Monday mornings from March to October John rolled out of bed with a happy heart, opened the curtains and drank in the joy of his perfectly manicured lawn. Mondays were his favourite clients. A row of bungalows housing old, well older than him, ladies and gents. He mowed their small neat front lawns into crisp stripes and clipped box hedges into geometric perfection. Not a flower, not a weed and certainly not a pest distracted the eye from the green sea of calm.
Unfortunately, the rear gardens reflected more of the owner’s individual tastes. It was his deepest regret that they didn’t consult him when purchasing garden furniture, ornaments or planters. The varied colours of the cushions and sun shades jarred John’s nerves as he passed from one garden to the next. He did his best to weed out what offended him most. A brightly glazed pot might accidently be knocked over with the mower. His own lethal pesticide concoction might drip onto a brightly coloured sun lounger. He always replaced the objects. Of course, it just happened to be with items more suited to his taste. The fact that most of the gardens now sported plain terracotta pots or simple green and white striped soft furnishings was laughed off as a coincidence.
He consented to the residents having a few flowering shrubs in their rear gardens, but nothing that would attract pests or cast seeds. Any impulse buy plants or gifts were carefully knocked off with a low dose of weed killer each week until they finally keeled over. He shook his head and tut tutted to the client as his tossed the offending article in the compost. They soon discovered that plants just didn’t thrive in their particular micro climate.
The week went downhill thereafter. Tuesday was a morning at Mrs Hill’s. He managed to keep the boarders tidy and did his best with the lawn but the blessed women would insist on letting her five children use it as a football pitch and picnic area. Daisies and moss tried their best to inhabit the bald spots but failed spectacularly after a dose of his home brewed weed killer. The children were forever leaving a trail of half-eaten sandwiches and sticky buns in the trampled down boarders which attracted ants and wasps. He had just the thing for curing and preventing such infestations, but Mrs Hill refused to let him use them after the unfortunate incident with the neighbour’s cat.
Wednesday was a local pub whose owner was a fan of that Titchmarsh fella. Not a blade of grass or clipped box hedge to be seen, just blue painted woodwork, mood lighting and architectural features. He was told that the garden was an “extension of the indoors” with low sofas and fairy lights. Who in their right mind wanted to eat outside? Did they enjoy being plagued by flies and chased by wasps. He laughed at guests attempting to dine, a burger in one hand, swatting pests away with the other. Wherever John went, he kept a handy pocket-size spray bottle of his special insect repellent, well insect killer, in his pocket. And he wasn’t afraid to use it!
Thursdays would have been heaven if it wasn’t for the neighbours. On Thursday he helped tend the allotment of a young chap, well younger than him, who had suffered a stroke. He and Harvey were on the same page, totally in tune, kindred spirits. Harvey grew giant vegetables destined only for the show table in neat, organized rows on a perfectly pristine, weed free plot. Every plant was planned and plotted by John for optimum growth. He charted its progress with colour coordinated marker pens on a white board in the shed. The plants grew exactly as expected, fruits and roots swelled evenly and blemish free. Weeds were removed, pests eradicated and in return the back wall of the shed strained under the weight of rosettes.
Of course, the rivalry with other plot holders was intense. Some whispered that it wasn’t fair that Harvey had professional help. They gawped at the colour coordinated white board, sniggered at the shelves of John’s hand-blended feeds and pesticides. and had laughed outwardly when John had measured both the height and angle of the potato ridges with a ruler and a protractor. Mocking didn’t bother John but the pranks riled him. Super glue in the shed lock, pea plants untied from their canes were left spread out across the floor. The worst prank was a carefully constructed row of mole hills which appeared across a recently prepared seed bed. This sent John into an apoplexy when he arrived early one morning. He wasn’t a man of confrontation, instead he quietly let himself into the site one moonless night and applied a heavy-handed splash of his concentrated home brew weed killer to the water butts of the worst jokers. It goes without saying that Harvey wiped the board at that season’s show.
The week was rounded off with Mrs Asquith. Mrs Asquith or Judith to her friends, was a widow of undetermined age. She was an artist, a nature lover and all round nosey, interfering busy-body. John hated Mrs Asquith. He hated her brassey red hair, scrapped up on top of her head and held in place with an assortment of paint brushes and pencils. He hated her loud floral kaftans, her bare feet and painted toenails. He hated her clanking rings and strings of beads and her flapping old lady bosoms. Most of all he hated that she paid him more than the rest of his clients put together.
As much as he wanted to tell her where to shove her airy-fairy hippy chick beliefs, he knew he couldn’t afford to. He was stuck with her and this made him hate her more than the flowers, birds and insects which inhabited her garden and she knew it! She wanted a wild flower meadow. She wanted bird feeders and insect hotels, and what she wanted, she expected to get. She made him leave the wind-fall apples on the ground for the wasps. She stopped him netting a crop of cherries to protect them from the blackbirds. She even made him cut holes in the fence so hedgehogs could wander through. He tried to bring order, he tried to control the situation but she found his insecticide and weed killers in the back of the van and threated to sack him if she caught him using them again. So, he bit his lip and got on with the job and regretted the day he’d ever been introduced to Mrs Asquith, whom he’d never call Judith.
This Friday was warm and balmy, the serenity of the pale blue sky torn apart by the screech of swallows and the annoying buzz of wasps who’d built a nest in the roof of the shed. John fired up the petrol strimmer. At last it was time to cut the wild flower meadow. He knew he’d never get it to lawn condition, green, even and stripped. But at least it would be cropped short and free of insect attracting weeds.
The wasps were upset by the strimmer, they buzzed angrily and occasionally dive-bombed him. He gave them a few surreptitious squirts of his pocket insecticide and received a sharp sting on the neck in reply. He switched off the strimmer and slapped his attacker, squashing it flat. He removed the stinger with his nail, fired up the strimmer and continued to cut the grass. The wasps became angrier. This time several of them came at him, catching him on the leg and shoulder. He swung round dropping the strimmer as he swatted them away. He couldn’t reach the sting in his shoulder and it throbbed painfully. He picked up the strimmer, fired it up again and was about to start cutting when his head started to swim. His chest tightened and he gasped for air. As he fell the strimmer dropped from his hand and the safety switch cut the power off again.
In the kitchen Judith was alerted to the sound of the strimmer being switched on and off repeatedly. Really that man, she thought. Polluting the air with this petrol fumes. She told him to use the hand scythe every year. As she crossed the garden she wondered where he was hiding this time.
The strimmer was still off but he wasn’t in the shed. Poking through the long grass, she spotted the soles of his ugly green rubber wellies. She stood over him, and thought he looked oddly at peace laying there shrouded in wild flowers, a wasp crawling inquisitively over his face.
Yes, if I press my ear to the door, I can definitely hear it. Faintly at first. Then more insistently.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
As soon as I turn the handle.
The room is empty apart from half a dozen unpacked packing cases, a deep chill and an unnerving feeling that I’m not alone. The sensible voice in my head asks calmly, ‘What’s the worst a mouse could do to you?’ All the other voices scream, ‘Get out while you can,’
I walk hurriedly back onto the landing, slamming the door hastily behind me. I tentatively rest my ear back against the door.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
I see no evidence of his being there. No nibbled boxes or mouse droppings. Just the noise and a dank sweet aroma that’s like nothing I’ve smelt before. A humane trap failed to lure him. The snapping kind missed its mark. Nothing tempted him. Cheese, chocolate, fruit cake, a block of blue rat poison. All left untouched but still scratch, scratch, scratch.
I let my little intruder invade my head. Not a day went by when I didn’t plot or plan his demise. He became my main topic of conversation, the worry that kept me from sleep. I lie awake straining my ears to hear him.
Covering my ears to block out the sound.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
When finally, I slept I dreamt he was scampering over me, sharp little claws scratching at my face, bony paws tangled in my hair. I woke with a start. ‘Enough!’ I shouted into the cool quiet.
I invited a friend and his spaniel to tea. No coincidence Ben was a Copper and Bess a retired sniffer dog. My hopes sank as she begged eagerly for cake and snoozed by the glowing fire. After a comfort break in my daffodils, Bess dashed along the landing whilst Ben and I tiptoed along behind. We paused outside the door, ears pressed against the wood. Yes, there it was. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
Bess dashed in as the door swung open. She methodically swept backwards and forwards across the room. Standing on her hind legs to fill her nose with scent on top of the boxes. She scanned the various traps. Nothing caught her attention. As I began to lose hope she sat down sharply by the little built-in cupboard at the back of the room. She looked at Ben and back at the door, back to Ben with a gentle wag of her tail and intently back at the door. ‘That’s it,’ he announced. ‘She’s indicating.’
I told him the cupboard was empty. It wasn’t deep enough even to store the boxes, nothing inside of interest to a mouse. Bess was sent out of the room and made to sit forlornly on the landing.
Ben took the broom I’d been grasping and waved to me to open the cupboard slowly. As I lifted the latch the hinge squealed in protest, my heart pounded, cold sweat beaded along my spine. I expected a torrent of mice to tumble out, rolling like a wave across the floorboards.
Nothing rushed out, only a cold draught and that intense sickly smell. Bess darted in, all good police dog procedure forgotten. Her nose busy in the far corner of the cupboard.
Ben covered his face with his hand. ‘Jeezz. I think your little friend crawled in here and died.
I reminded him that wasn’t possible. We’d heard him only a few minutes earlier when we stood in the landing.
The plasterboard was damp and stained where it met the floorboards. I imagined I could hear it again now, more insistently than before, more determined to get out.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
I searched in the boxes and found a claw hammer and a screwdriver. Together we prized the nails free. There wasn’t enough room for Ben inside the cupboard so I elbowed him out of the way triumphantly yanking the edge of the board to bring an end to all these weeks of worry and stress.
The board suddenly snapped free of its frame throwing me backwards in a slow-motion arc of plaster, cobwebs and dust. I watched frame by frame as a dried corpse swung free from her tomb, hair and ragged clothing streaming out behind her like a banner. I felt my breath crash out of my chest as I hit the floor. I felt the dry bones crash into my chest as she fell into my outstretched arms. Her sharp nails scratched my face, her bony fingers tangled in my hair.
My face contorted to match her silent scream. No sound came from me. Only a faint scratch, scratch, scratch as her jagged nails met the bare floorboards.
I wait as white summer light seeps out of the day. Familiar sounds of home settle and shift into slumber. I am alert. Ears straining for the landing’s warning.
I slip effortlessly through the window, out into the garden and the warm breathless night. He sees me. Of course he sees me. I see him. See him silhouetted against the backdrop of my bedroom.
There’s no time for regrets and accusations. Quietly I disappear through the side gate, avoiding the neighbours’ twitching curtains and questioning glances. Trotting, fox like, slinking silently along sun scorched alleyways. Seemingly safe suburban streets morph into grim, grey, council estates, weedy garage blocks, leering high-rise tower blocks and shopping centres. I’m heading towards the bright lights of party-land. Towards the noise and the crowd. Towards the disinterest of strangers. To where there’s safety in numbers.
I avoid the dark quiet places; the hidey holes of the vulnerable and the weak; the hunting ground of predators. Choosing instead to follow the prancing parade between pubs and clubs. Throngs of revellers; herds of nameless faces; faceless bodies. I am anonymous.
I can waste the hours until dawn tagging along behind one group of partygoers and then another. To the casual onlooker I appear to be one of them, but I’m never with them. Like a chameleon I camouflage myself first as an office junior out with colleagues, then a friend celebrating a birthday, a family night at the theatre, stags and hens, I don’t discriminate. Their destination, their purpose is irrelevant. I just need to be close enough that I can lose myself in them. Close enough not to be seen; close enough to be safe. And so, I travel up and down the main street, hour after hour, with them but apart from them. There but not there. Hidden in clear view, shielded from those who might wish me harm.
Doors open emitting a flurry of music and voices, wafting out body warmed air sweet with the smell of alcohol and dancing. I move on. Bouncers and cab drivers notice me, I see the question in their eyes. I’m a regular party goer who never goes in. I’m frequently part of a group hailing a taxi, but I never climb aboard. I’m a phantom, a vision, an anomaly. No one asks the question why. No-one wants to hear the answer. I’ve never I felt so lonely, surrounded by strangers.
By 2am the crowds begin to thin. It’s time to ride the night bus until sunrise. I join those who have somewhere to go and some who have nowhere to go, and ride round and around in the thinning darkness. Alone. I’m alone in my solitary circumnavigation of the city. A single occupant on a seat made for two. My back pack standing wary sentinel in the empty space. I don’t engage, I don’t invite eye contact. No one asks me where I’ve been. No one asks me where I’m heading.
Now that my brain is no longer occupied with mobility, it has time to think. Think about me, think about her, think about him. I’m lost in sorrow. I feel disillusioned with humanity, disappointed with my family. I stand apart from those to whom I belong. Separate. Separated.
As the clouds finally break, sending fat drops of rain splashing onto the window, tears silently tumble down my checks. Hurriedly I wipe them out of sight.
I return home with the sunrise, the blackbird in the cherry tree heralding my arrival. Sleep sings to me, beckoning me, tiredness washes over me.
I long to sleep.
I long to sleep the sleep of the innocent.
No one else notices my absence, no one asks. I was never gone.
We are trapped within our lies.