I’ve found a man to fix the washing machine. It turns out there’s a penny lodged within the rubber seal.
He says ‘It happens all the time. If I had a penny for every coin I found I’d be a millionaire by now.’
I say ‘Just keep them. And then you will be.’
He looks at me askance.
I say ‘If you kept every penny you found you’d end up having a penny for every penny you’ve found.’
He is packing up his toolbox.
I’m just annoying now.
Bruno has never looked so pleased to see me.
He says ‘Thank God you’re here.’
He nods towards the sofa. Billy Kirkby sits there with his arms around his knees.
‘I don’t know what to do with him. The poor boy’s bored to tears.’
I’ve wasted enough time today already. I need to do some work.
I say ‘Hi Billy, where’s your mum?’
I’m not sure quite what else to say. Your mother may be a psychopath. Your Great-Gran’s weird as well.
He says ‘She says she’ll meet us at the hospital. She was going to take me with her, but there are things she has to do.’
Bruno looks a little sheepish. But not sheepish enough.
‘I said you might be able to run Billy up there. So he can see Irene. She can have visitors from two ‘til four.’
I say ‘I’m sorry, you said what?’
He is pleading with his eyes.
I say ‘So why can’t you go?’
‘Come on Dee, I hardly know him. It wouldn’t be fair on him.’
‘I don’t have my car. We’ll have to walk. I know a short cut we can take.’
Bruno gives me a look that says ‘I know you’re up to something.’
I wait until we’re out of earshot before I speak again.
‘Do you want to go exploring?’
Billy looks apprehensive.
‘I’ve heard that there’s a tunnel that goes right under the hospital. All the way from Macey’s Patch right up to Risborough Road.’
Billy is looking anxious. ‘How do you know that?’
I say ‘Your Great Gran told me.’
‘She said it was a secret.’
I say ‘What else did Great Gran say?’
‘She said not to tell a soul. That if I said anything to anyone…’
Poor Billy. He looks terrified.
‘What?’ I say. ‘What would happen?’
Billy starts to tremble.
‘It’s OK.’ I say. ‘I’m sorry. We can go up to the High Street and take the bus instead.’
Billy is silent at the bus stop; silent on the bus.
I don’t know what to say. I can see that he’s upset.
I say ‘I didn’t mean to scare you. Let’s forget it now.’
He says ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’
The stop before the hospital. We’ve made good time. It’s only half past one. Half an hour to kill. The canteen has pretensions. It’s not a canteen, it’s a café. With gingham table cloths. They don’t do cappuccino, they do café-au-lait instead. Healthy options are discreetly labelled with an H.
I have a large glass of red wine. Why not? I’m virtually in France.
Billy has hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream. He sucks it through a straw. I’m worried the plastic’s going to melt. It doesn’t work in any case. Something’s stuck inside. Marshmallow or whipped cream. Or just a blob of chocolate powder from the bottom of the mug.
‘So,’ I say ‘do you believe in ghosts?’
Billy uses his straw to stir his drink. Tries to make a whirlpool. It isn’t really working. He’s eaten all the whipped cream and marshmallow. All that’s left is watery hot chocolate. There isn’t enough froth.
I say. ‘Do you think the passageway is haunted?’
Billy stirs his chocolate in the opposite direction. Unwinding the whirlpool. Avoiding conversation.
I say ‘Is there somebody you’re scared of?’
He starts to stir more slowly. Distracted. Subdued. As though he’s thinking something over.
I say ‘I won’t tell anybody.’
He lets go of the straw. As though he’s come to a decision.
He looks up. And then he freezes. He’s looking through me, past me, round me. At a point past my left shoulder. Mesmerised, transfixed.
I say ‘Billy, are you OK?’
I turn around. Try to see what he sees.
The clash between the Gallic styling and the non-slip rubber flooring. Gingham on the tables. Grey-green walls beyond. A sea of signage; Exit; Café; Reception. Tips on healthy eating. Helplines for addiction, for depression, for abuse. A stretcher by the children’s ward. Everything looks menacing. I wish I hadn’t started it. All this talk of ghosts and threats and secrets. The poor boy looks scared to death.
I say ‘Come on Billy. Let’s go up and see Great Granny. Your mum should be there by now.’
Billy sucks his straw before he puts it on the table.
He says ‘I don’t want to see her. I just want to go home.’
Alone by Irene’s bedside.
I say ‘I thought Linda would be here.’
‘She’s busy.’ She says imperiously. ‘She has things to do.’
‘Will she be long? It’s just that Billy’s downstairs waiting.’
‘Well go and get him. Bring him up.’
‘I’ve tried. He won’t. He says he’s scared.’
‘Tell him to stop being so silly and to come up here at once.’
Impatient. Irritated. She doesn’t have time for this.
I say ‘I asked him about the tunnel under the Infirmary and he got quite upset.’
Irene looks away as if to say the conversation’s over.
Not for me, it isn’t.
‘Why did you send him down there in the first place?’
She doesn’t answer.
‘If you don’t tell me, Billy will.’
Irene turns back to look at me.
‘It was a challenge. A rite of passage. A test of courage. Small boys love that kind of thing.’
I say ‘Well then you’d have to say he failed.’
‘A bit of fear is good for you. It makes you feel alive.’
‘You scared the living daylights out Billy. And now he’s scared of you.’
Linda is looming in the doorway.
I say ‘Billy’s downstairs in the canteen. He’s too scared to come up.’
She says ‘Scared of what?’
‘I’ve no idea. Ask her.’
Irene folds her arms and looks me in the eye.
‘You’ll find that life runs much more smoothly if you keep away from things that don’t concern you. You should learn to keep away full stop.’
I say ‘I was doing you both a favour bringing Billy here at all.’
‘Well you’ve wasted everybody’s time. There’s no point Billy coming all this way to sit in a canteen.’
I hate them both.
I say ‘Billy was really scared. He saw something in that tunnel and he won’t say what it is. Irene’s scared him into silence. I think she’s threatening him.’
‘Irene?’ Bruno bursts out laughing.
I can see his point. A ninety-five-year-old invalid.
Bruno says ‘I think you think too much. It’s not your problem. Let it go.’
I say ‘I’m not making it up.’
He says ‘I don’t think you’re making things up. I just think you’re over-thinking them, taking them to heart. Giving them too much importance. If I’m absolutely honest I think you’re using them as a distraction.’
‘A distraction from what?’
‘From the fact that your own life is …’
‘Well….that there’s maybe not a whole lot going on.’
He says ‘Come out with me tonight.’
I say ‘I can’t. I don’t have time.’
‘You can’t? Or you don’t want to?’
‘Ok, so this is how it is. I work. And I look after my kids. If I leave the kids to be with you I pay someone to have them. Then I work more hours to pay for that. Then I pay someone to have the kids while I work the extra hours. It’s a never-ending spiral of lost time and lost money. A never-ending Big Black Hole’.
‘I’m suggesting a quick drink, a chat, a friendship. Maybe something more. I’m not suggesting you step into an abyss.’
He says ‘abbiss’, like Alice but with a b instead of an l.
I say ‘I think it’s pronounced a-byss. Like “a kiss” but with a b instead of a k.’
I recite a playground chant:
‘You and Me.
Sitting in a Tree
He says ‘I really think you’re spending too much time around your kids.’
I really shouldn’t drink at lunch.
Lester is looking at me as though I’ve gone quite mad.
I say it once again. ‘Whatever’s down that tunnel, I think we ought to take a look.’
He says ‘We know what’s there. We’ve had the survey. It’ll be a total waste of time.’
‘We don’t. Not really. We have the structural information. But that’s the only thing we know.’
Lester makes a show of leafing through the survey. He picks out the pertinent points.
‘The tunnel links the Infectious Diseases Unit to a disused septic tank. The tank dates from Victorian times. Built at the same time as the hospital, it became redundant in the 1930s when the mains sewerage came.’
I say ‘We should at least take a look.’
Lester sounds long-suffering. ‘I’m at a loss to understand what you think it might achieve. The whole thing’s up for demolition. It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference what’s inside.’
‘I just think we ought to make an effort to understand what we’re destroying.’
‘What exactly is it you expect to find?’
‘I don’t know.’ I mumble vaguely.
Something terrifying. Something Irene Grover knows about and Billy Kirkby saw.
Bruno joins the conversation. ‘Didn’t Billy say it’s haunted?’
‘Jesus Christ’ says Lester. ‘This isn’t Scooby Fucking Doo.’