Authors: Trezza Azzopardi
Also by Trezza Azzopardi
the hiding place
I’m not infirm, you know: I am my grandfather’s age. That’s not so old. And the girl didn’t frighten me; she just took me by
surprise. I don’t know how long I lay there. I only heard her, first. The door at the front of the house was stiff; you had to put all your weight on it, come winter, just to shift it an
inch. It groaned if anyone came in. The girl made it groan. It was quiet for a bit, then there was a soft sound, footsteps, someone on the stairs. She came up careful over the broken treads. I
wasn’t afraid: there was nothing to steal. There was nothing anyone would want. Mine wasn’t a house with a TV set or a video player, there was no computer, no jewellery in boxes, no
money. All it had was empty rooms, and me. And it wasn’t even my house. None of this mattered to her. She was looking for something else entirely, but I didn’t know it then; I only
heard her as she came.
I’d settled for the night in the corner of what used to be the front bedroom, tucked myself in next to the alcove where it was warmer. The girl stopped at the doorway, then went over to
the fireplace, holding her hands out for a minute in front of the heat. I thought maybe she hadn’t seen me; unless you were looking, I’d be easy to miss. I watched her slip across to
the far end of the room. On the wall, her shadow was giant. From the corner, she studied me. The fire died down and I kept still. I wasn’t afraid, then; she could please herself, is what I
thought. She’s only a girl, and not the first I’d seen on the streets. She did nothing for a while, just stood there. The wind was butting at the glass, but she didn’t shift. She
was black in the darkness, and when she finally moved, it was a creeping thing she did: slowly, slowly, feeling her way over to where I lay. I thought she wouldn’t take any notice of me. I
was wrong. I closed my eyes and kept still, like a mouse in the shadow of a cat.
The next thing I knew, her hands were on my face. I couldn’t look; I was playing dead, and she was so quick, running her fingers over my head, under my chin, along my neck.
And just as quick, she was away, jumping the treads at the bottom of the stairs, shrieking like a firework as she landed. I could feel my heart, like a bird, trapped in its cage, banging at my
ribs. She wasn’t out. She was in the hall. She was moving through the back of the house. A shunt of sash, a blast of air: she was gone.
I stayed quite still. I think I was in shock. The day came up and showed me an empty room, a dead fire, a blue morning. All that I had left was the plastic bag with the face on it. I kept it in
my inside pocket, next to my heart. She didn’t get that.
It’s only another loss; it’s not as if I’ve been harmed. I’d like to say she didn’t touch a hair on my head, but that would be a lie.
I’ll take my time. It won’t do to miss things out. I’m sure I’d never seen her before: names won’t stay with me, but a face is my prisoner for
life. I’d been living in the house for a good while. To be straight, I was living in just the upstairs room. It wasn’t always empty either; people came and went. I didn’t mind
them and they didn’t mind me, and sometimes we knew each other. It used to be a shop, on a parade that was full of shops: Arlott’s the butcher, a bakery with its bicycle outside, a post
office run by two old women who looked like twins; and this one on the end, which was a fancy cobbler’s. It had a sign painted in gold across the window: Hewitt’s Shoe Repairs and
Fittings, with Bespoke picked out in smaller lettering underneath. The front was already boarded up when I came back, but the words were still there in the glass; you could see them, etched
backwards, from the inside. I knew what it said anyway: I had visited this place when I was a girl. Hewitt led me into the back room, for a fitting, he said. Called it the Personal Touch. He had
Devices, Methods, cunning hands.
The only window that wasn’t boarded up was the upstairs bedroom at the front, which is why I liked it. At night, you could look out at the blackness, see the stars. All the other sleepers
stayed downstairs. They were just lads, really, lads with nowhere else to go. Lads afraid of ghosts. They said they could hear Hewitt bumping about, and one of them told me he saw him on the top
landing, holding an iron bar above his head. Describe him then, I said, and the lad puffed himself out big and made a roar. Well, that wasn’t Hewitt; he was small, with a face like a
ventriloquist’s dummy and a voice to fit, as if he’d got a tiny man trapped in his throat. So perhaps the lads were just trying to scare me off. They couldn’t know, could they,
that Hewitt’s ghost wouldn’t frighten me one bit; it wouldn’t hurt me to think of his restless spirit. But I don’t like to think of Hewitt at all, if I’m true –
not of him, or his time. I used to call it Before, like BC but without the Christ. Then I stopped calling it anything, and the past didn’t trouble me. This is the only time there is, I used
to tell myself: there never was a Before. I’d got to thinking it was a fact. That was how I managed.
It’s not as if I was a derelict. I knew what I wasn’t, even if I didn’t know what I used to be. And I can remember things if I’m pushed. The Sisters from the House had
found me a place. Let me out the side door and put me on my way. Run by nuns, they said, as if I hadn’t had enough of them already. I might have gone there, but I knew what they would want;
they would want to cleanse me. Start with my soul, I’d say, but they wanted me clean from the outside in, pulling at my clothes like a clutch of thieves. They said I was an Object. An Object
who had fleas. They said cleanliness is next to godliness. Well, I know that’s a lie. I wasn’t having that, lying nuns and thieving to boot. And it was me who was supposed to be the
thief, me the liar.
When the Sisters decided I could obey the rules, they let me go. I took my case and walked. And when I found Hewitt’s place again, I stayed. They’d laugh at me now, the nuns; now
that I’ve lost everything to a sly girl in the dark.
The day she came was ordinary. Sometimes there’s an event, like a snow, or a funfair, or Christmas lights going on in the city, and it reminds you how the year rolls over. But mostly
there’s no edge, just tumbling days, which is how I like it. I have a routine which is rarely spoiled; it stops me having to think. I go down to the open market in the morning to fetch boxes.
I like the colours on the fruit and veg stalls, and the men there never change. The stalls are on one side, and a row of shops on the other with girls’ dresses – bits of rag more like
– on dummies in the windows. They wear smug, eyeless smiles, expensive clothes; some of them are bald, some naked. They’ve nearly all got bare feet. I stay on the stalls side.
They call it The Walk, this street, and it
like a place to promenade, with the castle on the mound, and the market with its awnings, and the two grey churches crouched like dogs on
either side. At the back of the market is the city hall, which I’ve been to often enough, and round the back of that is the police station. I’ve been there too, if I’m true.
No, there was nothing exceptional to the day, unless you count the pumpkins. All the stalls were orange with them, piled up on each other, glowing like a monstrous hatch. They were for cutting
into faces. Some of the stallholders had made their own lanterns and hung them over the displays, grinning and twirling in the wind. The thought of them at night-time, lit up and jeering, was
horrible to me. I was lucky with the firewood. There were lots of crates, on account of all the pumpkins. I found some broken bits, and the boy on the flower stall gave me a bin liner to carry them
There was a panicky sort of wind about, swirling everything up from the gutter and blowing dirt in your face. Eyes full of grit; with my case and the bin liner, I was preoccupied with weather,
the fret on the air. I wasn’t stopping; not stopping even to thank the boy on the flower stall, not stopping for anything. I was wearing my silver coat. Precisely, if I’m true, I was
wearing my silver coat with the plastic bag in the inside pocket, and the shoes I’d got from the Salvation Army the week before. I had my case with me. I always took my case. It was all so
ordinary, but these things seem important now: the pumpkins grinning, me carrying the sack, wheeling my case along, not stopping, wearing my silver. As if to alter just one thing would have brought
about a different end.
I forgot myself in all that, worrying about the wind and would it bring rain, and would my hair get wet. That was my worry: would my hair get wet. I feared the rain, when it came. I had a
routine; getting soaked through was not part of it.
I planned to make a fire when I got back, straight away, to dry things out. Not drying things makes them smell. I do not smell. I do not want things that smell.
When I settled in Hewitt’s, there was plenty to tear, lots of things to burn. He’d left the storeroom piled with boxes full of unclaimed shoes, and row upon row of
insoles sliding on each other like dead fish. Under the counter at the front of the shop he kept thick wedges of tissue paper, leather-bound books of accounts. There was the open cabinet near the
door, the kind that people have in their houses to show off their china and glass. Hewitt’s cabinet was full of carved wooden feet – lasts in an assortment of sizes. Each had its own
brass plate with a name etched on it. They looked like museum pieces now.
Everything was torn and burnt, in the end. The boxes went first, then the counter, then the shelves, and then the cabinet itself. At night I’d hear the lads downstairs, smashing and
cracking and breaking the wood into pieces small enough to fit in the hearth. Sometimes one of them would call me down. Robin, he said his name was. He was the only one that didn’t have a
I’m wary of commitment, that’s my trouble, he’d say, which would make the rest of them laugh. He was a nice boy, too thin though, always near the fire, always toasting
something. The others would joke about my boyfriend the ghost, but I’d put up with it, and Robin would give them a look, or change the subject. They weren’t to know, were they, and I
was thankful for the warmth. How could they understand the twists a life could have? They were so young. And so sure of themselves. They could talk all night; gossip and dreams and wishful thinking
– what they’d do if they won the lottery. Robin would always say it would never change him, and one of the others would laugh and say, yeah, sell your granny for a fiver, you would.
Now I have to think about it, I consider another thing: I liked to watch it all being ripped to bits, the lads tearing out the pages from the ledgers, balling the paper up in their hands and
throwing it in the grate, or twizzling a long strip in their fingers and using it to light their cigarettes. The account sheets looked like a musical score, with its lines and notations; the owing
and debt carefully registered in old brown ink. It was satisfying to see Hewitt’s neat little figures go up the chimney, watch the flames lick around his writing, see him burn in hell. But I
never let on. I never let on how much I enjoyed it, not even to myself.
When the ledgers were gone, only the lasts were left. No one liked to destroy something that looked so human, but after a while, they went too. Cold alters your thinking: they were only made of
wood. We’d sit and watch them go black and blacker, then burst into flames, like the foot of a mythical god. I kept one back, just for me. It was divine to hold, small and perfectly smooth.
It had a name cut into the brass plate. I put it in my case, for safe keeping.