(author’s note – this story was written for an event at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne
– locally known as the Lit&Phil – and read for the first time on 6th January 2023. All rights reserved.)
What this night wants of you
The rain is sheeting down, and the water running down the sides of the roads resembles miniature rapids, weaving between banks of litter and leaves before tumbling through the drain gratings and out of sight. You’ve walked, because you don’t have any other transport, but you’re there at last. The tower block is almost in complete darkness. The only lights showing are from the reception area.
You’ve been wondering all the way here if this is actually a legitimate job, considering the haphazard way you got it, but as you hurry across the paved concourse outside, you see Metcalfe, the building manager, standing just inside the entrance doors, looking out, looking at his wrist, looking out again: not that he’ll see you on a night like this.
You look at your own rain-spattered watch and find you’re easily quarter of an hour early. It’s your first night on duty, and you’ve walked faster than you thought. You tap on the door.
Metcalfe jumps, then recovers. He turns the key in the lock and pulls the door open. He struggles with its stiffness, and it slams back into place once you’re through. You take a moment to compose yourself as he relocks the door, then he hands you the big bunch of keys. “These are yours to look after,” he says.
There are a lot of keys, of all shapes and sizes, and none of them seem to be identified by words, though some have coloured fobs.
“Get your coat and bag off – filthy night – and I’ll walk you through it.”
You follow Metcalfe to the curved reception desk. You see that as well as a phone, a computer screen, and a pot full of biros, there’s a big rubberised torch sitting on a blue ringbinder, and an ancient stand-alone black-and-white television. Next to the TV is a clicky dial, and you realise that it’s a rudimentary CCTV system. You hang your coat from the back of the chair, and put your rucksack down next to it.
“So,” says Metcalfe, nodding at the CCTV, “the ground floor and the basement are the obvious points of entry for thieves. You need to physically check both every couple of hours. The rest of your time’s your own.”
He sees you blink, and he elaborates. “Of course, you walked here. There’s a basement car park, with keycard access.”
“What do I do if something happens?” you ask.
He points to the blue folder. “All the phone numbers you need are in that. No stupid heroics, mind. If you find someone inside, or you hear someone breaking in, get to somewhere safe, lock yourself in and call the police. It’s a condemned office block, not the crown bloody jewels. First contractors get here at six: sign the keys over to their gaffer, and go home for some kip.”
He reaches past you for the folder, and after tipping the torch off the cover, flips it open. At the very front, there’s a signing sheet. He writes in the time and the date, prints his name and signs it. Then he gives you the pen so you can do the same. You negotiate the first of your duties successfully enough, and Metcalfe flips the folder closed.
“One other thing. There’s a homeless bloke who tries to get in sometimes, Davy. He’s harmless enough, but he absolutely can not be allowed to sleep on the premises: if anything happens to him, and he’s old and alcoholic, so it’s quite likely he’s going to pop off soon, we can be held liable. He’ll go away if you’re firm.”
“Even on a night like this?” you ask.
“You have to be firm,” Metcalfe repeats. “We can’t risk it. Okay?”
It’s your job now. You hope he doesn’t turn up, because you’re not good with confrontation. “I’ll deal with it. Him. I’ll deal with him,” you say, and Metcalfe nods approvingly.
“Have a good night,” he says. “May it be entirely uneventful.”
He walks over to the front doors, and waits, tapping his foot lightly on the mat. You realise that you have the keys, and you now are in control of the building, who comes in and crucially, who goes out. You hurry over and with an apology, stare at the bunch of keys in your hand, wondering precisely which one will unlock the doors.
“That one,” says Metcalfe, pointing to an unassuming Yale key.
You peer at it, and see it’s got a serial number stamped on the round part of the steel key: 542. You’ll have to remember that. You push the key home, twist it, and feel a bolt grudgingly move. The wind pops the door open, and Metcalfe hunkers down into his coat. “You’ll be fine,” he says as he leaves.
His figure is swallowed up by the rain-washed night, and you relock the door, giving it a shake to make certain it’s locked. You go back to the reception desk and take out a novel, your flask, your music player, and a packet of cheap own-brand biscuits. You wipe the rain off your face, and look around you. This is it for the next eight hours.
On that note, you fetch out the local paper and pop it on the desk in front of you. It has classifieds in it, and even in the days of agencies and aggregating sites, there might be something that others haven’t applied for.
You’re tempted to immediately open up your flask, but given it’s your first night, you decide to do this by the book. You check the torch, and you make the mistake of pointing it at your face as you turn it on. It’s brighter than the sun, and leaves you teary-eyed and blinking away the after-images. You pick up your keys, feeling their reassuring weight in your hand, and you head towards the lifts.
You notice that the lights showing which floor the lifts are on are dark, and when you punch the call buttons, nothing happens. But you see that the numbers run B G 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. At least you know how many floors you have responsibility for.
The stairs have to be somewhere near, but you can’t see them straight away. Neither have you asked where they were, which you now regret. You walk past the twin lifts and behind some fabric screens.
There’s a set of double doors ahead of you. You pull one of them open and turn on your torch. Once it would have been a big, busy, open-plan office, but now it’s just a repository for furniture. You thread your way between tables already wrapped in plastic, and cabinets held closed with tape. In the far corner, hiding behind some shelving, you discover the fire doors. Presumably, loading up the trucks is easier, taking it out that way.
You check them, and they’re firmly shut. But you’re also squelching. You point your torch at the ground, and the carpet’s damp. A pool of water is spreading along the floor, and has already gone under some of the furniture. That’s not great, but given they’re demolishing the building, you don’t know whether you need to do anything about it.
You still can’t find the stairs. You frown, but on turning around, there’s another door you hadn’t seen, and you notice there’s a light coming from underneath it. You open it up, and there’s a brightly-lit staircase that goes around a square central stairwell.
You head down to the basement, where the door opens into a dim, cavernous space. There are fading lines on the grey concrete, dividing the area up in to parking bays. Your footsteps sound damp, and it appears that there’s enough rain coming down outside to seep under the rattling, banging automatic roller door to wet the floor.
On closer inspection, the door seems ill-fitting, especially at the bottom, where there’s a gap big enough to get a hand through. You try and lift it, and the mechanism’s so slack that you can pull up one corner more than far enough to crawl under. You carry on your tour, and you’re almost back at the door to the stairs when you spot, in one corner, what looks initially like a pile of discarded plastic and rags.
You shine your torch at them, and realise that they’re moving.
You aim the torch ahead of you, and as you cautiously approach, you see a pale hand come up to try to cast some shadow. Belatedly, you point the beam of light at the ground and stop a little way away. “Are you Davy?” you ask. You realise that you don’t sound very confident – you’re not – but dealing with the man is your job. You decide that you need to add: “You know you shouldn’t be here.”
You get no answer, and you reluctantly go up to the mound. It stinks of old, drunk man. You summon up enough courage to part the layers of plastic, and to your surprise – and relief – you discover that there’s no one there. It’s empty, all the way down to the concrete. Whatever you saw, what you think you saw, had to have been a trick of the light.
But it’s clear that Davy has been here, and will be here again. Your shoulders slump, and you spend the next ten minutes peering into every last corner of the carpark. There’s a row of cabinets that hold the building’s junction boxes and main valves for the water, and there’s nowhere to hide in them. There’s also a couple of access hatches either side of the lift shafts, but they’re locked shut.
The only way out is under the shuttered door. If Davy can come and go as he pleases, then anyone can. The building that you’re supposed to keep secure, isn’t. You’re pretty certain Metcalfe already knows this. There’s a lock on the bottom stairwell door, though, and after a few minutes with the keys, you find the right one, and turn it once you’re through.
You settle back in your chair, pour yourself a coffee and help yourself to a biscuit, listening to the rain still lashing down outside. You don’t feel great about Davy, wherever he is – you got soaked just walking here. To take your mind off that, you flick through the paper, glancing at this story and that, then start working your way through the job adverts. There’s some that you circle. Most, in all conscience, you can’t.
You check your watch: it’s approaching midnight.
You lean back and pour yourself another coffee. You glance down at the CCTV, and you can’t make head nor tail of what you’re seeing. All detail seems to have been blotted out. You twist the dial to get the other cameras, and they’re pretty much the same – a shifting sheet of grey-white static, bands washing across the glowing screen.
You give up and go back to the open newspaper. Your eyes slide across the print, and latch on to two words. Pegasus Tower. Because it’s where you are, right now. You blink. Tragic death, it says. A security guard. That’s … you. Then you read it properly, and of course it’s not you.
It’s the person you’ve replaced. Your hands go to your mouth. Dead on the concourse outside. Fell from the roof. Metcalfe should have absolutely told you about this. And you are going to call him right now. You reach for the blue folder, but get distracted by the CCTV.
A small dark object has drifted into view. You realise, startled, that it’s a bottle. And it’s floating. You frown, check the other channels, and what you originally thought was just interference is really light reflecting off the waves on the water. That can’t possibly be right, though. You’ve never known it to flood around here.
Picking up your torch, you walk over the front doors. The carpet isn’t so much damp, as swimming. There’s water coming into the building. You shine your torch through the glass doors, and it’s like a lake out there – the pavement has completely disappeared. In fact, you can see that the water has risen up to above the bottom of the doors. There’s a thin trickle squeezing in across the threshold.
This is worse. But you realise that, if it’s that bad up here, how bad is it going to be in the basement car park? You jog back to the reception desk, grab the keys and head for the stairwell.
You open the door, and you immediately realise that there’s something wrong. You can hear running water. Not just a dribble, but a full-on torrent. You look down, and you realise that the bottom of the stairwell is a couple of feet deep in milky-brown water. You stare at it for a moment, before you walk down the stairs. The last few steps have simply disappeared under the encroaching water. The stairwell is filling up.
You shine your light at the locked bottom door, and it’s weeping in from all the way around. The little glass rectangle is completely occluded. There’s no chance of you opening that. None at all. If Davy’s sneaked back in there, then you can’t do anything for him.
You hurry back to the foyer to raise the alarm, and you realise that you’re still splashing. The water’s come as far as the front of the desk. You open the blue folder and start quickly leafing through it, looking for a list of emergency contacts.
It’s all there. It’s all organised, alphabetically. But there’s nothing for flooding. Maybe the fire brigade? You glance up as you dither. There’s a flowing brown shape against the front doors: the water level inside might only be enough to cover the carpet, but outside it’s waist height. How did it get that deep, that quickly? Where’s all the water coming from? The doors… they’re not going to hold, are they? A tidal wave is going to come through any second now, and you’re going to be swept away.
You grab your torch and keys, and sprint to the internal doors. The lights flicker, then cut out. It’s abruptly dark, and you struggle with opening the door. You flick the torch on and remember you’re supposed to pull here, not push. There’s a sound like a gunshot as the front doors finally give. You hear the roaring of rapidly approaching water, and the noise of heavy objects slamming into each other.
You’re into the open space beyond. Already the water’s up to your ankles, and getting deeper by the second. You can see the stairwell door ahead, and you run as quickly as you can towards it, aware that every second counts. You stumble, plunge headlong into the water, gasp, drag yourself upright and keep going.
You’re at the door. You heave it open – the amount of water swirling around makes it ridiculously hard, but you manage it. There’s water in the stairwell too, bubbling up like a fountain. You grab the handrail for support and haul your sodden body out of the rising tide.
You pause when you reach the first floor landing. You give the torch a shake, and it doesn’t seem too much the worse for wear despite its dunking. You can’t say the same about you, however. You’re like a drowned rat, and properly terrified.
The water is still rising. It tops one step, and another. You decide to put some distance between you and it, and climb up to the second floor, and there you spill out into the office space. Your torch beam crosses even more stacked furniture as you slump to the floor.
You fetch your phone out of your pocket, and press the button to wake it up. You hold your breath, and nothing happens. You try it again, and still nothing. You know from experience that with ideal conditions – putting everything in a bowl of dried rice somewhere warm – it takes at least a couple of days. And your conditions are far from ideal. You have to acknowledge that your phone is dead.
Then you realise there’s water pouring out from around the lift doors, and you hurry back to the stairwell only to meet another mini-wave coming towards you. You’re on the second floor. There’s no way it could have reached this high up. Yet when you open the door, you see that the water is still welling up from below.
As you stand there, dumbfounded, the water tops your shoes and makes its inexorable way up your legs. You’ve no choice but to go up.
You stand on the next landing to consider your options. But each time you try to think clearly, you get stuck on the thought that this shouldn’t be happening. You’re in a city, well above sea level, where there’s a valley and a river. The rain, no matter how much of it there is, should be draining downhill and flooding there, if anywhere.
The basement, yes, you can understand that. Surface water flooding the ground floor, okay. But the first floor? The second? That’s madness. How could it rise up so high? How can it keep rising? You look at your watch: the read-out is misty with water droplets, but it’s still working, and you can tell that it’s just one o’clock.
The sky will start lightening about five or so, the first contractors due in at six – but that’s not going to happen, is it? Not if there’s this much water across the rest of town. Were there any dams upriver that might have collapsed under the weight of the rain, sending all the stored water down? You don’t think so. You don’t know any more.
All you do know is that anyone who might be able to help you is going to consider you a very low priority. The first floor of the tower block is around the level of a regular house’s eves. If you were at home, in your flat, you’d probably have drowned by now. Of course, if the water’s got that far, everything you own has gone. Not that it’s much. But it was yours, and it was all you had.
You’ve got floors three through eight to wait it out in. It’s going to be difficult, because you’re wet through, and cold. You’ve nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and no way of keeping warm. Whatever else is going on, you need to start addressing your problems. No one else is going to.
You start heading upwards. As you climb, you hear something new from the stairwell below you Not just water burbling. There’s a slow, repetitive slap. You shine your torch down into the dark, and you can see nothing but the spiral of the staircase and the surface of the water. As your torch beam flicks around, you glimpse a pale hand holding onto the handrail.
For a moment, your heart leaps. You’re not alone. There’s someone else with you. Then it skips a beat, because you know you are alone, and there’s no one else with you. You press your back against the wall. What are you supposed to do? What does this night want from you?
The wet slapping of feet carries on. They seem to be in no hurry. Why would they? You’ve nowhere to go. Even if they take hours to ascend, you can’t escape. You’re surrounded by water. It’s just this tower block, you and whoever it is coming up the stairs.
You bolt for the roof.
The wind tears at you as soon as you open the door. If you were cold beforehand, now you’re freezing. You shine your torch through the dark and the rain, trying to pick out any of the adjacent office blocks that you know are there, and yet there’s nothing. You illuminate the ventilation fans and the water tank, but the light seems to reach as far as the short parapet, and then stops. You seem to be as thoroughly marooned as if you were on a desert island, rather than being in the middle of a city. You don’t understand how any of this is even possible.
You call out, knowing that it’s futile, but trying anyway: “Help! Help! I’m trapped up here! Help!” You don’t get any sort of answer. Just the howling of the wind and the roaring of the rain.
After a while, when your throat is raw and ragged, you stop. There’s nothing out there. As if it’s been spirited away. You slump your shoulders and go back inside.
The first thing you hear are the slapping footsteps. They’re closer. Would you rather know what was making them? Would you rather not know? You dither. Can you possibly evade them in some way? Lock yourself in a cupboard? You’ve lost your keys. Lock yourself in a toilet? That seems … wholly inadequate.
You go to the door to the eighth floor, and close it quietly behind you. The floor is stripped clean: no carpet, no ceiling. Everything’s gone. Except, the workmen seem to have left one table, and around a dozen chairs. Next to this is a single power socket dangling from a wire hanging down from above, and there’s a kettle plugged into it.
There’s nowhere for you go, nowhere to hide, so you go and stand behind the table. Your back’s against the windows, and you look out. Through the wind and the rain, you see the reflection of the surface of the water. It’s risen to almost your level.
You hear the door open, and you turn to face your fate. Your torch beam picks out a shambling figure, wrapped in rags and plastic. Davy. It has to be Davy.
Also, it can’t be Davy. You know that it’s not Davy.
He staggers towards where you’re standing. Slowly. So very slowly. Look at all the time you have.
“I checked for you. I went back for you,” you say. It doesn’t matter. There’s no point in trying to reason with him. He’s at the other side of the table, and he bends down, extending his pale hands to take the edge of it and throw it aside with sudden violence.
You snatch up a chair, and aim the chair legs at where you think Davy’s face is. He grabs it, and drags it out of your grasp with inhuman strength. You stumble against the wall as the first wash of water spills across the floor. Then he has you, in a hold like iron. You beat the torch against him, and it’s like striking stone. All you succeed in doing is breaking the torch.
He drags you back to the stairwell. You smell cold-damp and stale drink, sharp urine and rotting teeth. You struggle to free yourself, and a single blow knocks you insensible. After that, it’s shapes, and movement, and your heels bouncing up the steps.
You’re pulled out onto the roof. It’s wild weather. Pitch black, rain lashing down, the wind pulling insistently at you. Waves are breaking over the top of the parapet. The spray is in your face. The whole building, the whole world seems to be drowning. Davy pushes you at the parapet, and you sprawl across it, face down over the water, which you sense, rather than see.
You wait for your ankles to be grabbed and for you to be tipped into the floodwaters. When, after a while, it doesn’t happen, you turn around and face him.
“What do you want from me?” you say, barely more than a whisper. “What do you want?” Then louder. “Tell me what you want? Do you want me to jump? Do you?”
Then it hits you. This has happened before. The other security guard. He jumped. He jumped and died. This happened to him. This all happened to him, every last bit of it. He tried to stay alive all night, and in the end he couldn’t take it, and he jumped. This is what it comes down to. ‘Davy’ can’t kill you. Only you can kill you.
There is no flood. There is no flood at all. This thing – this isn’t Davy. None of this is real. You slide down onto the roof and stare up at the figure, who continues to stare down at you. You say, “I don’t have to jump. I’m not going to jump.”
That’s how they find you in the morning, cold to the touch but still just about alive, crouched on the roof just below the parapet. The sky’s lightened, and the rain has stopped. Eventually, a team of paramedics arrive, wrap you in foil and carry you down to the eighth floor in what looks like a sack-barrow with a seat.
You’re completely unresponsive. You let them work on you, neither refusing nor welcoming their care. After a while, they decide that it’s safe to move you, and they put you on a stretcher and into the lift. The door opens on the ground floor. There’s no sign of a flood. The reception desk is where it was: there’s no evidence of anything happening at all last night.
The paramedics wheel you outside. There are the buildings that had simply vanished from view. You have no idea what happened to you. May be you had a fit. You haven’t had one for a long time. You thought you’d grown out of them. When you used to see visions of angels and demons and believed them real, it always passed. Last night? Last night had a different quality to it. That it had come from outside you, not from inside. Yet you still survived. You’re stronger than you thought.