Short Story - The Mulley Hill Mob
Updated: Apr 10
(Originally submitted to the Best Australian Yarn short story competition 2022, then revised and submitted to the Peter Carey Short Story competition 2023)
He wasn’t sure if he’d made the right decision. After three days, the recruiting officer’s words kept strolling through the flowery meadows of the security guard’s mind.
‘The best guard will focus and scan for danger,’ the official had said twice, on account of the first time being missed as the recruit wondered how the officer waxed his moustache to pinpoints.
That sounded promising, the lad thought. His aunty always said he was the most focused kid she knew. One time, after dinner, his uncle had challenged him to a competition.
‘Look here, lad!’ the old man said while industriously digging a nail between his teeth.
‘Your aunty tells me you can focus like no-one else. Says you’re like a carrot.’
‘A carrot, Uncle Stan?’
‘Rooted to the spot, lad! Can stare anything to death.’
His aunt’s description weighed heavily on the young mind until he came to the obvious conclusion. ‘But I’m not orange.’
‘Never mind that.’ His uncle frowned at the piece of raspberry seed now lodged under a nail. ‘What d’you say we have a game? See who can out stare that grey caterpillar over there.’
The lad loved staring competitions. He squatted down to better lock eyes on the target and settled himself in. It wasn’t until long after everyone had gone to bed that the poor kid realised they had left him with a lichen-covered stone.
Unfortunately, the importance of a guard’s ability to focus wasn’t the only thought occupying his young mind. A second piece of wisdom was bothering him even more; guards must be on the lookout for opportunities. What did that mean? What opportunities would there be for a guard? In the 4,320 minutes he’d been employed, South Entrance security officer third class #747 had seen no opportunities jump out and grab him.
‘Hey!’ snapped guard #381, who was #747’s partner that day. #381 had been on the job for twice as long as him, so by definition was doubly likely to recognise opportunities.
‘Did you see that?’ asked #381.
The new guard unglued his eyes from the pebble he’d been watching. ‘Did I see what?’
‘The thing that kid just dropped.’
After forty-five minutes of staring, #747 was struggling to adjust his sight on an object capable of movement. ‘What kid?’ the rookie said, rubbing his eyes.
‘Over there! That kid just dropped a huge popsicle.’
South Entrance security officer third class #747 blinked into the distance. Immeasurably far away, a small boy was looking at the ground and crying.
‘What’s a pop-C-col?’
Guard #381 grunted as he turned to race down the tunnel, wishing to himself as he went that they’d stop advertising for new recruits, while #747 was left squinting and wondering whether popsicle was another word for opportunity.
‘Sergeant!’ an aging colonel bellowed at a passing soldier, even though he was within talking distance.
‘Get a squad ready, double-quick. Now, man! Don’t dawdle.’
The sergeant stopped picking at a piece of fluff that had mysteriously collected around his ankle and scuttled off to find some others. It didn’t take long to spot six of them dutifully collecting moss for one of the nurseries. A trip outside was all the convincing they needed to stop their chores.
The colonel glared as the group sidled up to him. It is commonly believed there are six basic emotional states, of which each has a distinct facial expression. For the colonel, these six were all variations of a glare, with the current one equating to anger.
‘Quick smart, we haven’t all day!’
The assembly huddled behind the sergeant in what is universally called a Tortoise Formation.
‘Right, very good.’ The glare shifted subtly to surprise. ‘I suppose they’ll do.’
The tortoise’s head wondered why the colonel always spoke as though he were part of the royal family. After all, thought the sergeant, wasn’t the Queen everyone’s mum.
‘Stand up straight when a commanding officer addresses you!’
‘Yes Sir!’ There was a slap of legs to heads. The colonel’s antennae bristled at the cowering audience, his eyes alight with authority.
‘Right. Listen up! There’s a message in from Signals. Large sugar deposit about a hundred feet from the South Entrance. I need you out there to check; then report back. Double-time. No dilly dallying. I want to see feet moving and moving fast!’
‘Yessir!’ the workers cried in unison.
That doesn’t sound too bad, the sergeant thought as he led the way toward the South Entrance. It wasn’t every day you got to be the first to scout out a sugar deposit. Of course, it was as likely to be a hundred feet away as he was to grow wings and become a queen. More like a thousand. Worse still, it might even be a trap.
Like yesterday when Theta squad found a dead sea gull. It was the same old story: hurry everyone. Get out there before those nasty red buggers over at the Mulley Hill colony get to it before us.
‘Those Signals guys need time in the sunlight to see what we’ve got to deal with,’ the sergeant muttered. He missed his friend Theta #434; with his dirty sense of humour and that weird thing he could do with his back legs. It was a pity about the crow snatching the carcass away with #434 and his mates clinging on for dear life. The sergeant could still hear his mate shouting obscenities as the crow lazily flapped away.
‘C’mon lads, let’s get it done,’ he moaned.
The ants fell into single file as they scurried along service tunnel S-3A that led to the junction with the main trunk line beneath the giant tree root pasted with lost-and-found signs. From there, it was only a double jump to reach the colossal South Entrance, and then out to the world beyond the colony. The workers could tell he wasn’t keen. The middle of the day was never a good time to be out in the open.
When they hit the sunlight, the concrete plain scorched them like a bratty kid with a magnifying glass. The sergeant called out for everyone to double-time as he glanced skyward.
And would you believe those Signals twits had got it right for a change! There it was, as obvious as the Queen’s bum. An enormous sugary lake on the horizon. The sweet blast hit them all and with the synchronised beauty of drunken camels, the ants legged it across the terrifying expanse in case the Mulley Hill mob got there before them.
‘Remember boys,’ the sergeant shouted as they broke formation. ‘You know the drill. No straight lines, only crazy ziggy-zaggy.’
They were half-way there when he realised there was a problem. The air was so heavy with sugarmones he was becoming dizzy like after eating too many puffballs. The sergeant called at the fellow closest to him to go back and tell the colonel they’d need at least two battalions to secure this prize. The worker hesitated. That’s how strong the desire was to keep going, but like all obedient soldiers, he feared his officers more than the enemy and reluctantly turned around. It was crucial he got help quickly because there was no chance this lake of lusciousness would go unnoticed by others. The Mulley Hill mob would be onto the scent at any moment. Then before you could say—your dad’s a caterpillar and smells like wee—they were upon it. The sergeant drove his face into the syrup and sucked like crazy. Lemon sugar. It couldn’t have been better.
‘Steady boys, pace yourselves. This is powerful stuff,’ he said through a mouthful. ‘Once you’ve had your fill, form a perimeter.’
‘A perimeter?’ said a nearby ant, whose number he didn’t know.
‘With only six of us?’ said another. He didn’t know him either; they all looked the same.
The sergeant wiped a leg across his sticky mouth. ‘Is there a problem? And it’s, Sir to you.’
‘There sure is, Sir. You want the six of us to protect a sugar lake the size of the Eastern nurseries!’
The sergeant looked hard at their glistening faces, then realised he’d grabbed the wrong bunch. He’d brought with him a gang of underground storage workers, not field operatives. Oh, this was going to be tough.
‘Well, just spread out then. And ... do your best to look menacing!’
Which after filling themselves, they duly did. At least, the sergeant assumed they had. In order to surround the melted popsicle, the ants were spread so far apart he couldn’t see them anymore.
The first thing to interrupt his watch, as they waited for the troops to secure the scene, were thugs from the Chicken Twisties Gang. Those low-life imbeciles who’d been kicked out of the Mulley Hill colony, and now spent their time roaming the park eating from garbage bins. The brute who led the pack liked to be called Tex. At last count, the Chicken Twisties Gang had five members. Of all of them, Tex had the most letters in his name.
‘Wha ‘u got ‘ere?’ The sergeant watched Tex’s eyes fold inwards with concentration. ‘Dis is … duh, ‘u know, it’s…’
There followed a heavy silence. In one abbreviated sentence, Tex had exhausted his daily word limit. While the little black ant waited for Tex’s brain to cool, a couple of his fellow ants returned to stare as angrily as they could at objects twice their size. Sensing this was not how things went; the de facto Chicken Twisties deputy picked up where Tex had lost his thread.
‘Dis is our turf, titch. Git!’
‘It’s not turf; it’s concrete. You colossal-headed twerp.’ The suicidally brave sergeant said in the faint hope that the colonel would arrive any moment with a swarm of hardened soldiers. Turbocharged by ten days’ worth of sugar in his system, he was concentrating on stopping his head from floating away. Controlling his tongue was the least of his worries.
Thankfully, before the Chicken Twisties Gang could process this act of defiance, there came the refreshing sound of hurrying feet.
At the colony’s South Entrance, security officer third class #747 watched as the battalions of hard-faced soldiers raced past him. The vibrations caused by hundreds of legs pounding the earthen floor were making his eyes wobble. #747 had wanted to join the army, but the recruiting officer said he was too big. Soldiers needed to be strong and fast, and weighed in at a whopping twenty-five milligrams meant #747 was three times the size of any ant in the colony’s history. He had the strength, just not the speed.
‘I’m sorry, son. It’s the guard’s life for you. If anything with half a brain catches sight of you protecting our home, they’ll run the other way.’ The recruiting officer had kindly added that if they ever needed a siege weapon, they’d call him.
As the last line of soldiers rumbled away, #747 decided he’d find out what all the fuss was about. His fellow guard, whose number he’d long forgotten, hadn’t returned and #747 guessed no-one would notice if he went off to peek at all the excitement. With substantial coordinated effort, he aligned his colossal legs in the same direction and began to lumber along behind the back of the army.
What he saw moments later took his breath away. Spread before him, as far as he could see, was a lake of sugar water and hundreds of black bodies swarming around the edges. To one side of the lake there were five larger red ants. Figuring that’s where the action must be, #747 veered towards the group.
‘Wha’ da ’ell is dat?!‘ Tex’s power of speech returned at the sight of an approaching #747.
‘Eh, what?’ The colonel stopped sizing up the gang and turned to see what Tex was gawking at.
Appearing from the heat haze was an ant the size of a house. The colonel didn’t know whether it was friend or foe, but upon reflection thought he’d seen a similar looking branch propped up outside the South Entrance.
‘By gor’, he must be one of ours,’ muttered the commanding officer. He turned back to face the Chicken Twisties Gang.
‘That, my garbage-eating friends, is our champion wrestler,’ said the quick-thinking colonel. ‘If you don’t sod off now, I’ll set him on you!’
#747 came to an awkward halt beside his soldier buddies as those closest made a path to prevent being squashed. To his surprise, he was almost eye-to-eye with a red ant that had a head as big as his, but a body very much smaller. #747 suddenly felt unsure whether he would get in trouble for leaving his post. His eyes locked on Tex as he wondered what to do next.
‘Why ‘e starin’ at me all weird?’
Tex’s left antenna twitched as #747 watched his reflection on Tex’s polished forehead. For those enjoying the standoff, it appeared #747 had gone to sleep with his eyes open.
‘Make ‘im stop, Ug!’
But Ug wasn’t there. Every member of the Chicken Twisties Gang had turned tail and bolted at the sight of the colossal black ant. A primordial part of Tex’s brain took hold and instructed the rest of his body to go join them. The colonel turned a beaming face at #747.
‘Welcome to the army, lad. What’s your name?’
The colonel tried to look his recruit in the eye, but it hurt his neck to bend that far back. #747 was stunned into silence when he heard he was to become one of the venerated colony soldiers.
‘Speak up!’ the colonel barked.
‘It’s South Entrance security officer third class #747,’ #747 said in a small voice.
‘That name’s a bit long for a soldier. Can’t call that out across the quadrangle every time I want your attention, eh what!’ the colonel chuckled. ‘Pick another one. And remember to call me, Sir. You’re in the army now.’
#747 looked hard at the colonel as he racked his brain for something snappy. A name that everyone could remember, including him. Like a glow-worm in the tunnel darkness, he hit upon the answer.
‘Carrot, Sir. My name is Carrot.’