One floor from the top the lift halted. The doors opened and Smith looked out onto an open-plan office. Right in front of him several office workers, young and old, male and female, waited for the lift. Horrified at the thought of them all squeezing into the lift with him, Smith stepped out. The office workers piled in. As the doors closed a middle-aged woman with permed hair said, ‘Oh, it’s going up.’
Smith looked around. The office ran the length and breadth of the building, the work space divided into cubicles by chest-high partitions. Doors opened on a stairwell at the far end, windows formed the walls on either side. Smith stood in an open space in front of the lifts. A water cooler stood between two vending machines. Smith thumbed the button to recall the lift then refilled his water bottle from the cooler.
Low conversation came from behind a partition, a man and woman talking. Smith listened attentively.
‘Still working, Heidi?’ the man said.
The woman sighed. ‘I’m getting there, Mr Abercrombie. Some of the accounts just won’t balance.’
‘Another day if it goes well. If not…’ The woman’s voice tailed off. Smith liked her voice, it made him think of smooth things like velvet and double cream.
‘Heidi, this is very important. Can you stay on a bit?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I’m so sorry. You have plans.’
‘No, Mr Abercrombie, not this evening. I can do another hour or two.’
‘Thank you very much. I won’t forget it.’
Smith’s fingers were wet, his bottle was overflowing. He put the bottle away and ineffectually rubbed his foot over the damp spot on the carpet.
The lift pinged, the doors opened to reveal a stocky man of middling height in a blue boiler suit and paint-spattered boots. He had untidy greying hair, two day’s stubble on his seamed and friendly face and a pencil behind his ear. A battered yellow metal toolbox rested beside him on the floor.
‘All right, Lofty?’ The workman beamed. ‘Get out too early did you?’
‘No,’ Smith lied and immediately felt guilty. ‘Yes. Maybe.’
Smith entered the lift. The workman peered up at him. ‘This your first day?’
‘Thought so. Tell you what, you stick with me. I’ll show you round and you can give me a hand. How about that?’
Smith nodded again, wondering how this had happened.
‘Smashing. Right, I’m Ralf, Mr Tuppence if you want to be formal.’
The lifts at the top floor opened into an enclosed foyer. Smith followed Ralf through a pair of doors and discovered the rest of the floor was a single open space without partitions and cubicles. It was occupied by a small army of carpenters, plasterers, electricians and fitters.
There were step ladders, trestle tables, rolls of carpet, stacks of boxes, reels of electric flex, two scaffolding towers, sections of air-conditioning ducts, a pyramid of paint cans, a double row of bubble-wrapped chairs. Right in the centre dust sheets covered an enormous table.
It was organised chaos and there was noise, lots of noise.
Some of that noise came from power tools, saws and hammers. The rest pf the racket was shouting from the workmen swarming across the room. Smith wasn’t sure exactly how many there were because they kept moving round – climbing the towers, disappearing into gaps in the floor, peering into the ceiling void, carrying things from place to place, jumping up and down and clutching a thumb and swearing, or wandering about with a mug of tea and laughing at the state of some half-finished job.
The workmen up the ladders shouted to the ones on the floor, the ones on the floor shouted at the ones in the floor void. The ones in the floor void probably shouted too, but nobody could hear them. The only time any of them stopped moving was when they leaned against something and watched everyone else with a superior air.
‘Here you go, matey,’ Ralf said, offering Smith a mug of tea. Not knowing what else to do, Smith took it although the level of liquid was far higher than looked safe.
Ralf pulled a rumpled scrap of paper from his back pocket and studied it intently, his lips moving as he read. ‘Finalise partition in front of rest rooms. That’s the Gents to you and me. Righty-ho and off we go.’ Ralf scurried away through the room swinging his yellow toolbox. Smith followed, carefully carrying his mug. It seemed there was little choice, much like the times his mother decided he need a bath or a haircut. He was being organised. This time he didn’t mind. It looked like fun.
The room was fascinating. Patterns were forming, things were happening. Stuff was being put together and occasionally, accompanied by muttering, shaking of heads and rolling of eyes, taken apart again. And always shouting. Lots of shouting.
Smith decided he loved it.
‘Oi, matey!’ Ralf shouted at Smith. ‘Pop your mug on the floor and cop hold of this.’ He offered Smith the end of a long piece of two-by-four. ‘That’s it, hold it steady.’ Ralf ran a tape measure along the wood, licked his pencil and made a mark. He measured again. ‘Lovely.’
‘Lovely,’ Smith bellowed.
Ralf gave him a look then laughed. ‘Measure twice, cut once, that’s the trick. Come along, can’t stand here all day.’
Time passed. Ralf measured, sawed, tenoned, bevelled, drilled and screwed. Cold and empty tea mugs were replaced with brim-full hot ones. Smith tried a sip and found it was strong, hot and very, very sweet. ‘I like tea.’
‘Pukka, this is, matey,’ Ralf agreed.
In no time the partition was up with plaster board screwed to one side while the electricians added fittings to the other.
Ralf yelled across the room. ‘Oi! Bert, what’s left?’
A pot-bellied, slope-shouldered man in a check shirt, braces and jeans pointed to a stack of two-foot-square aluminium grills with his mug. ‘You could stick those somewhere useful.’
‘Yeah, and I could think of somewhere,’ Ralf guffawed. He turned to Smith. ‘Clip them into those air vents down by the bottom of them walls.’
Smith worked his way round the room. It was easy, the grills were light and just clipped on.
‘That’s us done, Lofty.’ Ralf drained his mug. ‘Quick wash up, down the tavern for a swift one, then pick up a fish supper on the way home for me and the missus.’
‘Blimey,’ Ralf tapped the washroom sign as he went through the door. ‘This is for both men and women.’
‘That’s a bit modern,’ the man behind him said. He looked round nervously to make sure no females had secretly joined the end of the queue.
‘It’s how they do things in Finland,’ Ralf pronounced sagely. ‘I’ve heard they’re all Scandinavian over there.’
The entire room had been transformed. The carpet was down, the chairs unwrapped and placed around the uncovered table. All the ducting had been fitted into the overhead void, the scaffolding towers were parked against one wall beside a heap of dust sheets.
‘Still here matey? Don’t forget to clean up.’ Ralf exited the washroom, hands scrubbed, his spikey grey hair slicked back.
‘Righty-ho, pukka, cheers!’ Smith walked into the washroom just as the last of the other workers pushed out past him.
With the exception of a waste bin overflowing with used paper towels the workers had left the room spotless. Toilet cubicles stood along one side, white enamelled basins and mirrors along the other. At the end of the room three windowless doors opened onto shower cubicles.
Smith’s head hummed with the sights and sounds of the evening – sawing wood, banging in the nails – bang, Bang BANG! Tea, piping hot and sweet. And all the shouting, with nobody going hush or shush, nobody telling him to keep his voice down.
For the first time in several hours he thought about what he should do next. He filled one of the basins with warm water. He was tired and very hungry. He stood motionless for a moment with his hands in the water then washed and dried his face and hands and went back into the main room.
The side walls were glass from waist-height to ceiling and black with night. Smith looked down on the streets of Brighton. Lines of traffic moved along the neon-lit roads, parallel ribbons of lights, one red and one white. A maroon and cream double-decker bus halted at a stop. Condensation from his breath clouded the glass as he counted the passengers embarking and disembarking. Five people off and eight on. Interesting.
He began to calculate how many stops it would take before the bus was full, but to do that he needed to know how many people were on the bus to start with. Assume none. No, if it were none then five people could not get off. Assume five. He drew the calculations in his breath on the window. His tummy rumbled, he was starving.
He wiped away the sums with his sleeve. Come on, he told himself, this needs some Good Thinking.
Getting in was lucky. If he went home now he wouldn’t be able to come back. This adventure was a real one, not dangerous but far too exciting for it to end now. He would have to hide, but where? The floor below was open-plan. Assume the other floors were the same. There would be no Good Hiding there
Smith took in the great empty space around him. Hide under the table? No, that was silly, even with the sheets over it he was bound to be spotted. He considered the suspended ceiling, still incomplete and with gaps through to the void beyond. The scaffolding towers would give easy access but the roof tiles would not take his weight. Then an idea came to him that made him laugh and clap his hands. It would work but first he would need supplies.
Down the vending machine Smith used the money he’d taken from his mother’s purse to buy chocolate, crisps, and bourbon biscuits. He was busily stashing everything down the front to of his fleece when a mellow female voice behind him said, ‘So you had to work late too?’
It was Heidi. Smith felt desperately awkward and big and acutely conscious of the crisp packets poking out the top of his fleece.
Heidi was neither short nor tall and possessed what Smith’s mother called the fuller figure. Her straight, shoulder-length hair was a rich glossy red. She wore an ankle-length blue-black skirt and a long-sleeved black woollen top that Smith couldn’t help notice was filled with female bosom. Chins were two, her eyes grey-green. Her bottom lip and left nostril were pierced with small silver rings. For the first time in his life Smith experienced the simultaneous emotions of adoration and terror.
He beamed inanely. ‘Yes indeed. Correct. Carry on.’
‘I thought I was the only one,’ Heidi sighed. ‘I’ve only been here a couple of weeks, I’m not sure I like it. Mr Abercrombie keeps asking me to work late.’ She whispered conspiratorially, ‘I don’t think he’s got a first name.’
Abercrombie. Useful information. She was really close. Smith’s anxiety grew, he felt the Hand stir. It wanted to come out but Smith didn’t want it to. He wanted to talk to Heidi or run away. Ideally, both. He clenched his fist, took a step back and bumped into the vending machine.
‘Are you new too?’ Heidi said.
‘Yes, today.’ Smith winced at the sudden, high pitch of his voice. His face ached from grinning, he blew out his cheeks. ‘Started today.’
Heidi held out her hand. ‘Welcome to Kylma Kala. I’m Heidi Tollund.’
Trapped. Her nails were the same deep blue as her skirt. Seeing no other option Smith shook her hand. Her grip was firm, her skin cool. ‘Measure twice, cut once,’ he blurted and stuffed his hand back into his pocket.
That was me, the Hand protested in Smith’s mind. I can get you out of here.
Heidi gave a good-natured laugh. ‘That’s good advice. What’s your name?’
Argh, she was good at this. ‘Derek.’
Hand, the Hand grumbled. I’m the Hand.
‘Well, Derek, I’m going to finish up and get the hell out of here.’
‘Get the hell–’ A trickle of sweat ran down the back of Smith’s neck. ‘Pukka plan.’
Heidi stepped away. ‘Nice meeting you, Derek.’ She waved with her fingers. ‘See you around.’
Smith fled to the lift and thumbed the button for the top floor. The doors slid open, he tumbled inside and slumped against the wall as the doors closed behind him.
The Hand came out, swung round and stared Smith in the eye. ‘Lucky escape,’ the Hand said.
‘Yes,’ Smith wasn’t sure who had escaped from whom.
Back on the top floor Smith cleaned his teeth and topped-up his water bottle in the washroom. He pulled a dust sheet from the pile and carried it to one of the ventilation grills he’d fitted earlier. He unclipped the grill and squirmed feet first into the vent and pulled the dust sheet in behind him.
Smith lifted the grill back into position and snapped it closed. He backed into a wider space, it was a tight squeeze but there was room to turn. Oblong ducting ran left and right, wider than it was high. Dim light spilled in at intervals from the wall vents. Smith squirmed down the ducting on his elbows, the metal thrumming and bonging as he went. Midway between two grills was a safe and cosy spot. He wriggled out of his fleece and arranged his chocolate, biscuits and crisps in a neat row along one wall. His toothbrush, water bottle, torch, notebook and pen went along the other. He shook out the sheet and kicked it down over his legs, folded his fleece for a pillow, laid his head down and shut his eyes.
For a few minutes he could not sleep. What an adventure this was! Had anyone ever done anything so daring? Not himself certainly. Smith had discovered he was a daring man indeed. The ducting was cosy, secure and safe. There was food in the machines, toilets and washbasins, water, and safe places to hide. He could live here almost indefinitely.
He yawned and snuggled into his fleece. Sleep claimed him as he thought about Heidi, how nice her voice sounded, and how she had little dimples across the backs of her knuckles.
To be continued…