The ghost behind the wal.., p.1
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1. Mahogany Villas
2. Exploring the Ducts
3. Mr. Alveston
4. Getting Bad
5. Mr. Alveston’s Apartment
6. The Social Worker
7. A Conversation with the Ghost
8. The Quick Mind of Sis Parkinson
9. The Second Ghost
12. The Closed Door
13. The Ghost and Mr. Alveston
Praise for Other Books by Melvin Burgess
About the Author
Eileen, Bill, Chloë, Annie, and Emily
His name was David and he was a bit of a brute, a tough. He was only four foot nothing and twelve years old. His other names were Bum Wipe, Half-boy, and Shorty. He usually ignored it, but once in a while he went mad and nearly killed someone.
He lived with his dad in a high, wide, redbrick building called Mahogany Villas. This building was ten stories high and you got up and down in a clanking elevator with brass doors. The long halls were painted cream and brown and floored with worn, dull, green vinyl tiles. It smelt of cigars and polish and it was the last place you’d think to find a ghost. The day David discovered you could get behind the walls was a Tuesday after school, when his dad worked late.
He was on a chair in the living room, watching TV, when something fell into the room. It was only a scrap of paper. It came from behind him and landed on the carpet; he caught it out of the corner of his eye. It scared him, because where did it come from? When he looked around, there was no one there. The only thing he could see was the ventilation grille screwed onto the wall.
David stared at this grille. He’d never even thought about it before; it was just there. Now he wondered about it. Where did it go? What was in there?
He pushed the sofa up against the wall and climbed up to have a look. It was dark in there, pitch black, and he knew at once that it was big enough for him to get inside if he wanted to. Of course, he didn’t want to. Why should anyone want to go creeping about like a rat in the intestines of the old building? But he was glad that grille was screwed into the wall so tightly, that was for sure, because that meant he couldn’t get in even if he did want to. Then, to his horror, David saw that the grille wasn’t screwed on at all. It was only the metal frame that held the grille that was screwed on. The grille itself was slid sideways into the frame.
David pushed the grille; it slid sideways with a sudden jerk and there he was, gazing into the dark heart of Mahogany Villas. His heart twisted and sank. He knew he was going to have to go in there.
It was always like that with David. If it was dangerous, he had to do it. For example, if he had some new toy that he liked very much, he used to hold it as loosely as he could between his fingers and dangle it out of the window. He lived on the fourth floor. Then he’d let his grip get lighter and lighter. He didn’t want to let go. The idea was that as soon as the thing slipped, he’d close his fingers and catch it. Mostly he did, but once in a while the thing would slip and be gone—off into the great drop all the way down to the ground.
He’d lost a lot of toys like that. He did it in the car, too—held his favorite things out of the window in the rush of air, just up to the point where the wind would rip them off him and throw them away. He’d done it to plastic fighting men, books, computer games, money, photographs of his mother, marbles, mugs, his dad’s glasses. But he’d never done it with his life before.…
That thought shocked him. His life? It wasn’t that dangerous in there—was it?
“It’s just metal tubes,” he told himself. They had once been used for air-conditioning, but that hadn’t worked for years. Why should the ventilation system hurt him? But then, who knew what was in there? There might be pits to fall in, sharp jags of metal, anything. He could get stuck and starve to death. But that wasn’t his real fear. The real reason was that David was certain the ducts were haunted.
As he stood there on the back of the sofa, staring into the dusty, greasy darkness, he could just imagine a cold, whispery voice snaking its way through the ducts toward him. It was a voice made of cobwebs, darkness, dust, and fear, and it was speaking to him.
“Come inside,” the voice was saying. “It’s dreadful in here. Come on in! You’re not scared, are you? You soon will be.…”
David imagined the ghost of Mahogany Villas rising up from the lowest pits of the system, filling up the ducts like water, rising higher, higher, until it began to creep along his duct to where he now stood.
He shook his head. This was ridiculous! It was just dark, that’s all. But it was very dark, and it was the very scariest kind of dark, too.
“I’m not scared,” whispered David to himself.
He got down from the sofa and went to the kitchen to get the flashlight from the drawer. Then he climbed back up to the duct and shone the light inside. All he could see was dust and the joints of the lengths of tube. No voices, no ghosts. He was still scared. He climbed inside.
The dust in there was sticky—not nice. But it was better with the light on. He thought—just as long as he didn’t go too far. Just as long as he kept sight of the square of light behind him that opened up into his own safe apartment.
He crawled a little farther in on his elbows. It was scary, but it was good as well. It was so secret. He paused a moment with just his feet sticking out into the living room, before he wriggled one more time and disappeared entirely into the wall.
At least nothing could creep up and get him from behind—not from his own apartment!
David wriggled on, another foot, then a bit more, then a bit more and the floor beneath him suddenly ended and he was staring down a pit, a terrifying pit that plunged down into an unearthly, bottomless darkness. He could so easily have fallen down! It was another duct, bigger than the one he was in. It tipped straight down farther than his flashlight could reach. He gulped and tingled all over with fear. The drop made him sick, but he couldn’t help himself. He took the flashlight between his fingers and dangled it over the edge. He let his grip go loose. The flashlight swung in between his fingers. How horrible it would be to have no light!
His grip grew weaker … weaker.… Then he shook his head and lifted the flashlight out before it slipped between his fingers.
Below him, the duct plunged down to the basement, and above him it went on up to the other six floors of Mahogany Villas. To each side, two more ducts branched off. They were running to the other apartments on the fourth floor. That meant that the ducts could take him anywhere he wanted to go in Mahogany Villas. He could go into other people’s apartments. He could steal things. He was a thief in the darkness. He could listen to everything they said. He could spy. He could go through all their most private things.
“My secret,” whispered David to himself in a ghostly voice. “My darkness. My power,” he said aloud. To have power! How nice to have the little people of Mahogany Villas in the palm of his hand!
In a sudden fit of fear, David began to push himself as fast as he could backward out of the ducts. He couldn’t even turn around. He shoved and pushed until his legs came out, then with one great heave, he fell feetfirst out of the g
* * *
David’s mother had left him and his dad, Terry, years ago. She’d been offered a job by a cousin of hers in South Carolina, USA. When she first went out there, there were plans for David and his dad to follow on in a month or two when things settled down. They were both looking forward to it, but she kept putting them off and putting them off. First she couldn’t find a place for them all to live, then she lost her job and had to get a new one. Then one day she revealed that she’d fallen in love with someone else and didn’t want to live with Terry anymore.
She still wanted David with her, though, and he wanted to go. But his dad wouldn’t let him. South Carolina was so far away that you could hardly ever see each other anymore. He was furious with his dad for not letting him go, but he was even more furious with his mother for deserting him. She could come back and get him! She could come home again if she wanted, and she would have if she wanted him badly enough. Her name was Topsy, and she sent him a parcel of clothes and toys and American money three or four times a year.
His dad, Terry, was an optician. When people asked him why he never got married again, he always joked that he was too ugly, but that he was working on a secret pair of glasses, rose-tinted glasses, that would make anyone who wore them fall in love with him at once.
“Then I can have my pick,” he used to say, and he’d smack his lips as if he was looking forward to eating something nice.
The truth was, David’s dad was shy. When he was testing people’s eyes, they would sometimes try to chat with him, but he never knew what to say. He’d just grunt and quickly get on with his work. Or he’d try to smile and answer them, but it came out all wrong and everyone would be embarrassed for him and wish they’d never said anything at all.
It took Terry ages to get to know people, but once he did make friends he really loved them and if they went away, it broke his heart. It broke his heart when his wife left him. And it broke his heart all over again every time David told him he wanted to live with his mum—which he did about six times a week to start with. He felt that David was the only thing in his life worth having, but he wasn’t very good at showing how much he loved him and all he ever seemed to do was worry and shout, worry and shout. David had got used to the fact that he wasn’t ever going to live with his mum again, but ever since she’d left, he’d been getting into worse and worse trouble at school.
When Terry came back from work that day, there was more trouble. David’s clothes were covered in filthy, greasy dust. “What happened to you?” his dad demanded.
“I don’t know,” lied David. He’d cleaned his hands and face and the sofa, but he hadn’t even noticed his clothes. In the end he had to pretend that he’d crawled into a trash can, because his dad insisted on an explanation. He was amazed that his dad believed him. He had to do the dishes after dinner as a punishment.
Exploring the Ducts
David began to dream about having a secret life in the ducts.
The people he could spy on! He could listen to what they said when they thought no one could hear them, watch what they did when they thought they were alone. He could discover his neighbors’ secrets. He could catch thieves, forgers, and murderers. He could be a hero. Who knew how many of his neighbors in Mahogany Villas were really criminals, pretending to live ordinary lives but actually forging twenty-pound notes or hoarding kidnapped children and stolen jewelry in their living rooms? Or he could come out of the vents and steal whatever he wanted and they wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.
“Ah can’t unnerstan’ where it’s goin’ to!” said David. He was imitating Mr. Hadrian, who lived two floors below and was always moaning about the cost of living.
Oh, you could be wicked, all right, if you had a secret life behind the walls. He thought about telling his friends about the ducts—but not yet. This was his secret. He wasn’t ready to share it. And there was another reason for keeping quiet. The vents were a tight fit; he doubted if any of his friends were small enough to squeeze in. He’d just get teased for being small again. Pavement Wiper, Short Ass, Bum Wipe! He hated all that.
These were wonderful thoughts, but somehow, in the back of his mind, David was sure it wasn’t going to happen. It was dreams. Dreams are no good if you admit that they aren’t likely to come true, but it was a bit like winning the lottery. It happened in newspapers and it happened in movies and books, but it never happened to you. Catching criminals? Spying, stealing in from the ducts, and carrying valuables away? Well, of course he’d do it, he’d do it all … sometime.
So one week went by, and then another. David began to forget all about the ducts. He might never have gone in there again, but then he got grounded for a week.
He and Tyne Williams had set off together after school. They didn’t hang around much together, but all the other kids had gone home and they didn’t have anywhere to go since they didn’t have parents at home—it was a Thursday, another of the days when Terry worked late. So they set off. They wandered across London as far as Kings Cross and hung about the tube, trying to spot prostitutes and drug dealers.
“Let’s cross the river,” said Tyne.
“Nah,” said David. “Too far.”
“Let’s go to Kilburn.”
So then they went to Kilburn. On the way back, after spending all that time together, Tyne suddenly started on David, nagging away about how short he was. He invented a new name, Clockwork, because David’s little leggies had to go so fast to keep up with everyone else. On and on he went. “All right, Clockwork? D’you want me to slow down, Clockwork? I’m going to tell everyone at school your new name.”
There was a fight in which David backed Tyne up to a skip and then ducked down, grabbed his knees, and upended him backward into the rubbish. There was glass at the bottom of the skip and Tyne cut his shoulder badly. It needed stitches. David ran home, leaving Tyne wailing and shrieking from inside the skip. They were both scared stiff because of the blood.
“Kings Cross,” seethed his dad. It was a very seedy area, which is why they’d gone. “Kilburn! Miles away! Fighting in the street, in the rubbish. Of course he got cut, of course skips are full of all sorts of sharp rubbish.”
“I didn’t know about the glass,” said David, not at all sorry. And so he got grounded for a week. That meant two hours after school each day before his dad got back and five hours on Tuesday and Thursday, with nothing to do.
* * *
David could have skived off the grounding most of the time since his dad wouldn’t be there, but he was sick of the kids at school. Tyne had told everyone about the new name, and it was Clockwork this and Clockwork that. The nice kids didn’t call him names, but although he liked some of the nice kids, he didn’t want to hang around with them. He wanted to hang around with the bad kids. So he got into a couple of fights, made sure he didn’t get caught, and went home straightaway without playing with anyone.
At home he watched TV on the first night, but already he was thinking about the world behind the walls. He knew he was going back in there sometime over the next week. Once he’d made up his mind, it happened quickly.
The next day he came home, ate a chocolate biscuit, drank some milk, and then straightaway pushed the sofa up against the wall. Before he climbed up, he went to change his clothes, so he wouldn’t have to explain about the dirt again. He took some fresh batteries for the flashlight out of the drawer and a pencil and paper to make a map of his travels. He went to the storage cupboard and brought out a piece of thick board that his dad had left over from making shelves. He knew what he was up to. He could think ahead if he wanted to. He’d been planning it all day.
Now he was ready. He got up on the back of the
He’d forgotten how dark it was. Deep dark, creepy dark. Once again he had a feeling that the darkness was haunted. It was as if the dark was alive.
Yet not for a moment did he consider not going in. That was David for you. Just because he was scared out of his wits, he had to do it.
He turned on the flashlight and the darkness disappeared.
“Right,” he muttered.
He picked up the piece of board from the sofa beside him, pushed it into the duct in front of him, and pulled himself up after it. Once his knees were up, he worked quickly, shoving it forward until the board lay over the big duct that led like the throat of the building, down to who knows where.
He’d brought the board in to cover the pit so that he wouldn’t fall down it. Also, if there was anything down there, maybe the board would keep it trapped. He didn’t think a piece of board would really stop anything from coming up, but then, he didn’t really believe in ghosts, either. But it felt better, anyway.
David sat for a while on the bridge he’d made, just doing nothing. It was thrilling. Underneath him was a bottomless pit with a living darkness in it, but it couldn’t get to him. He’d defeated the ghost—not that he believed in it—with his piece of thick board. After a while he got fed up just sitting there and decided to go exploring. He drew an arrow on the board to show the way home, even though he could see the light just behind him. Then he turned left and crawled off to explore the ducts.
That was scary, because it meant turning away out of sight of the apartment. There was a terrifying, sweaty crawl with his heart banging away inside him. He kept stopping to look back in case something was creeping up behind him. He hated not behind able to turn around. But it was worth it. He soon came to another offshoot from the main duct. He peered down it, and at the end there was another grille.
He’d found the way to his next-door neighbor, Mary Turner. She was a teacher, but she wouldn’t be back from work yet. He’d never been inside her apartment. He crawled quietly to the grille and peered in.