Advice on content: Please note this piece makes reference to death and decay which some readers may find upsetting.

I lie still in the single bed, swallowed by night. The darkness is so dense that I have to blink, then blink again, just to confirm whether my eyes are open or closed. Without sight to rely on, I suppress my breath and listen to the house. Identify its movements. A boiler in the cupboard, whirring and gurgling. A scurry of clawed feet, oscillating between touching distance and someplace far away. The wooden joists, beams, floorboards – creaking at first and then screaming through the quiet, like a sharp-toothed fox releasing a violent vibration into the black. These sounds are so foreign to the life I left behind in the city, yet seem so familiar that they could be coming from inside my own body.

The light pushes its way between the peeling shutters as I wake early for my first day as a carer. I have barely slept, but I pull back the sheets and dress quickly. I want to make my new life work; I need to make a good first impression. Outside, the village is waking up too. The rural terrace is positioned along a crescent-shaped row, looking down towards a memorial garden seized by the arrival of spring. It is only 8am, but there are already people sitting on the benches between rows of crocuses, primroses and marigolds. I unclasp the lock and push open the window to let some air in, but the cold gust that enters only highlights how bad the house smells. It’s as if something is rotting, in the walls or under the floor. I close the window and breathe it in, sort through the components I recognise: sour milk left out on the side, spoiled fruit leaking through puckered skin, scorched then solidified animal fat.

I close the window and breathe it in, sort through the components I recognise: sour milk left out on the side, spoiled fruit leaking through puckered skin, scorched then solidified animal fat.

When I turned up at the house last night, suitcase and a gift bag in hand, Laurence didn’t say anything at all. He wasn’t pleased with my arrival, as far as I could tell. I introduced myself awkwardly, fiddling with the ribbons on the bag and smiling too much. Even when I crouched opposite his wheelchair and held out the sugar-dusted chocolates I’d bought for him from the train station in Manchester, he ignored me and looked the other way.

Before he wakes, I get to work on the house. Every surface is littered with old takeaway boxes, still full of mouldy morsels and metal cutlery poking out of the sides. I survey each room, pull open a black bin bag and begin sweeping through them in phases. Like how I’d usually tackle a project. Once the sides are clear and the floor has been vacuumed, I get down on my hands and knees to scrub at the carpet, mottled by dark patches that release a foul odour when disturbed. In my head, I am mapping out the tasks for my team of one, each mess a time-boxed sprint with an expected date of delivery. My chest tightens at the thought of the job I abandoned. No letter of resignation, no warning. Just a key card scanned and one less glass-eyed project manager in the building. With my fingernails buried deep in the fibres of the carpet, I imagine the office going on without me: a knife-shaped tower descending into panic, chaos and misery. I wonder if they’ve even noticed I’m gone.

One afternoon, I take Laurence for a walk down the river that snakes through the centre of the village. I pour out two cups of tea from a flask but he doesn’t want his, so I balance it on the arm of his chair. It might warm you up, I say – but he stays quiet and averts his eyes. To fill the silence, I tell him that he is about the same age as my Dad who I haven’t spoken to for years. No-one in the family speaks to him, in fact. He wrote recently, to say he’s not well. Probably won’t be around much longer. “What does it mean to be a good father, do you think? Do you have any kids of your own?” Laurence says nothing, just releases a small bubble of spit from the corner of his mouth. I wipe at it, the colour strange and murky against the white tissue.

black and white, blurry photo of Maxine Peake looking up at the sky with her hands in the air

On our way back through the village, I realise we are being watched. A woman steers past us with a squealing baby, riding up onto the lawn to avoid our path while staring back. Then, despite being dragged towards us by a pair of muscular dogs, jowls rippling like strips of pink beef, an old man struggles away in the opposite direction. I wonder if Laurence is a bad apple, a village pariah. Or maybe it is me, my tailored coat and patent loafers badging me an obvious outsider.

That night, I dream that I am back at work. Flicking frantically from tab to tab, my suited boss leaning over me, salivating. I can hear a man calling my name desperately from the end of a corridor, but I cannot see who it is.

I wake up, sweat pooling on the mattress. I reach under the pillow for my phone, switched off since I’ve been here. It isn’t there. I feel around some more, rummage through my suitcase. Could Laurence have taken it? Did I leave it somewhere else? I go to his makeshift downstairs bedroom, careful not to trip in the dark. I touch him gently. His sheets are soaked through, the sour reek catching sharp in the back of my throat as I crouch beside him. I’m not sure why I am crying, but I am. Though his expression is empty, eyes dark and sunken around the edges, I feel a warmth growing in him. A glimmer of familiarity. I sit on the floor and rest my head on the bed, holding his hand in mine until morning.

Black and white photo of a hand cupping a tree trunk

When the sun finally rises over the village, it feels like we have made progress. I lift Laurence into his chair and prop him up with a cushion so that he is comfortable. He seems grateful, especially when I wheel him over to the dining table and reveal the breakfast I have prepared. Crispy rashers of bacon, a bowl of shiny scrambled eggs. Thick slices of bread slathered with butter. I put on the radio and there’s an old song playing, one of those tunes that sounds as if it’s crackling straight out of a gramophone. Just as I’m spooning the eggs onto his plate, humming along, there’s a knock at the door.

There is a pair of policemen standing on the other side, dressed in matching lurid neon and towering hats.“How can I help?” I ask after opening the door, puzzled by their expressions. One of them coughs a little, while the other shuffles his arm up into his sleeve and uses it to cover his face. They tell me they’re sorry to bother me, but there’s been a complaint.

“There’s a bad smell you see, coming from the house. The neighbours mentioned you’d arrived recently, to look after your father? Is that correct?” I confess, I’m a little confused. I tell them I do remember a smell, yes, but they’re mistaken about my Dad. I used to work in the city, but I’m here to start my new life as a carer now instead. “You’re welcome to come in if you’d like. We’re just having breakfast.”

Smiling, I stand to the side and hold open the door, welcoming them in. Their eyes widen. I look at them, then back into the house. The dining room is flooded by sun, fractured by the kitchen blinds. One beam forms a spotlight on the deflated body in the wheelchair, limp limbs the colour of lavender, a puddle gleaming on the floor beneath him.

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