A Sense of Grandeur by Maud Woolf

It’s a beautiful property, the letting agent tells me as we shuffle our way across the aged floorboards. Cosy, compact but not claustrophobic. Not with those high ceilings. I hum and ah, and look up and say, oh yes, they are high, aren’t they? When was it renovated?

She launches into her spiel and by the time she’s finished I know I’m going to rent the flat. Perhaps if the sun wasn’t shining quite so brightly, I would reconsider, or at least hold off the decision. But as it is, golden light is streaming through the windows, and already in my mind I’m seeing my cat curled up in front of them, plants on the sill spreading out their leaves. I think I might invest in a kentia palm. One of the large ones – not from Tesco. 

I move in within a week and say goodbye to my musty old student lodgings and roommates. Goodbye broken string of fairy lights. Goodbye ratty old map of the world. Goodbye tiny pinpoint holes in the plaster and unread philosophy textbooks.

My first night in my new flat, I ignore the unpacked boxes and open a bottle of red. I use a wine glass. I feel impossibly grown up. I feel my ego expand to fit inside the tastefully painted walls. There is enough space to grow here, I think, and that thought feels very grown up too, and then by the bottom of the bottle I’m feeling almost seventy and ready to retire.

When I do, I sleep like the dead.

It takes about a month for the problems to start and, by that point, it’s too late to move. My life has been contained within the walls of this place. It fits so neatly I wonder how I ever survived anywhere else. My pans nestle together in the kitchen cabinets. The shower curtains have little yellow ducks on them and, at night, my cat sleeps on my bed with me, curled up on the patchwork quilt my mother made from a pattern on the internet. I have started a modest collection of teas; matcha, ginger root and one called ‘wellness’ that contains saffron and tastes a little like the rinse they give you at the dentist.

I’m lying on my back one night, sprawled out like a starfish, when something wakes me. A dribble of liquid on my forehead, as warm and thick as saliva. It’s not the cat; I can feel the hot lump of her on my toes.

My eyes fly open. I look up. And up. And up. I cannot see the ceiling. There is no ceiling. There’s nothing above me but void and I grip at my sheets to hold on, suddenly sure that if I let go, I will fall upwards and into that looming, gaping emptiness–

The next morning, I tell myself it was a dream but my fingers ache at the joints. For two days I avoid looking up, but when I do I can’t deny the ceilings look somehow higher than they were before. Just an inch or so; nothing to be concerned about. Except that, for the first time, the height of them makes me feel small. Exposed.

I keep my eye on the situation after that and after a while it becomes clear to me that the problem will not, as I had hoped, resolve itself. Day by day, as I make my coffee in the mornings before work or when I come home late at night from a bar, I notice it. An unsettling feeling of fresh space. The air above my head expanding, little by little. This new emptiness doesn’t contain a draft; it contains nothing at all and every day it contains more and more of it.

I go out and buy myself a stepladder and a tape measure. I start etching little pencil lines in the plaster, right at the juncture between wall and ceiling. Every morning I do this and soon, I have a little series of marks, stretching up the wall like a miniscule Jacob’s Ladder.

I take my tape measure outside the flat, I calculate the angles of the staircase. I knock on neighbours’ doors to interrogate them. But there is no other evidence of any other irregularities. The rest of the building makes perfect architectural sense, so how can it be that every day the walls of my flat inch ever higher?

I decide the whole thing is ridiculous and impossible and resolve to cut back on drinking. I will only smoke weed on special occasions from now on. Birthdays and Christmas and, maybe for a treat, Easter. Ceilings are ceilings and must be bound by the limitations of physical reality – just like everything else. No exceptions.

And yet, they continue to stretch, soundless, like aging trees.

At this point I am alarmed enough to bring in friends and relatives to look over the situation. I even contact the letting agent – no one seems very concerned. They all agree that the ceilings seem to be getting higher but none of them see it as a problem. In fact, the general consensus is that I should be grateful for extra space. My stepfather even suggests that I put in a second floor or a loft conversion.

I don’t want a second floor. I don’t want a loft conversion. I want my cosy, compact (but not claustrophobic), comfortable flat with its yellow ducks on the shower curtain. I want my kentia palm to grow up with a static roof over its head. I want the light pouring in through the windows.

Light is in fact beginning to be an issue. The ceilings are now so high that large shadows collect in the upper corners. Every day the gloom thickens over my head. My cat takes to sitting on the highest piece of furniture I own, a spindly tottering bookcase. For hours she stares upwards into the dark, unblinking.

When I start hearing the noises, my walls are two stories high and show no sign of slowing down in their expansion. Whatever it is that’s moving around up there makes no effort to be quiet. It scurries and scratches and shifts and is loudest at night when I’m trying to sleep. Sometimes I hear voices, whispered snatches of words, never distinct enough to understand but always loud enough to grate on the edges of my hearing. What are they talking about? Me?

One night I come home from work and my cat is absent from her vigil on the bookcase. I put up missing posters on lampposts and then, not long after that, the white bones start to fall, tumbling down through the shadows. Each one is small and fragile and picked carefully clean.

Enough is enough. I go out again and buy another ladder, the tallest I can find. I set it up in my living room and start to climb. It takes me a long time and by the time I reach the top I am huffing with exertion. I can’t look down. I have extended it to its full length and, even then, the top rungs don’t come close to reaching the ceiling. I balance on them precariously, up on my tiptoes with my hands pressed flat against the wall and I peer into the dark.

The voices are much louder here – they are whispering among themselves. I clear my throat.

Hello, I call out. Hello?

There is a pause, and something shifts in the shadows above me. A shape so vast and formless it’s impossible to tell where it ends and the darkness begins.

Do you mind? it says. We’re trying to have a conversation.

I clear my throat and wobble on my ladder.

This is my flat, I say. What are you doing up here?

It may be your flat, another voice whispers, but this is our ceiling. Fuck off.

I open and close my mouth and then I ask, are you going to go away?

Are you? they reply.

I stand there for a few moments more, but everything seems to be said. I descend the ladder and, as I do, the voices pick up again, louder this time. They sound annoyed at the interruption.

After that it seems the only thing to do is ignore each other. I get on with my life down below in my comfortable sitting room. I buy five new lamps and keep them burning all night. They are worth the cost of the electricity bill. I don’t get a new cat; I get a large dog instead but later come to regret it – he spends most of his time cowering under my bed and scratching at the floor.

The last time I look up is by accident. I’m just waking up; I can’t help it. I open my eyes and the space above my head is higher than any cathedral. The darkness writhes.

After that I keep my head down. I buy a lot of pretty shoes and rugs. I look at my stovetop instead and out of my beautiful windows at the street below. It’s fine that way; it’s still a lovely flat. I would be able to pretend they weren’t there at all if it weren’t for the noises.

They’ve become much louder, you see. Even as the space unfurls away from me, the voices drift down. Sometimes I get the distinct impression of eyes fixed on the exposed crown of my head. Sometimes when my head is bent over a book, I think I feel hot breath ruffling the fine hairs at the nape of my neck.

Worst of all, they’ve stopped bothering to whisper. I hear their conversations quite clearly.

They worry about the state of the floors, you see. Just recently they’ve begun to talk in earnest about doing something about it. Late at night, the word drifts down to me where I’m curled up in bed under the covers. Even my new dog’s whimpering won’t drown it out. Exterminator. They aren’t in total agreement yet, but the infestation can’t be ignored for too long.

About The Author

Maud Woolf is Scottish writer with a particular interest in the strange and uncanny. Currently working towards an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, most of her free time is spent either writing in the library or searching for a way into the city’s notorious abandoned network of underground tunnels.

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