Wednesday, Week One
Saint Jude’s hospital was the ideal location for her first time. It stood, imposing, in grounds that had long since turned feral. Brambles reached their long, thorny arms across the pathways. The concrete flags, once meticulously maintained, were now invaded by groundsel and bittercress. Nature reasserting itself, forcing through, redesigning the gardens with its own landscaping. Once there had been groundsmen to crop back the grasses that now swung heavily in the summer evening breeze, to prune the hydrangeas, to tame the rose of Sharon. For five years, the influence of humans had been absent. The only visitors, people like Evangeline and Scooter.
The grounds were open, easily accessible. That was the good thing about hospitals, they were designed with so many entrances, car parks, routes in and out, that it was impossible to close them off after they had outlived their purpose. They had arranged to meet at the south gate; it was nearest to the main building, and furthest from the stream of passers-by on Cranbourne High Street. When hospitals are open, anyone can wander their corridors. Visitors and patients come and go, the footfall is expectedly high. Now, there were signs warning, ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ and ‘This site is patrolled’. Though the two of them meant to do no damage, and only had one reason for being there, they ran the risk of arrest if caught.
The summer evening light was sufficient for them to enter the building, to wander safely without need for electric lighting. The power to the hospital was no longer present, the only light coming from the dirty, cracked windows. Scooter had given Eva an equipment list, and she had dutifully packed her torch, in case the interior was dim, dark and dangerous.
Eva felt her body throb with anticipation as she walked down Union Street towards the meeting point. Her hair was tied back; he had told her to do that. It was safer that way. She was wearing trousers, not jeans, but combat-style with pockets that added inches to her otherwise slight frame. Hoody, backpack, the chunky type of trainers that you would wear for hiking. Scooter had been very prescriptive, and Eva had followed his instructions to the letter. She was not here to impress anyone, she merely wanted to prove that she had the right attitude and the right reason for wanting to be here.
As she drew closer, she saw a figure by the gate take a final heavy drag on his cigarette, and flick it sparking along the road. He spotted her and scooped his backpack from the floor at his feet, slinging it onto his shoulders.
“You’ve got to be Scooter,” she said.
His hair, a red shock, and his round-rimmed glasses had given him the nickname. He was easily recognisable, even to those he had never met before. However, within the community, on the forums where she had found him, he was well known.
“Evangeline, hello,” he said.
He reached out a hand to shake hers in greeting. She could smell the cigarette stink on his breath, thick and dirty in comparison to her perfume.
She looked at her watch and frowned. It said half past five. She waved it and shrugged.
“That’s not what my watch says. Shall we go?”
“You’re very keen. That’s good. Did you manage to get hold of everything?”
“Yes, I think so. I hope we’re not here long enough to need the torch though. I’m meant to be home by nine.”
“Remember there’s no electricity in there, you’d be surprised how many rooms in these places have no windows. Don't want to miss anything.”
Evangeline nodded. The little things, the details that seemed so obvious when Scooter pointed them out, those were the reasons that she was here with him. His experience, his guidance.
“Of course,” she said. “And Scooter, you can call me Eva.”
“And you can call me Scooter. Let’s go.”
Eva followed him along the path, trying to keep up, but his stride was longer and faster than hers. She was nearing a slow jog before he turned, mid-sentence, and realised that he was leaving her behind.
“I’m used to doing this alone, sorry,” he said. He slowed his pace, and they settled to a comfortable, coordinated walk.
“Which way do we get in? Is it all locked?”
“There’s a door down here that was open last time I came. The main entrances are boarded, barred and bolted, but these buildings are like rabbit warrens, if you’ll pardon the cliché. Seriously, entrances everywhere.”
“Well, hopefully it doesn’t all go Watership Down on us.” She looked for his reaction, joking through her fears, hoping for reassurance.
“There’s no one here. There’s never anyone here. No developers, and definitely no big bad rabbits. Just you and me, that’s all.”
It was reassurance enough. Still, her heart was pounding; she could hear her pulse echoed back in her eardrums, dull thudding away. Although this was something that she had wanted to do for as long as she could remember, there was still a sense of danger that permeated her excitement. Even as a child, buildings like this, abandoned, empty, reverting to nature, had fascinated her. It had taken her until now, at twenty-eight years of age, to take her first steps.
“You okay?” Scooter reached out for her arm and steadied her, as she stepped onto an uneven break in the paving stones. “You need to concentrate. Keep looking around you. Keep looking where your feet are landing. If you fall out here, I can steady you, but in there, you know, there might be holes, things you can fall through, trip over, seriously hurt yourself on. Why do you think they try to keep people out?”
Eva could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks. She was acting like an amateur. She was an amateur, but she didn’t want to appear foolish or clumsy. She wanted Scooter to take her seriously. To her, this was the start of something; she hoped it would be the first outing of many. If she messed up this time, it was unlikely that he would take her anywhere else. The places that she had seen on the internet forum, there were so many, so many amazing sites that she wanted to visit. Scooter was her key. She had to make sure that she did everything right, and didn’t get on the wrong side of him.
“Sorry. Just nerves. I’ll be fine. I mean, I’m just really excited.”
He smiled. “I remember my first explore too. And sometimes I find somewhere that comes close to that feeling, but you know, that first time, it stays with you. Try to enjoy it.”
“Oh God I will. I know I will.”
“Well, it looks like things are going to get interesting.”
Scooter pushed against the door that their walk had led them to. It was fiercely resistant, and although there was nothing external that they could see stopping it from opening, clearly someone had secured it since Scooter’s last visit.
Eva looked to Scooter, waiting for his response to the obstacle, like a private awaiting instruction. He threw his weight against the door, turned the handle, pushed some more, and then shook his head.
“Bollocks,” he said. “How are you at climbing?”
“I thought you said that there were lots of doors?”
“And this is the only one that I could get through last time. But I came out a different way.”
He pointed up to a window on the first floor. To Eva it looked like all the others, closed, the glass seemingly intact. Below it was a flat roof, a low spur of a building, only one storey tall, extending from the main body of the hospital.
“That’s where we’re going. If you’re up for it?”
“Yes, of course.” She tried to look braver than she was. “No problem. I did bring rope. If you need it?”
He laughed. “We won’t need it. It’s a simple climb. Round the other side there’s still one of those skips that they throw all the crap in. In fact, it’s still full of crap, it fucking stinks now, and that’s without even opening it. I don’t think we want to be exploring that. But it’s a way up, and a way in, and that’s what matters.”
The thought of the contents and their accompanying smell made Eva form a tight-lipped frown. They walked in the direction that Scooter had indicated, and there, as he had said, was the skip. It was a large, yellow, lidded cart, and whatever the contents were, they were rancid.
“Let’s do this quickly then,” Eva said. She could feel herself beginning to gag, and tried to keep her cool.
Scooter gave her a hand climbing onto the skip, and then hauled himself up alongside her. The roof was a few feet above, and Eva looked up with a worried expression.
“Can we do it?” she asked.
“I’ve climbed a lot higher than this, and you will too if you’re going to keep this up. Have faith in yourself, and go for it.”
She looked at the wall in front of her, the drainpipe, the guttering above, planning her path. The brickwork was cracked, crumbling in places. The drainpipe would be a route, but was it strong enough? She was nine stone, okay nearer to ten. How much weight would it hold? She made her choice, and jumped, grabbing onto the edge of the roof above her. Her feet dangled, kicking against the wall, until she calmed herself, steadied her body, and scrambled up. Her right knee scraped against the brick, but as she stood on the roof, looking down at Scooter, she gave a wide grin.
“Well, come on then, slow coach,” she said, laughing, letting the fear slip away, starting to enjoy herself.
Eva left her rucksack in the boot of her car, and wished that she had thought to take a change of clothes. She was a ditsy dress kind of girl, rather than combats and T-shirt, and this sudden change might arouse suspicion. The light was on in the living room, she could see it from the roadside, and again she felt the adrenaline within her begin to bubble. She had meant to be home by nine, but already it was approaching ten and the daylight had all but faded. Should she go in, straight upstairs and dress in something more like her usual apparel before she saw him? She looked in the rear-view mirror, still sitting there, putting off the moment that she had to go into the house.
It wasn’t just that she was late home, or that she was in the wrong clothes that made her anxious. She had been doing this for months. She would pull up outside the house, turn off the engine of her Citroën, and sit, with the radio playing. Sometimes she knew that he was there. She had learnt to read the signs of his proximity. Sometimes she knew that he was not there, and felt the sickness fill her stomach anyway.
There had once been a time, now faded into the tapestry of their past, when she had looked forward to returning home. When they had first started to live here together, before they were married, it was new and exciting. She would rush to finish work, plan what they were going to have for their dinner together, and then they would decide together how to spend their evenings. Then there were films together at the cinema, favourite restaurants, conversation, intimacy, love. Slowly, stealthily, overlooked due to its crawling pace, time had eroded their relationship.
Eva looked into the mirror again, staring at her red-eyed reflection as though she did not recognise the woman who looked back at her. In a way, she no longer did.
She had no excuses thought out to explain where she had been, so she would tell the truth, she had been working. Not that Mark ever saw what she did as work. Eva had her own business, her own successful business, but he had an office job. Mark sat at his desk weekdays from nine until five, and, at busy times, during weekends. That, to him, was real work.
Eva’s daily schedule, planned by herself, booked by herself, through advertising that she had done by herself, involved making people smile, and then capturing the moment. She was a photographer, with a studio in the centre of Cranbourne, and a constant stream of customers. Although she did organise her own self-promotion, many of her visitors came through from word-of-mouth, encouraged by people who had seen their friends’ pictures, and wanted their own.
Her work ranged from whole family shots, to babies. She had shot dogs, an author for his press release, and graduates in gowns. During wedding season, which was technically all year, but peaked in the summer months when couples were less likely to experience rain on their wedding day, she would venture out to churches, hotels, marquees, wherever people were getting married these days. Whilst people fascinated her, and her daily routine never bored her, what really captivated her was decay. The man-made structures, built to last, and then abandoned.
There were tears on Eva’s cheeks, running through the grime that had accumulated inside the shell that had once been Saint Jude’s Hospital. Scooter hadn’t told her to bring face-wipes or make-up, the things that would restore her to Evangeline Dawson rather than ‘EvaExplores’ once they had completed their reccy. However, she would know this next time. Next time, she thought, raising a smile amidst her tears. There would definitely be a next time. It had been all that she had hoped and more, and the urge to make further plans was seared through her.
In the window of the house, from the corner of her eye, she caught sight of movement. The curtains twitched and then cracked open to reveal a stream of warm artificial light. A dark figure, a shadow against the back-lit room stood, looking out towards her. The streetlight hit his face, illuminating an ambiguous expression. She couldn’t decide whether it was confusion or anger; probably both. She was late, and sitting here had made her later. Eva gave Mark a slight half-wave, and turned away again. Passing herself a final sad smile in the mirror, she got out of the car. It was time to face him.
He had left his bike in the hallway again, and she scraped her shin against the pedal as she tried to squeeze past. It was barely wide enough for the console table and coat rack that he had insisted on hanging. The added obstacle of the bicycle made it near impossible for her to traverse the hall without bumping into something. She looked down; the tyres were muddy, leaving a thin trail from the doorway across the tiles to their final resting place. She sighed, shook her head and then composed herself, tempering her tone before she shouted out to him.
“Hi honey, I’m home!”
She said the same thing every day, every time she came into the house, even if there was no one there to hear her. She was beginning to prefer it when there was no one there to hear her, when the house was silent, and Mark was elsewhere.
“You’re late,” he called back.
No ‘hello’, just a leap straight into the critical. His comment was predictable, and expected. Mark’s voice was ringing through from the living room; he hadn’t got up to meet her, even though he had watched her walk up the path to the door.
“That’s right,” she said. She kept the same faux-cheerful melody in her voice. “I am. Just popping to the loo.”
She bounded upstairs before he could say anything else. She needed to wash, and if she could change before he saw her, it would be a bonus. Staring in the bathroom mirror, scrubbing at her dirt-stained face, she smiled, despite being at home. The dust and grime were a badge of her first experience of urban exploration. She had begun something, entered a world that had seemed so alien to her, but had been so desirable to her for such a long time. There was a strand of spider-web in her hair, and her blonde fringe was dirt darkened. She needed a shower really, but that would arouse far too much suspicion. Instead, she untied her ponytail, and brushed through her long hair, trying to remove the worst of the debris. She would know next time what traces of her exploits she might need to cover up before she saw Mark.
From the bathroom, she hurried into her bedroom, and changed into the kind of clothes that she usually wore; a simple dress, tights, and flat pumps. She could have happily put on her pyjamas, but did not want to give the appearance that she had swapped her daywear. He would not notice that she wasn’t wearing the same clothes that he had seen her dressed in as she got out of the car; he never noticed anything anymore.
She made her way back downstairs, slowly, lacking commitment. He would be sitting there, in his chair, maybe a mug of tea, maybe a can of lager. She was late. It would be lager, and it would not be his first.
“You’re going to be on time tomorrow, aren’t you?”
They were his first words as she entered the sitting room. There was no concern, no enquiry as to how her day had been.
“Tomo-” she started to say the word, and then the realisation hit her like a slap. Tomorrow was Thursday. Tomorrow was their first appointment. “Of course I will be on time.”
“I mean if you don’t want to go anymore, if you don’t think it’s worth it...”
“I want to go. It was my idea. Of course I want to go. Are you trying to get out of it, is that what this is about? Why don’t you just say so, instead of...?”
He held his hand up, a stop sign, cutting her short.
“And this is why we are going,” he said.
Eva shook her head; she could not let herself get embroiled in this argument. It was all too frequent now that evenings were spent in conflict or in silence. Sometimes the silence was preferable, and sometimes, the needling of a verbal fight was required to remind her of what it was like to feel something, even if that something was bitter resentment. Instead of retaliating, she let her thoughts turn to her plans for the following day. She was going to spend the evening on the computer, sorting through the photographs that she had taken that night. Eager to see the results of the exploration, she mentally reshuffled her schedule. Her last customers would be arriving at 2pm; she could have them photographed and out by three, and then spend a few hours on the urbex photos. She wanted to get back onto the internet, see if Scooter had put anything on the forums. He was quick, and he had no family to disrupt him as she did.
“You’re not even listening to me, are you?” Mark had carried on speaking, but Eva was oblivious.
“I’ll be home at six. We can have dinner and go together, alright? I think it’s better if we turn up together, don’t you?”
“If you can’t arrive at marriage guidance with your wife, I think there is little point going,” he said.
He had stopped looking at her, turning instead to the television. This was his default position.
Eva sank onto the sofa, their conversation was over. Much as she wanted to go upstairs to the office and log onto the computer, she knew she had to spend her allotted, expected time here in Mark’s presence. It wasn’t worth the argument to do otherwise, even though he would now watch television until he fell asleep, and she would read her book until she could tiptoe out of the room.
Somewhere along the line, between when they met six years ago and the present day, something had been lost. The joy, the pleasure in each other’s company was not simply no longer there, it had been replaced by obstinate tolerance. They were stoic in each other’s company. Marriage guidance was, they agreed, a last resort. Perhaps somewhere, buried beneath their apathy was something worth saving. Perhaps though, they had let time taint them beyond repair.