Mrs Needham at Number Fifty-Seven
I knock on the door.
I knock again.
I begin to wonder if maybe she isn't home. I begin to second guess myself. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to come here. Skipping number fifty-seven: who, really, would blame me? I wouldn't be the only person to think twice about knocking on her door.
I'm twenty-three years old. I was afraid of her when I was a kid – like all the kids – but that's a decade or so flowen under the bridge. I'm too old to...
Footsteps. A floor creaking, settling. I jump. Just a little, can't help myself.
Too late to knock and run... Right?
The sound of something being moved, or kicked aside, a soft frumpfing sound that might or might not be her voice. And then the sound of what can only be a key turning in a lock. The door coming slowly open.
I feel naked. I want to jump behind a bush.
And then she steps out from beneath the door's shadow, and for the first few seconds I see an ordinary woman. I feel silly. I want to laugh at myself. A woman in her fifities, pretty, very dark haired; wearing crisp, overstated makeup – lips are blood red, eyes surrounded in coal-black, a crimson touch to her cheeks. Full lips. Wide eyes. A face that fills all the available space.
And then... just something in the overly smooth contours, in the antique ivory of her skin tone. Something about her that makes her seem to have stepped out of an old painting. And something in her eyes, or in the tilt of her chin, that implies more knowledge, more experience, greater understanding, than any ordinary woman can lay claim to.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Needham.” I feel flustered, I have to remind myself to get the words out.
“My dear,” her voice is full of deep, drowned chords.
And inside her house. The hallway itself, all alive with bright colours. The wallpaper so thickly patterned it might as well be made of birds – every inch owes it's substance to wing, beak, talon. As if it could peel itself off the wall and become a huge, killer flock. The angles don't add up. How does this house keep from falling down?
“Um... Mrs Needham. I'm Olivia from number twelve.”
“My dear, I remember.”
“Right. Look, I don't mean to bother you. I'm just here collecting for charity.” Should have skipped this house, not like anyone would know.
She tilts her head forward. Polite interest. No reason at all for it to seem menacing.
“There's a community centre going to be built down on the corner of Leith and Acemond. Or at least... if we can get enough money together. Somewhere for at risk youth and all that. Here's... there's a pamphlett,” I belated remember to hold it out to her, “and there'll be a swimming pool, a cafe, a drop-in centre, counsellors on-site. Craft classes and stuff.” I try to remember my line: “It's going to turn lives around.”
“That sounds... very... nice.”
“Yes. Yes.” And seeing past her, looking into her house – isn't the carpet moving? I have to blink to be able to keep talking. “So... we're just looking for people to sign up to make a regular monthly donation... to.. er...” Blink. But the floor is still moving. And parts of the wall. A bird's wings are actually made from tiny insects; and more of them on the floor, piled into a ball but spilling away from it like unravelling wool, “... er... help keep it running.”
“Yes of course.” She reaches for a pen that sits on a table by her door. It seems as if a curtain of bugs part to make room for her fingers. A mixture of bright, jewelled colours. She must see them. She has to know they're there.
Make light of it? “Mrs Needham, I think you have a bit of an infestation...”
She gives me a silencing smile. “My dear friends.”
“There.” She hands back the form, a fifty dollar donation all set out and signed for.
“Thank you.” They move in a swirling pattern. There are more moving around her feet. She's going to end up stepping on her friends...
“Good day, my dear.”
I've never hurried off a property quite so quickly in all my years of collecting for charity.
Three hundred and seventeen dollars.
I've been sitting at the kitchen table, counting the forms, filling in my tally sheet. “Not bad for a day's work,” I say to Marty while he cooks dinner.
“You flashed your tits, didn't you?”
And I'm tempted to throw something at him.
“Got it, flaunt it.” He shrugs and stirs basil into the sauce.
“You know Mrs Needham from number fifty-seven?” I say.
“Er... that's the house with the stone wall and vines growing all over it? And she's kind of witchy and weird right, long black hair, strange looking?”
“Yeah. That's her.”
“I've seen her around.”
“You know anything about her?”
“Not really. Except how we used to dare each other to go into her garden, or touch her door, or look in her window as kids. Something about a stare that could turn you to stone. Or a big pot for making children into jam. Right? You were there.”
“But nothing about the real her? Who she actually is?”
“Well she's not the sort to invite chit-chat is she? She's unnerving, even to grown-ups. Here, did she donate then?”
“Hope she didn't curse the form.”
“She doesn't actually do that.”
That night. Stripping off for bed, a bug crawls out from under the collar of my jersey. It's red-and-gold, almost circular, furred with strange little legs. I stifle a yelp of surprise before it quite has time to form, and nearly stamp on the intruder.
You really haven't done anything wrong have you little guy? Murdering it into pulp just seems kinda cruel. And it's... well... I haven't seen anything quite like it. The colours seem very bright, and the pattern in them is actually extra-ordinary. I wouldn't put it past her to be importing weird African bugs or something. Is she breeding them?
I hold it up for Marty to see.
“Uh-huh,” he says, not seeing, hardly turning his head.
“I've no idea what it is.”
“Come to bed. It's past midnight.”
“I'm younger than you, you old bat.”
By two months.
He says: “I really do have to get up in the morning.”
And in the morning, it's right by my head. I mean literally, right next to my eyes when I open them; sat calmly on my pillow, staring at me. And I bite my lip this time to keep from screaming. Marty gets up without noticing.
I pick up the pillow and stare at this creature. It's the size of my little fingernail, and its genuinely beautiful – if little crawly things with too many legs can be called beautiful. This flowing mixture of reds and yellows, tiny gaps opening amongst the colour to let in others shades; cascading light, the chitinous twinkle of sun against carapace.
I put it down on the windowsill, open the window a crack,and watch it scuttle away.
Go on. Be free. Explore the world.
But it doesn't.
I get home, unlock the door, walk into the hall, and there it is. But this bug, it's not like it was this morning. It's the size of a hedgehog.
And the first thought: just: What the-?!
A cold pit opening up in my stomach.
This is happening.
It moves across the floor to me and I'm frozen. What else could you be but frozen? Frozen or flapping in panic. Those are the two basic options. I stand there as it crawls across my feet, as it rubs its smooth, feathery body against my ankles. It crouches there, waiting to be acknowledged.
Does this thing... does it mean me no harm? Does it want to be friends...?
Oddly – really oddly – I find myself warming to it. It's not really so unlike a kitten. Weird and lovely, friendly, its black eyes sunken into a small storm-grey head, its wings a mix of sunshine and blood. Instead of screaming, or trying to kick it off my foot, I crouch down slowly and lift it up.
What am I supposed to do with you?
I don't even know what a thing like this eats. Maybe plants? I hope plants. I go out into the garden, pick grass, rose petals, clover leaves, a few spiky leaves from a plant I don't know the name of. I take them back inside and lay them out on the floor. I sit down against the wall, legs hugged, chin on my knees, watching as this unlikely bug crawls over and starts munching on them. It has an especial fondness for rose petals, and when I feed it honey melted in water it seems to appreciate that as well.
Cautiously, I reach over to it. I run my fingers along folded, hard-capped wings. They have a strange sensation, smooth, slightly electric, with an undercurrent of rough strands – embedded fibres. And it nudges my fingers with the side of its head. Like a kitten. Like a puppy. Wanting to be loved.
And then: I hear Marty's car in the driveway. Am I mad? I think I must be. Aside from the fact that I've been sitting in my hallway feeding a giant bug as if there's nothing wrong with the universe, suddenly I'm scooping it up and hurrying into the bedroom. What's wrong with me? I'm trying to hide it. Of all the concerns that should be running through my head right now, here's the one I've settled on: what'll Marty do if he sees this thing? I'm worried for it. I'm scared he'll freak out and hurt it.
“Stay,” I whisper, nestling it into pile of blankets in the upper shelf of the wardrobe. And “Sssh”. And I hurry into the hallway to greet Marty with a kiss and a question about his day. I melt into his arms, and trail along beside him, into the lounge, gossiping and giggling and discussing what to have for dinner.
After pizza. After TV. We go to bed.
I sleep. But then the noise wakes me. There's a soft scratching sound coming from the wardrobe. I try to ignore it. I wrap a pillow around my head. But the sound is persistent, and it's rhythmic. There's this quality of music about it.
Marty rolls and mutters.
Go back to sleep.
But he's awake half an hour later – with the noise now expanded into clicking and scraping, into a tiny, corner of persistent knocking.
“What on earth is that?” He turns to me.
“Er... I don't hear anything.”
“Really? You can't hear that?”
“That's not power lines. You really can't hear that?”
I shrug, affecting a puzzled smile. “Sorry.”
“I'm going to go find out where it's coming from.”
“Okay. I'll check in here. You check outside.”
He does. I race for the wardrobe. This bug is a cat's size now. It's a dark glitter of mass amidst the folds of woollen blankets. I feel irrationally terrified for it. I stroke its wings, I whisper: “Be quiet, hush, hush love. You don't want anyone to find you here.” And I hum, I purr, convincing it into something like a doze. Do insects sleep?
Marty coming back, hands held up in confusion. “I don't know.”
“Has it stopped?”
“Then let's go to bed.”
“If we have rats...”
“Oh, I'm sure we don't.”
I wait until Marty's gone to work before I check on it again. When I open the door it comes tumbling out, all curled up legs and chitin. And you'd think I might back off screaming. A sane person would. Surely. This bug: the size of a dog now.
Instead I stumble, I catch it. I let it wrap itself around me. I stroke its legs.
“We need to come up with a name for you, little fella.”
But first to feed it, to give it honey-water. I make a nice little nest in the wardrobe again for it, but it doesn't want to leave me. It snuggles in tight beneath my chin, determined that it's going to stay. I try tempting it away with rose petals, but it just sinks its legs into my collar, twists a couple more into my hair.
I sigh. I shake my head affectionately. What can you do, after all? And so I pick up my bag and head off to work.
If the looks they give me on the bus were funny, well they're nothing compared to what they're giving me now at work. You'd think this was the first time anyone had ever come to work with a giant insect wrapped around their shoulders.... Oh, wait. Yeah. Can I hide any further down in my cubicle?
“Hi Vincent, you have a good weekend?”
He stares at my new friend. His face is perfectly still at first; then it's all kind of contortions and eye-poppings and jaws dropping.
“What the hell is that?” says Lydia Smith.
“Where did you find that?”
“Is it legal?”
But I can't help myself. Leaving him – and I feel as if he's a he by now – at home just seems wrong. He needs company. Attention. The warmth of his legs tickling against my skin. Those soft smooth wings to rub my cheeks up against. They don't get it. Most of them don't want to get within six feet of me. Except Robbie Tyrell, and he's reaching out to pat the bug. He staggers backwards, stammering, tripping over things, when my bug tries to leap onto his shoulder. He mumbles something about some filing to do, and I don't see him again for the rest of the day. I beckon him back over. “Star-petal”. That's the name I'm calling him. “Star-petal. Come to me. Back
up on my shoulder.” He really can't be roaming the office during work hours.
The boss comes to see me at the end of the day. “Look, Olivia, I think there's something we need to discuss.”
He's like a big, soft, wriggling blanket. I think he's nearly full grown already. I don't like to take him on the bus again. There were some very intolerant looks I got this morning. Anyway, nice weather, why not walk home? There's a few people talking, a few pointing at me. They're probably envious. I must be the only person in the neighbourhood to have a pet like this one.
I get home. Marty's there, opening the door for me. His eyes pop out of his head. “What the hell is that, Olivia? What do you think you're wearing?!”
“I really don't think I can keep him.” I feel so apologetic. I stand in Mrs Needham's doorway, Star-petal riding on my shoulders like a backpack. His legs reach around my waist, linking up round front, playing with a button.
“Oh,” says Mrs Needham, “but he seems to like you so much.”
“My boyfriend really doesn't approve.”
“I'm sure if he got to know him... but I just don't think he will. And office policy...”
“I understand. My dear, not all people are as open-minded as we are.” And I feel quite sure that her eyes actually flash, that for a moment they go liquid, emerald green. She holds out her arm and Star-petal crawls across. He's shrinking as he does so: dog, cat, hedgehog, bug. And then he's skittering away into the company of all the other bugs. Smaller than a fingernail. And I'm already losing sight of him amongst his brothers and sisters.
“He will be all right...?”
“Of course. He'll always have a home.” There's something so elastic about her face, the smile seems as if it could slide right off and just float in the air. She puts a long-fingered hand on my upper arm. “Don't you worry. Maybe my next caller will be the right match.”