The Plettie (Part Two)
A change came into the play of the children on the landings after that night. Some knowledge crept into their collective consciousness, an antidote to innocence, that made them aware of the contents of the shadows now gradually creeping up on them through the long evenings. Their usual games were punctuated with make believe interludes that flirted with the rumour of the story of the long ago woman who had killed her children and herself. Some of the younger children fled indoors early due to the games that contained these ghosts. Larry would have been among them but for the residual fear that whatever was stalking the communal closes and alcoves would find him eventually indoors if he did not keep a look out for it on the landings.
Some of the older boys tried to test his bravery by saying they would tie him to the railings on the landing and let the mad woman come and tear his guts out. But he knew somehow, whatever they said, that he would be safe as long as he kept sentinel and looked out for the welfare of the plettie. Even the tough laddies with squashed noses and scars eventually tired of taking the mickey out of him, and, over the next few weeks, he lingered outside for some time after the last of them had departed indoors.
The woman was nearby at times, he was sure. He heard the dragging of limbs along the plettie directly below his own landing. When he peered down once through the railings to the distant back green in the deep shadows, the mixed intoxicating smell of cinders, cut grass and bleach from strung out washing made him dizzily withdraw, afraid of the awful height. As he did so there was a responsive sound from the plettie below which sounded like someone’s rasping mockery of a throaty laugh. Larry retreated indoors quickly after that. His stomach was full of tongue tied knots. Whatever walked the passages and alleyways had put the finger on him for some purpose and he felt a weird thrill at being recognised. To think of it afterwards, terrified in bed, being singled out by such a thing did not seem so alluring after all.
After two weeks the summer weather turned bad. An indistinct fog descended over the district and refused to budge. On the occasions when he ran errands to the shops for granny, the streets seemed merely grey and nondescript. But the higher you climbed in the tenement buildings, the more it seemed like the clouds had lowered permanently down on them, a foreboding sign from heaven. One night Larry was gloomily peered through the scullery window, watching tiny girls daintily pushing ramshackle prams up and down the plettie, skidding as they tottered on their big sisters’ shoes, and every so often tumbling over, ending up screaming at their misfortune. It was entertaining for a while, but the repetition soon rendered it tedious. Larry learnt through the building’s grapevine that the older laddies were gathering in the dark stairwells, planning something from which he had been definitely excluded. He noticed too that granny was preoccupied and seemed irritated by his presence. Her silence was punctuated by disturbing mutterings when she restlessly moved from room to room. And when she remained in one place she clicked knitting needles together, or sewed odd items of clothing that didn’t seem to warrant mending. The activity seemed to be her defence against unseen threats.
At the end of that week the sky moaned warning thunder and the hidden boys roared back into the building, bellowing about a great triumph they had achieved over the witch woman: cornered her on the cinder wasteland at the end of the street and pelted her with stones until the bitch was screaming like a banshee and the blood flowed down her mad grey hair. She tried to fight her way out of the stoning circle, but their only threw more and more rocks and bricks after her until she screamed in despair and vanished in a lightning bolt. They were going to go hunting her next week in the woods in the park where she had run away to.
But he knew that it was not the end of it. Something else happened the following week which he could not remember now, but the confusion was there at the time also. He seemed to remember the adults saying that the weather had broke, and he sadly wondered who could be responsible for so dastardly a crime. It made no sense to him: the fog, as far as he could see, was gone and a thick, treacly sunshine pervaded the evenings, so who could have broken the weather then? The heavy heat put a drowsy spell on him and made every thought and movement ponderous. On the plettie the children continued to play, but Larry sat in a drowse while they buzzed about him. Only the small boys and all the girls were left; he didn’t know or care what had happened to the bigger boys.
He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, but he couldn’t say what the object of his focus was supposed to be. Granny was too pre-occupied to call him in and some nights he stayed out far longer than anyone else, dozing in a nook on the plettie. She must have colluded with his bravado, or whatever it was, for once or twice he came shivering out of his doze to find himself alone in the tenement darkness wrapped in a tartan blanket which she must have put around his shoulders. He knew that his own presence in the darkness had a purpose and determined to stay out later each night. Looking back, he did not remember what he did with the days; one that they were a prelude to the tremendous, frightful evenings full of waiting. The last night he spent in the building was etched inside his head forever, even though he spent a lifetime denying it. He was alone on the plettie and opened his eyes from a doze into a heavy twilight that prevented him from moving. He heard granny inside the flat, a few feet away, mumbling a far reaching, unco prayer. A few words filtered through the walls, something like, ‘Can ye no stey awa, for god’s sake.’ Then the sickly breeze stole away her words and Larry realised anyway that she was too lost in her litany to come to his aid if he needed her.
He was too weak to move, magically bound to the fabric of the building. Through his physical connection to the plettie he a dozen of unstill sleepers shift uncomfortably in the night. As he waited he heard the underwater sounding chimes of Cox’s clock a mile away chant an ungodly hour. The stark realisation of the late hour made him feel ill. Far below, in the canyon streets, a few closing time drunks were singing their way home. But their songs were sporadic and soon ended by something oppressive in the night. Larry was left in silence, interrupted by a cloying wind that whined through the fissures in the building. In his mind he heard the wind rumble far away in Leerie Wood. Until now that place had been the most terrifying location on the planet. Now he felt mortally afraid of the exact spot he was sat in. He seemed to suffer a waiting period that extended into a hundred endless nights.
Then she moved and he saw her. No wonder she paused at the far end of the platform, having struggled up all the flights of stairs. The ascent was a struggle for those who were actually alive. Her eyes glittered with a vagrant light that ignited when they made contact with him. Then she began to make vague, shuffling progress along the plettie towards him. Larry thought of a snail moving; imagined football on a burning summer day; conjured up an ice lolly shaped like a rocket sliding down his throat; anything except for the thing intangibly encroaching on him. The body of the being was nothing but bladder wrack shadows, white limbs moving in and out, reaching forwards for him, or maybe just steadying progress.
Nae face on it, he said in his mind, and felt cheated. For sure there were curls of cobweb hair over white bone, and great bloody burning globe eyes. The mouth was trying to babble, but it was full of dust, spilling out. Pity about the neck as well, he thought as he saw it. A great half moon gouge dividing the throat from the shoulders. Larry felt a certain pity for the creature, though it was overwhelmed by the imminent dread of what it would likely do when it reached him. To be enveloped in its nothingness seemed a daft way to die.
Then his granny was standing there in between. He had the image of her, distorted, fixed in an odd position. Larry thought of John Wayne, for some bizarre reason. It seemed as if granny was approaching the woman, and that the woman knelt down. Granny put her hands on to the head of her for a moment. Then the head tilted back, almost fell off on its weak hinge of flesh, and granny with shaking hands drew her needle and thread across the gaping fissure until it was sewn and healed. Now the old woman fell back and the other rose up again.
Larry thought he was done for, because the woman fluttered for a moment towards him, unsure. He heard the breath re-enter the healed up windpipe. Then he heard it say something about ‘bairns’, and it swayed around in its weeds and rags and simply departed. He did not know how he managed to get back inside the flat. Like other things inside and outside his family, it was never mentioned again. But sometimes, in the few weeks he remained there, he heard the shifting movement in the close and the reverberation of the word it had not managed to gasp with its last breath, and he knew it was looking after the children on the pletties.