It’s here again. Morning darkness engaged in battle with a weakening sun and winning, little by little; the sycamore branch that scratches at my window in the gale, peevishly demanding the return of its clothes. A dog with ears pinned back against the roar, a helpless waste bin, lid flapping in panic, bowling by. I’ve missed it, the winter, but in ways somewhat different this year. Why? What has changed?
“Is she here?” A querulous voice – somewhere above my head, in the general direction of the curtains.
I say: “No. She won’t be up for an hour yet.”
“Ah.” My focus is drawn to a tiny leg emerging from amongst the drapes, and the rest of the spider follows, eye-stalks anxiously twitching hither and thither as if she mistrusts my reassurance. All seems clear – as indeed it is – but she is wary, and pauses. “You don’t know. You don’t know what she can be like.”
“My wife? I thought I knew her pretty well.” After all, it’s been much more than thirty years since we shared our first spider together.
“It was the vacuum, last week. Nine of us, she took.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“She brings it out specially. They’re still in the dust bag. They don’t die, you know. Go to the downstairs cupboard – you can hear them crying for help. Cruel, that is. Cruel.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll empty the bag later. Anyway, you’re in the clear now. Where are you going, exactly?”
“The skirting. The one next to the kitchen. Good house in there. Warm.” The spider suddenly makes a sprint down the curtain to the edge of my desk, stops. “Still clear?”
“Much obliged!” She races across my desktop, disappearing over the end within a scarce breath, to reappear on the woollen carpeted floor. “You haven’t seen my husband, have you? I know I left him somewhere, but I can’t think…”
“Didn’t you have an argument?”
“You see, I think you may have eaten him.”
“Eaten him? Are you sure? That was awfully careless of me. You’ve still got the carpet. Have you thought of replacing it, maybe with some wooden flooring, or something? Wading through all this wool is just exhausting!”
“We like the carpet.”
“Well I don’t. My feet get caught all the time. Dreadful.”
“Why don’t you run round the skirting?”
She pauses, number two leg poised in a moment of indecision.
“Good idea!” Two rapid sprints ensue, the first across my cloying turf of carpet, the next along the skirting rim to a crack in the corner, a gap almost too small to imagine. She is gone.
The silence that follows is not silent, but punctuated by the background buffeting of the wind; a rhythm of gusts like waves on a beach; four gentle, one fierce. I settle back in my chair to contemplate my arachnid encounter, and the sea washes over me, nudging me gently up the beach into the warm sand of sleep.
“Did I hear a spider?” A voice, dark, deep and rasping, jerks me awake. A nervous glance around the room yields nothing. “I said – look, it was a perfectly civil question, wannit- was that a spider?”
Why do I suddenly feel so defensive. “Who wants to know?”
“Never mind who wants to know. Answer the question. Was that a…”
“Yes!” I snap back at the voice. “You want to eat her, don’t you?”
This provokes an evil chuckle. “Not particular, really. Not exactly haute cuisine, if you take my meaning. A bit dry, usually.”
“Well, she’s gone now. You’ve missed her. Anyway, if you don’t want to eat her, what do you want with her?”
“Oh, I’ll eat her, all right. I eat anything.”
“Okay. If I see her again, I’ll be sure to warn ..tell her you were looking for her. Who shall I say?”
“Tell her Benjamin. Benjamin wanted to see her.”
From the first to the last of this conversation, Benjamin has been invisible, and though I scrutinize every inch of my room, he remains so. Perhaps I hear, above the wind, the faintest scratching from somewhere far below. Otherwise, nothing.
Henceforth, sleep will evade me. Reluctantly I concede to wakefulness and set about the business of morning, so I rise from my chair, and remembering my obligation to the spider, negotiate landing and stairs to the narrow little cupboard where the vacuum cleaner is stored. I pause, listening, by the opened cupboard door. Why? Do I really expect to hear those plaintive cries? Is there some sound, however small, that makes me doubt my hearing or my mind? Whatever my excuse, I elect to take the vacuum cleaner dust bag straight to an outdoor bin, so I extricate the machine from amidst a forest of brushes and mops. It is a clamorous business and it causes offence.
“Do you mind?” The demand is high-pitched but strident. “I said, DO YOU MIND?”
Another disembodied voice, this time from the recesses at the back of the cupboard. “What?” I respond, irritably. “What’s your problem?” I blink owlishly into the darkness.
“Problem? Oh, problem! No, no problem! No problem I just got the kids down, and you come stamping in here throwing everything around. As if I haven’t got enough to do, finding more paper, gathering flour from under that stupid bread-making thing of yours. Why do you do that to wheat, anyway? It tastes much better on the husk.”
“Wait a minute! More paper? Just what are you doing back there? Who are you, anyway?” (And why am I whispering?)
The old carpet sweeper that stands at attention behind the gas meter quivers slightly as a minute creature appears from behind it; and having appeared, sits up on its hinder legs, whiskers a-quiver.
“Goodness, you know us, dear, don’t you? Grandfather brought my mother and I to stay with you last November. We always come here for our winter holidays.”
“You’re a blessed wood mouse!”
“There is no need to get personal!”
Oh, yes there is! You’re here again! It’s the same every autumn. You spend summer in the dry stone wall at the bottom of the vegetable garden, don’t you? I’ve seen you there. Then as soon as the weather gets cold you come in the house, thousands of you!”
The wood mouse (for so she is) shifts herself uncomfortably. “Not exactly thousands, dear.”
“Well, hundreds, then.”
“We are quite a large family, it’s true.”
“Yes, and a very intrusive one. I don’t know how many of you died under the bathroom floor last Christmas, but the stench of rotting mouse stayed with us for months!”
“If you are referring to dear departed Uncle Vernon…”
“That’s the fella!”
“And poor, dear, Grandma Maisie…”
“Stank the place out!”
“That’s an unkind way to speak of the dead. It’s quite upsetting!” The woodmouse wiped her whiskers sorrowfully. “Uncle Vernon, tragically he got himself stuck under one of your hot pipes. It was awful! Don’t think me ungrateful, because we so enjoy your gifts of pierced cheese, but pushing those big wooden sleds is so difficult; it got too close to your central heating armature? Uncle couldn’t remove your gift from the spike, you see? He was pinned there.”
I catch up. “Pierced cheese? On a spike? I’m not feeding you, you disgusting little creature; I’m exterminating you – or trying to. I wondered what happened to those traps!”
Sniffling, the wood mouse musters as much offended dignity as she can fit into her pin-points of eyes. “Well, once more I must rebuke you. Anyone would think we were house mice. We are country creatures, with sensibilities, you know. I won’t hold it against you, though, dear. I am aware I am a guest here.”
So unexpectedly I almost jump out of my skin, Benjamin’s scraping tones grind out from the darkness. “Traps, eh! You’re a trapper! You’re a trapper, mate. Thanks for the warning, yeah? Thanks for the warning. Oh, and Mildred…” He seems to be addressing the mouse…”I’ll be seeing you, sweetheart, won’t I? Dunno why I bovver, you’re not worth two bites, are yer?”
“That’s Benjamin.” The mouse informs me, helpfully. “Don’t take any notice of him, dear. He soon goes away.”
“What is he? Come to think of it, where is he? I can never make out quite where he comes from.”
“Benjy? He’s a rat. He’s outside, by those dreadful plasticky waste containers? That’s how Grandma Maisie became ill; she got her teeth gummed up trying to chew through one of them.”
“She should have stuck to acorns.” I say unsympathetically. “Benjy doesn’t sound like he’s outside…”
My remark delights Mildred, who hops from foot to foot in passable imitation of a Cha-Cha-Cha. “Yes, oh, yes! He’s found a way of speaking through the drains, so it sounds as if he’s absolutely everywhere. Simply terrif! But don’t worry, dear, he can’t get in: he’s too fat. We come in through the kitchen airbrick, you see. Benjy can’t squeeze through there. So he has to talk to us from outside. I think he must get terribly cold, sometimes.”
“He probably works out by chewing through our bin.” I suggest sardonically. “He’s quite scary, isn’t he?”
“Benjy? He likes to show off his muscles a bit, but he’s an old softie. His wife’s quite nice, actually. I met her at a church social…”
Thoroughly bemused, I take the vacuum cleaner out into the light, and with a parting word or two after the fashion of ‘I must get on’ I close the cupboard door. The dust bag’s contents, stirred and shaken by a mischievous gust of wind, I mostly empty into a waste bin in the yard, leaving me to wonder how the tiny migrants it contained will manage in their new lives, or if, now liberated, they will simply return to vex my wife a second time. I watch anxiously for a quick shadow that might be Benjamin’s, but he doesn’t show himself. Out of respect for Mildred’s unseen sleeping ‘kids’ I leave the cleaner out on the kitchen floor. I rather hope my wife will return it to the cupboard later, on my behalf.
I need to return to my work. I need to open drapes, raise blinds. I need to let in the gathering day. Instead, I stand for minutes of time, aimless; searching for something. And though I do not rightly know what it is I seek, it nevertheless comes to me. Miniscule movements, barely audible, high-pitched sounds, furtive scraping, gentle stirrings of the air. All around me is life – in the reveal behind one of the kitchen worktops three silverfish are engaged in earnest conversation, below them in the damp invisible zones woodlice work, solemnly chomping at the detritus of our lives.
Across the floor a devil’s coach-horse scurries, tale half-raised and fearful of exposure, dashing for safety and the dark. Against the window pane a small unglamorous fly is clawing pointlessly, weeping for its freedom. Although the room is still, there is everything within it moving, a constant wheel of existence, a changing of generations, a cycle of light and darkness.
It is hard to leave, but leave it I must. On the stair a portly black beetle struggles, pausing to salute me as I pass. In my room I feel the carpet dragging at my feet, taking my thoughts back to my widowed spider, cosy in her skirting board home. Soon a host of her children will tread the path their mother trod before them, and the wheel will have turned again. I know I have a duty to lay the floor to boards, if only for their sake.
At last it has been revealed to me, the difference of the year – what is odd, what is changed. I understand, at last, what I am. I see my place in all the life around me, my function in this small universe and the sum of all my gifts. Here I am no greater or higher than any of these little ones, but in fellowship with them. They are my company on my journey into dust. My last gift to them shall be – myself.
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Featured Image: The Creative Exchange, from Unsplash
Spider: Robert Palog from Pixabay
Rat: Mustafa Shehedeh from Pixabay
Devils Coach-horse: Wikipedia