Constructed mainly from beach twigs, guano and grey weed, a clutch of eke nests clung in the eaves and the guttering and the once-upon-a-time Prussian Blue splintered window frame of the attic. The weed scratched at the glass when the sanded wind blew in off the bay which, between October and May, was always. The summertime slow dried the wet wood and its chapped shape purled and splintered and faded again into autumn, etc.
She discovered, after a week, that the wall separating the box kitchen from the bedroom bowed if she leaned against it. It was merely papered ply board nailed to the floorboards, nailed to the ceiling. Tin Ribs avoided doing that.
She set the bed, a handmade double, near the window so that when she woke in the night, to piss, to boil water, to smoke, she could draw the orange cheesecloth drape across the glass behind her head and (allowing that there was a moon out there) make her way through the dark room in its silver stream without having to feel her way along the wall.
She homed two brown rats. They haunched in the stained basin on top of a stack of pots and crockery, supping at the kitchen tap. She collected their pellets as they appeared to her and peppered them from the sash window down toward the street.
When Jack Loveless knocked on a Sunday evening to collect the rent, she would scoop the rodents and (marvelling their rapid hearts, their warm tiny frames) applying quick kisses to their busy and bristled heads, call out breezily, “One minute” – placing them in the old drum boiler cupboard, tendering the same words to them, but in a breath, close the door and, bare footing the boards, open the other. “Hello, Jack.”
He was from another age. His demeanour, ash. He was fading and within two years he would disappear completely, consumed beneath a phthisic cloak. He sensed this somehow and wondered if animals perceived it in him, too. They did. Cats slunk into shadow, hedgerow fell silent when he walked the lanes. Jackdaws in the oaks, cackled. Even Simon, the ever-smiling whippet, cowed, on occasion, beneath his petting.
He pocketed the money without seeming to count it (though, surely he must?). He asked after her. His eyes shuffled softly this way and that around the attic, soaking up the unusual and easy-going nature of the way that she had furnished the space. He stood at the palette bookshelf with his hands buried in his pockets, and bent a little toward their tiny spines. The book titles blurred. He offered brief paragraphs of his own from another time, attaching them with the most tenuous of hooks to the few weekly words that passed between the two of them. Tin Ribs listened. She tried to visualise, but the world he described seemed strange and unbelievable.
The rats sniffed behind the cupboard door, scratching communiqué unintelligible into its unpainted wood. They sensed disease beyond. They pissed dribbles beneath the warm tank.