This week’s short story contribution from the archives:
She did not remember when it began.
At first it was not a fear – not as such; but just a nagging sensation that something she had accepted without question for so long, was no longer quite right. Ella considered this as she loaded the washing machine – was it a sound that first alerted her? If so, when? Days ago? weeks? Months, maybe? No, not years. It couldn’t possibly have been as long as a year…
Perhaps it wasn’t a sound at all. After all, this was a utility room, and no matter how expensively equipped, it was often filled with sound: hard, practical sound. So perhaps it was one of those taut strings in her brain slightly vibrating; at so low a tone, at so deep a frequency she couldn’t actually hear it. Or even the cool basement air, so exquisitely conditioned by the silent machinery of the house. It was simply – there.
And now it was louder. Or more vibrant. Or rarified to such an extent she had difficulty in breathing. Which was why she always stayed close to the door, ashamed to admit to an instinct to actually run, yet comforted by the firm feel of the latch behind her. She couldn’t account for it.
Above her head, the games room with its snooker table solidity was empty, now that James no longer played. It was kept locked. So the unpleasantness, whatever it was, couldn’t emanate from there.
She emptied her basket of clothing into the washer, reflecting how small her needs were, now her husband had gone. A single wash each week was well within the capacity of these glorious machines, so, much as she admired them as possessions, they tested her strong sense of practicality; and she really did not like being here, in this windowless room, in this stately old house.
Ella’s reaction to the room was shared. Angelina, her erstwhile housekeeper, had been equally reluctant to spend time down here. In fact the woman had refused point-blank to go anywhere near the utility room in the end.
“Is bad place! Very bad! I am not surprised if dead people under floor in there!”
Angelina had talents in other directions which removed any question of dismissing her at the time, so Ella had choked back her own hatred of the place and taken the task of loading and discharging the machines upon herself. But now? A more modest utility space would suffice, would it not? And in place of this? Machine set, she retreated to the door, casting a backward glance over those smooth, tiles, clad walls and shining steel appliances. A basement swimming pool maybe? Then at least if Angelina’s suspicions were correct, the digging process would surely find out. She would suggest this to Maggie when they met this morning. Maggie would agree, of course. She always did.
Maggie and Ella had remained fast friends since their childhood years: same school, same tough, ghetto estate. Two girls alike in their gritty approach to life, both firm in their intention to raise themselves above their impoverished beginnings, determined to consign the famine of their early years to memory. Each had known a measure of success: Maggie’s was a successful business, carefully honed into a franchise that had gone ‘national’ more than a decade since. And she had married well, too: Fergus, her husband, ran a flourishing construction business. Maggie seemed happy with him, something Ella could not quite understand.
It was many years since the pair of lifelong friends had joined hands in a pledge that nothing; least of all love, should distract them from their ambitions. No man would stand between them and fortune, though men were not without use; far from it. To marry well was imperative; the fast track to a fortune: to love, however; that was anathema to their plans. Affection should never cause them to swerve or falter along their certain road to riches.
“He should be rich, and he should be good-looking, if possible.” Ella decreed. “It would help if he was older; much older.”
“So far,” Maggie commented, “I’ve found those things rarely go hand in hand.”
“Which makes the challenge all the greater!” Ella said. “But once you have found him…”
“Never let him go?”
“God, no! We want the money, not the man. Money and independence, Mags! Think of it!”
Ella reflected for a moment. “Maybe. Maybe not. Are you with me?”
A few years would have to pass before Maggie and Ella were at the same party as multi-millionaire James Morgan Maltravers. Ella set her cap at the fifty-year-old socialite so single-mindedly most who witnessed it agreed the poor man had no hope of escape. Comments frequently referred to Ella’s ‘claws’, but she was unabashed. Their marriage adorned the pages of ‘Hello’, helicopters almost drowned out the utterance of their vows. Maggie, a strangely sad maid of honour, watched as her friend pledged her life to James Maltravers. Should Ella have noticed? Should she have seen those first signs that Maggie’s resolve was showing signs of weakening?
The honeymoon was barely over when Ella and Maggie met for coffee. Maggie’s eyes betrayed her fervour of anticipation: “So, when’s the divorce?” It was only half a joke.
Ella bit her lip. “It isn’t quite that simple.” She admitted.
“How do you mean?”
“His people made me sign a pre-nup. If I leave, I get only the contents of my suitcase. “
“Zounds!” Maggie buried her lip in her coffee cup. “Wedded bliss, then. Poor you!”
“For a while, perhaps.” Ella acknowledged, thoughtfully. “The pre-nup doesn’t cover death. I was able to negotiate that, at least. If he dies, the majority of his estate comes to me.”
“Ella! You’d murder him?”
“No, no. Of course not. Would I?”
“Well, I wouldn’t. For a start, his family lawyers are firmly convinced I’m a gold-digger and they will be watching me like hawks. Nevertheless there are ways…”
Ella found ample compensation in the loveless years that followed. She had, after all, largely achieved her dream – a mansion in a leafy suburb and a fantasy lifestyle. Only Maggie, who knew Ella so well, and one other, could discern the substance behind Ella’s mysterious comment; ‘there are ways’. Although Ella never elaborated further, Maggie watched her friend’s relentless pursuit of her scheme with a mixture of grudging admiration and horror as James Maltravers’ naturally quite retiring nature was subjected to a social maelstrom of parties, a crammed agenda of political projects, and a frenetic succession of exotic foreign vacations.
The one other was Angelina, whose position as Ella’s housekeeper seemed extremely secure and comfortable. Angelina was discreet: discreet about her employers’ sexual athletics, even though at times she found it difficult to get out of their way, and reserved in her opinion concerning the growing regimen of prescribed medicines in James’s bathroom cabinet. Angelina’s special talent was cooking; and her remarkable ability to cram the maximum amount of calories into the least plate-space.
You see, Ella had discovered James’s weakness. James was addicted to food. Looking on, she pecked like a bird at her own portions while her husband, kept afloat on a pontoon of alchohol, wolfed his way through trenchers of buttered vegetables, roasted meats and compound sauces. As a reward, Ella might have expected James’s girth to reflect the richness of his diet, as Angelina’s undoubtedly did. But no, he remained as slim as a whip while his pallor altered from a healthy pink, through beetroot red, to an ominous grey.
Meanwhile, the good life was there to be lived, so Ella lived it to the full. She lacked for nothing other than the independence she craved, and the only smeary bit on her rose-tinted window was Maggie. Somehow her friend had lost enthusiasm for the aims they had shared. Despite Ella’s urgent warnings, rather than reap the harvest of her success in business, Maggie had chosen to marry Fergus. They shared a gentle, almost resigned affection Ella could not penetrate, no matter how often she reminded her friend of their original vows to one another. Maggie’s only response would be a sad smile, which Ella suspected was an expression of pity.
“Look, Mags, you’ve done well, there’s no denying. You’re wealthy, even. But you haven’t got to where we promised to be: you can’t leave your business, so there are no summers on the Riviera, no homes in the Bahamas. There’s no yacht in your harbour. You’ve given up on it, girl!”
Maggie replied with that same smile. “No, I haven’t. Give me some time.”
This conversation was raised again in the year of Ella’s twelfth wedding anniversary, when her beloved husband’s overloaded flesh finally surrendered to a massive heart attack which, by the time Ella had found the telephone to summon medical help, had already proved fatal. Maggie attended the funeral; more in support of her friend than for any other apparent reason, because Ella was being shunned by James’s family, and together they indulged in a little genteel weeping.
“He was such a kind man.”
“He was always so thoughtful. How is Fergus?”
The subject came to prominence just once more, on the first anniversary of the passing of James Maltravers. Maggie’s mobile fluttered.
“Mags sweetie. Come over for coffee, yes? Or maybe something stronger? It’s a year today, after all! Kind of a celebration, here, and me rattling round this great mausoleum all by myself.”
“You sound sort of scared?”
“I’ve been in that damn laundry room again. It seriously spooks me, that place.”
Maggie arrived within the hour, bearing Champagne. “Where’s Angelina?” She asked, as soon as she arrived.
“Hell, Mags, where you been? I had to let her go; oh, ages back.” Ella dismissed any possibility of conversation on that subject with an airy gesture. For some reason she felt she should not admit to ‘paying Angelina off’.
“So you’re here on your own now?”
“Isn’t it wonderful? I’ll get some fresh help, of course; but just for a while an echo or two seems good.”
“Yeah, dust is good. What was it you said: ‘rattling around in this mausoleum’?”
“I was depressed. I’d been loading up the washer downstairs. I’ve been thinking: maybe it would be better to have a pool down there, how about that?”
“Don’t rush into it.”
“Come on, babe, let’s get canned, yeah?”
Maggie understood it had not been an easy year for Ella: James’s will had been contested, and yes, there was some unpleasantness, although nothing Ella couldn’t handle. In the end, she had her inheritance. She was a multi-millionaire; a status she had always sought. Yet she seemed almost to prefer the solitude of her widowhood, for no-one with her kind of riches could fail to attract company of one sort or another. The magnificent proportions of the house, with its endless corridors and extravagant excess of marble would have been intimidating to any lesser woman. Why did the words ‘as cold as her heart’ pass through Maggie’s head?
The anniversary became an uninhibited morning lubricated by very good champagne, and by the time Maggie had poured out ‘one last drinkie’ Ella was drunk beyond shame. She proclaimed her intention to go to bed.
“I’ve just got to take out some washing from the ‘chine. That goddam noise, it’s so loud now. I hate it!”
“You go ahead, Ell. I’ll see myself out, yeah?”
So Ella was alone as she snaked her way down the stairs to the utility room in Maltravers House; buoyed up by wine and unsympathetically inclined towards those odd vibrations: those sounds. Yet once she was inside – once she had closed the door behind her – they found her again. Louder now; much, much louder, like the tick of a thousand clocks they found resonance with the champaigne bubbles in her head and turned it: around, and around, and around. Stranded somewhere between anger and fear, Ella made a grab for her washing basket, missed, and crashed to the floor. She was drunk – much drunker than she had thought. Cursing, she raised herself and attempted to crawl towards the washing machine that waited for her at the centre of the bank of machines. There seemed to be more and more machines: washers and driers, pressers and steamers in ranks of cold steel that whirled about her. What was happening to her head? Her vision danced, her eyes were blurring.
At the edge of consciousness, Ella fell back onto the floor of the utility room. Above her, faded and indistinct at first although growing in clarity with every moment, she thought she saw the image of her husband crucified against the ceiling, his body half in decay, his eye sockets empty, his outstretched arms festooned with rotted flesh. Did she scream? Was there anyone to hear her, to hear the explosion of noise, the staccato cracking rupture of the beams above her head? ? How profound was her terror as the ghost of James Maltravers rushed down upon her, to wrap her in a final, deadly embrace?
Maggie’s attorney laid aside any doubt. “Your agreement with Mrs. Maltravers stands. It has not been superseded by any new bequests.”
Maggie knew that it had not. Ella had always been honest with her. “I get everything then?” She recalled the day, all those years ago, when she had sat in this same office with her friend as they pledged that whatever fortunes each should make, they would bequeath to the other.
The attorney nodded. “All of it. The Maltraver’s estate with all of its liquid assets, property and land. Now you have to decide when and how you wish me to initiate your divorce proceedings.”
As she opened the door to the street Maggie breathed deeply. She had played a game and won! She had been patient, she had taken her time, watching Ella’s scheming and revelling in the element of chance, the randomness of her own little plot.
The coroner had remarked upon the unusually localised nature of death watch beetle infestation in the Maltravers mansion, but conceded it was not unusual for these pests to make their home in old timbers. The beams beneath the snooker table in the games room had been eaten through by the creatures, so it was only a matter of time before the 2400lb table plummeted through the floor into the utility room below. The collapse of the table’s heavy Victorian lighting canopy and its impact like a hammer blow upon the table had triggered the process. He recorded a verdict of accidental death.
Maggie, of course, knew why the infestation had been so concentrated. She knew because she had put the beetles there, culture upon culture of them, down the years; and when Ella had described the loudness of ticking sounds she heard on that fateful morning, Maggie knew her moment had come. While Ella, filled with Maggie’s drugged wine, was descending to the basement, Maggie was upstairs, letting herself into the games room. That rotten canopy needed no more than a nudge to bring it crashing down.
And now she had one more appointment to keep. Angelina would be waiting for her in Starbucks.
Angelina and Maggie had known one another a long time, but their relationship had become much closer in the last year. Angelina had supplied a copy key to the games room because, after Ella had dismissed her, she was no longer able to assist with Maggie’s sabotage. Angelina, who knew everything, and who was already handsomely rewarded for her silence, was about to have another major payday.
Maggie ordered coffee, sat down opposite the big woman, and handed her an envelope. When Angelina opened the envelope to reveal the check inside, her eyes widened. “This is big, big lot of money!”
“I do not ask for so much…”
Maggie stretched out both her hands and grasped Angelina’s pudgy fingers. “We’re friends, aren’t we? This is yours, you’ve earned it; you’re a rich woman now. Together, Angie, we can go on and make this grow. We can make much, much more money.”
“You would do that with me?”
“Yes! Of course, yes! That’s what friends do – they help each other. All I ask in return is one little condition; an agreement, if you like. If I die, Angie, all my money will go to you. Yes; yes it will! And I would like you to agree to do the same for me…”
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Photo credit: Rudi and Peter Skitterian from Pixabay