“I’m a murderer, see?”
“Wasn’t it manslaughter?”
“Well. . .”
Gigantic Tony Clifford certainly looked like a murderer, with his huge muscular torso, shaven head and massive frame. The old-fashioned tattoo on his arm of a large anchor seemed somehow in keeping with our gloomy Victorian surroundings.
Murderer or not, I found myself liking Tony more and more. The phrase ‘gentle giant’ seemed to have been tailor-made for him.
We were walking along the long dark echoing corridors of what had once been Brierley town’s General Hospital, built in 1839. There was sludge-green linoleum on the floors, cracked yellowing paintwork on the walls and the smells and aura of centuries of human suffering seemed to be etched into the fabric of the awful place. Tony’s employer, AAA Demolition, had the contract to raze the building to the ground, and the derelict place had been an eyesore for five years now. As we walked I saw broken pipes sticking out of the ceiling, and nests of electrical wiring sprouting from plug sockets and green mildew climbing the walls. We turned left into the next section of seemingly endless corridors, and above an entrance it said ‘Halifax Ward’. Beyond the filthy pane of glass in the doors, the spider balanced in its web seemed to be laughing at us.
Knowing of my interest in the paranormal, Tony’s boss, my friend Alan Winter, had phoned me that morning, telling me about Tony’s alleged sighting of ‘The Angel’ here. The rest of the hard-hatted gang of guys from ‘AAA Demolition’ all around us weren’t interested in ghosts, they were too busy stripping out anything of value before the demolition cranes moved in.
The ‘Angel of Death’ was rumoured to be the spirit of a nurse in World War One uniform who was said to appear before patients who are on the point of death, coming to help them ‘cross over to the other side’.
“Thing is, Jamie,” Tony went on, “the man I killed, was my best mate, Sean. We had a fight, I can’t even remember what it was about. But I hit him—not even that hard—and he fell down and cracked his head on concrete, and he died. They sent me to prison for manslaughter, but I didn’t care about doing time. . .”
The big man’s voice began to tremble, and tears appeared in his eyes.
“. . . Because you see the real punishment, for me, has gone on ever since it happened, and It’s never going to stop. Okay, after I got out I found a job, I got no practical problems in my life, but that doesn’t alter the fact that I’ve killed my friend, and no one can ever change that. I think about it every single day.”
He extracted a filthy tissue from his pocket, wiped his eyes and blew his nose, embarrassed at his display of emotion.
“And even the fact that everyone knows it was just a terrible accident doesn’t alter things?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “I just wish I could do something to put things right. I even thought about volunteering to go out to a medical charity in a war zone or something, you know? Putting my own life at risk to save others. Maybe that would stop me remembering what I did to poor old Sean. Maybe if I could save just one person’s life, then I wouldn’t feel so worthless.”
“No one thinks you’re worthless Tony. Sean would understand.”
“But I killed my mate.” He was almost too overcome with emotion to speak.
We went down a narrow staircase and reached a door to the outside, the cold tiled floor echoing our footsteps. The chilly October air hit us when we exited the hospital, and I could hear the sounds of hammering and distant shouts of the men above us.
“So, Tony, tell me about seeing the Angel,” I asked him.
“Well, she was only there for a split second.” His face lit up with an expression of joy, his previous sorrow forgotten. “But in that second, time seemed to stand still.”
I’ve always known that imagination is a powerful force. The man was clearly an emotional wreck, and I could now see that this interview was a complete waste of time: just one more example of a confused sensitive person with mental troubles hallucinating under stress. He went on:
“She had this lovely face, or maybe it was her expression. When I looked at her I’ve never before felt such a warm feeling of love and peace in my life.”
“And she was in nurse’s uniform?”
“Dunno really. Big kind of hat thing, I think, sort of long dress.”
We walked in the afternoon twilight, beside the old brickwork of the tumbledown building, where workers strutted around, intent on their various tasks.
“She was just here.” He stopped and pointed towards an alcove in the wall. “That’s where I saw her.”
It happened suddenly.
There was a yelling from above. Then the terrible cracking sound. A few feet away a man was walking towards us, earphones plugged into his ears below his hardhat, oblivious to the danger.
Instinctively I backed away. But Tony charged towards his mate, arms outstretched, crashing his palms into the unwitting victim’s chest, barrelling him out of the way as the chimney above us came down. Tons of bricks and masonry exploded in a dust-filled mountain, completely burying Tony, while his dazed friend looked on.
As the dust cleared, everyone piled in, frantically tearing the rubble away from Tony’s body, even though we knew there was no hope.
So was the Angel of Death’s premonition fulfilled?
Funnily enough it happened to be me who pulled away the brick that was covering his face.
In death he was smiling.
And out of the corner of my eye I thought I could see the shadowy figure of a running woman, almost floating, leading an equally shadowy figure by the hand.
But it was only for a second.
I must have imagined it.
Or did I?
(photo courtesy of Steven Goddard, on pixabay)