The dream receded quickly and Stephanie recalled little of it, beside an anxious desire to leave a cold, greyish place; a narrow space in which people stood too close. One of them had been crying.
Into the unsettling moments, trailing the end of sleep, came a relief that her panic only lingered from the nightmare. The respite was twinned with a sense of loss for something important, yet indefinable and left incomplete. And she was cold. Where it poked out of the duvet her head stiffened, like her bed had been placed outside of the building.
Stephanie’s eyes were open. She was lying on her back and could see nothing above. But inside the darkness was a voice, a muffled continuous voice surrounding her waking thoughts.
Not a single word loud or clear enough to be understood. But she was horribly certain the muttering could not be part of the dream because she was fully awake. There was no urgency to the voice, or particular emphasis, or even emotion; the tone solely suggested monotony, a monologue.
The voice issued from the side of the room, near the fireplace that she couldn’t make out in the dark. Even with the lights off, not even an ambient glimmer peeked around the thick curtains.
A radio? In another room?
Though the more she considered the voice the greater was her impression that someone was speaking behind the wall that ran parallel to one side of her bed. But there was nothing on the other side because the house was detached. So perhaps a television was switched on – yes, don’t forget those – in the room below her own on the second floor, and the sound was travelling up through the chimney.
When the voice in the fireplace began sobbing Stephanie felt like joining in. This was a strange kind of broadcast that allowed one person to speak continuously before breaking down on air.
Could be another tenant. In a nearby room someone might have been talking to themselves and was now crying. Her throat thickened at this sound of genuine anguish and she pictured a woman kneeling on the floor beside an open fireplace in another room, clutching her face.
She could not go and ask after them. She disliked herself for feeling embarrassed by another’s distress, but it was the middle of her first night in the house and she wasn’t confident enough to offer that kind of gesture to a stranger.
But thank God it’s only a neighbour. For a moment I thought –
The tension returned to her body and her mind so quickly, and with such force, she sucked in her breath as if she’d stepped into cold water. Because no radio or television or heartbroken tenant could possibly account for the scratching that began beneath the bed.
She might have risen from the bedclothes screaming had she not arrived at a new hope that the noise of a grating against timber was issuing from beneath the floorboards, as opposed to the wooden slats on the underside of the bedframe.
Mice! There were mice here; she had seen two little cardboard traps, the type containing a blob of poisonous blue bait, on the first floor landing and the second floor toilet. When she was shown around the house yesterday morning the sight of the traps still retained the power to shock her; they were another symbol of diminishing choices, of being compromised by poverty; a side to freedom improperly considered before independence was achieved, or exchanged for a different kind of captivity. But she’d lived in a building infested with mice before, and seen similar traps in the warehouse where she worked last summer.
And during your first night in the darkness and unfamiliarity of a new room in a strange building, the sound of mice was bound to be alarming and to seem too large a disturbance for small animals. When you lay alone in bed, the sound of tiny claws were amplified in the silence of deep night, everyone knows that; and only in these circumstances could such a noise suggest the activity of determined human hands beneath your bed.
The mice were having a go at something that was rustling. Polythene. Maybe. Yes, it must be polythene. There could be a plastic carrier bag under there and the mice, or rats – don’t even go there – were having a go at the bag, or tearing something under the floor boards. Yes, that is a better idea.
Beneath her bed the sound of rustling increased in volume and ardour and her imagination swamped her thoughts again with the notion that these were, in fact, human fingers pulling at polythene against the floor, or under the floor. She was just about to sit up and reach for the bedside lamp – the one she read by before she fell asleep, satisfied she’d found a new room so quickly – when everything just got worse and she was suddenly cold and still with the kind of fear that was mindless, that was madness. Because Stephanie could now hear a fresh intrusion of noise inside her room.
Beyond the foot of her bed, between the two large sash window frames was a table and a chair. On the table were her unpacked bags. And from this area came a rustling, a rummaging, as if someone’s hands were going through her rucksack. The painted floorboards beneath the rug creaked as the intruder shifted its weight.
Behind the fireplace a woman wept.
Under the bed fingers pulled at polythene.
The darkness was filling with sound.
Stephanie could see nothing. The air was so cold she shivered. She desperately wanted to reach for the bedside light, but that would creak the old bedframe. She didn’t want to make a sound, any sound at all.
And what will I do if I turn the light on and someone is standing there? Would I survive it?
The door to her room was locked. The key was inside the lock. Had they come in through a window? Could she get off the bed and reach the door, and hold the key in her fingers, and turn the key in the lock, and open the door, and step through the doorway … before it reached her?
Can I fight? Should I start screaming?
She had no strength for screaming, let alone defence. Everything inside her was frigid with a fear so vast she was nothing but terror; she became stone from the hair on her head to the toes on her feet.
Unwelcome images flashed: cotton buds being used to take swabs, police officers in plastic overalls collecting hairs from a carpet, a gurney covered with a sheet being loaded into an ambulance, watched by a woman in the doorway of a nearby house.
Stephanie sat up and reached for the bedside table. The bedframe made the sound of an old wooden ship.
The rifling of her bags stopped.
She slapped a hand around the bedside table. The wooden surface was cold under her mostly useless fingers. She found the rubber cable with the light switch attached to it, then lost the cable; sensed it swing away from her finger tips in the darkness.
Footsteps creaked across the floor toward her bed.
She groped for the cable again and found the metal stem of the lamp instead. When she located the cable her desperate fingers twitched their way to the plastic light switch.
Beneath her feet the mattress dipped as someone sat down.
Through the darkness she was sure a face was moving closer to her own.
She snapped the lamp on and turned to confront the intruder sitting on the end of her bed.
‘Oh God, oh God, oh God, shit, shit, shit, oh God.’