Alone Again, Or…?

Do you have any idea how many people have died here? I mean, since this place was built, in ’68. Some of them were accidents, yeah, back when this building was a dye house and factory regs were a lot less stringent than they are now. Then there’s the ones who died because of the job, bladder cancer mostly, from working with the Benzedrine dyes. Most of them hung on till long after the business was bust and the building condemned, but they still see this as the place of their death. They still feel connected to it. And finally, there’s the ones that came here later. A couple of them were accidents too – the kid who fell off the roof of the outhouse, impaled on the railings like so much hay on a pitchfork; or the tramp who froze to death in the winter of ’97 – but most of them were anything but. They were deliberate.

It was the day I passed out in the office and nobody noticed, that’s what finally did it. Two hours I was there, slumped forward over my desk with a slime of drool pooling down into the spaces between my keyboard. I remember because I’d sent an email to Wilson just before four, and the next thing I knew the cleaner was nudging me awake with the whine of her hoover. By then, everybody else had gone. It was a Friday, so most of them probably knocked off early. They were going out for a meal or to the cinema, to Pinky’s, that new club up on Cheapside, or else having a quiet night in with a loved one. They all passed my desk on their way, not one of them stopped to ask if I was OK. Two hours, unconscious. What if I’d been dead? Would it have taken till Monday morning? Would a cold, drool-dried stiff finally have made these heartless creatures take notice? Or would it just have been, ‘Jim’s in early again, looking a little peaky, better not get too close – don’t want to catch anything’? If that. Would it even have been that?

Between 1991 and 2002, seventeen local women went missing, aged between sixteen and thirty-eight. Three of them were prostitutes, the rest just happened to have dared walk home alone wearing the wrong outfit, the one that caught his eye. Simon Duncan Godrich, the Wakefield Strangler. That’s what they called him, once it all came out. Seventeen women, all of them buried within the grounds of the old Jennings Dye House. They say it took the jury only seventeen seconds to reach a verdict, and it’d have been quicker than that if we’d still had the death penalty. I don’t know what the women here think about that. They don’t ever talk about it. I tried to get them to one time, and it was colder inside that night than out in the yard. Objects flew threw the air, the mirror in the gents shattered into spiderwebs. I’d thought maybe it would be good for them. Help them move on and that, though if I’m honest… the last thing I’d want is for them to move on, any of them. What would I do without them?

The doctor said it was stress. I was working too hard. Not sleeping. The body can’t cope like that for long, it has to shut down – go into recovery mode. She gave me a pamphlet on breathing and relaxation techniques, and a prescription for some herbal, non-addictive, sleeping tablets. I wanted to tell her: it’s not the things I’m doing that’re making me feel like this – it’s the things I’m not. But she wasn’t interested. She had other patients to see. Back at the office, they didn’t even know I’d had the morning off. They thought I’d just popped out for a bag of crisps from the man at the kiosk.

“You should have told us you were going,” said Alan. “You could have got us a Twix.”

It wasn’t always like that. Maybe that’s what made it worse. Maybe if you’ve never had friends, girlfriends – lovers… maybe it’s easier to cope with not. You don’t – you can’t – know what you’re missing. A frog, it cannot comprehend the sea, I remember that, it’s a line from a song. I can’t remember the rest. I didn’t realise it at the time, but when I was younger – back in school – I think I was popular. Maybe that’s going a little too far, but I was never an outcast, the way so many teenagers like to make themselves out. There was Andy and Chris, Perry and Melonhead Thompson. We had a laugh. There was Sandra Dillon, the first girl who ever let me touch boob, and Tracy Tyson who went her one better. There was Ellen, who I met at Uni. Years that passed in a bliss. And then there was Melissa. We weren’t together long, me and Millie, but you know how they say you always remember your first? Doubly true your last. Less than a week after she got on the train for Bristol, Pearson’s called me up and offered me the job.

Fifteen years, I walked home past that dye house. Though I wasn’t there back in ’91 when Godrich claimed Jenny Stringer as his first victim, I clearly remember his second, April Dearden. It was my first week, and I was trying hard to make friends.

“That poor girl,” I said to Morgan, who had the desk next to me back then, “I hope they find her soon.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Is that an Aquascutum jacket, or a fake? How much did it cost you? It’s a fake, innit? I can tell. Two hundred and fifty quid, I paid for my, down in London. I hate fakes, can’t be doing with them. Still, I suppose if you can’t afford anything else…”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. My jacket was from C&A.

Two Christmases later, while I was deliberating over which cards I’d send to colleagues I still hoped might one day be something more, twenty-one year-old Sarah Stewart kissed her boyfriend goodnight and headed out to meet friends who’d never see her again. I thought about Caroline, the girl from HR who I often met in the kitchen, sellotaping posters about not eating other people’s food to the door of the fridge. I had a thing for her. I imagined she had a thing for me too, what it’d be like if we ended up together, if one day she just vanished, just like that? How would I feel? Worse, how would I feel if that happened and I’d never got the chance to tell her how I felt? She was single, I found that out with a little sly digging, and she always seemed so friendly and chatty, especially with me. So I sent her a Christmas card. Spent ages choosing the words. ‘I think you’re a very special person. I’d love to get to know you better.’ She finally dropped the sexual harassment case in January of ‘95, after I’d agreed not to enter her workspace, and to keep well away from the kitchen and other communal areas at all times. I had to keep my sandwiches in my desk drawer from then on. In summer, their smell hung around my corner of the office long after I’d eaten them. Another reason for people to stay away.

The disappearances were random, separated by time and, to a lesser extent as the years progressed, geography. And as no bodies were ever found – at least not until Godrich was caught – the police had no reason to connect them. But the ghouls in the office, they talked. They theorised. They speculated. And when there were no official explanations to be had, they made up their own, based on rumours and gossip and lies. Meanwhile, every single night, I walked home past that factory where these people were waiting, and I never even knew they were here.

“It’ll probably be some guy, got ‘em all locked up in his cellar or something,” the conversation began.

“It’ll be someone nobody ever suspects – like on the news, they always interview the neighbours after and they’re like, ‘Oh, but he always seemed like such a nice, quiet man. Kept himself to himself—“

“That or he’ll be some weird loner, never had a girlfriend, frustrated ‘cos he can’t get it up, used to torture small animals when he was a kid…”

“What d’you reckon, Kylie – nice, quiet man, or weird loner?”

“Weird loner.”

“Bren?”

“Weird loner.”

“Ell?”

“I think this whole conversation is in really rather bad taste.”

“Yeah, but if you had to say, one or the other…?”

“Sigh. Weird loner.”

“What about Jim…?”

“Oh,” I remember my surprise. It was a long time since they’d included me in any of their bullshit. Maybe things were finally turning back around for me. I gave my reply some serious consideration. “I think he’s probably…”

“No, sorry, Jim – I wasn’t asking your opinion. I merely meant to suggest – well, y’know, ‘weird loner’…”

They all laughed and I tried to do the same. I tried to join in.

The next morning, those same two words, blu-tacked onto my monitor. I was to hear them again and again that day, and for the rest of the week, on into the next month… I heard them, until I stopped hearing them. And then they caught him. Godrich. Snagged his jacket in the chainlink, and while he was struggling to get loose, Shelly Morgan started screaming. They say you could hear her in Batley. By next morning, the police had that whole place cordoned off. Yellow tape and white tents. “A local man was helping them with their enquiries.”

“Didn’t expect to see you in today, Jim!”

“That place’s on your way home, isn’t it, Jimbo?”

“Now, you’re not going to jump bail on us, are you, Jimmy? We’d hate to have to call in Colt Severs and that Howie Munson and…”

After a while, the jokes grew old and the jokers moved on, moved up. New scowls took their place; new scandals caught their interest. They forgot all about me. I never thought the day would come when I’d look back on the attention they’d given me then and think… well, at least it was attention.

At least the people here, those seventeen women, and all the men who arrived before them – they don’t ignore me. Yes, they scream and they throw things and they dribble goo down the walls – but unlike my former colleagues, these people have good reason. To be cold and hateful. To be angry. Besides, their animosity isn’t only directed at me, they’re like this with everyone. None of the local kids will play here. Even the hard ones make excuses and head off down the rec. The frozen tramp from ’97 makes sure all the other homeless keep clear. And when those developers came to look the place over last Spring… they didn’t stay long at all.

“I just don’t like the way this place feels.”

“We’d never sell anything we built here. Too much history. This place, this place is…”

“Let’s just get out of here. I don’t… I don’t like it. I really don’t like it here at all.”

Of course, they tried it on with me too, my new housemates; they just didn’t get the response they expected. Before I left the office, the things I worked with, they hadn’t even cared to take the piss anymore. At least while they were doing that, I felt included. I was a laughing stock, yeah, but I was their laughing stock. I was part of something. But like I say, that afternoon I passed out at my desk – that was all I could take. There comes a time where you have to ask yourself – what am I doing all this for? Working all these hours, just to pay off the mortgage, just to pay the bills, just to keep my car on the road. What if I didn’t have to do that anymore? What if I liquidated those assets, what if I found some place to live where I didn’t have to pay a thing? If all I needed was food, occasionally some clothes, a couple of bottles of JD a week… the money could last me for years. I could spend my days in the library, reading and surfing the internet. I could eat out whenever I wanted before walking back to my rent-free, tax-free, bill-free abode, climbing in through the broken boarding on the old canteen window, and heading on down to the vat room where the blankets were piled high…

Yeah, I thought, I might be lonely here – but I couldn’t be any lonelier than I was back at Pearson’s. If only I’d known… it’s so much easier to be by yourself in a cold, deserted factory – than in an office full of warm, laughing ghosts.

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Rol Hirst was the first man in space from Huddersfield. The Russians still beat him up there.

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