WORDS & PICTURES: Gareth E. Rees
A short story, originally published in Wyrd Daze (more information here).
There was a rat beneath the floorboards, I could tell by the gnawing.
Gnrrrk. Krrrrrrrrk. Gnnnrk. Krrrrk.
I don’t know what it was doing, but it was busy.
Back and forth it skittered, in that space between floors we’d never seen – apart from once, when we first moved in. The plumber yanked up the boards to reveal a mess of fluff, pipes and dust.
John said, “I wonder how long since someone last saw that?”
It was a source of amazement to him that you could peel back bits of the house and see the handiwork of the Victorians who built it.
Quite frankly, I was unenthusiastic.
I remember a few years back, they thought John had a heart murmur. He was laid out in the hospital with ectoplasm on his chest, the doctor waggling the probe, heart pulsing on the screen like an octopus. It was horrible.
Who wants to see the inner plumbing of their husband after twenty years of marriage?
So when we moved into this house, way back then, I was appalled to find other people’s stuff wedged behind the radiators and skirting boards. A pen. A sweet wrapper. A sticker, puffy with spores.
How long had these things been there?
Was the person who last touched them even alive any more?
John said that if I couldn’t cope with other people’s memories I should move into a Barrett new-build. “By yourself,” he laughed.
That was a long time ago, though, before the kids grew up and went to Uni.
Before the rat.
Before the wasps.
Before John’s disappearance.
John spent two days tracing the rodent’s route through the house. He reckoned it was coming up from the cellar through cavities in the stairs, scurrying beneath our bedroom, then dropping down behind the kitchen cupboards.
A pest controller came to lay down trays of poison. When he moved the fridge to get behind it, I was surprised at the gap between the back of our units and the kitchen wall.
What is the point of a big space in a house that you can’t see or touch?
I asked him if the rat would die inside the house. He said, “No love, it’ll find its way out and die in its nest, that’s what they do.”
He was wrong, of course. Within a couple of days a rotten smell permeated the house. It was most powerful by the cellar door. I’d not been down there in years. It was rammed with bags of scarp leads, kitchenware, tools, John’s failed cider brewing experiments, and god knows what else.
Now that there was a rat in there I couldn’t bring myself to open the door.
“You’re OCD”, as my daughter, Melody, likes to tell me, when she can be bothered to phone.
But it wasn’t that. She thinks she knows everything, but she doesn’t.
John spent the whole morning rummaging in the cellar for a dead body.
Find anything? I asked.
“No but I had forgotten how far back the cellar went.” He showed me a notepad covered in geometric lines. “You can pretty much trace the edges of the whole house. I found areas of brickwork I’ve never seen before. All these years. And look.”
He thrust towards me a plaster model of a lizard, some kind of caiman or crocodile, crudely made but with intricate multicoloured eyes and bared teeth.
One of the kids? I said.
“No,” John said. “This definitely isn’t one of ours. This was here before us.”
He showed me markings on its belly. A date – 1943… perhaps 1948 or even 1993… or 1998, it was hard to tell. We moved here in 1999. So John was right.
I felt sick at the thought of this thing that wasn’t ours, lurking beneath us. I’d thought of our life in this house as a glacier grinding all traces of previous lives to dust beneath its weight. But this lizard made our time here seem fleeting.
Throw it out, I said, I don’t want it in my home.
John sloped away. I don’t know what he did with the lizard but I never saw it again.
As the stink worsened John refused to call the pest controllers. “This is our home, Amelia, we should know it far better than some stranger who gets paid by the hour.”
He drafted a floor-plan, concentrating on spaces within the floors and wall cavities, so he could pinpoint locations for the rat’s demise. He probed nooks, drilled holes in chimney breasts, crawled in the cellar, lifted up the floorboards– even slid himself beneath them, clutching a torch in his teeth.
“It’s surprisingly deep,” he called out. “I can see droppings.”
The house felt empty with me in the living space and John bustling in between. But I busied myself spraying wasps. They were absolutely rampant this summer, the buggers.
“Are you sure you’re alright, Mum?” said Melody on the phone. She sounded worried. I knew she had her first year exams and didn’t want to bother her.
No, no, it’s alright, it’s this weather, it’s too hot, I said, there are a lot of wasps and I’m busy at work. It would be good if your sister called once in a blue moon, from wherever she is.
“Goa,” said Melody.
Goa. It seemed like a universe away. I had raised not daughters, but astronauts, destined to orbit my world while, from below, I watched their shadows flitting across distant stars.
When I told John that I thought we had a wasp’s nest in the loft, he was thrilled. The one place in the house he’d not yet mapped.
“Of course, the loft! The final frontier!”
The loft hatch was in Sara’s old room. When John opened it a shower of black confetti fluttered down. Sara’s beautiful bedroom was littered with dried wasp corpses. Some were stuck to John’s beard. For a split second his eyes looked so haunted.
Forcing a grin, he swiped the dead insects from his chin, drew down the ladder and clambered into the darkness.
I stood in Sara’s room, staring up, listening to John shifting about.
“It’s alright,” he called down “They all seem to be dead. It’s quite interesting actually. When was the last time we went right to the back of the loft?”
Grunting, he began to move across the walk-boards. I followed beneath, tracking his movement, my gazed fixed on the ceiling.
Then he stopped talking.
“John?” I called him one, twice, then again, frightened suddenly.
It was odd, feeling dread in the room where John read stories to the kids, wisps of Matey bubble bath in curly blonde hair. Me tidying up. All of us together in the bedtime hour.
The girls really could phone more often, I thought. I wished that when I told them I was okay they would sense I was not okay, and come home.
When John emerged again he was holding something. At first I thought it was a wasp’s nest, but it was brown and peppered with tiny holes like a lump of lava. Nails protruded from its surface.
“It’s an animal heart,” said John quietly, “Mummified. Christ knows how long.”
Nausea swept through me. What was it doing up there? I said. Why are all those terrible nails in it?
“It was tucked away in a wall cavity near the chimney breast,” John said. “I could point my torch right down, right down the side of the house, all the way down.”
The dead rat smell was awful that day, made everything taste rancid. I left the mug by the stack of dirty plates I’d been meaning to tackle. Well, it was John’s job, the washing up. If he wasn’t so busy with this rat business.
He was crashing around in the cellar again, so I went to the door and called out:
John, can you come and wash up, please?
“Yes, yes, yes, I’ll be a minute or two,” he said. But he wasn’t a minute or two.
The next time I called for him his voice came echoing through the fireplace in our bedroom. So proficient had John become at navigating our home’s peripheries, he could switch floors or swap sides without revealing himself.
Where are you John? I said. Where have you gone?
As I tracked his whereabouts, calling out, John reported details of items he found, his voice muffled by walls and floorboards.
…A bell wire from the days of servants…
…A roll of pound notes in a cigar tube.
Where are you now John? Where are you now? Are you up or down?
John’s replies grew fainter the further he crawled into nooks and crannies. Then he fell silent again.
I brushed it off, thinking he’d appear soon enough – a head poking around a door, feet dangling from a hatch, a voice from the back of the airing cupboard – but nothing. I could hear scratching and rustling all over the house. Sure signs John was round and about.
But when he didn’t come to bed at night I knew something was wrong.
The following day I investigated the house, using John’s floorplan to follow his possible trajectories, rapping on the wall.
John, John. Are you there? Where are you John?
The phone kept ringing all day but I ignored it. Stay focussed, Amelia. Sprinkles of soot fell into the fireplace, meaning John was probably in the chimney breast. I worked my way up the house, listening to him rustle towards the loft. But I couldn’t bring myself to go up there, all those memories bagged and tagged. No thanks.
During hot, sticky nights I slept sparely, interrupted by noise of John in the rafters or beneath the bed. Meanwhile the phone rang relentlessly.
Who would be calling at 2am? 3am? 6am? It was outrageous.
If it wasn’t for her finals, I’d have called Melody. But she’s useless really. I don’t mean that in a bad way. She’s still a little girl with lots of big dreams, that’s all.
Eventually I decided that enough was enough. I had to find John. Even if that meant going into the cellar. I needed to get over myself. Put a stop to this nonsense. To hell with the dead rat. People all over the county are living right now with dead things under the floorboards or in their walls. That’s just life.
John, are you down there?
I stepped into the gloom, flicking the light switch.
The strip light hummed, clunked and flickered but never fully came on.
In sporadic flashes of light I saw a mop handle. A horse head prop from one of Sara’s plays. The frame of a bed. A stack of crates. A rack of paint pots on a shelf. The floor was piled with boxes and bags.
As I descended there was a screech in my ear.
Something touched my shoulder.
Panicked, I lost my footing and fell down the steps, cracking my knee into the concrete, shoulder crunching into an IKEA box.
Upstairs I heard the doorbell ring – once, twice, then constantly like a fire alarm.
As I tried to get up, there was an eruption of movement in the cellar. Brooms clattered. Boxes twitched. Bin bags warped and flexed in the flickering light. A diabolical dark mass seethed over the junk, coming closer, scratching, squealing. Hundreds of eyes glinted in the blackness.
Tiny nails clawed at my bare legs.
Immediately, there was a jangle of keys in the front door above. A creak on the hallway floorboards.
John? I cried, Is that you?
Desperate to see him, I thrashed my legs at my unseen attackers, dragged myself up the steps and into the hall.
There was someone in the doorway. A woman clutching keys and a phone, saying: “Mum?”
She came to me, cradled me in her arms.
“What’s happened Mum, what’s happened?”
Really, Melody, I said, I just had a little fall. Your father’s in the cellar. He’s been busy round the house.
“Oh my God, Mum,” said Melody. “I’m so sorry. I should never have gone back. It was too soon. I knew it. Where the hell is Uncle Morgan? Why’s he not here?”
See? That’s the problem with Melody. She thinks I’d ask someone like Morgan for help. The man’s a bloody dropout. I hardly need my brother when I’ve got John around the house.
She’s saying something about an infestation. Thing is, I already told her about the rat. She doesn’t listen.
John is sorting it out.
John is looking after things.
Now she’s having a go at someone else down the phone – Morgan, I presume – “Didn’t you check on her?” she’s yelling, “You should see the state…. You promised to check on her every day! You think this is what Dad would have wanted? Get the hell over here now.”
Honestly, what a way for a young girl to speak to her uncle.
What a fuss over nothing!
When John gets up from the cellar, or down from the loft, or wherever he is right now, he’s going to have some words with our little madam.
But he’s a softy really. Once he’s done shouting he’ll give her the sort of cuddle only a Dad knows how to give.
Then we’ll all sit in the living room with the telly on.
We’ll have a natter and a nice cup of tea.
© Gareth E. Rees, 2013