Went to see Myra the next day. Wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do. Wasn’t sure she’d want to see me. Whenever I appeared things got worse for her. You make your bed and you lie in it. That was the kinda shite I’d heard all my life. Myra didn’t ask to be hurt. Chapped her door. Stood and waited. The close stunk of fag smoke. Dispossessed fag smokers haunting public spaces because they could no longer smoke inside, not even in their own homes. Sighed. Turned my back, foot on the stairwell, half relieved she wasn’t in. Half upset. Her front door opened a sliver. Myra peeked out at me.
Her nightgown hung ragged like a sky-blue curtain framing the wrong statue. Since the last time I’d seen her flesh had peeled away from her face. Her eyes sunk into her head like rabbit droppings. Hair an untangled ship’s rope. She shuffled her bare feet, and the door wafted back and forward as if unsure whether it was opening or closing time.
‘It’s me, Myra.’ Turned back to face her. Chewed words like Gillete razors. The timbre of a forced cheerfulness in my voice, but could have wept at the sight of her.
‘I can see that.’ Her voice was weak, unsure. Then it rose up and a brief spark lit her eyes. ‘I’m no’ completely doowally yet.’
‘I can see that. You’ve never looked better.’
She bent her head and played with the hair around the nape of her neck. ‘Liar,’ she said, but with no malice. ‘Are you goin’ to come in or just goin’ to skulk about outside and give the neighbours something else to talk about?’
The door opened. I stepped inside, following meekly behind her and into the living room. The room was tropical, the heating on far too high. I imagined the electricity metre running like a roulette wheel in Monaco, the only winners Powergen. I took off my coat, still damp from the rain outside. Parked it on the arm of the chair and slid into the seat next to it. She wandered behind the worktops. Heard the run of the water tap, flick of the switch as she put the kettle on.
She hugged herself as she sat with her back to the window. The ruckus of seagulls on the roof above us a respite before she spoke. ‘I guess you heard.’
Took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry hen, I should have popped down to see yeh, but I’ve been awful busy.’
She nodded, complicit in the lie. Fingers in her right hand stroking in a circular motion around the wrist and the back of her left hand. We heard the kettle boiling. She was up, running, and attending to making the tea. Leaving me sitting, waiting, and not knowing what to say or do.
Her hand shook and the base of the cup jigged against the lotus-flower design on the saucer. She sipped at her tea, her head pecking out of her hair and tried on a grimace of a grin as we faced each other like strangers.
Tried to keep my face straight. She must have run out of tea-bags. The liquid was greenish and tasted like the kind of sludge that was meant to be good for you. ‘So whit happened to you then?’
The question perked her up. She sat a little straighter and she could meet my concerned gaze. ‘It was the wee woman that lived below me that started it,’ she said. ‘She was a bit deaf and dare I say it a bit smelly. Never flung anything out. Never allowed anyone into her house. A wee old woman that never bothered anybody and never asked for anything.’
Sipped at my tea. Made a face as she put her cup and saucer on the floor and pushed her back into the chair and sat up straight.
‘I hadn’t seen Maisie for a while, but I’d heard her. As she got older the telly got louder and louder and I knew when The Bill was finished and what programme she was watching next. I continually had to turn my telly up. So the two tellies were involved in a continual shouting match to see who could shout the loudest. And I couldn’t sleep. She muttered at night. I couldn’t really hear what she was saying, but it sounded like some childish incantation like ring a ring a roses, pocket full posies and she was playing a game. I thought I better have a word with her, to see if she was ok. But every time I went down the stairs and chapped her door she wouldn’t answer.’
‘Chap-door, run-away,' I said, to try and lighten the mood. She ignored my interruption.
‘This went on for a while, steadily getting worse and worse. I hadn’t slept for days. Then one night I heard her crying “Oh, my God, I can’t move my legs help me, help me.” Then I heard one of those screams you hear once in your life and it clings to you and won’t go away. I still hear it now.’
A tear appeared at the corner of her eye. She wiped at it with the back of her hand. Sniffled.
‘I phoned the police and went down the stairs.’
‘Was she still screaming?’ I asked.
She shook her head. ‘There was silence. I expected every house in the street to have lights on, and my neighbours to fling open there doors to find out what was happing. The busy-body on the ground floor in particular that reports everybody for everything—I expected to see him climbing the stairs. But there was nothing.’
‘Probably too scared,’ I said.
‘I’m not sure. I was terrified, but I couldn’t leave an old woman.’
‘Aye,’ I said. ‘There’s no many like you.’
‘Aye,’ she said. ‘There’s none like me. The door was lying partially open. I stood in the hall. She’s got the same kind of studio flat as mine, but it was chock-a-block with black plastic bags piled on top of black plastic bags. I couldn’t see what was inside them, but there was hardly enough room to put your feet down, but the smell was, as you can imagine, simply awful.’
Her hand crept up and pinched and covered her nose like a makeshift mask.
‘I shouted her name,’ she said. ‘“Maisie. Maisie.” But there was no reply. I trailed my fingers along the wall to guide me because I imagined rats scurrying about and didn’t want to look at my feet. But what I saw was much worse.’
She massaged her temples, vigorously rubbing under her eyes. Sat quietly for a minute. ‘He was there.’
‘Charlie,’ she said.
‘Whit was he doin’?
‘You don’t want to know.’ She bit at her under-lip. ‘I ran away scared. Terrified. When I heard the banging on my front door I thought it was him, come for me, and wouldn’t answer.’
‘You did the right thing,’ I said, although I wasn’t sure what the right thing was, or what she was talking about.
She looked through me, seemed to be re-living it. ‘But then I heard the walkie-talkies. I knew it was the police and I’d be safe. I flung the door open. I was glad there was a woman police officer there. They called it in. I could see the smugness on their face that it was a big case. Asked for reinforcement. She stayed with me while the other guy went down the stairs. He came back a few minutes later. Talked about wasting police time. Said the door was locked, and he’d talked to the neighbour across the landing, and the flat was empty. The old women that lived in it had died months ago, killed herself, and they were still waiting to fumigate the place and get a new tenant. But the thing is Jim I still hear her down there. And when she screams I know he’s down there too. Waiting for me to trip down the stairs. Every night it’s the same.’
Stood up. ‘Get your stuff. You’re comin’ with me. You’re no’ stayin’ a minute longer in this haunted house.’
‘You sure?’ she asked.
She smiled for the first time. Her face pretty as sunlight.
‘Aye,’ I said. ‘The one thing about Maisie’s house smelling so terrible is mine won’t seem so bad in comparison.’