by P.J. Blakey-Novis
Meredith O'Brien's house was a small one; a red-brick construction built to last. Nearly ninety years on, and it was almost as solid as the day it had been built. The only structural change in all this time had been to move the toilet indoors, and this had been put-off until Meredith's husband, Bill, had become too ill to trudge to the outhouse each time he felt the urge. That had merely been a decade ago, and Bill had struggled on for another four years before the prostate cancer finally took him, leaving Meredith alone. Living independently after almost sixty years of marriage took some adjustment, but Meredith found it to not be anywhere near as unpleasant as she had expected.
Of course, there was sadness, she had lost her husband, but she was not one to mope, and certainly had no intention of joining him any sooner than necessary. They had been unable to have children, and most of their friends had either moved away or been cremated by this point, and so Meredith passed her time painting, and writing the novel she had always dreamed of completing. Life was peaceful, and this was how Meredith liked things. She still found herself talking aloud, on occasion, with comments that would have been aimed at Bill, if only he could hear her. Meredith took pleasure in reading each completed chapter from her armchair, as if reading to a keen listener rather than her empty house. Life would have stayed this way too, if it wasn't for those bastard developers.
Once a week, Meredith left the house to shop for groceries, carefully planning what she would eat so as not to have to go any other days. This was always on a Friday morning, after breakfast, and before she sat down to add to her piece of fiction. The small, red-brick house was one of only four properties which had remained homes on that street; the rest gradually being renovated and marketed as retail premises. Meredith was a frugal woman who had no interest in the shops that had sprung up along her little street over the past few years. Food was a necessity, a bottle of Mother's Ruin was a treat once a month, but she needed little else.
Her lack of interest in the opening of other businesses meant that she did not notice when they began to close, either. Until, one rainy Friday morning, she couldn't get her groceries. The shop's windows were whitewashed, with no sign of life. Of course, there had been a closing down sign in all the windows for weeks before it had actually happened, but Meredith never took the time to read the signs. All that remained was a small poster displaying the address of the nearest store. The rain was becoming heavier, and Meredith could not remember the last time she had ventured farther than where she currently stood. Bewildered, she ventured to the end of the street and glanced in all directions, hoping it would not be too far to go.
An hour later, Meredith dragged her tartan shopping trolley through her front door, removed her soaking coat, and slumped into an armchair to think. She didn't like the shop she had found; it was expensive, farther away, and the people working there couldn't speak English. She scolded herself a little for her casual racism but could not deny that she found it irritating being unable to understand what the staff were saying to one another.
Unaware of any other options, Meredith resigned herself to the same journey on the following Friday. She was thankful that the weather was far more pleasant this time and made a conscious effort to take in her surroundings. She lived exactly half-way along the street. There were twelve properties for her to pass as she headed towards the junction at the end of the road. Nine businesses, including the grocery shop, all had either closed signs in the windows, whitewashed windows, or heaps of mail visible through the glass doors. There were three houses and, despite the lack of any sold signs on display, they looked long-since abandoned.
"This town is really going downhill," Meredith mumbled to herself, hoping the new shop would have some decent gin, and feeling desperate to get home.
Almost four weeks passed, the days filled with the usual routine, until there came a knock at the door. Three hard knocks, in fact, which caused Meredith to jump a little, and adding too much paint to the brush she was holding.
"Who on earth could that be?" she mumbled. No-one ever came to visit, there was no-one she knew well enough. Meredith's first thought was that it could be someone selling something, either tat she didn't need, or a religion that she had no interest in. In which case, it would be simpler to ignore the caller. Surely there are too few homes along here now to justify sending out salespeople? Meredith pondered. Or someone needs help? A little reluctantly, she made her way to the door and opened it, letting out an audible sigh. She was greeted by two overweight men in suits, both wearing lanyards, one holding a clipboard.
"Good afternoon Mrs. O'Brien. My name is Patrick Matthews, and this is my colleague, Daniel Smith."
"I'll stop you there," Meredith began. "I have everything I need, both physically, and spiritually."
"We're not here to sell you anything," Smith interjected. "We're following up on the letter that we sent you some months ago, regarding your house." Meredith's face was blank.
"Did you not receive our letter, Mrs. O'Brien?"
"I don't open my mail," she explained. "No-one writes to me, my bills are all paid, and everything else is junk."
"I see," Matthews said, looking a little nervous. The letter would have given some warning, but now he had to do it himself. "You have probably noticed that the other properties on this street have closed, the homes are empty?"
"I'm aware of that. I have to walk farther to get my shopping now, and I'm not happy about it."
"Sorry to hear that. We represent the firm which has purchased the properties on this street, with a view to developing the land. Due to the generous offers made, we have had no difficulty in obtaining them all. Except yours, Mrs. O'Brien." Meredith stared at the men for a moment, processing what she had heard.
"My house is not for sale, if that's what you're getting at?"
"We are aware of the market value, Mrs. O'Brien, which has dropped since the closures of the businesses around you. We are willing to offer you fifty per cent over and above that value."
"I don't care if you are offering one hundred times the value; the house is not for sale. I'm too old to be moving to a new house now, I have enough money for myself, with no-one to leave it to if I had more. I'll be in this house until they take me out in a box." With that, Meredith closed the front door, and headed to the kitchen to fix a large gin. Her hands shook as she poured a triple measure into the tumbler, hating confrontation but angry at the audacity of the developers, and upset by the thought of her home being demolished. Despite having stated her position clearly, Meredith had a niggling suspicion that they would not give up quite so easily.
Two days had passed before Matthews and Smith returned. Meredith tried ignoring the banging at the door, but they were persistent, and she had had enough.
"I've told you I'm not selling," she stated, before either man could speak.
"We understand that, Meredith. May I call you Meredith?" Smith began.
"No, you may not," Meredith snapped back.
"Apologies. We have discussed the conversation we had last time and feel able to make you a substantially higher offer. Now, I know..." was as far as the conversation went before Smith found the door closing in his face. Instinctively, he placed a foot against the door frame, preventing it shutting completely. Meredith tried to hide the fear from her face as she took a step back, focusing on the feeling of anger instead.
"If my husband was still alive, you wouldn't get away with this behaviour! Now move your foot before I call the police!"
Matthews nodded at Smith, who slowly retracted his foot. No sooner had he moved it than the door slammed shut, seemingly of its own accord. Meredith stared at the door, trying to convince herself that, despite the stillness in the air, it had blown shut.
"Stupid woman," she heard one of them say. "Looks like it's Plan B."
Plan B? Meredith wondered. Offer more money? Send in the heavies? Do people really do that? Well, I won't be bullied out of my home. The return of the two men had set Meredith on edge, and she double-locked the front door as a precaution against their return.
Jason sat in greasy cafe cradling his coffee as he awaited his employers. It was shady business, but he'd been doing their dirty work for years by this time, and never considered quitting. The money was good, as with most illegal employments, and he took a certain pleasure in completing each task. He glanced towards the door as the two suits walked in, taking the seats across the table from him.
"What you got for me?" Jason asked. Matthews slid a scrap of paper across the sticky table, an address written on it.
"The boss needs this place. But the owner won't sell."
"How many in the house?" Jason asked.
"Just her; Meredith O'Brien. She's old, got to be more than eighty. No interest in money, says she's too old to move. Stubborn woman."
"OK," Jason replied, downing the last mouthful of cold coffee and standing to leave.
"Whatever it takes," Matthews told him, grabbing his arm. "We need her out within the week." Jason leaned towards Matthews' face and grinned.
"Take your fucking hand off me, unless you want to lose it." Matthews withdrew his hand, keeping eye contact with Jason.
"Just do what we pay you for." And Jason was gone.
Meredith rarely looked out on the street, preferring the view of her small back garden, which her painting room provided her with. This meant that for the rest of the day, Jason could observe the house from his car without being noticed. He clocked a few lights coming on and off inside, confirming that the owner was at home. He noted in his small notebook that she did not leave the house on that day. Once it was late enough to assume that Mrs. O'Brien would be sleeping, he approached the front door and gently tried the handle. There was no room for movement and hoping that the coast was clear, he shone a torch between the door and the frame. Double-locked. Shit. On the left-hand side of the house ran a narrow pathway, leading to the side entrance of the building next-door. A building that had once been a home, then a Polish food shop, and now sat empty. Carefully, Jason side-stepped past three plastic wheelie bins overflowing with rubbish. To his disappointment, there was no side door, or garden entrance, to Meredith's property. There was, however, also no lighting at the back of the property, and he was completely hidden from sight. The garden was bordered by a fence, approximately six feet in height, but certainly scalable.
Keeping his torch off, Jason pulled himself over the fence and slid quietly onto the flower bed that ran the length of the garden, destroying a couple of pansies on the way. The house sat in darkness, and he could just about make out the white uPVC frame of the back door, which led from the garden into the kitchen. He tried the door, on the off-chance it had been left unlocked, but no such luck. He decided to call it a night, once he had left his mark in the garden. After Jason had pulled up every flower that he could manage, kicking dirt across the lawn, he turned his attention to the ornaments, knocking them over, or simply flipping them upside-down. All the while, he could not shake the feeling that he was being watched. This kind of nocturnal, criminal activity was not something new to Jason, and there was always a little paranoia about being spotted. However, this felt different, like there were eyes on him. It was as he turned to destroy the bird bath that he was startled by something moving; a shadow in the periphery of his vision. He looked around but saw nothing. As his foot connected with the bird bath once again, the shadow seemed to swirl around him for a second before disappearing. Bastard cat, he thought, optimistically. Cat or no cat, Jason was sufficiently spooked to be on his way.
Meredith almost dropped her tea cup when she looked out of the kitchen door on the following morning. Despite the garden being small, she kept it presentable. The grass area was kept tidy, the beds were always filled with seasonal flowers, and the ornate wooden bird table (which Bill had hand-carved himself) sat proudly in the centre. That is, until now. Huge chunks of grass and soil had been ripped from the lawn, every single flower had been yanked out by the roots and, most upsetting of all, the bird table now lay scattered in pieces. She had never experienced anything like this before and had no doubts as to who was responsible. Without hesitation, Meredith called the police, foolishly thinking that they would be able to catch the perpetrator.
"We will have a chat with the men who came by," the officer told her, with a look that said 'Don't get your hopes up.' "But there is a good chance this was just kids. In the meantime, keep your house secure and get in touch if anything else happens." The police gave the garden another quick look-over before making their exit, all under the watch of Jason, who was parked a few buildings down from the house.
Deciding to deal with the mess outside a little later, Meredith grabbed her shopping trolley and made her way out the front door, double-locking it and trying the handle to be certain. She was visibly shaken, glancing up and down the street before she began the journey. It has to have been those bastards, she told herself. Surely when the police confront them, they will back off. From the crossroads, it was another ten-minute walk to the convenience store. She dragged her cart around, unable to concentrate on what she was really doing, not noticing the man who watched her from the end of each aisle. Once she had paid, and made her way outside, she did not notice him approach her from behind until he was inches from her face.
"You really should think about moving," he said with a grin. "At your age, people tend to have a lot of falls." Before she could reply, Jason was running ahead of her, disappearing out of sight. Meredith froze, attempting to process the threat she had received, unsure of what to do. However, it wasn't fear that she felt, as much as anger. The police will have to act now!
Meredith's pace quickened, as she hurried home to call the police. The fear that this unpleasant man could be waiting for her loitered at the back of her mind, but the idea of heading straight to the police station didn't occur to her. Reaching the door to her home, Meredith fumbled inside her handbag trying to locate her keys.
"For goodness' sake!" she muttered, slowly removing each item in her search. As she took out the last objects, a look of horror spread across her face as she realised they were not there. She knew full well that she had needed to use them to lock her front door, and the chance of them simply falling from her bag was virtually zero. Cautiously, Meredith tried the door, half expecting it to be unlocked and her assailant waiting within. However, the door remained firmly closed, with no way for her to gain entry.
For ten minutes, Meredith stood outside of her own home, weighing up her options, trying to hold back the tears that were forming. Taking the walk to the police station was her only choice now, but before she had taken a step, a car pulled up beside her.
"Having some difficulties, Mrs. O'Brien?" Matthews shouted through the open car window, barely concealing the smug look on his face. Meredith reacted before thinking, anger taking hold, and she marched towards the car, swinging her now empty handbag at the man. Her attack was met with laughter. "Calm down, love. This is all going to be fine." Matthews reached into his jacket pocket and passed Meredith a folded piece of paper. She opened it, staring incredulously at the cheque. It was a large sum of money, but she had no intention of accepting it and tore it to pieces in front of him, scattering the pieces in the breeze.
"I'm going to the police. You've effectively stolen my home."
Matthews feigned a worried look.
"Fine. You can have your keys back. We give up." He handed the bunch of keys over, which Jason had passed to him at the far end of the road. Meredith snatched them away from him, scuttling inside without noticing that there was one missing.
Meredith tried to predict how the police would act. After all, she had her keys back, and these bastards had, albeit unconvincingly, said they were giving up on their attempts to buy her home. I should report it anyway; at least get it on record somewhere in case they return.
"We'll get an officer out to see you, Mrs. O'Brien, but it may not be until tomorrow, I'm afraid." This wasn't the news that Meredith wanted to hear, but she remained polite and thanked the switchboard operator. She had rolled her eyes when advised to keep the doors and windows locked, trying to resist making a sarcastic comment about how she had planned to leave everything open for anyone to wander in. With a hot cup of tea, Meredith sat herself in the armchair and thought over the events of the day.
"They wouldn't dare to do this if you were still here Bill," she said aloud, her eyes falling on their wedding photograph, which sat on the mantel piece. "You'd take care of everything." Meredith could feel her eyes moisten, as she fought back tears. "Why did you have to leave?" she said, a hint of anger evident. A gust of wind caused the curtains to flap, startling Meredith. Certain the windows had been closed, she stood up, to find that they still were. She looked around the room in confusion, teacup still in hand. Meredith let out a yelp as the small cupboard door in the corner of the living room swung open. Transfixed she stood, rooted to the spot, as two scenic jigsaw puzzles appeared to fall from the space, followed by a very old Scrabble set. Then nothing.
After a good ten minutes of not knowing how to react, Meredith put the events down to something explainable, despite the fact she could not fathom what. Only as she went to place the items back in the cupboard did she feel it, feel him, gently touching her arm. She flinched at the cold touch, but the familiarity of it was undeniable.
"Bill?" she whispered, trembling, and feeling a little silly for even thinking he could still be around. The Scrabble set moved. Meredith cautiously bent down to pick it up, but an unseen force knocked it from her hands, scattering the lettered tiles across the carpet. Feeling faint, Meredith sat back in her chair, staring at the floor as the tiles began to move.
First an 'I' took its place in front of her, at her feet, before being joined by more letters. Meredith's eyes widened as the words formed; I didn't leave, Merry. No-one but Bill had called her Merry, not ever. She had no doubt that he was there, but the shock was enough for her pass out where she sat.
By the time she regained consciousness, more letters had been added, telling Meredith that Bill loved her. She watched as they shifted back and forth, unseen hands spelling out the words that he would keep her safe when those men returned. However, Meredith didn't care anymore. Having never been particularly religious, she hadn't expected there to be anything beyond the earthly life. Now she had no doubts that they could reunite in death, and she wanted nothing more than to join her husband.
"I want to come with you," she told him. "They can have the damned house." The tiles moved, more slowly this time as if Bill was unsure how to respond. 'Not yet', Meredith read, followed by 'not because of them'. She began to sob. "I'm ready, Bill. You have no idea how lonely I've been! What do you want me to do? Keep living alone, our conversations reliant on bloody Scrabble tiles?!" There was a pause, much longer than Meredith expected, as Bill was clearly thinking through their options. The tiles shifted purposefully. 'Revenge first'.
Bill was angry, that much was clear to Meredith. The threat she was facing had, through an unexpected series of events, caused her to want to die. The developers had essentially killed Meredith, whether it had been their intention or not. The tiles jumped about on the rug. 'Call them'. Meredith pondered Bill's intentions, doubting that inviting those men to the house would end well for them. "I can't," Meredith began.
Before she could speak again, a clatter from the kitchen startled her. Curtains and papers rustled in the living room as Bill moved about. She could swear she saw a shadow leave the room and head towards the kitchen. Hands trembling, heart racing, Meredith followed and found Jason stood in her kitchen.
"What the hell are you doing in my house?" Meredith demanded, trying to hide her fear. "I'm calling the police!" Jason lunged towards the elderly woman, grabbing her by the forearm and turning her back to face him.
"I'm only doing my job, lady. You'd be much better off just selling the house." Jason couldn't read the expression on Meredith's face, a mixture of fear and surprise, followed by a smirk of satisfaction. If he had seen what came from behind him, Jason would have understood, but the first thing he noticed was the warm sensation in the side of his neck. Jason's grip on Meredith eased a little as he raised his free hand up to the now wet area. Dabbing his fingers in the moisture, he examined his hand to see the unmistakable crimson of his own blood. He placed a hand on the kitchen counter to steady himself, as dizziness took hold. Jason did his best to see who was behind him, but the knife struck again, plunging into his side repeatedly until he gurgled his final breath, drenched in red from head to toe.
Meredith stared as her kitchen knife etched words into the wooden counter-top. 'Call them.' She was afraid, not only of the men who wanted her gone from her home, but now of Bill. Such a level of violence was out of character for him, certainly whilst he had been alive, but death brings a greater degree of freedom. Attempting to keep her voice level, Meredith retrieved the crumpled letter from her waste paper bin and dialled the number.
"Mr. Matthews?" she began. "Meredith O'Brien." There was a moment of hesitation. Probably wondering if his thug has been here yet, Meredith thought.
"Mrs. O'Brien, what a lovely surprise. What can I do for you?"
"I wish to sell the house. But it needs to be tonight."
"Well, I can't pretend to not be happy about that. What brought on the sudden change of heart?" Matthews asked, unsure if he really wanted to know.
"I'm sure you can guess, Mr. Matthews. I'm too old for all this nonsense, and as much as I think that you, and your firm, are the lowest of all God's creatures, I'm not going to stay here worrying about what you'll do next. Bring your cheque book and a contract round, and let's get this over with." With that, Meredith hung up the receiver and returned to the kitchen. Gingerly stepping over the body on her linoleum flooring, taking care not to slip on the ever-increasing blood puddle, Meredith poured a large gin into one of her crystal tumblers. "The ball's in your court now, Bill," she said aloud.
Barely fifteen minutes later came a knock at the door, and Meredith was greeted by Mr. Matthews.
"Come in," she said, trying to hide her disappointment that he had come alone. "Your partner couldn't make it?"
"I didn't think it was necessary to drag him out; I'll call him when we are done. Where would you like me?"
"Living room," Meredith replied, nodding her head towards the nearest door. She followed him in, taking her position in the armchair, whilst he sat across the room from her.
"It's a pretty standard contract," he began. "It states that you are happy to transfer the deeds for the property over to the development firm, at the price stated within. The only parts which need completing are your signature, and the date at which the transfer would take place. How soon are you able to move?"
"Tomorrow," she told him. His eyes registered surprise, but he certainly looked pleased that it could be so soon. "And I would like the cheque made out to the local hospital. They took care of my husband before he passed, so it seems like the right thing to do."
"The whole amount?" the man asked, a little uncertain. "Do you not need some for the purchase of another property?"
"Do you want to buy the bloody house or not? What business is it of yours what I do with my money?" Meredith fixed him with a glare, and he said no more, reaching into his case for the cheque book and a pen. Meredith folded the payment in half, sliding it into her blouse pocket, before signing the contract.
"Well, that wasn't too painless, was it?" Matthews said, a little smugly.
"Not yet," Meredith mumbled. Matthews stood to leave, the contract still firmly in his hands. "Oh, one more thing. Have you met my husband, Bill?" A puzzled look spread over his face. Old bat's gone a bit senile, he thought.
"Er, I thought you said your husband had died, Mrs. O'Brien?"
"Yes, he is dead, that's correct. Nevertheless, he'd still like to meet you." Meredith grinned at the man, who looked a little flustered. Before he could take a step, the curtains flapped again. Matthews managed to get as far as the doorway of the living room before being launched backwards by an unseen force, hitting his head against the fireplace.
"What the fuck?" he mumbled, looking up at Meredith. Matthews felt a weight on his chest, keeping him to the ground. He screamed for help, unable to understand his predicament.
"Screaming won't help, I'm afraid. All the buildings around here are empty, remember?" Meredith looked content as she watched on from her armchair. The fireplace had not been used for decades, but it was ornamental, complete with an antique basket containing a brush, shovel, tongs, and poker. Meredith watched as the poker appeared to float in mid-air, before slamming down into the wooden floor board, piercing Matthews' hand and securing him to the spot. He let out another scream, but it became muffled as the tongs entered his mouth, snapping at his tongue. They were blunt, but Bill's ghostly grip was tight, and the gurgling sound which accompanied the spurt of blood signified the loss of Mr. Matthews' tongue. There was only a soft moan, as the poker was ripped back through the man's hand and appeared to be aimed at his genitals.
"There's no need for that!" Meredith scalded her husband. "Just get it over with, please." The poker moved quickly, aligning itself with Matthews' face, specifically above his left eye. He tried to wriggle his head away from under the weapon but could not get it to move far enough. Meredith watched as the front of Mr. Matthews' navy-blue suit trousers darkened with urine, only seconds before Bill dealt his death-blow. As quick as an arrow, the poker forced its way through eye and brain with a squelch. His right leg twitched momentarily, then all was still.
"I need to find a stamp," Meredith explained, rising from her chair, cheque in hand. The rather large payment was quickly sealed into an envelope, addressed, and stamped. "I'm going to post this, then I'll be back," she told Bill. The street was silent, to her relief, and she made her way to the end of the road as quickly as possible, where the nearest post box stood. The redness of the box reminded her of the scene inside her home, and for a brief moment she felt something similar to regret. Too late now, she told herself, knowing there was only one way in which this could end. Letting herself back through the front door, and removing her coat, Meredith took to her armchair for what she knew would be the last time.
"So, Bill, how do we do this?" No answer. The tiles remained still on the floor. "Don't wimp out on me now Bill, I thought you were going to do this?" Meredith sat upright, eyes glistening with tears as she wondered if she could go through with suicide. "Bill!" she pleaded, letting tears fall. A cushion rose from the chair that had recently been Matthews' resting pace and moved towards Meredith. She smiled, whispering a 'thank-you'. As she closed her eyes, feeling the soft fabric press against her face, she did not try to fight it. Her chest began to sting as her lungs failed to fill, her head feeling lighter, until she was no more.
Moments passed before she could see again, but now everything had a vibrant tone to it. She gazed into Bill's eyes as he dropped the cushion and kissed her fully. "Merry, my darling. I've missed you more than words could ever convey."
"And I, you William. But you never have to miss me again."
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”