Margaret Longstaff

A Noise in the Night

longstaffm01pic1.jpg Left to my own devices I would often take the notion to go to Grandmother’s house. It never occurred to me to tell anyone where I was going, since I was only going back home, to the home of my first four years. Moreover Grandmother always seemed to be expecting me for she never showed surprise at my sudden appearance. I was greeted not as a stranger but as someone who belonged. I could tell she was glad of my company for she would start singing as she went into the scullery to pour out a cup of milk, which I would gulp down in one breath. And only then would she telephone my mother.

‘The bairn’s here. You’ll hae tae come and fetch her.’

Grandmother’s way led from the top of our road across a field of ankle lacerating stubble, past brambles, brier roses and nettles, over a low iron fence at the foot of her garden, through a shrubbery, across a lawn, up steep wooden steps and into her house by an unlocked back door. All that summer of my fifth year I went back home, and when I wanted to go there at bed time nothing but a locked back door in my new house would prevent my departure. And there I would stand for ages before that locked door, the lock too high up and the key too stiff for me to turn, having got dressed again with my nightie tightly rolled up under my arm, waiting in vain for someone to come through that back door so that I could nip past them and run as fast as I could up the road, across the stubble field, past brambles, brier roses and nettles, over the fence, through the shrubbery, up the steep stairs, and in by the unlocked back door to sleep at Grandmother’s house.

Yet my mother must surely have taken pity on me for I remember often sleeping in my old home. She would take me there and leave me. But no longer having a bed of my own there I slept in Grandmother’s bed. And what a bed! It stood ever so high as on stilts above a linoleum clad floor and beneath a coombe ceiling. At an early age I learnt not to sit up too quickly upon awakening. The bed’s rails at both head and foot and the nobs at each corner were made of brass, which I mistook for gold. Olympian in size to me, it was only a small double.

I will try to describe how Grandmother’s bed was made, starting from the outside and going inwards, though it was from the inside upwards that I knew its covers more intimately, at least for part of the night. A thickly padded heavily stitched gold coloured quilt of single bed size crowned everything, under which a thin shiny gold coloured spread trailed to the floor either side like a royal robe. What with all the brass work, the gold quilt and the gold spread, the entire bed dazzled in the sunlight that poured through the west window of a summer’s evening just at my bedtime. Yet those two glorious covers hid a monstrous concoction of rags and remnants, the first and uppermost being an old red velvet curtain, laid sideways covering the whole width of the bed but stopping just over half way down. Underlapping that, a multicoloured crotched shawl was positioned just half way up so that it would reach the bottom. Under that, something damask, rose patterned and faded stretched the entire length and almost the breadth. Under that, a thick torn yellowing blanket with frayed edges covered Grandmother’s side. Underlapping that, a rough grey army blanket, bound with a pink ribbon covered my side. Then somewhere about the middle lay a small blue patched and darned blanket about a quarter the size of the bed. Finally beneath all those scraps of material were the sheets, flannelette in both summer and winter. In truth Grandmother’s bed was made up of bits and pieces, oddments, rejects, not one piece the same size as another and few large enough to cover the entire bed of their own accord. Grandmother alone knew how to make her bed like an overlapping patch work quilt. Deceitfully flat on top, the bed was truly concave at mattress level, its deep hollow, invisible from above, swallowing up all who slept there. That I was not crushed flat under the mighty weight of quilt and covers when I first got into bed I can only attribute to the softness of the mattress and the depth of its hollow.

It is eight o’clock and past my bedtime. Preparation for sleep began an hour ago when the first pig hot water bottle was put in bed. I am sat in front of the fire colouring in. I think I’m quite good at it for I don’t go over the lines now with my crayons, well not much. When I’ve finished filling it all in: the house, the fence, the gate, the rabbit, the pond, the bulrushes, the ducks, the frog, the fish, the swan (had to leave blank), the sheep (black), the cow, the crow, the hills (difficult), the trees, the acres of sky (very difficult), all of which has taken me ages and ages, I say to Jim,

‘Put it up on the mantelpiece.’

Jim lays down the book he is reading and props up my work of art behind two small Wemyss vases and beneath an enormous black and white drawing which hangs in a simple wooden frame. We both admire my picture for some considerable time, acknowledge all the work that’s gone into it, the thoughtful choice of colours and above all its neatness. Now it’s the turn of the one above.

‘That’s a Willie Gillies,’ nods Jim willing me to like it.

This vast expanse of black and white is a pen and ink drawing of back greens of old houses in Kirriemuir, I’m told. In one back green there’s washing hanging out on a line, another has a deck chair and a garden shed in it while another has a cabbage patch and an old wheel barrow lying around. I think the picture’s gloomy. It’s rather dirty for there are ink blots and smudges galore. I’m certain it isn’t even finished. I much prefer my own, but to show that Jim’s might still stand a chance, I inquire,

‘When are you going to colour it in Uncle Jim?’

Just then Grandmother calls from the scullery,

‘Marnie, come ben the hoose and I’ll gae your hauns and face a dicht.’

At the sink with the soaped and wetted end of the towel she wipes my hands and scrubs my face so thoroughly that I think I’m going to be smothered.

‘Haud still, you’re sic a jumpin jake.’

Then lifting up my long hair she scrubs the back of my neck. When she washes my legs I yell loudly as the soapy water stings my sore knee which is forming a beautiful scab, not quite ready for picking. Now I feel raw, shiny and wide awake.

To be allowed to sleep in Grandmother’s bed gives me a feeling of such importance that I’m glad to go to sleep. I say ‘Night night’ to Jim. He replies in a pseudo Cockney accent, ‘Apples and pears, get up ‘em stairs.’ While Grandmother puts the second hot water bottle in bed and removes the first, I undress hurriedly. It’s winter. The bedroom is freezing cold. I am given a nightie (a goonie, Grandmother calls it), which covers me twice over. I hitch it up as I hop to the bathroom and back keeping one foot tucked under me well away from the freezing linoleum.

‘Coorie doon,’ Grandmother says as she presses the covers in at my sides so I’m made snug. As she bends over me I finger the mole at the corner of her eye. Just checking. We don’t go in for all that kissing stuff (which we both hate). Gently she pushes a wisp of hair from out of my eyes and claps the top my head (which I like). After folding the clothes that I’ve left scattered on the floor neatly upon a chair, she quietly bids me on leaving, ‘Sleep soond.’

I try not to fall asleep immediately for I want to spend time alone in the hollow. First of all the water bottle is too hot, then suddenly it’s stone cold. I have fallen asleep in spite of myself and woken to the sound of Grandmother’s firm tread upon the stairs, the signal to shift over to the edge of the bed to make room for her. This is no easy or enjoyable task, for the sides of the hollow are steep and the edge of the mattress is cold. No sooner has Grandmother taken up her place in the hollow than the covers slide over each other and part company. The quilt is hers alone though there is enough shiny cover, red velvet and damask for both of us. I hold on tightly to the rough grey. Then Grandmother sighs loudly, turns over and takes with her the torn yellow as well as the darned blue. I fall asleep. Then I’m awake feeling dreadfully cold. Nearly all the covers are gone. Even the flannelette sheet is missing. The quilt is gone from both of us having done its usual slide on to the floor. The shiny silk and a little of the red velvet is all I have. I draw my feet up (now lumps of ice) tucking my knees under my chin while I tug at the edge of the rough grey and get a slither of it. But its roughness penetrates my nightie and makes me itch all over. There is nothing for it but to roll into the hollow to join my sleeping partner and relish the warmth of her body and blankets. There I am stuck fast, warm again and I immediately fall asleep.

But it seems in no time at all that I find myself awake again. Coldness hasn’t woken me. I am perfectly warm. My feet are like hot pies. Soon I become aware of a noise which at first I think is coming from outside. A noise like workmen drilling, perhaps? Is it morning already? Upon opening my eyes, which are still foggy with sleep, I can just make out the shape of the dressing table, then the chest of drawers, and now the end of the bed is coming into view and Grandmother’s face is partly visible. But the light I see by is moonlight streaming through the curtains, which are parted in the middle, and through the thin curtains themselves. It is still the middle of the night. Just when I think the noise has stopped, it starts up again. I now believe that it is not coming from outside in the street but from inside this house. My uncle must hear it too and I wonder what he is making of it. In fact I think it is coming from upstairs, from not so very far away, in this very room even, and what’s more from somewhere in this bed. It grows ever louder. It is terrible. Then the ridiculous thought comes into my head that it might be coming from Grandmother, coming out of her mouth which is gapping open and fluttering as she lies on her back, for it seems to co-inside with the rhythm of her breathing. This discovery profoundly disturbs me, for this is not my Grandmother, who sings tunefully and never raises her voice. I think there must be something dreadfully wrong with her. I wonder what can be the matter. I lie there helpless and deeply troubled. There are two sorts of noise, one a kind of snarl as she breathes in and another deeper trumpeting as she breathes out. Both sounds are awful. Grandmother herself seems unaware of the noise she is making. She is fast asleep. I nudge her with my elbow, but gently for I am afraid she might make an even louder noise if I wake her. In desperation I turn over and press the red velvet against my ear in the hope of shutting out all sound. But the effort of holding it there keeps me awake. As soon as I relax hold of my ear plug the noise comes back with vengeance. It is impossible to sleep. I am compelled to listen in. The noise begins as a snarl which stutters to a thundering snorting crescendo, pauses momentarily as if to gain momentum and resumes with a resounding long drawn out reverberating rattle which gradually diminishes to a spluttering halt. I think my Grandmother has turned into a wild animal. It goes on and on and on. Then suddenly Grandmother gives a jerk, snorts louder than ever, turns over and for no reason at all the noise stops. Before knowing it I am fast asleep till morning which arrives immediately.

The next time I am permitted to sleep at Grandmother’s house I am so excited I can’t wait to go to bed. What a short memory I have. I have forgotten all about the blankets and the noise. Every time I sleep there the same things happen and every next day I forget about these nocturnal events. But there is a difference now. I am no longer afraid of the terrible noise in the night. As soon as I hear it, I poke Grandmother in the ribs with my sharp elbow and shout as loud as I dare, ‘You’re making that noise again Grandma.’ She turns over and clinging together we sleep soond.

© Margaret Longstaff 2006