A few weeks after the memorable Exmoor ‘expedition,’ I was in my room one evening working on an essay. As usual I was behind schedule, but that did little to stop my mind drifting off the task in hand and I began looking out of the window. I lived on the second floor and from time to time I would see people below pass by and catch odd snatches of conversation and laughter. I must have been in a particularly sensitive mood that evening because I found something as normal, as everyday as this somehow deeply moving. I had no idea who these people were and yet as I watched them go on their way, I felt as if part of me was going with them. After a while I saw a couple stroll by, hand in hand. Seeing them just then, so happy, so carefree, so obviously in love, made my thoughts turn to times past and in particular...
A sharp knock at the door brought me abruptly back to the here and now. The door opened a foot and Matt’s head popped round:
‘Still working? It’s nearly nine o’ clock! I’m off out- coming?’
‘Sure! Where are you off to?’
‘The Nursery. I said I’d see Mr Biggar in there.’
‘Right, just give me a minute.’
I was doubly pleased. I had hardly seen Matt around the flat lately, let alone been out with him, and the Nursery was one of my favourite off-campus haunts. Although I loved the university life at Exeter, where there was always something going on, something you wanted to do, someone you needed to see, there were times when you longed for a less student-centred environment. That was not easy to find, since many of the city’s pubs and clubs were usually crammed with students. And those that were not tended to be avoided with good reason. An exception to this rule was the Nursery Tavern, which had the perfect balance of students and locals. From the outside it already looked inviting– a stately Victorian pile nestling quietly amongst the houses on a leafy side street, but what made the Nursery really special was what had been done to the inside: absolutely nothing. Instead of the usual fake, sterile space created when all the interior walls of a pub have been knocked out, the Nursery had retained its original structure, an eccentric scattering of nooks, crannies and rooms of various sizes. The Nursery’s homely feel was completed by its legendary landlady, Annie. Annie was quite a character, universally loved, and used to seem to us to be as old as the pub itself, which was not so far from the truth as her grandfather had been the original landlord. The beer at the Nursery was excellent, the atmosphere lively, and everyone was always made to feel welcome.
There was a room at the back of the pub a few of us dubbed the ‘Diogenes Club’ because we fancied it was just the kind of place you would find characters from a Sherlock Holmes tale discussing dark and mysterious deeds: panelled walls, a jumble of antique photographs (that I suspect were new when they were first put up), ornate vases, old farming implements that looked like mediaeval instruments of torture, even a narwhal tusk. However I am convinced that what made this room so special was not so much what the objects in it were but how they were– they did not so much decorate the room, they had been there so long they had actually become part of it. You can immediately tell the difference when you see a few old artefacts scattered about in one of those newly-themed pubs in the laughable belief that this will give the place ‘atmosphere’. The Diogenes Club was dominated by a grand old Victorian fireplace, which had a real fire burning in it most of the year. And on the mantelpiece, surveying all present with fearsome aplomb, stood a huge stuffed owl under a bell jar. This handsome specimen had been there for as long as anyone could remember and was known to generations of regulars as ‘Ozzie’.
If all this were not enough the Nursery had yet another thing going for it. It was a great place to spot look-alikes, by which I mean people who bear an uncanny and—for us at least—highly entertaining resemblance to famous people. The Nursery could count ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson and Robert Mugabe amongst its more loyal customers; Larry Tate, the long-suffering boss in sixties’ sitcom Bewitched rarely missed a Monday evening in the Tap Room. But before we go any further I should like to point out that despite certain superficial similarities, spotting look-alikes should never be confused with train-spotting. True, like trains, you never know when the next one is going to turn up, but any resemblance ends there. For a start, it is an activity which may be seen as part of a rich and varied social life, not an alternative to one. And, like any true pleasure, it also carries a certain amount of risk. The sudden, unexpected appearance of a doppelgänger in highly incongruous circumstances can be quite a shock to the system, especially if there is no-one to share the sighting with. I for one am not likely to forget the day I went, in all innocence, up to the dispensing counter at my local branch of Boots, only to be handed my prescription by the Dalai Lama of Tibet. But even that pales into insignificance when compared to the discomfiture once felt by a friend of mine. He had booked a taxi to take him to Gatwick airport, but got a lot more than he bargained for when the cab pulled up and the driver turned out to be none other than Hollywood legend Richard Widmark! ‘I was so put out I forgot to give him a tip,’ he confessed afterwards. I assured him the star of so many classics of the silver screen was hardly likely to have needed one.
It took us about twenty minutes to reach the pub, which shows, given the speed Matt could move when he had a thirst on, that the Nursery was a fair way from the university. We had just been served when Boom appeared. I was sorry to see he was with Hugh, the only one of Boom’s friends I really did not like. He reminded me of J.J. Baker, someone I had known at school. J.J. was a very nasty individual indeed. A bully, certainly, but worse than that, a sneaky, cautious one. He was one of those people who, without any endearing qualities of their own, always manage to keep in with the in crowd. He did this partly through flattery, partly through belittling those who were not part of the chosen few. At school J.J. was considered to be quite ‘hard’ but rarely used physical violence—he was too smart for that—preferring instead to intimidate his victims or denigrate them with a cruel sarcasm that had enough humour to entertain his friends. I feared and loathed him in equal measure.
‘Ah, Matt!’ said Boom with genuine pleasure. People were invariably delighted to see Matt.
‘Greetings all,’ answered Matt with a mock pomposity he often employed. ‘Seen Mr Biggar?’
‘No, but we’ve only been in the Tap Room.’
‘I take it Big Ron’s in.’
‘Of course. Never misses,’ answered Boom. ‘He’s even got his blackboard out.’
‘What about Robert Mugabe?’
Boom shook his head sadly. ‘’Fraid not.’
‘What?’ Matt seemed genuinely horrified.
‘Yep. Commonwealth summit apparently.’
‘That’s simply not good enough! I trust you have already reported him to the proper authorities.’
‘Haven’t actually. I’m not talking to Annie– she’s been picking on me again.’
A sort of ongoing feud was supposed to exist between Boom and Annie. The fact of the matter was that Annie, who was kind to all her customers, had a particular soft spot for Boom, which she chose to hide behind displays of feigned contempt and sarcastic put-downs, and which of course we all found hilarious. I had soon learned that if you associated with Boom you became party to all manner of in-jokes, bizarre rituals and imaginary relationships. As far as I could gather these just developed spontaneously, and while some lasted, others disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. They suited my silly sense of humour down to the ground, but what I liked most about them was that although they served to cement the bond between a small group of friends, they were never used to exclude outsiders: newcomers were just as welcome to join in the zaniness and even add a little of their own.
As we were making our way to the Diogenes Club Matt asked Boom:
‘So what’s this I hear about you and those two lovelies from the School of Modern Languages?’
Boom grinned. ‘Hearsay, rumours and wild speculation.’
Matt nodded. ‘That confirms it then.’
Mr Biggar had managed to get a table in the corner by the fireplace. When he saw us he stood up and bowed ostentatiously.
‘That’ll do Mr Biggar, thank you,’ warned Matt in an imperious voice he and Boom would adopt when pretending to admonish Mr Biggar: a favourite imaginary relationship that cast Boom and Matt in roles akin to stern Victorian schoolmasters and Mr Biggar as recalcitrant pupil.
After we got settled Matt turned to Boom:
‘So how come you weren’t at Nick’s party at the weekend? It’s not like you to abstain from such festivities.’
‘Had to go back up to Wakefield.* Family bash.’
Hugh snorted. ‘Wakefield! I bet it’s an even bigger dump than Coventry!’ He never missed an opportunity to show that he was one of Boom’s inner sanctum and could trade playful insults.
Boom laughed. ‘I wouldn’t argue there, but it does have a certain period charm. You know they still have Working Men’s Clubs up there?’
‘Yeah. My uncle took me to one once. Some experience that was! The minute you walk through the door you go back in time about ninety years. Everything goes into black and white and you get this Hovis ** music playing in the background.’ At that point the rest of us duly obliged with a hummed version of the famous theme tune. ‘You can just imagine,’ Boom continued over the accompaniment, ‘everywhere you looked there were old men in flat caps playing dominoes, and whippets lying under the tables. Or was it the other way around? And whenever anyone said anything, they always began with, “Eeee, well a’ll gu to t’ fut o’ me făther’s stairs!” And everyone was called Wilf. Even the barmaids. Still,’ he sighed, and with a sharp gesture brought the musical accompaniment to an end, ‘we can’t just keep on dwelling in the past...’
‘Sounds like just the sort of wild and primitive place I’d have expected you to come from,’ said Matt.
‘It’s more than that, it’s weird. I bet there are more weird people in Wakefield than anywhere else on the planet. And ghosts, of course.’
‘Weird ghosts?’ enquired Mr Biggar.
‘Mr Biggar!’ warned Matt.
‘Probably. Even saw one myself once.’
Hugh laughed. ‘Come off it!’
‘It’s true,’ protested Boom with a grin. ‘The Grisly Apparition at Number Sixty-Seven.’
‘Any excuse to bring your girlfriend into the conversation!’
‘Boom chuckled, he loved this kind of ribbing. ‘Do you want me to tell you the story or not?’
Matt frowned. ‘I’m a little concerned about Mr Biggar. Will it give him nightmares?’
‘Good. Pray continue.’
‘Okay. It was a few years ago now. I was biking it home from school; we’d had football practice so it was already starting to get dark. Anyway I was going downhill down this long road, Coleridge Road. Coleridge Road’s one of those tree-lined streets with large detached houses set back off the road. So there I was whizzing along when I happened to glance over to my left. Standing on the steps leading up to one of those grand old houses was this newspaper boy, complete with bag and everything. Nothing unusual there, except this particular newspaper boy had no head on his shoulders!’
‘Come off it!’
‘It’s true,’ said Boom calmly. ‘Scout’s honour.’ He was smiling but I could tell he was deadly serious.
‘Oh, come on Boom!’ said Matt. ‘Nobody thinks you’re making this up, but as you say so yourself, it was dark, you were whizzing down the hill at a rate of knots, in that split second you could’ve imagined you’d seen just about anything!’
Boom was measured in his response. ‘Well, firstly, it wasn’t dark, it was twilight. Secondly, I know what I saw, I had a clear view, even if it was only a brief one. And anyway, cast iron confirmation that I had seen a ghost wasn’t long in coming. Soon as I got home in fact.’
‘Why, what happened?’ blurted Mr Biggar. His desire to hear the rest of the story was matched by us all.
‘Okay, so I gets home in a bit of a state. My mother took one look at me and asks me what the matter was. When I said I’d just seen a ghost she burst out laughing.’
‘I can see where you get your sympathetic nature from,’ Hugh remarked dryly.
‘Exactly. Anyway, when she saw I was serious she asked me to tell her a bit more about it. She was sceptical at first but the minute I said the magic words “headless boy”, she went all quiet.’
Boom paused to take a drink. I am not sure if this was done for dramatic effect, but if it was, it was certainly working.
‘Anyway, she asked me where I’d seen the apparition and when I mentioned the name of the road she started to look pretty worried. “Whereabouts in Coleridge Road?” “Oh, about halfway down, on the left hand side as you go downhill.” That did it! Now she was the one who looked like she’d just seen a ghost! I asked her what was up but she didn’t answer at first. Then after a while she just said, “That’ll be number sixty-seven then.” She was as white as a sheet!’
‘Why– what happened at number sixty-seven?’
‘Well apparently some years before, when we first moved into that area there was a lad living on Coleridge Road—I can’t remember his name—anyway, he had a paper round. One afternoon he was out delivering his papers when he bumped into some schoolmates who lived on a block of flats somewhere up that way. These lads were larking about on the lifts. But not the normal lifts, oh no, this lot had managed to get hold of a key that got them into the service lifts- you know, the large industrial kind with those concertina doors you have close manually. You have to be careful with this kind of lift. For one thing, if you have the key you can open the outer door no matter where the lift is. Even more dangerous than that, there’s no fail safe, so if you’re on the inside you can set the lift going without closing the doors.’
‘I think I can see where this is heading,’ said Matt thoughtfully. I could not, but I had a clear sense of foreboding.
‘Exactly,’ confirmed Boom. ‘Our paper boy couldn’t resist taking part in the fun and games. I don’t know exactly what happened next but it was something like this: the kids had the lift stopped about three or four feet above the floor level of one of the landings with the door open. The paper boy was climbing in to join them when the caretaker happened to appear round the corner, saw what was going on and ran up shouting and screaming. One of the kids panicked and started the lift. Up it went as the paper boy was still trying to get in and the poor sod’s head was chopped clean off.’
‘Oh my God!’ cried Mr Biggar.
There was a moment’s silence, then Matt asked, ‘And he lived at number 67?’
‘And he lived at number 67.’
There was another pause as each of us reflected on what we had just heard. I knew Boom liked a joke, and though he recounted this tale in the same flippant manner as he would have done for one of his escapades, something told me that on this occasion he was being perfectly serious.
Boom was the first to break the silence. ‘So am I to take it that I’m the only one here who’s had a brush with the supernatural or the unexplained?’
‘Well, I’ve never actually seen a ghost,’ said Hugh, ‘though I did once meet someone who was shortly to become one.’
‘It was during my gap year. My brother John was doing his MSc up in Leicester. I went to stay a couple of times. He was sharing this house with four or five others– some were post-grads like him, a couple were working... Anyway, one of the girls living there, Karen, was really fit. Mind you, she was going out with this real jerk called Tim. Typical!’ he sneered. ‘This’ll give you an idea about how sad he was– his favourite hobby was playing Scrabble!’
‘Yeah. And the clown took it really seriously. Which was why he was so gutted when I beat him.’
Boom laughed. ‘Aha! So now we know– you’re a closet Scrabble nerd yourself!’
‘You wish! I cheated when he popped out of the room to answer the phone. Anyway, I was one of the few people ever to beat him, and definitely the last.’
‘Yeah. To look at him you’d think he was just another one of life’s losers,’ at this point Hugh momentarily caught my eye, which was the first time he had done so since beginning his story. ‘But,’ he continued, ‘I found out from John that there was something a bit different about him: he was absolutely convinced he was going to die before he reached the age of twenty-five.’
‘You’re joking!’ gasped Mr Biggar.
‘So how old was he when you met him?’ asked Boom.
Hugh smiled a smug smile. ‘Can’t you guess? Twenty-four and three quarters. Anyway, this is how seriously he took it– he’d made all the arrangements for his own funeral, who he wanted to attend, what music he wanted playing as they carried the box in, all that sort of stuff. And he’d even drawn up his last will and testament saying which charity he wanted his worldly goods donating to, the lot.’
‘Yeah. Still, I only met him once or twice, and I didn’t give it that much thought. Then, a few weeks after the last time I was up in Leicester, the time of my great Scrabble triumph, I get a phone call from John out of the blue. Dear old Tim had been killed in a car crash.’
‘Yeah. There he was, driving down some country lane one Sunday morning, minding his own business, when these joy riders came hurtling round the bend in the opposite direction and bang! Head-on collision.’
‘Yeah. It was about three weeks before his twenty-fifth birthday.’
Hugh paused to let this sink in then added with malicious relish: ‘Still, the story does have a happy ending. A couple of months after the accident I was up in Leicester again. As you’d expect the lovely Karen, the late loser’s girlfriend, was still pretty upset by the whole thing. But I soon found a novel way of taking her mind off things!’ He sniggered, and to make sure we got the message, accompanied his revelation with a crude gesture. The expression on his face just then turned my stomach. I recalled how he used to boast that when it came to picking up girls, he liked to concentrate his efforts on shy, unattractive first years, saying there was always the chance they were still virgins, and therefore would never forget the unique ‘experience’ they would have with him. I also believe he loved the power he could exert over those he considered weak and vulnerable. And the chance to inflict pain with impunity. ‘John was well annoyed,’ he continued smugly, ‘because he was just about to make a move himself!’
Matt shook his head. ‘Talk about dead man’s shoes!’
‘Well, Hugh,’ said Boom, ‘that little story finally confirms what I’ve suspected for a long, long time: you are officially The Most Evil Man on the Planet.’
‘No he isn’t,’ said Mr Biggar.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he explained, ‘I’m not doubting Hugh’s evil credentials for a minute. It’s just that the official title of Most Evil One is already taken. By Edgar Willoughby.’
‘Edgar Willoughby. He lives about five doors down from us back home.’
‘Let me get this straight,’ began Matt with deliberation, ‘you’re saying the physical manifestation of all the evil that’s ever existed occupies a bay-windowed semi in a quiet suburb of Worcester?’
Boom chuckled. ‘Looks like Mr Biggar’s finally flipped his biscuit!’
‘It’s true!’ the other protested. ‘Imagine Ming the Merciless, The Mummy, Count Dracula and the Pro Vice Chancellor all rolled into one, and that’s Eddie.’
‘I hope this isn’t one of your pre-pubescent fantasies, Mr Biggar,’ warned Matt.
‘Hope not! Mind you, to look at him you’d never suspect that Edgar Willoughby’s the Prince of Darkness. He seems like a perfectly respectable, genial old guy, who quietly goes about his business and never bothers anyone. But one day his dark secret was uncovered by his next door neighbour, and for that she paid a terrible price!’
‘Well Edgar lives next door to this dotty old dear called Batty Betty—’
‘Is that her real name?’
Mr Biggar seemed a little surprised by Matt’s question. ‘Of course. Anyway, for some reason Betty became convinced that Edgar had a full complement of demonic powers at his disposal, and liked nothing better than to try them out on her at every available opportunity. She’d go around telling anyone who cared to listen about all the terrible things he did to make her life a misery. As well as the normal stuff like sending demons round in the middle of the night, Eddy baby had a few more imaginative—and profitable—tricks up his sleeve. For one thing he used to magic money out of her purse.’ He chuckled at the thought. ‘I can just imagine the ten pound notes floating through the air and disappearing through the wall! And he used to play hell with her gas meter as well, so she kept getting these colossal bills! Of course everyone just thought she’d gone a bit bonkers in her old age, and my mum even speculated that she probably had some sort of secret crush on Edgar, and that it’d become morbid over the years.’ Mr Biggar shook his head definitively. ‘But not me. I’d always had the sneaking feeling that Betty was on to something. I mean, what better way for the Evil One to cover his tracks than by making the one person who could identify him look like a raving loony?’
‘Or by sending her mad himself,’ added Boom.
‘Exactly. So I launched my own investigation into the matter. And after literally years of painstaking research I managed to amass enough evidence to prove incontrovertibly that Edgar Willoughby is indeed the source of all that is evil in the world!’
Matt sighed. ‘Okay then, let’s hear this evidence.’
‘Right. My proof comes in three parts. First of all I found out that before he retired Edgar’d been a dentist. Now if that’s not proof of manifest wickedness, I don’t know what is!’
‘Is he the one the patients used to call “Doctor Death”?’ asked Boom.
‘Yes, but only the ones that liked him. But there’s more. Much more. One day I bumped into Eddy baby down at the video shop. He was hunting high and low for something. When I asked him, he said he was after his favourite film, Night of the Demon...’
‘Suggestive, I agree,’ said Matt, ‘but hardly conclusive.’
‘Yes, but he was looking for it in the Light Entertainment section!’
We all laughed and Matt added, ‘Now that puts an entirely different complexion on the matter.’
‘And if all that wasn’t enough, I found out Edgar was a life-long West Bromwich Albion supporter.’
This piece of information had a dramatic effect on the others. As if by an invisible signal Boom, Matt and Hugh jumped to their feet, cried, ‘Ron preserve us!’ crossed themselves, took a hearty swig of their pints and sat back down in unison. Not surprisingly these theatrics were greeted by sniggers from others in the room. When the dust had settled Matt delivered his verdict:
‘Only the churlish would deny that Mr Biggar’s research has displayed a level of academic rigour and strict objectivity that belies his tender years. If only the Holy Office of the Inquisition had been blessed with such scrupulous investigators, then surely the foul scourge of heresy would have been eradicated a great deal sooner.’
Mr Biggar smiled, evidently pleased with this somewhat dubious vote of confidence. I was thinking about throwing in my own instalment of Tales of the Unexpected, which concerned an old tramp who used to skulk around on the disused railway sidings where we played as children. We believed he kept a woman’s leg in his suitcase. Matt broke my chain of thoughts.
‘Speaking of strange and unexplained phenomena,’ he asked, addressing Boom, ‘how’s that flatmate of yours getting along?’
‘Who– Creepy?’ Justin ‘Creepy’ Crawley was Boom’s least favourite flatmate. He looked and, apparently, behaved like Gollum out of The Lord of the Rings. ‘Not much to report really, though the other day one of the cleaners opened his bedroom door and said she saw a woodlouse come crawling out.’
‘Probably his girlfriend,’ remarked Hugh.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ snapped Boom. ‘Physics students don’t have girlfriends.’
‘But on the whole he’s been quite quiet lately, especially since Hugh put that note under his door.’
Matt laughed. ‘Yes, that was a bit naughty.’
On the way home we passed a building site for what was going to be ‘a high quality five storey residential development’. Boom looked up at the tower crane that dominated the site.
‘I’m going up that,’ he announced. ‘Anyone coming?’
‘No chance!’ snorted Mr Biggar. ‘I get dizzy upstairs on a double-decker bus!’
‘Well, I can’t,’ said Matt with regret. ‘After that last business I have to be careful...’
Apparently Matt had recently been caught attempting the north face of the Town Hall and had received a police caution.
Boom grinned. ‘You’re excused Matthew. What about you other tarts?’
Hugh shook his head. ‘Leave it for another night, Boom, I need to get back!’
The obvious reluctance in his voice gave me the spur I needed. ‘I’ll give it a go,’ I said quietly.
‘Sure you can handle it?’ asked Hugh with a sneer.
Before I could answer Boom said, ‘Right- let’s go then. You lot can watch out for the flatties. But if they do turn up, just head off, nice and slowly. Don’t run and don’t shout up to us whatever you do, because they might not’ve seen us.’
We were given a leg-up over the site’s security fence. Once inside the compound I began to feel really excited, as childhood memories of the times we had sneaked onto deserted building sites came flooding back. But my mood changed once we got to the foot of the crane. It rose massively into the night sky, huge and forbidding. The ladder that went up through the centre of the tower started about seven feet off the ground. Boom give me a quick glance, grabbed hold of the bottom rung, pulled himself up and started climbing.
I had always assumed that the ladders inside these cranes were specially designed to stop you falling off, but I soon saw I was wrong. True, there was a sort of semi-circular cage housing the ladder, but there was no way in the world that was going save you if you fell. In fact I could imagine it mangling your body horribly as you rattled down to the ground. Realising there would be nothing but my own hands and feet to save me from certain death, I began to feel very, very afraid. But there was no going back now. Boom was already well on his way upwards; I could hear his shoes making a muffled clang on the metal rungs above. I started to make my own way up, one rung at a time, trying to think about nothing but keeping three points of contact on the ladder at all times. At no point did I feel the need to look down.
When I finally emerged onto the gantry at the top of the crane I found to my horror that I was standing on a huge, incredibly unstable, top-heavy structure that looked as if it was about to topple over at any moment. Confirmation of that fear was not long in coming, in the form of a sharp gust of wind that made the whole thing sway! I was overcome by a bout of dizziness and grabbed the hand rail hard to steady myself. The butterflies in my stomach decided to make a desperate bid for freedom. I could not really blame them.
Meanwhile Boom was clearly enjoying himself. The jib of the crane stretched an impossible distance out into the void, and there was he at the very end (where else?) leaning over the safety rail and waving down to the others. I took a deep breath and started to make my way out towards him, reflecting with some bitterness that I could hardly have picked a more inappropriate moment to discover I had no head for heights. But as I got closer to Boom I began to feel a little better. The view from up there was absolutely stunning: all around thousands upon thousands of lights twinkled silently, each one suspended on an invisible wire. And I told myself that when this ordeal was over I would be able to say that I had taken part in a genuine Boom adventure. Boom was still busy looking over the side when I reached him, but before I could say anything he suddenly turned round and hissed, ‘Get down!’
We both crouched down and he whispered, ‘The boys have just high-tailed it, which can mean only one thing.’
My heart sank. ‘Think we’ve been spotted?’
‘Don’t know. The question is, have the goons just appeared by chance or has some nosy neighbour phoned them?’
He took a peek over the side in the direction of where the boys had been standing.
‘Can’t see anything,’ he reported, ‘but either way we’re sitting ducks up here. Time to head for terra firma.’
We went back to the ladder and started climbing back down, and with a great deal more urgency than we had ascended. Even so I soon saw that Boom was getting a long way ahead of me. The irrational fear of being left up on the crane alone overcame my fear of falling– with almost fatal consequences. As I upped the pace the foot I had on the lower rung slipped just as I took the other foot off the upper. With a groan of terror that still visits me in nightmares I felt my body drop like a stone. My hands were nearly wrenched off the rung they were holding but I just managed to hold on. I got my scrabbling feet back onto the ladder and just clung on. I was in a state of shock, petrified with fear and unable to move. But I was even more terrified by the prospect of staying up there all alone. And I am convinced it was that fear that saved me, because it was the only thing that could have forced me to get moving again. I started to inch my way down, all tense and crabbed like a spider. My teeth were clenched so tightly my jaws ached. When, after an absolute age, I finally made contact with the ground I could have got down on my knees and kissed it. But there was no time for elation. I caught sight of Boom crouching down behind a stack of bricks, motioning desperately for me to do the same. And then I heard it- the sound of someone else moving around on the site.
I crawled over to Boom. There was a look of extreme concentration on his face but not fear. That at least gave me a little hope and helped turn the terror of what I had just been through into an energising thrill of excitement.
Someone was definitely hunting for us. We could hear the footsteps and see flashes of torchlight. Behind us was a fairly clear run to the perimeter fence. Running for it would mean being spotted, but we knew if we stayed put we were bound to get caught. With the kind of telepathy that comes with being in a high stress situation, both Boom and I came to the same decision simultaneously. He looked at me and nodded. We jumped to our feet and ran hell for leather. Straight away someone shouted ‘Oi!’ which put even more jet power in our legs. Just before we reached the perimeter I tripped over something and fell headlong, hurting my right knee quite badly. The pain almost made me sick but the fear and adrenalin got me back up and I was over that fence as if it was not there. Even so, Boom was already some distance down the road and a re-run of the fear of being left behind gave me new impetus, despite the pain I was in. We rounded the corner and I followed Boom into the overgrown front garden of a large old house. We crawled into the shrubbery and waited, trying to pant as silently as possible. The pain in my knee was almost unbearable, and I rubbed it as best I could. If Boom had not been there I think I would have started sobbing.
We did not have to wait long before we heard the sound of approaching footsteps. I could tell they were heading right for us. Closer and closer, their even, determined step had a cold inevitability about it. In the scant light of our hiding place I could see that Boom’s face was set in a hard grimace. The footsteps reached our garden and stopped. I could bear it no longer, and was just about to bolt like a frightened animal when a voice said:
‘They could be anywhere by now.’
The footsteps receded, but it was a couple of minutes before Boom whispered, ‘That was a close one!’
We emerged from our hiding place and wended our way back to the university. I was hobbling quite noticeably, and both my hands were badly grazed from my fall on the building site. For some reason I did not tell Boom about my near death experience.
‘You took a fair tumble back there,’ he said after a while. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Think so. I’m in a fair bit of pain though.’
He chuckled. ‘I bet the boys think we got caught.’
We got back to Boom’s flat without further incident. As we expected the rest were all there waiting to find out what had happened. Boom related the adventure with his usual panache. But of course he left out one important detail.
‘And if all that wasn’t enough,’ I added when he had finished his account, ‘while we were on our way back to terra firma my feet slipped off the ladder and I almost took the quick way down.’ I paused a moment for dramatic effect then concluded, with all the feigned nonchalance I could muster, ‘Which would’ve been most unfortunate.’
‘It would indeed,’ agreed Boom, ‘because you’d have taken me down along with you.’
*Boom did not have a discernible northern accent but he did sometimes use some interesting words peculiar to his local dialect. A few of the ones I can remember are: spice [sweets], mardy [petulant], rammel [junk], yitten [cowardly], hiddy [hide-and-seek], nebby [inquisitive], snap [food], loppy [filthy], black-clock [beetle] and my favourite: ladlass [tomboy].
** For those not familiar with the famous Hovis bread TV ads that ran from the 1970s (and the equally famous theme tune), here is a typical example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mq59ykPnAE Directed by Ridley Scott no less!