‘Houseless – homeless – hopeless!’
Many who had trodden that same street must have uttered the same words – the weary, the desolate, the hungry, the forsaken, the waifs and strays of struggling humanity that are always coming and going, cold, starving and miserable, over the pavements of Cripplegate; but it is open to question whether they were ever previously spoken with a more thorough conviction of their truth, or with a feeling of keener self-pity, than by the young man who hurried along Golden Lane one rainy winter’s night, with no overcoat on his shoulders and no hat on his head.
A strange sentence for a young man of twenty to give expression to – and it was stranger still to come from the lips of a person who was wearing expensive clothes. He did not appear to have sunk very far down in the good graces of fortune. There was no sign or token which would have induced a passer-by to imagine he had been worsted after a long fight with calamity. His boots were not worn at the heels or broken at the toes. His clothes were good and fashionably cut, and innocent of the rents and patches and tatters. His face was not pinched with famine or lined with wicked wrinkles, or brutalised by drink and debauchery, and yet he said and thought he was hopeless, and almost in his young despair spoke the words aloud.
It was a bad night to be about with such a feeling in one’s heart. The rain was cold, pitiless and increasing. A damp, keen wind blew down the streets leading to the river. The pavement was greasy and that dreary district of London looked its very gloomiest and worst.
Certainly not an evening to be abroad without a home to go to, or a working credit card in one’s pocket, yet this was the position of the young man who, without a hat, strode along Golden Lane, the rain beating on his unprotected head.
Half the social housing flats once inhabited by working class citizens, were now let out at extortionate rates to international bankers and others connected to the financial industry located to the south. The young man looked enviously at the apartments. He would have given much to have had a flat, or even a room, in one of those buildings. He had been walking for a long time, ever since dark and dark comes early in December. He was tired and cold and hungry, and he saw no prospect save of pacing the streets all night.
As he passed a streetlamp, the light falling on his face revealed handsome young features, a mobile, sensitive mouth, and that particular formation of the eyebrows – not a frown exactly, but a certain draw of the brows – often considered to bespeak genius, but which more surely accompanies an impulsive organisation easily pleased, easily depressed, capable of suffering very keenly or of enjoying fully. In his short life he had not enjoyed much, and he had suffered a good deal. That night, when he walked bareheaded through the rain, affairs had come to a crisis.
So far as he in his despair felt able to see or reason, the best thing he could do was to die. The world did not want him; he would be better out of it.
The entrance door of Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen luxury apartment block stood open, and he could see some furniture waiting to be removed. A van stood beside the curb, and two men were lifting a table into it as he, for a second, paused.
‘Master Yip! Master Yip!’ a man who’d seen him and chased after him exclaimed breathlessly.
‘Who are you that know me?’ he asked, facing round.
‘I’m Lee; don’t you remember Lee, Master Yip? And what are you doing out a night like this without your hat?’
‘I forgot it,’ was the answer; ‘and I did not care to go back and fetch it.’
‘Then why don’t you buy another? You’ll catch your death of cold.’
‘I know that,’ said Master Yip grimly; ‘but I haven’t a half-dollar in the world.’
‘Have you and your father, then-‘ began the man, but there he hesitated and stopped.
‘Had a quarrel? Yes, and one that will last us our lives,’ finished the other, with a bitter laugh.
‘And where are you going now?’
‘Going! Nowhere, except to seek out the softest paving stone, or the shelter of an arch.’
‘You are joking.’
‘I don’t feel much in a mood for jesting either.’
‘Will you come back with me, Master Yip? We are moving out of our Denizen apartment, but we’ve been unable to sell or lease it. You’re welcome to it and it would provide shelter from the rain. Will you come?’
‘Of course I will come,’ said the young fellow and turning they retraced their steps The Denizen which he had passed as he made his way towards Beech Street.
The Denizen was big and empty. Most of the apartments had been bought by investors as ghost homes, they were unused and unloved. Those who had tried to spend a night in the building had left terrified by strange disturbances that prevented them enjoying a full night’s sleep. The place was deserted and even in cold weather the concierge preferred to stand on the street if he had no work to attend to, rather than sit in the warm at his desk.
‘Step upstairs,’ entreated the departing owner; ‘my flat is on the first floor.’
Where is everyone, Lee?’ asked Yip.
‘Gone, no one likes it here. I’m sorry there’s no furniture in my apartment but it is warmer than outside and the heating works.”
There was a large mirror on one wall but the absence of sofas and chairs made the pokey space appear reasonably proportioned. From the living room balcony window there was a view onto Fortune Street Park.
‘Can I really stay here?’ asked Yip eagerly. ‘I should be thankful to lie on the floor. I feel dead beat.’
‘Stay and be welcome Yip. I must run round to my new flat but it’s not far and I’ll be back soon.’
‘Thank you Lee,’ said the young man gratefully. ‘This is delightful,’ and he looked round the room with a satisfied smile. ‘I did not expect to get into such quarters. I am sure the last thing I could have imagined was meeting with anyone I knew in Golden Lane.’
‘You are better here. I’ll be back in half an hour.’
Left to himself, Yip took off his coat, and hung it over a radiator to dry. With his handkerchief he rubbed some of the wet out of his hair; then perfectly exhausted, he lay down on the floor and, pillowing his head on his arm, fell fast asleep.
He was awakened nearly an hour afterwards by the sound of someone moving quietly about the room. Starting into a sitting posture, he looked around him, bewildered for a moment, and then recognising his friend Lee, said laughingly: ‘I had lost myself; I could not imagine where I was.’
‘I am sorry to see you here,’ was the reply, ‘but still this is better than being out of doors. It has come on a nasty night. I brought a rug round with me that you could wrap yourself in.’
‘I wish you had brought me something to eat,’ said the young man, laughing.
‘Are you hungry then?’ asked Lee in a tone of concern.
‘I have had nothing to eat since breakfast. My dad and I commenced rowing the minute we sat down to lunch, and I rose and left the table. But hunger does not signify; I am dry and warm, and can forget the other matter in sleep.’
‘It’s a bit late to buy something now,’ soliloquised Lee; ‘Tesco shut five minutes ago and Waitrose an hour before that. I dare say if we walked around we’d find a take-away still doing business but its too miserable a night to be doing that. Do you think you could manage some bread and cheese?’
‘I should call it a perfect feast,’ answered Yip. ‘But never mind about food tonight, you have had trouble enough with me already.’
Lee’s only answer was to dart out of the flat. He reappeared fifteen minutes later carrying in one hand bread and cheese wrapped up in a plastic bag, and in the other a bottle of beer. ‘It’s the best I could do,’ he said apologetically. ‘I haven’t properly moved into my new flat and there’s not much there.’
‘Here’s to good health!’ exclaimed the young fellow gaily, taking a long pull at the lager. ‘That tastes better than champagne in my father’s house.’
‘Won’t he be uneasy about you?’ ventured Lee, who was looking wistfully at the relish with which the estranged son was eating his bread and cheese.
‘No,’ was the decided answer. ‘When he hears it pouring cats and dogs he will only hope I am out in the deluge and say a good drenching will cool my pride.’
‘I do not think you are right there,’ remarked Lee.
‘But I am sure I am. My father always hated me, as he hated my mother.’
‘Begging your pardon, he was over fond of your mother.’
‘If you had heard what he said about her today, you might find reason to alter your opinion. He told me I resembled her in mind as well as body. That I was a coward, a simpleton and a hypocrite.’
‘He did not mean it.’
‘He did, every word. He thinks I’m a coward, because I – I – ‘ Yip broke into hysterical tears.
‘I don’t like leaving you here alone,’ said Lee glancing round the room with troubled eyes; ‘but there isn’t space for you in my new flat. I’ve already asked my wife if you might stay and she told me not to be ridiculous. We have to pay the mortgage on this place and the rent where we are, so we’ve downsized to a bedsitter.’
‘I shall be right enough,’ was the answer. ‘Only I mustn’t talk any more of my father. Tell me about yourself, Lee. Why are you leaving this apartment empty?’
‘It is my wife’s fancy not to like it.’
‘Why did she not like it?’
‘She felt desolate alone at night,’ answered Lee, then added: ‘Now, if you think I can do no more for you, I had best be off. I’ll look round tomorrow morning.’
‘Good night,’ said the young fellow, stretching out his hand, which the other took as freely and frankly as it was offered. ‘What should I have done this evening if I had not chanced to meet you?’
‘I don’t think there is much chance in the world, Yip,’ was the quiet answer. ‘I do hope you will rest well, and not be the worse for your wetting.’
‘No fear of that,’ was the rejoinder, and the next minute the young man found himself all alone in the luxury apartment in Golden Lane.
Lying on the floor, with the radiator blazing out heat and the room in darkness, Yip dreamed a curious dream. He thought he awoke from deep slumber to find smoke smouldering up from under the carpeted floor, and the mirror on the wall of the apartment reflecting fitful gleams of light.
He could not understand how it came to pass that, far away as he was from the glass, he was able to see everything in it; but he resigned himself to the difficulty without astonishment, as people generally do in dreams. Neither did he feel surprised when he beheld the outline of a seated female figure, engaged in picking something out of her lap and dropping it with a despairing gesture.
He heard the mellow sound of gold, and knew she was lifting and dropping sovereigns, he turned a little so as to see the person engaged in such a singular and meaningless manner, and found that, where there had been no chair earlier, there was a chair now, on which was seated an old, wrinkled hag, her clothes poor and ragged, a mob cap barely covering her scant white hair, her cheeks sunken, her fingers more like talons than aught else as they dived down into the heap of gold, portions of which they lifted but to scatter mournfully.
‘Oh! my lost life,’ she moaned, in a voice of the bitterest anguish. ‘Oh! my lost life–for one day, for one hour of it again!’
Out of the darkness – out of the corner of the room where the shadows lay deepest – out from the gloom abiding near the door – out from the dreary night, with their sodden feet and wet dripping from their heads, came the old men and the young children, the worn women and the weary hearts, whose misery that gold might have relieved, but whose wretchedness it mocked.
Round that miser, who once sat gloating as she now sat lamenting, they crowded–all those pale, sad shapes – the aged of days, the infant of hours, the sobbing outcast, honest poverty, repentant vice; but one low cry proceeded from those pale lips – a cry for help she might have given, but which she withheld.
They closed about her, all together, as they had done singly in life; they prayed, they sobbed, they entreated; with haggard eyes the figure regarded the poor she had repulsed, the children against whose cry she had closed her ears, the old people she had suffered to starve and die for want of what would have been the merest trifle to her; then, with a terrible scream, she raised her lean arms above her head, and sank down–down – the gold scattering as it fell out of her lap, and rolling along the floor, till its gleam was lost in the outer darkness beyond.
Then Yip awoke in good earnest, with the perspiration oozing from every pore, with a fear and an agony upon him such as he had never before felt before, and with the sound of the heart-rending cry – ‘Oh! my lost life’ – still ringing in his ears. Mingled with all, too, there seemed to have been some lesson for him which he had forgotten, that, try as he would, eluded his memory, and which, in the very act of waking, glided away.
He lay for a little thinking about all this, and then, still heavy with sleep, retraced his way into dreamland once more. It was natural, perhaps, that, mingling with the strange fantasies which follow in the train of night and darkness, the former vision should recur, and the young man ere long found himself toiling through scene after scene wherein the figure of the woman he had seen seated held principal place.
He saw her walking slowly across the floor munching a dry crust – she who could have purchased all the luxuries wealth can command; against the wall, contemplating her, stood a man of commanding presence, dressed in the fashion of long ago. In his eyes there was a dark look of anger, on his lips a curling smile of disgust, and somehow, even in his sleep, the dreamer understood it was the ancestor to the descendant he beheld – that the apartment in which he lay had been the site of mean uses when a house had stood on the land. This was long before the site housed a brothel, then a warehouse and finally 110 social housing units which were knocked down in 2017 and replaced by Taylor Wimpley’s The Denizen.
The woman had so pitiful a soul, contaminated with the most despicable and insidious vice poor humanity knows, for all other vices seem to have connection with the flesh, but the greed of the miser eats into the very soul. Filthy of person, repulsive to look at, hard of heart as she was, he yet beheld another phantom, which, coming into the room, met her almost on the threshold, taking her by the hand, and pleading, as it seemed, for assistance.
He could not hear all that passed, but a word now and then fell upon his ear. Some talk of former days; some mention of a fair young mother – an appeal, as it seemed, to a time when they were tiny brother and sister, and the accursed greed for gold had not divided them. All in vain. The hag only answered him as she had answered the children, and the young girls, and the old people in his former vision. Her heart was as invulnerable to natural affection as it had proved to human sympathy. He begged, as it appeared, for aid to avert some bitter misfortune or terrible disgrace, but she was unyielding to his prayer. Then the figure standing against the wall transformed into an angel, which folded its wings mournfully over its face, and the man, with bowed head, slowly left the room.
Even as he did so the scene changed again; it was night once more, and the miser wended her way to a flat on a higher floor. From below, Yip fancied he watched her toiling wearily from step to step. She had aged strangely since the previous scenes. She moved with difficulty; it seemed the greatest exertion for her to creep from step to step, her skinny hand traversing the stair rail with slow and painful deliberateness. Fascinated, the young man’s eyes followed the progress of that feeble, decrepit woman. She was solitary in a desolate luxury apartment building, with a deeper blackness than the darkness of night waiting to engulf her.
It seemed to Yip that after that he lay for a time in a still, dreamless sleep, upon awaking from which he found himself entering a chamber as sordid and unclean in its appointments as the woman of his previous vision had been in her person. A four-poster bedstead without hangings of any kind – a blind drawn up awry – an old carpet covered with dust, and dirt on the floor – a rickety washstand with all the paint worn off it – an ancient mahogany dressing-table, and a cracked glass spotted all over – were all the objects he could at first discern, looking at the room through that dim light which oftentimes obtains in dreams.
By degrees, however, he perceived the outline of someone lying huddled on the bed. Drawing nearer, he found it was that of the person whose dreadful presence seemed to pervade Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen apartment block. What a terrible sight she looked, with her thin white locks scattered over the pillow, with what were mere remnants of blankets gathered about her shoulders, with her claw-like fingers clutching the clothes, as though even in sleep she was guarding her gold! An awful and a repulsive spectacle, but containing well less than half the horror of that which followed.
Even as the young man looked he heard stealthy footsteps on the stairs. Then he saw first one man and then his fellow steal cautiously into the room. Another second, and the pair stood beside the bed, murder in their eyes. Yip tried to shout – tried to move, but the deterrent power which exists in dreams only tied his tongue and paralysed his limbs. He could but hear and look, and what he heard and saw was this: aroused suddenly from sleep, the woman started, only to receive a blow from one of the ruffians, whose fellow followed his lead by plunging a knife into her breast. Then, with a gurgling scream, she fell back on the bed, and at the same moment, with a cry, Yip again awoke, to thank heaven it was but an illusion.
‘I hope you slept well.’ It was Lee who asked this question: ‘Had you a good night’s rest?’
Yip laughed and answered: ‘I slept well enough, I suppose, but whether it was in consequence of the row with my dad, or the hard floor, or the cheese – most likely the bread and cheese so late at night – I had strange dreams all the night long, the most extraordinary dreams. Some old woman kept cropping up and I saw her murdered.’
‘Please don’t say that!’ Lee replied nervously.
‘It’s the truth,’ was the reply. ‘However, that is all gone and past. Lee can you get me any breakfast?’
‘Certainly Yip. I have brought round a kettle and I will make you tea right now. I suppose you’ll be going home today?’
‘Home!’ repeated the young man. ‘Decidedly not, I’ll never go home until I have made my own way in life. I’ll go and enlist. There’s talk of war and my father shall have reason to retract his opinion about my being a coward.’
‘Don’t be rash, make things up with your father.’
‘I suppose I should listen to you. You put a roof over my head last night.’
‘Not much of a roof, I am afraid.’
‘Not much of a roof!’ repeated the young man. ‘Who could desire a better roof? What a capital apartment this is!’
‘If you think so well of the place, Yip, you can stay here, until you have decided what you are going to do. No one will buy this place, or even rent it from me.’
‘What do you mean? You can’t let the place?’
‘I did not tell you last night but there was a murder done on this site hundreds of years ago, and when Taylor Wimpey laid the foundations of The Denizen, they disturbed the spirits and their luxury apartment block is now haunted by ghosts. People shy away from this place.’
‘A murder! What sort of a murder? Who was murdered?’
‘A woman, Yip. The sister of the landlord of a building that stood on this site in the sixteenth-century. The woman lived here all alone and was supposed to have money. Whether she had or not, she was found dead after being stabbed to death.’
‘Was that the reason your wife would not stop here?’ asked the young man, leaning against the wall and looking thoughtfully down on Lee.
‘Yes. She could not stand it any longer. She got that thin and nervous. She never saw anything but she said she heard footsteps and voices. When she walked in and out of the building someone always seemed to be following her. Other people who’ve fled from The Denizen claim they saw an old woman sitting in a chair.’
‘Have you seen this ghost?’
‘Yes, that’s why I don’t want to live here.’