CHAPTER ELEVENBarty comes to the flat as usual that evening. I play with him while Mum makes tea. His tooth has come through – a darling little white thing on his little pink gum; he’s not grizzling any more. He pulls himself up wand walks around the furniture, grinning away, so pleased with himself it hurts. On the other hand he is so near walking properly that I can’t bear it. ‘This time,’ I think, as if Barty’s learning to walk would solve all my problems. This time he’ll do it. I’m sure he’ll do it.
I put a big cushion in the middle of the floor. I pick up Barty, take him over to the cushion and lean him against it. Then I sit a little way away, holding out my arms. ‘Come on, Barty,’ I say. Come on. Come to Esthi.’
He stands there his head skewed round, laughing at me, his two little white teeth quite plain. I feel as if I could eat him. At the same time I am very determined.
‘Come on Barty. Do it for me.’
He does come to me: but not walking. He just drops to the floor and crawls my way.
I put him back. I take his hands off the cushion, so that he wavers standing there. He sits down again, hard, on his bottom. Then he crawls towards me again, laughing. He thinks it’s all a game.
But it’s not a game to me; not any longer. For some reason I’m almost crying. If Barty won’t walk for me, nothing is ever going to go right again, I think.
‘Please, Barty, Oh please.’
He is back at the cushion, still laughing at first. The front of his dungarees says OSH KOSH. (Osh is the name of a town in some funny place a long way away. Beyond Russia? Yes. I don’t know why I know this, but I do.)
‘Please, Barty.’ He stops laughing now. He looks puzzled. His mouth starts going square, a dangerous sign. Is he going to start crying? He’ll never walk if he does that. So I make funny faces at him and then he starts laughing again. ‘Walk, Barty.’
I pull him. This time he takes a step. But then he topples forward. In slow motion I see him landing on mum’s little stool which I’ve not bothered to move. Barty hits his head: hard. A lump comes up almost as quickly as he starts bawling –screaming. I pick him up frantically trying to calm him down but nothing works and now mum comes running – she grabs him up, and as she rocks him looks across at me and says, angrily ‘Have you been trying it again, Esther? What are you thinking of?’
Concern for Barty has made her forget about the need to be nice to me because of my sleep walking. She shouts at me and I shout back and run out of the room, my problems made worse not better. I go to bed, bury my head under the blankets and howl stupidly and loudly, hoping that she will hear.
When I stop finally I can’t hear Barty crying any more. I hear my mother talking to him, I even hear him laugh. I hear my sister turn up to collect him, hear her and mum talking together in the hall – I can’t hear what they say but I do hear the door shutting behind them. There’s silence for a while. Then my door opens. I bury my head again as Mum comes in. ‘Is Barty alright?’ I ask, from underneath the blankets. It can’t have been very clear, but she still hears me.
‘He’s got a bruise,’ she said, ‘but he’ll live.’ ‘Silly girl.’ she adds then; softly; but my head is out from out of the blanket now. I hear every word.
I am still very upset. I feel a bit better after she’s been but not much. And in a while I feel as miserable as ever. I don’t get up for the rest of the day, and I don’t want any supper though mum offers to bring me some.
I sleep quite well though; I don’t dream, that I remember; I don’t sleepwalk. I wake up feeling better, and go off to school not willingly but not quite so desperately.
It’s not raining today; even the wind has dropped. The sun is coming out as I walk in at the school gates. Maybe life isn’t so awful after all, I think. Even when I notice Frankie’s girls smiling at me I don’t think anything of it. They are just smiling at me and I smile back at them.
Everything seems normal enough. I notice Jay isn’t in class, but he said he had a cold yesterday, probably his mum is keeping him home. His mum always does keep Jay at home for the least little illness, even though he’s very healthy and catches fewer things than most of us. It means that today at least I won’t have to worry about him winding up Frankie. Trace seems in a good mood, too. Rashid scrawls me a notice about our maths, signing it Rashidx. Maybe next time Barty comes he really will start walking, Until break-time I am happy.
Even when I see the two police officers – a man and a woman - coming in at the gate I don’t think anything of it. The police are always coming to our school. When it’s not to do with someone selling drugs or something, it’s what’s our headmistress calls ‘public relations’; meaning ‘make friends with your Bobby.’ Or: ‘Police means nice guys here to protect you: they don’t beat anyone up, ever.’ They walk into our classrooms carrying their hats and introduce themselves as Constable This or WPC that and advise us on road safety, etc etc etc. Some classes have even been given tours of the central police station. Lucky them, Trace says. I guess she’s joking.
But these police haven’t come to talk about road safety. When they turn up in our classroom – it’s an English class, our teacher, Mrs Adams, has finished with Lord of the Flies, is trying to interest us in “To kill a Mocking Bird’ a book that is supposed not only to improve our English but our moral attitudes towards Racism, ha, ha, ha - they are not smiling. Standing between her desk and the whiteboard, they talk to Mrs Adams in low voices, while we whisper among ourselves, both curious and scared. Something not nice at all seems to be happening: Mrs Adams is looking horrified. Shaking her head as if to refuse what she’s been told, she turns round, waves at us furiously to be quiet.
We stop talking at once.
‘The officers have something to ask you, class,’ Mrs Adams says. ‘I’m sure you’ll all tell them anything they want to know..’ She pauses. ‘If you know it. ‘ Our silence grows heavier.
‘Did anyone see Jatinder Patel this morning?’ the WPC states, looking around our faces. The policeman standing besides her looks closely at us too. But all they must see apart from worry at this is bewilderment. None of us want to think there’s anyone in our class called Jatinder. If Jatinder is someone we don’t know, maybe Jay himself is alright.
‘We all know him as Jay here,’ Mrs Adams says.
Trace, Rashid and I look frantically round at each other. This is our worst fear, what we’ve been waiting for. I feel so angry with Jay suddenly. Haven’t we kept on warning him? The sun still shining outside the classroom might as well not be shining. I gaze fixedly at the shadows of the window bars in the patch of sun alongside the windows. It feels as if they are widening and spreading. They are spreading in my head, as much as anywhere, It doesn’t matter. Jay’s dead, I’m thinking. I can’t bear it. I can’t. And it’s all my fault. Not just for telling him they wouldn’t mind him because he’s Hindu. For liking Rashid better than him, too if Trace is right. I pray she isn’t.
I reach out and touch Trace’s hand. She doesn’t withdraw it. Just lets it lie there coolly, touched by mine. The two police I see are gazing more fixedly at us than ever. Presumably they are noting the horror and wondering why it should arise so fast at the mention of Jay’s name.
Our teacher certainly notes it. She shakes her head. Before the WPC has had a chance to ask her question again, she says, hurriedly - she’s nice, Mrs Adams - ‘Jay’s had an accident,’ she said, ‘He’s in hospital. He’s not...’
‘When did you last see – Jatinder – Jay?’ the WPC breaks in again, touching her silly black hat with its black-and-white chequered band. She’s got frizzy red hair under it and underneath that freckles. She’s wearing a wedding ring, a wide gold one. I prefer noting these things to her words, which are stopping our world still. I note a buzz in my pocket too – my mobile vibrating. We are supposed to have our mobiles turned off inside school, but you can get round that by setting them to vibrate only; most of us do. This is a message vibrate, not a phone call. But I can’t check messages at the moment.
‘Not dead,’ Mrs Adams says.
Someone – Janice - puts up a hand. ‘Jay was at school yesterday,’ she said. ‘He hasn’t come today, so how could I of seen him?”
‘Has anyone seen Jay this morning?’ the policewoman persists. I look around. Everyone’s faces are blank; even the faces of the girl who hang around with Frankie’s lot are blank.
‘Well, class,’ Mrs Adams says. ‘Well if you do think of anything, if you did see him coming to school, or knows someone who did…’
I shake my head. Everyone shakes their heads. And I don’t think anyone is lying not even Frankie’s girl. I want to shout out ‘Ask Frankie.’ But I daren’t. It feels as much as my life’s worth; as much as anyone’s life’s worth.
The policewoman begs a black marker pen off Mrs Adams. Turning her back on us she writes a number on the board. Then she puts the pen down and swings round to face us all again, wiping her hands as if she’s got ink on them. But I don’t think she has.
‘If any of you think of something, anything, ring me. Or ask your teacher to ring me,’ she says ‘That’s the number. My number. Anything you tell me will be in the strictest confidence. Don’t be afraid.’
She touches the uptilted brim of her hat once more; her wide gold wedding-ring catches the sun and flashes a little. The policeman besides her shifts his hat from one hand to the other. He’s wearing a wedding-ring too I notice.
“What’s happened to Jay?’ Trace asks. What we’ve all been wanting to ask, but didn’t dare to; perhaps we didn’t entirely want to hear the answer. At the same time she takes her hand off her desk away from my hand, and folds it with its fellow in her lap.
Write the number down everyone,’ our teacher is saying now, before WPC has the chance to answer. But she does so then; while all our heads are bent obediently, writing. I write the number in my rough book alongside a silly scrawled drawing of Homer Simpson. And a much more careful one of the upper part of a crane with the driver’s cab, drawn it from memory, that I’d been pleased with at the time.
The WPC says. ‘He’s had an accident, I’m afraid. He’s unable to tell us anything about it yet.’
‘Is he unconscious?’ Trace asks. She is of course a doctor’s daughter. If he’s in the QE perhaps Misa is looking after him. Would someone of fourteen be looked after by paediatrician?
I use such pointless thoughts, I use observing silly things like the police officers’ wedding rings, and the pink bobbles on Mrs Adams’s scarf, to distract myself from the screams that are desperate to break out in my head. I try the Simpson’s theme tune, I try Neighbours and Casualty. But nothing works. As I hear the WPC say, ‘at this moment in time I can’t tell you, I’m afraid,’ I stop seeing or hearing anything; I faint onto my desk. Banging my head hard, just like Barty banged his head yesterday. Just like Jay has, probably, if he’s unconscious. Except in his case, probably, someone has banged it for him.
All this is why I too now have a plaster on the side of my forehead, a bruise spreading round my eye. And why I don’t hear the hubbub in the classroom after the police have gone, don’t see the accusing glances being sent the way of Frankie’s girl, don’t see all the people huddled in the playground at dinner time. I am lying flat on the bed in the nurse’s room feeling sick as a dog and waiting for my mother.
I don’t just feel like throwing up; I do throw up eventually. I hear the word ‘concussion’ mentioned. But actually I’m not concussed: I am just sick with fear for Jay my friend. I’m so afraid I almost don’t want to know what’s happened, I don’t ask kind Mrs Adams anything when she comes to see me. But she tells me a little bit anyway. Jay is unconscious. Someone attacked him. He’ll be alright she says. (But maybe she’s trying to convince herself too of that. As well as me.) I miss the whole school being summoned to the hall to be told the news, and given the police number to ring if they’ve any information. I miss walking to the bus past the patch of gardens near the school where Jay had been found, now ringed with striped tape.
But actually I see that just the same. Mum turns up to fetch me after what seems an age. We walk out of the school past huddled groups of kids who look curiously at the big plaster on my head and then go back to their discussions- most of them are looking upset. I see one or two girls crying.
Mum helps me into the car as if I’m an invalid, wrapping a rug round me. We drive the length of the gardens where the blue and white tape is flapping gently in the rising wind. Two or three policeman are standing, guarding it, but nothing is happening inside the tape. The sun is still shining. The bare trees throw long shadows across the daffodils and crocuses.
Mum sees me looking. ‘He’s unconscious, Esther,’ she says. ‘He’s not in a coma. That’s good news, Esther.’
‘Is it?’ I ask.
‘It means his brain’s not too damaged.’
‘What else?’ I say. ‘Noone tells us.’
‘He’s got bruises all over and a broken collarbone. But he’ll wake up in due course. I promise you, Esther. And the bruises won’t last. And….his hair…’
‘They won’t?’ I am not so certain. And then I say. ‘What about his hair? What about it?’
She still doesn’t say. ‘If you know anything about it, Esther?’ She hesitates. ‘You must tell the police.’ So the same thing can happen to me? I’m thinking. I say, because I’m sure it’s what she’s thinking,. ‘Well you see what happens when your daughter insists on going to a comprehensive school.’
‘Do you want to change?’ she asks hopefully.
‘His hair. What about his hair?’ I insist.
‘Shall we find a new school for you, Esther?’
’No,’ I say violently. ‘It’s all my friends. My friends.’ (Mostly they’re my friends, I’m thinking, keeping my fingers crossed. Despite Mum I’m worried sick about Jay. How do I know she’s not skating over the truth until I’m stronger? What about his hair then? What’s happened to it? Why is he so vain about his bloody hair? I’m furious with him suddenly. And then worried all over again.)
Just the same I’m grateful to be put straight to bed when we get home. Mum even brings me hot chocolate and offers a boiled egg. I groan at this. ‘I’d throw it up again,’ I say. But I don’t throw up the chocolate. Ands when she offers me the portable telly I accept it gratefully; along with the extra blankets. On the other hand I slide out from all attempts to give me a hug.
I make her shut my curtains even though it’s not yet dark. For once I do not want to watch the endless discussions between the cranes. I watch all the kiddy TV programmes instead, starting with Tweenies. Going on to Blue Peter, News Round. I don’t take in one word one frame of any of them. It doesn’t matter.
My school trousers are lying on the chair, folded neatly, where mum put them, not thrown on the floor the way they are when I’m left to myself. I notice the bulge in the pocket suddenly and then, about five minutes later, remember my mobile phone.
‘One message’received’ it says, when I dare look at it at last. Huddling back into bed. And also ‘Answerphone message.’ (A missed call? I don’t remember hearing the phone ring. Maybe I had no signal.)
I go into messages and push ‘message options.’
‘Delete Message?’ it offers. I hesitate for a moment.
‘Read message.’ I push instead.
The message says. ‘I’m up the crane. It’s safer there. Join me, Esther.’ It isn’t signed, but I know who sent it; I know that even though it’s from Granny’s number, it isn’t her.
Afterwards I dial up the answerphone . ‘You have one new message’ the smooth voice says. ‘Press 1 to listen.’ ‘First new message’, says the voice. Then another voice whispers in my ear. ‘You see what happens to vain terrorists. Vain ones.’ I don’t recognise the voice. Nor do I recognise the number when I look for that. If I knew whose number it was I think, coolly, through my terror, I’d know who attacked Jay.
Not that I need to know. I know already. Even if I still don’t know what’s happened to his hair.
With the telly still blaring away I fall asleep. And for once I don’t dream anything, not that I remember. I have a surprisingly good and peaceful sleep. Maybe it’s the effect of mum’s hot chocolate. (Thanks mum. I mean it. Your loving – yes- loving daughter. Esther.).
But I wake up in the end. And then I fall asleep again, and that’s quite a different matter.
Some things everybody knows. Or think they know. For instance: there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that I sleep-walked out of my room, out of the flat, down in the lift, out into the Mail Box, then back round into Holliday Street. Goodness knows why noone saw me, noone stopped me, they all say. For noone did. At four in the morning, even under the full moon, there was noone to see, not a single passing policeman or a single passing police car. (They’d looked up the records and there really weren’t. If there had been they’d have stopped me for sure.) Maybe that was why noone saw me. Not because I wasn’t in the street.
There is also this; how did I get out of the front door of our flat without waking anyone? It makes such a big clunking noise that it’s hard to go in and out secretly. It’s true that the chain, usually on at night, was off. But my mother says she can’t remember putting it on that night. So maybe she didn’t, and that was why it was it off. Not because I went out of the door in the middle of the night, and couldn’t put the chain back on from the outside.
The next question was how I got into the building site; not only is it supposed to be like Fort Knox, it is Fort Knox as far as I could tell. Goodness knows I’ve spent enough time trying and failing to find ways in, so I should know. But they found a hole in the wire fence, apparently, cut with wire-cutters. They assume someone else had tried to get in once. Quite rightly they take for granted I didn’t have wire-cutters, that my hands wouldn’t have been strong enough to use them if I had. But the hole was there, and they reckoned it was big enough for me to have squeezed through. In my sleep?!! Cool. Well, if they say so. But if that was so why didn’t their alarms go off? Why didn’t the guard dogs come running and tear me to pieces? If there are guard dogs.
They can believe anything they like. It’s up to them. I know what I think. I believe Ella pulled me there out of time, calling from the stars. I believe she tenderly put the clothes on me so I wouldn’t be too cold and wafted up out of my window still asleep.
The one sure thing I know – and they know because I told them - is that I came to myself, wide awake on a ladder half-way up the crane, under a full moon, the rungs cold under my fingers, my coat not enough to keep me from the cold.
I don’t think I knew what the rungs were at first. I just felt my fingers curled round one cold bar, my toes clutching to another. When the other hand, the other foot reached out to the next bar it seemed an automatic response. Only gradually did I feel the ladder, the structures they joined swaying round me. Only slowly did I know that the light fingers swirling round me, making me feel colder and colder, belonged to the wind. That the silver light that showed me the rungs I was reaching for belonged to the moon.
Above my head I can see the meshed floor of the next level up. I can see the big hole in it through which I will have to climb to reach the next ladder. Slowly I crawl up towards it, shivering now. Going down doesn’t seem to be an option. I don’t look down, not till I’ve hauled myself up through the hole, till I’m standing upright, both my feet flat on the meshed surface. Then I look back through the hole out of which I’ve just climbed.
It’s a long, long way down. My stomach goes down with it. I reach in terror for the next ladder and cling to it. For I don’t know how long I am unable to move. The only thing gets me going again is the cold. If I don’t move I will die of cold, I think. But I can’t go downwards. There is no way now, no possible way but up. My terror doesn’t diminish for an instant, not one bit.
I start climbing the next ladder. Each rung in turn burns cold into my hands and feet. The rungs are all now I see and feel. This is like a dream –like a nightmare rather. Maybe it is. The only change is when I reach the next floor up, haul myself through the hole again, my arms aching more with each attempt. I am weak with terror. It gets harder and harder each time and the air gets colder and colder. I can see the dark mass of the slewing-unit clearly now – it’s only two or three ladders further up the mast. I pause before starting on the ladder again. I’m too tired to do anything else. So tired I don’t know what I’m doing. All round me are the diagonal struts that hold up the tower mast; they are the only things between me and the ground. I do not look at them. Except for the moonlight streaming from it, I’m scarcely aware of the sky into which I’m climbing. Which feels nearer than I’ve ever been to it, except in an airliner. And that’s quite different.
I don’t know how long it all takes. But suddenly I’m through the hole and onto the walkway round the slewing unit. On the edge of it, hung over space is the driver’s cabin. It’s blowing a gale out there. I walk out onto one side of the walkway, clinging to the supports that stop me hurtling to the ground and look up at the arms above me – I’m the under the machinery arm here with its weights and pulleys. It is amazing to see it so close – or it would be amazing if I wasn’t struck still with terror and dream and unable to take it in properly. I inch my way round the inner edge of the walkway, clinging to anything I can find till I am under the jib arm, near the driver’s cabin and look out under that. The arm’s horizontal now of course. But it can swing up diagonally, like me reaching up my arm. I’ve seen that often enough. It no longer looks delicate from here. It looks massive. Gross almost. Scary. Everything is scary. Except suddenly I’m not scared. Whatever, whoever I am I don’t recognise. It’s just strange. I wish Trace was here. She’d explain it to me. Wouldn’t she? It’s only me doesn’t understand anything. Still. Most likely never.
The only thing I want now is to get into the driver’s cabin. I want to see the seat I’ve only seen in pictures, to switch the switches, pull the levers, make the thing above my head turn and dance and talk; that way I could talk to Ella; that way maybe I’d be safe. Out here I can’t do any of these things. The arm is held out there like the leg of a huge dead INSECT. An utterly gross dead INSECT.
I inch my way round again. I have to climb up a ladder onto a gantry to get to the cabin. Then I have to open a door and climb down into it. I work that out, easily enough. I climb the ladder, and reach the gantry. I look through the door; but at first all I can see is my ghost; my twin; a little white face with hair flying staring back at me. Ella? I say. But it is not Ella it is me, myself, reflected in the glass, white with moonlight, dark with moonshadow. Go away I say, and pull down the handle. But the door is locked. I shake it furiously,
DO THEY EXPECT THIEVES UP HERE? Well, of course, they’ve got one. Me. Except I’m not a thief, unless unauthorised use of lever – or intended use of a lever – is thievery. I hammer on the door, yelling to my own ghostly face, let me in, let me in. Stupid. I look beyond my face and what do I see there? An empty crisp packet. A can of Coca Cola Lite. (A fat crane driver trying to lose weight?) A page three girl, curling at the edges. A tiny picture of a woman with a shawl over her head and baby on her lap stuck to the glass on the other side – the Virgin Mary and Child actually. (A Catholic crane driver?) A picture of a woman with curly hair, and two little boys with crew cuts. (A family man crane driver?) And then the two levers one on either side of the black seat, the dials and switches, the technical stuff. All of it colourless in the moonlight. And all of it ungettable at. The door is locked. I CAN’T GET IN.
I howl and howl and bang and bang. I bang louder than the wind. Ella, I shout. Ella! Ella!
No answer. But then at last, clinging to that gantry, by the locked door of the cabin, I look out. Out over the city with its lights and tower, out towards our MailBox flats – I’m higher than my own window, but I can’t pick it out from the rest, unless it is the lit one, with a woman moving about inside. My mother?
And then at last I look down. Down and down and down. The site rises and falls like the sea below me. If I bent my head under the strut and stepped out I could fly over it like a bird. My stomach is out there already; my light head too.
In the pocket of my coat comes a vibration. A mobile phone starts ringing. My mobile phone – it’s tune is the Ride of the Valkeries, noone else has that. MY PHONE. I take it out with shaking fingers. Too late. The tune stops abruptly halfway through – derderder der. I put out a finger to fetch up a number for myself but before I can do it starts ringing me again, so startling me I don’t know quite I manage to hang on up there, but I do, with one hand. The other, shaking, almost drops the phone, but somehow one numb finger presses the green button, connects it. I lift the phone to my ear. A voice – Ella’s voice – the one I’ve kept on hearing that reminds me of someone– asks: ‘Coming, Esther, coming? It’s so lovely up here. Jump. You’ll fly forever. Jump.’ And then it hums my tune all the way through. Derderder der, der der der. der. Twice.
Humming it a second time is a mistake. It wakes me up somehow, makes me angry. No, I say loudly, to noone; I’ve pressed the red button and cut the voice off. And suddenly I’m wide awake, terrified, shaking with cold, wanting only to be down and safe and home. It’s a wonder I hold on now, but I do, I creep down from the gantry, and sit on the platform low as I can get – the moonlight shadows the bars across there, across me too, protecting me, somehow. I’m behind bars, I think. I can’t fall. But I’m still shaking with fright, and, still more, with the awful cold.
I curl my icy feet up under my legs in an attempt to warm them. My phone is beeping: it’s running out of juice I realise. It’s right down, it’s almost out when I look to see. Frantically I press names on my address list, press dial. Trace first, it rings. But there’s no answer, except Trace’s message. ‘You rang. Cool. Leave a message.’ Granny’s phone. Switched off. Who else then? Rashid.- I’ve never dared ring him before. I’d almost forgotten having his number but there it is. I press the green phone to call it. My phone bleeps and bleeps again. A message comes up. 'Battery low’. Tell me something I don’t know please. Meanwhile the number rings and rings. Rashid is asleep obviously, everyone’s asleep obviously, I’m stuck up here for ever; or at least I will be till I’ve died of cold. Any minute the call will click off.
Out over my left shoulder in the sky I see Orion suddenly. The Hunter. The only constellation I know. His sword is at his belt. Right now it’s me he’s hunting. Where is he driving me too? Where where where. I am quite lost.
But suddenly then a sleepy voice. Who’s that? Rashid, help. I say. I’m up the crane. At the moment it all comes back to me. ‘WHAT ABOUT JAY’S HAIR? But he can’t have heard me. At that the phone, the screen everything goes dead. And I drift away into the sky with Orion, still murmuring to myself, weeping. ‘WHAT ABOUT JAY’S HAIR?’