x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Fifth place: The Turning Point by Mark Shadwell

Mark Shadwell, a 47-year-old creative director in Dubai, writes a beautifully moving story about having to take his daughter to a ballet class because his wife has died. Meanwhile his home is being invaded by ants.

We’re late for ballet. Almost locked-out-of-the-class late. The bun in my daughter’s hair was defiant. Wriggling and slithering out from the metal pin which still hangs tenaciously to one strand. In the end, I gave up. The art of the bun. I make a mental note to Google it.

It’s her first class back since it happened. I put my foot in the door just as it’s closing, shove her in. The mums, all neatly seated, watch me from above their conversations. The only man in the room. I smile apologetically from the door. Shuffle and squeeze between chairs and tanned knees towards the only remaining seat at the far end of the class.

“Sorry ‘bout this. Excuse me. So sorry. If I could just ...”

Some glance up, smile back. Carry on talking about the upcoming Brownies sleepover or sales at Mothercare. Or maybe the tragedy.

The teacher removes the pin, pops it on top of the music system, shows Lucy to her place amongst the dancers at the far end of the class. Today they’re at the barre in front of the ceiling-high mirror. There’s palpable tension in the air. And no wonder. Grade Two exams are coming up next month. (On Saturday the 17th according to my diary).

Lucy watches the others out of the corner of her eye. Two moves behind the rest.

It’s not just the bun that made us late. Our house is being devoured by ants. And I’m engaged in a full-scale war. This morning I was up at 5.30. Checking the house for signs of lone scouts or the long trails along which they carry away bits of our life. Tiny crumbs of food, concrete and wood. They’re like drops of black rain dissolving everything we built up over nine years. But I’ve got their number now.

“Whoa! Nice one, Luce.” I’m up on my feet, fists pumping, applauding. She nailed the grande plié. At least it seemed to me like she did.

Lucy seems to shrink into herself. Gives me a look that could dissolve the fillings in your teeth. The mums are horrified. I sit down again.

Where was I? Oh yes, the ants. I’ve pretty much given up on the off-the-shelf solutions. The powders and the sprays. Even the traps with the substances that the little buggers are meant to carry back to poison the Queen and kill the colony. They snack on that stuff between meals and come back begging for more.

The pest control people had some luck. After a brief inspection, they gathered outside my back door and conferred in hushed tones. Quick glances were shot in my direction. Clearly this was not a straightforward infestation. Then they placed blobs of gel around the house, along the skirting boards and on the light switches. It seemed to work for a week or two. But before long the ants were back. A lone scout on the kitchen counter. A few more in the bathroom. And yesterday, a full-blown party in the cornflakes box. Like someone had shaken a book and all the letters fell out. 

Lucy seems to be winging it. Even I can tell these are not traditional ballet moves. Her arms are above her head, waving like seaweed in a strong current, her fingers clicking to the beat. Perhaps we’ve been overdoing Dance Sensation II on the Wii lately. I just figured that it would help with her rhythm somehow. Her core strength. At least until I could get to grips with some of intricacies involved in the more classical dance forms.

Anyway, it was something she and Carol used to do together. Something I needed to keep doing. Like Lucy, I’m just winging it. (Carol, by the way is my wife. Or at least she was).

Lucy attempts some pointe work, spins, almost falls over. The teacher catches her. Steadies her. Looks over at me, like I’ve been force-feeding her Snickers bars.

I can still feel Carol’s fingers tighten around my hand. She was on the examination table. Her dress hitched up above the bulge in her belly.

“Do you want to know?” the doctor asked. We were both staring at the whirling cone of light on the sonograph screen. We looked at each other and nodded. The doctor, with a touch of the theatrical, waited a few seconds longer than necessary.

“Congratulations. You’re going to have a girl.”

Later Carol asked me if I was disappointed it wasn’t a boy. She knew I’d grown up with two brothers in a rugby-mad house. The greatest feminine influence, besides my woefully outnumbered mother, was the one season Leicester Tigers experimented with a female on-field physio.

I looked at Carol, but couldn’t even answer, my throat so constricted with unexpected happiness, it felt like I was having an asthma attack.

Lucy follows the other girls across the wooden boards. They run with those tiny ballerina steps and then spring into the air as they pass by in front of us. Allegro. The tempo of the music has changed.

I recognise the track from a CD Carol used to have in the car. Her and Lucy’s favourite songs. Their personal hit parade. Tchaikovsky. Katie Perry. One Direction. Shostakovich. Kelly Clarkson. I think it’s Shostakovich playing now.

Lucy gets some impressive airtime, in my opinion. Even if her arms and legs make her look like someone in a blender. I let out a stifled “Yeah!” Cough. Control myself just in time.

I’ve bought all the songs on that CD. Downloaded them on my phone, I’ll have you know. Carol and Lucy used to listen to it over and over on the school run. 

The CD was still in the player when I went to look at the car. Tracked it down to a dusty RTA lot out in Ras Al Khor. Edge of the desert. Not really sure what I expected to find. Carol had been pestering me to buy that new car for the longest time. Especially since Lucy had moved to a new school and Carol was now taking Al Khail Road more often.

She said she needed something with a bit more presence on the road. Something with side impact bars. A good safety rating. Not much help when you get hit by one of those orange trucks carrying canisters of cooking gas. Head on. But I guess nothing would’ve helped. Late for a delivery. He never saw her turn out from the school gates after dropping Lucy off.

The front end of the Explorer was concertina’d right up to the steering wheel. Air bags filling the interior like kids’ beach toys. Fine desert sand coating everything. But miraculously the car battery and CD player were still fine. It began playing as I turned the key, still in the ignition. Kelly Clarkson. Everyone Has A Dark Side. 

Now Lucy and I listen to Kelly & Co on the way to school. No more Johnny Cash or Pearl Jam. Would you believe me if I said I think I prefer Kelly anyway? Especially when she draws my daughter’s unfocused gaze back from the side window and our eyes meet in the rear view mirror.

The ants only began appearing after Carol. After the awkward memorial service and after the Pyrex dishes of lasagne, brought over by Carol’s friends, had been eaten. At least I never noticed them before. Granted the house was a lot untidier without her there to knock it into shape. Crumbs on the counters. The dishes piling in the sink. That’s a perfect explanation for the ants right there. But it seemed to me they could sense this was a house ripe for the taking. Not malevolent in any way. Just nature, without sentiment, going about her business. Clearing away the dead and decaying to make way for the new.

In some ways I even welcomed them. Hoped they would take it all. Break it down, grain by grain, molecule by molecule. Until nothing was left. Not even the longing.

But, like with most things, there came a turning point. A tap on the shoulder. You couldn’t call it a momentous event, by any stretch of the imagination. Just tiny noise at 4am on a Sunday morning. I woke from the fug left over by a half bottle of Jack Daniels. Stumbled downstairs towards the light under the door of the laundry room. Opened it to find my eight-year-old daughter trying to iron her school uniform for that day. Just one more chore I’d forgotten.

I skipped work. Went straight to Union Co-op and emptied their shelves of Doom.

In my naivety, I figured that’s all it would take to rid our home of ants. The months since have taught me that this is going to be a long-drawn out war. One that’s perhaps never over. But I’ll do whatever it takes.

You might never destroy them completely but there are countless ways to keep the ants at bay.

You do it by putting your food in double lock tupperware containers and using little plastic food pegs for the opened packets of biscuits and crisps. You do it by covering the chemical trails the ants leave for each other with camphor and lavender oils.

But you also stop the erosion in other ways. Many of them subtle beyond imagining. You do it by adding scented fabric softener to the clothes wash and always having a spare bottle of hair conditioner in the bathroom cupboard. The right kind. You keep at it by buying colourful throw cushions for the sofa and finding out the difference between tights and leggings. You do it by learning to do a French plait and watching MasterChef Australia for cooking tips. By putting up a calendar behind the kitchen door. One with all the birthdays of school friends clearly marked. And above all, you make damn sure you know who’s been knocked out of American Idol this week.

Later, I know there’ll be more challenging battles. Trainer bras and sanitary towels, mascara, make-up and eyelash extensions. But I’m already mentally prepared. Done my research. Made my notes.

The class is over. Lucy and her friends giggle near the door. Then she breaks away. Runs towards me. Not because she can’t stand being apart from her father for a moment longer, but because we’re off to Virgin to get One Direction tickets. Then it’s on to H&M in MOE for that sequinned top she wants to wear to the concert. She’s had her eye on it, like forever, and I read in Ahlan (or was it online in ExpatWoman?) that they’ve just arrived as part of the new spring/summer collection.

Mark Shadwell, 47, is a South African advertising creative director in Dubai