By Susan Roberts
So here I am sitting in my cottage, surrounded by debris, and packing all my possessions into boxes once more. I haven’t done this in eleven years; not since January 2002, when I moved in here with forty boxes. Boxes filled mainly with books.
Why am I packing, you ask? Thereon hangs my tale of woe. If I hadn’t offered to lend a friend one of my books, I would never have flipped through those big coffee-table volumes in the bottom shelf of one of my eight bookcases. I would never have lifted out that particular book and had it fall apart in my hands, leaving only the plastic cover, and thus I would never have discovered the prosperous satellite colony of termites that had taken up residence in my oldest bookcase.
To cut a very long and sad story short – especially for a fanatical bibliophile such as myself – I traced the little chompers through 24 of my once glorious and glossy books, now reduced to dust, grit and horrible little crooked tunnels made out of ant spit and termite-poo. Needless to say, these were 24 of my favourite books, many dating back to the days when I lived in beautiful, arty Cape Town, with its abundance of galleries and unusual bookshops. Back then, I was usually broke but, rather than spend my last farthing… Okay, not that long ago! Rather than spend my last fifty bucks on food or petrol, I would splurge on yet another coffee table book about the glories of Greta Garbo, All Time Movie Greats, Industrial Light and Magic’s first ten years, Anna Pavlova, and so on.
Gone, gone, all gone.
Well, actually not the one on Anna Pavlova. The termites had nibbled a bit of her cover but I sprayed the hell out of it and re-covered it with clear plastic. I have been watching it closely for the last few days. Under observation, as they call it in hospitals. She seems to be recovering from her re-covering.
So what are these horrid, hungry little felons that can make a booklover’s life such a misery? According to Google, they are all part of the ant family. Yes, even Durban’s notorious wood-borer. I’ve never minded seeing a line of ants going about their business, or a little pile of dark soil in a corner near a skirting board. At least it’s not the lighter, pale pellets that prove the presence of borer, I’ve thought. What can a few innocent ants do? Unfortunately, like humans, ants can be branded by their seedier relatives, but where humans might have the odd skeleton hanging in the closet, ants have whole tribes of white ants – or termites – gnawing away at the very closet in which they are hiding. These pale relatives, though lighter in colour, have a darker purpose.
I shall never trust them again. It seems that there is no such thing as an innocent ant.
My cottage is built in a convenient little hollow, rather like a hobbit hole, and had been invaded by subterranean termites (thank you again, Google!), which burrow in through water sources and make themselves comfy in wood and paper that they find anywhere near the skirting or the cracks that they travel through. Evidently, my bookcase against the wall had provided the ideal residence.
I like my cottage, and I am pleased when others like it too. I don’t mind sharing it with my cats and even the odd creepy crawly, but surely it goes against the grain of common courtesy when the visitors who squat without paying rent start to eat the main tenant’s personal belongings? I once had a boyfriend who thought that the moths and butterflies that had taken up residence in his flat were beautiful – until he discovered the holes in his clothing…
Anyway, having pulled out all the books, rescued what I could, and sprayed the bookcase, my next task was to assess the further damage to the rest of my house. Sadly, I found evidence that this termite colony had been munching on more than one piece of furniture. This invasion wasn’t something that a few cans of bug-spray could sort out; it was time to call in the big guns. I phoned my landlord.
A builder by trade, he likes nothing more than to potter with ripping things out and rebuilding them another way, and if he can rip out two rooms instead of one, that’s considered a bonus. A whole cottage? Wow!
He had been casting his Builder’s Eyes in the direction of my cottage for a good four years, since the last colony of borer had found a tasty little feast behind the paintwork of the tongue-in-groove ceilings in the kitchen, dining room and bedroom. My house had been tented and the borer wiped out, but the damaged woodwork was still there. Now he had the perfect excuse to rip it all out, pump in some poison to wipe out the termites and any leftover borer, and then rebuild the missing bits.
In short, this wasn’t going to be a single-weekend project. I needed to move out – lock, stock and all forty barrels – for several months until the job was done. So where would I go while my landlord gutted my cottage?
Not far, he assured me. Just across the garden to the upstairs flat above the main house. Fortunately this happened at a lucky time – the upstairs flat is vacant and my landlord and I have agreed that we should take advantage of this. There’s another bonus – it has three bedrooms, so I will have more space to go through all my junk while I’m there, and get rid of the things that I don’t mind losing. I would rather voluntarily lose things to the SPCA and Hospice for a good cause than have them nibbled away by termites and borer.
But perhaps the real incentive is that there are some things that I just don’t want to have to pack twice…