“Is this your wife?” I tried to sound polite. Take an interest. I wondered if she was still around. In truth, my money was already staked on a nasty divorce. I reckoned that Tinder could not be an easy man to live with.
He didn’t answer. A sick feeling cut into me, racing over my arms, leaving trails of goose bumps in its wake.
His expression was almost grotesque; his eyes glazed over, as if lost in another world. He seemed to completely forget that I was standing there. I coughed, cleared my throat. I was paid by the hour and didn’t have time to waste on his self-indulgence.
Roused back to life, he gave me a searching look which turned acidic, the corners of his mouth twitching as if his lips had been scalded, then suddenly his mood switched, “That’s my wife Claire. She moved out west.”
The bitter undertone caught my breath. I was right, and sensed it was a bad idea to indulge my curiosity any further. I dropped it, found the bathroom and put on my flowery coverall.
I have always preferred the owners to leave the house while I’m working, so as they don’t get under my feet. And I was more than a little relieved when I saw him pick up his raincoat. It was old and shabby. I rubbed my arms as a wave of nausea surged, stealing the blood from my face.
Maybe it was just the cheap wine that I drank last night? Or was it something else? An old memory surfaced. When I was little, my mother used to warn me about the strange men in raincoats who loitered in the park.
“The mop and bucket are in the basement,” he said gesturing to a door at the back of the kitchen. He saw me staring at his raincoat and his face hardened into a sneer, giving me a pretty good idea as to his attitude towards me. He saw me as a menial, someone he would get a kick out of ordering around. With no woman at home to bully, he was probably looking for an affordable power trip. Paid help was a convenient option.
“Women’s work,” I muttered to myself as I switched on the basement light. The single bulb casting little more than a few shadows, a yellow-white glare pasted on black.
The mop stood in the furthest corner, next to a camp bed and a battered tin bucket. I didn’t think much of it at the time; we were living in hurricane alley. Most homes had basements stocked with a few essentials, a torch, some blankets and a couple tins of food, just in case a big storm hit.
I grabbed the stinking mop and bucket. I was surprised at the fusty odour as the kitchen floor looked clean. Climbing back up the stairs, I paused halfway as searing pain from a rheumatic hip, grabbed my full attention. The sensation intensified and burned razor sharp through my joint. The fire continued into my throat, a scowl curling my lips. Dammit!
I could kill for a decent retirement plan!
But fantasizing wasn’t helping matters. I realized this as the basement door slammed shut, jolting me out of my daydream. I reached the top of the steps, swaying unsteadily. My palm slid over the brass knob without budging it. I wiped the sweat on my coverall and tried again. This time there was no mistake. The door was locked. I knew that beating on it would do no good. But I did it anyway, pounding until my fist bruised.
It became hard to breathe. Turning, I leaned against the door, staring down into the blackness. Why didn’t I have the sense to wedge it open? How many of those stupid movies had I watched, where someone gets trapped in the basement with a monster or madman?
Tinder – Mister Tinder as he insisted I call him – must have already left the house. So I had no choice but to wait until he returned. I suspected that he might secretly enjoy the opportunity to be mad that I wasted my time idling in the basement. And it would be no surprise if he didn’t pay me for my time. But surely, it was only natural that he would be at a little concerned about my wellbeing…
I had sat on the camp bed for hours when he finally returned. The hinges creaked and natural light from the kitchen framed his silhouette in the doorframe. I mounted the steps as fast as I could, expecting him to offer me some small comfort, maybe a concerned expression or a couple of soothing words. My knees grew shaky, as I gathered from his manic eyes that it was me who had been mistaken.
My prediction, that he would enjoy the chance to be mad and not pay me – was also wrong! It wasn’t the lack of anger that scared me, though. It was the dead calm surrounding his eyes, and the smile that spread like a slow tear across his face…
“The door must have slammed with a draft,” I blurted out, making my way up the steps as fast as my swollen hip would allow. I had no intention of spending another second in Tinder’s basement. He just stood there, blocking my way, glaring at me with a creepy smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
“There’s been a misunderstanding,” he said. His eyes widened somewhat, head tilted. “I need a live-in cleaner!” He gestured to the camp bed.
I stood there, stupefied, mouth opening and shutting like a fish in a net. Deftly caught.
To hell with my hip!
Tinder didn’t have a large build, and I reckoned I could knock him down the stairs if I needed to. I made a dash for the door.
But I hadn’t counted upon the hunting rifle, which he stabbed into my cheek.
I had no choice but to wait it out. I searched around the basement for something I could use as a weapon. But I couldn’t find anything. Eventually, I lay down on the camp bed, feeling exhausted; pain still surging through my hip. It was pointless shouting for help. There were no windows in the basement. And I was sure no-one outside could hear me as his house was up a dirt track. I tried pleading with him to open the door, in case he was listening on the other side. But it stayed firmly shut.
The camp bed was uncomfortable. The springs dug into my back. As I turned towards the wall to alleviate the ache in my spine, my finger slid into a groove. I pulled the bed away from the wall. The word “Claire” had been scraped into the brick work. I choked back a sob, that wasn’t just for me, hoping Claire had made it out west like Tinder had told me. After seeing her name scratched there –
I seriously doubted it.
The dim light, which had been left on, threw eerie shapes on the walls. I searched frantically until I found an uneven patch of dirt and then dug at it with my bare hands. Something shifted.
She hadn’t made it out west. Had never made it out of the basement. I felt the bile rise, burning my throat, forcing its way out of my mouth. I shuddered to the ground, retching.
I saw something glint through the shadows. It took me a minute or two to process, but there was no doubt: it was a diamond ring.
The same ring Claire was wearing in the photo that I had picked up in the lounge on that first morning; how long ago was that? With no natural light down here I was losing track of time. It was clear to me that Tinder was not intending to let me go. But who had ever heard of a hostage cleaner? It didn’t make sense. But then he didn’t make sense either.
One thing was certain – If he wanted me to clean, then at some point he would have to let me go upstairs.
I had to wait what seemed like an age to get hold of that photo, without him seeing. As it turned out, he was even crazier than I had imagined about the cleaning. There were all of these weird rules about how everything had to be done. He acted like this was some sort of military manoeuvre, kept barking orders and complaining about “breaches in cleaning discipline”.
Punishable by pain.
If I was to load the dishwasher “incorrectly” with the cups and plates in the wrong order, he would slam the door shut. With my hand still inside. If he found a mark on the floor after I had mopped it, he would pour boiling water on it – over my bare feet.
It seemed to amuse him, seeing me trying to hide the pain. I quickly worked out that the more pain I showed, the more pleasure he got from it, so I would try harder to hide my reaction… only for him to step up the “discipline” even more. It was a nightmare, which never eased. Just kept on getting worse.
I managed to get the photo of Claire down to the basement, smuggled under dirty water. When I removed it from the bucket, tears started pouring, the salt stinging my sore skin. The dark water had seeped through the frame, staining her smile. I felt a stab of shame at destroying Claire’s memory, but I could see no other way, and smashed the frame against the side of my bed.
The glass shattered, wide, across the dirt floor. I tried to bend down to pick up the pieces so I wouldn’t stand on them in my bare feet, but my hip gave way and I plunged down, feeling my head smack against the stone wall. I felt a lightening surge of pain as the wall shaved a layer of skin off my face. My body spasmed then gave way. The last thing I remember was grit and blood filling mouth, suffocating me, before I passed out.
When I came round, I had no idea how long I had been sprawled on the ground. I didn’t have the energy to cry. I stretched my limbs, cautiously, checking that nothing was broken, although, with the amount of pain I was in, it was difficult to tell.
During the time I was unconscious, I knew that Tinder had not been down into the basement as nothing had been disturbed. He hated mess, and would have punished me for making it. And there were no new injuries that I could feel. I reached out and grabbed the largest shard of glass I could find and hid it under my bed. Then sat up, trying to scoop the rest as best I could. My feet were still throbbing from the boiling water. The thought of standing on broken glass …
When a fragment pierced the skin under my fingernail, I forgot about my feet. And screamed. It seemed such a small thing to get hysterical over, when I had already suffered so much. But my whole body racked with sobs and I had no choice but to give in.
I had never, up until this point, been violent by nature – had spent my whole life cleaning up other peoples’ mess. But this mess was mine, and I knew that no one was going to rescue me. If I couldn’t find the strength to escape, I was going to die in Tinder’s basement.
He stood in the doorway, his wiry frame blackening the light. The rifle resting in his hand.
“I’ve fallen, broken my leg, you need to help me!” I pleaded, in that pathetic tone that he enjoyed so much.
He stared back, warily, as if I was mad and this situation couldn’t be happening. He didn’t believe me. So I turned my head towards him, letting him feast his eyes on my face. He should have reeled away in disgust – any normal person would – but he was fascinated.
I added a wounded groan for effect, and watched his smile deepen and spread like a disease over his face. I flailed down in the dirt, pretending to pass out.
Agonisingly slow, each step brought him closer, and brought me closer to what I knew I must do…
My heart pounded so loud, I could feel it echoing off the walls.
He stopped, leaned over me, rifle at his side. I forced myself up and lunged forward, the shard flashing past my face, stabbing into his neck. I felt blood pulsing over my fingers. Slimy and disgusting. The rifle jerked against my feet. I groaned, but didn’t let go. His hands were clawing at mine, scraping my skin raw. I held on. Pushed harder.
The blood sprayed across the walls, and pooled at his feet. I could hear myself laughing, like an actress in a cheap horror movie. Tinder glared back, his eyes bulging, stricken with panic.
I saw my chance to grab the rifle.
He was weakening now, with rapid blood loss, but as I loosened my grip on the glass to grab the rifle, he pulled the shard out of his neck.
I pointed the rifle at his face and fired.
And I’m not sure what made me madder: finding that it wasn’t loaded or seeing how pathetic he really was.
I waited: maybe a long time. It was difficult to tell. Watching without moving, just to be sure he was dead. It turned into a pathetic sight. The whole time he was bleeding out, he didn’t make any effort to disguise his pain. It was crazy, but this seemed to anger me the most. Where was his discipline now?
My leg wasn’t really broken, as Tinder had suspected. Although it still took me forever to haul my way up the steps. When I finally made it out of the basement, I felt an odd sense of calm. It felt surreal to be upstairs again; my eyes straining against the light.
I wasn’t too concerned about Claire and Tinder’s bodies being found. I figured everyone would believe Tinder had killed his wife and committed suicide. Why else would a man be found dead in his basement, next to his wife’s remains, with a fatal wound in his neck from glass in his fist? I thought about leaving the photo of Claire at the scene, to make it look more poignant. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave her behind.
Back at home, there a couple of messages from regular clients on my answerphone. One of them telling me he’d already found someone else, as I was “clearly unreliable and should be ashamed of myself for letting him down.”
“Good luck, you poor bitch!” I shouted to my replacement – whoever she was.
I had officially gone into retirement.
I was done with women’s work.
My retirement stash from the sale of Claire’s ring had been a hell of a lot more than I had expected. The diamonds alone were worth a small fortune. I knew something was up, when the dealer looked a little too excited when I showed him. He pretended that it wasn’t anything special, but I wasn’t fooled. I doubted that Tinder had bought that ring for her; maybe it was a family heirloom.
You may choose to believe that I stole the ring, but after what happened in Tinder’s basement, I feel Claire would have wanted me to have it. And it was thanks to me, indirectly, that her body was buried back in her home town.
Picking up the crumpled photo, I smoothed it out. It didn’t look so bad. I moved the picture of my late husband aside, and placed the photo in the centre of the mantle. As the evening light faded, I lit a fire in the hearth and poured myself a glass of Stone Hill. Not the cheap stuff. I needed something special for my toast.
It’s odd, but as I raised my glass to her photo, I saw Claire’s smile flicker back to life. Maybe I was a little tipsy? Or, perhaps it was my imagination? I swear there was no mistake. That night Claire’s smile blazed through the darkness so bright; it was on fire.