The building was scheduled for demolition. A former apartment block on the outskirts of Bristol, it was built in the sixties in two hinge-like columns joined at the corner. Below lay a large unused courtyard, empty save for dead leaves, a heap of white refuse sacks and a few shattered wooden pallet boards. Graffiti covered the exterior walls with large bulbous letters, sprayed first over free space and then over its predecessors. A blank billboard stood in the yard, showing remnants of an old poster fluttering in the wind, while across the street was a garish takeaway, a string of charity shops and a garage, the only place with a regular stream of customers. The mechanics’ voices could be heard drifting into the empty drive, mixing together with chatter and music from their radio.
Chris Haines looked up at the dereliction, camera resting against his left eye. Through the viewfinder he could see the old scaffolding, its netting so ripped and torn that the ruined brickwork beneath was visible. Threads hung in looping lines, while others formed a parallel series like the baleen bristles of a whale. After a moment’s deliberation, he took a photograph, before checking the display to see the result. It pleased him. Satisfied with the composition, he turned and was about to leave the dilapidated place when there came the sound of fast-moving footsteps. A boy appeared.
“Did you get me?” he asked.
Chris was thrown. “Sorry?”
“So you didn’t see me?”
“Where were you?”
“Up there. Did you really not see me? I thought with that camera you must’ve got a good shot. Was it expensive?” The boy’s face fell. “I haven’t had a good picture of me from the ground in ages. We only use GoPros.”
The realisation set in and Chris’ brows narrowed. “You mean you were in that building? You know it’s going to be demolished soon. There’re signs up.”
“Oh, yes. I thought it’d be a good one.”
Taking in the boy’s shabby appearance, the dust on his knees and elbows, the poignant holes in his jeans, the cuts on his palms, Chris thought unavoidably of his two sons at home. They would be about this stranger’s age, give or take. “But how did you even get in there?”
“It’s quite easy if you know how. I can show you if you’d like. There’s a window round the back they haven’t boarded up and then the stairs are still in pretty good nick.” The boy laughed. “There was one time, me and my mate found this deserted warehouse and we were just going up some stairs, dead ordinary, when my foot goes through the floor. I caught myself but you never know. It’s usually stronger near the edges. But this one was pretty easy to get up.”
“I didn’t see you.”
The boy pointed one dirty finger at an exposed area of scaffolding on the roof. “I was hanging off that.” Chris followed the direction to a perilous height and experienced a vicarious thrill of vertigo. The supports were rusted with age and exposure to the elements, while large gaps were visible on one side. He tried not to imagine the wind, which even on the ground brushed the boy’s light hair.
“How old are you?”
“Fourteen. I’m going to join the army in a few years. I can’t wait to get out, you know? I’ve done nearly every building in Bristol and it’s starting to get boring. Well, all the good ones. In the army you can pretty much do what you want. It’ll fill the time at least. I haven’t got anything else to do.”
Chris was unsure of what to say. His camera dangled by his side.
“Thing is my brother said when he joined they were all just playing Warhammer. Can you imagine that? I thought it’d at least be a good laugh or something but they were all just crowded round their bunks playing Warhammer. Isn’t that the worst? He said it wasn’t much fun with that lot. What photos did you get then?”
“Just one or two of the outside.”
“Let me see then.”
The boy came round to his elbow. Chris reluctantly flicked through the photographs.
“You’d get a better one from up top.” The boy let out a shrill laugh. “Though you probably don’t do much climbing. You’d get better photos if you did. Me and my mates, we’ve got a YouTube channel and we put our videos up. Of course we’ve got to be careful with the police and that.”
“The police?” Chris felt a growing agitation. How long had this boy been breaking into deserted buildings? Unease, heavy and unfamiliar, lay on his tongue. He swallowed.
“They always let us go though. We had a right laugh when Micky was caught. What a wally. He’s the slowest because he daydreams. Got no common sense.”
“Have you been caught?”
The boy gave him a look as though he had done him a disservice. “Are you kidding? Loads of times. They usually just ask the same old questions but once they know you haven’t been stealing anything you’re free to go. That’s the thing—they can’t touch you. It’s ridiculous for them to stop a bit of fun. Bunch of spoilsports.”
“So you don’t steal anything?”
“Oh, no. It’s just about the rush isn’t it? I love heights. Although,” and the strange boy let out another shrill laugh, “we did find some money once. It was in this disused office, right, and it was already pretty trashed because someone else had been in there and we found loads of cheques on the floor. And here’s the thing, some of them were old, I mean like dated back to the nineteen eighties and that. I took one to the bank and cashed it and they gave me four hundred quid for it.”
He felt that the boy wanted him to be impressed. “That’s a lot of money.”
“Yeah and it wasn’t stealing because we just found it and if nobody had taken it in all that time then they probably didn’t want it.”
“No, I suppose not.”
The boy looked at him. “Where are you going now?”
Chris was reluctant to tell. “I was taking pictures. I’m not often in the area.”
“You should go to the Christmas Steps. That’s where all the photographers go. It’s actually a nightmare to get through there ‘cus of all the people taking pictures. I’ll show you.”
He started walking and Chris felt strangely bound to follow him. The boy was at once innocent and startling, and he felt even a little sorry for him. It was clear he had nothing else to do. They went along a few streets towards College Green, while the boy continued to chatter ceaselessly about his plans for leaving home, the climbs he was most proud of, his most daring escapes. As Chris listened, a tentative admiration was counterpoised by worry for the boy’s safety. Surely his parents couldn’t allow him to go breaking and entering. “You should be careful,” he said in the cautionary voice he normally reserved for his own sons. “Have you ever been injured?”
“I broke my arm, my collar bone, and two ribs. Here, here, and here. I wasn’t even that high up as well. If I was climbing I wouldn’t have fallen. I was just walking along when the floor collapsed and I fell through to the floor below. One minute I was standing there with everyone else, the next I was falling.”
“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse.”
“If I get hurt, I get hurt don’t I? It’s not something you can worry about.”
“But weren’t you scared?”
“Not then. But I was a bit when we went up Cabot Circus. That was high. We’d heard some boys got stopped trying to go up there so we had to try it. We’re the best climbers aren’t we? I was with my mate and my brother, and we climbed up there in the afternoon when there were loads of people down below. The hard part was getting up onto the glass without anyone seeing us but once we were up, there wasn’t nothing they could do. It was amazing. Because it’s all glass you can see all the people down below between your feet. It was the best climb I’ve ever done in my life. You should’ve seen us up there. Must’ve looked like we were flying. You feel like Jesus. My palms were a bit sweaty then, yeah.”
“How did you get down?” he asked incredulously.
“Someone called security on us.” The boy’s face darkened. “I don’t see why they were trying to stop a bit of fun. Haven’t they got anything better to do with their time? The police should be stopping proper crimes not messing about with a bunch of kids. And security guards are all dickheads. They’re just frustrated ‘cus they’re not the police—”
“You could’ve been hurt—”
“Yeah but we’re not hurting anyone, are we? And I’ve never fallen once. That was the floor that collapsed, not me. I’m a safe climber. But yeah as I was saying they started blowing a whistle and shouting at us so we thought it’d be a good idea if we legged it. You can slide over the glass because it’s curved so it was a lot faster getting down. I could hear someone yelling ‘what’re you doing there’ but I didn’t stop to find out. And after a few streets we just started walking like we were anyone else on the street. And they couldn’t see us ‘cus they’re looking for someone running.”
Chris changed tack. He wanted to convey to the boy some of the danger he was in, though he could feel his resolve weakening, a touch of awe undoing his admonition. The unthinking confidence was impenetrable. At last he tried, desperately, conscious that he was losing: “What does your father think of your climbing?”
“I don’t see too much of my dad.”
“What about your mother?”
The boy’s face showed a mixture of guilt and pride. “She doesn’t love it.”
They had nearly reached the Christmas Steps, which the boy was determined to show him. Soon they would part. The opportunity to intervene was slipping through his fingers. At first he had wanted to dissuade the boy, or perhaps find a way of contacting his parents, though it now seemed impossible. There was no breaking through the boy’s invulnerability; it was a cocoon around him, which try as he might could not be dissolved. Any attempt to make him understand was futile. Chris stopped and wondered what he ought to do. A whispering voice in his head perversely admired the boy’s courage, the daring to climb these perilous heights, the absolute freedom. It was nearing four o’clock, the day fast becoming a husk, and soon he would return to the train station, the house with his wife and two children, his settled and secure domestic existence. He pictured the boy performing his daredevil walk along the roof, trainers squeaking on the glass below, while antlike shoppers moved between clothing stores and cafes, unaware of the reckless glory above. Chris’ tongue stopped with the realisation he had nothing better to offer the boy, his own security diminished suddenly by this new and towering perspective. Perhaps, when posed with these varieties of experience, it was greater to soar over buildings than be pinioned inside.
“Well, be careful at least,” he said.
“I always am,” said the boy.
They parted on Lower Park Row. The boy continued on his way, hitching up his dusty rucksack, until the tawny crop of hair was lost around the corner. Chris pressed the camera to his left eye once more. From ground level, it struck him that the street was unexpectedly narrow, almost oppressive, the terraced buildings blotting out the sun, as though the people milling past were boxed in. The view, he considered, would be better from above.
Bishan Morgan grew up in Somerset. His work was recently longlisted for the 2020 Short Fiction/University of Essex Prize, judged by Jon McGregor. He lives in London.
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