A DRIED RAT by Flo Ashbee (1st place, Oct21)

They found a dried rat while clearing out their parents’ house. It was under the sink in the utility room.

“Do you think it died of old age?” the younger one wondered aloud.

“Thank God that tap hasn’t been used in a while or it might have been damp and gone mouldy,” said the older one. The middle one said nothing. It felt very different to the adventures they all misremembered from childhood.

The rat was flat and a bit crispy. One of its once beady eyes was crusted into paper with a kind of grey film over it. The other one had sunk into the rat’s skull and disappeared. It had a peculiar lack of odour. This may have been because the utility room itself had a smell. Mostly dust and small animal faeces, but there was also still an unmistakable whiff of fresh laundry powder.

The middle one shuddered and looked away. In the end it was the younger one who donned a single rubber glove and carefully picked up the rat, which weighed no more than a tissue. He wrapped it in an old bag-for-life to take to the outdoor bin.

Over the course of that day each one found particular things that made the impact of their task felt.

For the older one it was the big things, the bulky items of furniture that decisions needed to be made about. The first that they came across was a wardrobe none of them wanted for their own homes. Then there was an orthopaedic chair in the middle of the sitting room that didn’t have the value to be resold or donated, but which still held the shape of their late father in its cushions. Did it have to go? About midway through the afternoon the older one came across a knob of wood the size of a large acorn sat in a bowl on the Welsh dresser. He had been making his way across towards it and had already chucked a few weird odds and ends: some tiny springs, a shopping list, a novelty giant paper clip that had come from a Christmas cracker. Now he paused and picked up the acorn. Why had they kept this? Was it important? Should he know why? I wish you were here to tell me what to do. I don’t know if I can do this.

For the middle one it was a photograph of her wedding day, in a silver frame, on the piano next to those of her siblings and nephew. Her in pale lilac, her wife in blue, emerging from the arched doorway of the chapel. It had been the happiest day of her life. Her mother had nearly not come. The middle one had never been definitively rejected for who she was. Nevertheless, she had felt the space grow between them. The way they never mentioned certain things grew to feel like superstition. The pressure weighed them both down. The middle one was the child who visited home the least often. There had been no definite breaking or ending, but a part of her had been occupying a different space to her family for a long time. Now, seeing her photo with the others, the middle one felt invisible arms around her. Mum.

The younger one found it was the everyday things that were affecting him the most. He stopped in the kitchen to wash his hands on the way in from disposing of the rat.

“There’s more in the cupboard underneath if that one runs out,” the older one said, passing by. He was referring to the bottle of soap on the side of the sink. It was half-empty. The younger one had a look in the cupboard. There was a multipack of six with the first one removed. So, his father thought he had at least six bottles of soap left to live, but in the end, it was only a half. It would be up to them to use the rest. It felt strange.

It felt strange again to clear out the expired packets of rice and dried fruit in the kitchen cupboards, and to find the craft projects in progress on the sideboard in the living room. To have to take keyrings off the keys.

The younger one broke down finding muddy boots at the backdoor. They were sat waiting to be worn again. They were ready to go outside. At 85 and 92, his parents weren’t gone before their time, but these boots would be. There were so many signs of continued use. I’m sorry, the younger one said to the boots.

At the end of the day, they sat down together at the dining table. It was the only thing left. The middle one smoked a cigarette indoors without a challenge. The younger one stared into space. The older one turned a napkin ring round and round in his hands and looked exactly like their Dad.

“It was nice seeing your kids at the funeral Leanne,” the older one said, eventually. The middle one nodded. It was a concession. They looked at each other properly for the first time in years.

“We should make an effort to get together more often,” said the younger one. The other two nodded, and meant it, and knew that it probably wouldn’t happen.

In the evening each one went home and hugged their wives and whichever of their children weren’t out or already off to bed. That night, each one looked around at the clutter of their own homes and realised something that had been building for a while: We are now the oldest generation.

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