Midnight. My skin feels as waxy as the leaves on this umbrella plant in the humid night air.
I reach out, ring the bell and we wait.
Only Mr Rendell has lights on; the rest of the houses in the street are shut up, utterly still.
Frank unclips his radio to call Control for advice when Mr Rendell shuffles slowly into view behind the striped glass panels of the door. ‘Ambulance,’ I say. The rattle of a bolt. It opens.
He stands there a moment, staring out at us. He moves an inch, winces and crumples slightly on his right side.
‘How can we help?’
He regards us with a baleful expression.
‘You’d better come in.’
He releases the door, turns and pads solemnly into a bright and neatly ordered kitchen.
Frank helps him move a chair so he can sit.
‘I understand you’ve had a fall,’ I say, taking a seat opposite. ‘What’s happened?’
‘I have this fear,’ he says, his voice as thin and gray as a night sweat. ‘Well. A little more than that. A phobia, actually.’
He pauses, his eyes glisten and for a moment I think he might cry.
‘Okay,’ I say, as softly as I can. ‘What kind of phobia?’
His jaw drops, like someone gagging on an unpleasant taste. Finally he is able to say: ‘I can’t bring myself to use the word. So I hope you understand me when I say Arachnids.’
He hesitates again, and the horror of the subject percolates through him, scalp to slippers. Finally he gathers himself sufficiently again to tell us the rest of the story.
‘I had got myself ready for bed and was just settling down to read my book when I noticed a dark shape sitting on the wall by the chest of drawers. A disgusting, massive thing. Well. Normally my wife would take care of it for me, but she’s away visiting relatives, so it’s just me on my own. I had to force myself, even though I felt really sick and panicky.’
‘Take your time, Mr Rendell. Let me feel your pulse whilst you talk. That’s it. So. What happened next?’
‘I got out of bed - as carefully as I could - came downstairs, found some newspaper, then came back up. The - erm - visitor – had gone. I looked about, and then I saw it, further up the wall, on the ceiling. I had to climb onto the bed to reach it, and I was just about ready to stretch out and get it when it moved!’
‘I’m afraid I screamed, toppled forwards and landed on a chair. I think I’ve hurt my side.’
He leans to his left and pulls his dressing gown aside to show me. A nasty looking haematoma on the lower aspect of his chest wall.
‘We need to get you to hospital to see the extent of the damage, Mr Rendell. Frank’s just going to go upstairs and have a look at how far you fell and what sort of chair it was. I’ll check you over whilst he does that, okay? But you’ll definitely need to come with us to hospital. Just to be on the safe side.’
‘If you think.’
‘For some good pain relief, if nothing else.’
‘What would my wife say?’
‘She’d just be glad you were looking after yourself.’
With Mr Rendell safely delivered over to the hospital, we tidy up the ambulance and then stop for a coffee.
‘I didn’t say anything at the time,’ says Frank, handing me a cup, ‘because I didn’t want to give him a stroke, but my god, you should’ve seen the size of that spider.’
‘Big, was it?’
‘Big? As big as my hand. Well – the palm at least.’
‘Did you kill it?’
‘No. I’d have needed a lump hammer. So I just left it.’
He takes a sip of coffee and stares off across the empty car park. ‘With its legs up reading the newspaper.’