Helen leans her elbows on the railings and gazes up at the Gothic turrets of the derelict hospital as the sun begins to rise. A light mist hovers just above the ground, highlighting the dew on the grass. Some window panes are broken, probably by stone-throwing vandals before the security company began twenty-four-hour patrols. She’s been taking regular walks around the grounds for the past couple of months, getting a feel for the building in all seasons and weathers. She scans each window, searching for movement inside. As a child she was fixated on the supernatural, but now that she’s in her fifties, the history of such places is far more fascinating than spirits and ghouls. She shakes her head, smiling at her overactive imagination. The wind picks up, rustling through the trees above her head and needling her skin through her woolly jumper. She shivers. Why did the architects build their ‘lunatics’ such an ornate prison? It is a magnificent structure; she loves the flying buttresses, like the legs of a spider about to scuttle away. The dirty red sandstone seems more suited to a reclusive prince living on a stormy cliff-top in a Victorian novel than for the so-called ‘feeble-minded’ of nineteenth-century Lancashire. This massive building was once known as ‘The Annexe’, an extension of the original County Lunatic Asylum constructed in the 1880s to house the masses of mental patients shipped to the county from all across the north of England. Once looming over barren moorland and visible for miles, it’s now almost hidden from the city, concealed within the trees. She loves the way that nature takes over a building once mankind abandons it: shoots sprouting from rooftops and ivy pushing apart the brickwork. It feels lifeaffirming that the natural world will still continue after we’re gone.
It’s a shame they can’t just leave it as it is: retain the ivy and the moss and the spindly saplings that grow from the gutters. But, sadly, people want to make money, and part of Helen’s job is to help carve up this beautiful old building. Alfie pulls hard on his lead, his tongue hanging from his mouth as he struggles against the collar. She bends down. ‘Alright, but don’t run off,’ she says as she releases the clip. As expected, the dog immediately disappears into the nearest clump of bushes, flushing a squawking pheasant into the air and away. She hears him burst out from the other side of the undergrowth and jogs ahead to keep him in sight. He is running away, and fast. Helen shouts and whistles as she sees him push through a gap in the fence and run towards the building. ‘Alfie! No! Bad dog!’ she calls, but he ignores her and continues running until he is out of sight.
She knows he won’t run far; he just gets excited. But the building is derelict and riddled with asbestos. Helen groans. She follows at a jog, squeezing through the gap in the fence and pushing across the overgrown lawn in front of the hospital, thistles tugging at her jeans. It’s thrilling to get closer to the building, with a genuine reason if anyone challenges her. So far in this phase of work she’s only seen dusty floor plans, concept sketches and asbestos reports during dull scoping meetings and budget discussions. She slows for a moment to take in the imposing façade up close, initials carved above each tracery window and ornate parapets along the roof. The six-storey water tower looms over the main entrance, where a stone staircase rises up to wooden double-doors. The basement floor is half-submerged, with letterbox windows at knee-level. She remembers the floor plan she pored over last week: there’s a double-height entrance hall behind those doors, with a sweeping staircase in the centre, and long corridors branching off to the east and west wings: the wards and seclusion cells.
East for female patients, west for male. The hospital was designed to house the infirm in small rooms, crammed to maximum capacity and maximum practicality. She passes the main entrance, where the doors are secured with a chunky padlock and chain. ‘Alfie?’ she shouts, but he still doesn’t return. She passes through a stone archway into a horseshoe-shaped courtyard, which must have been the loading dock with access to the kitchens, laundry and store rooms. A door stands open in the far corner where the main hall branches into the west wing, a dark hole gaping in the stone wall. She feels a shiver of anticipation. Alfie must have gone inside. She has to go after him. It is at least fifteen years since she was last inside the Lune Hospital, completing an inspection before the hospital closed.
She remembers the eerie quiet on the upper floors, punctuated with sudden shrieks and howls. Hunched figures rocking incessantly in chairs, back and forth, staring into space. And, Helen remembers with a shudder, one female patient who followed Helen for the duration of her visit, bare feet shuffling ten feet behind, black eyes glinting at Helen through her straggly hair as she hissed insults under her breath. Now, Helen ducks through the open door, holding her arms in front of her face to break the cobwebs, which cling to her hands. The air in the corridor smells damp, and she covers her nose and mouth with her scarf. It’s so quiet. She pulls her phone from her pocket and switches on the torch, shining it around to peer through the dark hall. She marvels at the changes time has wrought on the empty building. Mould covers the ceiling, and the wallpaper has peeled from the walls to reveal old layers in many colours: deep red, a bit of yellow, and, underneath it all, a light sky-blue. Her footsteps crackle in the quiet.
Every flat surface is coated in dirt and tiny shards of broken glass. She reaches the main entrance hall and gazes up at the huge Imperial staircase in its centre. The first flight rises to a half landing, where the staircase divides into two symmetrical flights which curl around to the first floor. There’s a wooden barrier across the landing, with a crudely-painted sign hammered into the wood: ‘DANGER: WEAK FLOORS. ASBESTOS!’ Chipped white paint edges the treads of the stairs, with bare wood running up the centre where a carpet used to be. Strips of torn wallpaper litter the ground, and each bare expanse of wall has been a canvas for amateur graffiti artists. A door is tucked away in the corner of the entrance hall, almost out of sight. It stands slightly open: the door to the basements. Helen would love to pop down quickly and get a look at the layout down there, assess if they could tweak the plans to bring in more natural light. A sudden skittering of glass shatters the silence.
She gasps and drops her phone to the floor. Alfie bounds around the corner, his tail wagging, his claws clattering on the bare floorboards. ‘Alfie! You scared me,’ she says, laughing with relief. Helen bends and ruffles his dusty fur. ‘Where’ve you been?’ He shakes, and dust plumes from his shaggy coat. He peers up at her through the black and white fur that almost hides his eyes. He looks a bit like an English Sheepdog from this angle, but he’s much sleeker under all that fur. She picks up her phone, brushes it against her jeans to get rid of the muck from the floor. The dog drops something at her feet and bows to ask her to play, gazing at her with his big brown eyes. His legs are dark with grime that she’s sure he will rub all over the kitchen walls when they get home.
She takes a step forward, reaching out to Alfie’s toy. ‘Come on then, let me have it.’ She stops. ‘What have you got, Alfie?’ On the floorboards between Alfie’s paws is not the usual stick or muddy ball. He’s got a small shoe; a ballet flat like all the teenage girls wear now. It’s electric blue under the mud caked to its surface. She picks it up, examining it. Not mud, but darker, like tar or something. Alfie looks up at her, expectant. ‘No, it’s not a toy.
’ A gust of wind rushes through the empty windowpanes and Helen shudders. ‘Come on, let’s get out.’ She drops the shoe back on the ground, and Alfie scrambles to pick it up again, thinking it’s a game. She turns to leave, takes one step. ‘You shouldn’t be in here.’ A voice from behind her. Helen freezes, dragging air in through her teeth and deep into her lungs. Her heart pounds as she turns towards the voice. A man stands in the shadows, leaning against a graffiti-covered wall. In the murky light, Helen can only see his silhouette and a faint impression of his face.
White teeth stand out against the darkness. He’s smiling at her. She flattens her hand to her chest, willing her heart to slow. ‘You made me jump!’ Before the man can say anything else, Alfie rushes at him, barking and snarling, hackles raised and muscles tense. Helen reaches down, grabbing her dog’s collar. ‘Sorry. He’s not normally like this,’ she says. ‘Shhh, Alfie, it’s alright.’ She strokes him but he ignores her, all senses trained on the stranger. The man steps forward into the light.
Alfie stops barking but remains with his nose thrust forward, emitting a low warning growl. ‘Sorry about that,’ says Helen. ‘We were just on our way out.’ ‘Not a problem.’ Now that the morning light has touched him, she can see his features easier. She’s seen him before, but they’ve never spoken; he’s one of the security guards that patrol the grounds. They’ve nodded to each other in passing on a few exterior site visits with the NHS Planning Team. His head is closely shaved, and he’s got a short black goatee. His nose is bent, probably an old break. His piercing green eyes reflect the light shining in through the panes above the front door.
‘Do you know you’re trespassing?’ His voice is smooth and low. He takes a step forward again. ‘I’m the architect on the redevelopment.’ Alfie backs behind Helen’s legs, his warm fur pressing against her calf. ‘Getting the property ready to sell.’ ‘I see. It’s early in the day to start work.’ The man smiles at Alfie, but Alfie’s growling increases in volume again. The man looks up at Helen, still smiling. ‘And this must be your architectural assistant?’ She reaches down and strokes Alfie, trying to reassure him everything’s okay.
She glances around to assess the nearest way out. There’s something unnerving about chatting with a stranger inside this building, out of sight from anyone. Even if he’s just doing his job. ‘Yes, I’m walking my dog. I thought I’d get a quick look at the building from the grounds, but then Alfie ran inside. I wasn’t intending to trespass.’ She feels a kernel of frustration now. Why should she defend herself to this guy just because he’s wearing a ‘Security’ badge? She’s a grown woman with full professional right to be here, and she’s spent her whole life doing exactly as she should. She shouldn’t have to explain herself. The man’s expression shifts; he smiles and steps forward.
There’s a small dimple in his left cheek when he smiles. ‘I’m Alexander, a security guard here. I do the night shift for Diamond Security.’ His handshake is firm, his skin soft and dry. ‘You shouldn’t be in here, it’s not safe. Especially for dogs.’ He reaches towards Alfie as if to stroke him, but Alfie shrinks away. The man frowns, as if disappointed. ‘I had to come in to find him,’ she says again. ‘Let me see you out,’ says the security guard.
‘The floors aren’t secure in places. Some rotten floorboards and joists. Don’t want anyone getting hurt.’ Reaching down, she clips the lead onto Alfie’s collar, patting his head in reassurance. He hasn’t moved from behind her legs and the vibration of his neck under her fingers tells her he is still quietly growling. She scratches him behind his ear. Outside, Helen can see the man better. His shoulders and arms look solid, like he lifts weights. She feels small walking alongside his large frame; her head barely reaches his shoulder. ‘I heard they’re still waiting for planning permission to carve it up into flats,’ he says.
His tone is chatty and relaxed now they’re out of the building. The air is cold against her cheeks and hands. She shoves her fists into her pockets, Alfie’s lead looped around her wrist. ‘Actually, things are starting to move forward. Pretty soon you might see some big changes happening around here.’ She smiles at him. ‘Sounds exciting,’ he says. His tone is casual, but he doesn’t return her grin. ‘Sorry, I’m sure you can understand it’s a bit unsettling for our team. Our jobs depend on this old place being empty, patrolling the grounds, you know.
’ He waves a hand at the building, with its broken windows and weeds sprouting from the brickwork. ‘Don’t worry though; I’m sure they’ll still need a security team for a long time yet,’ she says. Helen supposes his job might be threatened once the redevelopment begins. They walk across the grounds towards the driveway, where grass pokes up through cracks in the tarmac. He glances at her occasionally, and then over his shoulder back to the hospital. ‘Well, at least they’re not knocking it down,’ he says. ‘It’s an important building.’ ‘Yeah, that really would be a tragedy. So many people love this place; it’s a bit of the town’s history. The whole county’s history, really.
’ She looks back. Bushes grow along the front of the hospital at either side of the entrance. The grounds were once a huge open space where patients got fresh air and exercise, but after years of neglect the whole area is tangled with brush and thistles. ‘It’s great to be involved in its future and imagine what could be done with it.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ the man asks. ‘To me it’s the building’s past which is more interesting.’ ‘The architecture, you mean?’ He shakes his head. ‘No. The old mental hospital. There’s still some old wheelchairs and beds kicking around the corridors, things they just left behind when they locked it up.
There’s an old ECT machine down in the basement.’ Helen’s mouth drops open. ‘I thought they stopped doing that.’ In Helen’s mind, electro-convulsive therapy belongs with trepanning and lobotomies in the category of ‘barbaric treatments from centuries ago’. Perhaps ECT isn’t so far in the distant past after all. He shrugs. ‘The machine looks pretty old, probably hasn’t been used since the sixties. Interesting to see, while you’re on patrols.’ ‘What does it look like?’ ‘Just a box with buttons and dials, and two metal things.’ He points at his temples with a grin, demonstrating where the electrodes would go.
‘It’s part of history but that stuff will all get chucked away soon, I guess. Modernisation and sanitisation.’ She nods and smiles over at him. ‘It’ll never be lost though. There’s some interesting videos on YouTube, nurses talking about working at the hospital before it closed. A typical day in the life kind of thing.’ She remembers the petty arguments at her office in recent weeks about flat sizes and light. ‘You’re right that they’ll strip a lot of the old features out. Still, it’ll make beautiful flats. Even better would be a school, or a fantastic hotel, like what Urban Splash did with the Midland in Morecambe.
’ He continues as if she hasn’t spoken. ‘There were some interesting patients locked up in here too. Clever people who just didn’t fit society’s mould.’ They reach the narrow drive, which slopes downhill through the trees and out of sight. She expects him to leave her and return to his office, but he continues to walk beside her. Alexander looks at his watch. ‘We don’t get many people up here at this time of the morning. This shift is usually very quiet.’ He looks right into her eyes, and Helen wants to hold his gaze but has to look away. He pushes his hands into the pockets of his black fleece.
‘Don’t go inside the building again without an appointment. It’s not safe.’ Helen nods and glances back up the drive at the building. Through the trees she can just see the slate roof, tinted gold with the autumn sun. They have reached the end of the driveway and the main road into the town. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he says. A red car slows and turns into the drive, the driver’s face obscured by the peak of a black baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. The car rolls past and up the driveway towards the hospital; the driver raises a hand in greeting. Helen nods, and the guard waves back. ‘That’s Paul, come to start the day shift,’ Alexander explains.
The red car has pulled up outside the old gatehouse. The driver gets out, gathering a bag from the passenger seat. ‘He’s worked here since he left school. Knows the whole place inside out.’ Helen and Alexander watch as Paul enters the office, leaving the door open. He crouches at a mini fridge, unloading his lunch and getting ready for the start of his shift. ‘How many in your team?’ she asks, wondering how many guys will lose their jobs when the building sells. ‘There’s another full-timer called Bruce. Bit of a creep.’ His grin and quick shrug indicate this might be an in-joke at Bruce’s expense.
‘Then some contractors come in for holidays and sick cover. It’s pretty solitary work, a bit like being a lorry driver I suspect.’ ‘It was nice to meet you, Alexander.’ Helen smiles and walks away with Alfie towards the road. ‘Enjoy the rest of your day.’ She turns back before she rounds the bend in the lane, taking a last glance at the building. Alexander stands at the end of the drive watching Helen leave, his hand raised in a motionless wave. At this distance, his face seems finely sculpted, almost beautiful.