Vermin is a short story written by Lionel Shriver exclusively for Stylist's summer fiction special. Print out this page to take her story with you to read at leisure, or take a look at all of our exclusive short stories here.
I don’t know if the moral of this story is that you should never buy a house. That’s a pretty useless moral anyway, in a country where home ownership is enshrined as such a wholesome aspiration that mortgage interest is tax-deductible. Who would listen?
Still, I’ll never forget first walking into what I would shortly christen with affection ‘the Little Dump’. Michael and I had been together for a bit less than a year, living in his studio in Greenpoint. Since my paint box had to compete with multiple guitars, amps, and recording equipment, it was cramped. So we were looking to pool our resources and rent something more spacious.
Until that afternoon, the search had been depressing. Not only were properties in Brooklyn proving way beyond our budget, but everything had something wrong with it. Even if the apartment didn’t keep the refrigerator in the living room and the bathtub in the kitchen, we picked up right away that the previous residents had been unhappy there. It’s funny how you can tell; misery steeps soft furnishings as indelibly as tobacco. Michael and I were so exhilarated with each other that we wanted no part of other people’s residue of gloom.
Yet the Little Dump was cheerful. In the sleepy family neighbourhood of Windsor Terrace, it was located at the very end of a cul-de-sac called Trevanion Close, a designation somehow both intimate and noble. Granted, this tumbledown two bedroom was cheaply built and flimsy. But its junky, knocked-together quality was part of the property’s charm. It was a house that didn’t take itself too seriously – it was a joke house – which meant that we wouldn’t have to take it seriously either. In those days we cherished a drollness to our environs, a lightness and silliness and transience reflecting the fact that wherever we stood was mere backdrop. That’s what it’s like when you’re first in love. You feel so real, so super-real, that no one and nothing else can compete. The two-storey hovel had the atmosphere of a cardboard city in Hollywood, and that made us the stars of the show.
For close to two years Michael and I were supremely contented in that house, although it saddens me that what happened later inserts a dimming scrim between then and now. The present so colours the past that it’s amazing we can remember anything at all, really – and maybe we can’t.
Our favourite entertainment in the old days was the raccoons. Trevanion Close was blocked at the dead end with a brick retaining wall that ran right alongside our house. Out the porch windows late at night we’d follow these stout, hunched creatures big as bulldogs lumbering across the top of that wall, their obsidian eyes catching the light of the street lamp, long conical snouts snuffling curiously at the brick. Wearing concentric circles of black-and-white fur like oversized spectacles, they also looked intelligent. Michael liked to peer out the front door and meet the animal’s gaze square on. He nursed a mythology about himself that he could communicate with animals, and I indulged this little vanity since everything about Michael beguiled me then. Me, I got pretty good at imitating the creatures’ throaty trill – trrrrrr, trrrrr – halfway between a growl and a purr.
I’m sure there’s an element here of you-had-to-be-there. A raccoon isn’t an exotic creature for most people, but they were our raccoons, and these nocturnal visitors were exotic to us. The sudden rustle and trill of a new mother with five heartbreaking kits in tow, or another spotting of a lone male hunching down the retaining wall prowling its territory and stopping to crack open an acorn, contributed to a sensation that where we lived was special, that we were special – that we inhabited a secret world at the end of this private little street where the night was alive. The raccoons were wildlife. They encouraged us to believe that we were leading wild lives, too.
“We inhabited a secret world… The raccoons were wildlife. They encouraged us to believe that we were leading wild lives, too”
OK, I’ll cut to the chase: when a subletter from across the street started making impertinent enquiries about purchasing our downmarket Valhalla out from under us, we bought the Little Dump. Although not, obviously, without making some changes. I confess we got help from both our parents on the down-payment. Still, no bank was going to give a mortgage to a self-employed mural painter and a blues guitarist who on a good night raked in forty bucks and a few free drinks. I hustled because I was good and motivated, and I don’t think in the end it’s turned out a bad career move to work at a commercial design firm. I grant that Michael’s managing Slide, a little jazz club up in Fort Greene, didn’t work out quite as well. It had seemed a good fit on the face of it, but when you’re managing you’re not playing, and the job was more about kegs than frets. But I’m convinced that we’d have weathered the transition to proper employment and even getting married that same summer if it weren’t for the house. I guess for some people who’ve always been free and easy, taking on responsibility makes them bigger and more solid, more grounded; that’s what people say about becoming a parent. But there may be such a thing as becoming too responsible.
After the closing, I finally hung a few prints – posters from Michael’s old gigs – but Michael became solely obsessed with ‘structural issues’. I’d sometimes come home and find my new husband in the middle of the living room, worrying up at a pinprick brown mottle on the ceiling, and he gave the impression that he’d been craning his neck like that for quite some time. Saturdays he’d spend a good hour prowling each floor up and down, scowling into closets, searching out cracks. He wanted to get the points done on the front brick, a fissure filled in the stoop stairs, the fractured slab of concrete in our overgrown rats’ nest of backyard broken up and replaced. I had to observe that none of these dreary grey ‘improvements’ would make living in the house the slightest bit more enjoyable, and Michael explained with patronising patience that it was all very well to ‘prettify the place’, but that a house had to be maintained. I couldn’t believe he used that word, prettify. He left me feeling girly and frivolous.
It was on one of these proprietary weekend surveys that Michael crawled out the back window onto our rickety trellis and peered into the deep, narrow gap between our house and the retaining wall with a flashlight. “Kate!” he barked, in an officious, Daddy voice that apparently accompanied home ownership. “Take a look at this!”
Once I crawled out, too, nervous the trellis wouldn’t hold us both, I followed the beam of his flashlight into the gap, and startled backward. Something had moved. On further, nervous examination, the mass was black and white: racoons. A whole family was nesting between our house and the retaining wall. At which point even I experienced something of a change of heart. So they weren’t nocturnal ‘visitors’. They were tenants.
I tend to blame Michael, but to be fair this territory thing is primitive, and there’s a huge emotional difference between hosting guests and invaders. These animals weren’t quite living in the house itself, but close to it, and sizeable shitting, peeing, rutting mammals bearing whole litters on the other side of our living room wall made me, too, a little queasy. Be that as it may, Michael did not experience merely ‘something’ of a change of heart.
“They’re vermin,” Michael declared over his computer that night. “They bite. They get rabies. Their faeces can carry roundworm. They’re not cute, cuddly little woodland creatures, Kate. They’re diseased, they’re violent, they stink, they shit everywhere, and they’re vermin.”
They say that marriage is a covered dish, but the truth is that it’s as dark and unfathomable under the cover as from above. Oh, it was ‘amicable’ as they say, and when we sold the Little Dump we split our farcical amount of equity fifty-fifty. But if you asked Michael what went wrong, I bet he couldn’t tell you. As for me, I know this is only a story I tell myself. But I still believe it all came down to driving off the raccoons. We’d lost the wildness, you see. In fact, soon after we had the gap between our house and the retaining wall cemented over, it began to seem that we hadn’t so much driven the wildlife away as allowed the wildlife to escape. The wild life had up and left us.
So Much For That is out now (£7.99, Harper). The film of We Need To Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton will be released in October