It had been a night like so many others over the past few weeks, and as the woman looked down on the narrow street below her second-floor window, still dark at this pre-dawn hour, she finally admitted that she couldn’t take any more.
She raised her eyes to seek out the stars in the gaps between the buildings, but the sky was never completely black in central Manchester, the heavens polluted with endless street lights and overly bright shop windows. The incessant rumble of traffic created nothing more than background music that she had long ago learned to filter out, but sleep had eluded her once again because she never knew when the cries of the dead would pierce the silence and shatter any semblance of calm.
As the first resident in the north wing of this newly converted building, she had relished the isolation and was almost resentful of people gradually moving into the other apartments in her wing, while the south wing remained practically empty. Perhaps she should have made more effort to befriend her neighbours, to ask if they too heard the voices. But they wouldn’t understand, she was sure of that. They probably didn’t know or even care about the history of this building, a history that had fascinated and horrified her in equal measure.
She grasped the black tourmaline pendant where it hung against the skin of her chest, willing it to protect her from whatever was happening in this room. She felt the spirits around her – the spirits of children who had lived and died here. The building had been leased in the nineteenth century to accommodate the overflow from the huge New Bridge Street workhouse, and now those poor lost souls circled her, trying to tell her something, she was sure.
She had an affinity with the dead. It was something she had always known, but nobody believed her. This time, though, she knew these children wanted something from her and she was unable to help them.
At first she had heard laughter – the faintest echo of the happy sound reverberating around her sitting room. She hadn’t minded that. It had made her smile. But days later it had turned to crying – heart-wrenching sobs that made her want to reach out and touch the poor dead child. And it wasn’t just one voice she heard. Over the weeks she had sensed different cries, always starting with joy but ending with tears.
Only the long hours between nightfall and dawn were strangely silent, the spirits resting perhaps. During that time the woman prowled the apartment, unable to soothe the souls trapped within these walls.
She fingered the tourmaline again, and reached down to rub the smooth blue angelite crystal resting in a bowl on the table, a stone she had selected from her treasured gems to help her communicate with angels. But it wasn’t working, and the effort of trying to make contact, to free the spirits of these children from captivity, was draining her of energy.
It was time to leave them to their sadness.
Fifteen miles to the north of Manchester, Bernie Gray turned up the collar of his bright green hi-vis jacket against the thin drizzle that had plagued them for the last two days. He didn’t mind the rain and barely noticed it. He had other things on his mind.
He gave the dog lead in his left hand a gentle tug. Their new puppy, bought for his daughter two weeks earlier as a much-wanted Christmas present, was slightly more reluctant to go for a walk than she had been. Two minutes ago Zena had been prancing around in excitement, weaving between his legs. But that was in the warmth of the kitchen. She obviously had different thoughts now she was outside.
Bernie had been on dog-walking duty each morning since Zena had arrived on Christmas Eve, and although it was not yet 6am, he felt the exercise was doing him good, even though for now it was just a short loop until the puppy’s little legs grew stronger. Most mornings Bernie saw it as an opportunity to prepare himself for the day ahead. It also gave him time to focus on the persistent worry that hardly let go of him for a second.
This morning, though, he was thinking about the conversation he had had with his daughter, Scarlett. Not really a conversation. It was more of an accusation, and he needed to find a way to fix it.
‘Come on, Zena,’ he said softly as he coaxed the little chocolate Labrador along their usual route – following the road, down the path behind the church, out into the lane beyond, then back towards home. The circuit took no more than fifteen minutes and he never met anyone when he was out – the early hour and the chilly, damp mornings saw to that.
He turned left onto the path and looked up at the church tower, standing starkly against the dark blue of a sky that wasn’t going to lighten any time soon. He looked down at his feet, trying to avoid the worst of the puddles, which Zena, now accustomed to the cold, happily trotted through, her brand-new collar with its blue LEDs reflecting off the black water.
He was going to have to decide what to tell Scarlett – how to answer her questions. Not with the whole truth, obviously. But he was sure he could think of an explanation that she might accept, some watered-down version of the truth that a thirteen-year-old might understand. When he had seen her face that morning and heard the disgust in her voice, his guts had knotted. He couldn’t lose Scarlett. He knew he was out of options. He had to put this right and accept the consequences.
Bernie turned onto the narrow lane that ran back towards home. The drystone walls on either side of the single track created a wind tunnel, and he bent forward slightly to keep the worst of the drizzle off his face. He looked down at Zena, and smiled at the sight of her. With her wet fur she looked like a drowned rat. As he watched, she lifted her head and her ears went up. Zena stopped.
‘Come on, Zena,’ Bernie said, raising his voice slightly against the wind. ‘Get a move on.’
What had she heard? Her head was cocked slightly to one side, but it wasn’t until a pale glow relieved the darkness surrounding him that he realised there was a car on the lane ahead, approaching slowly, its dimmed headlamps creating gleaming pools of warm yellow light on the lane.
Bernie lifted his head and held his hand out, asking the driver to stop. There was no grass verge to move to so the car could pass, no farm gate to slip through.
The car drew to a halt about ten metres ahead. Bernie nodded his thanks, hoping the driver could see the small amount of his face that was peering out from beneath the hood of his green jacket. He picked Zena up so they could squeeze through the narrow gap between the car and the wall.
As he grasped her wriggling body he heard a sound he wasn’t expecting. The driver was revving his engine, probably indicating that Bernie should hurry up. Holding Zena close to his chest, he started to move towards the car – but not as quickly as the car moved towards him, its headlamps now on full beam, blinding him.
There was nowhere to go.
Bernie’s last thought before the car hit him and Zena was that now he would never get the chance to put things right with his daughter.
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