Lowly and Solemn Be
While inspecting an abandoned school with his granddaughter, a maintenance worker begins to experience strange and disturbing feelings. This story, the debut of writer Carrie Mills, is based in part on a real experience...
‘Come on Rhiannon, keep up or we’ll be soaked to the skin.’
I’ve been doing this for about a year now, moved to Caerphilly for a job, can you believe it? My daughter hasn’t been so well, so I’ve been bringing my little sidekick along with me to give her a run. Truth be told, she’s just about my favourite person in the whole world.
The job’s easy enough, I manage a few school buildings for one of the academies, overseeing maintenance and the like. Today I’ve been sent to one of the buildings they own that’s been shut for a few years now. Only been here once before, but it’s not my favourite place to go, bit creepy.
Getting the bloody padlock to work is a job in itself, seems more jammed than last time I was here. Better put it on my list.
I have to give the gate a good shove to get it to move, overgrown with weeds that tower over little Rhiannon, wild as her hair.
The pathway up to the school goes through the playground and next to it is what I’m guessing was an old swimming pool. Must have been filled in when the school was closed, not really sure why they bothered. Nothing grows around it, but the concrete is cracked and a few plants have taken root.
I steer well clear and herd my little granddaughter through into the main building which smells musty and damp.
I see the problem straight away, one of the windows has been smashed in. Bloody kids, they like to hang out in places like this. Nowhere else to go and nothing better to do with themselves. I better clear away some of this mess and go down the hardware store for some MDF to cover the gaping hole until I can get the glazier here.
Rhiannon is running around the edge of the hall in circles, shouting boo through each open doorway as she goes past. I grab the big bunch of keys off my belt and slide them across the open space towards her. She giggles and chases after them. Running back to me.
‘Again Grampa, again!’
‘Go on then Rhiannon, see if you can catch this one!’
I hurl the keys again and they skid into a wall on the other side of the room. I better get clearing quick while she fetches them back to me. There’s broken glass all under the window, I’ll keep her the other side of the hall for now.
‘Alright, alright, but you’ve gotta let Grampa do his job too while we’re here or we’ll be late home for your tea.’
This time I skim them right out the hall into one of the classrooms and she tears off after them.
I find a broom propped in a corner and sweep the shards into a pile. Back feels stiff, it complains while I stretch it. I’m feeling my age. The cold and damp of the long grey days get right into my bones.
Looks so odd seeing a school hall without any sign of life in it. Nothing on the walls except blank boards and a large wooden cross looming down on me from behind the stage. Feels like I’m being watched.
There are stacks of chairs covered in dust in a corner, someone’s been moving them. I can see the trail left in the dirt on the floor where they’ve been dragged, and fingerprints on the seats. Bloody teenagers.
There are footsteps behind me and I turn to catch hold of my little Rhi when she comes past.
But I can’t see her. My hands are empty.
She’s a funny little thing, finds it hard with her mam sick. She’s tough though, she’ll be fine. I’ll make sure of that.
I sigh and set to work fixing an old dust sheet over the open window, balancing on one of the chairs.
Last time I came here there was a leak. Rainwater was running right through the roof and into the music room. The skirtings and floorboards had swelled where it soaked in, bulging and paint peeling. It’ll all need re-doing if they ever open the place again.
‘Back again? Go on then, where’s the keys?’
‘You get them.’
‘Me? Can’t you find them Rhi?’
‘Don’t want to.’
‘What’s the matter, too dark in there? I’ve got my torch with me if you want.’
She shakes her head looking every bit as stubborn as her mother. She normally loves playing in the dark with my torch. It’s only getting to dusk, should be plenty light enough to see by still.
‘Shall I come with you then?’
‘Grampa go get them.’
She stands closer to me and puts her hand in mine. She’s such a little thing, I remember when her mother was this age. Might be my favourite age.
‘Ok then, come on, I need to check that room anyway.’
The keys had gone straight into the music room, rather handy.
Rhiannon is pulling on my hand, holding me back a little.
‘Can we go home now Grampa?’
‘Don’t be daft, we can’t go anywhere without Grampa’s keys. It’ll only take me a minute. Why don’t you just come in with me? I’ll need those sharp little eyes of yours to help me hunt down those sneaky keys.’
‘I don’t like the singing.’
I feel a chill run up my spine.
‘What singing sweetheart? I can’t hear anything.’
I can feel my palms get sweaty as I listen to nothing but silence. Pull yourself together old man. Amazing how you can get yourself in a state somewhere like this, your mind running off with ideas. Probably some kids outside playing or something, funny how sound travels sometimes.
‘Ok Rhi, you stay here and I’ll just be a minute. I’ll leave the door open so you can see me. Just get my keys and we can go home. Your mam’s probably wondering where we’ve got to anyway.’
Walking into the room I’m holding my breath. Stupid old fool.
Feels colder in here.
Oh, bloody hell! There’s water running down the wall again, it’s spread almost across to the doorway this time. I knew I should have trusted my gut with those roofers.
Probably why it’s so damn cold in here, must be one hell of a hole letting that much through. Doesn’t even look like it’s properly raining out there now. I shudder and goosebumps run right up into my hair.
Where are those keys?
‘Yes Rhi? I’m right here. Just looking for my keys, did you see where they went?’
Her voice has gone higher pitched, I can hear she’s getting all worked up, ‘Gramps, I don’t like it.’
‘One minute, honey.’
There they are, how did they get all the way over there?
‘Did you throw Gramps’s keys over under the tables miss? You’re gonna have to wait a second, they’ve gone right underneath. Could really use a little one like you to go under for me.’
That’s a small gap.
I shift the top few tables off and move the bottom one out of the way. The feet make a high-pitched screech as the rubber drags across the wooden floor.
Rhi runs behind me and I nearly jump out of my skin. I spin round to tell her to stop messing about but she’s not there again.
‘Rhi. Where you hiding, honey? It’s time to go home now, come out to Grampa.’
Her voice comes from the doorway, ‘I’m not hiding. I don’t like it Grampa, please can we go now?’
Something brushes behind me. Just a breeze, a draft from the broken window.
Pull yourself together, you’re just scaring Rhi.
‘I’ll just get the keys, Rhi, and we can go now. Nothing to be scared of honey.’
Dear God. I feel the blood drain from my face and my head swims. The keys have gone.
Rats, just rats. Got to be full of ‘em in a building like this.
Is that laughter? Doesn’t sound like Rhi.
The door slams, the sound ringing around the room until I’m left in a deeper silence.
My legs feel weak, like I can’t trust putting my weight forward to walk. Feels like there’s a pressure building around me. Christ, I’m too old for all this.
‘Rhi? Did you shut the door honey?’
I can hear it in my voice now.
Stop it, old man, you’ll scare her. You’re the grown-up here, bloody act like one.
What’s that banging? I run back to the door but the handle won’t turn. I can hear Rhiannon on the other side, singing. It doesn’t sound right.
The children join in from behind me and I’m falling to my knees.
‘Hear, hear our suppliant breath.
Keep up, in life and death.’