It was the ants who told her to leave.
Sunday morning he lay wasted in bed and she rose early to find a foraging column making its way to and fro between the back door and the pile of sugar he had spilt in the early hours but neglected to clear up. Each departing ant had in its clutches as many of the fine, translucent-white grains as it could carry. While the outgoing line descended from the worktop down the face of the fridge, the incoming ants ascended. The two broadly parallel lines stretched away across the floor, disappearing into and appearing from the gap under the door, a gap visible to both the human and the formic eye. Beyond were a couple of concrete steps, in the crevices of which the nest had been created and the colony lodged.
Feeling like his mother, if she had told him once about the sugar, she had told him a thousand times, but he. Never. Bloody. Listened. Away from the columns of ants – it wasn’t their fault – she smashed his Dunfermline Athletic mug on the floor tiles. The dregs splashed on her bare feet.
She wanted to go home. He didn’t want to; ‘Not just yet, hen.’ She wanted air that carried on it the scent of the sea or the heather over which it had blown rather than a single day and night more of kebabs and grimy heat and petrol fumes. Recently too she had been dreaming of feet kicking at her tummy from the inside, kicking her so hard that she would wake from sleep. She had told him the dream, but she could tell he didn’t want to; ‘Not just yet, hen.’ So she slept while he lived life as an urban ghoul. She needed to wake up, to snap out of it, to do what she wanted to do, be where she wanted to be. For too long she had clung to the belief that he had to get all this out of his system, and then he would be ready. But she knew now he would never be ready. He would always spill the sugar.
As a girl she had been fascinated by ants. The singular way they formed their collective, she supposed. They seemed so driven and determined. She crouched on the floor tiles as she might once have done to get a better view of them. Even here crawling across the theoretically hygienic space of the kitchen, they didn’t make her skin crawl. She watched them scurry, able to move off in any direction as curiosity or the surface over which they were passing required, always returning to the strength of the line.
She opened the back door, and there were the first flyers of the year, spreading their wings; or rather, rising as cavalierly and as uncertainly into the air as the pioneers of human aviation must have. She had refused to let him kill the ants, either with powder or boiling water. In that sense she was to blame for the problem as much as him. In all probability they were doomed from the beginning; perhaps she should have asked him back then what his position on ants was, or insects in general. Filtered out his mass murdering tendencies.
She stood up, stepped back over the ant lines, and added what sugar remained in the bowl to the spillage on the worktop. To her eye this did not create a sufficiently impressive mountain, so she opened the store cupboard, found the rest of the pack of sugar and emptied that out too, followed by healthy measures of demerara, caster and icing sugar. The ants deserved the lot, and he could walk for his afternoon cup of tea, or drink it unsugared for once.
She packed her suitcase to the rhythm of his snoring. He remained oblivious as she moved quickly and quietly around the bedroom. There seemed no point leaving a note; the sugar mountain was eloquent enough, and if he didn’t understand its message, then there really had never been any hope.