The People Downstairs

We have lived in harmony with the people downstairs for some time now. Our living quarters are above their kitchen. Most nights, we can smell what they’re cooking for dinner. My favourite is Spaghetti Bolognese. Its oniony, garlicky aromas fill our small room completely. Dear One prefers the roasts. They remind her of times when there was always plenty of food on our table.

Sometimes, after they’re all in bed, we sneak downstairs and check for leftovers. It may sound cheeky to you, but it feels right to us.

One night, when Dear One was out with the littluns, the man of the house came upstairs to see me. He didn’t knock or announce himself, just slid his hand through the window and deposited a brown cardboard box.

Once I was sure he’d gone, I went over to investigate. The box was filled with small pieces of food, each one green and tube shaped. I’d never seen this sort of thing in their pantry, but assumed it was some kind of delicacy they were offering as a sign of peace.

How strange, I thought. This family had never before shown any concern for us. Why were they now willing to share their considerable bounty? I didn’t think on it too long, though, choosing to accept the gift and be grateful. I hauled the box over to the dining area and waited for Dear One to return.

When she came, she was tired and hungry, as usual. Ged and Tai were too weary to be fed, so she put them straight to bed. When she finally saw what was in the box, she started eating with gusto. No call for silly manners with my Tootsie.

I was about to join her when I noticed something was wrong. Dear One clutched her throat and reached for water. She drank and drank but could not fix herself. Her body stiffened and she fell to the floor. Her eyes took on a strange glassy look. Her legs twitched and kicked. A few minutes passed and I knew I had lost her.

The commotion woke the children. Ged and Tai threw themselves on top of their dormant mother and started sobbing. I was in shock. What had happened? Had Dear One died because of the neighbours’ food? It seemed unlikely. No food had ever disagreed with her before.

I went downstairs to talk to the man. He and his family were nowhere to be seen. When I returned, the boys had covered their mother with the hessian rug that normally adorns their bed. Dear One’s eyes were closed and she looked peaceful.

Days passed and she started to smell bad. I tried not to notice, because I wanted so much to be near her. Ged slept beside her each night, while Tai lay near me, preferring the good-smelling company of the living.

I started to wonder how much longer we could live like this. I should get rid of Dear One’s body. But even then, she would still be here with us. The boys and I needed to find somewhere else to live.

Where could we go? Perhaps downstairs? No, the people down there, they’d never agree. Besides, we mice don’t like to live at ground level.

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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