“Mummy.” Emily’s voice was urgent as I bent to switch off the bedside lamp, “Please leave the light on. I’m scared of the fairies.”
“The fairies?” I sat back down on the bed, “You don’t need to be frightened of fairies. They’re sweet little creatures that grant you wishes and leave a pound coin under your pillow when you lose a tooth.”
“Not these fairies.” Emily opened her eyes wide in fear and gripped me round the shoulders, pulling me close.
“They live in the walls…” she whispered close to my ear. Hot tears trickled down my neck.
“Oh, darling.” I kissed her damp cheek, “Have you been having bad dreams?”
“It’s not dreams, Mummy. I hear them scratching and laughing behind the headboard. They hate me. They say I’m ugly. They want to…kill…me.” The last words disintegrated into violent blubbing.
I scooped her into my arms, breathed in her clean just-bathed skin, “It’s all right, my love. Mummy’s got you. I think you can hear the mice. It’s an old house and there are loads about.”
“Mice don’t talk, Mummy.” she spluttered.
“The light can stay on, darling, and I’ll lie with you until you’re asleep.”
We snuggled under the covers and I put my arm around Emily, held her tight, felt the shock-waves of her sobs through my jumper. With my free hand, I stroked her soft hair, golden in the lamplight.
“Sing me the lamb one, Mummy.” she said, when her crying finally subsided.
By the time I finished my rendition of The Skye Boat song, Emily was asleep, her little body exhausted. I stayed where I was, not wanting to disturb her. It worried me to see her so afraid. I wondered if she was being bullied at school. It had been a tough move for her, dragging her away from her Grandparents and friends, from the bright modern nursery class, to this remote old place in the middle of nowhere, with its austere grey primary school. The house was full of groans and creaks in the night. Many times, I had heard scuttling behind the skirting while I lay in bed. I told Phil we needed to get some traps. “And you a vegetarian,” he had laughed.
With great care, I extricated myself from the warm, sleeping bundle and crept out into the hall and downstairs.
“That took a long while. Everything OK?” Phil looked up from his book, concerned lines across his dark eyebrows.
“Emily was terrified tonight. She said there are fairies living in the walls. They hate her and want to kill her.” I sat down on the sofa, next to him.
He put his book down and cuddled me close. It was reassuring to feel his warmth seep into my skin and the weight of his arm across my shoulders.
“Just dreams, I expect,” he said. “Fairies are pretty bloody scary though, if you ask me. It’s all the fairy tales you read her. Those Brothers Grimm were a right pair of miserable bastards.”
“Thanks for that. I told her it’s probably the mice.”
“I know, I know. I haven’t got on with getting the traps yet. I’ll sort it tomorrow, I promise.” Phil kissed me on the forehead, “Don’t worry. Kids do get scared, you know. It’s part of growing up.”
“But what if it’s school?” I said, “She might be being bullied and this is her way of telling us. It’s been a big change.”
“For all of us.” Phil smiled, “Don’t go jumping to conclusions, Jess. Give it some time. See how things go.”
“I suppose…” I sighed, “I just want Emily to be happy here.”
“That’s what we both want. Look, I’ll pour us a glass of wine and we’ll settle down in front of that sloppy film you’ve been trying to persuade me to watch.”
The next morning, we went for a lovely family walk along the river in the crisp autumn sunshine. Emily kicked up mounds of brilliant jewelled leaves, filling her wellies until they overflowed and she collapsed in a giggling heap. I pulled them off her and snuck up behind Phil, emptying them over his head. Emily burst into raucous laughter as he chased me down the path.
Walking back towards her, Phil took my hand and whispered, “She seems fine today.”
On the way home, we stopped at the farm store to buy mouse traps.
“Will they hurt the mice, Daddy?” Emily asked as we returned to the car.
“Well, my lovely, I’m afraid they will kill the mice but it will be quick, so it won’t hurt them at all.” Phil reassured her, “We can’t have mice running around the house scaring my little girl, can we?”
“It’s not…” Emily began but Phil lifted her up over his shoulders and the rest was lost in hysterical screeches.
Back home, we set traps all over the house. Emily helped cut cubes of cheese.
“The mice will go after the cheese, won’t they Mummy, and the trap will come down…snap.” She clapped her hands. “Daddy says it won’t hurt the mice.”
“No, it will be fast.” I agreed, surprised at her apparent change of heart.
“Do fairies like cheese, Mummy?” she asked, a hopeful expression on her pretty, round face.
“I’m not sure. I expect they might.”
She clenched her fists, “I hope so.”
“Let’s take Daddy the cheese, then.” I said, passing Emily the bowl.
Over the next few days, every piece of cheese disappeared but not one mouse was found dead. We refilled the traps, all the cheese went, still no mouse got caught. Every night, I lay listening to scrabbling behind the walls. The mice seemed to be taunting us. Phil joked we must have the most well-fed rodents in the country. Emily became more restless in bed, waking up three or four times a night; wet with sweat and shaking in fear. Her light had to stay on; the bedroom door open. She grew pale and ill-looking; her eyes ringed with dark circles. Even Phil failed to bring a smile to her thin, sad lips.
“The fairies don’t like cheese, Mummy…” she whispered at bedtime on the third night, “They are angry about the traps.”
I slept with her that night, holding her until her breath relaxed and slowed. Then the scampering and scuttling began; movement right behind my head. I tensed, trying to work out where the mice were coming from and going to. They seemed to be running up and down the walls, crossing the ceiling, then returning back behind the headboard. I banged the wall with my fist and the noise stopped. Emily stirred beside me.
“Sssh, it’s all right.” I soothed.
I started awake. My heart beat against my rib cage, so loud I worried it might wake Emily. Something had woken me. I listened hard. In the black stillness, I thought I heard sniggering.
“Don’t be stupid, Jess.” I said, rubbing my eyes, “Wake up, you’re dreaming.”
“It’s the fairies.” Emily grasped my hand.
We lay together as the scurrying began again.
“Try to sleep, Emily.” I said, “It’s only the mice. Tomorrow, I’m getting a cat. That will fix them.”
After dropping Emily at school, I set off on the thirty-mile trek, down a series of narrow winding lanes, to the nearest animal sanctuary. During breakfast, I had completed a frantic google search and found the perfect place. Emily cheered up as I showed her photos of the fluffy felines in need of forever homes.
“I like that one, Mummy,” she said, pointing to a large ginger tom. “He looks brave.”
“He does look a big, strong cat, doesn’t he?” I agreed. “Well, I can’t promise he’ll be the one we get but I’ll do my best.”
It was good to leave Emily at school looking bright and happy.
I spent an hour chatting to the sanctuary owner about our needs and examining the different cats on show. It was a difficult decision choosing which puss to take away. I felt guilty thinking about the ones left behind, who would still be without a loving family. Finally, I settled on a pretty black and white female with a silky coat, pale green eyes and thick, lush tail. She had an intelligent face and attacked her toy mouse with agility and gusto. I thought Emily would enjoy stroking and brushing her. She would be a lovely pet as well as a rodent murderer.
Emily was thrilled with the cat when she got home.
“What’s her name?” she asked as the cat rubbed against her legs.
“I thought that could be your job.” I said.
“Princess.” Emily bent down and ran her hand along the cat’s back. “You like that, don’t you? You are a beautiful Princess.”
“Oh,” said Phil, “I thought we’d call her Killer.”
Emily laughed for the first time in days.
Within a week, Princess got down to work, leaving several bloody parcels on the kitchen floor for us to find at breakfast time.
“Good cat.” Emily cuddled Princess before going to school.
She had slept peacefully the last few nights with Princess at her feet. The walls had gone quiet. The mice were retreating; escaping from the sharp claws of our clever new pet.
On Sunday, we decided to celebrate our success with a long, late lunch at the local pub, an hour’s stroll through the woods. Emily kissed Princess and settled her in the cat basket near the kitchen Rayburn.
“I love you.” she whispered.
Phil and I smiled at each other, relieved to get our happy, little girl back.
“Come on, monkey.” Phil said picking Emily up, “You can ride on my back some of the way, if you like.”
“Yes.” Emily squealed. “And can I have chips and ice-cream at the pub?”
“What, both together? You’ll be sick.” Phil joked.
After a relaxing meal, we headed home, taking the long walk slowly, our tummies full and legs sleepy with all the food we had enjoyed. The sun was sinking behind fluffy, grey clouds as we reached the house. In the gloomy light, it looked forlorn and unfriendly.
“I think we’ll need a fire tonight.” Phil shivered, “It’s getting chilly.”
Inside, the rooms felt icy and musty. Our high spirits dampened.
“Princess!” Emily called, “Where is she, Mummy? She’s not in her bed.”
“Give her a chance, I expect she’s hunting mice upstairs.” I said.
Emily took the stairs two at a time calling for her cat as she went. Phil began to make the fire and I went into the kitchen to put the kettle on. A piercing scream sent us both racing to find Emily. She was kneeling on her bedroom floor, violent sobs wracking her small body. In her arms she held something limp, like a furry rag doll. It took me a moment to realize it was Princess.
“Emily, let me see, darling,” I knelt beside her.
She clung to the cat, her face buried in the dark hair.
“Emily…” I put my arms around her, “Let me see Princess.”
“They killed her…” the words burst from her trembling lips.
I took the cat and placed her gently on the floor in front of my knees. She was frigid; her unseeing eyes glazed wide open. She must have been dead for a few hours.
“I’m so sorry, my love.” I cuddled Emily, pulled her onto my lap.
Phil bent down and picked up Princess.
“Daddy will take her and wrap her in a blanket. Tomorrow, we can bury her in the garden. OK Emily?”
Emily nodded and began to sob again.
I held her for a long time, rocking her back and forth on her bedroom floor, until she cried herself to sleep. Then I placed her carefully in her bed and covered her with the duvet.
Downstairs, Phil was in the kitchen. He had covered Princess in a blanket and put her in the cat bed.
“This is a nightmare…” I said, “I can’t believe it. She loved that cat. What are we going to do, Phil?”
“We could get another cat…I don’t know.” Phil shrugged his shoulders.
“Why did she have to go and die? She seemed so fit and healthy.”
Phil sighed, “I don’t know how to tell you this…it’s the oddest thing.”
“What is?” I did not like the look on his face.
“I checked her over, just now, to see if I could find out what killed her. I noticed her mouth, it was gaping…so I looked closer and…” he hesitated.
“And what? Tell me, Phil.”
“I could see something stuck in there, in her mouth. I put my finger in a bit to see what it was. Her whole mouth was gummed up…I could tell her throat was stuffed full too. It was horrible.”
“Stuffed full of what?” I asked, an uneasy feeling rose in my stomach.
“Cheese, Jess. Cubes of moulding cheese.” He shook his head.
“Cheese? The cheese we cut up and put in the traps?” A finger of fear ran along my spine, “But how can that be possible?”
“I suppose Princess found the place where the mice store their food. Perhaps they collected it up for the winter. She must have been too greedy, she ate it all and choked on it.”
“Do mice do that…store food?” The pulse in my temples throbbed.
“Well, they must do, Jess, because that’s how Princess died.”
“But it seems so implausible. Emily said the fairies were angry. They hated the traps and the cheese. She said they killed Princess. The fairies…”
“And that’s a far more plausible explanation, of course. For Christ’s sake Jess, talk sense. Emily was upset, that’s all.”
“I don’t know how she’ll get over this.” I said.
“Kids do get over things but we don’t mention the cheese.” Phil gave me a warning stare.
“What do you think I am?” I said, “We’ll explain Princess had an illness the sanctuary didn’t know about.”
Phil booked the morning off work and we buried Princess under Emily’s favourite rosebush. The one with the sweet-scented, blush-pink flowers she had enjoyed picking in the summer when we first moved in. That seemed an age ago, when Emily was a different child. Now she was pale and silent. Not a word had passed her lips since the previous evening. She communicated with barely perceptible nods and shakes of the head. She refused to eat breakfast. After the burial, she sat on the sofa, staring at the wall with blank eyes.
“Emily needs some time away from here.” I told Phil that evening when he returned from work.
“What about school?”
“She’s in no state for school, Phil. She’s miserable. She won’t speak or eat. If we don’t do something she’ll be a very ill little girl. I’m frightened, Phil. I think she should go and stay with my mum. Have a holiday.”
“Maybe.” Phil said.
“She misses her Grandma. It will do her good.” I insisted, “I’m driving her there tomorrow.”
“Well, thanks a lot for arranging it all without me.” Phil stormed out of the room.
That night, I lay beside Emily while she slept, listening to the scratching in the walls, louder and more insistent now Princess was gone. I prayed Emily would be all right.
When I got back from my mum’s, Phil was making dinner.
“You OK?” he asked sheepishly.
“Yeah, bit tired. The motorway was jam-packed. Five hours in slow traffic’s not much fun…”
“Poor love.” He pulled me close, “I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s just…well, Emily’s my daughter too. I do care about her.”
“How was she when you left?”
“Still quiet but I think she was relieved to be away.” I shrugged, “Phil, do you think we made a mistake coming here?”
“No, I don’t. This is our dream. A lovely old house in the country. Peace and quiet. Home-grown veg and a few chickens. It’s bliss.”
“I’m not so sure. If Emily’s going to be unhappy…”
“It’ll be fine. Everything will settle. We’ve gone through a rough patch, that’s all.”
I chewed my lip, “I’m thinking perhaps we should sell up, move away.”
“Sell up? Jesus Jess, because we have a mouse problem and our cat died? Bit extreme, don’t you think?” Phil kissed me on the top of my head, “Anyway, I’ve thought of a solution. While you were away today, I booked a pest control man. He’s busy until next week but he reckons he’ll soon finish the buggers. Now, sit down and I’ll make you a cup of tea. Dinner’s nearly ready. Try to relax, love. We’ll sort this, I promise.”
The blankets grew heavy on my restless legs. Blood gushed in my ears. A pinprick of pain pulsed behind my eyes. I looked at the bedside clock; quarter past one. Phil snuffled deep in sleep beside me. The room seemed unusually quiet, no scuffling came from inside the walls. I got out of bed and edged my way through the darkness to the door. On the landing, the moon shone a guiding beam of light. I made my way to the bathroom for a paracetamol and glass of water.
On the return journey, I stopped at Emily’s room. A faint scrambling came from behind the door. I opened it and switched on the light, scanning the floor for evidence of mice. In the sudden glare, the room looked unreal and exposed. I went and sat on Emily’s bed, smoothed her pillows, bent down and breathed in her smell. Around me, the scratching started up again.
I stood up and put my ear to the cool wall. It sounded like an army of mice on patrol in there. I tapped my fingers and the noise stopped for a moment, then carried on as before. Above my hand, I noticed a dark, bulging patch. I prodded it and my finger nail sank into soft, damp plaster. I pushed deeper, causing a large piece to flake off. I picked away at the indentation until a small hole formed. It was too high for me to examine easily, so I searched for something to stand on. My eye found the toy box standing at the bottom of Emily’s bed. It was heavy but, little by little, I pushed and pulled it into position. Standing on the box, I put my eye to the hole. It was too dark and tiny to see anything. I set to work picking at the plaster. I needed to see what was making all the noise; to know what was upsetting Emily.
It took some time to make a decent-sized opening. When it was about the size of my fist, I stopped and put my ear to the gap. The walls had fallen silent. Emily kept a torch in her bedside drawer. I went to collect it. Shining the beam into the hole, I peered in. I could see a space between two layers of stonework. It was dusty and full of cobwebs. A stale, clinging smell filled my nostrils. I waited noiselessly for the mice to appear. I waited for a long time, fingers and toes turning numb. Eventually, I heard a faint scuffling and murmuring, to my sleep-deprived brain like distant voices speaking a strange, foreign language. The scratching and shuffling grew nearer, the whispering sound got louder. Furious, guttural voices, cursing and mocking, gathering at some point in the wall then moving on towards the gap where I waited. A shadow began to form at the edge of the torchlight, stretching and growing on the stony surface. A clawed shape, elongated out, gnarled and bony, like fingers reaching from the darkness. I sensed hatred, a malevolent force, directed at me. My heart tightened and blood throbbed under my ribs.
“Jess, what the fuck are you doing?”
The torch fell with a clatter and banged my knee as I stumbled in shock. Phil grabbed my arm to steady me.
“You scared me. I didn’t realize you were there.”
“Your hands…they’re bleeding. It’s all over the wall…” Phil lifted me down from the toy box.
I looked at my fingers, the skin red and raw, the nails ragged and bloody, “I didn’t feel it.”
“What the hell were doing? You’ve made a big hole…”
“I was looking for the mice, Phil. I heard them…but it sounded like talking.”
“Christ Almighty Jess, let me get you cleaned up. I think you must have had a nightmare, or something. Maybe you were sleep walking.”
A sudden swimming in my brain caused me to totter against Phil, “I don’t know…perhaps it was a dream.”
“Let’s get you back to bed.” Phil took my arm and led me out of Emily’s room.
The next morning, I slept late. When I woke, my head was heavy, like it was squashed into an enormous helmet. My fingertips were sore and bruised. I looked at them in disbelief; what had I been thinking last night? Phil had gone to work but a note was posted on the fridge: ‘Take it easy today. I’ll ring at lunchtime. Love you.’ I didn’t feel hungry so I made a pot of tea and rang to check on Emily. It was good to hear she was eating breakfast and chatting to mum’s dogs.
After the phone call, I went up to Emily’s room to survey the mess. The hole was bigger than I remembered; the size of my head, smeared with dry, rust-coloured blood. I picked up the torch from where I had dropped it, stood on the toy box and examined the opening. The fetid smell reached my nostrils again. Somewhere in the depths, I heard a scraping and chattering. The mice never seemed to rest, roll on next week and the exterminator’s visit.
When Phil came home, I was sitting at my sewing machine, busy at work in Emily’s bedroom.
“What are you up to in here?” he asked, “Did you not hear the phone when I rang earlier? I thought I told you to take it easy today.”
“I’m fine.” I said, “I’m feeling much better.”
“Thank goodness. I won’t pretend that I haven’t been worried.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.” I smiled, “The fairies say everything will be all right now.”
“The fairies? What are you going on about, Jess? Don’t mess about, I’m not in the mood.” Phil came to take a closer look at my sewing.
“I’ve seen them today, Phil. Emily was right. They were very angry with us for moving here, disturbing them, setting traps and bringing in a cat. They thought we wanted to harm them. But I can make everything better. They are naked Phil, and cold. They need clothes and I am making them. Then they will be warm for the winter. Then they will be happy and they will let us live here in peace.”
“Jess, please, stop this. You’re scaring me. I think you are ill, love. You’ve been under a lot of stress, worried about Emily and stuff…”
“No, Phil. I’m not ill. I understand now, don’t you see? The fairies have explained everything. I have to do this so we can live happily ever after.”
“Jess, come with me. Let’s go downstairs. Sort this out. I can call the doctor, get you help.”
“Please don’t say things like that, Phil. You are making the fairies angry again. I think you better leave.” I stood up and pointed to the door.
Phil stayed where he was, “Jess…”
“Go now, Phil.”
“Christ Jess.” He ran his hands through his hair.
He left. I shut and locked the door behind him. There was a lot of sewing to do. I worked through the night, cutting and stitching, adding buttons and ribbons. Suit after suit, until I had enough for an army of fairies. By midnight, I was finished. I laid the outfits in neat rows on the floor, then collapsed on Emily’s bed exhausted.
After Jess slammed and locked the door on me, I paced the house, wringing my hands, uncertain what to do. I picked up the phone to ring the doctor but put it back in its cradle. I didn’t want her to be sectioned or carried off to some loony bin. As soon as I put the phone down, I lifted it again thinking I would ring her mum but decided she had enough on her plate looking after Emily for us. All the while I could hear the snip of scissors and the whir of the sewing machine. It went on hour, after hour, after hour. Eventually, I sat at the top of the stairs in anxious vigil, watching the door, gnawing at my finger nails, listening and waiting. Waiting for the morning. Hoping Jess would somehow be better by then. Hoping things wouldn’t seem so awful in the light of day.
Pale autumn sunshine woke me, slumped over the top step, aching and stiff. My watch showed seven o’clock. The house was quiet. Jess must have gone to sleep, thank God. I tried the bedroom door but it was still locked. I didn’t want to wake her, she needed rest. In films, whenever a character needs access to a locked room, they do a trick where they push the key out of the lock onto a piece of paper and slide it under the door so they can retrieve the key. I went to find some paper.
In the end, I broke the door down in fear and frustration. It was too quiet in that room. The sewing machine and materials were packed tidily away. There was no sign of the miniature clothes. Jess lay on the bed. Her eyes wide, staring at the ceiling. Her mouth drawn up in an uncanny grin.
“Jess love, are you OK?” I touched her hand and recoiled in terror. I fell to my knees; my stomach clenched convulsively and I retched. She was frozen, rigid, lifeless. My Jess, dead. I couldn’t believe it.
I took a deep breath and looked at her beautiful face, “What have they done to you?”
Across her eyelids and over her lips, pinning her features into gruesome shape, were rows of tiny, neat stitches. I put my head in my hands and screamed.
In the walls, a scratching, scrabbling sound began.