The consistent rain builds to a summer storm. The black plastic sheeting flaps, the holes in the thatch open up still further. At night the electricity buzzes alarmingly, and sudden squalls of wind mix with noises out of nowhere. There are sounds like creeping footsteps which never bring anything into view, and tappings that are the prelude to nothing at all. Then one night there are more distinct noises in the attic. You wake to hear scampering above, and sit bolt-upright in your bag, listening intently, clearing your mind in an attempt to visualise what could be making such a noise. But for a dead broom and a hessian sack, the attic was empty when you first mounted the decaying wooden steps and explored it. Any treasures once stored there have long since been removed.
The attic runs the length of the cottage and so does the noise. The light is already on; you had dropped off over the tubercular novel into dehydrated sleep and broken dreams. A picture to match the noise refuses to materialise. It is too quick to be human, but equally it moves back and forth too heavily to be ignored. Too big to be a rat. A wild cat, or a fox? If it is sheltering from the rain, why so restlessly? You cannot summon enough energy or muster enough courage to dress and investigate, even armed with the cycle’s detachable headlamp. The added disincentive of the unremitting rain is decisive. There being only one set of scampering feet, it cannot be one creature chasing another, unless the second is airborne, or too small to register. In any case, the movement is too frantic and not calculated enough for an animal stalking prey.
After a time – the scampering continuing in fits and starts – you drift into an uneasy state somewhere between alertness and sleep.
… the Mini stuck in drifting snow and deep countryside, but within sight of a light, a comforting, cheery yellow at the end of a long drive. At the door of a large Tudor house, all beams and angles, your mother explains as you shiver. The woman takes you in. The bedroom is wooden and gently sloping, as were the long corridors leading to it; the bed itself is huge and creaking. The electricity fails. You could almost be at sea, with the unnerving gradient of the floor, the gusts and moans of the wind, the guttering candles. Left alone at the centre of a labyrinth of unfamiliar corridors, the flame of the candles batting about – as if defending itself from encirclement by enemies – you feel as deserted and as mortal as a child can feel. The creaks sound sudden and intense, like snapping sticks…
You start awake again at the sound of more scurrying. It continues long into the night, the effects on you the worse for the lengthening pauses between the ghost-animal’s scampering exercises. You eye the black panes of glass in your uncurtained window – the sun bed is positioned so you can see both it and the door – but of course, you can see nothing outside with the light on. You could easily be watched until you can stay awake no longer.
You try to pull yourself together and take your paranoia apart. Most likely it is the Drouet’s cat at a mouse which, in play, it keeps letting escape. You fetch a broom from what was once the kitchen and try to scare the noise back by banging on the wooden beams, but the pattern of the movement does not change. There is very little you can do to distract yourself. Music is no help, for if you were to wear headphones, your insecurity would magnify: the noise would burst through the flimsy polystyrene, faces would appear at the window, the door would suddenly blow open. All that you can do is keep the light on, fix the sun bed so you rest sitting up, and leave yourself in the hands of sleep when your attention finally tires. What matter then whether morning comes or not? You know the odds are that it will.