Pumpski lived at the end of my street and he was my good mate in grade seven. He despised ants and would shout down at them when he saw them and you could tell it was personal.
“You bastards are just like idiot humans that go to war!”
He was mostly normal when ants weren’t around, and one Sunday he came over to my place excited and exhibited two enormous empty Vegemite jars that were sloped in at the sides.
“We gotta go to Brackett’s Creek and catch a thousand bulldog ants and shove them in these.”
Bulldog ants were bigger than an inch long and Pumpski showed me something fascinating about them the summer before. He cut one in half and we watched the head grab the tail while the tail was stinging the head and he cleared his throat and spoke in a grave voice.
“That’s exactly like humans in wars. The head is one country fighting and the arse is the other country fighting and all the time it’s killing itself and doesn’t know it.”
We spent two hours hiking to Brackett’s where the Banksia’s and Macadamia trees grew and no matter how much I begged him Pumpski wouldn’t explain the plan. We found a cluster of three bulldog ant nests next to a rusty Chevy that had been abandoned by Ben Brackett’s dad in 1939. Pumpski looked at them swarming and he snorted.
“Let’s get ‘em ’cause I need to freeze a shit load of ’em.”
We unscrewed our jars and started filling them and by this time I was annoyed.
He laughed and finally let on about his plan.
“I read in a science journal that when you stick ‘em in the fridge they stop moving but they always come back to life when you warm them up, and I’m gonna sprinkle ‘em all in Mrs. Lanham’s desk when they’re still frozed.”
Mrs. Lanham was our teacher and it all made sense now. Recently she had made Pumpski stand at the front of the class with a dog muzzle on him with a sign underneath that read, “Male Boy. Do Not Feed.”, and all because he was asking why sheilas never had to sign up for wars.
On Monday morning he sat next to me and his eyes were popped rounder than I’d ever seen. “I reckon we got nine hundred and sixty and I chucked the lot in her desk and now all we gotta do is sit back and watch and say nothing.”
He never took his eyes off her desk and when Mrs. Lanham came into the room and sat down he snickered to me.
“They’ll come out the hole of the inkwell slow at first, but when they all warm up it’s game over mate.”
I was already nervous, and ten minutes later the first bulldog ant wandered out and then I got really scared. Pumpski was right. They did come back to life when they thawed, and when two of them wandered up Mrs. Lanham’s sleeve she flicked them off and her voice was quivery.
“Settle down kids. It’s just a couple of ants.”
When she said that someone shouted, “Look!”
The rim of the inkwell was dark with dozens of the ants escaping and she opened her mouth and squeaked. She flung up the lid of the desk and they poured out over the sides like licorice toffee boiling too hot in a saucepan.
The whole class jumped up from the seats like we were on pins and there was screaming and hooting everywhere. Mrs. Lanham jerked back violently and bonked the back of her head on the chalk-board and Pumpski yelped at me.
“Look at her eyes. They’re going strange and that means she’s gonna faint. I read about that in medical journals.”
She collapsed forwards and her head dipped deep into the open desk before she slipped down the chair to the floor. Her blonde hair held a great clump of ants looking like a mop just used to wipe up molasses, and we stayed way back terrified as we watched them scramble down to her heels. The janitor heard the screaming and threw a bucket of soapy water on her, and a few seconds later Mr. Green the headmaster ran in and sprayed her with a fire extinguisher that covered all of her in foam.
“Stand back clown! Water’s no good. The foam will retard the nipping.”
Mr. Green only used the word retard when it was for something scientific and never about humans and we were sent home immediately. The next morning when we sat in class there was an announcement over the school loudspeaker system. It told how Mrs. Lanham was recovering and that the school was giving her money for the trauma due to the ants and that the culprits would soon be caught. Pumpski grabbed my arm and stared into the distance.
“Mate that’s what we gotta do. We have to faint and they’ll listen to us when we make our demands when we come to.”
I didn’t know what he was talking about. “What demands?”
He ignored me and put up his hand and spoke in a wobbly voice to the replacement teacher. “Excuse me, sir. I am troubled about something and it’s affecting me deeply.”
The new teacher looked up and frowned and I thought that Pumpski would cave but he didn’t. He just mumbled something and made his eyes weird and he slithered down his seat and flopped to the floor pretending his whole body was made of jellyfish parts.
The class was laughing hard and the teacher wasn’t buying it. He prodded him with his shoe for two whole minutes while Pumpski did nothing, so he picked him up and flipped him over his shoulder and dumped him on the visitor’s couch in Mr. Green’s office and informed him that he wasn’t coming back.
I didn’t see Pumpski for four days, and when he came over he told me that Mr. Green fell for the fainting because he was really polite and gave him peanut brittle and talked about his hobby of breeding dogs and collecting lighthouse blueprints.
“I’ve stumbled on somethin’ powerful Ian. If we use this new power properly we can make demands like longer lunches or no more homework and we might even get sympathy money from the school treasury.”
For the next few days he didn’t say anything more to me about fainting, but on Friday he told everyone. I saw him handing out small bits of paper to the blokes in our year, and when he handed one to me it read, “Faint For Demands at EXACTLY 11 seconds past 11:11 AM Today.”
I told him flat out, “I’m not going to faint nor is anyone else.” He looked at me and his eyes got popped again.
“Bloody oath they will! Every bloke I spoke to is going to pretend to drop dead because the ANZACs stopped fighting at eleven o’clock on the eleventh day on the eleventh month and those three elevens are always in our brains reminding us of wars.”
He stared at me waiting for my response and he explained, “Humans always remember emotions, and wars are always about emotions.”
Pumpski was funny about wars and ants, but he was right about numbers and emotions because when the clock on the wall clicked eleven seconds past eleven minutes past eleven, every bloke including me dropped to the floor as dead as wet sacks of chalk. I had to join in because if I didn’t it would have been embarrassing.
Mrs. Andlecott, the new permanent teacher, sighed and hushed all the girls who were giggling. “Young ladies be quiet. Let’s wait to see who will be the last boy to get up off the floor and go back to his chair.”
My eyes were closed while I heard the boys going back to their seats one by one and Mrs. Andlecott sighed again and this time her words were growled.
“The last boy on the floor will be punished. So who will it be?” and when I heard that I thought bugger the ants and wars and demands. I got up and sat down and saw that Pumpski was the only one still lying on the floor and he wasn’t twitching.
Mrs. Andlecott did a slow clap and sneered. “It seems Nathan is the ringleader”, and a second later Mr. Green walked in and picked him up and stepped out the door with him flopped over his shoulder like he was a dingo trapper heading for home. I never saw Pumpski again because his dad promptly moved the family to the other side of town and got an unlisted number.
Three years later I read a short story buried on page six in the Courier Mail that told of an entire classroom of grade ten girls who fainted at the same time during the ANZAC minute of silence. It went on to describe how the ringleader was expelled and how he instigated the incident because he was doing a sociological experiment involving wars, ants and gender.
I knew it was Pumpski, and I cheered him when it was casually mentioned that the school was planning to build an undercover netball court.
Original artwork, © Ian Williams. 2013.