Heavy Breathing

‘You owe me one.’ Says Bruno.

I say ‘We’re both in this together.’

He groans.

I say ‘Remember? We’re a team.’

We don’t talk for a while. It takes all our concentration to navigate the staircase. It’s tricky in the darkness. There’s a banister of sorts, but it’s broken off in places. Bruno’s brought a torch. The headlamp from his bike. It gives off a decent light. But it’s difficult to hold.

We make it to the bottom. Bruno holds the headlamp out in front of us. A long, low passageway. A maze of copper pipes on either side. A doorway at the end.

Bruno says ‘Are you OK?’ Which makes me think he isn’t. It’s worse for him. He doesn’t have the headroom. He stands at an odd angle. A forced lop-sided slouch.

He says ‘You decide. Onwards. Or back out.’

‘We’ve come this far. We’re going in.’

Bruno’s breathing seems too loud, too slow, too heavy. It echoes all around us. Bounces off the pipework As though there’s somebody behind us.

He says ‘Can you stop doing that?’

‘Doing what?’

‘Heavy breathing.’

‘I’m just breathing, I can’t help it.’

He says ‘It’s giving me the creeps.’

I say ‘Do you think there’s enough air down here? Proper ventilation?’

‘Not if someone shuts the door behind us.’

‘If someone shuts the door behind us I’m not sure we’d get out.’

‘We could be trapped in here forever. Entombed in our own project.’

‘What if Linda Kirkby’s set a trap? Lured us here deliberately so she could lock us in.’

‘Perhaps she’s going to make us join her sex slaves in the dungeon.’

I say ‘In your dreams.’


War Room

We’ve made it to the far end of the passageway. Twitchy, nervy, short of breath.

There’s a steel plaque on the door.

Bruno says ‘What’s a War Room?’

I say ‘I guess we’re going to find out.’

Dark corners, nooks and crannies. Boxes, drawers and files. A row of metal cabinets. A pair of metal trunks. Six drawers high. Stainless Steel. Initials on the top. There’s a gap where one’s gone missing. It’s a lot to go through with the headlamp from a bike.

There’s a large map on the wall. A street map of St Anselm’s. Quaint, compact, contained. Before the shopping centre and the Argos and the residential sprawl. A 1940s street map peppered with paper flags on pins.

I take the torch from Bruno. Pick out the writing on each flag. May McGinty; Peggy Tanner; Betty Bletchley; Nora Blake. Familiar local surnames. Christian names from years gone by.

There’s a legend in the corner. To explain the colour-coded flags. Red for Ruby; green for Gala; cream for Coty; blue for Blaze.

Ruby, Gala, Coty, Blaze.

I think of Irene as a young woman, a teenager. Mapping out her conquests. Masterminding her manoeuvres.

I say ‘It’s a map of Irene’s customers. Irene’s delivery round.’

There’s another map beside it. A different set of flags. A different set of names. Ernie Bradstock; Stanley Stamford; Leonard Hardy; Malcolm Hodge.

I say ‘So what was she delivering to the men?’

Bruno says ‘What’s that behind the map?’

The lamp picks out the outline of an opening, a doorway. A sign above the map that says NO ENTRY. There’s a No Entry symbol too. To reinforce the point.


Cinema Projector

Bruno’s hand is shaking. The headlamp beam is flickering, flailing, failing. Everything seems stilted, in slow motion. Captured through the lens of a cinema projector. Like footage from the wartime. Vintage film in black and white.

I say ‘I like the special effects, but I’m not sure I can take it.’

I’m disorientated, dizzy. What with the cramped space, the confinement. The lack of space and light and air.

‘Can you put the headlamp down before I have some sort of seizure?’

Bruno finds a shelf. A stable surface. Puts the headlamp in position. Its beam is strong and still and clear. There is a moment of composure, of gratitude, of calm. The room comes into sharp relief. Illuminated.

The headlamp isn’t sitting on a shelf. It’s sitting on an altar. Flanked by burnished silver candlesticks. Wreathed in waxen drips and droplets. A crystallised cascade.

It’s not a room at all. It’s a vault, an arch, a shrine. A tomb, a mausoleum.

Bruno says ‘Is that a stretcher?’

I say ‘I think it might be some sort of pushchair.’

A children’s stretcher. So now I know what Billy Kirkby spotted in the hospital. What made him freeze with fear.

Bruno says ‘What’s that lying on it?’

I say ‘It looks like some sort of coffin.’

He can see it just as well as I can. He just doesn’t want to say the word out loud.

He says ‘Do you think it’s Alan Kirkby?’

‘It’s a bit too small for that.’


Public Art

I say ‘I think we ought to call the police.’

Lester gives a long tired sigh. ‘It’s an infirmary, a hospital. There were people dying every day.’

‘He can’t be more than six months old.’

‘It was a children’s ward.’

‘They were meant to nurse them back to health, not leave their skeletons in the basement.’

‘It was the Infectious Diseases Unit. It wasn’t a bloody holiday camp. There’s an industrial incinerator. They would have been burning bodies every day.’

‘So why didn’t they burn this one? Why would they have kept it?’

‘I don’t know.’ Says Lester. ‘And you know what? I don’t care.’

‘It’s part of the story of St Anselm’s. We have a moral obligation to understand its history before we pull it down.’

‘We’re upsetting enough people as it is.’

‘I think we ought to speak to Irene Grover. She spent half her childhood as a patient and worked there as an adult. We should be capturing her insights as a matter of routine.’

‘For Christ’s sake. She’s in hospital. There’s a difference between building a rapport with local residents and harassing pensioners in their beds.’

‘There’s a baby’s skeleton in the basement. We can’t just pretend it isn’t there.’

‘It’s a hospital. It’s hospital waste.’

‘So what do you suggest we do? Bury it in the groundworks? Chuck it out with the demolition spoil?’

‘Get shot of it as quickly as we can. Before the archeologists get wind of it and cordon off the site. The last thing this project needs is any sort of inquest. It could hold us up for years. One way or another, it’s got to disappear.’

‘Isn’t disposing of a body a criminal offense?’

‘We’re house-builders, not murderers. It’s demolition waste.’

‘It’s a human being, a child. It deserves more respect than that.’

‘So what do you suggest. A funeral? A burial? A tombstone to the unknown baby?’

‘Some sort of recognition. A gesture of respect.’

‘Brilliant.’ Says Lester. ‘We could use our public art budget. Think of the marketing collateral. “Bright new homes. Built on the bodies of countless sickly children.” Any other bright ideas you want to throw into the pot?’

‘I’m suggesting that we at least make some sort of effort to find out who it was.’

‘I’m not sure what you think you’re going to achieve. Any investigation is going to hold up work. If they dig up any kind of dirt, it could impact on sales, and if there’s nothing to be found you’ll have sabotaged the project for no reason at all.’

‘Aren’t we meant to be the good guys? Developers with a conscience?’

‘We’re building homes for living breathing people in desperate need of housing.’ Says Lester. ‘There’s a world of difference between a social conscience and a misplaced sense of obligation to a long-forgotten child.’