I was engaged as a children’s nurse and made regular trips to Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen development in Golden Lane both before and after Pi was born. To be sure, I had little enough to do with her when she came, for she was never out of her mother’s arms, and slept by her all night long. When little Pi was about four or five years old, both her parents were found dead in mysterious circumstances in Fortune Street Park. My mistress asked me in her will never to leave Pi. The will stated that for a handsome annual salary I was to move into the Denizen and bring up Pi up as if her parents were still around
Taylor Wimpey’s luxury residential development had a great entrance but its apartments were somewhat on the poky side. At least our flat had a view of Fortune Street Park, even if this piece of green was cast into darkness by the shadow of our building. Aside, from Pi, the will stipulated I should look after her grandma, who until she arrived from Shanghai I had never met. Grandma was an old lady not far from eighty. She was thin and tall and had a face as full of fine wrinkles as if they had been drawn all over it with a needle’s point. Her eyes were very watchful possibly in an attempt to make up for her poor hearing. We gave grandma the smaller bedroom, while I slept in the master bedroom with Pi. We had bunk beds so there was plenty of room for my things and Pi’s toys.
The Denizen was a great place for little Pi. She made expeditions all over it with me at her heels. All except the private cinema and games room in the basement, which gave off an evil vibe so we avoided them. We liked to go out onto the balcony and up to the roof and to run through the corridors! The flats had nearly all been bought by investors and were mostly empty, so we had the run of the place. The concierge didn’t know who was responsible but as the days and weeks passed more and more portraits of Pi’s family appeared in the hallways. The photographs were expensively framed and hung neatly on the walls. We coaxed grandma out of the flat to tell us who they all were. One day a very old picture of grandma appeared in the hallway on the level above us. What a beauty she had been when young! But with such a set, proud look, and such scorn in her handsome eyes, with her eyebrows just a little raised, as if she wondered how any one could have the impertinence to look at her. She had a dress on, the like of which I had never seen before.
‘Well, to be sure!’ I said when I had gazed my fill. ‘Flesh is grass, but who would have thought that grandma had been such an out-and-out beauty?’
‘Yes,’ said Pi. ‘Folks change sadly. But grandma says her elder sister was handsomer than her. But if I show you her picture, then you must never let on, not even to the concierge, that you’ve seen it.’
Pi took me down to the basement and told me grandma sometimes took her there when I was shopping in Waitrose. The picture was there in the games room. To be sure, the older sister beat grandma for beauty and for scornful pride too. I could have looked at the photograph for an hour, but Pi seemed frightened and insisted we leave.
As winter drew on and the days grew shorter, I was sometimes almost certain that I heard a noise as if someone was playing on the upright piano in the games room. I did not hear it every evening; but very often, usually when I was sitting with Pi, after I had put her to bed and I was keeping quite still and silent in the bedroom. Then I could hear tinkling in the distance. When I asked the concierge who had been playing music in the basement, he said very shortly that I was a gowk to take the wind soughing among the trees for music.
The next day I asked a cleaner who it was that played the piano. She would not tell me. I tried a selection of those with concierge and cleaning jobs to get an answer to my question. Finally one cleaner did tell me it was a very strange noise and he had heard it many a time, but most of all on winter nights and before storms. The cleaner said locals claimed it was the old brothel keeper playing on the piano he’d had in the bawdy house that had once stood where The Denizen now towered over the local cityscape. The brothel keeper was dead but he played the piano just as he used to when he was alive. Why the old brothel keeper played and why he played on stormy winter evenings in particular, my informant either could not or would not tell me. Well! I told you I had a brave heart and I thought it was rather pleasant to have that boogie woogie music rolling about the house, for now it rose above the great gusts of wind and triumphed just like a living creature.
At first I thought that it might be one of our concierges who played. But one day when Pi was at school I decided to go down to the basement and take a look at the piano. Lifting the lid I saw it was all broken and destroyed inside. My flesh began to creep a little and I shut it up, and run away pretty quickly. I did not like hearing the music for some time after that. All this time Pi was making herself more and more beloved. The old ladies we ran into in the street liked to stroke her hair. Grandma liked her company too. But she was glad enough to come to me in our room, for as she said, Grandma was so sad but she and I were merry. I ceased to worry about that weird rolling music which harmed no one, although where it came from perplexed me.
That winter was very cold. The days grew shorter and shorter. The old brothel keeper, if it was he, played away more and more stormily on the upright piano. One Sunday in later November I returned from a trip Waitrose and Pi was not with grandma, who said she’d gone down to talk to the concierge. But the concierge had not seen her. I searched our apartment first and then starting at the top of The Denizen worked my way down its floors. When I got to the ground floor entrance I asked the concierge if Pi had gone and hidden in the basement. He doubted it but we checked anyway. No sign of Pi. I went outside and began walking around the building. I retraced my steps and noticed small ones in the muddy park. I found Pi asleep on a bench in the children’s play area.
She was cold and tired, so I put Pi into her warm bed and told grandma and the concierge all was well. Pi fell away into a soft sleep as soon as her pretty head touched the pillow and I watched her till morning light, when she woke up bright and clear – or so I thought at first – and, my dears, so I think now.
She said that she’d gone down to speak to the concierge because grandma kept nodding off. But the concierge was out on some errand. A little girl, younger than she was, had come into the building. The other girl had taken her by the hand and led her out. They had walked around Fortune Street Park.
I got Pi to show me where she had walked and I was able to identify her footprints in the muddy park but there was no second set. She got upset when I said she was lying about the little girl.
‘I never looked at her feet, but she held my hand fast and tight in her little one, and it was very, very cold. She took me up to the dead tree in the children’s play area and there I saw a lady weeping and crying. When she saw me, she hushed her weeping and smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull me to sleep.’
So I thought the child was in a fever and pretended to believe her, as she went over her story – over and over again, and always the same.
I left Pi with grandma and went to talk to the concierge about what had happened. I couldn’t find him but I found the cleaner who’d told me about the old brothel keeper.
‘Oh! Heaven, forgive! Have mercy!’ she cried aloud. ‘Keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child’
I was very uneasy in my mind after that. I didn’t dare leave Pi alone in case she might slip off again, after some fancy or other. I thought grandma was crazy and I was afraid lest something of the same kind – which might be in the family – hung over Pi. And whenever it was a more stormy night than usual, between the gusts and through the wind, we heard the old brothel keeper playing on the upright piano.
So Pi and I played together and wandered together, here and there, for I never dared to lose sight of her in that great Denizen ghost flat development. And so it happened that one afternoon we were chasing each other around the ground floor entrance when she cried out:
‘Look, there is my poor little girl out in the cold!’
I turned and sure enough I saw a little girl, crying as if she wanted to be let in. She seemed to sob and wail, till Pi could bear it no longer and was flying to the door to open it, when all of a sudden the upright piano was being hammered so loudly it fairly made me tremble. What was worse, although the phantom child was wailing and crying, not the faintest touch of sound from her had fallen upon my ears! I caught Pi before she got the entrance door opened and carried her away, kicking and screaming.
What is the matter with the little one?’ asked the cleaner who was coming down the stairs.
‘She won’t let me open the door for my little girl to come in, and she’ll die if she is out on the street all night,’ Pi said slapping me.
I saw a look of ghastly terror on the cleaner’s face, which made my very blood run cold.
‘I’ll lock the doors,’ she said that and no more.
Pi sobbed about the little girl outside. I was thankful when she cried herself to sleep in bed. Then I stole down to speak to the cleaner. After some hard words between us, she told me all she knew. It made me more afraid than ever.
The old piano playing brothel keeper had been at the centre of a paedophile ring based in a warehouse that prior to World War 2 had stood on the site of The Denizen. Those he catered for treated the children he supplied them with – including his own – with great cruelty and violence. The phantom child was his youngest daughter who’d bled to death from internal injuries after brutal mistreatment. The strange lady in Fortune Street Park was her mother who’d been found nursing her dead child’s body after these terrible events, while the spirit of the evil brothel keeper provided musical accompaniment. These two ghosts lured anyone they found living in The Denizen to their death.
Pi was too precious to me for us to stay in Taylor Wimpey’s luxury apartment complex in Golden Lane, where evil spirits would keep trying to kill her until they succeeded. I moved her and grandma into my mother’s house in Archway, well away from the cursed Denizen development.