Open Windows

‘Ugh.’ I barely notice the complaint leaving my mouth, possibly because complaining is becoming like breathing at the moment. A wasp is buzzing on the wrong side of the window, and I barely have it in me to care anymore. I shift in my seat, wincing at the harsh lines of the chair tattooing itself onto my skin. A thin layer of sweat seems to cover me completely, and I pause in my gloom to consider the fact that I’m possibly the most disgusting human being in the world at this current moment. I look out the window to return the harsh glare the sun is sending my way, and mutter to myself again, attempting to conjure up the strength to deal with the wasp before it comes any closer to my done-with-summer self.

The wasp itself seems tired, the journey through the open window an exhausting adventure it regrets now as it bashes itself against the glass. I should deal with it before it stings me, I think, but considering this is the third time it’s happened today, it’s hard to find the motivation. Maybe I should just close the window?

I turn back to my book, remembering the darkness of winter. I remember candles, woolly jumpers…happier times, one could say.

IMG_3261The ever present mocking voice in my head chooses now to remind me that, actually, winter wasn’t all that great either – in fact, for most of it I was desperate for Summer to reappear.

Typically, now that it’s here, I’d rather it was anywhere else. I try and cast my mind back to winter, to re-embrace the rose tint that blurred my outlook.

Summer days start early, even though university is finished and I can sleep all I want. Habit tends to take over, and I wake up early (though I don’t get up early). My window is constantly open, and the summer air creeps in and wakes me with a maternal call. It’s the smell of freshly mown grass and summer mixed into a cocktail of warmth. It wakes me in a slow, contented start to the day – until the screech from somewhere far too near indicates that the baby birds who appear to be sharing a bed with me have decided they’re hungry.

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Points if you can see the baby starling that’s been my alarm clock recently

But I can still wake up slowly. All I really need to do today are the projects I’ve decided I want to work on. I’ll write, I’ll maybe go for a run, I’ll read some trashy books, some quality books, I’ll try and sort out my basic grammar knowledge (which is abysmal), I’ll message friends I’ve lost contact with during term time. I’ll organise, I’ll tidy, I’ll do all the things I can’t do when I’m drowning in uni.

But I don’t even need to think about uni. All I need to think about is what I’m doing now, in a way which is refreshing to an alarming degree – the previously constant worry about exams and assignments and lectures is a not unwelcome, but bewildering absence in my mind and my projects seem to be a way to keep it stimulated so that it has something to worry about.

If I get up early enough the sunshine has a slightly different glow to it, and the air has a different feel to it, like the day is just starting up, ready and waiting. There’s something about it that’s so refreshing: the commuters in the train seem a little less muted, the scenery around me doesn’t need a filter to be instagram worthy, the birds seem louder, happier. Even rain in the summer is beautiful – it sounds like it’s pattering down on a tent, reminding me of camp, of adventure, of other places.

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#nofilter

As I rise to greet the day, I realise I can wear what I want without really having to worry. Suddenly my hair is in fashion again – that messy beach look that I rock all year round is cool, my freckles are back, and I’m a little less pale than I normally am.

IMG_3325I turn to open the window wider. Open windows are surely the most wonderful part of summer. Driving with the windows down, letting the world breathe through into the house throughout the night, a cool breeze welcomed in when the heat is unbearable.

IMG_3079.JPGSummer in itself is a bit of an open window, I realise. Any other time of the year, the window remains closed and I’m left with one objective: to work on my degree, to pass, to succeed. During summer that’s not the case. I can drop everything and go to the beach. I can go away for a couple of weeks to do camps without worrying about missing things. I can visit friends who live far away. I can spend days writing. I can spend days reading. All these things are available to me in a way that they never are during term time…all because the window is suddenly open and I’m not confined to this one thing I have to do.

Summer is freedom and beauty. Summer is being away from the norm…but I get bored easily. There comes a day when summer becomes normal, when it becomes boring. When that comes, I’ll be wishing for the confines and boundaries of winter again. For schedule, for deadlines, for a closed window because there’s just too much air. I need focus, I need limits. IMG_3379

Nothing can stay perfect and free forever. But for a few months, before the wasps and spiders and moths decide to invade, an open window is exactly what I need.

 

 

An Early Morning Ramble

I slam the door and then regret it, knowing I’ve not just broken but shattered the quiet that was both inside and out the house. It’s still dark out here, but I can see a faint gradient on the skyline, an ombre of different shades of dark navy. Through it I’m able to see the beginnings of something, of the sun rising on a new week.

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I’m holding toast in my hands, the 6:30am leaving time being too much for my body to handle – something had to be sacrificed, and breakfast was that something. The need for food overpowers the cold and my hands are left bare to the elements as I eat as quickly as I can. Cold captures them with alarming speed. I swap my toast between hands, giving each hand precious seconds in my warm-ish pockets. My mind flits to the book I’ve just finished: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, and I wonder if I can get frostbite on a morning as cold as this. I have to remind myself that I’m in Clarkston, not on the risky heights of Mount Everest.

In the weeks previously I’ve walked this path before the sun nears the world, silence and darkness making it so solitary that reaching the train station is like being reintroduced into society after months of retreat. I remember this feeling now, aware of the lack of humans around me. No cars pant past, no mothers or prams or dogs or teenagers run around me. I’m completely and utterly alone.

Unless you count the birds, which I do. Because welcoming in the day around me is birdsong. They call to each other and to me, singing and chirping and rejoicing. Unseen but not unheard. It’s all I can hear and as I finish my toast and lock my freezing hands in my jacket I feel glad that I’m here to witness this moment.

As I pass houses, lights switch on and off within them, but the people remain inside. The streetlights block out natural light and darkness alike and I wonder to myself what the world would look like without them. I want to switch them off but the birds remind me that focusing on that is wasting my time. The cold caresses my cheeks to pink and bites my hands to red. I put my hood up, appreciating the warmth that the fur lining provides.

When I reach the main road, I see my first cars of the day. They hum by me, the passing roar dimming the noise of the bird song. I hasten across the road and away from it, not wanting to lose the precious stories they have to tell. With them again, I wonder what they would be singing if I weren’t here. Have I somehow disturbed the natural sound of the birds with my lame attempt at getting up early? Or am I privy to a beautiful insight into their natural world that most people pass by in an attempt to doze in a cocoon of warmth?

I feel like I am in a IMG_1914special moment. I want to believe these birds trust me with this insight into their world. I have interrupted their routine, but they seem to have gladly welcomed me in as a passerby, an observer. As I walk closer to the station other birds join in, the magpies, the pigeons, all of them singing in a cacophony of noise that is so natural I wonder why I have never really heard it.

As I get closer to the train station, other noises creep in. The sound of the motorway sighing in my direction, a long breath of sadness at the start of a new week…‘the next train at platform 2 is the 7:08 train to Glasgow Central’…the builders at the new health centre hollering at each other to get started. The floodlights from the train station illuminate everything, except the birds, and I realise I can’t hear them anymore. I wonder absently if I can’t hear them because they aren’t there, or if I can’t hear them because the rest of the world is too loud now?

A week later, they’re still here.  In fact, every Monday morning I note their presence as the sun climbs closer to the horizon. It leaves me wondering what other beautiful, natural things I’m missing as the noise and busy world block them out. What’s being hidden from me? Is there something in the quietness of the world that reminds us that no we don’t need to be running around all the time? Maybe moments of quiet are important, essential even, to surviving on this world – whether that’s in the form of a 6:30am walk or in a book in the corner of the library. Or maybe I’m talking rubbish, most likely due to the fact I was out of my house at such a ridiculous hour in the morning.

The thing about the quiet though is that we can’t normally hear it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there to find.

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Mice

2006: The mega-bus sits in front of us, waiting. I shoulder my bag, my brother, Alistair, at my side. Hours of Alistair’s car sickness, my boredom, and our freedom await us. The road ahead is long, the longest we’ve travelled without our parents. We’re going to visit our sister, Fiona, who lives in a little cottage in Nethy Bridge. With a population of just over 500, it isn’t the biggest of places. It’s a snow-centred, ski-loving, cold, wet village. Fiona works as the head cook at an outdoor centre in the area, and the cottage is part of her salary. Typical of houses that are part of a salary, it’s not in the best condition. It is deceptively small, with high ceilings that hide the lack of room, mouldy areas, draughts that give you frostbite and spiders galore, but Alistair and I are excited to visit because we’re going on our own. There are two things I will learn from this trip: firstly, peppermint creams are difficult to make; and secondly, mice are not allowed indoors.

As I enter the little cottage after our tortuous journey, the smell of peppermint is a wave of powerful scent that renders me unable to smell much else for days. It’s the pleasant, yet strong, result of a peppermint cream recipe gone wrong. It’s the type of smell that’s so evocative of a certain place or time that when smelt in the future I imagine I’ll immediately be lost in a daze of memories. It surrounds the holiday in a Christmas-like feeling of warmth and good will.

Mice are also a feature in this holiday. Like a sort of comical pantomime villain, they lurk in the shadows and only come out when our backs are turned. The only experience I have of them before now is seeing them in a cage at the pet shop, or hiding behind the unused sun bed in the garden. I know very little about them, other than that they are very small, very cute and that I’m not allowed one for a pet. Biologically, mice are an important part of the food chain in that they hunt and are hunted. While pet mice eat mainly seed (and cheese), in the wild they eat insects like worms and snails. They are eaten by snakes, owls, birds of prey. But somewhere in that process of surviving side by side, their lives and ours cross over.

I’m lying on my front on the couch with my legs bent in the air, playing with the frays on the mud-brown carpet below. The cold sinks into the cushions. It’s a constant presence, the chill: the house has a distinctive coldness about it in the way some houses have a distinctive smell. As my siblings attempt a half-hearted game of cards, my eyes focus on the little black dots on the carpet. ‘Fiona,’ I ask with a childhood curiosity that would be considered rude in any self-respecting adult, ‘What are those?’

She explains that they are mouse droppings, and that a result of living in the countryside is that mice are bound to pop up in every household in Nethy Bridge once or twice. The village’s history is centred in the forestry industry.  That is, it was, until other areas brought in more advanced technology and could provide more and better wood. As a result tourism became a more popular aspect of the area: with bridges built in Victorian times of progress, a proximity to the Cairngorms, and the historic steam railway, it became more like a tourist trap during the summer. Forestry remains as a tourist attraction, but of course, with forestry comes lots and lots of trees. And with lots of trees come lots and lots of mice.

I freeze at the realisation of this plague on the house. Fiona smiles as if the matter is of no consequence, and so I pretend I’m perfectly comfortable in the cottage, even though the couch seems lumpy and uncomfortable now. There are mice in the house and although they’ve been in the house for the entirety of the holiday I know they’re here now and that changes everything.

At night, I lie in my bed, unable to sleep. Alistair is on the couch and I’ve been given a blow-up bed, in contact with the floor’s hardness due to the bed’s inability to hold in any air, but also in direct contact with any wandering mice. My eyes are tightly closed against the darkness characteristic of the countryside. With no light pollution, the darkness is so swallowing that I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. I also wouldn’t be able to see a mouse if it sat in front of me. I picture them scurrying around me, crawling over me, nibbling at my fingers and toes. I hear scuffles and snuffles and squeaks. Terrified of the now malicious animal, sleep evades me as I lie with a posture so tense I know I’ll ache the next day. And then – SNAP.

I jump, the blow up mattress wobbles, and all is quiet in the oppressive darkness of the cottage. More terrified than ever, I lie still as if to compensate for the sudden movement of before. I listen for the sound of the mice that I can sense surrounding me.

 

‘When the little mouse, which was loved as none other was in the mouse-world, got into a trap one night and with a shrill scream forfeited its life for the sight of the bacon, all the mice in the district, in their holes were overcome by trembling and shaking; with eyes blinking uncontrollably they gazed at each other one by one, while their tails scraped the ground busily and senselessly.’ – Franz Kafka.

 

The fear I felt in the darkness of the night is inexplicable to me in the light of the day. I like mice, I’ve seen them in the pet shop and thought them exceedingly cute. But that was on my terms, while here is an unknown, unseen beast. It is uninvited, unwelcome, and yet it has come in anyway.

The next day, Fiona sends for help in the form of my future brother-in-law to empty the mouse trap.

‘Don’t look, Catherine,’ Fiona tells me, as she too hides from the coffin constructed of a plastic bag. She has killed this unwelcome visitor, this thief in the night.  It has eaten her cereal, gnawed at her cupboard, left droppings on her carpet. So why does she feel so sad? Why do I feel so sad?

 

2009: I’m lying in bed when I hear the scratching. Like the monster under the bed, mice always come out at night. Spooked, I sit up and flick the switch of my lamp. I stand and prod at the roof, determined to give whatever is hiding in the attic above a fright. But it doesn’t stop, if anything it gets louder. I cower back into my duvet, terrified of this creature of the night. In the darkness, it grows and grows to the size of a dragon, merely here to tear the structure of our home down from the inside out.

I tell my parents. It is to be expected, they say, because of the field near our house. The field my siblings and I used to go to sledge, the field I now jog past on my morning run. The field belongs to Flenders farm, a farm housing all kinds of sheep, horses and cows. It’s big, the farmer’s nice, but it appears to have been the cause of our current troubles. The traps are put out, the mice are eradicated and we are safe for a while.

 

2015: I go to the kitchen for a drink. It’s late, and mum’s just picked me up from the station after a late library session. She’s tired, irritable and ready for bed. So am I. I wander into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of milk. Going through the motions, but comfortable in my own home. Safe. Until, in the shadows, a shape darts across the room. I scream.

Mum comes running. I turn red.

‘Mouse!’ I say, my voice resembling the mouse’s own with its high pitched squeaks.

‘You’re joking,’ she says. I shake my head. She sighs. ‘I’ll tell your father.’

 

2005: ‘It’s so cute!’ I screech, pointing (and subsequently terrifying) the little furry creature hiding under the sun bed in the garden. ‘Oh, look at it!’

Mum nods, her nose turned up. She softens at my gaze. ‘I suppose it is quite cute.’ She says, then glances behind her at the open back door. ‘As long as it doesn’t get inside.’

 

2006: The dead mouse isn’t cute. I get a glance of it, despite Fiona telling me not to. Its eyes are wide, blank, staring. Its mouth is gaping, revealing long fangs, un-blunted from the hard work it has done on Fiona’s table leg. It stares and stares and stares and I want to cry.

 

‘”The mice think they are right, but my cat eats them anyways.”

“This is the point, reality is nothing, perception is everything.”’ –Terry Goodkind

 

‘Why did you have to kill it?’ I ask my sister.

She is silent for a minute. ‘It doesn’t belong in the house, does it?’ she says, ‘It eats all our food, it bites my carpet and table legs.’

‘Why couldn’t you just catch it and release it somewhere else?’ I say.

‘Well, it would just come back, wouldn’t it?’ she says.

As I look at the dead creature, I wonder how true that is. Either way, it doesn’t look so scary like this, despite the wide staring eyes and the sharp fangs. It just looks small.

 

2015: I watch my dad fish out forgotten mouse traps from the attic. We’re redoing it as an unofficial guest bedroom so that when the family come to stay they won’t have to sleep on the floor. He picks up the mouse traps and sets them in various places around the house. I want to protest, but I don’t.

‘Why do we kill the mice?’ I ask him, with the curiosity of a ten year old coming from my twenty year old mouth.

He shrugs, spreading peanut butter on the traps. ‘They eat our food, do structural damage. Why do you kill spiders?’

Spiders, I tell him, are a whole different story. But at his unconvinced gaze I back down, because they’re not so different. I hate spiders because I hate them. We hate mice because we hate them. Looking back to my first mouse encounter, I remember the smell of peppermint permeating every inch of the holiday. I remember that warm feeling of protection while we sheltered from the cold outside. The house was warm, and so were we…But the house was cold. In fact, in the height of winter, the house was freezing. While I did feel safe, maybe this was a manufactured feeling. When mice enter our houses, why do we always kill them? Is it because, like my sister and dad both argued, they enter our house maliciously, eating our food and harming our furniture? Is it because we perceive them to be more like monsters than they actually are? Or is it just because they are out of our control, and as a result, we feel unsafe?

For some reason, humans feel more comfortable when mice are not in the house. Under our control, they’re fine, but out with it they must be killed. My dad’s currently setting traps for the winter when they’ll undoubtedly seek shelter from the cold. Their home has been attacked by cold and wind and snow and ours is safe and warm… But they don’t belong here. Humans, like me when I was ten years old, lying on a blow up bed terrified to sleep, need a sense of safety and ownership in our homes. And so, as a result, we take control, and mice are not under that control. So we kill them all until we feel safe again.

***

2015: We’re watching the news. Scenes of refugees desperate to enter our country cover the screen. We watch with straight faces, desensitised to these images.

‘Do you think we should allow refugees into the country?’ the journalist asks a passerby on the streets of Glasgow.

‘Definitely not,’ he says, ‘I just wouldn’t feel safe with them here.’