BY JAMES BEMBRIDGE
Though it’s not customary to receive the bin man with celebration, in the early hours of Sunday 16th February it was not a customary position that I would find myself in. For amongst the empty packets of quail eggs, gooseberry yogurt pots and other banalities of general waste, lay the ashes of my dead neighbour.
She’d been in there for at least a week, that I knew of, and was somehow proving to be more of a menace to me in death than she ever was alive – even when she was at her liveliest and pursuing me with libel and litigation.
The event wasn’t without ceremony as an assemblage of pigeons had solemnly formed on the wall above the bins. When only a few weeks ago, in her material form, she sat in the patio aiming cigarette buds at the birds like darts, I don’t imagine she expected the poor creatures were to be her only mourners, nor that the closest she would get to a eulogy would be their pale excrement now running down the lid of her provisional coffin.
To give an account of how her ashes came to be there, I’m afraid I must forgo that maxim that says we must speak no ill of the dead, for if there were any charitable qualities to my neighbour then they were kept remarkably well hidden.
Last year after purchasing a roof apartment I moved from one Derbyshire village to another. As the previous owner, Mike, was also that of the freehold, the opportunity came to purchase that along with it. It didn’t concern Mike whether it went to me, the other residents, or was shared amongst us, just that it shouldn’t go to the woman on the ground floor – he was quite emphatic about that. I thought it odd that the woman was spoken of in such ominous terms but as I’d moved from renting to buying with the intention of having greater independence, I wasn’t prepared to give someone ground rent and thus didn’t object to seeing this woman out of the race.
It was agreed between him, his solicitor and I that we would wait until it could be sure the ground floor woman was away in her Gibraltar home before notifying residents of the freehold’s availability. As it happened, the remaining two residents weren’t interested in the thing, so after money was exchanged and signatures were made, I became the freeholder.
Life there was uneventful until the day came that I opened my door to what I assumed to be a thieving tramp. I had made some attempt at hiding away and turning the television off, but this clearly went no way to convincing it of my absence as the wretched thing had been banging incessantly for over ten minutes.
Once unsealed, I was met at the door with what I can only describe as an evil smell emanating from a thing of inscrutable gender. Everything about its appearance looked either desiccated or discoloured. Everything apart from the teeth, that is. Perhaps they were completely ordinary teeth and only looked such a brilliant white when viewed against its sallow complexion, but it was the teeth that bothered me the most, or the smile rather, and its distinct lack of sincerity. There was something frightfully uncanny about it, like an alien effecting a smile in an attempt to convince us of its humanity.
‘I’ve got your post’, it croaked. Though rough and somewhat brutish, I could now ascertain that this voice belonged to a woman. ‘Yes, I’m afraid I don’t have any change for you so just leave it on the step there.’ I tried to convey a sound of dismissive disgust. Alerted by the tone of my voice that she was about to be shut out, attempts were made to soften her tone and stretch that ghastly grin wider still.
’No, I’m your neighbour, Ruth… I live on the ground floor.’
I had barely any time to absorb that revelation before she gave way to tears.
There was the vague sense of a trap being laid around me, though courtesy prevented me from doing anything about it. In fact, it was courtesy with which she had trapped me, for she knew that I could hardly leave her there wailing like a bleating calf – especially if I intended to squeeze her for ground rent in the future. So, I awkwardly made some sympathetic mumblings. After calming down, she beckoned me to join her for some wine. And so I was snared.
I don’t think it was quite the assurance she thought it was when I stepped into her apartment and was told that I wasn’t to feel trapped as all the doors were unlocked.
The relative normality and lack of odour in her apartment suggested to me that she didn’t spend much time there. As I sat on the sofa she had gestured to, then waited for her to fetch my bait, my eye wandered to a row of photos. Pictures of Ruth with what I assumed to be past partners. Be it alcohol or cigarettes, she wasn’t to be seen in any of them without one form of poison in hand. They must have been taken at least twenty years ago, but perhaps by getting herself in these drunken states the time seemed somehow less distant.
As I mused over Ruth’s pitiful situation and was almost warming to the idea of her just being a misunderstood eccentric, my sympathies were interrupted by the brash tones of Shirley Bassey’s ‘Big Spender’. What fresh hell was this?
I became aware of spastic jerks being made in my peripheral vision.
As she began thrusting her emaciated, mucus-filled chest back and forth in my direction I wondered what I had done to deserve such a performance. I think, as she had no doubt heard that I shared my apartment with a man, it was expected of me to say ‘fabulous darling’ or some such facile gay utterance. But as this demented spectacle had left me somewhat speechless, it was left to her to fill in the silence. She held a cigarette with one hand, put the other on her hip and looked at the mirror defiant as she said something about believing beauty to be subjective – considering what was staring back at her, I thought it just as well that she did.
To give my eyes reprieve, I lowered them to the coffee table. Only then did the magnitude of my mistake in going there become clear: the wine was a mouthwash Merlot, bottled only the previous year. Noticing that I was readying my escape, her demeanour took another about-turn and her true intentions revealed themselves in shriekings about the freehold. She was incensed that I owned it as it would have added value to her apartment, which it turned out she had hoped to sell.
The next morning, I was told I had apparently made a fool of myself at a restaurant the night before, that was despite my only drink of alcohol being a glass of that wretched Merlot. I could barely remember even being at the restaurant. Having no doubt that the bitch had spiked my drink, I vowed not to have any future dealings with her and left it to my solicitor to read the letters of vitriolic verbiage and not-so-veiled threats that she was so fond of sending my way.
Alas, fate would see it that our paths would cross again when one night a pipe burst in my apartment, leaving me at the mercy of emergency plumbers. The apartment below me was rented out to holidaymakers and as the poor sods’ holiday had been dampened by my leak, so to speak, I sought to console them the only way I knew how and left to fetch some wine from Tesco. When I came back that evil smell of cigarettes and cheap booze whirled around the stairwell. Sure enough there was Ruth, menacing me with her iPhone. ‘I have pictures, you’re finished now. There’s no coming back from this. You’re finished!‘ Not wishing to traumatise the holiday couple any further, I slammed the door on her – an action that she would later claim had trapped her fingers. Lies.
After fixing the leak and assuring me that it had left no serious damage, the plumbers then asked if I knew the woman on the ground floor. I was braced to defend myself against whatever crazed accusations she had been making, though defence proved to be unnecessary as it transpired that they, too, bore witness to her insanity. It was not only a relief to have professional tradesmen verify my neighbour’s psycho bitch tendencies but their testimony could prove to be quite useful. Should Ruth find a solicitor unethical enough to take her money and pursue any of her ridiculous cases against me, I now had reputable witnesses to discredit her character. From what they told me, the plumbers were subjected to an even darker horror than I. Before engaging in her two habits of crying and screaming, she had tried to solicit herself to them.
Some months later, the dinning of sirens brought an end to a period of uncharacteristic silence from the ground floor. I was concerned to see that they didn’t belong to an ambulance. The people in the apartment beneath us – the owners that is, not the holidaymakers – told us that the police were battering down Ruth’s door and asked if we wanted to join them for wine whilst we waited to learn for what reason they were taking this drastic action. Although, I think we were all quite aware of the reason. It wasn’t a testament to Ruth’s rude health that an army of empty wine bottles had become something of a garden feature.
After being slightly relieved to hear her passing was believed to be natural, I tried to say something about what a sad state of affairs it all was but soon realised that to do so would be to misjudge the mood as the other resident shouted ‘Look Yvonne, she’s folded over like a fucking pancake’. This was met by the hyenic laughter of his wife and another bottle was opened as they watched the paramedics carry Ruth away.
Not long thereafter, a man appeared in my car park, introducing himself as Ruth’s ex-husband. As he looked suitably perverted, I didn’t think to question the validity of that claim. By the way he was looking at Ruth’s place, inspecting the guttering and so forth, I assumed that he stood to inherit it. ‘I’m burying an angel today’, he told me. After making sure that he was speaking of the same Ruth, I gave the man my condolences and left him to it.
Our next meeting was to be even more fleeting, or fleeing rather, when some weeks later I pulled into the car park to find him meddling with my bin. Upon seeing me, he fled, only stopping to look over his shoulder, as if he wasn’t yet sure that he had been spotted. After learning from the holiday apartment owners that he hadn’t inherited a dime from Ruth, I hadn’t expected to see him again.
Although it was obvious that he had just been there to fly tip in my bin, it puzzled me that there didn’t appear to by any new additions in there. Some dust, perhaps. Yes, there was quite a lot of dust. That puzzled me further as there was no nearby building work that I knew of. It was only when I saw the white cross on an empty box that it occurred to me the dust may not be building dust at all.
Curious burial for an angel.
James Bembridge is Deputy Editor of Country Squire Magazine.