my flatmate buys green apples from the market
her green eyes shooting
and says i’ll be good now as if apples really will keep
the therapists away
in truth i’m impressed
the only fruit she consumes on an average day
is apple cider or boxed wine
my flatmate doesn’t like to go outside so when she leaves
i think shit she’s jumped out the window
she’s run off with a boy she met on Tinder
who owns a farm with grass and hens……….
she returns an hour later beige net bag bulging
with granny smiths i feel relieved i feel so proud
she says i’ll be good now
and everything is blinding bright an epiphany
we sit together on the windowsill crunching
to the core it’s been months since either of us
has bought fresh food and it’s so good to just
eat she finishes two
i eat one half
the sun grins at us while my flatmate says
look at me i’ve got it all
The first words Stella heard were ‘Rat’ and ‘Room’ and ‘Kill’. She was vaguely aware of a pressure on her arm. She was also aware that the light had been turned on, and Chloe’s voice had reached a much higher decibel than was appropriate for the middle of the night.
‘What is it?’ Stella asked.
‘There’s a rat in our room.’
‘A fucking rat. In our fucking room.’ The pressure on her arm turned out to be Chloe’s hand. She was gripping Stella tightly, trying to shake her awake. ‘Haven’t you been listening to me?’
‘Babe… I was sleeping…’
‘I don’t understand how you could sleep when there’s a dirty rodent nibbling at our shoes.’ Chloe looked as if she’d just been through a car wash. Her hair was sticking up all over the place. ‘What if it eats them?’
‘I don’t think rats actually like the taste of leather…’ Stella tugged her arm from Chloe’s grip. She was trying to understand, but really, did Chloe have to talk so loudly? It was 3am for Chrissake.
‘They might do! What then? It’s not like I can afford to just go out and buy another pair.’
‘Your shoes are safe,’ Stella said. In the silence that followed, she scanned the corner of the room. She couldn’t see anything, but could faintly make out the sound of scratching, and fought the urge to shudder. She didn’t want Chloe to see her afraid. She had to be cool, calm and collected. It would be no use to either of them if she broke down now. In her mind, though, she was imagining a giant bedraggled rodent as large as her own torso, with fangs like sharpened pencils.
‘What are we gonna do? Should we kill it?’ Chloe asked. Her hands were gripping the duvet, and she was pulling it up over herself, pulling it off Stella, who shivered. Moments passed and Stella didn’t reply, so Chloe added, ‘I think we should try to find it.’ And by ‘we’ they both knew that she meant ‘you’.
It wasn’t that Chloe didn’t like rats – in fact, she thought they were really cute – it was just that she didn’t want to know what it looked like because it probably had to die. It’d entered her space – their space – now, and so what else were they supposed to do? Let it rummage around forever? Let it give them some kind of disease?
The bed creaked as Stella climbed out, seeming so cool about it all. Chloe shrank further under the covers and put the duvet in her mouth, trying not to make a sound. Stella would get angry if she overreacted, but Chloe had been lying there for half an hour at least, listening to the scurrying sounds, and the idea of the rat had burrowed into her brain and festered. Every time she thought of it, the rat got larger and she became more powerless to ward him off.
The scratching stopped. Now neither of them could tell where it might be. Stella bent down slowly and picked up a shoe, turned it in her hand, shook it. How could she be so un-phased by it all?
‘He must be hiding,’ said Chloe. Stella rolled her eyes, then continued to turn each individual shoe. Chloe braced herself for the moment the rat would come flying out and scratch her face away with its powerful claws.
There was nothing there.
‘But I heard it!’ said Chloe from within her duvet bundle, ‘I heard it nibbling and scratching, and then I saw its little grey face peering up at me!’
Stella had overturned the entire room, while Chloe sat on her island, shuddering. Surely she could’ve been a bit more helpful.
‘Well, it’s not here anymore,’ Stella said. ‘It must’ve squeezed back under the door when we weren’t watching or something.’ She was consoling herself more than anything. Her arms were tired. It was now 3:26 am, and if she didn’t go to bed soon she’d be a thundercloud at uni tomorrow. ‘Clo, I’ve really got to get some rest.’ She tugged the sheets back from Chloe’s grip, huddling beneath them. ‘We’ll see if we can find it tomorrow.’ And before Chloe could protest, Stella was asleep.
The rodent was climbing on top of their bed and gnawing at Chloe’s right calf, and she was screaming. Stella tried to bash the rat over the head with a dictionary, but it was expanding, it was as big as Chloe now, it kept gnawing and gnawing, and her leg was made of polystyrene, so she couldn’t feel anything. Her polystyrene leg was getting torn up into shreds, and the shreds were disappearing up into the air, and Stella was trying to yell something at her, but Chloe couldn’t hear her, she couldn’t even lip-read, because now she was blind, and in a glass box, and the rat was crawling on top of her, and the rat was a pile of bricks, she could feel them heavy on her chest, and she’d left the milk open on the kitchen bench, she’d never be able to say sorry, because now she wasn’t able to breathe.
When she woke up, Stella was already in the kitchen with a half-full plunger of coffee and a bowl of rice bubbles. Her red-rimmed eyes told Chloe she hadn’t slept, but it was too early in the day to feel worried about anything.
‘I found the hole,’ said Stella. ‘I’m thinking of getting it boarded up.’
‘The hole the rat came through.’ Stella looked at her with something resembling disgust. Chloe didn’t say anything, just sat down and drank some coffee too, then checked Facebook. No notifications. No one else to talk to. Sometimes she wondered if that was just what happened when you lived alone with someone. Everyone probably just assumed you’d made a life that was cosy and important. It probably seemed like she and Stella didn’t need anyone else but each other.
‘Did you hear what I said?’ asked Stella. ‘About the hole?’
It was too early in the day for a fight. Chloe crawled back into her brain and didn’t reply.
Stella regretted what she’d said at the breakfast table. She regretted many things, like that time at the farmer’s market where she’d been hungover from a terrible party and couldn’t keep track of all the children on scooters – it was meant to be picturesque, but it was stressful – and she’d just kept snapping at Chloe for hours about every little thing she did, because that was how things were. They were so used to one another that they were allowed to do things like that.
She drank three coffees before 10am, and her arms had started shaking. Her eyes were achy and swollen.
‘Rough night?’ Maddie asked as they sat in the lecture theatre.
‘We’ve got a rat in our house,’ said Stella simply.
‘Oh right,’ said Maddie. ‘You should get one of those live traps.’
Stella wanted the rat dead. She couldn’t explain why. She just had this feeling that if the rat actually died, it’d be an actual ending. There was no risk of him coming back in. They didn’t have a car to drive a rat far enough from the house anyway. He’d just keep returning. Killing him was the only option. It was the only way to be truly rid of him.
Chloe tidied the house, because she hadn’t really done much else to help with the rat situation. She took the rubbish out. She even boarded up the hole in the wall with bits of wood that she’d been meaning to use for a sculpture. The rat issue was more important. She didn’t want Stella to be angry at her anymore, just because she couldn’t bring herself to be proactive about the situation.
She took a nap at around 2pm, but was woken up soon after by more scratching, and the sound of a small body tumbling across the ground. The rat was still there. She found what supplies they had and set to work building a trap – something kind, that wouldn’t harm him, but that would help her to catch him as he ran past. She had a creeping feeling of the rat’s eyes staring at her from the ground. She hoped that he wouldn’t emerge. She hoped that he’d find his way out of the front door. She’d left it open so he could go.
When Stella got home, the bedroom was covered in plastic bags.
‘What the hell is this?’ she asked when she opened the door. Chloe was lying contentedly on the bed at the far end of the room. She had a cardboard box beside her, and was scrolling down her Facebook feed.
‘I made a trap!’ Chloe said, but Stella continued to stare.
‘I don’t get it?’
‘The plastic is so that I can hear the rat moving when it comes. I’ve put little blocks of cheese on the plastic bags, and pinned them down to the floor. So if the plastic moves, and the rat comes, they will eat the cheese, but they won’t be able to take it away, because it’s pinned to the floor. Then while they are eating the cheese I can use this,’ Chloe held up the cardboard box, ‘and I’ll be able to trap it!’ She seemed pleased with herself.
Stella looked at Chloe and decided not to ask if she’d left the house today, or if she’d tried applying for a new job, or if she’d bothered to go supermarket shopping. She seemed to spend most of her days not doing anything, while Stella made the effort to get out and make something of herself. Stella just asked, ‘Have you slept yet?’ and Chloe said, ‘Not at all!’ her voice jittering.
‘You should sleep now, I’ll be on rat duty.’ In four long strides, Stella traversed the plasticky sea between them and took the box from Chloe’s hands, feeling like some sort of hero.
Chloe was bad at sleeping. She’d never really known how to do it properly. Most of the time, she was practically nocturnal. She’d ghost around the house in her ugg boots, and make endless cups of tea and hum to herself. Sometimes she’d go to the back of their garden and lie down in the grass and smoke, trying to read the stars, but she’d never really known how to do that either.
It took fifteen minutes for Stella’s breath to slow, but Chloe was still wide awake. She needed to get over this fear of killing. She needed to just do it. Tomorrow, she decided, she’d put out a real rat trap, and she’d capture it. She wouldn’t flinch when she saw it lying there dead, she would just calmly throw it in the bin, and they’d go on living their lives.
But she didn’t understand how the rat trap worked. The instructions were simple, yet her mind was buzzing, making the words seem complicated and unfamiliar – meaningless symbols on a page. She was afraid she would set it up wrong and lose a finger.
‘Babe, can you help me with this?’ Chloe yelled towards the kitchen.
‘You just put the cheese on the thing and then flip the other thing over.’ Stella appeared in the doorway, holding a jar of jam and eating it with a spoon.
‘That isn’t helpful. Can you just come and do it please?’
‘Fine.’ Stella put the jar down on the coffee table and knelt beside her, placing the cheese on its tiny pedestal, and fixing the other parts into place. ‘It’ll be nice to get a good nights sleep,’ she said, once it was done.
The rat was smaller than either of them had imagined – no bigger than a teaspoon. The metal bar of the trap was clamped firmly around its neck, and its arms were reaching out, like someone falling down a well, desperate to find a handhold. Stella and Chloe both stared down at it silently. The air felt dehydrated and empty between them.
‘What do we do now?’ Chloe asked, without looking up.
‘We could bury it?’ Stella suggested, and Chloe agreed, because it was just such a tiny thing, and they should treat it as if it meant something to the world. Stella bent down with the cardboard box in her hand, prised the rat’s grey body out, and placed it solemnly into the box.
Stella dug a hole in the back garden, and lowered the cardboard coffin into it. The rat was dead. They had killed it. But in the end, nothing else had changed. There was still the waking up every day. There was still a slow burning. The rat had just been a distraction, a bit of something new to cut through the mundane.
Stella felt two arms going around her, and it was only then that she realised she was crying. ‘It’s just a rat,’ Chloe said into her ear.
‘It wasn’t just a rat.’ Stella said sternly, but she didn’t know if Chloe would understand. She felt herself alone on a detached lily pad, floating downstream, with the air moving fast behind her.
‘We’ll be okay,’ Chloe said. ‘It’s all going to be okay.’
Sinead Overbye is a writer and part-time visual artist. She has recently completed her MA in creative writing at the IIML.