A bounty of peanuts! Quickly we lay eggs on them and let the little ones gorge all day. We like the new guests. They are newly-weds from a bigger flat and our cupboard is a fetid jungle of bedding, shoes, pots, handbags – and peanuts. Water rushes through the pipes but the cupboard door stays shut, keeping the young warm till they grow fat and venture abroad.
One day the man opens the door. We hold our breath and pray the little ones won’t wriggle while he unwraps the plastic bag and peers. We have never seen the like: his head begins all right at the bottom with a bushy ginger beard and big lips, but at the top are button eyes and a bald crown with a ring of decimated hair.
‘Come here a minute,’ he calls.
The reverse head appears: thick ginger curls, sweeping ginger eyebrows, eyes as big as conkers, a snub nose, scarlet lips hardly big enough to hold a peanut, ending in no chin. We swoon at the bar of hazelnut chocolate she munches.
‘Why are you keeping these peanuts?’ says button-eyes.
‘For my sister’s bird feeders.’
He wraps up the bag and shuts the door. We like it here in Flat Number Three, the ample larder, the dark.
One Sunday morning while next door’s gospel-singing is in full throat, his apple-cheeked friend Jonathan, who has slept in the peanut room unawares, offers to strip the quilt cover under which he has nestled and inside which four of our little ones have nestled. The horror! The horror!
‘I did see one creeping across the wall,’ she says, ‘but I thought it was a ladybird larva.’
He peers close. ‘Ladybird larvae don’t look like that.’
‘What are they, then?’
We are new to them. We hide in crevices, we live in the fabric of the building and our young have voracious appetites.
His brother has invited them to dinner, but she’s already promised her friend in Reading.
‘But I told him we’d go,’ he says with an angry flick of his arm. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
He glowers. ‘What friend in Reading?’
‘No one you know.’
‘You mean no one I’d want to know,’ he jeers.
Jonathan creeps off during this spat and they forget about us. He sulks, she begs. She cancels her friend, he forgives her.
She opens the bag and squeals: more larvae than nuts. She scoops the lot back in and carries it out at arm’s length. Grief, terrible grief. We know not what fate they will suffer. We retire deep into the shafts of the building and when we return the cupboard is bare. He sprays all over, round the frame, in the corners, liquid hissing, hissing. After a day the nasty, minging stuff has gone and we creep back.
That night we cross the room and enter the wardrobe, the layers of warm, tasty cloth with pockets and seams that make perfect secret nests.
One careless daytime outing, that’s all it takes.
‘We’ve got clothes moths,’ he shouts triumphantly, pointing at one of our number on the wall. He holds up an ugly grey pinstriped jacket. ‘Look, two holes.’
It’s hardly a disaster: the rats in the basement bit through a freezer to get at a Black Forest gateau.
She comes running, gasping, declaiming. Against us! We only want to live, same as them. We breed, like them. From cracks and gaps we watch while they lay each garment on the bed and inspect every fold, every recess, then stuff half into bin bags amid moaning and sighing.
‘I’m going to lose money on this wretched place,’ he says. ‘The old flat never had pests like this. And it was quiet, none of all these police sirens. This area’s supposed to be up and coming.’
‘My mother counted sixteen sirens in an hour last time I phoned.’
‘And next time I’ll throttle that yappy dog myself. 3 a.m.!’ He places a blue check shirt in the bin bag. ‘Half my clothes are wrecked,’ he grumbles.
Here he comes again with his spray can all over the wardrobe and our cupboard. We secretly emigrate to the next room. Within a day all textiles are encased in plastic zip bags, the metal teeth too close for ovipositors to fit between, but no matter. This new room has reams of paper and paper is delicious. We lay our eggs in the creases, especially the books. They don’t know yet. Clothes moths indeed!
They sleep in the paper room. Stupidly we’ve grown brazen with the unwonted success and parade in the open till we realise they’re coming to bed. While they lie there they put sticks in their mouths and set fire to them. She fondles a gold ring.
‘You’re so romantic,’ she murmurs. ‘Who else would have a dog as best man and hang the ring round its neck?’
They put the burnt remains of the sticks in a dish, the bedclothes rustle and they emit their strange noises. They think sex is not just for procreation, or not even for procreation. Really they should be more careful. These human creatures are everywhere. We have heard tell they increase by thirteen million every month. So who are the pests?
We wait for the snigger-like snores to begin, his clamorous ones and hers sotto voce in syncopation, before sneaking out to mate while our babies feast.
Rumbled while he’s away. A little sortie by one of us, clinging to the wall, harming no one. No shouts or shrieks this time. From her pocket she takes a tissue and pounces, jubilant. We laugh. Our fellow drops straight through a gap between floorboards and she gawps at the empty weapon. We like it under the floor. Our little ones feed on the dust and crumbs. We love Flat Number Three, especially the peanut room with the gappy floorboards. Carpets are okay, but bare is best.
‘I’ve bought a swatter,’ he announces when he returns.
He whacks the wall and it swishes. The wind warns us of its coming and they stare at the unblemished flat head while we watch gleefully from below.
‘You did what with my books?’ she yells.
‘They’ve quoted thousands of pounds to bag and take away everything and fumigate. That is not an option.’
‘You had no right.’
‘You’re not reading them.’
‘That’s my source material.’
‘Huh. So you can launch yet another novel into the void?’
She marches to the wardrobe, grabs an armful of bagged jumpers. They get physical. They get loud. We sit quiet. They’ve woken us up. Our normal day begins when theirs ends.
‘Don’t make out it’s all about the moths,’ he says. ‘Pretending you weren’t flirting with Jonathan yesterday.’
‘What? Because I laugh at his jokes? He’s very witty. You laugh at his jokes. Perhaps you’re flirting with him.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. I know what I saw.’
‘You see what you want to see. No wonder all your exes quit. That should have been a red flag. God, I was stupid.’
We wish they wouldn’t shout when we’re asleep. They complain of sirens and yapping, but their racket beats all. The gospel-singers next door have stopped mid-song. He storms out and the praise resumes. He’s gone all day and when he staggers home they shout and slam doors until bedtime. She sleeps in the peanut room and he in the paper room. We tremble.
She upbraids him for buying clothes, five times more than he threw out. He says it’s his money and he’ll buy what he wants and blow the clothes moths. We wish they’d stop calling us clothes moths. He goes away on business for a week and tranquillity reigns.
‘What’s this?’ she demands when he returns, holding out a piece of grey paper with neat, forward-sloping handwriting.
‘My birth certificate?’
‘You told me you were thirty-two.’
‘Everyone lies about their age on dating websites.’ He embraces her but she shrugs him off.
‘It doesn’t mean I love you any less.’ A long discourse about the magnitude of his feelings for her ends in bed.
More plastic bags arrive, big ones that fit under beds, smaller ones into which books and papers are stuffed. All sealed. Our eggs are in there! They will suffocate! Liquid is squirted over the peanut room, swishing, splashing. The evangelists and the sirens serenade him while we cower in the bowels of the building. She sleeps in the paper room again. So do we.
‘Mothballs?’ she says. ‘What, stink out the whole flat?’
We agree. Don’t they know those things are poisonous? We flee downstairs at the mention of the word and send up a scout at intervals, but it’s okay, the balls are made of fragrant cedarwood and we perch on them in full view of our guests. We crave cedarwood, but we loathe the sealed bags. We emigrate to another room with rice and barley and oats and nuts in abundance and feel morbidly excited about such easy pickings. How come we never tried this before? We are grateful to our fellows for driving us out of the peanut and paper rooms. The smell of elderflower wafts in through the open windows. We should be off colonising other homes, but we are settled here. We get satiated. We get careless. We prospect for more food for our growing numbers and dart around in daylight, squeezing niftily through narrow cracks no common clothes moth would contemplate. The humans can’t catch us. They creep up from behind, leering murderously, and hold a tissue poised a hand’s-width away, but we can see who’s coming – scarlet talons or stubby fingers – and don’t fret. They lunge, pinch the tissue and screw. Finally they open it. Empty. From under the floor we listen to their groans.
The infamous Jonathan comes to dinner. Her red-tipped fingers match the flesh she dices and we shudder. At table she keeps her eyes down. For one moment she looks up to answer a question. We see it all, the way our resident man suddenly sits tall and glitters, fingering his spoon, and even the curls on his head perk up. He loses his appetite for the dinner she’s cooked, while Jonathan munches on manfully and we swoon with longing at the chocolate pudding. He leaves rather early, we think. He is hardly out of the door before a fight ensues.
They’re back to sleeping separately, but we stay in the new banquet room.
‘Just keep out of sight,’ we tell our larvae.
It’s war. Multiple tissue attacks, squirting, swatting, but we are legion now. More zip bags arrive. Our guests spit fire.
The suitcase does it. Neither has noticed it against the wall under their bed, but while he’s away she spots it and examines the contents as if an egg might lurk in every recess, every seam (it does). Inside a purple box she reads through a bundle of papers, yellowed and frayed. For ages she stares at the faded ink, breathing noisily, her hair scragged back against her scalp.
She’s still kneeling when he breezes in, wearing a black-and-yellow top like a monstrous wasp, and the cataclysm breaks out.
‘What’s this?’ Her voice wobbles.
‘I don’t know.’
He’s not looking.
‘Let me read it to you: ‘My dearest darling, How I wish you were here in my arms. I’m so sorry about your mother passing on. You must be a great comfort to your father.’ Need I go on?’
‘It’s historical,’ he splutters.
‘You’re right it’s historical. Six different women regretting your mother’s death. Would that be the mother at our wedding?’
The flat erupts and our antennae tremble. The sirens go unheard. The yappy dog goes unheard. Three days later they leave, taking some of our eggs and wriggly infants with them. We are sorry they’ve gone. We haven’t forgotten the generous gift of peanuts. We resign ourselves and wait patiently for a new supplier.
(c) Judy Birkbeck, 2016
Judy Birkbeck has an MA in Creative Writing from Exeter and has stories published in Litro online, The Red Line and The Lampeter Review, with one forthcoming in Unthology 9. A debut novel will be published by Holland House Books in May 2017. She lives in Yorkshire.
Carrie Cohen: Recent theatre: MrsTarletonin Shaw’s Misalliance (Tabard), Hetty in Gelt (Etcetera), Myfanwy in Hula Hoops Were My Downfall (The Space), Grace in Mouthplay (Tabard) filmed as Just Saying. Carrie will be touring later this year with Arachne Press’s Liberty Tales reading "Free White Towel" by her alter ego the writer Carolyn Eden. Full CV and media reels at CarrieCohen.co.uk