The flat is up a steep track of badly carpeted stairs. The overhead bulb is on a timer and clicks out before we reach the landing, so I pull out my torch and light the rest of the way until I find the upstairs switch and put it back on again.
‘Nice,’ said Frank, wiping his shoes on the carpet outside the door. ‘Lovely.’
The door stands open.
I push it wider.
It’s dark inside. There is no sound, and I pause a moment. Frank taps me on the shoulder and leans in.
‘You know,’ he says, in a low voice, his breath smelling of coffee. ‘If I didn’t know better I’d say you were actually enjoying all this. You love these psych jobs.’
‘Well. Maybe that’s because I’m a bit of a psycho myself.’
I turn the torch up under my chin, widen my eyes and smile at him.
‘Careful,’ he says. ‘It might stick.’
‘Too late. It’s been years in the making.’
There is a noise from inside the flat, something like a muffled sob.
We go inside.
I went through a difficult time when I was in my twenties. I wouldn’t call it a breakdown, but I wouldn’t waste too much time trying to say what I would call it. My teens were pretty flammable, of course, but my twenties had a tougher, leaner feel to them. At least when I was a teenager I was still a kid and there really did seem no end to the things I could do to step up and change the course of my life; by my mid-twenties, life didn’t seem quite so generous, the margins were closing in, and there was a tougher cast to my plans.
I ended up sharing a flat in London with John, a friend of a friend. We moved in to a boxy flat in a boxy block overlooking the park. It was a narrow and meanly appointed building, which through the trees looked like a Thirties liner ran aground and left to rot. There was an old sink on the balcony with a pigeon’s nest in the corner, but it had chicks in it so we couldn’t clear it out straight away. Every time we went into the kitchen we could hear the creatures moving around, peeping feebly. I tried to ignore them, but now and then I’d be tempted to have a look – a clutch of skinned, sickly looking beasts stumping around in a mess of twigs. I wasn’t the only thing to find life a struggle.
A few people came to stay now and then. One Spring, Kevin, an old college friend of John’s, came back to the country after a teaching post in Mexico. He’d married out there, and his new wife came back with him. Maria was a solid and powerfully silent woman whose red lipstick was so thick it seemed to seal her mouth. When Kevin spoke Spanish to her it was with a strong Liverpudlian accent. Maria seemed to absorb his cheerful conversation in the same way she absorbed what light there was in these reduced circumstances, hungrily, without comment, soaking it all away with black brown eyes.
Kevin was between teaching jobs. He had another coming up in Guatemala in a couple of months, and in that time he wanted to visit family and friends in this country, to introduce Maria to them and make things well here before he started his new post. They made themselves at home. We set up a camp bed in the living room. They kept most of their things in the suitcases, but we cleared a couple of shelves for clocks, books and the little things they’d need now and again. Maria took the higher of the two shelves for her ceramic collection – a family of rabbits; a miniature wheelbarrow; a toadstool with a fairy reading a book cross legged on the cap; a mini being driven by a family of holidaying pigs – everything miniaturised, cartoon expressions, whimsical gestures. I picked the mini up to have a closer look.
‘Careful,’ she said, from over on the sofa. ‘Especial.’
I put it back.
John was a printer and out all day; Kevin had work at the university. But I was unemployed then and Maria had nothing to do. Even when I’d run all the errands I had to run, signing on or scanning the boards at the Jobcentre, I found myself with time heavy on my hands. I tried to stay out of the flat, but it was a wet Spring and I was forced back indoors more than I wanted. Maria had no English, I had no Spanish, and even though we both tried at the beginning to make the best of it and establish some kind of rapport, neither of us seemed able to bridge the differences. She kept to the living room. The blinds were down all day, and Maria spent all her time watching TV, the colour turned up until she was staring at the screen through a super-saturated haze. The heating in the flat was up in the red zone, too, a roiling shimmer of heat that made the warm Spring air outside seem frigid. Kevin was happy coming home each day. John was as savoir faire as ever. We ate our meals perched in a line together on the camp bed, me at one end, Maria at the other, laughing and drinking and everything fine. She enrolled in a short pottery course. I had an interview. Things were looking up.
But over the coming weeks I began to feel more and more uneasy about the relationship between me and Maria. That she didn’t like me was undeniable, and trying to shrug off the bad feeling I got from her was like trying to ignore the heat from the radiators – it only made me more conscious of it, and edgier. It seemed that whenever she was with John and Kevin, Maria would be relaxed and lively. She would take loving slugs of wine and tip back her head, laughing at John’s attempts to speak Spanish, revealing a brilliant rack of hard white teeth stained at the front with lipstick. The more I tried to join in, the more awkward I felt, until I started to think that maybe it was my problem, that I was paranoid and unreasonably down about the situation, a function of my general state of mind, and lack of direction. But as hard as I tried to rationalise my unease, the stronger it grew, until I was faced with the unshakeable conviction that Maria hated me, resented me even, and wanted me out. When I confided in John, he told me not to worry.
‘They’ll be gone in a few days,’ he said. ‘Cut her some slack, mate. She’s acclimatising.’
The plan now was for them to head up to Liverpool to see Kevin’s relatives, then head on to Guatemala from there. Friday was their last day in the flat.
I thought Maria would be looser and more friendly as the big day approached, but if anything she seemed to retreat into herself even more when the others weren’t around. She kept herself to herself in the living room, stewing in the hectic light of the TV, throwing me a look whenever I ventured past the doorway into the kitchen to make a drink.
Friday afternoon I was alone in the flat when she back in from pottery class. She was carefully carrying something in a green plastic bag, and put it gently down on the hall table whilst she hung her handbag up on the pegs by the front door.
‘What have you made?’ I asked, standing in the kitchen doorway.
She stared at me and nodded, once.
‘Can I see it?’
She hesitated, as if she was tempted to deliberately misunderstand the question and carry on into the living room with her haul. But when it became clear I wouldn’t let her go so easily, repeating my question, she sighed heavily and then carefully took her pot out of the bag.
Seeing it was like a physical blow. It was the kind of pot a camel could’ve made, a rudely hooved rectangular vase with a thickly gouged pattern around the outside and a rim of looped clay.
‘Bonito,’ I said after a pause, and then, the only other Spanish word I know: ‘Poquito.’ It wasn’t. She knew it. She gave me a brief screw of the mouth and headed into the living room. I turned away as discretely as I could, but she must have been aware of me sneaking a look as she cleared a space amongst her collection of ceramic figurines and placed her vase amongst them.
That night we had a bon voyage meal. Maria was in charge, busily rolling tamales and fajitas, filling the flat with delicious corn fried flavours and spicy aromas. We all drank too much. I felt hysterically happy, buoyed by alcohol, the weekend and the prospect of the flat to ourselves again. I made even more of an effort to connect with Maria, and she seemed to respond a little. I thought she was as relieved as I was that our enforced partnership was drawing to a close.
After the meal we drank and chatted and listened to music. My mood settled as heavily as the meal and the alcohol. I caught Maria staring at me a few times, hurriedly turning away into her glass or some other phoney distraction. And in that superheated, alcohol-saturated, early morning haze, the dreadful thought came to me that she actually meant me harm.
I’d tried to be friendly. I’d done everything I could to make her feel at home. But from the very beginning she’d taken against me, and now, after two long months in this hot-house proximity, it looked to me as if the enmity she felt had distilled into something more potent, more deadly, more actively hostile. She would be leaving the flat tomorrow, and the country in a couple of days. I understood now what she meant by that look, that contemplative swirling of her glass.
Maria meant to kill me.
It was a preposterous idea. I think when I thought it I actually laughed out loud. But in the manner of a suddenly revealed truth, the inevitability of the whole thing presented itself to me in the same lurid colours of the TV. Maria was crazy and she meant to kill me. I had a vision of her in the pottery class, violently thumbing that vase whilst in her mind she was gouging out my eyes. I had come to represent all the frustrations of her life. I reminded her of someone who had once done her harm. Whatever the reason, I was her enemy, and she wanted to kill me.
The evening hit the rocks somewhere around two. Kevin and Maria were the first to turn in. They had a long drive in the morning. We hugged each other – I thought Maria looked hungrily at my ear – and the two of them retired.
‘What a great night,’ John said, slapping me on the shoulder and giving me a hug. ‘Thanks for letting them stay.’
‘No worries,’ I said. ‘It’s been lovely.’
‘What do you think of Maria?’
John looked at me for a moment and then smiled. ‘I think it must be a huge thing, to come to a new country like this, to start a new life.’
‘I think I’d struggle.’
‘Do you mind if I use the bathroom first?’
‘No. Go ahead.’
I began tidying up the kitchen. Whilst I was making a neat pile on the draining board, I noticed that one of the knives – the big jointing knife – was missing from the block. With a jolt I pictured Maria sitting quietly on the camp bed whilst Kevin was asleep, holding it in her lap and following the noises I was making in the kitchen. Horrified, I stood completely still.
‘Don’t worry about all that,’ said John, almost stopping my heart with the suddenness of his appearance. ‘We’ll see to it in the morning. Get yourself off to bed.’
‘Oh. Right. Sure.’
He padded off down the corridor, and I heard him close his door quietly behind him.
After a moment the flat was silent, except for the toilet cistern refilling after John had flushed it. I waited for that to stop, then waited. Nothing. No sounds, even from down in the street.
I walked to the bathroom and got myself ready for bed. I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror as I brushed my teeth.
‘You stupid,’ I said to myself, foaming at the mouth, pointing at my reflection with the brush. ‘Stupid, selfish. That poor girl, starting life over in a new country, and all you can do is make up ridiculous stories about her. You’re the crazy. You’re the one with the paranoid delusions.’
But the darker part of me that had fed these morbid fantasies was speaking at the same time. ‘She’s going to get you,’ it said. ‘She’s going to plunge that jointing knife into your heart. Then she’s going to cut it out and put it in the vase. Watch out. I’m telling you. It’ll be all over the papers tomorrow.’
I spat into the sink disgustedly, then dropped my toothbrush back in the mug. I should see a psychiatrist. I’ve been so down lately. I turned to look at myself in the mirror again, and pointed a finger.
‘You make an appointment tomorrow,’ I said, ‘Tomorrow!’ then turned out the light and opened the door.
The toilet was housed in a separate room just a step across the corridor from the bathroom. I went into it, turned on the light and lifted the lid.
As I did this, I had the sudden, certain and overwhelming conviction that there was someone hiding amongst the coats the other side of the toilet wall. I held onto my water and listened. There! Wasn’t that the noise of someone breathing?
I opened my mouth to breathe more quietly myself.
And in that instant I knew who it was. I could see her as clearly as if the wall had been suddenly turned to glass. It was Maria, standing with the jointing knife raised to her chest, her face turned in to the coats to listen.
Suddenly my heart was beating in great wooden thumps. What could I do? She really did want to kill me. How could I escape?
Definitely someone outside the toilet.
Thinking with painful clarity, I decided to turn off the toilet light, open the door slowly and creep out on my hands and knees. At least that way her first thrust would miss, and give me a chance to catch her wrist, and wrestle the blade out of her hand. It was better than nothing.
I turned off the light, hesitated a moment, then slid quietly down onto the floor. I built myself up for the exit, then opened the door and crept out on all fours.
No sooner had I come out then a figure stepped forward and brought a hand swinging down onto my head. Despite my fighting plans, the horror of the situation completely overwhelmed me. I cried out – a huge, unmodulated bellow that seemed to burst out of my throat like an animal howling through a metal tube. Both my hands went up and I rolled onto my back, closing my eyes, waiting for the cut.
‘Spence! Mate! It’s me!’
I opened my eyes and saw John leaning over. He was holding the chopping board with the handle, and he raised it up to show me.
‘When I put my head on the pillow I found this inside. I thought you’d done it, so I came out to get you back.’
I stared up at him with my heart still thumping.
Kevin came out into the corridor, followed by Maria.
‘What’s happening guys?’ he said.
John showed him the chopping board.
‘I gave Spence a bit of a fright.’
‘Well it’s April the first,’ he said. As I got to my feet they both laughed, but Maria, she just tied her red poppy robe around herself more closely, smiling gently, then moving up behind Kevin, putting her arms around his waist, and resting her head on his shoulder.