The Haunting of Maddy Clare – Excerpt
by Simone St. James
The day I met Mr. Gellis, I had been walking in the rain.
In the morning, unable to face another day alone in my flat, I wandered through the bustle of Piccadilly, the collar of my thin coat pulled high on my neck. The air was swollen with cottony drizzle that did not quite fall to the ground, and pressed my cheeks and eyelashes. The lights of Piccadilly shone garishly under the lowering clouds; the shouts of the tourists were loud against the grim silence of the businesspeople and the murmurs of strolling couples in the square.
I stayed as long as I could, watching the bob of umbrellas. No one noticed a pale girl, with cropped hair under an inexpensive and unfashionable hat, her hands plunged in her pockets. Eventually, the mist resolved itself into rain and even I turned my reluctant steps home.
Though it was only noon, the sky was near dark when I opened the gate and hurried up the walk to my small and shabby boardinghouse. I climbed the narrow stairs to my room, shivering as the damp penetrated my stockings and numbed my legs. I was fumbling my key with chilled fingers and thinking of a cup of hot tea when the landlady called up the stairs that there was a telephone call for me.
I turned and descended again. It would be the temporary agency on the line – they were the only ones with my exchange. I had worked for them for nearly a year, and they sent me to one place or another to answer phones or transcribe notes in ill-lit, low-ceilinged offices. Still, the work had dried up in recent weeks, and I was painfully short of funds. How fortunate I was, of course. I would have missed their call had I come home only five minutes later.
In the first-floor hallway, the house’s only telephone sat on a small shelf, the receiver lying unhooked where the landlady had left it. I could already hear the echo of an impatient voice on the other end.
“Sarah Piper?” came a female voice as I raised the receiver to my ear. “Sarah Piper? Are you there?”
“I’m here,” I said. “Please don’t hang up.”
It was the temporary agency, as I had suspected. The girl sounded flustered and impatient as she explained what had come up. “A writer,” she told me. “Writing a book of some sort – needs an assistant. Wants a meeting with someone today. He wants a female.”
I sighed, thinking of fat, sweaty men who liked a succession of young ladies in their employ. Normally I’d be sent to an office to begin work right away, not to a personal meeting. “Is he a regular client?”
“No, he’s new. Wants to meet someone this afternoon.”
I bit my lip as my stomach rolled uneasily. Temporary girls were easy targets for any kind of behavior from a man, and we had nearly no recourse without getting fired. “At his office?”
She huffed her impatience. “At a coffeehouse. He was specific about meeting in a public place. Will you go?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Look.” She had an edge in her voice now. “I have other girls I can call. Are you going or not?”
To meet a man alone in a coffee shop? Yet my rent at the boardinghouse was two weeks past due. “Please,” I said. “This isn’t a matchmaking service.”
“What’s to lose?” she replied. “If you don’t like it, I’ll give it to the next girl.”
I looked out the window, where the rain now streaked down. I pictured the girl at the other end of the phone, bored and brassy and fearless. A girl like that wouldn’t think twice. It was girls like me who thought twice – about going back out in our only good set of clothes, about meeting unknown men in unknown places. About everything.
I took a breath. I could go back to my damp little flat, and sit at my window, thinking and drinking endless cups of tea. Or I could go out and meet a stranger in the rain.
“I’ll be there,” I said.
She gave me the coordinates and hung up. I stood for only a moment, listening to the water on the windows and the sound of coarse laughter in one of the first-floor rooms. Then I went back out to the street.