It’s stopped raining. Streetlights reflect like liquid gold from the black of the pavements. The bus is late. I’m cold but I’ve a pocketful of cash and that means new trainers for me and a long-sleeved school-blouse for Nikki.
Nikki, who lived despite all round her dying. Nikki, who had to crawl over the body of our mother and listen to her own cousin, Sally, screaming – half buried under collapsed masonry. Nikki, who had to leave them both as the blaze tore through the hotel where Mum worked.
I shudder and try to lighten up; think of something other than the bomb. I’m rescued from my thoughts and spellbound by the laughter and bubbling voices of the three girls approaching the bus stop. Arm-in-arm they walk; their shiny tights and short skirts have me transfixed.
‘Hey, Rory! Where have you been? Haven’t seen you for months, calls Jeanette, wiggling her hips and pouting.
‘Looking after my half-sister.’
‘Nikki. She ended up in a kids’ home. I got her out.’
‘Right. You coming with us?’ The two other girls start chanting “Party, party…”
‘No chance. I must get back to Nikki. She’s only ten.’
One of the girls nods at my case and asks, ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a lute.’
‘Like a medieval guitar. Just had an all-day gig at the new arts centre.’ I scan up the street. Still no bloody bus.
The girls hassle me to go with them but only Jeanette is really interested. She throws a backward glance and a sad smile as she walks away still linked to the others.
Yeah. Looking after Nikki has really cramped my life but she’s the best part of it. I haven’t had social life or a girlfriend since Mum and Sally died. Sally the mystic, the witch. Sally with her fierce kiss, her crystals, runes and Tarot cards. There’s no one to replace her intensity, her passion.
The rain starts again, heaving down and roaring on the shelter roof. Finally, a bus appears and sprays water over my best jeans as it lumbers to a halt.
My phone’s ring-tone freaks the bus driver as I pay my fare. It’s a sound-bite of a wolf pack howling. By the time I’ve sat on the nearest seat, wrapped the lute-case’s strap securely round the rail and wrung out my hair, I’ve missed the call.
Bugger, it was Nikki and I told her only to phone in an emergency. My heart-rate increases; sod it, my hands are shaking. Hitting call return, I sit back and imagine everything from abusive neighbours to a fire in our dingy flat.
‘Hi Nikki.’ I keep my voice level and calm. ‘I’ll be back in ten minutes. What’s up?’
Nikki’s voice, strained, verging on tears, ‘The social worker’s here.’
That’s all she has to say to make my world go totally wrong. Life doesn’t get worse than this. Shit! I have to leave Nikki alone sometimes. I can’t survive on benefits alone. What sort of life is that for Nikki? Never getting treats and going to school in charity-shop clothes that don’t always fit properly…
‘I’ll be there in ten, Nikki. Everything will be all right.’
I’m tense, sitting forward, tapping the phone off my forehead. The bus seems to crawl; hissing over the wet road.
I’m out and running as the doors open. Card through slot, push through entrance, race up the stairs and ignore the smell of urine and dope in the air.
Open the front door and Nikki is straight into my arms; crying, pressing her face into my neck. I hug her with one hand and run my other through her hair.
The social worker watches me from the kitchen door. She’s all folded arms and hard eyes. Behind her, on the table is an empty plate, some cling-film and bottle of coke; remains of the lunch I prepared for Nikki.
‘Come on, Nikki. I’m going to talk to the social worker while I get your dinner ready. Then we’ll make up stories ‘till bedtime.’ Maybe some of that will soften the hassle I’m about to get.
It’s hard making dinner one-handed but Nikki hugs me, legs around my hips while the social worker waves an I.D. saying “Monica Telford” and berates me.
I’m behind with payments; rent, overdraft, credit card… She’s been through all the letters on the sideboard. I open them, sure, but some people just don’t count that well. God knows I try so hard. Nikki helps me and tells me what some of the numbers are but none of it makes much sense. Monica’s been through the cupboards and the fridge. There’s bacon that’s a week past its use-by date. She’s been through everything; Nikki’s school-clothes should be cleaner and ironed better. I haven’t responded to letters about her parents’ night… I didn’t attend a case-review today. Shit, will this woman just shut up? What Nikki needs is someone that loves her not a tidier, cleaner flat and a million forms filled out.
Monica’s words pound in my head, every new problem fighting to be the one that crushes me. I zone out; I can’t help it. I’m trying not to cry in front of Nikki. I’m eighteen. I’m an adult. When will the world stop treating me like a kid? Look, I’m making egg, chips and peas. Well, I will when the oven heats up; it takes ages. That’s good food for a growing girl. I pour Nikki a big glass of milk…
Monica’s gone. Nikki’s still with me but only just. Emergency review tomorrow at twelve: great. I’m going to lose her; Monica nearly took her away tonight but we both begged and begged.
Nikki’s asleep in my arms. I’ve been playing her favourite tunes and letting her strum the lute-strings while I do the chords. We made up a story about all the photos stuck on the fridge door. I stroke a golden hair stuck to a bit of toothpaste still on her lip. Yes, she’s going to need a shower tomorrow morning and clean clothes. She is a teeny bit smelly. I’ll brush her hair a hundred times like they did in the old days.
For the moment I’ll just stroke it and kiss her scalp now and again. Through the window the black silhouette of the derelict hotel blocks most of the view – if nettles and security fences can be called a view. I’ve not seen anyone in the hotel since the bomb attack but a strip light flashes in one of the ground-floor rooms. I wonder if I should call the police. Maybe there’re kids inside. Flash, flash, flash…
Wait! Did I drift off to sleep there? What woke me up? I must have jerked because Nikki wakes. I stroke her face and whisper, ‘You all right? Comfortable? Warm enough? You want to go to bed or are you happy here?’
She closes her eyes and snuggles in, a warm cheek against my neck.
What made me jump? Yes, the flashing light. Sally taught me Morse code – and that’s… “…Here. Bring Nikki. Bring your lute. Rory come here. Bring Nikki. Bring your lute. Rory come…”
I wrap Nikki tighter in the blanket, lift her and go the window.
The message repeats and repeats. Another light goes on, just long enough to show the gate in the security fence opening, the heavy chain and lock sliding to the ground.
Nikki must have woken again. Her arm jerks from under the blanket and the chewed nail on a finger points to the pavement.
‘Rory! I saw Sally’s face in that puddle.’
‘Come on, you. We’re going to take a look.’ I set her on the floor. ‘Get your jacket and shoes.’
We creep down the stairs; our neighbours are nosy – when they’re not drunk or stoned. Darting through the shadows we round the flats and Nikki runs to the puddle. I can see Sally’s smile and tearful eyes reflected; no, not reflected – she’s looking from the surface of the water. She nods towards the gate and her mouth moves as if she’s talking.
‘Come on, Nikki,’ I say, and grab her hand. I crush the stems of nettles so she can get through. A service door swings open and a light goes on. Someone’s shadow on the floor but no person. It moves along a corridor and weaves between old tables and cookers against the walls like we have to.
By the end of the corridor I can make out a vague form; a thin waist, long hair. The figure looks more and more like Sally. Now we’re racing after her, calling her name. We hear her voice like she’s far away. She’s laughing and crying too.
The hotel changes from stinking, damp and derelict as we follow her, until we reach the reception area. Here the hotel smells fresh and clean, lights on everywhere, tall plants growing from shining pots on the thick carpets. The damage has all disappeared.
Sally reaches the desk and whirls round. ‘Nikki, Rory!’ she cries still smiling and crying. She’s real; we’re hugging, tears, kisses…
‘Sally, we thought you were dead…’
She pulls back, puts a hand to my cheek. ‘I am, Rory, I can’t keep this spell up long. I need you to help me.’
‘Go through that door there are people there, powerful people who helped me back to this world. Play your lute for them. Play as long as they want. If you do well they’ll give me more power.’ She gives me a push. ‘Go now, quick.’
I run and she calls after me,‘Don’t look at them too much.’
Opening the double doors I step into hell.
This is the room the bomb destroyed. A big function room. The staff were having a Christmas party – a freebie when a local bank cancelled at the last moment. I think the bomb was intended for them.
Before that happened the room was all polished oak tables and embossed wallpaper. The fire would have destroyed what the blast didn’t. But now it’s a mess of darkness and unworldly searing light. People like demons or angels seem to be everywhere even above and below me, moving through the ceiling and floor like they’re insubstantial. Figures sweep past. A taloned hand, a huge wing – these things are not human. A man’s face, stretched about three times too long leers at me. Muttering, laughter and screams echo around. I can’t make out the room really, only a stool beside me.
The air is full of sulphur, incense and animal smells choking and thick. I sit down, ready my lute and close my eyes. I don’t want to see any more of these nightmare figures. Despite all the voices my music sounds clear. Sharp and soft notes cut through the din.
I’ve played for six hours today. If it would help Sally or Nikki I’d play until I died. Though I’m tense and frightened and trying not to shake I kick off with some Baroque and go through everything of it that I can remember; that takes nearly two hours. By the end my shoulder muscles burn with tension. I force myself to zone out of all the freakish noises from these demons or whatever they are and try to focus only on playing. Some longer classical pieces relax me a little. After that, it’s whatever scraps I can come up with; Toccatas, Greensleeves, Barber’s adagio. Elspeth of Nottingham comes out perfectly; I send a prayer of thanks to Jan Akkerman. But I’m out of music and wonder if I should start again. A moment of inspiration and I go into busking mode, letting my fingers do what they want. I picked up this idea from a piper in Dundee; he called it a piobaireachd.
I forget the music and wonder what’s happening with Sally and Nikki. It was so good to see Sally; lovely the way Nikki got to her first and hugged her as she does me. Sally smelled so beautiful; musky just like when she was alive. Ignoring the acrid and foul smells around me I remember Sally’s scent, lose myself in it, let it mix with that of Nikki. Poor Nikki, she’s been in those clothes all day and all night.
What am I doing here? How am I helping Sally? I focus on the piobaireachd again, giving it my all, making perfect notes and chords intermingled, doing my very best. God knows how long I’ve been playing. I’m dropping with fatigue; my muscles sagging with exhaustion. I hope Sally is still there with Nikki and the reception area hasn’t turned back to however it looked after the fire. I can’t imagine how Nikki would feel all alone and reliving her most horrific and tragic moments.
Somehow phrases of Lament to the Children creep into my music. My fingers stiffen, the tips burning. They may be bleeding but I still have my eyes closed and don’t want to look.
The cacophony of spectral voices increases until I can’t concentrate. It blasts through my skull, crushing and freezing my mind. My hands stop working; I’m crouched over my lute and whimpering.
The thump of feet on bare floor makes me jump. The doors burst open and Nikki calls out, ‘She’s gone. Sally’s gone.’
I open my eyes, Early morning light penetrates gaps in the boards over the windows. Charred and broken wood surrounds me; beams hang from a sagging ceiling. The place stinks of mould and scorched wood. Nikki’s trying to hug me. She’s all tears and moans.
So am I when I try to move. My whole body aches and standing sends pain jabbing through every limb.
I lean the lute against a fallen beam. Yes, there’s blood on the fret-board.
‘Nikki, Nikki.’ I hug her, pick her up, scoop the lute and case into my left hand and make my stumbling way out of Nikki’s hell.
The reception area is a mess of wreckage too, with tattered shreds of scorched carpet hanging into holes in the floor.
‘What happened? Where did she go?’ Nikki asks, her voice muffled by my neck.
‘I don’t know, my love. Have you been alone all night?’
‘No Sally was here. She disappeared just now and it all went dark.’
I’m picking my way through the remains of the hotel. My legs shake and I can’t concentrate. Everything hurts and Nikki feels twice her normal weight.
I’ve failed and Sally has gone. I’ll lose Nikki today. The pain of it twists my heart.
Even back at the flat I can’t stop Nikki crying. She’s too wretched to wash herself so I help her. My tears fall as I wash her hair. She wipes them from her face and strokes the lines of moisture from mine. I wrap her in towels and see that they need washing too.
The kitchen’s a mess. Food stains, rings from mugs on the table; the floor’s sticky. Monica’s right; I’m not capable of bringing up a girl. How can I even pretend to the social workers that I can? It’s going to be a morning of cleaning, despair and exhaustion. I’m going to look a bloody wreck at the case review and I’ve no time to sleep.
The washing machine grinds and squeaks it’s way through the sheet and towel cycle. I try not to burst into tears again when Nikki tries to help me clean the kitchen floor, scraping old food up with her ragged fingernails and a teaspoon.
She helps me transfer some money to bring my credit card back to its limit and we go, hand-in-hand, to the bank and I put some money in. Maybe that will stop the letters for a bit. On the way to the social work offices, I buy a crisp, white school blouse for her. She likes the feel of new material and decides to keep wearing it, so I stuff her T-shirt in the shopping bag.
This is it: twelve o’clock. We go into the hot bright foyer of the social work place and the receptionist tells us to wait. The good life ends here. We try to play finger games but neither of us can get into them and end up hugging and crying again. Nikki’s nose is running and all I’ve got is a bit of kitchen roll I’ve used myself. I didn’t even think to bring tissues.
Monica arrives and stands, hands clasped in front of her. She’s watching us, seeing me failing again.
My head’s so full of whirling thoughts; what will life be like without Nikki? Will I be able to see her much? Will she be adopted far away? Will people treat her properly: love her?
We follow Monica down long passages, just a blur of notice boards and signs. She’s talking at me but I’m lost in a hug with Nikki, her legs and arms tight around me, my lips pressed into her hair.
What did I do wrong last night? I gave it everything I had. If I’d got it right maybe Sally could have helped us.
Some familiar faces round the table, some new. The same old plastic chairs. I used to love this room – a place of hope; a place that you can rescue the shreds of a ruined family and bring them together. I used to think it would be so easy, go so well.
The terrorists have probably forgotten their bomb but the pain and trauma never goes away for the victims. Thinks keep dragging on, getting worse.
People give their reports, look at me and Nikki who sits on my lap.
I answer hundreds of questions. I beg; Nikki begs but it’s all going the wrong way. The social work people won’t even come to see how I’ve cleaned the flat. Announcements are made and Nikki’s new life tears us apart like another bomb.
Nikki’s screaming, shouting she’ll run away and come back to me. I’m being told that I must let her go. Strong fingers prise my hands from Nikki and her arms from me. The world blurs as my eyes flood. I’m sitting on a chair, sobbing. Nikki’s screams sound further and further away as she’s carried down the corridor.
Monica’s telling me to collect Nikki’s clothes and belongings from the flat.
I feel powerless like a little boy bullied by teachers, an animal cornered. I want to run away, hit out. I want to kill. Fury and ferocity blaze through me but I can’t fight a whole institution like this it’s too big. Even if I could there’s always another ready to stamp on little people – on love: on things that are right. Fury turns to helplessness then to more sobs, then to reason.
I get up.
Yes, Nikki will need her things, especially her phone charger and the rest of my cash to top up her credit. We’re going to talk every morning before school and every night I’m going to tell her a bedtime story. I’m going to find out every last detail about how she’s being treated.
I open my eyes and Monica steps back, throws a glance at the door. God knows what I look like but she’s frightened, tense – pale and wide-eyed.
We get to reception and I’m told to wait again. I use the same chair I sat on when I waited with Nikki. I try to imagine that she’s still there.
God, how much can you cry without running out of tears? Monica appears with another person; a man. I don’t think she wants to be alone with me.
They drive me home. It’s raining again as we arrive. The man hauls several big plastic bags from the car boot and asks how many he’ll need for Nikki’s things.
‘One,’ I say, and my heart sinks again. Nikki owns so little. The two social workers glance at each other and we head up into the flat.
I’ll be alone… No Nikki to talk to, get ready for school, help with homework, go to the cinema, take to the play park. Nikki was my whole world; everything was about her. They just took my life away.
But that’s not even the problem. Nikki is feeling all alone right now, crying somewhere, wrapped in a little ball. I’m the only one she’s got to hug.
Monica’s phone goes and she stays on the landing while I fold Nikki’s clothes and go round every room. Charger, cuddly toys, savings book, birthday cards, photos off the fridge… I want her to have everything she treasured.
The bag is not even full … shit.
The bloke lists everything and gives me a receipt for the money.
Footsteps and the swish of the bag against the landing walls as the social workers go down the stairs.
The dream is over: the world empty.
I can’t give into despair; suicide will leave Nikki without any family at all. My mind fires up a bit and I slam the door. In the kitchen the fridge door looks bare. Sunlight shines off my lute case. It looks newer, less worn and the scratch it received a few months ago has gone.
I take out the lute, put the strap over my shoulder and do the only thing I’m good at despite the pain in my fingertips.
In among the notes the sound of Sally’s laughter weaves, gaining strength with each phrase from Lament for the Children. I’m lost in her voice. She’s urging me to play more; she’s talking about that afternoon of the blast. With a croaking voice I sing about when I ran from the flat, into the hotel, found Nikki covered in blood and crawling past the reception desk and got her to safety. When I ran back to see if anyone else could be rescued the blaze forced me out.
Sally’s whispers tell me she died in the fire, not in the blast. If I’d left Nikki safe by reception for a moment– I could have saved them both.
Then none of this mess would have happened. I wouldn’t have got depressed. Nikki wouldn’t be taken away the first time and there’d be no need to go through all that fight to get her back only to lose her again… Sally was practical, wiser, more grown up than me. They’d never have taken Nikki away if Sally had been alive.
I was playing my lute and standing here looking out when the bomb went off. The hotel looked just as it did now – Christmas lights in the windows.
I gasp. There are people going in and out of the hotel: it’s undamaged…
There it is again. The explosion, the roar of falling glass, the screams of horror and pain from scattering people…
I’m flying down the stairs like I did before.
Nikki… Sally: I’m coming.
© Gary Bonn: 2012