The Paying Guests

Free The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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Authors: Sarah Waters
traps!’ said her mother, still upset.
    ‘Yes, he was unlucky.’
    ‘What will you do with him?’
    She rolled up a sleeve, drew the trap from the bucket and shook off the drips. ‘I’ll take him outside, down to the ash-heap. You go on to bed.’
    The water had made greasy-looking spikes of the mouse’s fur, but in death the creature appeared oddly human, with pained, closed eyes and a slack lower jaw. She carefully released the little body, catching hold of it by its gristly tail. On a rack beside the back door were various old coats and shoes. She thought she would do without a coat, but the grass might be damp; she stepped into a pair of galoshes that had once belonged to her brother Noel, and let herself out into the yard. With the mouse dangling from her fingers she clumped across to the lawn, then began to pick her way along the flagstone path that led down the garden.
    Lights showed at one or two of her neighbours’ windows, but the garden had high walls, a towering linden tree, shaggy laurels and hydrangeas, and was almost completely dark. She went by sense rather than by sight, having made the journey so many times before. Arriving at the low wooden fence that formed a screen around the ash-heap, she tossed the tiny corpse over. There was a percussive little rustle as it landed.
    And after that there was a silence, one of those deep, deep hushes that sometimes fell or gathered up here on Champion Hill, even by daylight. They gave the place a lonely air, made it impossible to believe that just a stone’s throw in any direction were houses with families and servants in them, that beyond the far garden wall was a cinder lane that led in a trice to a road, an ordinary road with rattling trams and buses on it. Frances thought of her walk through Westminster earlier that day; but she couldn’t recapture it now. All that sort of thing had fallen away. Bricks, pavements, people: all melted away. There were only the trees, the plants, the invisible flowers, a sense of stealthy vegetable activity just below the surface of sound.
    It was rather creepy, suddenly. She drew closed the lapels of her dressing-gown and turned to head back to the house.
    But as she did it, something caught her eye: a point of light bobbing about on the darkness. A second later, smelling tobacco, she realised that the light was the burning tip of a cigarette. Her eyes changed their focus, and she made out a figure.
    Someone was there, in the garden with her.
    She let out a yelp of fear and surprise. But it was Mr Barber, that was all. He came forward, laughing, apologising for having given her a fright. The night was such a nice one, he said, that he’d stayed out to make the most of it. He hadn’t liked to speak, before; it had seemed a pity to disturb her. He hoped she didn’t mind, that he’d wandered down the garden?
    For a moment she wanted to hit him. The blood was roaring through her ears; she felt herself quivering like a bell. She’d supposed that he’d gone up to bed ages ago. He must have been out here for – well, close on half an hour. She didn’t like to think that he had been near by while she’d been standing at the ash-heap so unguardedly. She wished she hadn’t let out that yelp. She was glad, at any rate, that he couldn’t see her in Noel’s galoshes.
    And, after all, he had only done what she herself had done, been tempted to linger out here by the balminess of the night. Her quivering began to subside. She explained stiffly about the mouse, and he chuckled. ‘Poor blighter! He just wanted his bit of cheese, didn’t he?’ He lifted his cigarette to his mouth, so that the blazing point of it reappeared, briefly illuminating his slender hand, his moustache, his foxy jaw.
    But when the cigarette had faded he spoke again, and she could tell by the sound of his voice that he had tilted back his head.
    ‘A grand night for star-gazing tonight, Miss Wray! I used to know all about the stars when I was a boy; it was a

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