“It was a hay loft, sweetheart,” her mother said. “The old lady who used to live here kept hay up there to feed her cows.”
“But it’s empty now,” the child said. “And I hear things.”
“It used to be a hay loft,” her mother said patiently, “so there were lots of small animals lived in it.” She smiled encouragingly. “Dormice, you know, like in Alice in Wonderland.”
The girl shook her head. “It’s not mice. It’s a big whooshing noise. And it’s angry.”
The sound of the TV wafted through to the child’s bedroom. Audience laughter, applause. The woman shuffled her feet, and the gesture of stroking her daughter’s hair lost its gentleness and became finger claws combing. She looked over her shoulder at the light from the screen playing on the hallway wall, reminding her that she was missing the show. The child watched her stoically, knowing her mother had stopped listening or caring. She expected no more, just a brief smile and a kiss on the cheek.
“If the mice bother you tonight,” she said, pecking the dark gold hair that lay across her daughter’s brow, “we’ll see about getting you a kitten.”
The quick smile flashed again.
“We’ll see. Now go to sleep.”
The child didn’t smile and she didn’t go to sleep. Not straight away. She tried not to think about the kitten because she didn’t believe in it. She’d been promised a cat ever since she first complained about the noises upstairs. Her mother didn’t like cats. She rolled on her side so she could see the door and the bright strip of light from the hallway. The TV laughter rolled into the room in waves of irritating jollity but she wasn’t listening. She was waiting for the whooshing to start.
The child didn’t know why there was so much anger upstairs in the house. She didn’t know what had happened to the old lady who used to live there, nor had she ever tried to understand what her parents argued about in low voices when she was in bed. What was important was the whooshing noise and why it was angry. Sometimes, when she heard it, she felt her fingers curling over and clenching, and she saw her parent’s voices crawling like quick, furtive shadows over the walls.
She must have slept because when she opened her eyes again, the strip of light had gone and the TV was silent. The countryside was full of stealthy night noises, and the house answered in its own language of creaks and sighs. The child listened for the other sound, the sound that was wrong. It started above her head. She imagined someone waving a bed sheet, flapping it to get the creases out. It was a comforting thought but not a convincing one. She swung her legs out of bed and felt around for her slippers.
The attic door was just opposite her bedroom door. She wasn’t supposed to open it. The stairs weren’t safe, her mother said. But she knew the step with the broken board, and she skipped over it. It was dark. The air was in movement, a whirring, vibrating movement, and it was probably filled with dust motes if there had been any light to see by. She stood on the edge of the big empty room where hay still drifted. The shutters on all the windows were tight closed except where something had pushed one open. A pane was missing in that window, and she could see the stars through the opening, clear and bright.
She listened. The air trembled. She didn’t know if she was frightened, or if she ought to be frightened. The anger was something she understood, something she shared. It wanted to be let out. The shadows moved and the slow, heavy, whooshing began again, louder, rushing towards her. She held her breath and stood back from the stair. The mass of shadow flew past her, scratching her face, or was it stroking? A sensation like clawed feathers, a pungent smell of blood and animal, and the noise that should not be tumbled down the stairs.
She sat on the step and waited as the anger filled the sleeping house and dug impossible claws deep into the walls. She waited, a slight frown between her brows, as the claws scratched screams, and the walls said, ‘Quiet!’ in the deep, drawn-out voices of stones. She shuffled her slippers in the tiny mouse droppings on the step as the shouldn’t-be whooshed and scritch-scratched, and she wished that she had a kitten to pad with her, big-eyed and silent, after the night folk in the attic and the silvery garden.
When the house had soaked up all the fractured sounds, and the noise that shouldn’t be had fallen silent, she skipped over the broken step and listened. She heard the jangling echo of the insides of the horrid old clock as they slid off the mantelpiece in a slippery heap. She felt the air shift and sigh as the duvet slithered off her parent’s bed onto the floor. She smelled the smells of fear and blood and her mother’s perfumes and creams as they dripped over the dressing table. When she was satisfied that the anger had gone, snatched up in the clenched finger claws of the whoosher that shouldn’t be, she slipped back into bed. A brown feather floated onto her pillow. She held it tight in her fist as she drifted off to sleep.
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