This short story is based upon true life events. Thanks for reading.
The letting agent arranged a joint viewing of the canal-side property at five o’clock on a Monday afternoon in April.
Take the turn off the Preston Brook main street just after the canal bridge. Then drive down the gravel road, past the derelict rope works. 1 Canalside is the first semi-detached house on the left. The building is in good repair but unfurnished.
I parked a good way up the gravel road, which was more of a path, and approached on foot. A black Volkswagen Golf with darkened windows was in the driveway, a dark shadow of a figure just visible in the driver’s seat.
The first few steps on Canalside put me in a relaxed mood. Birds chirped in a small gated apple orchard that banked the canal. A deep-throated mechanical rhythm came from the mouth of the canal tunnel, just visible beyond Canalside’s seven houses. It increased in volume as the prow of a canal barge emerged from the tunnel, its rope fenders clustered around the long, low steel hull. Foot after foot of red painted steel emerged, a man at the tiller easing off the throttle as the stern cleared the tunnel mouth. He saw me up above the orchard and waved. I returned.
‘Mr Mayes?’ a voice greeted me from behind.
I turned to the speaker and extended a hand. The appearance of the female letting agent escapes my recollection, as does her name. By comparison, the woman who then stepped out of the black Golf, and smoothed her leather skirt, is burnt into my memory.
‘Mr Mayes, this is Ms Doyle. As I explained on the phone, Ms Doyle has first refusal on 1 Canalside as her enquiry was received before yours. On that understanding, and to save time, we’ve agreed to view the property together. Okay?’
We both nodded and Ms Doyle extended her hand to me.
‘Fay,’ she said.
Her hand was cool and wiry.
‘Ger,’ I returned, and let her have the look. What I received back was a once-over that didn’t end until Fay released my hand. First impressions? She was my age or slightly older, perhaps early thirties. Tall, maybe five-seven. Dark, like a gypsy. Unsavoury, like a biker, yet thrilling. Straight away I knew that 1 Canalside was my Hotel California. This could be heaven or this could be hell.
The agent’s description of unfurnished was no understatement. The back parlour had a carpet, otherwise it was lino in the kitchen and floorboards everywhere else. We were given a superficial tour and then allowed to wander. Fay’s perfume left a trail throughout the house, something that stood on the watershed of nausea and allure.
That house had great potential - original Edwardian features and picturesque views over the canal. I found myself in the front bedroom, looking out of one large sash window as Fay stood gazing out of the other.
‘This is a beautiful room.’
‘It is,’ I said.
She took a step towards me, and another, until we both stood before one window. I looked out across the canal, giving her my right profile which has always been slightly better than the left. Then I turned back and found she had entered my personal space.
‘Ger, I can’t afford to rent this place. Not on my own. Are you interested?’
Another pop song lyric sounded in my head. The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
‘What’s your proposal?’
‘We take one room each downstairs, one each upstairs. The other rooms we share. Fifty-fifty with the rent.’
It was a no-brainer. The rent on 1 Canalside was half of my current place. I could easily afford the whole house and, with a shared let, I would have loads of spare money. Or rather, I could start living within my means, which I certainly hadn’t since the divorce.
‘Which rooms would you want?’ I asked, knowing the answer.
‘Well, this one obviously, for my bedroom. And in return I’d take the back parlour. You could have the front sitting room and the back bedroom.’ She waved her hand.
I quickly weighed up the practicalities. Fay had first call on the house, so I was in a weak position. I could decline her offer and try to price her out. But I didn’t.
‘Okay, it’s a deal.’ The words came out of my mouth by themselves. I’ve always been a walkover when it comes to a certain type of woman. The type with two arms, two legs and a head.
‘Great! Excellent. I have a feeling that we’ll be friends.’ She walked around the bedroom. ‘A couple of easy chairs here and there, to look out over the canal. Then the bed against this wall with a view of both windows. Almost like in the open air.’
We looked at each other. This would be our room.
‘Let’s go and tell the agent.’
Fay swanned out and I heard her heels on the bare wooden stairs.
The strangest feeling took me then, that I couldn’t remember her face, even though she had just left the room. The black leather jacket, skirt and boots, the fishnet tights, her dark feathered hair, sure. But the face, no.
I followed the thread of her fragrance out and down.
‘Look! This will make a great sitting room for you.’
We were in the front downstairs room. It was light and spacious, a wide antique fireplace. The agent joined us.
‘You could paint these floorboards white,’ Fay said.
I looked at the agent.
‘I’m sure that wouldn’t be a problem with the owner,’ she said. ‘Under the circumstances, I can arrange for a three month initial joint lease and then we’ll see how we go after that.’
We walked together through to the back parlour. It was dark and cramped. Green and purple carpet, studded with burn marks, around the fireplace. The room was also a through-way to the kitchen and a bathroom that lay beyond.
‘Cosy,’ Fay announced. ‘I’ll get a nice fire going and the place will come alive.’
Two weeks later we were sitting in front of the back parlour’s glowing coals. A cold snap had hit and there was no other heating in the house, except the fireplace in my sitting room. But Fay’s chimney also heated the water, so that was the priority. The immersion heater in the tank upstairs didn’t work.
Sparse furnishings had materialised in recent days, a motley selection of cast-offs. Fay had installed two crimson dralon armchairs in her parlour. The fire crackled with lumps of old coal that I had dug from the outhouse dust.
‘Do you drink wine?’ she asked.
‘I certainly do.’
She gave me a grin and headed for the kitchen.
‘I only have red. Is that okay?’ she called.
‘Yep, red is fine, thanks.’
She returned with two non-matching glasses, full to the rim. We toasted and sipped. My eye was drawn to the tight leather pants, laced at the side, which bound her long, slim legs.
Conversation ensued, swapping of superficial information and then more personal as the bottle of wine was consumed. As is my wont with strangers, I was over-familiar and a little indiscrete. The double-entendres flowed with the drink.
‘Are those motorbike trousers?’
‘Yes, well, I bought them in a bikers’ shop.’
‘Do you ride?’
‘No, it’s just the look I’m after.’
‘It looks well to me.’
And so on.
The coal glowed, its dark heat making cosy a room that didn’t even have a curtain.
‘Oh, my wine’s all gone. There's another bottle in the kitchen. Shall we?’
Somehow we had edged closer. The fire cracked and an ember leaped onto the carpet. Quick as a flash, Fay’s boot flicked out and stamped the burning coal into the carpet, adding another hole to the collection. Her leg was so close to mine that I thought she would swing her calf up onto my knee.
My next move would be pivotal. The firelight lit Fay’s features a little strangely and the smell of warm leather mixed with her intense perfume as she stirred in the chair. Then I saw it. The face was a mask. It cracked into a smile that didn’t extend to her eyes. Something terrible was lurking in this woman. The choice was made.
‘No. Thanks, but no.’
‘But…I have another bottle. I’m having one more glass. Join me. It’ll just go to waste.’
She flashed her unnaturally even teeth and flicked back her fringe with a toss of the head. That vile perfume established itself in my olfactory memory. The sweetness of decay.
‘Thanks for the drink, but I have a long trip tomorrow.’ I stood and walked out to the bathroom.
When I passed back through the parlour on my way upstairs, Fay was sitting with her long legs stretched out, one boot on top of the other.
‘Goodnight,’ I said.
‘Hmmm,’ was her answer. She was gazing into the fire. The lines around her eyes looked a hundred years old.
Those were the last civil words that we exchanged with each other.
During the following week I tried to establish what kind of housemate I had landed myself with. Fay seemed to be nocturnal. There was no evidence that she was using the bathroom or kitchen in any way. From my occasional lunchtime trips home from work, it seemed that she rose around one in the afternoon, left the house almost immediately and didn’t return until the early hours. On one occasion I opened the front door to find her rushing down the stairs with a sports bag. Her hair was in disarray and she wore dark sunglasses.
‘I use the shower facilities at the gym,’ she explained unnecessarily. Then she walked straight out of the door, jumped in the Golf and drove away.
I came home early one afternoon and found a tradesman installing a TV aerial on the roof of the house. Living a TV-free life had been one of the advantages of my recent single status, but the content of tea-break conversation at work eluded me. Coupled with my reluctance to read newspapers, the effect was isolating. I looked forward to reviving my telly addiction.
That evening I searched for the TV aerial sockets around the house but couldn’t find any. Perhaps the guy had been installing something else. I stepped outside and looked at the roof of the house. There, running down from a new aerial on the chimney stack, was a brown signal cable. It snaked around the gable end and then disappeared into the front wall of Fay’s bedroom. Confused, I checked my sitting room again for a cable but found none. It looked like Fay had arranged for a new TV aerial connection in her room and nowhere else.
Upstairs, I contemplated the white painted door of Fay’s room. She was out, so I could risk a look in her room, just to check the TV connection. Perhaps the job hadn’t been finished. The old round knob of the door turned in my hand but it didn’t open. I saw a pencil-sized hole below the knob. She had fitted a lock, of the type that required a simple rod-shaped key with grooves. I fetched a screwdriver from my toolbox and opened the lock.
Inside her room, on a dark wooden table in the corner, stood a big old television set. A short co-axial cable strained from the set to a socket on the wall. I switched the thing on and watched a children’s show on BBC for a few minutes. Then a noise at the front door brought me to my senses and I switched the television off, crouching down below the window sill to avoid being spotted. A boy walked away from the front door with his shoulder bag of local free newspapers. The pulse thumped in my ears as I straightened up and took a proper look around Fay’s room for the first time. There was nothing remarkable. No obvious evidence of prostitution or drugs, not that I knew what to look for. No wardrobe, just a tall chest of drawers.
Stepping to the door, I found no signs of cellotape strips, hairs or other methods that a paranoid individual might use as a check on unauthorised entry. The lock closed easily with the screwdriver.
The next day I timed a lunchtime trip to catch Fay as she headed out.
‘I see you had a TV aerial installed. I would have shared the cost,’ I said as she came down the stairs.
‘That’s my business. If you want an aerial you can pay a hundred and fifty quid like I did and get your own.’
Then she was gone.
Right then. It was to be a vendetta.
I waited until the end of the week and, once she had gone out again, lugged an ancient ladder from the shed and propped it up against the gable end. The wood of the thing looked suspect, but metal bands embedded in each rung gave me heart. It was dizzyingly high, especially for someone with the steeplejack skills of a mole, but I managed to inch up the ladder until the TV cable was at chest level. Holding on with one hand, I fumbled in my trouser pocket for the drawing pins that I had specially purchased, extracted one and pushed it straight through the middle of the cable. The theory was that the pin would earth the signal conductor in the middle of the cable to the copper sheath that lay just underneath the plastic covering, rendering the aerial useless.
Voices approached along the lane. I clung tightly to the ladder in a spin of vertigo and tried to melt into the wall. It was old Charlie and Gladys from number two. Gladys, almost blind, had Charlie’s full attention and I remained undiscovered.
On the Saturday morning I heard a banging on the front door, an unlocking of Fay’s bedroom and the clatter of her boots on the stairs. I lay on my single bed in the dull back bedroom and listed to Fay and an unidentified male manhandle something awkward and heavy down the stairs. That evening, before I hit the town, I made another foray into Fay’s room and checked the TV had gone. Perfect. She had assumed it was faulty.
During the following week I saw Fay’s TV come back from repair, be sent for repair again, and the TV aerial installation man return to check the cable. I took the pin in and out of the cable at the appropriate junctures, to achieve the desired effect and also to avoid discovery.
Fay had her suspicions and installed a mortise lock on her bedroom door for additional security. That kept me out. Relations deteriorated through petty tit-for-tat actions until we had reached the stage of me slamming doors and her shrieking from the top of the stairs like a tormented mother of teenagers.
Within the first month I had approached the letting agent with a view to taking on the sole lease myself. My girlfriend was planning to move over from Ireland and we would live together in the house on the canal. The agent spoke positively to me on the phone, eventually explaining that Fay had failed to pay any rent, but they didn’t return my letters or send me the necessary forms When a few other expected letters and bills went missing, it became clear to me that Fay was intercepting my mail.
This was not something that I felt I could confront her with. In honesty, I was scared of direct confrontation with her. It’s a criminal offence to interfere with Her Majesty’s Royal Mail, so I had the legal option open to me, but decided to smoke the bitch out instead.
Something had happened with Fay’s routine. She was awake earlier in the day, on the phone a lot, and taking showers in the house. The last I knew from the soapy puddles and sopping towels left lying around the bathroom. Showering didn’t present a problem with hot water as the shower was electric. This gave me a great idea and, after Fay had shrieked at my girlfriend during a visit to ‘get the fuck off the fucking phone’, I hatched a plan.
Once again I used my electrical knowledge. The day before a week-long business trip to Norway, I waited until Fay had gone out and then climbed up onto the long white work surface in the kitchen, which was the only way to reach the antiquated fuse-box just below the high ceiling. Back down and into the bathroom, I turned on the shower, then back up onto the worktop and so on, until I had identified the fuse for the shower. The electrics were ancient and the fuse was an old plug-in type that needed fuse wire. I swapped the fifteen Amp fuse wire for five Amp and confirmed with another test that it would blow the fuse when the shower was used. I renewed the fuse wire, drove to the nearest DIY store and bought a big spool of five amp wire. Then I left that spool clearly visible in the fuse box, and disposed of all the other fuse wire in the house.
It worked. I returned from Norway to find the white work surface covered in footprints and all the fuse wire used up, melted fragments of wire all over the place. Neither sight nor sound of Fay.
I had nothing of value in the house and couldn’t see how Fay could do me any material or financial damage, so I took off for a few days to the Lake District with some friends. Another few cold showers would surely finish Fay off.
Sure enough, there was no Fay Doyle on my return, she had cleared off. The door to her room was left ajar, holes in the wood where the locks had been removed, a bare socket where the light bulb had hung.
With a shout of jubilation, I ran down the stairs and went to the refrigerator for a beer. The kitchen was not quite as empty as the bedroom had been. Broken bottles littered the floor and work surfaces. There was a dustpan and brush in the corner so I started to clear up, and then noticed a strange odour. The broken glass and work surfaces were wet with something even more pungent than Fay’s perfume. An empty bottle of weed-killer stood next to the sink.
During the following days I prepared for a siege, keeping a pick-axe handle by the door. No assailants materialised. After about a week, my new mountain bike disappeared from the locked shed. A friend suggested that it had probably been dumped in the canal and I began to spend my evenings dredging the shallow waters with a grappling hook and rope that I bought from a hardware store. I did find a bike but it was of an earlier vintage, twisted beyond use and rusted.
British Telecom was unsympathetic to my objections when a telephone bill for four hundred and seventy pounds arrived about a fortnight later. It was itemised and I could see that Fay had spent several hours a day on premium chat lines. The calls had commenced around the time that the letting agent had agreed to give me sole tenancy.
A little amateur detective work led me to Fay’s mother’s house in a grimy row of cottages at Weston Point. The brickwork of the terraces was scarred by decades of noxious fumes from the Rocksavage chemical works. I sat there, slumped down behind the wheel of my car and watching the traffic in the street. One time I spotted Fay’s car but I never saw her again in person, my stalking opportunities being limited by the hours I worked. Twice I put letters and a copy of the phone bill in her mother’s letterbox. In the end I had no choice but to pay the bill, having made the mistake of being guarantor for the line account.
The last I heard of Fay Doyle was when an item of post arrived for her the following month. It was a cheque for two hundred and sixty-four pounds from the social welfare. The paperwork said that it was the final payment of her disability allowance, which had been discontinued. Of course, I opened the letter. So, did I shred it? Ceremoniously burn it? Throw it in the canal? No, I delivered it to her mother’s house. I had to let go of my obsession. Sometimes keeping the moral high ground comes at a price.~~~~~~~~~~~~~
If you've enjoyed reading Ruby's blog then please sign up to Ruby's News for freebies, advance review copies of upcoming novels and occasional updates. Thanks!
Peril by Ruby Barnes is the full story of Ger Mayes.