by Carol Wolrich

Email: ca.chirl@yahoo.co.uk


Something had disturbed Gloria's sleep. She lay awake staring anxiously into the darkness but she couldn't hear anything. She'd only moved in last week, so she supposed the unfamiliar surroundings had unsettled her.

Unable to get back to sleep, she threw off her weighty duvet and went downstairs to make a milky drink. As she was passing the living room door, about to step into the kitchen, she heard it; the fidgety, desperate sounds of scratching and shuffling, coming from the living room.

She reached inside the door for the light switch. The scratching stopped the moment the light came on. She peered inside and sighed with relief. Nothing. It was completely empty. This was the one room in the house that the developers had left for her to decorate to her own taste. It still smelled of fresh plaster and whitewash.

She was about to switch off the light when she heard the scratching again. It seemed to be coming from below the bare floorboards. Gloria frowned. Mice? she thought, with a shudder of distaste. Or worse, could it be rats?

It was two a.m. and there was nothing she could do about the problem now. She switched off the light, closed the living room door, and went to make herself that drink. All the time, she listened out for the sounds from the next room.

When she finally went back to bed, her sense of fear had been overshadowed by a strong feeling of disappointment. Her new home seemed tarnished. Of course, it wasn't a new house; it was a late Victorian semi in one of those leafy suburbs that was slowly being gentrified, after decades of being rundown with poor tenants and money-grabbing landlords. Indeed, the developers had bought the property last year from a landlord who had sold up when his last tenants had moved out. The house next door had been renovated some five years before and was owned by a pleasant middle-aged couple called Geoff and Sylvie.

Gloria made a note to ask her neighbours if they were also having problems with rodents. I'll have to phone the environmental health people, she thought, before she finally fell asleep.

Just before she woke on Saturday morning, she had a nightmare. A large grey rat was sitting on the end of her bed, its face and whiskers smeared with white soap. Horrified, Gloria tried to scream. Then the creature spoke to her in a man's voice: "I'm sorry. Please understand - I'm so hungry."

Gloria woke with a start. In the pale light of dawn, she sat up and stared at the end of her bed. No sign of a rat. She listened. The house was silent. No scratching noises, no shuffling. She slumped back on her pillow.

What a thing to dream! And the way it had spoken to her - its voice had sounded so real.

Later that morning, she knocked at her neighbours.

"I haven't seen or heard anything," said Geoff. "And I'm sure Sylvie would've mentioned it to me if she had. Though we did have a problem with rats when we first moved here - they were under the floorboards at the back of the house. So we bought a cat and that was the end of them. Unfortunately, poor old Ginger died about a year ago, and we haven't got round to replacing him."

"What about the previous tenants in my house?" Gloria asked. "Did they ever mention anything?"

"Never really got to know the old boy, Mr Jacobs. He was polite enough but mostly a private sort of person. A retired jeweller, I believe. He had a bad fall and his daughter moved in to take care of him. But in the end it was too much for her and she had to find him a place in a residential home. We didn't like her much. She was so scruffy - left rubbish bags everywhere. The front garden was a tip. When she left, the property was empty for more than a year before the landlord finally sold it to the developers."

Gloria knew the house had been empty for a long time. It was that sense of emptiness that had appealed to her when she had first viewed it. This place needs to become a home again, she had thought. And I'm the one to make it happen.

Her plans included turning the living room into a lovely garden-style space, with French windows onto the patio, and a cool, creamy colour scheme to contrast with the many plants she planned to buy.

She was telling Sylvie about it on Sunday when her neighbour called in for a cup of coffee. The rats were silent by day and the living room was a quiet, peaceful place glowing warmly in the afternoon sunlight. They stood in the middle of the bare floorboards, sipping coffee from chunky pottery mugs. Sylvie, who was a DIY enthusiast, gave Gloria the benefit of her advice on how best to tackle the room.

"You should remove that panel on the chimney breast for a start," she said. "There's bound to be a lovely fireplace behind it."

"I will." Gloria was already picturing how it might look with a smart black grate and a polished brass surround.

"Feel free to borrow any of our tools. We've got a shed full of them," Sylvie offered. "And don't worry about the rats. We're getting a new cat next week. So if you don't get anywhere with the council, feel free to borrow our new moggie."

"Thanks." Gloria didn't like to admit that she was allergic to cat hairs. She thought it would be worth sneezing for a week or two if it meant getting rid of the rats.

When Sylvie had gone, Gloria tackled her first bit of DIY, removing the fireplace panel with a claw hammer; one of the tools in her new set. At first, she was pleased to discover behind the panel a pretty tiled fire surround and an ornamental dog grate. In spite of the layers of grime and dust, she knew it would all clean up beautifully. However, a closer look inside the grate made her squirm with disgust.

Someone had left a clump of half-used soap bars there. They were stuck together, smeared with coal dust and dirt. Reluctantly, she pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and cleared them out, then threw them into a rubbish bag.

"Why?" she muttered as she started scrubbing down the hearth with detergent. "What sort of person would leave old soap bars around the place? Couldn't they have just thrown them in the bin, like anyone else?"

She shuddered to think what this house must have looked like when the developers had first taken it on. Perhaps they had had to fumigate the place? Probably, the fireplace would already have been boarded up, so they wouldn't have known about the soap bars.

She recalled her nightmare about the rat on the end of her bed, and the soap smeared around its face and whiskers. Its words of apology came back to her: "please understand - I'm so hungry."

Against all of her instincts, Gloria retrieved the soap bars from the rubbish bag. Holding the clump in her gloved hands she wiped away some of the surface dirt and saw the evidence: bite marks where the rats had nibbled the edges.

She threw the soap back in the bag and moved swiftly to the kitchen to scrub her gloves in bleach. Monday morning couldn't come soon enough when she was going to phone the council.

First, there was Sunday night to endure. It was about three a.m. when the sound of scratching filtered into Gloria's sleep-fugged brain. She took a while to come round and, when she did, she realised with horror that the noise was much louder than before. Her thoughts went straight to the fireplace. In removing the panel, had she inadvertently opened up a gap for the rats to climb through? It seemed unlikely, but she couldn't get back to sleep, knowing that there might be rats scuttling around her living room floor.

She went downstairs to investigate. But when she threw open the door and switched on the light, she found the living room just as she had left it earlier. Once again, the scratching stopped. She moved towards the fireplace. But there was nothing to cause concern; no gaps that she could see in the cement lining around the grate; no dirty old nibbled soap bars; no grime at all, now that she had scrubbed everything clean.

She turned to leave the room and was about to switch off the light when she heard a movement behind her. She spun around. Again, nothing. Her gaze moved to the floorboards.

After a moment's hesitation, she went to her box of tools in the hall to find her claw hammer and a bolster. This time she tore up a small section of the living room floor, choosing one of the boards that had clearly been sawn and replaced in the past. But it was too dark for her to see anything below the floor. She had to fetch a torch from the kitchen.

She shone the light down through the hole. What she heard next was a series of pounding, deafening screams. Her own.


Sylvie and Geoff sat with Gloria in her kitchen, comforting her with strong tea. A small team of police and forensic officers were in the living room, speaking in low voices behind the closed door.

Sylvie had already given a statement to the police, telling them all she knew about the previous tenants. "The old boy, Mr Jacobs - he had a bit of money stashed away. We thought his daughter had persuaded him to use it to pay for a place in a private care home. Obviously, we were wrong."

Gloria shivered, trying to distance her thoughts from what she had seen below the floorboards; that crumpled suit, draped like rags around the small figure. And, clutched in its skeleton hand, a half-eaten bar of soap, nibbled, not by a rat, but by an elderly man who had been starved to death by his own daughter.

She would always remember that haunting, desperate voice from her nightmare:

"Please understand, I'm so hungry..."

©2006 Carol Wolrich

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