Windowboxes by Pat Black

When it got cold enough for their teeth to chatter, Ralphie and Tam got the fire going. The boys who’d been on the last nightshift had left an iron pit and some logs in the cabin, with a note attached urging their replacements to use them. Sheltered from the sharp wind by a wall set about fifty yards from the demolition site, the two security guards had their tea and sandwiches, talked about the football and got cosy. Golden light washed over their faces and shadows flitted across the brickwork in long black fingers.

In the background, the tower loomed. The last one of its kind in the area, it dominated the concrete wasteland like something from a fairy story.

Ralphie, who was older, said: “I’ve worked this site before. They refurbished that whole place a few years ago. Rewired it top to bottom, stripped out the asbestos. They hired us to make sure the workmen’s gear didnae get blagged. When the electrics were put in, the sparky messed about with the lights to test them. He was a genius, man. He rigged it up so’s a flying saucer looked like it was zooming across the windows. Then he made a raincloud and thunderbolts. Then a big Mr Happy face.”

“Sounds like he was aff his nut,” said Tam, slurping his tea.

“He was aff his nut,” Ralphie agreed. “But he was a genius.”

“I mind one time,” Tam said, “when I used to stay up the flats in Anderston. There wis a power cut one night. Middle of December. Freeze the cheenies aff ye, like tonight. I sacked it and went back to my ma’s to kip. When I got in the motor, I saw that some dafties had lit a fire inside on a landing. At the stairhead window. I could see people movin’ about, like they were dancin’. Having a rave or something. Or devil worshipping. Surprised they didnae burn the place down.”

“Junkies, likely,” said Ralphie. He drained off the silver cup, let the last couple of drops trickle onto the ground and then screwed it back onto the top of his flask. He pointed at the tower. “It was mostly junkies living up there before the council turfed them out. Them and a few asylum seekers. It turned into a shithole.” He shrugged. “It’s a shame. It wasn’t always like that. But it had to come down.”

“They’re pulling all of the high flats down, now. Wonder where they put everybody?” They both looked up at the tower.

Every window had been removed ahead of demolition, with every apartment completely and stripped bare of furniture, wallpaper, carpets, linoleum, wires, tiles, everything. Whole lifetimes’ worth of clutter and decorations had been painstakingly removed; wooden panelling, fibres, slats, fabrics so old and rotten they looked like plant life. Only the shell of the great building was left, the wind whistling through hundreds of empty window panes. In a fortnight’s time, charges would be placed, the area round about would be cleared and at the touch of a button it would all come down in a thick brown mushroom cloud. But for now, it was a dark citadel on the skyline, all the more imposing for the complete lack of light.

Ralphie took out an unfiltered cigarette and tapped it against the packet before placing it in his mouth. The way he did this, and the way he squeezed out his speech through the opposite site of his mouth after he’d done so, reminded Tam of his dad. “Any sign o’ the natives the night?”

Tam peeped over the wall. “Nah. All quiet on the western front.”

A few yards further back was the wire mesh fence; beyond that, some waste ground, and then the orange lights of a housing estate. Earlier on in the night, Ralphie and Tam had heard the local youths shrieking and shouting, feral howls that could have been fighting, fucking, boisterous high-spirits, or all three. It was a curious sound, rude with life and yet inspiring only dread. Feddy, their supervisor, had warned them that some of the local youths had taken a pop at the men on the site with airguns, but Ralphie and Tam hadn’t had any bother so far. Granted, Feddy was a blowhard and could have been trying to noise them up. However, they weren’t leaving it to chance, and had placed their fold-down seats behind the only decent bit of cover.

“Have you heard about the ghost?” Ralphie asked.

Tam snorted. “The ghost?”

“Sure. There’s a ghost up in the tower.”

“Yer arse.”

Ralphie shrugged. “Just tellin’ ye what I was telt.”

“If there’s a ghost up there then it must be fuckin’ lost. How could there be ghost in there? Who’s it going to haunt? Even the rats have moved out.”

“Tellin’ ye, it’s just what I was telt.” Ralphie took a long draw of his cigarette.

“You’re noising me up, Ralphie. What, am I supposed to act scared now? Gie’s peace.”

“What I heard was, there’s a grey lady up in the tower. Sixteenth floor. Ghost of an old woman. I was talking to one of the guys who cleared aff the site the other day. He said he seen her during the night, floating about one of the rooms. He freaked out, ran for it.”

Tam was still laughing. “Did she try and sell him a Big Issue?”

“He said it was an old woman, wearing a long white gown. Long hair. Like a younger lassie’s, he said. Like it didn’t look right on her. He was shaking, this guy, when he told me. Says he’s never going up there himself again.”

“When did he see this? Was it round about Hallowe’en?”

Ralphie said, perfectly politely: “Well, you don’t like it, poke it.”

“Ah don’t be like that chiefy,” Tam scoffed. But he could see he’d gone a little bit too far as the older man warmed his hands by the fire, scowling.

He got up and presented his backside to the fire. “Wonder if Feddy knows about the ghost?”

“Hmm,” said Ralphie.

“Probably write him up on a report, eh? Gie the ghost a disciplinary.”

“S’pose.”

“He’d end up giein’ the ghost a fright,” said Tam. But then a face appeared above the wall, a nightmare of angles, shadows, deep-set eyes and bright light. Tam started back in shock; Ralphie’s head snapped upright.

“Whoooaaagh! Whoooagh ya bastards!” The bluff, stubbly face wavered above a torchbeam, a face they knew.

“Feddy, you cunt!” Tam said.

Ralphie chuckled. “Feddy, thank fuck. Been trying to get that clown to shut up the whole night. Couldnae have done it any better masel.”

Feddy clicked off his torch. “I don’t think we’re paying you boys to sit n’ tell ghost stories, are we?” The supervisor came round the front of the wall, a broad man with a huge gut and whiskery jowls. The black jumper he wore was furrowed like a farmer’s field, and might have contained full marrows were it not for breadcrumbs and other detritus from his packed lunch blocking the rows. He could not bend over without breaking into a fine dewy sweat and would not ever run for a bus. But there was a presence about him, all the same, that intimidated people. Until they got to know him.

“Yeah, hilarious, Feddy,” Tam said.

“Hah hah! You near enough jumped ten feet, there,” Feddy said.

“What can we do for you, Feddy?” Ralphie said. “Thought you were due to stop by a wee bit later?”

“We’ve had a call,” Feddy said. “The polis. Apparently somedy’s broke into the tower.”

“Eh? Tonight?”

The three of them looked towards the empty block. Tarpaulin wound itself round the upper levels of the structure, where there was danger of some debris falling out of the empty window sockets. A silvery rill of moonlight caught the sheen of the material as it unfurled with the wind.

“That’s what they said. Member of the public said they thought they saw someone standing by one of the windows. So we’ve got to check it out.”

“Hey, wait a minute Feddy,” Tam said. “We’ve been here all night. We haven’t seen anybody.”

“Oh really?” said Feddy. “Then what’s that up there? A mirage?”

About fifteen or sixteen storeys up, right in the middle of one of the floors, a light flickered.

“Bugger this for a game o’ sodjies.” Tam’s torch beam sliced across the bare floors, pitted concrete and gutted ceilings of the foyer. The blackened, taped-off lift entrance yawned at them like an open mouth as they passed. “My money says, it’s junkies. The polis should be here. Why are we dealing with this?”

“Well, we are security guards,” Ralphie said.

“You never dealt with a junky before? It’s easy,” Feddy said. “Hardest bit is picking them up aff the floor to stick the heid in ‘em.”

“I’m no’ gettin’ Aids aff a junky bastart,” Tam said.

“Well, tell you whit,” Ralphie said, agreeably. “You wait down here, yourself, and the two experts will head up there and do the business. Eh Feddy?”

“Too right.”

Tam tutted. “I’d like to see that. The two experts, there. That’ll be a laugh.”

“Put a sock in it,” Ralphie said. “When we hit the stairwell, they’ll be able to hear us coming. And stop swinging that torch about. It looks as if the walls are movin’.”

Tam smirked. “They are movin’. It’s rats, Ralphie.”

“Fuck off. Gie’s a hand wi’ the door.”

But it seemed silly not to speak as they tugged open one of the few remaining doors and trooped up the stairs. Their footsteps might have been those of an army on the march; even their breathing was amplified by the empty space. And the wind was loose in the building, howling at them and tugging playfully at their clothes.

Strange colours appeared in the torchlight as the stairway curved upwards. A blue sea-level of paint washed over the bottom half of the stairwell wall, the upper half a peeling whitewash which turned brown the closer it came to the ceiling. Ancient graffiti scuttled across all surfaces, Mecchano set signatures and the obligatory genitals. The smell of the place, a melange of new piss and fusty bedclothes, was insidious rather than overpowering, one that might follow them all the way home.

The numbers heralding each floor were still there. “Sixteenth floor,” said Feddy, breathing hard, his forehead shining with sweat. “I’ll go in first.”

“Yeah. I’ll cover you, Kojak,” said Tam, spitting on the deck.

The door creaked, of course. Freezing cold, their breath enshrouded them as they crept along a corridor paved with bare floorboards, flanked by four empty doorways on each side. Facing them at the end of the corridor was a ripped-out window, denuded of its sill and framed by uneven brickwork that suggested the jaws of a great beast. Beyond this, the stars, the winking orange lamps of the estate and the black night.

A sudden gust of wind sucked the door from Ralphie’s hands and it shut with a terrible clang. They froze.

“Good work, Mr Ninja Master of Stealth,” Tam whispered.

“Shut it.”

The third door on the left was the source of the light – candles, surely. “Tae hell wi’ it,” Ralphie said, taking a deep breath. “They must know we’re here.” He strode forward and called out in a loud, steady voice: “Right, then. Come on, whoever’s in there, get out. The polis are on the way.”

“Hey, wait,” Feddy said, lurching after him. “Hang on there!”

Ralphie stopped short in the candle-lit doorway. “Christ.”

Inside was an old bedsit, dominated by two massive holes in the wall where the main windows had been. Naked to the night, the lights of the city – and the glow of the fire they’d left to die in the pit – twinkled outside. The room was bare except for about a dozen tea lights, spaced out evenly along the walls in little plastic holders. A sleeping bag and several frayed towels were piled up in one corner.

“Is that sleeping bag definitely empty?” Tam whispered.

Ralphie nodded.

The plasterboard walls had been stripped down to the quick – but they weren’t bare. Someone had drawn things on them in thick black marker pen. The images could have been fashioned by a child, clear and simple lines and circles. Closest to the three men was a drawing of an old-style television set with dials and an aerial on the top. On-screen, a radiant sun sat in the centre with fine lines blazing outward along its circumference. Beside that, the artist had installed a card-festooned mantelpiece, with a crackling fire underneath. The torch beams threw everything in stark relief, picking out the sickly yellow stains and smudges that dappled the plaster.

And there, suddenly, shockingly, was a wide-eyed child, with huge white pupils and an unsmiling face. The artist had given him shorts, a stripy T-shirt and a severe black centre-parting. Its mouth was a small, flat line, and large eyes downturned in the corners like tears. It looked mournful, a pitiful figure with spindly arms outstretched, as if for an embrace.

“Jesus,” Tam breathed. “That’s creepy.”

Ralphie’s torch picked out a row of frayed and jagged lines either side of the window. “What in the hell is that? I can’t make out what that is.”

“It’s windowboxes,” Feddy said. “Drawings of flowers. House plants.”

“Well, that explains it,” Tam said. “These flats are haunted by Rolf Harris.”

They sniggered, then laughed.

“Alright,” Feddy said at last, in his butch voice, “whoever it is, we’ve got to root them out. We’ll take it one room at a time.”

The supervisor turned around and started for the doorway. He swung his torch up, illuminating the face of a gaunt old woman in a long, white gown, with milky strands of hair down to her shoulders.

“Ah, Jesus!” Feddy leapt into the air; he dropped the torch, and the beam tore across the ceiling like a death ray. The big man’s legs buckled but he kept his balance, seeming to tapdance his way back across the floorboards as he shrank back from the face in the doorway. “Whit the fuck was that?”

But the figure was gone.

“This is fucked. I’m out of here,” Tam said, simply. “That’s that.”

“Wait a minute,” Ralphie said. “It wasn’t a ghost. It was an old dear.”

“Maybe it was. But you two can sort it.”

“Hey, it was an old dear, alright?” Ralphie’s face was a stern mask in the torchlight. “She’ll freeze. We need to go and get her.”

Feddy, breathing hard, kept his eyes on the doorway as he bent to pick up the torch. “Okay,” he kept saying. “Okay. Okay. Let’s go and get her.”

Out in the corridor, the woman stood with her back to them, framed against the jagged window. The night sky seemed less stark away from the candlelight, tinged with a hint of blue. The woman stroked her hair and shivered. She had on an old style nightdress, long enough to hide her feet. Although he could see the fog of the woman’s breath, Ralphie still felt an uncanny fear take hold of him as he started forward.

“Here, eh… Hello, missus? Eh… How’s it going?”

She turned, and gave them a gummy, toothless smile. “Oh, hello,” she said in a brittle voice. “You boys woke me up, there. Are you from the gas board?”

“That’s right, I’m the gas man,” Ralphie said, brighter now. He kept the torchbeam on the floor, so as not to dazzle her; it quivered at the grubby hem of her nightdress. “Eh, we need you to come outside with us, dear, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Are you sure? It’s awful cold out there. I need to get to my bed. I’m supposed to be asleep by now.”

“Och… here…” Ralphie removed his coat. She let him drape it around her shoulders. “There y’are. Some night, eh?”

“I’m glad you’ve come,” the old dear said. “There’s something wrong with the heating. It’s cold in here at night.”

“I know,” Ralphie said. “We’re here to get it all fixed up. But we need you to step outside with us for a wee minute, while we get some work done.”

“That’s it, missus.” Feddy tried to be cheery but his voice quivered. “We’re in to do the work, and that.”

She shook her head. “I don’t want the medicine. Don’t give me the medicine.”

“Don’t you worry,” Feddy said, “we’re not going to give you any medicine.”

“I don’t like the medicine.”

“Me neither, love.”

The old dear nodded and allowed Ralphie to lead her forward. Framed against Ralphie’s broad shoulders she looked tiny, reed-thin. She stared at Tam, moist brown eyes catching the light in golden crescents, and the younger man shivered. “I’ll have to go and get the wee one,” the old dear said, finally.

“The wee one?” Tam said. “Is there someone else up here?”

“Yes. The wee one.” She nodded towards the room with the candles. “Surely you saw the wee one?”

They went back into the bedsit, and she pointed towards the figure of the blank-faced child. “There. The wee one.”

“Aye, we’ll take the wee one,” Feddy said. “The wee one’s coming with us.”

She frowned, for the first time. “No. You don’t understand. No, thank you. I’ll stay here,” the woman said.

“It’s no problem,” Ralphie said. He couldn’t look away from the little boy’s face. “Don’t worry about the wee one. The wee one will be fine.”

“Who’ll make the wee one its dinner?” she said.

“She’s lost it,” Tam said. “Cuckoo. We need to get her out of here.”

“She’s fine,” Ralphie shot him a severe look.

She twisted her hair. “I’ll need to get the dinner on… My man, he’ll be home soon for his dinner.”

“Sure he will,” Ralphie said. “We’ll catch up with him later on.”

“Listen,” Tam said, looking at the woman. “There isn’t any wee one. There isn’t anyone coming home. They’re going to demolish these flats soon. We need to get you out of here. This place isn’t safe. Do you understand?”

“But… what about the wee one?”

“She’s away with the fairies,” Tam said. “It’s one for the ambulance people, not us. She needs sectioned.”

Ignoring him, Ralphie said to her: “I promise we’ll sort out the wee one and anyone else. Don’t worry about a thing.”

She nodded. Then she broke free from Ralphie, shrugging off his jacket. “I’ll just have to get my windowboxes,” she said. “I can’t leave them if we’re going somewhere. The plants need watered.”

They didn’t see what she meant to do until it was almost too late. She darted towards the jagged-toothed window, blasted by the howling wind, her hair billowing outward as if they were underwater.

Feddy caught her and hauled her back, crushing her against his barrel chest.

“Wait there, you,” he said. “Now wait there a wee minute, missus. Where do you think you’re going, eh? Ya daftie. We’ll keep you right. We’ll keep you right.”

Ralphie and Feddy led her out, with a firm hold of an arm each. As the footsteps and voices echoed away, Tam let the torchlight crawl over the mantelpiece and the television and the little boy one more time. Then he shivered and strode out after them, not wishing to be left there alone.

Born and raised in Glasgow, Pat Black is a journalist and author of novels and short stories.  Many of his stories appear in his collection, Suckerpunch 

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