It began when the weather turned. That cold, still brightness had gone. The leaves’ rusted gilt was torn from the trees and scattered across the tumbling grey clouds by the winds that knocked over the bins and beat down the last of the climbing beans in the vegetable patch. The shed’s corrugated roof flapped like a fish, clanging through the night.
Lying in the smeared dark, he waited for each new gust to force against the windowpanes, the curtains sucked in and out by the draft. When a big thump hit, the whole house seemed to brace, complaining in groans. In the morning, the garden appeared like a drunk, ruffled from a night spent in the park: twigs and leaves in its grass hair, a face of confused surprise on its dishevelment.
His wife surveyed the mess. A neat woman, he knew it would bother her. Once or twice a season she could cope with, but this… every week, sometimes days on end, the wind relentless at its ruin. Litter from the town centre, whisps of straw from the nearest farm, the half-burned contents of their neighbour’s incinerator (old bank statements, a mortgage agreement from two decades ago, an undecipherable letter, its ink running in patches of pattern) and a large, ragged tuft of insulating foam which lay against the fence at the bottom of the garden like a wild thing huddling from the elements.
Every day, he went out to collect what he could, raking and bagging and righting as he went. Every night left it undone again.
“You just have to keep at it,” she said. “It can’t last.”
He couldn’t tell her how he felt, out there in his coat, rake to the ground, his body shoved and struck, most of what he raked stolen again before he got it into the bag. Couldn’t say that he felt less there each day. Not just less effective, though he was that, but less present, less substantially existent. As if the wind was thinning him, lessening all he was. Eroding him like some sandcastle left behind on the beach, worn down long before it’s swamped by the returning tide.
“Well done!” she’d say, when he got back in from the half-light, a little breathless in the sudden still warmth of the house. But then: “Have you seen it, this morning?!” when he turned over after another troubled night to find her standing at the window, shaking her head, the house around them groaning. He could tell – though she would never say – that she felt this to be an attack of sorts, a worsening along the frontier between themselves and the threat of chaos, a situation descending by the day into war. She worked harder in the house, cleaning and polishing, scrubbing the recesses, reorganising the storage, maintaining. The children felt it, too, unconvinced by his gaming with them in the early days – his promise of leafy bonfires and kite-flying hours that had failed before the savaging weather. They gathered round the TV instead, or hunched over screen games, asking only when they could visit friends and when the weather would end.
The first night he heard it, the wind had dropped. Cows, newly shut in their barns for winter, lowed across the valley. A fox barked. Once, an owl called into the calm. Then he heard the scratch. He thought it was a branch against the guttering or maybe the owl come closer, its claws searching for a perch on the roof tiles. It came again, a scuttled consistency along the cavity behind the ceiling that sloped above their bed. It stopped, started, stopped, before a determined effort against the rafters which he realised was the sound of gnawing. He wondered whether to bang the ceiling but knew it would wake her. He lay and listened as it got louder, relaxing into its task. It must be almost over their heads now. He imagined reaching through the board to grasp it, only a couple of feet above him as he lay there. It broke off, moved along and began again. After a while she woke anyhow.
He was surprised by her voice, loud in the dark. “Mice.”
“Oh, no!” She raised herself onto her elbows.
“I’ll get some traps tomorrow.”
“But the pest man said he’d got them!”
“That was a while back. This is a new one. New ones, maybe.”
He banged the ceiling above his head. The sound stopped.
“That’s it!” her voice hopeful.
It started again. He banged the ceiling, harder now. It moved away then gnawed some more. He sat on the edge of the bed, then stood up and banged repeatedly.
“Don’t wake the kids!”
“I’m trying to…”
It was louder now, right above him. His banging made no impression. Tired, suddenly hot, he could feel the anger in him; it beat outwards from his chest. He thumped the ceiling vindictively.
Next day the rain. Softening the wind-dry edges of things, plastering the leaves to any surface, filling the dents and dips, clattering against the glass, the roof, the patio stones. The wind joined in, flinging the downpour at them, the gusts stung with it. Gravel-hard at its worst, it tore and slashed, poured rivers down the roadsides, soaking him as he walked the dog, thrummed off the tin insistency of car roofs, glutted the paths and streams, unbordering the small river at the bottom of the valley, haunting the night with sounds of drowning.
The scratching worsened. He bought three traps and set them round the attic, in between the joists, baited with peanut butter like the pest man advised. Twice that first night they were sprung, the iterating nerve spasms fading gradually above them.
“Has it stopped?” she asked, hands over her ears each time.
In the dark, he let out his held breath. “Yes.”
He put the bodies over the fence, wiping blood from one of the traps, the rain wetting his face.
Two nights later, it was back. He turned the lights on, despite her protests, set the traps again and sent his son back to bed when he’d woken at the sound of the ladder folding down from the loft. Then he lay in the dark, listening for sounds that never came.
In the morning, a buzzard circled above the house, fighting the wind that bore it off over the shining brown wood nearby. Rain fell in sails across the valley, thickening its grey colour to folds of almost-white that tore like linen, before re-forming further on, to be torn again.
A trap was sprung that night, but there was no sound of dying. In the morning, he found one robbed, the other two untouched. The next morning all three untouched. One went off as he nudged it further into the cobwebbed recesses. Above him a large fly spun round the sole bare bulb, its thick buzz loud among the rafters. Nothing the next night. Nothing all week, though he could hear the scratching sounds above them, bolder in the dark.
“You need to put poison down.” Her voice insistent between the angry plumping of her pillow.
“Yes, but then they die and stink the house out.” He knew that would dissuade her.
“Not the new poisons. They desiccate the corpses.”
Next morning, he found a scattering of rubbish round their bin, which lay on its side partly in the road. Something had torn the bin liners inside; he could see chew marks. Fox or badger. A plastic dish that had contained their last oven meal had blown into their neighbour’s garden. He felt uncomfortable as he trespassed hurriedly to fetch it.
A damp patch appeared above the back door, the paint peeling from the plaster beneath. Rain snapped and spat at the back of the house, the wind rattling the gutters. He watched raindrops fly by horizontally, listened to others sting against the glass. He was increasingly tired, his nights so disturbed now by the sounds and by that strange breed of worry he felt as he lay there in the dark, the phantoms of it only fading with the dawn, and then only a little, leaving a faint haunting unease throughout the day.
He bought a plug-in electronic device which was supposed to deter rodents. He bought another which released the smell of foxes. He played recordings of the call of a hunting stoat. Then he bought the poison. That stopped them.
For a week. After which, the sounds were back, and the blue pellets lay untouched in the saucers he’d spread round the attic. Two nights of scratching and gnawing and he climbed up, expecting to see an army of them but found nothing beneath the lone bulb’s glare except uneaten poison and the robbed, unsprung traps. In the bright light, cobwebs moved in the draft and he could hear the wind scything at the roof, louder up there in the cold.
His wife spent more time each day cleaning. The house smelled of polish and air freshener. The mirrors gleamed his face back at him, the bags under his eyes clear as he shaved. He shouted at the children; they both did. Only when he walked the dog, buffeted and soaked by the time he returned home, did he feel normal again for a while. Out in the landscape and the elements and the space, sharing it all with everything else, lost in it as he was. When he did sleep, he dreamt of the sea breaking near him, too near, the waves seeking him out, covering him when they found him, dragging him back into the deep. When he woke, the scratching seemed closer, louder, almost inside his head.
The night of the storm, they lost power. Lightning flashed, blinding the skies that cracked above them as they sat in candlelight and told the children stories while the dog hid under the kitchen table, shaking at the thunder. Next morning, they could see the ash tree at the bottom of the garden was canted over, its torn root bole half-out of the ground, the gouge puddled with water. Several others were down. When the wind dropped enough, he walked the dog past their giant forms lying across fences and roads, the puny power lines snapped and loose in the smashed foliage. Under one, a car was splayed, small as a toy broken beneath the great bulk, tiny cubes of glass lying round the wreck like confetti.
The noises were almost constant now. He sat up in the attic for a night. Warm clothes, a blanket, a flask of coffee, a kid’s fishing net to catch them, a walking stick to dispatch them. On his stool in the dark, a torch in his hand as the minutes dragged by, the wind at the tiles, the rain nipping and scratching, the house moaning at its lot, the seaweed shift of unseen cobwebs above his head. He drank the coffee and waited.
He dozed, his head dropping onto his chest, the waves in his dream rushing at his feet, sticky with intent, his balance under threat, the sense of toppling, of loss and fall, waking him as he slid from the stool. He was cold and stiff. The wind hurled and cried. He turned the light on, his eyes hurting at it. He drank the last of the coffee, tepid and bitter. Another hour and nothing, his eyes sore, aching, his lower back numb. His wife didn’t wake when got back into bed. He lay sleepless, staring into the night until the grey beginnings of day brought the shapes of the furniture out of the dark. Then he slept briefly, the current surging towards him again, the white ruin of the breakers threatening to topple him, the world collapsing all round.
When he woke, he could hear her hoovering, the sound struggling to drown out the wind hitting the side of the house. As he got up, the tick, tick, tick of rain began. At the window, he could see a plastic bag caught on the fallen ash tree’s roots, flapping in the wind, spitting out droplets with a snap each time.
They didn’t speak all morning. He felt foolish in his failure. Walking the dog, he saw a drowned cat in the river’s brown swirl, its smooth, grey body caught amongst the weed and the trailing ivy under the far bank. The world smelled of water and soil and the damp half-rot of old leaves. The path along the road shone with empty cans and bottles, droplets on their side reflecting the rushing grey light above, glinting as the wind shook them. Back home, his wife had washed the kitchen floor again. It, too, shone under the lights. There was a smell of pine. The handles of the cupboards gleamed. The glass front of the cooker, too.
The scratching that night was louder still. He lay in the heat of his anger, then slammed his fist against the ceiling again and again, ignoring his wife when she woke, afraid at the shock; ignoring her when she cried, asking him to stop, begging him as he thumped the ceiling repeatedly till his fist throbbed and his breath was laboured and his children stood in the doorway, staring at him as their mother cried.
Two nights later – his wife asleep in with the kids – he lay in the bleak darkness as the scratching tore and rasped above him, echoing in the featureless space of the room. His fists were clenched, his nails sharp into the skin, his body rigid with anger, his head motionless in a vice of muscle. He tried to count, to breathe, to listen to the wind beating at the house, the rain at the panes, but all he could hear were the sounds above him. At his side lay the length of metal pipe he’d found at the back of the shed. He gripped it, knowing that soon he would use it, would smash it into the ceiling, into the sound, if only to stop himself from hearing it.
From nowhere – subsuming anything else, drowning everything – a deep calmness filled him. It relaxed his body, steadied his breath, evened out everything, flowed over every part of him. And into the stillness that it brought – without any idea or warning that he was about to do so – he said in a clear, firm voice:
“Make it stop. Make the sounds stop. Make them stop. Make everything in the house stop,”
And in his mind he saw all the sounds seized by his words and silenced, leaving nothing but this great sense of peace spreading out from him and then round him like a tide in itself, consuming the lashing waves which slid back into it, away from him, taking with them the roaring of the wind and rain, so that the house was becoming quiet in the night and he realised that all the noises were stopping, and that soon there was nothing he could hear but his own heart, louder now in the calm, beating around him as the house settled, and the dog lay still and quiet downstairs, and the silence rose through the house until the children, too, were stilled and quiet, and his wife where she lay next to them, the silence taking every sound from every room out into the distance, taking even the noise of the sea, too, taking all of them away, everything, far from where he stood, the sound of waves fading now with the sound of his own heart, both becoming less and less until there was barely anything, then a faint moment echoing the last, and then nothing in the still house, nothing in the darkness, but silence.