It wasn’t the lack of sleep which disturbed Noel; insomnia had been a faithful companion since childhood, the incessant scratching however was driving him mad. For the last three nights at around four in the morning, Noel already awake and gazing into the darkness would hear noises. Scratch, scratch, scratch, claw against metal as whatever was contained within the wall made contact with the air brick by his bedroom ceiling.
Before his retirement Noel had been a builder: “The tidiest builder in the UK,” Maeve called him. “It will be the mice”, Noel thought, “next door’s building work will have disturbed them. They have moved on to a new desirable residence, at my expense.” Noel was immaculate in both his work and his appearance, he hated disruption. Maeve had always joked that she added chaos into his life, not that Noel minded. Maeve had made him feel human. They had met by chance in an Irish dance hall in West London in the early 1960s.
Noel had been persuaded to go the dance by the lads from the building site. Going out was a rarity for Noel, he didn’t have friends; just acquaintances, preferring to spend any spare time in the local library among the books; you knew where you were with a book. So there you have it, tee total non-smoking Noel was sitting in the dance hall in Kilburn sipping a cup of tea when Maeve swooped. Maeve would always say it was his scrubbed good looks which set her heart racing. Resistance was useless; the girl from West Cork had made her move. Before he knew it, Noel was married and living in a neat terraced house in Acton. The house sparkled both inside and out; Noel made sure of that. In later years Maeve claimed that she married a new man decades before the term had been invented.
Maeve put up with a lot. She humoured Noel’s insistence that he had to wash for an hour both morning and evening. Noel would scrub himself rigorously but he never felt clean. Maeve put up with the fact that he refused to set foot within a Catholic Church; they even got married in a registry office. Maeve put up with his night terrors and held him when the nightmares drove him to inconsolable tears. The main bone of contention was Noel’s refusal to visit home. Christmases, communions, birthdays, weddings and funerals, life’s big stuff came and went without Noel crossing the Irish Sea.
Noel tried once, but the nausea was so great it blasted him to smithereens as he boarded the Euston to Holyhead train on the way to the ferry from North Wales to Dublin. Noel was violently sick in the train corridor, retching and shaking as he folded himself into a foetal position on the floor. Maeve never asked him to come back to Ireland after that. Still he never told Maeve, when the scandals started to break in England, in Ireland, in the Philippines, in the US, in Australia. When the Catholic church covered up or denied its involvement, Noel would see Maeve looking expectantly at him, but he never told; he couldn’t, acknowledging what had happened would have killed him. This was his grubby secret and he was poisoned to the depths of his soul.
A child sent to St Dymphna’s Orphanage in Dublin was to be pitied; a child singled out for Fr Padraig’s attention was damned. Noel was six when he entered the orphanage and was Fr Padraig’s special friend for the next eight years. Noel wasn’t alone; his dormitory reverberated to the sobs of a multitude of broken little boys. Somehow Noel survived; by the age of fourteen he no longer held any attraction for Fr Padraig. Spat out by the orphanage, Noel found himself in England working on building sites across London. Ireland was behind Noel, but he was consigned to hell.
Marriage to Maeve had been Noel’s lifeline, but Maeve had gone. Since Maeve’s death a year ago Noel had been bereft. Maeve had brought love and life. With her passing Noel had descended into a silent sterile world. Now that world had been disrupted, the scratching meant an unclean uncontrollable entity had invaded the fabric of Noel’s house. By the fourth night, Noel could bear the noise no longer, something needed to be done.
In the morning Noel decided that the only plan of action was to open the air brick and to dispose of whatever was inside. The vent was opened in minutes and Noel could see the tyrant who had brought chaos into his life. The mouse was shaking, the noise and the sudden light had caused it to huddle protectively around five small pink objects. Noel was overwhelmed – this creature had sought sanctuary both for herself and her children in his home; it needed protection. Without quite realising what he was doing, Noel found himself cradling the mouse and carrying it towards his tool box, which when air holes were added became an impromptu mouse refuge.
The mice fascinated Noel, although tiny they had an instinctive sense for survival, Noel wanted the mice to thrive. Armed with advice and provisions from his local pet shop, Noel looked after his guests. Nurturing the mice gave Noel a purpose, a new sense of self- worth was starting to emerge; with the increasing confidence came insight and anger. Noel had been vulnerable once and there had been no one to look after him, he was starting to crave both justice and a growing need for his story to be heard.
Once the babies were strong enough to fend for themselves, Noel took the mice to the local park and watched as they disappeared into the sunshine. Later that day Noel had an appointment to keep and a story to tell. He had arranged a meeting with a journalist from the BBC. Noel was under no illusion the road ahead would be traumatic but life had to change, Noel could no longer bear the silence, the mice had introduced energy and a spark of warmth into his life, it was time for the healing process to begin.
The following day would also be a busy one. Noel was heading to an animal sanctuary in the hope of adopting another waif and stray, a battered warrior just like himself. A cat perhaps, Noel had always admired their grace and dignity. Maeve would have been made up; Noel was about to introduce some disorder and hope into his brave new world.