I'd been lonesome so long the call was almost a relief.
Not at first. At first I didn't recognise it for what it was. I'm not at my best at four in the morning. Half asleep, I mistook the heavy breathing and incoherent words for distress and thought someone, crying and in trouble, had called the wrong number.
"What's the matter?" I asked. "What's happened?"
But as my head cleared, the caller's gasps turned into strained breathing and the groans congealed into one word. I still didn't understand it, but now only because my French wasn’t up to obscenities. I changed my question.
"Who are you? What's your name?"
He didn’t answer. I hung up.
It was the following morning that relief sank in, fuelled by the crisp, clear sunlight and people in the streets outside. Something had happened to me, something interesting and dramatic that I could tell others. I practised while the kettle was boiling.
"I got a dirty phone call last night."
"Are you all right?" they’d ask. "Were you scared?"
I’d shrug and describe it, turning it into a funny story. Everyone would think I was pretty cool and... But that was as far as my fantasy went. In the first place there was no one to tell. In the second, my French couldn’t manage the nuances required. I tried, but even to my ears it sounded more like a cri de cœur than a humorous anecdote. I could imagine the looks. When you're a foreigner people already think you're stupid: start a conversation with this and they'd decide I was crazy.
So instead of talking about it, I thought about it. I wondered if he'd phone again. What I'd say to him. How I’d put him down. As I did, my relief grew. Someone out there was aware of my existence, someone a lot lower on the scale of things than me. It was good to know.
The next call came late in the afternoon about a week later, the cold nights of a Québec fall already drawing in. I was lying on my sagging bed in my damp basement apartment, gazing up at the thin slits near the ceiling that the landlord called windows. The light was orange from the streetlamps and hazy from my cigarettes and I was rehearsing a familiar theme of hating myself for smoking again, but not knowing what else to do when the phone rang.
It was the hour for sales people and I picked up on the second ring, my heart surging at the thought of contact.
"Allô," I said.
Instead of a smooth talker, I got a weird sound.
"Allô," I said again. "Are you all right?" I'm such an idiot.
The noise stopped, followed by a pause. Then the heavy breathing started: in; out; followed by a word I still couldn't get. It sounded like ‘trahail’. He kept going: innn; ouut; trahaail. Innnnnnnnn, ouuuuuuuut, trahaaaaaaaaail. It was deep and husky like it's supposed to be, but much less scary than at night. I wondered when he’d start coughing.
After a bit I hung up. Then I got up and locked my door. You never knew.
There were a few calls after that. I never spoke, but never hurried to put the phone down either and I suppose it encouraged him, because one day he spoke to me – properly, as opposed to his trahailing.
"Bonjour," he said.
"Bonjour," I said back. He’d taken me by surprise and it was only polite. Then suddenly, in English, without me having any idea it would happen, my mouth added, "I've got a lovely fanny."
I hung up, my hand clamping the receiver to the phone as though he might jump down the line. I couldn't believe what I'd just said. Then I jerked the receiver off the hook again, knocking it onto the floor. He mustn't ring back. I watched it until the high pitched whine kicked in, then stood up and pulled out the plug. What had I done?
I'd made my life even more miserable than it already was, that’s what I'd done. How, now, could I leave the phone connected? How could I receive job offers, survey requests, rare calls from rare acquaintances who rarely asked me out? How could I ever dare answer the phone again?
An even worse thought struck me. What if he knew who I was? Where I lived? What if he watched my door? I'd have to move. I'd have to tell the police. I'd have to kill him.
That last thought wasn't me, any more than my mouth shooting off about my fanny. I wished my body would stop working without me. Not, come to think of it, I’d been doing that great a job before. As I stared down at the phone it occurred to me that maybe this was where I’d been going wrong. Maybe I should be spontaneous more often; let my body take control. Perhaps killing him – well, no – not killing him – perhaps maiming him, or severely frightening him, would blow away the cobwebs. Boost my social life. Help me make friends and influence people. In a good way. It wasn’t as though I had a lot to lose.
For the next few days though, I stayed in victim mode. The threat of a voyeur wasn’t a problem: the windows were so high, small and dirty that keeping the blinds down didn't make much difference. Besides, outside my windows were level with the sidewalk and he'd have had to contort himself pretty obviously to look in. Unless he had a periscope casually hidden inside his dirty raincoat. But the transition zones were something else. Who would be standing outside the door when I left? Who might be following me, ready to pounce? If I survived my outing, who might be waiting for me when I got home?
It created door dilemmas and I began to get seriously jumpy. So much so that after a few days I plugged the phone back in. Reality, I decided, couldn't be as bad as my imaginings. Could it? Besides, I wanted someone to ring me. Someone from my past, my country, my friends – anyone who might bring some comfort down the line. He, after all, might never ring again.
He rang after a few hours.
"Bonjour," he said.
I said nothing, my heart beating in a strange way, almost as though someone I fancied had finally phoned to ask me out. I felt excited, but cautious – and very curious. What would happen next?
"Vous avez été occupé longtemps," he told me.
"J'ai cru que vous aviez changé d'avis, que vous ne vouliez plus me parler."
He waited for me to answer, but I couldn't. Nor could I hang up. After a pause, he got down to business.
"J'ai été bien excité par ce que vous avez dit l'autre fois," he said. "J'aimerais bien voir votre 'lovely fanny'."
My heart sank. In French his voice was powerful and smooth – even charming. But 'love-er-lee fain-eee' sounded awkward and cliché, curdling my curiosity into contempt.
"It'll cost you," I said.
This time the silence was different. He hadn't expected that.
What should I do? Name a price? Hang up again? This time my mouth and I worked together.
"The usual,” I said, trying to sound blasé. "Maybe even a discount, if I like you."
There was another pause, but this time he was thinking, back in control.
"Per'aps we could meet?" he suggested. "To discuss this further."
"Sure." I didn't hesitate.
"Where?" he pushed. "When?"
I didn't have a plan, but this time I wasn't thrown. "I don't know," I said. "Let me think about it. I'll tell you next time."
I hung up before he could insist then pulled out the cord, feeling the first stirrings of power. It looked like maybe I was going to do something after all: that my body and mouth might actually work together with me on this one. Sure, I wondered briefly if I should go to the police. But that was like wondering if I should give up smoking. I knew I should – it just wasn’t going to happen. I’d gone to the police before. This time, I needed to come up with a plan of my own.
By the end of the day I’d come up with three options.
Plan A involved turning the tables – watching him without letting him see me.
Plan B revolved around hurting him, preferably with plenty of humiliation thrown in.
Plan C comprised murder.
Plan A was tempting, but cowardly – hardly a sure-fire way to make new friends.
Plan C was strictly a last resort.
Which left Plan B: solid as far as it went, but a little short on detail. How to do it, for example? Where to carry it out? All my usual places – the library, the shopping mall, the park – had pros and cons, but while having other people around felt safer, it also introduced an element of risk. How would they react? How might he use them? I was making supper, watching the cheese writhe and bubble on burnt toast when it came to me. I’d use my apartment. It was confined, I had control over it and, let's face it, I was going to have to move. This could be my swan song.
From then on it was easy. I fleshed out a plan, double-checked the details and made a list. The next day I went shopping. Then I plugged the phone back in and waited. He called me the following morning.
"Allô?" I answered.
Relief surged through me; he was hooked. "Vous avez été occupé bien longtemps" I told him, mocking his last chat-up line. "J'ai cru que vous aviez changé d'avis."
He heard the smile in my voice. I heard the suspicion in his. "You too ‘ave been busy," he told me. "I wondeur why?"
"Il me fallait décidé où," I told him smoothly. "You're not like my other clients. I want to keep the money for myself."
"Ah oui?" It was only two words but now the suspicion was softened with interest. Did he believe me? Playing safe, my mouth kept it brief.
"En tout cas, je l'ai réglé. I've fixed it. Can you come to my apartment?"
There was a pause. Then he said "That depends where it is.”
"Surely you know." I hesitated in turn. "You've got my number."
"Yes, but - your numbeur - I made it up, I composed the numbeur spontaneously. It was a lucky chance, that's all."
I felt giddy. Was I safe after all? Should I change my plan? Could I just hang-up, change my number and forget about him for ever?
No. There was the risk he was lying, the constant fear he'd turn up. Not to mention my revenge. My new feelings of power.
"Down town," I said. "Near rue St-Joseph."
"Oui," he confirmed, "I could come there."
"This afternoon?" I asked.
He paused again. "This afternoon is difficult. This evening?"
"Out of the question." The dark would be too scary. "I'm working. It has to be before six – you have to be gone before six."
He thought about it. I looked at my watch. 10:30. He was probably at work, ringing during his coffee break.
"I will leave at four," he told me. "I will be there by four and a half. Your address?"
I gave it to him. "There's no number on the door," I added. "It's a basement flat. I'll leave the door on the latch –”
"Open – I'll leave the door open, in case I'm asleep. There's no bell."
"OK. Ça marche." After the smallest pause he added, "I'm very much looking forward to see you. We will have very good fun together, n’est-ce pas? For not really so very much money."
"If I like you," I replied, and now my voice was off on its own again, honey sweet and inviting, "it might not even cost you at all."
As soon as I’d hung up I set to work. First, I stripped my bed, took out the plastic sheet and wrapped it around the mattress. I had nothing against my landlord, after all, despite the tiny windows. Then I got out my shopping bags and started fitting together the bits I’d bought. They’d cost a fortune and there'd been a couple of moments, especially when the cash register had dinged its final total, when I'd considered dropping the whole thing. Revenge may be sweet, but it’s also frigging expensive. When I’d finished though, I was glad I’d seen it through. It was perfect.
I checked the time – 12:45. Already? My heart jolted in a spurt of panic. Only three hours to go. Trying to keep calm, I double-checked all the windows, making sure they were locked, then put the key in my pocket. Next, I unplugged the phone. Mobile reception in the basement was lousy, hence the landline, and I'd have loved to watch him answer it and listen to my obscene threats. But he could have used it to call for help. Instead, I left him my digital alarm and mp3 player. Then I packed my clothes, picked up my bag and nearly left. It was only as I glanced round the kitchen for a final check that I remembered the stuff in the fridge.
When my heart had stopped hammering I put on my washing-up gloves, opened the fridge door and took it out, taking care not to spill any blood. At 1:30 I’d finished for real, but time was tight now, as was my breathing, my hands moist with sweat, my new power precarious. If I blew the timing, I’d blown everything. Forcing myself not to panic, I double checked one last time then pulled the door to and dragged the doormat forward from underneath, stopping it from blowing open. It held. Taking a deep breath I picked up my bag, turned, and walked off down the road.
Two hours later I was back.
Getting changed had taken longer than I’d thought, but I didn’t feel panicky anymore, not the way I had in the apartment. In fact, safe outside, I was almost enjoying myself. My disguise was good – I knew that from the shock I'd got when I’d looked in the mirror – and no one at the tool-hire shop had batted an eyelid. If the pervert had been lying, if he did already know what I looked like, he’d never recognise me in this. I was on edge, sure, but my adrenaline was working properly – I could see clearly, hear every detail, move fast and decisively – I was cool, calm and in command. Who wouldn’t want to be my friend now?
I looked at my watch. It was a bit soon to start my scenario, but I was afraid he’d turn up early. I needed to be out there, working, when he arrived. I tried to wait another thirty minutes, managed fifteen, then put on my fluorescent jacket, stuck on my hired earmuffs, and picked up the leaf blower. Just another municipal worker, gathering the leaves into piles.
I was coming up the side of the apartment block when he arrived. I stayed there, blowing leaves in all directions, trying to watch him without seeming obvious. He was early, but it was him all right – an ugly man from the glimpse I had of him, but not unusually so. Not a dirty, miserable, little cliché of a man – just an ugly bastard with a squashed-in face, a strong barrel of a body and thick, powerful arms. My heart started pounding again and I clenched my legs so as not to pee. This was it.
He looked at me and I turned my attention to a stubborn pile of leaves. When I dared look up again, he’d gone. As quickly as possible without running I headed for the corner. He was knocking on the front door, which pushed slowly open as he banged.
“Allô,” he called. “Je suis arrivé.”
He looked at me again and I looked down at my feet concentrating intensely on the leaves. He knocked once more, hesitated, gave me a final glance and went in.
Resting the leaf-blower against the wall so he didn’t hear me coming, I started after him, taking the key from my pocket. Timing was everything now. He had to get far enough inside to give me time to lock the door, but not far enough to discover the surprise I’d left and run out again. My eyes had switched to tunnel vision, my hearing was muffled, everything around me was moving in slow-mo. Now. I had to do it now. Reaching the door, I pulled it closed and tried to lock it.
I dropped the key.
Inside, I heard a cry. Quickly I picked the key back up, put it in the lock, half turned it – and it stuck. Stifling a sob I yanked the door towards me, as his footsteps came running, tried again, and turned it all the way. I was still holding the knob when he wrenched it violently from the other side.
It didn’t matter. I’d done it. He was trapped.
Moving quickly away from the peephole, I ran back down the side of the apartment to my bedroom window and got out my pièce de résistance. A periscope: perfect for watching people in basements without giveaway contortions.
He'd thrown back the duvet, exposing the skeleton to full view, the wig on its skull twisted at an odd angle, its jaw gaping open in a classic skeletal smile. Inside its ribcage, the pig's offal was bloodily convincing. I'd turned the heating up before I left and the stench must have been pretty bad too. As I watched, he came back into the room, doubled over and vomited onto the carpet.
When he’d finished, he straightened up, wiped his mouth, and stumbled out again. Going back to the front, I heard him pull on the door, trying to get out. Then he started banging. I hung up the leaf blower on a small tree nearby to block out the noise. With luck, no one would notice for ages – people in this city didn’t tend to get involved.
Walking slowly now, light as air, I went back to my ex-bedroom window and waited for him to return. The alarm clock had started right on time, blaring out rock music at four pm precisely, and soon the mp3 player would get to my speech. I was keen to watch his reaction. After that, who knew?
Buses to Montreal ran every hour. A new social life was just around the corner – friends and acquaintances waiting to greet me, jobs only one step beyond the ads in the paper, night-clubs heaving with potential lovers and creeps. The future beckoned, cheerful and inviting as a coke commercial. Power, finally, lay in the palm of my hand.
Settling down to watch, I felt myself smiling. I could get into this.
Grim Tales of Hope, was published in December 2008 and her crime novel Call Time won the 2013 Debut Dagger.