Night of the Crying Women
‘Got the look of an old lag about her,’ said Grandad, fingertip tapping the rain speckled pane.
‘Like you’d know,’ said Mum. ‘Come on, you’ve sagged again.’ She slipped her arms under his, yanking him up in his chair, plumping his jumper like she was arranging a cushion.
‘Leave me alone,’ he grumbled, swatting at her. ‘I’ve met crooks enough to know one. Come here, our John. Have a look.’ He tugged me close, pointing towards the street below.
From our sixth floor window, I could see the roof of The George Inn where Mum worked on weeknights and next to it the playground, with its crisscross paths and the frame with the missing swings.
‘What?’ I said, not sure what I was looking at.
Then I saw her, hunched against the wind, hair the colour of Tizer whipping from a squashy knitted hat. She pushed a tartan shopping trolley that flapped with empty carrier bags.
‘She’s wearing slippers,’ I said.
‘You see,’ said Grandad. ‘Probably pinched’em from Terry at the market.’
Mum had put on a rain hat and her coat, transforming the hat’s slithering ties into a bow with a twist of her fingers. ‘Her name’s Gracie, she comes in the pub. Downs three milk stouts every night then rolls home.’
Mum headed for the door. ‘The only criminal thing about her is the quarter of gin she hides in her trolley to sneak in her stout. Now Dad, stop talking codswallop. John, off to bed – and mind you brush your teeth.’
The next time I saw Gracie, I was sitting on a bench in the playground with Ed and Dougie from the flats. Ed had a bottle of Cream Soda and I’d brought two Penguin biscuits from home to share. Dougie didn’t bring anything – the cupboards in his place were always empty.
I was licking the last squishy chocolate from a Penguin wrapper, when Dougie said, ‘Seen her?’ Gracie was crossing the park with her trolley. ‘Nutter,’ he said and returned to peeling the label off the bottle.
‘Don’t do that,’ said Ed. ‘I want the money back on it.’ He nodded towards Gracie. ‘Mum says we should keep away from that old cow. Says noises come out of her flat at night.’
‘What kind of noises?’ I said.
Ed shrugged. ‘Weird ones. Mum says the old woman’s neighbour Mr Brocklehurst has complained to the council but they don’t give a monkey’s so long as the rent’s paid.’
‘Her trolley rattles like it’s full of empties,’ said Dougie. ‘And she smells like the drain outside the pub.’
‘Wonder what the noises are,’ I said.
Dougie snatched up the Cream Soda bottle and threw it hard. It fell just short of Gracie’s slippers, shattering into a million shards that skittered over the tarmac.
‘Bloody idiot,’ said Ed, punching Dougie hard on the leg. ‘You owe me the money on that.’
Gracie didn’t even pause, but trudged on towards The George.
We were walking back from school the next day when Ed raised the subject of Gracie again.
‘I went up to listen at the old bag’s flat last night.’
‘Cos Mr Brocklehurst is above us and he was moaning and pacing and banging his stick on her wall – noisy pig. So I waited till my dad was watching the news and slipped out. Wanted to hear for myself.’
‘And?’ I said.
His pace slowed to a crawl. ‘Voices. Hers – and others too. Women mainly, but a man an’all – he was shouting. And there was a scraping noise – like chairs dragging across a floor.’
My pulse thudded in my throat. ‘My mum says she lives on her own.’
He nodded, eyes on the ground. ‘And she’s got no telly.’ We walked on in silence, sucking our liquorice sticks until they went soft.
As the shadow of the flats fell over us, Ed said, ‘I’m going back tonight. Coming?’
I stopped. ‘What?’
‘Don’t you want to know what the noises are?’
I was curious, but I hated walking round the flats in the dark. There were too many shadows.
‘Well, I’m going tonight. Coward.’ Ed banged through the double doors.
I paused just a second. ‘Ed! Wait up,’ I shouted.
Mum was working at the pub that night and I knew Grandad would be asleep in his armchair by half nine, so I found the torch, put it in my coat pocket and sneaked both into my bedroom. Grandad was snoring by quarter past nine and he didn’t stir as the front door clicked shut behind me.
The light was out on our landing and the weak glow from the torch only lit a small puddle at my feet. Cigarette packets, stubs, a baby’s dummy, all slid in and out of the puddle as I walked.
My heart beat in my ears, the torchlight quivered.
Ed stood in the shadow of a flight of stairs, coat over his pyjamas. A second figure stood beside him.
‘Alright, John.’ It was Dougie.
A click and another beam of light shone out, wavering upwards to settle on Ed’s face. ‘I told him what we were doing and he just turned up.’
‘Let’s go sort this old bird out then,’ said Dougie, heading for the lift.
I gave Ed a look but he just shrugged. ‘Yeah, I know. But what could I do?’
All I could think of was spikes of a shattered Cream Soda bottle.
‘Stinks of pee in here,’ said Dougie as the lift groaned and rattled.
A few seconds passed, there was a ping and the doors juddered open.
‘This way,’ said Ed, shining his torch along a row of blank doors.
At each flat I heard a muffled telly and dull voices. I was sure at any second someone would tell us off and send us home. But the wind tumbled empty crisp packets and whistled along the balconies – and no one came. At the end of the row, Ed stopped.
Shining his torch on a peeling door, he whispered, ‘Mr Brocklehurst’s.’ Then, the light slid sideways and we were there.
We listened, breathless.
A thump – loud and solid, like a body hitting the floor – followed by voices. A woman was singing – a tune that pulled at my insides. A man’s voice barked orders – the thwack of a stick. And weeping, the quiet kind of crying someone does when they don’t want other people to hear but can’t keep the tears in. Sadness filled me up, sitting behind my eyes till I felt like it would spill over.
‘What do you think?’ It was Ed, face pale, eyes big as golf balls.
For a second, I had been in the flat with the women, waiting for the stern man with the stick. ‘Is it the same as before?’ I whispered.
I tried to keep my fear pressed down, reminded myself we weren’t babies, that there would be good reason for the noises. But all I could think was one thing.
‘Ghosts?’ I whispered.
A fresh noise – the screech of unoiled metal, so sharp it pricked my eardrums like a needle. My heart beat against my ribs. I ached for the loo, for my bed and realised we hadn’t decided what we’d do when we reached Gracie’s door.
‘It’s open.’ Dougie stepped inside. Ed snatched at his sleeve, but grabbed only air.
‘What shall we do?’ said Ed. In the torchlight, he looked smaller than he did in the day.
There was nothing for it. I took a step, another and I was in.
Soon Ed followed on behind me, our torch beams overlapping, brightening the darkness so it was just light enough to see without bumping into things.
‘Don’t like the smell,’ said Ed.
It was like burning and wee that hadn’t been cleaned away.
‘Dougie!’ I called, but quietly, hoping I was loud enough for Dougie to hear and quiet enough for Gracie not to.
Thwack! The sound of a stick against railings. The pitter-pat of tiny paws.
‘Hell.’ Scampering from the torchlight, over a heap of rags and old newspapers, went one small tan body then another. ‘Mice,’ I breathed.
Crying again, from our right. I felt Ed’s arm brush mine and realised we’d huddled so close we almost tripped over each other as we walked, though neither of us pulled away. We followed the noise along the hall, towards a doorway glowing with dull orange light. The burnt smell grew stronger, catching at my throat.
‘Dougie?’ My heart tripped fast.
We turned into the room, into the sound of crying, the squeal of metal hurting my head. I stopped, unable to think what was happening.
The air was filled with smoke that stung my eyes and there was an armchair with a body slumped in it, another kneeling on the floor and the noise was so loud and the kneeling figure was Dougie and he looked up at us, his face shining and wet.
‘I think she’s dead,’ he said.
Someone had put blankets around our shoulders. Someone else had made us tea.
‘Don’t like tea,’ said Dougie and an ambulance man cuffed him round the head.
I heard the clack of Mum’s heels before I saw her. She stood apart, rain hat in her hand, nodding as a man in a uniform talked.
‘… old asylum nurse … lived onsite there for thirty years – turned her a bit odd I reckon. Didn’t like the quiet when she retired, so one of the staff made a recording – crying, the wardens, squeaking hinges – to help her sleep. Nowt so queer as folk, eh?’
Mum arms were crossed, face stern as the Queen’s on a stamp.
‘What were you thinking?’ she said.
I shrugged, too tired to explain and not sure I could. ‘Is she okay?’
Mum sighed. ‘She will be. Dropped a fag on the carpet – could’ve burned the whole of Thornfield House down. Come on. Let’s get you home.’
Ed raised a hand as I passed, Dougie too, his face smeared with drying tears and dirt. Both of them looked worried, as if they could still hear the women crying.
‘See you at school,’ I said.