Amy had piled the locusts into a tower almost as high as a man beside the front door. To an incurious eye, the huge white tubs might have contained emulsion paint though, when handled, they felt as weightless as if they were filled with loose straw. The delivery driver had carried the tubs up to the apartment three at a time. He had glanced at Amy guardedly and then fled upon obtaining the last dot of her signature. Locusts were normally ordered in this quantity for zoos, so there was something peculiar going on, and he looked as if he was impatient to keep his mind primly unpolluted by it.
Amy had ordered a tub for each room. Once the delivery driver was gone, she listened keenly to the clear piano-note stillness of the apartment. Sometimes there were sudden footsteps in the bedroom, as though a human being had unexpectedly come to life in there; or a key scratching at the front door many hours before her boyfriend was scheduled to be home from the office. But she knew that he was at the office today and that she would never see him again.
In the living room, she prised the lid off the first of the tubs, pointing it away from her lest the insects explode out into her face. Yet they were seemingly unprepared and she decanted them in a huge dopey clot, which slithered almost inconsequentially, with a dry rattle, into the lap of the sofa. There was the soft wet tang of decaying fruit. She stepped back and inspected the colony. Maybe she should put out more fruit for them in saucers. If, when he came home, they had all expired, he would need only hoover them up.
Those released in the shower were cowed by the cold and the dampness. On the bed, a sortie of them roamed aimlessly up the wall, rather than coating the sheets and getting into every crevice. The locusts resembled a cumbersome medieval army that were proving disappointing under their monarch’s ambitious gaze. After leaving restless pools of insects in the kitchen and the box room, Amy tipped out the rest of them in the corridor. There was one tub too many – she must have miscounted.
On a whim, she flung open the fridge and threw jars and pots on to the floor. The commingling odours of the sauces and yoghurts created an unbearable stench. She marched back into the bedroom with the kitchen scissors and began to snip his clothes into small pieces. The locusts on the wall had widened like an immense blotch of mould.
She had been always jealous of his PS4, as any sailor’s wife is of the sea. It would end its days on a shelf in the oven, where, over the length of the afternoon, its plastic carapace would be grandly roasted.
They say that a torturer’s most vicious implement is empathy. Who could torture this man more perfectly than herself? Who knew more intimately about how he became agitated at beetles and was bewildered by all but the most cursory cleaning tasks? His face glowed before Amy as she methodically destroyed the apartment. He looked hurt, betrayed and childlike and, as wound after wound was inflicted upon the household, this static, haunting image grew as vivid as though it had been painted by Raeburn. The insects were now perking up and more and more of them were weaving amongst the rooms. Amy took the miniature suitcase that was waiting on the doormat and locked the front door calmly behind her.
Rainclouds delved amongst the city streets in the spring sunshine. Edinburgh was drenched and shining, like a happy dog that has bounded out a river. Amy would walk over the Meadows to her friend Jenny’s. “Come and stay at any time,” Jenny had pleaded before Christmas. “I get so uneasy by myself and you’ll be snug here. It’ll be a wee holiday for you.”
Amy had been bemused. “Why don’t you get some tenants, Jenny? Airbnb?” She knew that Jenny could not put up with the coming and going, the noise and the mess.
“Oh, I don’t like the coming and going. You know, the noise and all that mess. But we can live together – you’ve always been considerate.” Jenny had frowned and nodded forcefully. “Yes, please come whenever you like.”
Amy was going to enjoy a lovely afternoon. Jenny would be grateful to see her – red wine and cake would be produced promptly. They would have one of those long, luxurious conversations that they had only about four times a year now, about all of the people who they knew from St George’s and about the latest hilarious evidence of their lives from Facebook.
Amy stood on the doorstep of Jenny’s Grange cottage and allowed herself to be bathed in a relaxation that she had not felt for weeks. After rapping with the knocker, she heard Jenny hurrying, fussing with all of those locks that ran down her front door like buttons on a coat. Yet when the two faced each other Amy saw with a clap that something was terribly wrong. Jenny wore the countenance of a stern and disapproving stranger.
She glared at Amy and hissed “I am going to be sick!” She cried out with dismay, back out into the house behind her, “Amy’s here!” Now Jenny had ducked down and she was retching into the long grass that fringed the doorstep.
She heard his voice answer. What was he doing here? Amy walked on, past Jenny, through an amazement so dazzling that it was like striding through flames, and down the corridor, around that corner, and into the kitchen where he was seated blandly at the table before a cafetière.
He sat up straight at once, with an expression of responsibility, and met her gaze. He too resembled a stranger. Amy sought out his eyes but she was unable to make any connection with them. She was staring into a proud, defiant nothingness that stared lightly back.
Jenny had always seemed frumpy and aunt-like, even at college, but when surprised on the doorstep her eyes had been strangely wise. At the table, her boyfriend looked as fresh as a lion cub. It did not occur to Amy that, unlike whenever she usually saw him, when he was just home from work and discarding sweaty shoes, he had today spent a good hour showering and shaving and gelling his hair and picking out a cherished shirt.
Amy turned to Jenny, who had glided up behind her like a stricken spectre. “You wrote the email?”
The spectre shuddered. “Yes dear.”
Amy had received the email last week. It had been gloating and sorrowful and written with an almost hypnotic legalistic emphasis. He is mine and this is why and this is why he is not yours. It had concluded by alluding, with triumphant accuracy, to the last session of lovemaking between Amy and her boyfriend. He had not even climaxed and the email had maliciously quoted her own exasperated recriminations back at her.
Her boyfriend was sitting forward like an employer who is laying out new conditions. “You can stay in the flat,” he decided. “I’ll stay here.” Jenny’s glance flickered nervously at him. This was one of those impromptu conversations in which everything is settled for many summers and winters.
Amy screamed; her whole body had frozen and she could only scream to release it so she screamed and screamed and shook frantically. “She’s hysterical,” Jenny said, sounding very frightened. Her boyfriend was smiling – “what’s that in her hair?” Jenny stepped forward and brushed it with distaste on to the kitchen floor. The locust flipped on to its front, scurried, and stopped alertly. Amy shook anew at the sight of the insect before bending to scream unearthly abuse at it.
Jenny was appealing to her, talking quickly and heartily, as if they were all old friends who had mixed up their seats at a luncheon. “We don’t want to be cruel, but you must understand how things are. Please don’t make things more difficult for us than they are. We have so many happy memories and I don’t want to spoil things.” Red-hot murder was in Amy’s fingertips – she could not listen to another word without losing all control – so she unpeeled herself in one go from this kitchen scene. Jenny shouted after her. Her boyfriend, still with his hands folded on the table beside the cafetière, sat back again.
Amy was hurrying around the streets, not running, without a thought as to her destination. She had left her suitcase on the cottage doorstep…