Authors: Gary McMahon
Simon was starting to feel drunk. He wasn’t used to drinking this much during the day, just the occasional half-bottle of wine over a lunch meeting, or a cocktail with clients. The strong beer was making him dizzy; his vision was blurred.
Before Simon had time to properly register his absence, Brendan returned with more drinks. “Get that down your neck,” he said, slamming down the glasses. “Our old mate Marty got involved with drugs, and he did a few jobs for a local gangster named Monty Bright. I’m not sure how much he was involved with that scumbag’s affairs, but when Bright’s gym burned down, with him in it, most people around here waved goodbye to bad rubbish.”
Simon tried to focus on the words. “Yeah... I heard about that. Someone sent me the news item, a page from the paper. I don’t know why, but whoever it is who sends me this stuff seems to think I’m still interested in what goes on in the Grove.”
“Maybe it’s Marty,” said Brendan. “It might be his way of keeping in touch, of trying to cling to the memory of the Three Amigos.”
Simon raised his head. “Hey, that’s a good point. I never thought of that. All this time, I just assumed it was you. We were best friends.”
Brendan put down his glass, gripping it tightly. “We were all best friends – the three of us. The fucking Three Amigos, remember? Best friends, until whatever happened that weekend tore us apart.”
Simon wasn’t sure how he felt about one of them speaking the thought aloud. It was true, of course it was, but he had not felt confident enough to vocalise what he thought. But clearly Brendan thought that way, too – and maybe Marty did, and that was why he’d been sending all that stuff, trying to keep the Amigos together, even in this small way.
“I need you to help me contact Marty,” he said, leaning across the table. “Don’t ask me how I know this, but I think it’s important that the three of us at least get into a room together and talk about the past. Even if it’s just for our own mental wellbeing, we need to sit down around a table and try to work through what happened back then.”
Brendan clenched his teeth. His face was thin, the colour fading from his cheeks. “This isn’t some Hollywood blockbuster, mate. We can’t re-form our little gang and slay the monster before running off into the sunset. That’s not how it works in the real world. The Three Amigos don’t exist anymore. I’m a broken-down, drink-dependent security guard, you’re a phoney little rich-boy with a chip on his shoulder, and Marty is a fucking maniac who’d probably break your neck if he ever saw you again...”
He bowed his head, letting go of his glass. “We’re not heroes. We can’t even stand the sight of each other.”
Simon tried to counter his remarks, but could think of nothing to say. Brendan was right. This was stupid. What the hell had he been thinking to even come here? “Do you want to know why I bought that place – the Needle?”
Brendan nodded. “Tell me,” he said, his voice low, a whisper.
“I bought it because I want to tear it down, brick by brick, timber by timber, bit by bit. I want to reduce that fucking building to its component parts, and then sift through them, looking for what we all lost. I want to find out what happened to us, so I can move on and put it behind me. I’m sick and tired of being haunted. I’m fed up of running away from my demons. Look at us – we’ve both been hamstrung by whatever happened twenty years ago, and neither of us has the slightest fucking idea what it was. What happened to us in there? What did we leave behind?” He felt hot tears running down his cheeks and wiped them away with the back of his hand. “What was taken from us?”
“I don’t know.” Brendan could not look him in the eye. He kept his head lowered, gazing at the stained tabletop. “I wish I did.”
“This place,” said Simon. His voice had taken on a strange hissing quality. He was speaking quietly, trying to make sure no one overhead him, but the rage had altered his tone. “It’s the place – the Concrete Grove. Have you never noticed how there’s always a strange atmosphere here, like a constant gas leak? And what about the streets? Even the layout of the estate is fucked. I mean, why is Grove Street West at the east end of the Grove? And why does Grove Drive West point north to south? It’s like someone was playing games, or the place has been flipped over so many times that the compass has lost all meaning. I remember several times, drunk and walking home, I would end up in a part of the Grove that I shouldn’t be in. Somehow, I’d get lost, even though I knew exactly where I was going...”
Brendan looked up. His eyes were filled with tears. “It’s just... just the Grove. The whole place is fucked. It’s like a town planner’s worst nightmare, or something.”
Simon pulled back; he’d already said too much. He could not risk pushing any harder, not yet. “I dunno, Brendan... really, I don’t. Nothing feels right here. It’s like confusion and anxiety is the natural mental state.”
“Okay,” said Brendan. “I’ll help you. We’ll go and see Marty. If it means that much to you, we can sort it out.”
Simon did not know how to respond.
“You and me, we’ll find out where he’s living and we’ll go round there, see if he’s willing to talk. What harm could it do, right?”
As Simon gazed deeply into Brendan’s eyes, he knew that his friend was lying. But for the life of him, he did not understand the nature of those lies, or what truths they were meant to hide.
RE YOU SURE
you want to do this now?” Brendan’s voice sounded dry and croaky, as if he’d smoked a whole packet of cigarettes in one sitting. “I mean, there’s no real need to do it now. We could wait until the morning, if you like.”
Simon shook his head. “I’ve waited twenty years to come back here and see this place again. If I don’t go in there now, I probably never will. But I can’t do it alone, not the first time anyway. We’re both here, so why not?”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
Simon increased his pace and drew level with Brendan. He’d been walking a couple of steps behind, taking in the gritty early evening atmosphere as he tried to sober up. “Yes, I’m sure.”
Brendan turned his head. His mouth was a grim line. “I’ve been in there hundreds of times now, and there’s nothing. I’m not sure what you’re expecting to find, but the place is empty. Empty of everything. There are no ghosts, no memories clinging to the walls or ceilings like bats. Just a lot of dust and filth and old drug workings.”
The two men walked a little way along the curve on the east side of Grove Road, and then crossed the road to enter a narrow, overgrown cut between gardens that led on to Grove Crescent. The east side of the estate was the roughest part; the worst kind of scumbags lived here. The west side was relatively peaceful, and many of the residents along the roads that skirted the Embankment – including Brendan’s street – were honest, hard-working families. But here, on the opposite end of the Grove, the rules were not as clear cut.
Grove Street itself was wrapped in a kind of murky haze; the streetlight at the end of the short road had been vandalised. It was still early, and the sky offered some brightness, but the other lights around the estate were already coming on, illuminating the corners of this strange world in a frantic effort to beat the oncoming night. Simon had the strange thought that darkness always fell early on the estate. The lights always came on here before they did elsewhere. Maybe it was part of some plan by the council: they switched on the streetlights to try and fool the yobbos into thinking it was later that it really was, in an effort to send them home off the streets.
“Come on,” said Brendan, taking the lead again. “Let’s get this over with. I want to get back home to see my kids before I have to come back here and start my shift. I’ve barely seen them all day.”
“Sorry,” said Simon. “I didn’t realise...”
“Don’t worry about it.” Brendan approached the gates of the compound and took a set of keys from his pocket. He rattled the keys as he selected the correct one and then slid it into the main lock. “So that was you last night – in the four-wheel drive?”
Simon nodded, then realised that Brendan couldn’t see him because he had his back to him, and answered. “Yeah, that was me. I did a little drive-by.”
“You should’ve come over. I would have put the kettle on.”
Simon sensed more untruths, but he was unsure whether or not Brendan was simply being cautious, afraid to open up too much because of the dead weight of years that stood between them.
“Come on. Let’s get this done.” Brendan pushed open the gates and stepped inside.
Simon followed him into the enclosure, feeling as if he were walking into a prison – or perhaps a complex trap. He knew that he was being impulsive by coming here right now, but he also realised that he couldn’t put off this confrontation indefinitely. It had to be done; he needed to face the past if he stood even a chance of unlocking its secrets.
The Needle glowered down at him. That was how it felt, as if the building were leaning over slightly and staring at the top of his head in silent rage. His skin itched; his vision swam. Simon considered himself a brave – and sometimes even reckless – man, but this was something different. This was madness. In his time, he had stood toe-to-toe with some of the most feared businessmen in London, negotiated with fierce adversaries over money, and once had even grabbed a renowned investor by the throat in a boardroom and threatened to break his nose... but those were safe battles. The numerous enemies he’d bested were made of flesh and blood, not brick and mortar and the essence of lost memory.
He had a flashback then, as he knew he would: a vision of oak trees, with soft, pale moonlight filtering like dust motes through the canopy of branches. Something moved beyond the perimeter of the circle of trees, slowly circling the three of them – Simon, Brendan, and Marty, whining and sitting with their backs to each other on the hard ground.
There was nothing more. That was it; all he was given.
“The trees,” he said, not even realising until it was too late that he’d spoken the words out loud.
“I remember that, too.” Brendan turned towards him, his face pale and devoid of any readable expression. “There was a circle of oaks... with us sitting terrified in the middle.”
Simon nodded. He rubbed his cheeks with the palms of his hands and felt the tough stubble as it rasped against his flesh. “Yeah... I haven’t thought about that for years. I’d forgotten about the trees. How could I ever forget something like that?”
Brendan smiled, and it seemed to split his face in two. “It’s because you weren’t here. You went away, and you broke a connection. The trees are one of the few memories I have. I dream about them. And I dream about being tied up by their branches.” He broke off then, as if he wanted to say more but had changed his mind.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” said Brendan. “It’s nothing.”
They walked on, towards the towering form of the Needle. Its grey walls were impassive; its dingy presence was a glimpse into another time and place. Simon felt the present shiver, as if the very fabric of time and space was straining at the seams and attempting to transport him back in time twenty years. The sky stretched above him like a thin sheet, the ground threatened to shift beneath his feet, and the landscape around him seemed like it was poised on the cusp of a change.
The day’s alcohol intake drained from him, leaving him cold and sober.
“This way.” Brendan walked to the main doors. They’d been exposed; the wooden boards that had once protected them from vandalism now lay in pieces on the ground beside them. Brendan reached out and unlocked the doors, opened them slowly, and stepped aside. “Are you ready?”
“Yes.” And Simon
ready. At last he was ready to enter the tower block and reclaim at least a fragment of his childhood. He clenched his hands into fists, as if preparing for a fight, and stepped forward, walking stiffly up the steps and into the building. His skin went cold, hot, and then cold again; it felt like he was passing through different rooms, each with its own temperature. He’d never been so detached yet so curiously involved in a single moment. The muscles in his neck tightened and his head ached.
The ground floor was in ruins. Graffiti, broken concrete, piles of rubbish all over the floor. It was nothing like what he’d expected. The interior was a tipping ground for broken things, and it was only fitting that he and Brendan should be here: two broken men looking for a way to fix themselves.
“How does it feel?” Brendan’s voice sounded as if he were perched on Simon’s shoulder, speaking directly into his ear.
“Weird. I thought... I expected to be more afraid, but all I feel is tired and reluctant. It’s like a chore. Something I have to do. Does that even make sense?”
“No.” Brendan’s tepid laughter echoed, bouncing off the walls and giving it a false sense of vigour.
“Okay, okay... you know what I mean. It’s like an anticlimax. I’ve built this up so much, and for so long, that it’s almost disappointing now I’ve finally got here.”
“Yes,” said Brendan. “I do know what you mean – I had the same experience. I hadn’t been back here for years. Then, when I was twenty-one, I just broke in through one of the first floor windows and took a look around. I wasn’t afraid; it was just an empty building. Like I said, there are no ghosts here. You won’t find our childhood selves waiting for you in a cramped little room.”