Monday, March 16, 2009

Water Canons and A Rustle in the Grass

Point of view is everything. Always has been. Always will be.

The story is one thing, but it's who's telling it that really matters.

Many novels have successfully explored the POV of an animal. Not so many have explored the POV of an insect -- in this case, an ant.

Robin Howdon's A Rustle in the Grass (Hamlyn, '84) will make you think twice next time you see a file of ants crossing your garden path, or notice a single ant making his way across a fallen log.

When I was a kid with a single digit birthday count, I would stomp on the shifty bastards or blast them with a hose.

I remember one particularly hot Summer morning many ant deaths ago. The twitchy blighters had not only taken up residence in our garden, but they were streaming across my mother's kitchen benches benches in search of moisture and wee parcels of sweetness. They climbed the walls in thin, systematic cords of shimmering blackness, disappearing into barely visible openings where corners met ceilings. I intended to address the problem by flooding their nest with liquid hell.

Once I positioned my hose above their nest in a shaded corner of the garden, I embedded a stick in the ground and pegged my hose to it. The hose was now a canon. I walked across the yard to the tap and turned it up full force. I then ran back to survey the assault.

The water drilled into the nest like Peter Cushing's burrowing machine from At The Earth's Core. Dark soil spewed from the hole in a lava-like, inky fountain. Although the bodies of dead ants were too small to see, I imagined that hundreds, if not thousands, were being churned out of the earth in the fountain.

Mesmerized by the action of my amateur water canon, I left it blasting and ran inside to tell my brother about it. My mother, who was prepping lunch, spotted me, and pointed to the table. "It's lunch time," she said.

"Where's Colin?" I asked.

"What do you want with him?"


My mother placed peanut butter and sultana sandwiches in front of me. "Now eat."

Colin joined us a couple of minutes later. He'd been drawing beautiful pictures on butcher's paper. He showed me a monster he'd just finished. I was impressed.

After we'd each downed the sandwiches and eaten a lamington (a sponge cake coated with chocolate sauce and shredded coconut) , I asked Colin to come outside with me.

"What's out there?" my mother inquired, always so suspicious.


My mother shook her head. "You want him to go outside to see 'nothing' do you?"

I nodded.

"I think he's busy."

"No, I'm not."

"Be quiet, you're busy."

Despite my mother's attempt to rewrite his reply, Colin headed for the door to witness ant genocide.

"Where do you think you're going?" my mother shouted.


"Good. Then go into your bedroom and get me your dirty shirts. I'm going to do some ironing."

I sat at the table drawing a mustache on a photo of the Queen as my brother followed my mother's order.

Then I heard it: "Mum, there's water coming through the window!"


My mother dropped her damp tea towel and rushed into the bedroom that my brother and I shared. A thick jet of water was blasting through the fly wire screen into the room. Had been for ten minutes already. The floor was a swimming pool. The ceiling was a spreading stain.


Sometime during lunch, my water canon had become loose. It had turned on its stick and redirected its fury at the bedroom window.

The ants had been spared any further punishment.

My punishment, on the other hand, was rushing towards me like John Voight on Runaway Train.

When your mother says "Wait 'til your father gets home," the upside of that statement is you've got time to run away from home, kill yourself, or pad your butt before taking a beating.

Unfortunately, my father already was home. He was watching Arnold Palmer win a golf tournament on the black and white TV in the living room. He didn't like being interrupted when he was watching golf.

I had no time to run, kill myself, or prepare for a beating.

Now I knew how the ants in the garden nest must have felt when the water canon from the sky ruined their morning.

I never harmed an ant again.

In A Rustle in the Grass, war breaks out between ant colonies after the Queen dies.

An incredible story of survival and courage begins.

I paused a couple of times while reading this (for the first time) to marvel at the fact that I was totally immersed in the plight of creatures barely large enough to see with glasses on.

It is a truly original, captivating work of fiction.

Howdon went on to co-write the fantastic The Old Devils ('86) with Kingsley Amis.

1 comment:

  1. The added bonus of learning more about the Phantom from these childhood adventures is that we learn a little about Ma and Pa Phantom. Or rather, mostly about Ma Phantom.

    She really was onto you, wasn't she?

    Kept you "on a mighty short leash didn't she, H.I.??"

    She reminds me of the vigilant mother figures in the works of James Joyce.

    Great stuff.