DarknessFalls

Storybook | Game

Champion Street Courts

Had there ever been a champion, Father Michael wondered as he drove. Some forgotten son of Darkness Falls honored with a faceless stretch of pot holled tarmac? If there had he was long gone now, and whatever glories his street may have had were gone with him. Nowadays Champion Street stretched abandoned, parallel to the river and the old docks. Lined by the towering brick faces of bonded warehouses, long since obsolete, on the river side, and a line of failed and failing businesses on the other. Champion Street was just a way of getting in and out of the centre with no good reason to stop. The cars behind him jostled impatiently as he took his time, stayed on the speed limit, looked around him at the startling deadness of his surroundings. Eventually cars started overtaking him, speeding off. He pulled over, parked and got out.

He’d taken on the job two months ago and was still struggling to make sense of it all. The Docks and Harbor Company had built houses all along the shoreline for its workforce. The depression of the ‘30s had forced them to enter into partnership managing the houses. The Church had stepped in as a partner and taken over the day to day management of this part of their estates. It was a complex arrangement of arms length trading companies and seconded labor but he got all that; the modern church was nothing if not a business. Land and property had always been central to its interests and Father Michael was perfectly comfortable with the management of both. It was after all why he’d applied for and been given the job after Father Peter’s unfortunate demise.

What he didn’t get was just how Father Peter had been able to hold onto the job for so long - the man had been well over eighty - and just how he’d managed to conduct his affairs so unscrutinised. That last one might not have been such a mystery; he’d met them only twice but the board of directors that managed these houses looked to be older than Father Peter bless them, and they’d shown no interest in anything but the lunch he’d laid on. Father Peter had had a free hand and, two months in and yet to be asked for any kind of progress report, Father Micheal was pretty sure he would too.

He walked along the front of the warehouses. They were enormous, towering over him, solid, massive, walls built thick enough to be fireproof and barely a door or window in them. It was like some great Medieval fortress glowering down at him. The roads between were little more than lanes, wide enough to take a cart but they’d struggle with a car and god help them if they needed to get a fire engine down one. On the opposite side of Champion Street a neglected looking corner store offered cigarettes in faded lettering. It wasn’t a brand Michael was familiar with, he wondered if they still made them at all. On this side he reached a corner and looked to the end. There, at most a hundred feet from him, was the dock wall. Fire break and theft prevention it was solid brick and forty feet high, a heavy wood and iron gate in an archway at the end barred and shut. There would have been glass cemented in along the top of the wall but that should have been taken away years ago. And crammed in between the looming brick of the warehouses, the back even more forbidding than the front, and the wall of the docks, were houses. Amazingly the Docks and Harbour Company had built houses in this dark, bizarre little space, and, to Michael’s mind even more amazingly, apparently they were occupied.

 

#

 

Stepping into Father Peter’s office for the first time had been like stepping into the 1940s. Yellowing papers crammed into wooden filing cabinets, an old Bakelite phone sitting next to an enormous manual typewriter. The place had stunk of old man, tobacco and decay. It had taken Michael the better part of two months to even begin to establish some kind of order. The phone had come in useful; Father Peter may have been a law unto himself and his management board content to leave him to it, but Michael had made an ally in Father Sebastian, a genial if, to Michael’s mind, rather lazy priest in charge of estates not too dissimilar to his own. And he’d known Father Peter, which helped.

Michael had been sitting on the floor one day, there being no other surface big enough to spread out the papers he needed to organise, when the phone had rung.

“Michael,” Father Sebastian’s voice had sounded cheerful and as always a little too loud, "I'm just checking up on you, make sure you haven't been buried under a mountain of old tenancy agreements."

Michael laughed. “You think you're joking,” he said, “feck you should see the place I swear he threw nothing away in sixty years.”

“Oh I can well believe it. And the amazing thing is he'll have known where everything was.”

Michael looked around at the cubic yardage of paper that surrounded him and sincerely doubted it. But he said nothing. “Hey,” he said, “I'm trying to get a handle on the stock condition survey. I was looking through the old Fit to Live paperwork. Big refurbishment program, give everyone modern bathrooms and kitchens right?”

“Right. Early 1970s I remember. God we had some dreadful stock back then. Little before my time but I remember the tail end of it. Why do you ask?”

“Because I'm looking at paperwork that dates from then and it's mentioning that the work wasn't done in Champion Street Courts. My first question is why not and when was the work finally carried out and why can't I find the paperwork?”

Sebastian was quiet. “Well,” he said finally, “leaving aside the pedantry that that's actually three questions, the work wasn't carried out because the residents of Champion Street Courts wouldn't let the workmen in. When workmen tried to get in they were met with a fair bit of hostility and that's actually the answer to your second and third questions. You can't find the paperwork for the refurbishment work because the refurbishment work was never done. To the best of our knowledge those houses still have the original fixtures and fittings they had when they were built in the 1850s.'

Michael sat, stunned. “To the best of our knowledge?” he said, “you mean we don't know?”

“No.”

“Father Peter never made visits?”

“No.”

“There's been no stock condition survey, no tenancy reassignments in over thirty years?”

“No.”

“What about repairs?”

“Well Michael, it's not my patch you understand so I don't know all the ins and outs of it but I'd be willing to wager there hasn't been a repair call raised to Champion Street Courts in a very long while.”

Michael stared around him in disbelief. “Seb?” he said, “I'm going to call you back.”

Repair services had been awarded to an arms-length subsidiary of the original Docks and Harbor Housing Company. But local offices dealt with the repair company through central accounting, so a request form had to be filled out and sent to head office who would then authorise the repair and engage the repair company to carry it out. The repair company would then invoice head office who would then send a notice to the local housing office to ask them if the repair had been done. The local office would then fill out a form in triplicate confirming that yes, the work had been done, sending one copy to head office, one to the repair contractor and keeping one for itself. Then head office would settle the invoice and the repair contractor would send two receipts. Head office would keep one and send the other to the local office for its records. It was Byzantine, ridiculously overcomplicated and generated mountains of paper but it meant that nothing happened, not a light bulb was changed, not a tap washer was looked at, without leaving a paper trail. It took Michael all afternoon to satisfy himself that nowhere, not in the house files, the tenancy files, not in the crates of miscellaneous paperwork Father Peter had kept, nowhere, in files dating back to the 1950s, was there a single repair request for Champion Street Courts. Not one. But people had been living there in the 1970s and, presumably, people were living there now. He sat surrounded by house files, and phoned.

“Seb.”

“Michael you sound concerned, are you alright?”

Michael told him. Father Sebastian sounded amused.

“Look,” he said, “I wouldn't worry about it. They're an independent bunch down there, keep themselves to themselves. They pay the rent, they don't cause trouble, god only knows no-one else would want those houses, an old saying about sleeping dogs comes to mind.”

Michael rifled through housing files. “Seb do you realise that there is a tenancy here that has been in the same name – the same guy – since he moved in in April 1919? That man has lived there continuously for nearly a century.”

Sebastian laughed. “He'll be long gone. His son'll have taken it, then his son. Michael they pay their rent and don't cause bother, and have you seen Champion Street Courts?”

“No I haven't.”

“Ah well there you are then, go and have a look at it. Just don't expect a warm welcome.”

“Well of course that was my next question.”

“Oh yes?”

“Sebastian, where the hell is it?”

 

#

 

The stonework was black. Clean air ordinances and the end of coal powered steamers had cleared the air, but not before it had stained the brickwork soot dark. Father Michael walked slowly down the... street was the wrong word, this was a lane, bounded on both sides by brick walls. He had to crane his head back to see the roofs on top and realise that these were in fact houses. There was nothing; behind him the traffic of Champion Street roared past oblivious to his presence, ahead of him the heavy gate had been barred long enough for the locks to rust. To either side of him blank stone walls rose three stories high. And there was nothing, no windows, no doors, nothing but the roofs and chimneys on top to indicate that these were houses. And no way off this dark and narrow little street except for narrower alleyways snaking away into gloom.

Michael looked at the nearest alleyway with trepidation. This was inner city housing, a notoriously secretive and reclusive population and it looked like the only way of saying hello was going to be to walk, literally, up a blind alley. Like the rest of his colleagues he wore standard street clothes, no dog collar. Mind you in these sort of circumstances there was no guarantee it would help. Michael shook his head, sent a quick prayer skywards and stepped into the alleyway.

He stepped out into the 19th century. Courts. They were, quite literally courts. At one time the staple housing of the urban poor, houses were crammed five or six around a courtyard no bigger than a living room. There wasn't one here but there'd have been a pump in the courtyard for water, a nightsoil closet into which people would dump the contents of their chamber pots would suffice for sewerage. And the houses... of course he'd seen no windows or doors; these were back-to-backs, a normal house split in two. They had no windows on the back of the house because the back of the house was another house. The rooms were tiny, sound proofing and privacy non-existent; you could virtually put your hand out of your living room window and shake hands with the people opposite. He looked around himself, marvelling. He'd read about them in books of course; horror stories of epidemics and overcrowding; whole families in rooms little bigger than a modern closet but the last of them had, in theory, been demolished decades ago. He stared shamelessly, regretted not bringing a camera, then looked for the way onwards.

More alleyways. Alleyways led off between the houses, presumably to other courts. The place was a maze and it was silent. Regretting the rudeness Michael looked in through windows. They were occupied alright; heirlooms and knicknacks occupied shelves, rooms were clean, in one a teacup sat on a table. Outside in the courtyard a tin bath hung from a nail, clothes fluttered from clothes lines. But there was no-one. The place was utterly deserted.

He knocked on a door. “Hello?” His voice sounded echoing, lonely in the silence. The high buildings crammed together, shut out the noise of Champion Street and most of the light. He realised that it must be constant gloom in these yards, even in summer they lived in twilight. It was no place to live. Yet people did live here, had fought to live here. He called again. “Hello?”

“You lost?”

He whirled around, childishly startled by the voice. The woman looking at him was about his own age with large, curious, eyes. She was not conventionally pretty; she was relatively short, powerfully built, broad across her rounded shoulders and her dark hair lay lank on her round skull. She was deathly pale. She wore a simple cotton dress stretched tight over broad hips and large breasts. She looked, Michael thought, like a fertility statue he'd seen in a museum. But her eyes were open and unthreatening and she stood relaxed.

He grinned. “I'm sorry,” he said, “you startled me. I'm Michael, I'm your new housing manager, I thought I'd come and say hello, see if you need anything.”

She looked at him. “No, we're fine thank you,” she said.

“Oh, well hello then.”

“Hello.”

She continued to look at him. She didn't blink very often, Michael noticed, and it was making him uncomfortable.

“I'll just take a look around then,” he said, “remarkable buildings. You lived here all your life?”

“Yes.”

Michael thought she looked uncomfortable but intrigued.

She frowned. “The old priest?”

“Passed on I'm afraid. He was over eighty though, should have retired years ago.”

She nodded. “Didn't like him,” she said, “but he didn't come round much. What you looking for?”

“Repairs mostly; it's our job to make sure your houses are safe to live in.”

“We fix stuff ourselves.”

“Yes, I assumed that would be the case. Really we should do it; you're paying for it in your rent and we should be making sure that work is done properly.”

“We're good at fixing stuff.”

“I believe it.” He smiled. Suddenly, as rare as rain on a desert, a smile burst across her face. Instantly she blushed and dropped her gaze. Michael felt embarrassed.

“Perhaps you'd like to show me around,” he said.

She shrugged slightly. “Sure,” she said, “but there's nothing to see, it's all like this.”

“Then I will enjoy your company anyway,” he said.

Her eyes locked back on his. Her face resumed its impassive smile but not before a look flashed across it. It was his turn to blush.

She stuck out her hand. The gesture was so unexpected that for a moment he stared at it dully.

“Pleased to meet you,” she said.

He took her hand. It was clammy, large and strong. He wondered how much of their chores these people still did by hand.

“Pleased to meet you....?”

She stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment then giggled.

“Miriam,” she said, “my name is Miriam.”

Michael smiled. “I'm pleased to meet you Miriam”, he said “my name is -”

“Michael,” she smiled, “you said.”

Michael became aware that they were still holding hands. He let go.

“Right. Tour. Shall we?”

 

#

 

She had to keep stopping. She was as familiar with these cramped alleyways as Michael was with the inside of his own home and clearly wasn’t used to showing strangers around. She was right of course; the whole estate, if you could call it that, was built to the exact same template; every court identical, all linked by narrow alleyways that curved and dipped to compensate for the slope of the land. Everywhere were small clues of occupation; washing on lines, plants on windowsills, although providence alone knew what would grow at the bottom of these brick chasms. And nowhere, nowhere were there people.

“Is there no-one about?” Michael was panting slightly; Miriam set quite a pace. He stood, trying to survey by eye. She was right about the repairs; he examined the windows of a nearby house. They looked to be old sash window frames, consistent with mid 19th century building, but there wasn’t a trace of decay in any of them; they were all well painted and so far he hadn’t seen a cracked or broken pane. He squinted upwards at the startlingly blue sky, tried to get a clear look at the guttering. Someone moved in one of the upper rooms, hurriedly and awkwardly. Conscious that he might be disturbing them in their bedroom, Michael looked away.

“I guess folks are just shy,” Miriam was standing beside him. “Don’t get on much with strangers.”

Michael smiled in an attempt to clear the awkwardness he felt. It didn’t entirely work. “Well there’s no need to be shy,” he said, “I’m not here to hurt anyone and I’d like to think I’m approachable.”

Miriam smiled back. Michael grew aware of just how close these cramped little courts were making them stand. “It’s just their way,” she said, they don’t mean nothing by it.”

The only way out without brushing against her was back the way they’d come. Michael turned. “So where do your children go to school?”

Miriam followed. “We got our own school,” she said.

“So they’re homeschooled?” Michael stopped in surprise. “All of them?”

“I guess. We do ok. It’s a good school, I teach there sometimes.”

“Then I’m sure it's an excellent school. You’ll have to let me visit sometime.”

“No.”

She said it with no malice at all, just a friendly fact, no you will never visit the school. Michael tried another tack.

“So do you go to church?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, which one?”

“We got our own church.”

“Really? That sounds splendid. Who’s the priest?”

“We got our own priest.”

“Well may I see it?”

“No.”

No surprise there, thought Michael. Well, I suppose a hundred years of solitude can do that to people.

“So you, where do you live?”

“Nearby.”

“May I see where you live?”

“Sure.”

She led him off through the courts, Michael had two, rather uncomfortable thoughts. The first was that if she left him now he would have absolutely no idea how to get out; he could wander for hours through cramped little alleyways and dark little courtyards and stumble on a road only by accident. The second was that in reality he had no idea how much of the Courts she had actually shown him; they might have spent the time wandering around the same four or five. The small landmarks he had identified were very small indeed. In the end a plant was a plant, laundry was laundry. There was simply no way of knowing.

As he was thinking that they burst across the very lane he’d entered by. He suppressed an idiot urge to run; back out onto the relative life of Champion Street. Grey grimy abandoned but altogether healthier than this. But Miriam had already vanished into an alleyway and Michael followed her on.

The house was identical to the rest. Scrupulously clean, neat. To his surprise the kitchen was on the ground floor; court houses had generally had their kitchens in the basement. Perhaps the groundwater was too high this close to the river to allow basements. Either way Miriam busied herself with a copper kettle, polished to a shine, on a cooking range that looked antique but in perfect condition. Michael looked around himself.

It was like a doll’s house; no more than ten feet deep and every single window opening out onto the courtyard. At the back of each room a single layer of brick separated them from the house behind. It was no soundproofing at all, and the occupants of these houses would have regarded privacy as a rare luxury. God only knew how involved in each other’s lives they were, these houses came from a time when entire families lived and slept in one room and still managed to conceive more children. It had been another world.

The kettle was boiling. Miriam poured the water into a china teapot. The best tea service. As a young deacon Michael had grown used to it; the visit from the priest always meant the best china. And the stilted conversation. Rather like now in fact. The two of them sat in awkward silence. Finally, in desperation, Michael asked “so, what do you teach?”

“Whatever they need.”

“Ah, so you’re a bit of a polymath?”

She grinned. “I just help out. We got a range of people. Like I say, we do ok.”

Michael nodded, sipped his tea, wondered just what the feck it was about this bizarre bloody woman that made him so tongue tied.

“So what made you become a priest?”

It was her manner. Open eyes; relaxed, utterly unafraid of what she was saying. He was disarmed.

“I wanted to do good,” he said, “I wanted a life worth living. And I’ve always had a sense that there was more to the world than met the eye, even after you allow for the marvels of science - which I do believe in by the way. There was - is - more. I’ve always sensed it. And I’ve met people on many paths and I have nothing but respect for them but I always felt that the Church was the right path for me.”

“That’s an argument for faith, not priesthood. Why a priest?”

Damn the woman, Michael felt too far in to stop. “Because..... because it was always there I suppose. I come from an Irish family, it’s a huge thing in the culture to have a priest in the family; virtually guarantees your ticket to heaven. Feck you can do anything you like, give a son to the seminary and salvation’s yours.”

She laughed, it was a pleasant sound, Michael smiled. “So I did. I became a priest. My grandmother wept with pride at my ordination. My father, God rest him, asked me if this was what I really wanted. I looked him in the eye and said yes.”

“Did you mean it?”

“At the time, yes.”

“And now?”

“And now a lot of years have passed and I am a housing manager for an estate management company and a crusty old bachelor to boot. And boring the pants off a tenant with my old personal stuff. Which is very unprofessional of me. If anything I should be asking about you.”

She laughed. “I don’t mind, and I don’t mind you asking about me. Ask me anything you want. I’ll answer.”

A loud thump sounded from upstairs. It sounded like it was coming from the room immediately above, but in these houses it could be in the attic. Hell in these houses it could be next door. Miriam knew better. “Grandma.” She took Michael’s teacup out of his hands. “You need to go.”

“Is there a problem?” Michael rose. “Perhaps I could meet her, put her mind at rest. I may even have a dog collar in-”

Miriam was ushering him firmly toward the door. “She likes to walk around the house naked. She don’t want no stranger seeing her like that and trust me you don’t want to see her.”

Grandma’s steps were getting closer. For a naked old lady her step was heavy. He let Miriam usher him out and guide him through the alleyways.

“May I come back?” Miriam was flustered, a more ruthless man could have used this time to pump her for information. But Michael had no wish to be evil, their trust was important, a repeat visit would do fine.

Miriam turned just enough for him to see her smile. “Sure, if you want to.”

“Good.” They emerged into the lane; Michael could see his car at the top. “So I’ll-”

But she was already gone.

 

#

 

“You are fecking joking. You are, you are fecking kidding me.” Michael had to hold the phone away from his ear, Father Sebastian was so loud. “So what are they like? Is it true they all look alike? Did you check for tails? Peter was convinced they had tails.”

Michael laughed. “Seb, for pity’s sake I met one of them and she was very polite. She showed me around and then we had a cup of tea. Well nearly, grandma turned up and I had to scarper. It was like being back at school on a date.”

“So you saw two of them?”

“No, grandma I just heard, apparently she likes to walk the house in the buff, so I was ushered out pretty sharpish to spare the blushes on both of us. And the good lord forgive me but I don’t want to be finding out what a naked old lady blushes with.”

Seb laughed loudly down the phone. “That would have been a sight indeed. By God in those houses she must have been visible to the whole court.”

“I suppose she must. It’s not the most conducive environment for modesty.”

“And they’ve been marrying and intermarrying for over a hundred years. Feck they’re probably all blood related every which way to Wednesday by now. Are you sure you didn’t notice a tail?”

“I did not notice a tail. Miriam was very polite and I didn’t feel it gentlemanly to ask about hereditary birth defects.”

“Miriam is it? First name terms was it?”

“It was, and like I said she was very polite.”

“What was her surname? We can look her up on this spanky new computer they keep trying to make us use.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well what’s her address?”

“I-” Michael stopped. He hadn’t noticed, but there had been no numbers on the doors, no name plates on the courts. They didn’t have names. The people didn’t have addresses. Michael could feel Seb’s incredulity as he told him.

“You know,” said Seb, “in one sense I’m loving every second of it. Hell you have to admit it’s a brilliant story, and those houses are like a relic out of time; I’m not sure they’ve survived anywhere else in the country outside a couple of museum recreations. But on the other hand it is fecking mad isn’t it?”

“Isn’t it? And those houses are so high, and it’s so dark down there... I couldn’t see the roofs at all, I have absolutely no idea what they’re like, what condition they’re in. I checked for damp staining, couldn’t see any so I’m guessing the guttering is doing its job but that’s all it is; guesswork. But shy of hiring a helicopter to fly over the place...”

“Oh, did she show you the church?”

“No, she was quite adamant that she wouldn’t.”

“Really? She must be a bit defensive about it, you being clergy and all. Pity I’m told it’s a hell of a building, wouldn’t mind seeing it myself.”

“I was going to ask about that. She said they have their own priest?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me, wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. They do everything else themselves so why not that as well. It was an old Seaman’s Mission you know. Supposed to be splendid, Gothic architecture, all gloomy and arched. You didn’t even walk past it?”

“Seb for all I knew she led me in a circle. Have you been down there? I swear it is a maze. Where is it anyway?”

“The Mission? I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never been there. Deconsecrated in the thirties, even the Church had to tighten its belt. There were guide books, originally. There would have been church guides. It’ll be on that Google maps thing, that’s got aerial photographs. Hell you can do your roof survey on it.”

“You’d have me do a house survey on an Internet search engine? Seb you are incorrigible.”

“Oh I am that, but you said yourself, short of hiring a helicopter...”

He had a point, and a minute or two later Michael had the rooftops of Champion Street Courts on his computer screen. It was indeed a maze. Narrow courts, the bottoms lost in darkness, alleyways twisting off seemingly at random. Without a guide he’d have been hopelessly lost.

The Mission was easily findable; a solid block of slate, no tower, what looked like Gothic grotesques dotted around the edge. It certainly looked impressive. Michael frowned and leaned forward. The photographs were fuzzy, and in common with the rest of the Courts the bottom was obscured in darkness, but there was a shape. He zoomed in until the picture was more fuzz than image, cursed his lack of knowledge with computers. The ground around the mission was near lost in gloom but there was definitely a figure either coming in or going out it was near impossible to tell. And whoever it was he or she was wearing a costume? A hat? The head was distorted, broad and flat, the figure looked to be hunching down, shadows or something making it seem impossibly wide. And behind it it was dragging something. Or there was a shadow. Or something.

Michael sat up from the monitor cursing. He rubbed his eyes and cursed himself for a fool. What was he expecting, monsters? It was most certainly a person down there, he was most likely carrying out building work or spraying weeds. They did all their own repairs. And they always paid their rent on time.

They always paid their rent on time. Michael clicked through the online management system that they’d spent days teaching him and Father Peter had clearly never used. On the system the Courts had been numbered, although it looked like no-one had bothered telling the occupants that. And on the system each property had a rent account.

The first house he looked at was having its rent paid from a bank account. Direct payment, one month in advance. So was the second. And the third. And the fourth. Michael dug deeper, jotted down the bank details of the paying account. Compared them to the next house. And the next.

The light grew gray in his office, rain drops started tapping on the window. Ordinarily he’d have got up and turned the light on it was so dark. But not today. Today he sat there in the light of the computer monitor and worked his way through every account. He wasn’t sure what house each number referred to and he was pretty sure no-one did. But every rent was being paid. Every single one. From the same account.

He went back to the grainy image of the mission, stared at it some more. Ok, so an entire estate was working together, in aggressive secret, on something lucrative enough to cover the rent of every single house. The whole estate. Michael stared at the figure half in half out of shadow. Was that something he was dragging behind him? Could that be a diving suit?

The whole thing was starting to make his head hurt, and in the gloom he could see messages flashing on his answering machine, messages from other tenants in less mysterious housing. He should deal with them, see if any of them were emergency repairs, but emergencies would have used the emergency line, gone straight to head office. His head hurt, the rest could wait.

He went home.

 

#

 

It was baking hot. Michael stood in front of the open window of his bedroom. He had an air conditioning unit that wheezed and cranked and pumped out air marginally cooler than the air that fed in but he couldn’t sleep with the noise.

He couldn’t sleep at all. He’d taken off his pyjama jacket that had been sticking to him with the sweat and was seriously considering taking off the bottoms as well but the headlines kept flashing in front of him, priest caught flashing in front of his bedroom window. His room was at the back of the rectory, nothing outside his window but the garden and the wall, trees obscuring the houses behind. It was very unlikely anyone would see him unless they were making a real effort to.

He found himself wishing for a view, something to look at, a flavor of the city. At the front there was the carpark and a quiet suburban street that got the occasional taxi down it this time of night, out the back he got the garden. And, if he could stand it, the whir and crank of the air conditioning.

He looked back into the room. He had work piled by his bed, reports from contractors and head office, letters from tenants. There was surprisingly little bad behavior. But an almighty turnover. People seemed to abandon their homes on a whim. They were lucky to hold a tenant for more than a year. Micheal could appreciate why Father Sebastian valued the stable and uncomplaining tenants of Champion Street Courts. If he’d been older Michael was sure he’d appreciate them too, but it didn’t add up. It was just too almightily odd.

He picked up the tv remote and flicked through a few channels. It wasn’t that late, wasn’t even eleven but the basic package the diocese had begrudgingly provided was already showing infomercials and old black and white programs. He watched, disinterested, the sweat dripping down him, as a strange orange-skinned woman tried to convince him that an even stranger contraption would give him rock hard abs. Or clean his oven, it was hard to tell. He’d stopped watching the tv and turned his attention back to the garden long before he thought to turn it off.

In the dark of the room he watched the garden, listened to the night, half wished he still smoked. This would be a grand time to smoke; sitting in the window, blowing the smoke out into the night. He smiled at himself. There was no way he was going back to those things; the expense and the smell and if nothing else his housekeeper would murder him. Mrs Hanniman was a stern lady of formidable bosoms, gone home now to tend to her husband and her improbable number of grandchildren. At one time the rectory would have held the entire diocesan team, a parish priest, his assistants and a live in housekeeper. But time and the Church had changed and now Michael rattled about the place by himself until Mrs Hanniman came to make his breakfast and push a vacuum around at 7.30am on the dot. Hell he could walk about the place naked if he wished, a naked crazy priest, scaring the bejabus out of any burglars.

His thoughts turned to the Courts. He wondered what they were doing in there, on this close, hot night, shut away from the city in their own private little world. There’d be no air conditioning. He wasn’t even sure they had electricity and they’d not been dug up to lay a gas supply. They must still use fire for heating and cooking, but there’d been no complaints from the city about clean air violations. None that he could find at least. And a tin bath in the yard. All the courts he’d seen had had tin baths hanging from a nail in the wall. The kitchens he’d seen had been tiny and full of furniture. They must bathe in the yard, surrounded by the neighbours. Michael shook his head at the improbability of it all, although a thought of Miriam, water glistening on her body, lying there, nude, for anyone to stumble upon, for anyone to just turn a corner, stumble upon and see, flitted across his thoughts. He stopped himself, startled by the vividness of the image.

He looked back out into the night. There would have been guides Father Sebastian had said. There would have been a guide book. Not to the Courts themselves, the plans for them appeared to be long lost, but to the chapel, the mission. And parish records, of course there would have been the usual parish records. He’d have to dig them out, see if they were in the library -

There was a library here. He sat up sharply. The rectory had a library. A large one, big enough to fill a sizeable portion of the first floor, big enough for several priests to work on their sermons together. And it had an almighty amount of stuff dumped into it over the years; parish newsletters dating back decades, yearbooks from the diocese itself. And guidebooks.

Father Michael climbed down from the windowsill and padded out of his bedroom. In his haste and in the heat he wore only his pyjama bottoms, went without his slippers, the carpet of the landing coarse under his feet. The library was big and cluttered, and he spent nearly an hour searching the shelves. He felt his pulse race when he found it. Father Sebastian had been right; there was indeed a guide book for Champion Street Mission.

It looked ancient, smelled musty and the paper was yellowed. The cover showed an imposing building, shot from a low angle to enhance the effect. Michael sat at a desk, flicked on a table light, and began to read.

It had been a seaman’s mission, there even before the Courts themselves were built. As Michael turned the pages he read of the consecration in the 1830s, the long line of pastors who had held services there. There wouldn’t have been much in the way of christenings in a place like that, not until the Courts were built. Or weddings. Or funerals. Not with a body present anyway; memorials for those lost at sea were fairly standard.

He settled back, put his feet up on the desk. Mrs Hanniman would be scandalised, him being so uncouth and a holy father and all. She wouldn’t be too impressed by the heel marks on her good polishing either. Michael made a mental note to give the spot a bit of a rub before he went to bed.

Darkness lingered between the bookshelves, from the hallway a clock ticked. Once or twice he heard noises outside, but the garden was popular with local cats and even the odd possum. Unless he heard someone actively trying to break in he wasn’t going to get too concerned. The turning of the pages made a crackling that broke the silence of the library, made the silence seem all the more real. For a moment Michael felt himself getting spooked, surrounded by shadows and pools of dark. He laughed and shook his head. The rectory had seen deaths true, but they’d all been priests; any ghosts here would be on his side.

He turned a page to see a photograph of the Courts themselves. There were people, what looked to be a dozen or so, standing in front of the houses. The houses hadn’t changed at all. There was no date on the photo, but the men wore bowler hats and extravagant moustaches. Watch chains stretched across the front of waistcoats. The women wore what looked like calico dresses stared grim faced at the camera.

They all looked like Miriam. They all had that same broad build, large and heavy frame, their hair scraped back ruthlessly until it was hard to tell that they had hair at all. They looked a hard and weathered lot, and they all looked alike. Michael studied them. It could be a single family, not impossible. But then if the men and the women were husbands and wives they shouldn’t look alike. But they did. Michael read the text for clues but there were none. No indication of where the original tenants had come from. But there they were. The Courts had been built at the same time as the dock wall, thirty feet high, solid brick fire break as well as theft prevention. The warehouses had been there since the tobacco trade, nearly a hundred years before the building of the Courts. Those people had walked into those high dark chasms, cut off from the rest of the city and never come out.

But what of the mission? The wall would have cut off access from the docks. Michael had seen that the wall didn’t bend around it to include it into the dock but seamen would have had to be able to reach it, and the thought of filing through those dark and twisting Courts...

“special access was granted to the docklands for the purposes of worship.”

Special access? What special access? Michael’s eyes were starting to feel heavy. He could see the clock on the mantelshelf of the library fireplace reading nearly one o’clock. He groaned, Mrs Hanniman would be here all too soon. He got up, flicked off the light on the desk, leaving himself in darkness, and started for the stairs by the faint trace of streetlight coming in through the shutters.

He froze. At the far end of the library, the garden end, a shape moved. Michael’s eyes were adjusting to the dark and it was near impossible to see, but he could swear that outside in the garden, a large shape - far larger than any cat or possum - moved against the shutters. He approached cautiously, as quietly as he could. He wasn’t in bad shape but he was a nearly naked middle aged man armed with a pamphlet; less than ideal conditions to be confronting a burglar in.

He tiptoed to the shutters and peeked through a gap. Beyond the garden lay still and quiet. He waited for a full minute but nothing moved. Finally he went upstairs. Outside his bedroom window the garden lay, still quiet, still empty. He risked putting his head out to have a better look. He could see nothing, but a sense of being watched made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Despite the heat he closed his bedroom window. Eventually he slept.

 

#

 

The next few days were spent with the general business of housing. They were quiet for the most part. There were abandonments. Michael had never seen so many. People just seemed to take a dislike to the city on a whim and leave, often leaving their meagre sticks of furniture behind them. A city of drifters.

Complaints about noise. To be expected really, it was an ageing city, as folks got older they liked a more peaceful life. Michael sat nursing yet another cup of tea as Mrs Bertelli, a birdlike woman of over eighty, fussed and talked at him.

“We got the kids again father.” She pronounce it ‘fadder’ which put Michael in mind of a novelty song about a boy at summer camp he’d heard years before. He disguised his smile as a concerned frown as Mrs Bertelli forced another piece of cake on him. Ah tea, cake and biscuits. And always the good stuff, shop bought, only the best. The staple diet of the visiting priest. The good thing about whiskey and cigarettes, thought Michael, was that they at least stopped your average priest from dying of tea poisoning and diabetes.

“They run up here in their cars, I think they’re going to that Pirate’s Wharf with all the clubs and the music.”

They might well be, Mrs B’s home did lay on a street connecting main roads in that general direction. But short of persuading the city to stump up for traffic calming there wasn't a whole lot he could do. “I’ll have a word with the board,” he said, “see if we can get you some bollards.”

“Thank you father, you’re a kind man. Have another piece of cake.”

Michael looked at the piece already in his hand. He held it where Mrs Bertelli could see it. She smiled as if he’d accepted her offer and put the plate down. He looked around the room. It was scrupulously clean, covered in photographs. Mr Bertelli had been a handsome man. Not long dead, cancer if Michael remembered correctly. Four generations of Bertellis smiled down at him from various events and places. There was Mrs Bertelli herself, younger, dark haired, an attractive woman in what Michael guessed to be the early 1960s, maybe late 1950s, holding a baby in front of what looked to be Disneyworld. No Mr Bertelli, presumably he’d been behind the camera. A photo of a dark haired girl with a strong resemblance to Mr Bertelli smiled in her college cap and gown, degree in hand. And the young man with the resemblance to Mrs Bertelli, her grandson given the apparent age of the photograph, wore what looked to be a Marine Corps uniform.

The Bertellis had done well, out of this tiny little house. Now Mrs Bertelli lived here alone. They’d moved in as newlyweds just after the second world war. She’d been nineteen, her handsome young husband had been twenty two and just home from the fighting in Italy. Michael knew this because Mrs Bertelli had told him. Four times. A photograph caught his eye.

“Your husband worked on the docks?” It was a group photo, a bunch of men in rough work clothes standing in a loose bunch, a ship clearly visible behind them.

“He was a longshoreman from the day he got back until the day... he retired early when they closed the docks. They installed all that new container this and container that.” Michael had risen to look closer at the photo, Mrs Bertelli stood next to him. “Oh if he was still here, rest him father, he could tell you all about the machines and the way those poor men were just cast off, cast aside. It wasn’t right father, it wasn’t right.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. So he worked in the docks all those years?”

“From the day he came out of the army until the day they locked the gates on those poor men and just left them to rot, father, rot. Good men, gave their lives to those docks and they just locked them out. His father worked there before him, and his father before that. Generations father, generations of good men giving their lives to the Dock Company and they just threw them away, brushed them off.”

A thought formed. Before he could stop himself he heard himself say “Three generations And all good Catholics. Do you know if they ever worshipped at the Mission?”

“Which one? We got a lot of Missions father. When I was a girl the end of River Street was a forest of masts, and all the sailors would come ashore and-”

“I’m sorry Mrs Bertelli. The one in Champion Street Courts. The one behind the warehouses off Champion Street.”

Mrs Bertelli looked sour faced. “That old thing? That wasn’t a Mission that was a mausoleum. You’d get no welcome down there father, why they closed that... they closed that when I was still a girl. That’s a grim place, I’ve no use for it. Some of the men used to use the tunnel if the road was blocked by wagons or if it was raining-”

“The tunnel?”

“Yes, when they built the wall they cut the mission off from the dockland so the dock company built a tunnel from the docks to the church. Well of course when it was raining the men would use it to keep dry and it was safer than walking up the roads if they had coal wagons.”

“So there’s a tunnel from the Mission to the docks?”

“Yes I just told you that. You’ll be having me repeat myself. They built the wall, then they built the tunnel. I remember when I was a very young child my grandmother would take me to the warehouses sometimes to meet grandpa-”

“Oh so your grandpa worked there too?”

“Father everyone did. All the men anyways, not like now with women working all the jobs that come their way and still having to raise the kids. Back then the men took care of all the job stuff and we just got on with keeping the home. Grandma and me we wouldn’t go into the courts, they were dark and we weren’t welcome we knew that, but grandpa didn’t care; that tunnel was a shortcut and it kept him dry and it kept him away from the wagons on the roads.”

“Makes you wonder why they built it there really. I mean if it’s that far from the docks that they have to build a tunnel, and hidden away behind the warehouses.”

“Well of course the church was there first. And they couldn’t build warehouses there - grandpa said there were caves down there, pirate caves still full of pirate treasure.” Her eyes travelled to a yellowed photograph hung over the fireplace. “He was always full of stories. He could keep us entertained for hours. But he’s not the only one to say that - it used to be common knowledge, when they came to build the church they had to pick the site carefully because of the caves and they couldn’t build the warehouses there at all on account of the rock being too thin. Grandpa said that that’s why they were so surprised when the company built houses there.”

The houses with no basements, thought Michael. Thin, brick shells that hadn’t dared cut down into the rock. Now inhabited by people with a mysterious source of income and a powerful dislike of outsiders. Michael’s tea had gone cold and he still had rounds to make. Mrs Bertelli saw him to the door. “You come again father, you come any time you like.”

Michael suppressed a very unprofessional urge to kiss her on the cheek. White haired and dainty, standing on her scrubbed step in her beautifully kept home, he resisted the urge to pick her up and hug the woman. “I’ll see you again Mrs Bertolli. And I’ll see what I can do about those cars.”

Storybook | Game