By Nick Ryle Wright
I never really understood what Laura meant when she said that our relationship had run aground. As far as I was concerned, things were good, just as they’d always been. It wasn’t often that we argued and, whenever we did, we usually made up pretty quickly and all was well again. But almost overnight, and without warning, Laura became sullen and withdrawn, kicking me out of her bed and banishing me to the spare room. I asked her what was wrong and it was then that she likened us to a once majestic ocean liner now immobilised on a sand bank. I was confused. I asked her friends to shed some light on things, help me understand exactly where I’d been going wrong. Most of them laughed in my face, but one, Tiffany, cupped my chin in her hand, shook her head and said, You poor, poor thing!
Occasionally, I’d hover in the kitchen doorway while Laura prepared food, trying to summon the courage to say Good morning or Good night, hoping to initiate the conversation that would lead to our reconciliation, but nothing in Laura’s body language ever convinced me that doing so would lead to anything other than further hostility on her part. By the time the mice arrived, our relationship had soured to such an extent that Laura had swapped verbal communication for stern looks and gestures. The relentless scratching, scuttling and gnawing sounds now emanating from every room in the house only acted to worsen her mood, as did the tiny black pellets that started appearing on the kitchen worktops. It wasn’t long before the ingenious little bastards found their way into the attic where they proceeded to chew through four years’ worth of Laura’s carefully-filed accounts. This, for her, was the final straw.
I was sleepwalking my way through the afternoon shift at Rod’s Reels when Laura sent me a long and rambling email in which she expressed her concern that we were being overrun by pestilence-spreading vermin. By that stage, she’d taken to wearing a white face mask to stave off disease and earplugs to block out the noise. It was impossible, she wrote, to live and work under such trying conditions. She ended her missive by demanding face-to-face talks on the matter.
That night, we sat at opposite ends of the living room whilst Laura angrily insisted that I step up to the plate and solve the problem of our unwanted visitors. It felt good to be shouted at by Laura again (I’d always loved the tone of her voice, even when she was angry) and I viewed her demands as an opportunity to demonstrate that, at the very least, I was still deserving of a room in the dark and decaying Victorian vicarage she’d inherited from a maiden aunt I’d never met.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I laid traps, sprayed sprays, blocked holes and even purchased a series of devices that claimed to emit troubling electromagnetic signals audible only to rodents. But nothing seemed to work. In the end, I admitted defeat and hired the services of a professional exterminator who, rather than the sweaty, pot bellied, fifty year-old I’d been expecting, turned out to be a tall, sun-kissed thirty-something named Seb, possessor of the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. When your name’s Alan and your features are somewhat uneven, these things can count against you.
A profound sense of inadequacy began to rise up inside of me as Seb held court in the kitchen, exuding calm authority in his smart red jumpsuit as he explained what needed to be done in a deep and sensual voice that caused Laura to tilt her head to one side and play with her hair. I became faintly aware that my presence was inconsequential to proceedings as the two of them conversed in a secret language of gesticulation that went way above my head. That night, Laura took great pleasure in telling me that it was possible she might’ve once slept with Seb, back in her wild, half-remembered uni days. The prospect of this being true seemed to fill her with delight, as did my ensuing jealousy.
Having Seb in the house made me uncomfortable, especially with Laura running her homemade jewellery business from the back room. He’d made out that it was a big job, that the little white ghosts, as he liked to refer to the mice, would, in his experience, take some shifting, so we’d better get used to him hanging around for a while. That was just fine, Laura told him, visibly buoyed by the idea. Worried that I’d inadvertently set my girlfriend up with the man who might very soon replace me, I made a point of coming home for lunch each day, just to make sure the two of them weren’t getting intimately reacquainted on the couch or in the luxurious king-size bed we no longer shared. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Seb may have been blessed with beauty, but he possessed very little in the way of common sense. Four days into the job, he managed to poison himself with his own bait and was carted off to hospital with renal failure having exterminated a grand total of zero rodents.
As pleased as I was at my rival’s hospitalisation, Seb’s failure, I soon learned, was my failure, too. In Laura’s eyes I had let her down once again. It was, she said, another example of my innate incompetence. Nobody needed to tell me that my stock was continuing to plummet at an alarming rate. One night, after drinking a bottle and a half of red wine, Laura began to list my many and varied failings, chief of which, she said, was my lack of ambition. In an attempt to defend myself, I argued that ambition was subjective. She reminded me that I sold maggots for a living before going on to say that it was high time I found somewhere else to live.
That night I had a particularly vivid dream in which I was living in the dilapidated cricket pavilion behind the school. I remember feeling strangely calm and free of worry, aware that I was heading towards some kind of epiphany. But before any great revelation had a chance to materialise, I awoke with a jolt to find Laura sitting astride me, slapping my face and shrieking. When she calmed down, she told me that something with a tail was running around her bed. I pulled her close and told her not to worry. A few minutes later she fell asleep in my arms. It was comforting to once again feel the warmth of her body against mine and I made a point of staying awake, alert to the fact that such a moment might never be repeated.
I thought back to the night we met, introduced by mutual friends at a housewarming party. I tried to remember who I was back then, what made me tick, what was going on in my life. I came to the conclusion that I was still pretty much the same person, happily unchanged. And then it dawned on me that this alone was the source of Laura’s displeasure. I considered how I might go about rectifying this apparent flaw in my character, but nothing sprang to mind.
By the morning, Laura seemed to have forgotten about asking me to leave, but I couldn’t shake the notion that I was living on borrowed time. That evening, just before closing, I had an idea. I persuaded Angus, one of the tackle shop regulars, to lend me his estranged wife’s four aged tomcats in return for a year’s supply of boilies. I brought the cats back to the house and instructed them to hunt down and remove – by any means – our unwelcome guests. Due to her fur allergy, Laura was less than welcoming to our new feline friends, but I managed to convince her that it was worth a shot.
Miraculously, the cats’ presence had the desired effect. After only a few days, tiny, half-consumed corpses began popping up all over the place. By the end of the week, the scratching, scuttling and gnawing had ceased completely. Laura was ecstatic. By way of congratulating me on a job well done, she booked us a table at our favourite Thai restaurant. Once there, she raised her glass to me and told me that I’d really come through for her and that she respected that. Afterwards, we ended up at a small bar by the river where we drank cocktails until the early hours. We talked about the old days and how fun they’d been. I said that we could still have more days like that, that it wasn’t too late, but Laura just mumbled something about not living in the past. By the time we returned home, we were both very drunk. Laura invited me back to her bed for the first time in months and we undressed each other in the dark. I felt better than I had done in a very long time and I convinced myself that we’d begun a new, more positive chapter in our relationship.
But the next day, everything had changed. We nursed our hangovers in separate rooms in a house that now seemed unnervingly quiet. The silence that Laura had craved for so long acted only to amplify the distance between us. I’d grown accustomed to the disembodied footsteps of our adversaries behind the furnishings, understanding, if only subconsciously, that their continued presence was the Band-Aid holding Laura and I together. Now all I could hear was the sound of Laura moaning and vomiting on the other side of a thin wall.
* * *
Ever amenable, Angus furnished me with a shoebox full of mice in return for a smart new carp rod. His pet snakes, he said, would have to go hungry, because it was a deal he just couldn’t turn down. I waited until Laura was at her yoga class before depositing the furry critters around the house. I told myself that all I needed was a little more time to make things right. I’d done it before and I could do it again.
For some reason, the new mice didn’t take to the house. Maybe the tortured spirits of their recently slain brothers had sought to warn them off before they met the same grisly fate. It’s hard to say, but in the end, it didn’t matter much anyway. On the same day my boss got wind of my illicit dealings with Angus and sacked me, I came home to find my bags packed and piled up in the porch. Laura appeared in the doorway, crossed her arms and wished me well.
I called a few old friends, hoping to find somewhere to crash for a few nights, but I wasn’t in luck. Two had left town, one turned out to be dead, and the other made out like he didn’t even know who I was.
* * *
My days became long and meaningless. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I was lacking purpose, but purpose was hard to come by.
One morning, I was passing by the house when I noticed Seb’s resprayed van parked in the driveway. He was standing a few feet away, dressed in a green jumpsuit, inexpertly hacking away at a buddleia bush with a scythe. Laura looked on lovingly as she twisted the top off a bottle of beer. I stood there for a few minutes, watching as the two them laughed at jokes I’d never hear. I thought about saying Hello, thought about attempting some small talk, but I’d been neglecting my personal hygiene for some time and I decided that it wasn’t the right moment to show them that I was thriving on my own. The sky darkened and it began to rain. Seb dropped the scythe, grabbed Laura’s hand and led her indoors, into the dry, like a man who knew exactly what he was doing, exactly where he was going.
* * *
The old pavilion was cold and damp and it smelled of decomposing pigeons, but after a month or two, I began to think of it as home. I grew strangely fond of the sound the rain made as it poured through the holes in the roof. Sometimes, when I couldn’t sleep, I liked to imagine that the wind was talking to me as it whistled between the warped beams. Occasionally, I even spoke back to it, sharing with it my thoughts on all manner of subjects from politics and religion to philosophy and sport. And, strange as it may sound, I never once felt alone in there – far from it. It was as though I was surrounded by old friends: those little white ghosts whose industrious nocturnal activities would regularly transport me back to a better time, not so long ago, when, for a brief while, I had the respect of the woman I loved.
* * *
Nick Ryle Wright is a writer of short fiction, currently based in the New Forest. He has been published in The Nottingham Review and has a story forthcoming in Issue 7 of Paper and Ink Zine. He can be found on Twitter: @nickrylew