There were stories about Wicker Bridge Estate, always had been even before there was an estate. So many stories and for so long that it was hard to tell if what you were being told was new or old. Something that smacked of urban legend might well have its roots in ancient tales of demons and spectres. Sometimes the true tales were worse: folk dying alone, left undiscovered for years, or eaten by beloved pets, only found when some number cruncher realised a gas bill hadn’t been paid for far too long.
Tricia had heard them all, retold a few in her time, but the one that occurred most often amongst the children she dealt with was this: if you were suffering, if you were alone and friendless, if you were desperate, a pale lady would appear and offer you a deal.
Hermione Banks, her social work mentor and supervisor, used to joke about that one all the time. Tricia had learned to laugh—at all the woman’s jokes, all her hard comments that might have once been humour but had been beaten into a bitter blade by years of working in places like Wicker Bridge. Some days the guiding hand had felt like a hammer.
Still, Tricia’s surprised to find she misses Hermione. Mostly because the people they were supposed to help, the people produced by these dark urban mills, the people who’d spoken to her quite normally when she shadowed Hermione, suddenly acted as if she were so new and fresh out of the packet she smelled like shrink-wrapping.
Now she was knocking on those doors on her own, and the moment they were opened hard gazes fixed upon her—no one knew her, no one remembered, and the estate’s population had changed since she was a child here. Dead-eyed women, suspicious children, and angry men all demanded, “Where’s Hermione?” She explained that Ms Banks had taken some leave—didn’t think it a good idea to say “disappeared”—and didn’t they remember meeting her, Ms Parks? That she’d be filling in until Ms Banks returned? It didn’t guarantee she’d be let in. She could no longer count on two hands the number of times she’d had to lean her face against a grimy door, with the echoes of “Fuck off!” in the air, and try in her most patient manner to say there wasn’t any choice, they had to talk to her, that she was there to help.
There’d have been none of that shit with Hermione Banks there.
Still, she thinks, not much longer.
Tricia pulls her battered Renault into the car park located in the centre of the four ugly residential towers that block out most of the sun no matter what time of day. There are no other vehicles in the lot, just as the last two times, but it doesn’t mean her doors won’t end up scratched, the windows chipped with a strange precision, foul words dabbed in red and black paint, down low where childish hands can most easily reach. She taps her palms, then fingers, on the steering wheel, counting to ten, but not really because when she reaches the end she starts over. By the time she’s done ten lots of ten under her breath the nerves are almost quiet. She tries to recall why she wanted to do this job; then recalls that want didn’t really come into it.
Remember your promise.
Helping. Helping people. Showing them the way. She puts a hand beneath her sweater, touches the patch of skin crepe-textured from burns left by Billy and his lighter; those marks were old. She moves her fingers to trace the raised, barely healed scar across her ribs, all five inches of it. Not deep, no, but long and needing stitches. A souvenir from three months ago, a mark that Hermione had said she should wear with pride, but it just made Tricia more afraid, less devoted.
She’d got back on the horse, hadn’t she? Returned to work as soon as she was fit so Hermione wouldn’t be disappointed; returned to banging her head against despair and indifference day after day. She thought she might be able to continue on, too, right until two months ago, the day the man who’d stabbed her—she’d told him he wasn’t a very good parent—got out of jail because of over-crowding, ostensible good behaviour, and because some judge said it wasn’t really an attempt on her life, just an expression of misplaced anger.
He’d seen her that first day back, and several days since, seen her and laughed and leered; done the same every time she’d come visiting with Hermione, and his gaze made promises that next time he’d do a proper job. Though he never said anything it didn’t matter: that gaze was enough to chip away at every bit of strength, every bit of courage she had.
Hermione Banks, thinks Tricia bitterly, had never let something like that discourage her. She bore her scars the way a five-star general wore his medals, with the same arrogant assurance that what she did was right. Her status was legendary: stabbed five times, shot once, beaten sixteen times (and by all accounts gave back as good as she got); minimal sick leave taken even when injured, never went on holidays, just threw herself back and back and back again at the unfeeling wall of social problems, trying her best to rescue the less fortunate and set them on the path to a better life. Coming out of an abusive home, Hermione Banks had done her best to save others from the same fate. As if it was that easy.
Remember your promise.
Hermione Banks had never let slammed doors deter her. Nor shouting men and women, crying babies in their shit-filled nappies. Nor feet and knees sore from traipsing up and down piss-infused stairs in buildings where the lifts hadn’t worked for years, if ever.
Pressing out a long breath so there’s nothing left in her lungs, Tricia grabs her satchel from the front seat, and struggles out of the car as if it’s got heavier gravity than she’s used to. She closes the door harder than needed, listens to the echo of it ricochet around the courtyard and then has to press the key-lock button three times before it blips sullenly. She’s five paces away from the vehicle before she needs to breathe again and she sucks in air like a compressor, making roughly the same noise.
Tricia has to check her phone for the numbers—building and floor and flat. The device, which she levers out of her jacket pocket, flies from her sweaty hand and lands on the asphalt with a crack. It hits on a corner, and as she watches the screen becomes a masterpiece of fractures, so many fissures so fine it looks like a spider’s web. She bites down on a scream, starts counting again; without the steering wheel to beat time against, she taps her thick-soled boot on the blacktop. Then she realises she’s out in the open, anyone can see her, laugh at her. It’s hard enough to get people to let you into their homes when they think you’re trying to interfere, let alone once they decide you’re mad.
She picks up the phone, finding it still works, though it’s hard to read the numbers in the notes field. Building three, level seven, flat 748. She knows the lifts don’t work. Her back aches. It’s late in the day because she spent so much time fiddling around in the office rather than come here, but she needs to be seen doing her job. Now the shadows are long and the sky is heading towards the deeper grey that presages nightfall. Tricia doesn’t want to be here after dark. She wants to be at home in her track pants, with slippers on her feet, watching something mindless on the telly. She wants to be eating ice cream out of the carton and not thinking at all about tomorrow or the day after that or the one after that, just knowing she’s only got to hold it together a little while longer.
Tricia heads towards the third tower, eyeing the stairwell that’s open to the elements but obscured by the late afternoon gloom. Something moves there, something white and fluttery and her heart gives a little kick of panic. Low to the ground, small, frail. A little dog? Tricia doesn’t like dogs no matter what their size. But no, not a dog, a child. A girl in a dress too thin for the back end of autumn, with short dirty blonde hair and bare feet and scratches up her toothpick shins. Tricia smiles in relief, gives a laugh, and waves. The child blinks at her, a slow reptilian motion, but otherwise doesn’t move.
“Hello,” says Tricia. “Hello, I’m Ms Parks. Do you know if”—she has to dredge up the name—“Mrs Lewis is at home?”
The child says nothing, just stares with one brown eye, one blue, and Tricia decides the girl is probably not all there. In these deprived areas a lot aren’t and there’s no treatment for them either, not with the NHS being simultaneously gutted and fucked by conservative governments who’re no doubt planning to hunt the poor when they run out of foxes.
Tricia takes another step towards the girl in the stairwell, thinks again how uncommonly dark the shadows are behind her, and then realises that those very shadows are moving. Not just shifting as if by a breeze, but rising, rising, rising like a wave about to dump on the sea shore, except what will bear the brunt of it is the child. Tricia lets out a scream, tries to dart forward, tries to grab at the girl’s too-thin dress, tries to pull her free—but she doesn’t.
No matter what message her mind tries to send, her body rebels, and she finds herself back at the car, holding the key fob out, desperately shaking it and pressing the button, praying though she doesn’t believe in God that the lock will obey. It does, and somehow she’s in the Renault and it starts first go and then she’s somewhere down the High Street roaring past a Pret and not stopping for the little old ladies waiting at the crossing and throwing profanities after her.
And Tricia finds she can’t pull up any memory of what happened to the little girl. Whether because she was too busy running or because she’s blocking it out, she doesn’t know or care.
Tricia can’t get to sleep.
She’d made it home in record time, miraculously without being pulled over by the rozzers. The hot shower she’d had wasn’t just to get her core temperature up, but because she’d peed herself in fright. She’d eaten a microwave meal in front of the television but hadn’t taken in anything that moved before her eyes, which might have also had something to do with the three glasses of white wine she’d put away. But when she got into bed, leaving the lights on out in the lounge room so their glow trickled across her bed, she started to think that she’d overreacted.
What had she seen?
In a darkened stairwell.
She was tired and grumpy and nervous.
She panicked and she left a child alone.
Remember your promise.
The moving shadows were more likely a person in dark clothing.
She should call the police.
Then she’d have to tell them what she did.
And they already thought there was something off about her.
Tricia rolls over, sheets and duvet twisting around her legs until she feels like she’s been trussed up like a lamb for the roasting.
She’d run away and left a little girl behind.
A little girl like she’d been.
Hungry, lonely, with no clothes warm enough in any weather.
Tricia had slept in a corner of an empty room, no bed, just an old stained mattress. Her slumber had always been light, one ear kept open for any sounds of drunk parent—her mother—or false stepfather—Billy, who was just the worst of the constant stream of Shelley’s boyfriends—or one of their friends making their reeling way along the hall to “visit.”
Where did that other little girl sleep? Who was supposed to look after her?
Who was that child?
Tricia kicks away the covers and sits on the edge of the mattress, her knickers and t-shirt damp with sweat. The heating is up too high, she tells herself. Out on the pale pine table are the files, Hermione Banks’ cases. She hasn’t been through them all, not in depth, though she’s sampled out of sheer curiosity; there’s no need, really, it won’t matter soon. It was possible she’d read about the girl and it hadn’t stuck. Maybe she wasn’t a high risk—although given Tricia’s memory of the child’s appearance that seemed unlikely.
She goes to the kitchen and opens a window to have a sneaky fag. Her housemate’s away but she hates Tricia smoking in the flat. Mostly Tricia’s good. Mostly. But again, it doesn’t really matter anymore. Still, she’s careful to blow the smoke out into the night, and not drop grey ash onto the impractical creamy carpet. She selects the first folder.
Two hours and a lost count of cigarettes later—she’d given up trying to herd the smoke out the window fairly quickly and lengths of cinder are piled on a fairly new copy of Marie Claire—she’d found nothing. She sits back and ponders her predecessor.
Hermione Banks was meticulous about processes and procedures; she’d have a case file for that child. Somewhere. The old social worker knew every person on the Wicker Bridge Estate. She’d shared all that knowledge with Tricia. So why was this child an unknown quantity?
What had Banks been hiding? If anything . . .
Everyone had said she was an unlikely candidate to go missing. The police still hadn’t found any trace of her; not even her car had been located. A burnt out shell of a vehicle might have pointed the way, given some hint as to her fate, but the lack of it meant there were those who claimed it meant Hermione Banks was still alive. That she’d just had enough and taken off somewhere people didn’t yell at her or throw things or try to stab her with cheap stiletto heels. But Tricia knew that wasn’t the case.
The child, though, the child bothered her.
If the child wasn’t in the system, wasn’t in Banks’ files, maybe she was recent? Newly moved into the block? Too soon for Hermione to notice her? That didn’t seem likely. Hermione would notice anything new, anyone out of place. So: what if Hermione had noticed? What if she’d noticed her two weeks ago and approached the girl? What if whoever had been not looking after the girl in the proper fashion hadn’t been impressed by the woman’s interference?
What if the girl is alone and in danger?
What if . . .
What if . . .
What if the girl had seen something else? Not today, but a couple of weeks ago? What if she knew who Tricia was, though Tricia didn’t know her? Was that why she hadn’t come when called? Why she’d preferred the grasping shadows to the helping hand Tricia had stretched toward her?
What if . . .
What if someone else offered the girl help? Not the police, no, because that kind of kid wouldn’t talk to the cops. But someone else? The same sort of someone who’d come to Tricia when she was small and cold and afraid?
What if that girl wasn’t interested in Tricia’s help because a pale woman—that pale woman—had come in the night and suggested a bargain, the same sort Tricia had accepted all those years ago? A deal she’s not sure was even true because maybe Billy would have died anyway from emphysema or alcohol poisoning or heart attack, only not as fast as the flames that took hold of his bed so swiftly—what if that same woman had appeared from nowhere and held out a hand to the little girl in the stairwell?
Remember your promise.
Was that worse or better than if the girl had seen something a fortnight ago?
Tricia goes to the bedroom to dress.
There are parts of London that are never entirely dark; the light from vehicles and streetlamps, factories and theatres, houses and shops, reflects on the smoggy sky and creates a kind of ambient glow that’s hard to escape. But there are other areas in the city—their number growing night by night—where the darkness lives and breathes and breeds like viral cells.
The Wicker Bridge Estate is one of those places.
In each block only a few pale yellow beams gleam out from the upper floors, weak as piss. Tricia wonders at that, knowing how densely populated the towers are, knowing that people who don’t have to get up and go to work in the morning didn’t tend to keep the usual diurnal cycle as wage slaves. Billy had basically been a vampire, coming to life when the sun set, when Tricia’s mother came home from work at the factory, smelling like seafood, and cracking the ring pull on her first lager of the evening; that would wake him, that sound of tearing, popping metal. He’d demand a fry-up, breakfast for dinner. The flat would smell like grease and cigarette smoke—same as he did the night the mattress caught fire—that’s how she knew he was awake, because he’d spark up a fag as soon as he opened his eyes, before he even sat up. That’s when she’d begin to tense, waiting, anticipating a repeat of every night since Shelley had let him into their lives.
Tricia pulls in beneath the sole streetlight and turns off the engine, then listens to it tic-tic-tic in the silence. The key is cool, nickel-silver and plastic in her fingers, weighted down by too many other pieces of metal—keys for the office, home, the garage, the storage area to the vacant flat in Wicker Bridge that no one else knows is empty because only Tricia had found the old man dead and desiccated there six months ago; he wasn’t on any lists for assistance so he was her secret. “They’ll bend,” Billy used to tell her, showing her how he only ever kept one key on the ring for his car; showing how he could use it to remove bottle tops, clean the underside of his nails, and tear jagged holes in her skin that her mother refused to notice.
Her hands start to shake; she puts them on the steering wheel and begins to count. Ten lots of ten. Then another ten lots of ten. Then, as she is halfway through a third round, she sees something white from the corner of her eye. Her heart hits hard in her chest and she wrenches her neck to the right. There’s the fluttering of a dirty cotton dress, with capped sleeves, a high tie beneath non-existent breasts. Twig fingers clasped in front of a small stomach, dirty blonde hair, badly cut, sticking out like a halo from around a heart-shaped face.
The girl stands a few metres away, staring solemnly at Tricia, waiting. Tricia swallows hard, forces her hands to move, the left to grab her satchel from the seat, the right to open the driver’s side door. She swings her feet out, levers herself up, makes herself take the steps that bring her to the girl. Her knees are shaking and so is her voice as she says, “Are you alright?”
The girl nods, the blue eye bright in the light, the brown one looking like a well of night.
”Can you . . . can you talk?” asks Tricia.
“Yes,” says the girl, quite simply, with no judgment or contempt, no offense at being thought mute.
“Do you know Ms Banks? Hermione Banks?”
“Have you seen her?”
“I mean recently?”
“With you before, and again this morning.”
Tricia’s throat fills with bile; she rocks back on her feet. The girl’s lying or mad. Not about the first instance, but the second. Then again, what if . . .
Hermione Banks was hard enough; her size, the bond they’d forged working together. For all the danger she’d experienced, all the violence, Hermione hadn’t expected any from her protégé. The child, thinks Tricia, is much smaller. Tricia feels her fear trickle away, feels warmth flood through her from her feet to her face. Be calm, act normal, don’t panic her.
“Can you take me to her?”
“Yes.” The girl offers a hand, which Tricia accepts, relieved at the ease. The child tugs her along and Tricia sniffs: the girl smells like smoke and grease. Tricia closes her eyes, sees Billy on the mattress, too drunk to wake, too drunk to move even after she’d set the bed on fire with his own lighter, just like the pale woman had told her to do.
Trust me, she’d said, just the bed, no one else will get hurt. Trust me, it won’t spread. And Tricia did; she did what she’d agreed to and the woman promised freedom in return. She hadn’t lied; Tricia had been taken away, placed with a foster family that looked after her, she’d not seen her mother again. And in return Tricia had promised that she’d assist kids like herself, when she grew up, when she finished her degree; that she’d be shield and sword for them, help them find the way out.
And she had.
Right up until this morning when she’d run away from the girl who now held her hand, left that girl to the shadows.
Right up until the day when she’d seen the man who’d stabbed her.
Right up until that moment after a fortnight of torment, of wordless pressure, of unspoken threats from the man whose eyes promised worse, when her nerve broke. When Hermione Banks had tried to calm her down in the stairwell as she, Tricia, wept and shook, blurted out that she was going to run, that she had a plan, that she would leave London, leave Wicker Bridge, leave everything behind. When Hermione had looked at her sadly, knowingly, and said Remember your promise to her.
And she’d realised then that somehow Hermione knew everything; her past, her present, her future. The fact there was no escape from the bargain she’d made when she was just a little girl; that the older social worker was somehow an agent of the pale woman. And Tricia knew that Hermione Banks would enforce that bargain unless she was stopped.
So she’d said to Hermione, “You’re right, of course. I just panicked. There’s something I wanted to show you.” She’d led her mentor to the storage area that belonged to the empty flat—not to the home where a man had died all alone, the flat she’d kept up the utilities payments on just in case things didn’t work out with her roommate and she needed a place to crash (the body was skeletonised by the time she’d tried the door, found it unlocked, found him, wondered if he’d been murdered, if she should report it, but ultimately decided no). She didn’t take Hermione to the flat, no, because it would be too easy to discover her; any noises too easily overheard.
She’d led her friend down to the basement level, unlocked the sturdy door, reached in to turn on the single light, then stood aside to let the woman enter first. And, trusting, she did, not seeing Tricia follow her and pick up the old shovel she knew from previous explorations was in the corner closest to the door. What Hermione did see, at that last moment, was Tricia’s reflection in the old mirror on the back wall, the downward arc of the shovel that connected with her skull before she had a chance to cry out.
A couple more hits and Tricia was satisfied Hermione wouldn’t be exhorting her to remember her promise ever again.
She’d waited until dark and then, Hermione’s ugly hat clamped down on her head, driven the woman’s car not too far away to an estate that was, unbelievably, even worse than Wicker Bridge. She’d left the keys in the ignition, confident it would be stolen well before daybreak. She’d not even snuck out the alleyway behind the main residential building when she heard the engine; Tricia figured it was some sort of record for the little toerags.
She’d played it cool. Reported Hermione missing the next day when she didn’t show up for work. Answered all the coppers’ questions calmly, went on with her life and job, only getting a bit wobbly at night and drinking too much. And today, when she’d had to go back to Wicker Bridge. When she’d left the child behind.
But she’d come back. And no harm had been done, the girl was still here, safe as she could be.
Tricia had come back and that counts for something. It did. Surely.
If she forgets what she’s planning to do.
The smell of grease and smoke grows stronger the closer they get to the stairwell of Tower Three.
“Where is she?” asks Tricia, testing the girl again, not letting go of her hand even if she does stink like a cigarette butt extinguished in a plate of leftover bacon fat.
“Down. Down in the storage area. You know.”
The girl leads her to the metal grill door that should be locked, available only to key holders, but it swings open under the lightest touch of the child’s free hand. The line of fluorescent lights on the concrete ceiling fight a losing battle against the shadows. The girl tugs her forward, seemingly anxious to meet her doom.
“Has anyone . . . ” Tricia begins, stupidly. “Has anyone . . . offered you help?”
The girl nods.
“Hermione?” she asks hopefully, even though she knows Hermione is in no position to offer anything except an example of how best to slowly decay. She hates to think how the older woman will look after two weeks, even in the cold.
“Almost there,” says the girl. In the trickle of light, Tricia recognises the sturdy door that sits ajar, though it shouldn’t. The girl pulls her towards it. The door opens without any help, and the child drags her in. The girl’s neck is thin, tiny—Tricia’s hands won’t have any trouble wrapping around it. Squeezing.
“Did you?” the child asks.
Tricia looks around at the storage space; nothing’s changed. A discarded mattress, stained and blackened, the mirror against the back wall, the smell of smoke really strong; two broken chairs, an upturned plastic milk crate with a book on it and a camping lantern. Oh, and Hermione Banks propped unmoving in the corner where Tricia left her, neither better nor worse looking than previously. “Did I what?”
“Remember your promise?”
In the mirror, its mercury spotted and peeling, Tricia sees two figures. The tall one is her; the small one . . . there’s something wrong with the small one. The shape is there but not there, not solid, almost as if something shines through it. And it’s growing, shrinking, growing again, as if it’s making an effort.
“Remember your promise?” repeats the child in a different voice, a voice Tricia recognises from the night the pale lady appeared in her cold room and made a bargain.
Tricia wants to run. She wants to pee herself again. She wants to throw the child as far from her as she can, then slam the door and leave the girl alone until the light dies, the flesh melts from her bones, until her screams stop echoing around the confined space. Until the child is quiet.
But the grip on her hand is far too strong and it drags her forward, until she is only a few feet from the mirror and the figure beside her can be seen clearly: tall and slight as if she feeds on air and drinks only tears, pale and smiling, one moment sad, the next satisfied that her lack of faith has been justified. Tricia meets the gaze only in the mirror, cannot bring herself to turn her head and look at the creature who holds her, cannot bear to stare into the one blue eye and one brown.
“Hermione was one of my favourites, my longest serving. She never forgot her promise.”
Tricia begins to tremble again.
“Did you forget what you agreed? That if you ever stopped doing what you’d sworn, you’d have to go back. Back to the beginning.”
Tricia can’t get any words out, her throat is shrinking, tightening, closing over. Suddenly her clothes seem too big, the jeans too long, the belt not cinched tightly enough, her bra straps are falling away. In the mirror there’s once again two figures: one tall, bright as bleached bones, slender as starvation, with a head like a skull; the other small, a child shivering with cold and fear. Her, Tricia, once and forever.
Another then a third, behind them: burnt black and fused, leering over the pale lady’s shoulder.
Originally published in Best British Horror 2: Dark Satanic Mills, edited by Steve J. Shaw.