Can you come out to play?

“Can you come out to play?” said the boy at the door.

Liv looked him over shyly. He didn’t seem threatening. He was small and pale, oddly old-fashioned in his grey school shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. His knees were muddy and his plimsoles scuffed. Mum had told her things would be different here. “In the countryside people won’t care what you look like. No one will tell you that you’re wearing the wrong trainers. They’ll probably be in wellies. We’ll be happy there.” she’d said.  

“Wait a minute, I’ll ask my Mum.” Liv pushed the door to and ran up the narrow hallway calling, “Mum, there’s a boy asking if I can go out to play with him.”

“A boy…who?” Mum came to the top of the stairs with Mrs Bevan, the landlady, waddling behind.

It was Mrs Bevan’s house they were moving into. Well, not her house exactly, she was renting Mrs Thomas’s house to them. Mrs Thomas was Mrs Bevan’s Mam who had lived in the house all her life until recently. Mrs Thomas had gone into a residential home after she fell down the stairs and they hadn’t found her for two hours. Liv tried not to imagine the old lady laying on the dark wooden floor, legs twisted underneath her, a livid bruise growing across her face.

She shrugged, “He didn’t say his name. Can I Mum? I’m bored. Please…”

“I expect that’s young Dylan, your nearest neighbour. Good boy, he is. Nice family. Struggling a bit, they are, you know. Father just lost his job.” Mrs Bevan said. “She’ll be fine playing with Dylan.”

Mum thought for a moment, then sighed, “I suppose it’s all right but stay in the garden. And only for an hour tops because you’ve still got to unpack your things.”

“Thanks Mum.” said Liv, scrambling to put on her shoes. She hurried down the hallway and flung open the door but no one was there.

“Dylan?” she called, wandering down to the front gate to see if he was in the lane. A startled blackbird flew up from the hedgerow but, other than that, it was deserted.

“You back already?” Mum said when she saw Liv sitting on the bottom stair struggling with her laces.

“He’d gone.” Liv replied.

“There’ll be plenty of chances to make friends with him, I’m sure.” Mum smiled sympathetically. “Mrs Bevan is leaving now. She’s shown me where everything is. We’ll go and have a cuppa and a sandwich then I’ll help you sort your bedroom out.”

——

Liv sipped her hot chocolate. It was strange sitting in a different kitchen, at an unfamiliar table, drinking from someone else’s mug, eating from someone else’s plate. She missed their kitchen with the shiny breakfast bar where she sat on the shiny stool swinging her feet.

“You okay, little dreamer?” Mum asked.

“Just thinking this kitchen looks very old.”

“Everything in this house is old, Liv. That’s why we got it for a good price but it’s clean and warm and furnished with the things we need.”

“It’s a shame we couldn’t bring our own things.” said Liv, then regretted it as Mum’s beautiful dark eyes clouded over. 

“I’m sorry we couldn’t too…” Mum reached for Liv’s hand, “but you know Dad needs them for his new family. You have your special things. And we’ve never had a garden before and now we have an enormous one. It’ll take all day to explore that tomorrow.”

“It’s okay Mum, it just feels weird.”

“We’ll get used to it.” Mum squeezed her hand, “Now eat up so we can get your room done before bedtime.”

——

The next morning after breakfast, there was a knock on the door.

“Can you answer it, please Liv?” Mum called from the small back room she had chosen for a study, “I’ve got to ring the solicitor.”

Liv skipped along the hall and opened the door. There was Dylan looking the same as yesterday.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“I’ll just tell my Mum.” Liv ran to the study, “Dylan’s here. We’re going to play in the garden.”

She tugged on her wellies and went to join Dylan outside. It was a bright day and the air felt crisp with breaths of Autumn.

“I’m Liv. Are you called Dylan?”

Dylan nodded then stood scraping at the fallen leaves with his damp shoe.

“What do you want to play?” asked Liv.

“Cowboys and Indians. You be an Indian and I’ll be a Cowboy. I’ll chase you, like this.” He trotted around as if he was riding a horse and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

Liv looked doubtful.

“You do the Indian cry.” He opened his mouth in a large o, moving his hand over it in an ululation.

“No, I don’t want to.” said Liv, “I don’t think that’s a nice game. The Native American Indians were driven off their lands by the settlers. It was horrible and sad.”

“Cops and Robbers then. You be a robber and I’ll be a cop. I’ll chase you, like this.” This time, he pretended to drive a car and held two fingers in the air like a gun.

“Another quite nasty game.” said Liv, “I’m not sure.”

“Can you hold your arms like this so it looks like a bag of swag?” Dylan mimed creeping around holding his loot over his shoulder.

Liv sighed, “I suppose I can.”

The two children chased around the garden, Liv exploring as she went, finding paths through the overgrown lawns, ducking under branches and jumping over old fallen walls. It was an amazing place to play in, left to decay and grow wild. When they grew fed up with chasing about, they kicked up piles of dead leaves gathered near the hedges and pulled moss off the crumbling stonework searching for woodlice.

“Let’s go to the stream.” Dylan said.

“I can’t. I mustn’t leave the garden.” replied Liv.

“It’s in the garden.” Dylan said, “At the bottom, then you cross the stream and you’re in the woods.”

Liv followed Dylan down a winding pathway, partially hidden with ferns turning shades of gold and brown. She could hear the stream before she could see it, a whispering, giggling sound like there were other children playing somewhere in the garden. They sat on the wet bank amongst the dying ferns and bracken, hidden from the view of anyone who might come walking, and watched the water hurry over rocks and stones.

“Sometimes I come here and hide.” Dylan said.

“Why?” asked Liv.

“When they laugh at me at school. When they point at my pumps and say we can’t afford proper shoes.”

“Mum told me it would be different here but I knew it wouldn’t. They laughed at me at my school too.” Liv said, “They didn’t like my trainers or my curly hair. And they called me dirty…because I’m mixed race.”

“Your hair is pretty.” Dylan turned his face away, “Sometimes I paddle across the stream and go into the woods and hide in the trees. When my Dad gets angry, when he shouts at me and my sister tells me to get outta the house before I get a good wallop.”

“Mrs Bevan said he lost his job.”

“My Dad don’t want me.” said Dylan.

“My Dad doesn’t want me either. That’s why we’ve moved here. He wants his skinny, blonde girlfriend and new baby. So, we’re the same, you and me.”

“We can be friends.” Dylan said.

“We are friends.” said Liv.

“Shake on it.” Dylan spat on his palm and held it out.

Liv spat on her palm and they shook.

——

At lunchtime, Liv told Mum about Dylan and what he had said down by the stream.

“That’s really sad, Liv.” Mum said, “I hope he’s all right. Perhaps we should call in and say hello to his family this afternoon when we go to post the documents for the solicitor.”

“Don’t say anything Mum, please. He’s my friend and he told me, not you.” Liv bit at her lip. She didn’t want Dylan to think she was a blabbermouth.

“I won’t Liv, but we need to check. This could be serious and we might not be able to keep this a secret. Okay?”

Liv nodded and picked at her cheese sandwich, dreading the walk to the Post Office.

——

On the way back from posting the letter, Mum stopped at the tiny cottage with the peeling front door at the corner of the lane. Their nearest neighbour. Liv stayed by the rusty iron gate.

“We’ll just say a quick hi,” Mum whispered as she rang the bell.

There were shouts and scuffles behind the door, a baby’s cry then a round, flustered face appeared at a grubby window. The face disappeared and a moment later the door opened.

“Oh hello, I thought you were the milkman come for his money. We’re a bit late paying, see.” said the round-faced woman.

“Hello, we’ve moved in next door and wanted to introduce ourselves. I’m Becca and this is Liv.” Becca smiled broadly.

“Oh, nice to meet you. I’m Sioned. I’d invite you in but you’ve caught me in a bit of a muddle, everything all over the place and the little one a bit agitated as you can hear…” she shrugged as another whining cry came from behind her.

“No, no, we wouldn’t expect that. We just wanted to say hello, and Mrs Bevan told me you’ve been having a hard time lately…with your husband losing his job. Just to let you know I work from home and I’m always around if you need anything.”

“I bet she told you, a right gossip that one!” Sioned snapped.

“No harm meant, sorry. I shouldn’t have mentioned it…only we all have troubles, I’m going through a divorce now, that’s why we moved, so…” Becca said.

“Oh, no…it’s very kind of you to offer. It is a struggle, with four kids, see.”

“It must be difficult. Are your children all okay?”

Liv squeezed her hands tight in the pockets of her coat.

“Well, normally yes. We always put them first, see. Go without ourselves as long as they got what they need. But, oh they have been poorly, little loves, with this stomach bug going through school.”

“Your children are ill? That’s miserable.” Becca said, “What about Dylan? He’s managed to escape it then, has he?”

“Dylan? No! He’s been the worst of the lot. Got it bad, he have. Been in bed for three days. The washing I’ve had…” Sioned shook her head and the baby wailed again, “Look I gotta go sorry, nice of you to come round. When things are calmer, you’ll have to come for a cuppa. Tara!”

She shut the door and Becca gave Liv a bemused look, “There must be another Dylan in the village.”

——

That night, Liv lay awake as a seasonal wind blustered around the house. The large tree outside her window was scratching at the panes with finger-like branches. Mum had drawn the curtains back to show her there was nothing to be scared of but she felt uneasy. She regretted telling about Dylan. After they left Sioned’s house, Mum had asked lots of questions about him, trying to work out where he came from so she could help him if he was in danger. She wanted to know everything he’d said, what he looked like, what he was wearing, whether he wore the same school uniform as the one she’d bought for Liv (he didn’t; Liv’s polo shirt was a pretty royal blue.) Next time he visited, Mum said she would have a word with him. Liv thought herself a bad friend and decided, if Dylan came again, she wouldn’t let Mum know. She sat up, switched on her bedside lamp and reached for her book.

It was difficult to concentrate with the howling of the wind and the scraping of the branches. Liv lost her place on the page many times until she bumped the book back on the table in frustration. As she did so, she heard a tap on the window. It was a different sound to the rasping tree. She sat very still, listening. The tapping sounded again, a series of sharp, urgent raps on the glass. Someone was knocking on her window. Liv went cold. She lay still, uncertain what to do. Knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.

Liv took a deep breath, then slowly, slid out of bed and padded across the chill floorboards on wobbly legs to the curtain. Once there, she froze, heartbeat pulsing. She took another breath and put out a shaky hand to lift the curtain. The branches scratched at the window. The wind roared. There was no one there. Liv turned the latch and opened the window. It pulled out of her hand with a crash and hung broken against the wall. She leaned out, peering into the darkness.

“Can you come out to play?” said a small voice.

“Dylan? Where are you?” Liv called.

“Here.”

Liv strained her eyes and saw his face, white in the rays from her lamp. He was sitting in the crook of a branch a little way from her window.

“What are you doing? In this wind? You’ll fall.”

“I’m a good climber.” Dylan started to shuffle along the branch towards her window.

“Dylan. No. Get down.”

“Can you come out to play?” his voice carried, clear and cold on the wind.

“It’s the middle of the night! My Mum would be angry if she knew you were here and so would yours. Go home to bed Dylan.” Liv tried to pull the window closed but it dangled on damaged hinges.

Dylan shuffled closer; his skin bruised in the shadowy light.

“Go home Dylan!” Liv shouted.

The wind tore at the broken window. Liv held on tight.

“What’s going on?” Mum shouted.

Liv turned and saw her Mum standing, hands on hips. She looked back at the tree. Dylan was gone.

“Whatever were you doing opening your window in this wind?” Mum struggled with the catch, “It won’t close properly. It’s broken. That will have to do for tonight.”

She took Liv’s hands, “What were you doing, love? I’m not cross, it’s all right…”

“I don’t know…I was scared…the tree.” Liv hugged her Mum.

“Well, you’d better come and sleep with me tonight. I’ll ring Mrs Bevan in the morning and explain about the window.”

——

Mum called Mrs Bevan early the next day. While she was on the phone, Dylan knocked on the door. Liv opened it angrily.

“Can you come out to play?” he said.

“Can I come out to play?” Liv spat. “What do you think you were doing coming round like that last night, Dylan? You could have got me in trouble. I broke the window. That’ll cost Mum money. You could have been killed.”

Dylan looked down at his plimsoles.

“I’m not sure I should play with you again.” Liv started to go inside.

“Can you come out to play?” said Dylan.

Liv sighed, “You’re hopeless…just let me tell my Mum I’m going outside.”

——

They sat by the stream. The water sparkled in the sunshine as it tripped over rocks. The air was at rest after the wild night. Liv had suggested they do something quiet after the adventures of the previous evening. She hadn’t told her Mum she was playing with Dylan and didn’t want her to hear them if she came out looking. They searched amongst the ferns for signs of insect life.

Liv pulled at a beautiful orange frond, “Where do you live, Dylan?”

“Here.” he said.

“I know you live in the village, but where?”

“Let’s go in the woods. I’ll show you my favourite tree. I’m a good climber.” said Dylan.

“I don’t think I should. Mum says to stay in the garden.”

“I’ll show you my favourite tree.”

Liv shook her head, “I don’t know…”

——

Becca put the kettle on to boil then searched in the cupboard for the bara brith. Mrs Bevan would want a cup of tea and she liked to have a little something with it. Becca hoped she wouldn’t stay too long. That woman knew how to talk. She’d been very understanding about the window though, offered to pop in on the way to the residential home. Becca didn’t know why Mrs Bevan had to see the damage; she could simply organise a carpenter, but it was her mother’s house after all.

“Hello…Becca?” Mrs Bevan called from the hall, “The front door was ajar so I came in, hope that’s all right? And I have Mam with me. She spent last night with us.”

“That’s fine.” Becca said as Mrs Bevan entered the kitchen with a small, frail old lady hanging onto her arm.

“Thought it might be nice for Mam to see her old home. There we go, Mam.” Mrs Bevan settled her mother on a chair. Then, as an aside to Becca said, “She’s getting a bit forgetful and I didn’t want to leave her in the car on her own.”

“Oh, of course.” Becca said, “Would you like some tea before we go upstairs?”

“Paned, mam? That’ll be lovely.” Mrs Bevan struggled to get her bulk out of her jacket, hung it on the back of a chair then sat next to her mother. “Where’s Liv then? I want her to know it doesn’t matter about the window, cariad.”

“She’s playing in the garden with that boy, you know, the one who came round the other day when you were here.  She thinks I didn’t see them creep off.” Becca put two cups of tea on the table, making sure to use the coasters. “I’ll let you do your own milk and sugar.”

“Thanks. Dylan, is it? From down the road. Here we go Mam, two sugars for you.”

“Well, he is a Dylan but not the one from down the road. To be honest, we don’t know who he is. Do you know any other Dylans in the village?”

“I can’t say I do. It’s not like the old days, see. I used to know everyone here but we’ve had so many incomers.” Mrs Bevan looked sheepish, “Sorry, not to mean anything by it but since they built that housing estate on the edge of the village, it’s not been the same.”

“Dylan? My Dylan is here.” the old lady said.

“No, Mam. The little girl has a friend called Dylan. Your Dylan isn’t here anymore, is he Mam? That was a long time ago.”

“Oh, you knew a Dylan too, did you Mrs Thomas?” Becca smiled at the tiny, wrinkled face peering at her with confusion.

“He was her brother, wasn’t he Mam?” Mrs Bevan patted her hand.

“Ssssh, quiet Dylan.” Mrs Thomas whispered urgently, “Dad’s coming and he’s angry with you. Run, Dylan, run away quickly. Hide. Hide. He’s got his belt.”

“Oh, mam. It’s all right. Dylan’s not here. That was when you were children. Drink your tea Mam, I need to go and see this window with Becca.” Mrs Bevan got up and beckoned Becca to follow.

Outside the kitchen door, she said in an undertone, “She’s getting worse, poor thing. Dementia.”

“I’m sorry.” said Becca.

“Sad story about her brother. Died when they were children. Only nine, he was. Mam doesn’t normally talk about him. Finds it upsetting. They were very close.”

“That’s terrible. How did he die?”

“He fell from a tree. In the woods behind here. There was lots of talk at the time, nasty gossip you know, can’t stand gossip. People in the village said their father was to blame.”

“Really? How awful.”

“Yes, he was known for his drinking and his temper, my grandfather. Some said he chased the poor boy into the woods to give him a beating.” Mrs Bevan sighed, “Terrible the things people say. It nearly destroyed Mam.”

Becca said, “Is your Mum okay, do you think? We better check on her.”

They went back into the kitchen. Mrs Thomas was fumbling with her handbag.

“What are you trying to do now, Mam?”

“My photo…Dylan.” the old lady said.

“Oh yes, in your purse. She has a photo of her and Dylan. Keeps it with her.” Mrs Bevan reached into her mother’s bag, pulled out the purse and retrieved the photo, “Here you are, Mam.”

Mrs Thomas touched the photo tenderly then held it out to Becca, “My Dylan.”

Becca saw a faded black and white picture of two children, about Liv’s age. A girl in pigtails and pinafore, arms locked with a pale boy in a grey shirt, knitted tank top and shorts. They both wore plimsoles.

“Are you all right, Becca? Your hands are shaking, bach.”

“It can’t be…” Becca dropped the photo and dashed out of the kitchen.

“Becca? Wait!” Mrs Bevan shouted.

——

Outside, Becca ran on to the lawn, calling wildly, “Liv! Liv!”

The grass was slick and she slid, twisting her ankle.

“Owww…Liv, Liv!”

She heard children’s voices, laughing and whispering, but when she limped towards them, she realised it was only the stream gurgling over the rocks.

“Liv, where are you?” she shouted. Her heart was beating hard in her chest. Her stomach gripped tight with panic.

Then, she heard the scream. The piercing cry of a terrified child. It was coming from the woods.

“Liv.”

Becca slipped and splashed across the slimy rocks, chill water seeping into her trainers. She hobbled through the undergrowth, frantically searching the trees, trying to locate the screaming. Up ahead, stood a grand old oak, its lower branches almost swept the ground. Liv sat slumped over one of the branches, howling pitifully.

“Liv, Liv, it’s all right, I’m here.” Becca scrambled up the tree, grazing her elbow on the rough bark.

“He fell, Mum. He fell. He’s dead.”

Becca pulled Liv her into her arms in an embrace, “I know.”

They both looked down at the leafy floor but no one lay there.

Happily ever after

“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 while.

“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 wrapped 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.”

“I know.”

“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.

“Go.”

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.