Honoured and excited to hear today that my story Property Trap was awarded second place in the Short Writes short story competition :)))
by Siobhan McNamara
You could cope with everything else were it not for the rats.
It is because of them that you shout at Luke all the time:
‘Don’t touch that!’
‘Wash your hands.’
‘Don’t take those toys outside!’
‘Please, Luke. Please, please, wash your hands!’
You chose this house because the kitchen window gave a clear view of where the playground would be built. It was a perfect vision, a safe and colourful space where Luke would make friends with other children on the new estate.
You remember saying, ‘This one is perfect. I love it.’
‘We’ll need to get things moving immediately,’ the estate agent had said, looking at his watch. ‘I have another viewing straight after lunch. This is a highly desirable property.’
You had thanked him, appreciative of his efficiency and honesty.
With a glance at the clock you start to prepare dinner, remembering the flutter of anticipation in your stomach when the kitchen was first fitted and ready for use, how the smell of fresh scones and apple pie mingled with the smell of new wood and wafted throughout the house.
Now cooking makes you sick. The rats are constantly moving at the edge of your vision. There are dozens of them, hunched brown bodies with beady eyes and serpentine tails, claiming as their territory the abandoned portacabins, the mounds of building material, algae-covered potholes and the unfinished sewer.
And the dream of growing fruit trees and having a vegetable garden is gone too. The smell of sewerage clings to everything and the thought of those foul beasts transporting disease onto ripe raspberries and contaminating your carefully tended beds would be unbearable.
Things were better when the house next door was occupied. Mary’s bottomless teapot and easy company made for a warm friendship and Sean’s Jack Russell kept the rats at bay. You had often sat in their kitchen and laughed at how proudly the scruffy little dog saw off any creature that dared wander too close to the house.
Now there is no enthusiastic terrier and no invitation to come over for a cuppa, only another over-sized, vacant house crushing you with its emptiness. There are times when you feel like the last human left alive in the aftermath of an immense disaster.
Keith is a good husband but he has no idea what it’s like to stand here alone day after day looking out through these windows. He works all week. By the time he and Luke get home it is late and the street lights don’t work, so he doesn’t see how bad the problem has become.
It isn’t much of a life for a 5 year old boy, commuting to the city every day, but the local school was full to capacity when he was due to start. They hadn’t been prepared for the influx of families that the ever expanding commuter belt brought to the area. Luke was enrolled instead in a school near Keith’s office. Keith collects him and takes him to work for the afternoons.
There is room in the local school now but no-one else knows about the phone call from the principal offering Luke a place in the Junior Infants class. Better that he spends as little time here as possible.
At weekends you try to come up with cost-free ideas to get the family off the estate. Keith goes along with it, assuming that you are fed up being in the house all week.
You’re fed up all right. Fed up beyond belief.
With dinner on and your stomach in a tightening knot, you lift the pile of folded clothes from the table and climb the polished wooden staircase to Luke’s room. The rats are even more visible from up here. You want to tell Keith about them but are afraid that if you try, words will fail you and you will start to scream and never stop.
Standing at Luke’s window you close one eye and like a sniper, look down the length of a pointed index finger, select a victim and squeeze an imaginary trigger. Splat – one dead rat, two dead rats. You could do it, because you have reached a level of hatred that you didn’t know was possible.
As you are about to turn away a car and a truck pull into the street, passing the weather-beaten ‘Chestnut Grove’ placard. Pictured beneath the words ‘Chestnut Grove’ is a row of luxury homes against a leafy rural backdrop, promising an idyllic lifestyle for the new, more discerning generation of Irish parents.
The chestnut trees were chopped down to make way for the properties.
A man gets out of a Mercedes and stops to open a padlock. The truck driver gets out too and lifts a section of chain-link fence out of his way. He drives the truck into the area that couldn’t be less like a playground.
Two more men get out and lift an orange cement mixer, some oil drums and a pile of scaffolding poles into the back. They are not wearing gloves.
‘Wash your hands!’ you want to shout.
The man with the Mercedes is the developer. He keeps his distance from the workmen.
The truck driver pulls a wad of money from his pocket and starts peeling off €50 notes and handing them to the developer, who takes a black, leather wallet from the inside pocket of his suit jacket.
‘I’ll see you about the other stuff when I get back from Turkey,’ he shouts, ignoring the calloused hand that the truck driver holds out in acknowledgement.
It is not the rats you should despise. They are animals, oblivious to the revulsion they invoke, unaware of their harmful potential.
People, on the other hand, know about consequences.
When the call centre relocated to India, leaving you to join the rising numbers of unemployed, you blamed yourself for ignoring your reservations. Nobody had forced you to follow the flock into a lifestyle that needed two good salaries to sustain it.
You had felt sorry for the builders and developers, because they had lost so much.
Then Mary showed you the developer’s house, dwarfing its neighbours, and said that he also owned a villa in Turkey and a holiday home in Donegal, and there were rumours of offshore accounts and favours to politicians.
‘Save your sympathy, Nuala,’ she had said, ‘because we’ll get no sympathy from him.’
If you could stand here and shoot a rat, what about a person?
The developer, who won’t even finish the sewer and get the streetlights on so that the house can go on the market?
The bank manager, who dismissed your concerns about high repayments with a condescending flourish?
And the estate agent, smugly clocking up his commission on another sucker suckered?
Keith and Luke arrive home, and over dinner they talk about a funny incident on the train. You envy the easy bond that has developed between them since they started travelling together.
You remember holding Luke close as he fed from your breast and fixed his beautiful, adoring eyes on yours, and how your heart filled with love every time you looked at him.
You long for that bond once more but could not contemplate bringing a baby into this world.
When night comes the rats that occupy your waking thoughts follow into a restless sleep where fears take shape in unpleasant dreams.
At the base of your neck where Luke likes to lay his head when he falls asleep in your arms, a rat lies. If you move it will waken and gnaw through your flesh and poison your heart.
You are in a strange place now. The grass is green but not as green as it seems. Beneath the surface it is rotting and there are snakes. You take your eye off one and it bites. You feel it but you can’t see it and as you look for it, another strikes and another and you can’t shake them off and they won’t let you go and you don’t know where home is so you can’t escape to its sanctuary.
A noise wakens you. Luke is going downstairs to get a drink. You follow quickly in case the rats have come into the house. It is only a matter of time. Every creak could be the scratching of claws.
With a forced smile you take Luke back to bed and tuck him in.
Being in his room reawakens the thoughts from earlier, of shooting rats, and shooting people, and you wonder how you could get a gun, and how the selected targets could be brought together.
Could they be tricked into a meeting? Called to one of the empty houses? Could it be that easy?
Of course not. How would you know how to use a gun? You would miss. You would never do it anyway, nor ever want to be the sort of person who could. And yet images of the cold metal and the finality of its purpose ripple your imagination in a way that both sickens and exhilarates.
You know you cannot go on like this.
Perhaps things will be clearer in the morning.
In the morning you kiss your husband and son goodbye. As you make your bed, remnants of the latest nightmare gnaw at your mind. If only Mary was still next door, but she and Sean moved into a mobile home at the farm owned by Sean’s father.
Movement in the garden below catches your eye. A rat runs along the garden wall and jumps onto Luke’s Fireman Sam scooter. You shriek furiously and bang at the window. The rat disappears from view without leaving the garden.
The clink-clink of your rings against the window pane reminds you of the shamefully high price you paid for your wedding jewellery and for your engagement and eternity rings. What are they worth now?
Your mother’s wedding ring is in the jewellery box. You hesitate guiltily before picking it up, but think of the saying ‘you can’t take it with you.’ It is only a piece of metal after all.
You go downstairs, lift the car keys and go out the front door without looking back.
The nearest Cash for Gold outlet is at the shopping centre. Buying the gun will be harder.
As you reach towards the car’s ignition, the keys fall to the floor. The face of Luke, aged 3 months is smiling up at you with infinite trust and innocence from behind the key-ring’s scratched, plastic photo frame. The photograph was taken before your mother died, when she took Luke to a photo studio for a portrait sitting. It was her gift to celebrate the birth of her only grandchild.
The gun was never intended for the developer, or the estate agent, or the bank manager, nor was it for the rats. There is only one person you plan to shoot, though you wouldn’t call it suicide. That’s what other people do.
Could you really betray Luke and his unshakeable faith that you would always be there, worthy of that trusting smile?
You lay your head on the steering wheel and shake and cry, horrified by what you have contemplated. You tell yourself that you would never have seen it through, would not have dared drive into that part of the city where criminal gangs ruled the streets. Thinking of the gun makes you feel weak and nauseous.
The car kicks into life. Without realising, you have turned the key.
Instead of driving towards the city you go right, towards Mary. You will tell her how bad things have become, and if you shout and sob and babble incoherently, it won’t matter. She will listen, and make uncontaminated tea. Then you might be ready to talk calmly to Keith, and set about sorting this mess out, and staying sane.
Facing an unknown future is daunting but one thing has been determined. Your days of standing alone while the rats close in are over.