to deal with the ethnic issue and so end discrimination and intolerance. Your country’s policy is seen as a model for national reconciliation.

But what about the survivors? What about your wounds? How can they heal in this void, this conspiracy of silence. It’s not retribution you want, an eye for an eye. But you need a voice, a framework in which to scream, the licence to scream and shout. You need others to listen.

Since your escape you’ve spent too many of your days in silence. No words, no music, nothing to say, no one to hear. You are sapped of life, desiccated, and you know you will remain so as long as you stay here. Job, prescription pills, transcontinental flight, they won’t make a difference.

That’s why you are coming home.

This is your voyage.

©Martin Pevsner 2011

The Red Ants - Prologue
by Martin Pevsner

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