The landlady watches herself in the living room mirror, phone held to her ear. In the blurred morning light her face looks young again, almost. She flicks her pale fringe from one side to the other. ‘Yes, well let’s hope it’s mice’, she says into the receiver. If only the tenant would hope too.
In the mirror she sees Mossi passing down the hall. In his white sports socks he hardly makes a sound. He is quiet as mouse, she thinks, her Mossi. ‘Right-oh!’ she says into the phone. ‘I’ll pop by this evening’. She hangs up before the tenant speaks again.
Mossi is bent over the cistern in the downstairs lavatory, tool box open on the toilet seat, spanner in hand. ‘Here you are, Mossi!’ the landlady says. She likes to use his name, for the name itself – a common one in Sierra Leone – and the sound of it in her mouth. She tells him about the phone call.
‘Sounds like a rat’, he says grimacing, ‘if the scratching is loud’. Mossi hates rats.
‘It’s always one thing or another with Ashgrove’, the landlady sighs. She never uses her tenants’ names, only the names of the roads they live on: Irving, Seraphim, Ashgrove, Elsiedene. ‘Now rats in the kitchen’. A pause. ‘Or mice. I hope mice. Mice we can deal with. If it’s rats, I might have to pay’.
Mossi goes back to his repair. There was a time he had wanted to take the landlady to his home in Sierra Leone, but not now.
The Ashgrove tenant has a baby. The landlady hadn’t realised she was pregnant when she rented her the flat. She wouldn’t have let to a single mother, had she known. She is young and from the north somewhere, always in leggings the landlady notices, and today wearing a stretched white vest with Love spelt in faded letters. Her bleached hair is black at the roots and shaved under one side – punky, statement-ish. She might have been pretty if her face wasn’t so – foetal. Yes, the landlady thinks, her pale eyelashes and pink skin make her look a little unformed. She balances the sleeping bundle in the crook of her arm, swaying from side to side.
‘It was under the bed last night’, the tenant says urgently, shifting the baby. Its pale moon face looks very peaceful. ‘I could hear it right under us!’
‘Why do you think a rat?’ the landlady asks, her eyes narrowed. ‘Mice are more common’.
‘It’s loud!’ The tenant shifts the baby again ‘Mice don’t make that sort of noise’.
The flat is close to the bright takeaways that line the high street, so of course there are vermin. For baiting rats, the landlady has always relied on the eldest son of her friend Marguerite, who works in pest control and gives her a good price. But Marguerite died of breast cancer a month ago.
‘Usually I have someone’, she tells the tenant, ‘but his mother died recently, so I can’t ask, yet’.
‘Oh’, the tenant says, looking confused. ‘Sorry about your friend. You will do something about them though, won’t you? Should I call the council? Rats don’t go away on their own’.
‘No need for the council!’ the landlady says too loudly. The council will charge she knows, even if the tenant doesn’t. ‘We can treat the problem. You can’t be living with a rat, if a rat it is’. She thinks she means it, but also thinks: I must protect my property.
She rests her bag on the step and lifts out a plastic container that says Daz on the side. ‘Not washing powder’, she says, lifting the lid to reveal the small turquoise pellets. ‘Poison!’
The poison is left over from when the landlady once had rats in the cupboard below her stairs. A few rats would die, then more appear, so Marguerite’s son had left her with a large box. Oh it was awful, she remembers. It went on for months. In the end she had had the ground floor of her house hermetically sealed, a costly procedure, but absolutely worth it.
‘And here’s a dish for it’, she tells the tenant, pointing to the small plastic dish resting on the pellets, something she’s taken from an eyebrow tinting kit. ‘Just pop some down on the kitchen floor, yes?’ She clicks the lid shut and passes the container to the tenant, who takes it in the arm she isn’t holding the baby in. ‘Let’s try this before anything drastic. Agreed?’
Many streets run in parallel off the high street, lined with old red brick houses with chimneys, broad bay windows and ornate cornices. Some are carved up into bedsits where down-and-outs and immigrants reside. You can pick these out by their grimy peeling walls and the slew of rubbish in their front gardens. Others are smart conversions where young professionals live, like the four the landlady owns. The landlady bought her properties in close proximity to her own to keep an eye on her tenants, and so Mossi could deal with any maintenance swiftly. Only a few houses are still intact and well maintained like her own, with its beautiful wood floors which Mossi carefully stripped. She once joked that he must be the only African immigrant to live in one of grand residences, but he didn’t laugh, only corrected her that he was an African refugee.
As she walks home, the burden of being a landlady weighs heavily on her. The more money she makes, the more she worries. The area is going up, no doubt. Bright coffee shops and organic stores now nestle between the take-aways. This means a rise in rent. Good. Money piled up in her account. If anyone saw her balance they would think her rich. But she isn’t rich. If you were rich, you wouldn’t worry about money in the way the landlady does.
Later, she lies awake in bed, too hot from the close weather. She listens to Mossi’s slow breathing and frets about things she might have to spend money on. The temperamental radiators at Irving Road could be fixed by him in time for autumn, but Seraphim Road would need a new bathroom soon. And now rats on Ashgrove. She prays the poison will work. The clock at the side of the bed says 2am. Not a wink of sleep. She could almost curse Marguerite.
‘Do you think you might have rats?’ the landlady asks. She is at the front door of Mrs Ruperalia, the neighbour on Ashgrove. A week has passed, but the poison has not worked. The tenant phoned in tears at dawn. Apparently a rat ran across her foot in the bathroom. ‘The pest control man is here’, the landlady continues. She hopes Mrs Ruparelia has rats so they can split the cost.
‘Good morning, Mrs Marchant’, Mrs Ruparelia says. ‘No, we don’t have rats or mice. But I wanted to talk to you about the fence adjoining the properties. It’s not in a good state’.
‘But I’m sure you says you sometimes put traps down?’
‘Mouse trap’, Mrs Ruparelia says. ‘Sometimes we do. They catch the odd mouse. But mice don’t bother me. Back home we –’
‘Don’t want a free assessment?’ the landlady breaks in. She glances back to where the van is parked, Kevin’s Best Pest Control Solutions printed on its side. ‘The man is here now. And it’s free’.
Mrs Ruparelia looks at the van then back again. ‘No Mrs Marchant. I’m telling you the odd mouse doesn’t bother me really, but the fence –’
‘Can we talk about the fence later? The tenant has got rats and it’s going to cost me a fortune!’
‘Poor Sadie. In there with a baby. Surely she should move out until – ‘ But the landlady is already back at the van, leaning down at the window.
‘I’ll give you a phone-call about the fence!’ Mrs Ruparelia calls down the path. ‘Please give your husband my best!’
Kevin from Best Pest Solutions lies on the kitchen floor. He and the land-lady are alone in the flat since the tenant is at baby yoga. The kitchen is in a poor state, the landlady has to admit. The lino is shabby and stained. The cupboard doors don’t t their frames. The flat smells stale and, well, ratty. She opens the back door to let some air in.
Kevin pulls his head out from under the sink. He has thick dark hair and a face that might once have been handsome. The landlady notes his tattoos. On one forearm, a bare-breasted mermaid, on the other, the word Ecstasy spelt in dark blue capitals. It looks home-made. Kevin is a rough sort, the landlady thinks. You probably had to be, for this sort of work.
‘Definitely a rat’, he says, sitting up, looking pleased. ‘Rat crap everywhere’.
‘Damn it!’ says the landlady.
‘On the plus side, probably only one. You’ll need a course of poison. Three treatments, but the first usually does it’.
‘I did try poison’. She points to the small tray the tenant has placed by the kitchen bin, still full of blue pellets.
‘We don’t use that anymore,’ he says, regarding the poison. ‘Rats mutate all the time. They’re probably immune. What I’ve got is new. Proper stuff. Industry strength’.
‘And where do you think this rat has come from?’ the landlady probes. ‘I had all the holes blocked up last year’. She remembers Mossi outside on his hands and knees scraping cement around the gutters.
‘Sneaky buggers, rats. Use the back door if it’s open’. Kevin says, looking at the open back door. He cranes his neck to see the garden. ‘That over- growth won’t help. Perfect for rats. And these old houses are full of holes and cracks. Rats come up the drains, the replaces. I can do a total service for you, if you like. It’s not cheap, but –’
‘No, no, no!’ the landlady raises her hand. ‘Just the poison, please’. She sees Mrs Ruparelia pegging out her washing, beyond the tatty fence. ‘I don’t think she understood me’.
‘The woman next door. She can’t speak much English. I thought if she has rats, we could split the cost’.
‘Oh right’, he says. He knows the landlady’s sort too. ‘Don’t worry, Mrs Marchant. I’ll give you a good price’. He grins. ‘You could use me again. How many flats did you say you owned?’
‘Four’, the landlady says, and thinks: Irving, Seraphim, Ashgrove, Elsiedene. She doesn’t say she’s about to buy another.
‘Lucky for some’, he says, and goes for the poison.
Is it luck, the landlady wonders, watching herself in the kitchen window. Her lips are too thin, she thinks, pursing them together. It wasn’t luck really. Her mother left her money. She invested. The profits of one helped buy another. The banks encouraged it. Who wouldn’t do as she has done?
When the kitchen has been baited, the landlady stands at the front gate as Kevin loads his van. ‘Give it a week, Mrs Marchant’, he says, opening the driver’s door and climbing in. He pops his head back out the window, sunglasses on and a lit cigarette in his mouth. ‘But one more thing’, he says, exhaling smoke. ‘If it dies inside, it’s extra to get the body out’.
‘Yes yes, I know’, the landlady says to herself, as he drives away.
As she approaches her house, the landlady sees Mossi stood outside talking to the tenant. He is bent over the pram. He looks up as the landlady approaches.
‘Lovely baby’, he says, gesturing. The landlady looks for the sake of politeness, the baby’s sleeping face just visible in the white blanket. Mossi and the landlady did not have children. It was never discussed.
‘Just on my way back to the flat’, the tenant says. She looks tired. ‘Have the pest control people been?’ The landlady notices the change in her tone. Brusque, less friendly.
‘Sorry for the rat’, Mossi says to her. ‘I wish –’
‘It’s hardly our fault, Mossi!’ the landlady says. ‘I’ve just paid out to have it dealt with!’ She turns to the tenant. ‘The pest control man has been, and the good news is there’s only one rat, and it should be dead in a week’, she says. ‘But the bad news is that you might well have rats because of the poor state of the garden, which, as you’ll see in the contract, is your responsibility’.
‘What?’ the tenant says, surprised.
‘Rats live and breed in overgrown gardens’.
The tenant pauses then says, ‘It’s hardly overgrown. The grass needs cutting, which I’ve not has much time to do, what with –’
‘That’s as may be’, the landlady interrupts, her chin lifted, not noticing the look Mossi is giving her. ‘But I’m telling you what an expert has says –
‘I don’t think Sadie can be blamed for the rat’, Mossi says.
‘No I can’t!’ The tenant looks from him to the landlady. ‘Is that what you’re saying?’ she says. ‘It’s my fault?’
‘I’m just repeating what I’ve been told by an expert’, the landlady says calmly. ‘It seems appropriate that you make some kind of contribution towards the cost of –’
‘Are you kidding?’ the tenant nearly shouts. ‘No’, the landlady says. ‘Far from it. I just –’
‘Forget it’, the tenant takes the handles of the pram. She looks at Mossi and says, ‘Nice talking to you’ then walks away.
‘ – think we should split the cost!’ the landlady calls out after her. She turns to Mossi. ‘Goodness me’, she says. ‘It’s a perfectly reasonable suggestion, don’t you think, Mossi?’ Mossi says nothing. ‘But I can’t say you helped, Mossi. It’s no good apologising, you know. Really!’
Mossi sometimes thinks back to when he and the landlady first met. A party. Mossi’s case-worker had invited him, just after his asylum hearing. He was lonely in London and so he went. The house was bohemian in style but everything was expensive. People sat around in the gold lamp-light, on plump sofas and armchairs, one man balanced on a piano stool telling a long story Mossi couldn’t follow. Others were out on the wide patio with their cigarettes. They all seemed incredibly well. Glowing with wellness and wealth, in fact. In the kitchen, another man talked loudly at him for an hour about his travels in Mali, while Mossi smiled and nodded.
He was pulling his coat on in the hall when he heard a woman crying. The landlady was huddled on the doorstep, a ladder in her thin tights that made her seem fragile, Mossi thought. That and the fact she is was so drunk on white wine she could hardly walk when he helped her up, talking about an ex-boyfriend who left her to go travelling, now suddenly back on the scene. Bastard. Bastard, she kept slurring, lurching against Mossi as he walked her home to the big house where she lived alone. It turned out the hosts of the party were the landlady’s sister and her husband, both teachers she often criticised for their hippie ideas.
Mossi had certainly loved her once, he thought. Or had he confused love for gratitude? He had never described to her his life before they met. Lonely and traumatised, sick for home, days he would go hungry. Eight long months when he couldn’t work, waiting for his case to come to court. No language for things. The cramped room he had shared with other poor men, five streets away from where he now lived. He had never described it, though of course she knew.
The next week, the landlady arrives at Ashgrove with a plastic bag of scented tea-lights. Some pink, others mauve. She can smell the dead rat from the doorstep. She inches when the tenant opens the door, the sleeping baby in a sling on her chest.
‘This is the problem with poison’, the landlady begins talking immediately, holding out the carrier bag. ‘They do smell. This hot weather doesn’t help. But it will go away. There’s nothing to be done. We can’t be pulling up the floorboards’. She breathes in and frowns. The smell is earthy and putrid, unyielding. She wonders how the tenant is putting up with it.
‘Tea-lights!’ the tenant exclaims, looking in the bag, then up at the land- lady. She is laughing. ‘Tea-lights! Haven’t you got a nose? I’m going to a hotel. And sending you the bill. And I’m not fucking kidding’.
The landlady notices the small suitcase she is holding, ‘But –’
‘The rat isn’t under the floorboards’, the tenant interrupts, her hands spread. ‘It’s in the bathroom. Under the bath, I reckon. I can’t open the bathroom door. I haven’t showered. I can’t use the loo in there. I can’t believe you gave me a tub of fucking poison. I’ve got a baby’.
‘No need to –’
‘Someone has got to get it out. And I’m not coming back until they have’. She pushes past the landlady. ‘You are a total joke’.
‘But isn’t there a friend you could stay with?’ the landlady calls at her back. ‘I can’t be paying hotel bills! This won’t be covered in the contract’.
‘Sod the contract!’ the tenant shouts back.
It’s not in the contract, the landlady tells herself. Calm down. Calm down. She takes a deep breath to calm herself down. The smell of the rat is appalling. And is much worse inside. Worse than she has ever smelt. The tenant is right. It must be from the bathroom. The landlady edges slightly down the hall, stops for a second, turns and leaves. There is no way she is opening that door.
Outside, she dials Kevin’s number, speaks then listens. ‘How much?’ she almost shouts into the phone.
‘No’, Mossi says. ‘Not again’. He is wearing his old paint-splattered jeans to sand down the window-frames in the sunroom. ‘No way’.
‘Oh Mossi, please! It will cost more!’ the landlady protests from the door- way. ‘I only paid for the poison to be laid’.
‘Those things have disease!’
‘Oh please Mossi. It will take a moment only’.
He stops sanding and looks up at her. ‘Don’t I do enough for you?’ he says quietly. The landlady says nothing for a minute, her eyebrows raised in a bemused expression.
‘Isn’t it more a case of what I do for you, Mossi?’ she finally says. She pauses to let her words sink in. ‘Pretty please? Will you, Mossi? Mossi?’
He holds a handkerchief over his mouth as he unscrews the bath panel. It takes a long time since the screws are rusty and old. He can’t get purchase on them. The smell makes him gag as he pulls the side away. The high window lets little light into the bathroom. He can see nothing in the black space except for the pipes. He brings out his torch and shines it below the bath. There at the back wall lies the dead rat, a small pool of dried blood around its mouth. It is a large creature, its tail at least five inches long.
Mossi would like to think he had never liked rats since his grandmother fell ill from Lassa fever, bought to her village by rats. But the real reason is different. It was him that had to remove the many dead rats from the cupboard under the landlady’s stairs, and once from the kitchen bin at her flat on Irving Road, and once from the attic on Elsiedene. Fat, rotting rats. The landlady will not pay for the bodies to be removed.
He reaches for the broom and awkwardly manoeuvres the rat out. Close- up he can see its distended stomach, and wonders if it might have been pregnant. There are a few maggots wriggling in its back. With his hands in rubber gloves, he picks the rat up by its tail and drops it into the carrier bag. He almost feels sorry for it. It is only doing what it is programmed to do – see an opportunity and take it.
Mossi ties the bag, and ties the bag inside another bag, then takes the rat out into the garden and places it carefully into the hole he has dug. He peels off the rubber gloves and lays them in the hole too, and scrapes the earth back across them with his spade. When it is done, he stands for a moment in the long grass, the sun on his face. At the back of the garden is a tall tree he has always liked. He doesn’t know the species, but it reminds him of the cotton trees in Sierra Leone.
In the kitchen he scrubs his hands three times with a brush and liquid soap. The landlady is waiting at the garden gate when he emerges.
‘Thank you Mossi, thank you’, she says, as she slips her arms through his. ‘It wasn’t so bad, Mossi, was it?’
Mossi says nothing as she leads him back to the house.
Hannah Lowe has published poetry and a memoir, Long Time, No See (2015), which featured as Radio 4’s Book of the Week in July 2015. Her poetry collection Chick (2013) won the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. She lives in London and teaches at Kingston University
Josh Prior is a freelance illustrator with an interest in visual narrative, drawing and visual metaphor. He studied Illustration at the University of Plymouth, where he was awarded the Drawing Prize.