by Kerry Hadley-Pryce
She stands, and looks at the house, her house. She’s uprooted the “For Sale” sign because she thinks leaving it there, outside an obviously vacant property is asking for trouble. She was burgled a couple of years back, during the day, whilst at work—actual daylight robbery. They got in round the back, smashed the dining room window, emptied the drawers in her sideboard, then upstairs, turned out her wardrobe and her dressing table, messed up her underwear drawer. They took her iPod, and, she suspects, some of her underwear, but left her laptop and a jar of pennies that was holding the bedroom door open. The police were very good, taking fingerprints and a statement, but they never came back to her. She misses that iPod. She thinks about that, standing there, looking at her house. She thinks about how she used to use it to listen to music through her old earphones, how it helped with the chattery, clicking tinnitus with which she still suffers.
She carries the “For Sale” sign round the back, heaves it up the path to the very top of the incline that is the garden, leaves it there, out of sight. She realises it’s left a splinter in the palm of her hand, in that fat bit with the workings of her thumb in it, above her lifeline there. That hurts more than she’d expect. She looks down at the house. The incline of the garden is so steep, she can see the pitch of the roof, the odd broken slate tile. She’s about to walk back down when Tony, her neighbour—her ex-neighbour, now—calls her name. She didn’t used to like Tony. He wears Hawaiian shirts and long shorts all year round, and he scrapes his hair into a thin, grey ponytail. She sees his face and fingertips appear above a loose larchlap fence panel. She thinks: Kilroy woz ’ere.
‘Tony,’ she says. ‘How’re you doing?’
She always says that when she sees people she hasn’t seen for a while. She uses it like a mantra.
Tony says, ‘Any luck?’
He means, with selling the house.
She shakes her head. ‘Fell through,’ she says, and she sees his face change, sees his eyes, though rimmed with red, brighten. He’s got very big bags under his eyes, Tony has. She knows he feels conscious, embarrassed about them because he told her once, one Halloween, when he invited the whole street to his house for a party. She’d gone into his kitchen to dispose of the mulled wine that, to her, tasted like medicine, and he went after her and he asked her what she thought about him having corrective surgery.
She thinks he might be saying something, but can’t see below his nose, so feels like she has to explain, about the house. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘The chain broke.’ And she waves her hand in a way that’s meant to seem like it’s nothing, it’s not important.
Tony seems to reset his gaze. She can see the nubs of his fingertips whitening on the fence panel. ‘Ah,’ he says, and he looks beyond her, down at her house.
‘Anyway,’ she says, and she goes to give a little wave. She means to go down to the house, go inside, check it’s all okay in there, it being empty now.
‘It wasn’t about the ivy then?’ Tony says. ‘The ivy didn’t put them off?’
She stops and has to shield her eyes because the sun is low, like a spotlight behind him. She knows, of course, that the garden has grown, the plants and so on, and that the ivy has taken over the back of the house, yes. Tony’s right. Its thick, waxy leaves drip and drizzle with last night’s downpour. She looks up at his house with its newly painted render, white, like some kind of coastal holiday home. ‘Erm…I quite like it,’ she says. ‘The ivy. I think it gives it character.’ And the loose larchlap fence panel shivers as if Tony is laughing or bumping his knees against it, and it reminds her of her splintered hand, and she thinks about going back to her new place, and tweezering it out.
‘Well. Be that as it may,’ he says. And he hesitates as if he’s just invented the phrase. ‘Something is nesting in there, you know. In the ivy. There.’
He points down at her house with a thick, claw-like finger, and says, ‘There,’ as if reminding her where her own house is.
She thinks of mice—it’s certainly thick enough, the ivy, to contain a nest of them. And she’d once, a few years ago had to call a chap in to remove what she thought were squirrels from the attic. She’d googled the sound: scratching, gnawing. Big, irregular, pattery footfalls, too lithe to be rats, too light to be mice, not fluttery like birds, across her bedroom ceiling at night. It kept her awake. He’d arrived with a trap and some bait—peanut butter—saying he’d do it humanely. But when he went up there, into her attic, he’d said there was nothing there. He’d asked her how long she’d thought they’d been there, how long she’d been hearing things, and he’d charged her twice as much as he’d quoted because of the call-out and the inconvenience.
Tony says something and she looks at him, just his baggy, reddened eyes and scraped-back hair visible now. She wants to say something like, ‘Speak up,’ or ‘Shut up.’ Instead, she says, ‘What? I hope not. I hope it isn’t rats.’
‘No, not rats,’ he says, he pretty much shouts it. ‘Bats, Bats.’
‘Right,’ she says, startled.
‘Yeah, I can see them flapping about,’ he says. ‘Swooping. I stand and watch them, at certain times of the evening. I see them swoop from here.’
Tony seems to enjoy the gap his hesitation causes. She can’t see, because of the fence, but she’s pretty sure he’s smiling.
‘Do you know how to get rid?’ he says.
She does not. The only bats she’s ever seen are on TV: Hammer Horror, David Attenborough.
‘Well, I’ll tell you.’ Tony says. ‘You can’t. They’re your responsibility.’
She notices his eyebrows, the way they seem to move independently of each other, entities in their own right.
‘Protected species, see. It’s a criminal offence to remove that ivy,’ he says, ‘if there are bats.’
And he tuts, or she thinks he does, or she seems to hear a series of clicks that might have been him tutting, or might just have been in her head.
She becomes aware that her boiler has started working—a thick line of steam jets from the flue. She hears it, she’s sure, a rising whistling whirr, before she sees it. She’s set the timer so the pipes don’t freeze. Her house is always cold, set in that dip, almost constantly shaded by Tony’s house, his extension.
From where she stands at the top of that incline, that garden of hers, she realises for the first time she can more or less see into every room of her house: the kitchen, the dining room, even her old bedroom. She can see where her wardrobe and dressing table used to be, where her bed once was. She glances at Tony, can’t quite make out what he’s saying through the high-pitched, ringing whistle of her tinnitus— something about bats and ivy, she supposes. Whatever it is, she thinks he must be finding it funny, she can tell that by the way the loose fence panel is trembling quite dangerously. She realises it’s loose enough to push and allow someone to climb right through the gap. She thinks that’s probably her responsibility as well, so she gives him a little wave, Tony, says, ‘Oh well, see you soon,’ which is another of her mantras, and leaves him to whatever he’s saying behind that loose panel. As she navigates the downward path, she’s minded to contact the police, see if they have any new information about that burglary, about her iPod, but then it was a few years ago now. Anyway, it’s getting dark already, and she has to get home, to her new home, get the tweezers on this splinter in her hand. A streetlight flickers on and she hears it buzz—not buzz, more like fizz, perhaps, and it adds to the general throb of traffic, of the urban heat island and the concrete and brick and tarmac, and she imagines the fluttering of night insects and the feeding of bats. She’s got her earbuds, which she puts in, and she shuffles some songs on her phone. She finds it helps soothe the echolocation sounds, the swoop of them that she believes only she can hear.
Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a British writer and academic. Her first novel, The Black Country, published by Salt Publishing in 2015, was part of her MA Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School, for which she gained a distinction and was awarded the Michael Schmidt Prize for Outstanding Achievement 2013–14. Her second novel, Gamble, also published by Salt Publishing in June 2018, was shortlisted for the Encore Second Novel Award 2019. She is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University researching Psychogeography and Black Country Fiction, teaches creative writing, and has contributed to Palgrave’s ‘Smell, Memory & Literature in the Black Country’ anthology as well as having had short stories published in Fictive Dream and The Incubator and read by Brum Radio:
She is currently completing her third novel, God’s Country.
Learn more at: https://kerryhadley-pryce.weebly.com