A whimper came from Davey’s room and it woke Ella up abruptly. She had always been a tentative light sleeper and that problem had got even worse since they had moved out here into the countryside. A sudden violent blast of wind or a car going by on the narrow lane outside their house? Her eyelids would come snapping open; it would take her whole ages to get them closed again.
Greg—of course—was fast asleep beside her and he didn’t make the slightest move. A second sound emerged from Davey’s bedroom, louder and more plaintive than the first.
She loved her youngest son with all her heart, but she had to admit he was the fragile type. Not too social. Nervous around strangers. The bark of a nearby dog would make him jump. And during the dark hours that got even worse, his structureless imagination running riot.
What is it this time? she thought, hauling herself out of bed and pulling on her dressing gown. She couldn’t find her slippers in the dark.
The door to Davey’s room was partially ajar. She tapped on it gently then she reached inside, switched on the light.
He was blinking at her as she came in. And staring back into his big damp green eyes, Ella felt an aching start up in her chest that swelled and swelled till it encompassed her. He was fragile, yes, but so immensely beautiful. His curly tousled hair was blond and his face—at five years old—was just a delicate as any girl’s. How long would he stay this way? Forever, was her fervent hope.
He was sat stock upright in the bed with his duvet pulled up to his chin. And Ella could see that he had gone stiff as a board, except that he was shaking too.
“Sweetheart?” she asked.
She got no response.
“What is it, Davey? A nightmare again?”
His head gave a brisk spasmodic shake, a curl of blond hair dropping to his brow. And then his low hushed voice came wheezing out
“Mummy, there are things in here.”
She made her way slowly across and sat down gently on the edge of Davey’s mattress, reaching out to push his hair back into place.
“And what is it you thought you saw?”
“I didn’t see. I only heard. Noises, quick, like scuttling.”
And now Ella began to grow concerned, because the sounds he was describing could be mice. There’d been a few of them when they’d moved in, but only in the kitchen and the hall. She scanned the carpet and the skirting boards but couldn’t see a sign that they’d returned.
“Maybe you were dreaming them?”
“No, I was awake. The sounds were real. And there was something else. These things I heard . . . ”
“I think they had claws, because they made this other sound that wasn’t running. That was scraping and then clacking. Was like ‘snickersnack.’ ”
And Ella couldn’t even help herself. She grinned hugely and snorted out a laugh, then gathered up her young son in her arms. God, but was there anything as wild as kids? Where’d he fetched that idea from and how had he invented such a word? She hugged him for the longest while and ran her fingers through his hair. But he still looked anxious and uncomfortable.
“Okay,” she nodded, letting go of him, “Wait there while I give the room a look.”
And she did that very carefully, her movements slow and measured so that he could watch. She opened up his wardrobe and slid some of the clothes back. Pulled out all three sections in his chest of drawers. Went to the window and brushed at the sill with one deft palm. She even took a few books off his shelf and peered behind them. And she finished up this pantomime by going right down on her hands and knees and staring underneath his bed.
“Nothing at all here,” she finally announced. “I think between us we’ve both scared them and those snickersnacks have run away.”
And she stood up, then leant across and kissed him on the forehead.
“Nothing in this place can do you any harm. So try to get some sleep now, sweetheart, ‘kay?”
Greg had gone off to work by the time she arose properly. It was a good long drive back into the city where his job still was, so he left early and he got back late.
And how lousy is that? Maybe this entire move was a mistake?
It wasn’t the first time that thought had occurred to her. They’d had such idyllic dreams of living in the country, except that in an awful lot of ways it simply wasn’t working out. Harsh reality kept sticking its big nose in. Take the worsening weather, for example.
Standing by the kitchen window, staring out through rain-specked glass, she could see the sky was a quite brutal shade of grey from one end to the other, a strong wind pushing huge clouds across it. The last of the ragged leaves were being ripped from nearby trees. Moving in here at the end of autumn had been a serious error in their judgement; it would have been far better if they’d waited till the spring. But this place had been going at a bargain price—the couple who had lived here had both died and their family were after a quick sale. So they’d been left with little choice.
Ella tore herself away and concentrated on preparing the kids’ breakfast.
“Get down here!” she shouted up. “And now, unless you want to walk to school!”
Thundering footsteps hammered down the stairs. So that was Joel arriving first. He was so different to her younger child, sturdier, his manner more assured. Face it, he took after Greg whereas Davey was more like her. That did not mean she didn’t love them both. But he sat down at the table with a heavy thump and started tucking into both his cereal and toast.
“Where’s your brother?” Ella asked.
“Doubtless cowering in his room.”
“And why would you say anything like that?”
“I heard him snivelling in his bed last night.”
A jolt ran through Ella and she stiffened sharply.
“That’s not nice, Joel! Kindly take that back!”
But all he did was shrug and then continue eating.
This was something else that appeared to be going wrong. Before they’d moved here, Joel had been protective of his brother, always watching over him and shielding him from harm. But in the past couple of weeks his attitude had changed. Joel had changed, becoming terse and harsh. Perhaps that was the influence of the local rural kids.
Ella wandered back out into the hallway.
And his face appeared, but it was very wan like he’d got hardly any sleep at all. She waited patiently as he came down the stairs, then ushered him into the kitchen.
“Auntie Ursula will be here soon, so get your breakfast eaten, sweetheart.”
Ursula Buren was their nearest neighbour on this lane. She had three children of her own, drove a huge old SsangYong jeep and picked up Joel and Davey on her way to school.
“Would you like some jam with that?”
“Sweetheart?” Joel muttered underneath his breath.
She really couldn’t fathom what was wrong with him.
Ten minutes later both the kids were gone, and that was even worse than listening to Joel gripe. Not that she did not have her own work, graphic design which she could do from home. But on a day like this one was, the house around her still felt like a lifeless cell. Thick dark clouds continued rolling overhead and the wind was blowing so hard that the brick walls sometimes shook.
When they both returned from school, Davey was drawn-faced and very quiet.
“The other kids make fun of him because he’s such a wormy little weed,” Joel reported almost gleefully.
“You’re his older brother. You should stick up for him, Joel.”
“And let him drag me down as well. I don’t think so,” was his taut response.
She fed them both then sent them both to bed, half an hour earlier than was normally the case. But she spent a little while in Davey’s room, chattering to him merrily and trying to cheer him up.
Greg got home just after eight, so tired and dull-eyed he could barely lift his gaze. She leant across and pecked him on the cheek, although he barely seemed to notice that.
Look on the bright side, tomorrow is the weekend. A chance for us all to relax and freshen up.
She fetched him his meal, which she’d been keeping warm. Beef stew, which he’d always liked, but he ate in perfect silence.
And that set the tone for the entire rest of the evening. They spent it watching the TV and neither of them said a single word. And at a quarter to ten, Greg stood up and headed off to bed. Ella trailed him quietly up the stairs.
“I realise you’re exhausted, but we really need to talk.”
He stared at her with vacant eyes, not even bothering to raise his head.
“I don’t think this is working out. We used to be happy and we’re not that here.”
Greg finally began to speak, reminding her of certain facts. When they’d sold their house back in the suburbs they had had to pay off quite a lot of debt. The rest had gone on buying this place, which had just been two-thirds of the price. Which meant that if they put it back onto the market, they would not even have sufficient funds to return to where they’d been.
“We’ll simply have to make the most of it,” were his concluding words.
Past which point the bedroom door was swinging shut behind his broad retreating back.
She didn’t come to bed herself till after midnight. And even then her eyelids stubbornly refused to shut. Ella lay there on her back, dozens of conflicting thoughts—arguments, then counters to them—rattling fiercely through her head.
Greg was like a zombie these days . . . but given the pressures that he was now under, was that honestly his fault? Joel seemed to be getting worse with every passing week . . . but was that just the way that boys became when they advanced in age, their hormones preparing them for adolescence?
She could only thank God that she still had Davey. And her eyes were finally drifting shut when she heard her youngest son let out a piercing shriek.
She didn’t even bother with her dressing gown. No, she was at his door and switching on his light and bursting into his small room before she knew what she was doing. Davey wasn’t simply sitting up this time. Rather, he was jammed right up against the headboard of his bed, his knees drawn to his chest, his thin arms wrapped around them. And his green eyes were huge and terrified, his mouth a cedilla of fear and his whole narrow body quaking.
“What is it? What’s going on?”
He tried to answer but he seemed to be too scared to speak. So she went quickly over, sat down on his bed again and clasped his face in both her hands.
“Davey? Please tell me what’s wrong?”
“It . . . ”
“Calm down, sweetheart. Try to breathe.”
“It was the . . . ”
“First I heard them, like the last time. And then one of them was getting very close.”
“And then?” she prompted.
“And then it was on me. It was on my neck.”
“And what did you do?”
“I knocked it off. I felt it underneath my fingers. It was very small, but hard and sharp. And then I screamed.”
Holy Lord, this had to be a dream. A figment, but his fear was very real. She gathered him up in her arms again and tried to think what she could do about this.
“Do you think you can get back to sleep?”
He shook his head.
“How about if I stay with you?”
Davey turned that over and then nodded.
So she got him to lie down again, arranging his duvet carefully. Then she lay down herself on top of it—the bed was short enough she had to bend her legs right up. And she brushed his forehead gently till his eyelids fluttered down. And—satisfied that she was doing the right thing—she drifted into sleep herself.
What woke her again—and not slowly—was the fact that she was freezing cold.
It was barely dawn. The light filtering in through Davey’s curtains was utterly devoid of colour and a strident wind was still battering at the walls. When she tried to move, she found that she had gone extremely stiff. But her youngest son was flat out to the world and breathing evenly and she was delighted to see that.
Ella eased herself painfully up till she was sitting on the bed, the house silent around her aside from the wind. She had achieved what she had come here for and now she needed to get warm again. She needed her dressing gown, her slippers too. And she was about to go and get those things when something made her pause.
The stark grey light was revealing something that she had not noticed earlier on. Right beside this bed, there was a tiny round mark on the wall.
A tiny round hole, when she inspected it closer. Far too small and too high up to have been made by any mouse. So what could have caused it . . . woodworm? This was plasterboard.
But this house was old and had its quirks. She’d get to the bottom of it later. When she went back into her bedroom, Greg was sound asleep as well and she was genuinely pleased to see that too. Heaven knew, but he deserved some proper rest. She wrapped herself in flannelling and padded down into the kitchen.
Clicked the light on and then jolted. Something was now on the move between the cupboards and the kitchen sink.
But she recovered rapidly enough, since it was just a little row of ants. They must have found a crack in the brickwork and ventured inside to inspect the place. Still groggy from just a few hours’ sleep, she bent in closer to inspect them.
And for the first time in her life, she felt slightly repulsed. Up till now she’d thought of ants as fascinating things . . . their social order and their complicated nests, the way that each one had a role and the ferocious way they defended their young. But studying them now, a different truth was revealed.
They barely even counted as living beings. Tiny little robots really, miniscule hard-shelled machines with no thoughts in their heads except the impulses that drove them on.
Ella’s lip curled slightly with disgust but she decided to ignore them. She spent a whole age at the kitchen window, watching as the dawn’s light grew and the stripped landscape was gradually revealed.
Finally, there were a couple of hard bumps from the rooms upstairs. Joel and Greg were both now up. Which meant that Davey would be waking shortly too.
A thought occurred to her and she went to the fridge. There was some ham in there she’d bought for sandwiches. Tomatoes too, and eggs and milk.
She’d never approved of fried breakfasts, except . . . weren’t there some things that were more important than always trying to eat healthily? Like sharing a nice family meal, having something warm on a day like this? The kind of happy memory that children always carried with them, lingering their entire lives? And so she got some flour from a cupboard and then rapidly whipped up some batter, turning the ham into fritters. And she fried the eggs and the tomatoes in another pan, throwing in some half-slices of bread as well.
“What’s that smell?” asked Joel when he came down.
By which time all the filled-up plates were proudly displayed on the kitchen table.
“Eat it before it gets cold.”
Joel sat down and began chomping quietly. Greg did the same thing when he showed up. Only Davey seemed enthused.
“This is lovely. Thank you, Mum.”
He was the only one who spoke.
Ella could feel teardrops start to brush against her lashes when the ring of their doorbell broke across her thoughts. The familiar outline of a SsangYong jeep could be seen through the little stained glass window next to their house’s front door.
“Are you all right?” Ursula Buren asked when Ella opened up.
“I’m fine—I’m just feeling the cold. Won’t you come in?”
“No—I’m off to do the monthly shop. I simply thought that I ought to drop by and see how things were.”
And when Ella looked mystified, her closest neighbour went on to explain.
“There’s been a lot of tension in the car this week.”
“Between Joel and Davey?”
“It’s just a phase they’re going through. Sort of a . . . well, a love-hate thing. You have to know how brothers are.”
“But Davey seems actually scared of Joel.”
“Joel’s not hurting him, if that’s what you’re implying. But he has developed a sharp tongue. I keep on trying to snap him out of it.”
“That’s more like a father’s job. Greg needs to sit him down and have a serious word.” And then Ursula’s whole mood softened just a little. “I must say, it’s a pleasant change to have a neighbour I can talk with.”
What exactly did she mean by that?
“The previous couple who lived here . . . ”
“Yes. They kept themselves completely to themselves. You could walk right past this front gate here and they’d never even look at you. It was like living near a pair of ghosts. Thank heavens we’ve some real people around us now.”
And apparently cheered up by that thought, Ursula went on her way. Ella watched her drive off and then slowly closed the door and returned to the kitchen table.
“Can I have some more, Mum?” Davey chimed.
But Greg and Joel—their plates both empty—were both gone.
“We’re going for a walk,” Greg announced about an hour later.
“In this kind of weather?”
“You don’t have to come,” Joel said. “In fact, you’ll only slow us down.”
They both had on heavy coats, woollen caps and solid boots. And for some reason they were wearing backpacks . . . something inside Joel’s one rattled when he moved. And to Ella’s discomfort, Greg was now bent down in front of Davey, making him pull on his little coat as well.
“You can’t drag him outdoors on a day like this!”
“Why not, Ella? He could use some toughening up.”
She watched unhappily as they hustled Davey out through the front door . . . he glanced back at her worriedly but then was gone. Ella sped through to the living room window, staring at the three dark figures as they crossed the lane and then set off across a field. Davey, she could see, was struggling to keep up. She kept on watching till they’d disappeared beyond a rise.
This wasn’t anything she’d been expecting. Was there any real harm to it, though? At least they were doing something all together, as a family should.
A memory took hold of her and she cllimbed the stairs again. Made her way to Davey’s room, then pulled the curtains fully back. Her attention returned to the little hole she’d found and she knelt down in front of it.
It was no larger than a petit pois, perfectly smooth and perfectly round. Could it have been made by a nail and she had simply failed to notice it before? Directly underneath it was some brownish dust. Another thought took hold of her.
She went through to Joel’s room, pushed the curtains back as well. And there were three holes in the wall beside his bed. Her tread jittery, she went to her own room. And there were no holes on her side, but in Greg’s section there were two.
And a smear of dried blood showed up clearly on his pillow case.
She moved over to the glass, staring out across the field again. There was still no sign of her three men. Was something happening to Davey out there? What had it been rattling in Joel’s pack?
But she didn’t have a notion which direction they had gone, so all that she could do was wait, something that she managed only very nervously.
As soon as their shapes reappeared, she was at the open front door, following them with her gaze. Everything looked perfectly all right. Young Davey was even walking a touch more sturdily than when he’d started out. But perhaps that was the thing. Perhaps he’d been changed in some way? Though that did not make too much sense.
As soon as they had crossed the lane, she rushed over and pulled Davey from their grip. Ran her fingers across his smooth face, checking every contour of it carefully.
“What are you doing?” she could hear Greg ask.
But she took no notice. She was staring into Davey’s eyes, trying to detect anything strange in them.
“Mum, what’s wrong?” he started asking her. “Something’s scared you and it’s scaring me.”
And it was exactly the same voice. The same expression on his troubled face. The usual dampness to his big green eyes. There was nothing different at all about him—he was the same Davey she had always loved and relief flooded through Ella’s frame.
Then practicality took hold. She chivvied both her boys inside the house and then she touched Joel’s cheek as well.
“The pair of you are frozen to the bone. I’m going to run you a hot bath.”
And once that they were safely in, she took hold of Greg by the crook of his arm, led him through into their bedroom and showed him the holes.
“Damn it. Woodworm,” was his verdict.
“Not in exactly, but if they’re living in the wooden struts beneath then they can burrow their way through.”
Then she pointed out the blood across his pillow.
“I thought my tongue felt slightly sore. Must have bitten it in my sleep.”
There was no hint of commotion coming from the kids and so they went on down. Greg picked up his backpack from the hallway floor.
“We made it the whole way to Hansley village. And the shop was open, so I got us this.”
He produced a bottle of single malt.
“It’s been a while,” he pointed out.
“But not now. We’ll wait till they’re both asleep.”
Ella took the bottle and then put it in the tallest kitchen cupboard. And the rest of the day was nothing special but a whole lot better than the past couple of weeks. Greg actually took the time to hang out some more with the kids. And Joel had started being far nicer to Davey, playing a board game with him. Supper that evening was smoked fish and they talked gently while they finished it.
Both kids went to bed without any complaint. Ella spent a little time with Joel and then stepped through to Davey’s room. He was lying down but wide awake.
“Are you okay?”
He nodded slowly.
“Well, that’s fine. Did you enjoy your walk?”
“I’d have liked it much better if you’d been there.”
Her heart felt warmer when she heard those words. She grinned hugely again and kissed him on the ear.
“Off you go to sleep, then. Nighty-night.”
“Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” he murmured, rolling over on his side.
It was left to Ella to click off the light. She paused in the doorway, gazing at her son a while, then headed quietly down the stairs.
Greg was on the sofa watching the TV. So Ella pushed on past the living room door, entering the kitchen once again. She fetched the scotch from the high cupboard, found some tumblers in another one. Poured them both a good-sized shot, then headed with them to the living room.
Except that Greg was now up on his feet and walking toward her with a dull look on his face.
“You know what?” he mumbled in a lifeless voice. “I’m exhausted all over again.”
And he didn’t say another word, just shouldered past her and then started going up. She was open-mouthed and frozen in position the entire while that he disappeared.
A whole string of emotions coursed through her, each one darker than the last. The first thing she felt was dismay, laced with a strong touch of sheer bewilderment. Why’d he suddenly switched off again like that? Bitter disappointment followed on its heels, and that transformed quite rapidly to anger.
She went on through into the empty living room, slammed both glasses down onto the coffee table—amber liquid slopped across her hand. She switched off the damned TV, tossing the remote aside, then flung herself onto the couch.
Her hand was still damp so she sucked at it. At least the single malt still tasted good. But nothing else in her whole life could be described in such a way. The worst thing was, she felt like she’d been fooled.
She’d honestly believed that things were looking up, that the happy family life she’d always craved was bobbing back up to the surface. It had seemed that way for a few hours, but look at where she was right now. Alone again. She spent so much time on her own these days. And trapped in this house they could not move out of.
A harsh wind was still slamming at the walls. She stared at the two glasses on the table, picked one up and downed it in one gulp.
She wasn’t drunk by the time she headed up. She’d never do that with both children in the house. But she’d finished both the glasses and then poured a little more. She felt rather sleepy and her mood had become softer-edged.
Greg’s back was to her in the dark as she changed into her nightclothes. Not a sound came from him and he didn’t stir. He might as well have been a boulder that had somehow found its way into their bed. Only she couldn’t think what she could do to alter that.
As soon as she’d settled down her eyes began to flutter shut. But just before she fell asleep, she thought she heard the tiniest sound. A faint scrape and then a clack, like two small pebbles being rubbed together.
Snickersnack, she thought. And she smiled tightly, since it only had to be her blurred imagination.
Darkness took her in its grasp.
Snickersnack. She was even dreaming that strange sound.
She was dreaming there was pressure in her head. She tried to shake it but it just got worse. It was centred around the channel in her ear.
She dreamt another sound like a soft pop. The pressure was now up against inside of her skull and that alarmed her. She woke up.
But the fear that had her gripped immediately faded. Everything around her was a shade of grey she’d never ever seen before, a luminous grey like night-vision. But it didn’t startle her. She was relaxed.
From Davey’s room, there came a whimper. And she vaguely remembered—once upon a time—she would have jumped up to her feet and then gone rushing through there in reaction to a sound like that. But why? She didn’t see the sense.
Another whimper emerged, and then silence for a while. And finally, she heard a creak of bedsprings as her young son settled down again. She relaxed even more and fell into a deep sleep filled with dreams of tunnels and of nests.
The next morning, when Davey came in for his breakfast, he was not so fragile-looking as he had once been. His face was stiff. His green eyes were no longer damp. But then he did something that honestly surprised her.
He smiled hugely and told that that he loved her. Except that his mouth didn’t move an inch, his face remaining very rigid. Those things happened deep inside her skull. Then Greg and Joel both did she same, despite the fact that Greg was still upstairs.
This was why they’d been shutting her out. She and Davey had not been like them. But now they were whole and united. Were a proper family again.
A car honked on the lane outside. It was Ursula Buren driving past, but Ella didn’t even turn her head.