Portsmouth Short Story Competition Winning Story 2020: The Black Tower
The Black Tower by Suzanne Parekh
She heard him before she saw him. A single pair of footsteps rang clear as a bell, wooden
heels echoed unevenly on the tarmac, then splashed through the shallow puddles that steamed
in the cool evening air. It’s definitely a mar. A punter for sure. The wind was blowing
towards her. Years of experience had taught her that money was a smell and he definitely had
it. She hid, motionless behind the loose hoarding, deciding with precision when to make her
presence known. There was something curious about his approach. It sounded like he was
pulling on the boards that secured the site. Was he trying to get in? She’d put him right. This
was her territory.
‘Hey, you. This way.’ She called out. Briefly announcing her presence with a wave.
There must be a way in. A loose board somewhere. ‘PRIVAT PROPERT’ scrawled in red, foot
high letters screamed at him from the hoardings that surrounded the once majestic structure.
The wooden fencing obscured most of the ground floor shops, but looking up, signs of
concrete cancer distressed him almost as much as the fact that the building was in near
disuse. He slapped a concrete block, its mass impressed him. Concrete is a solid and
unforgiving material. As indestructible as the post war generation who were keen to sweep
away the ornament and embellishment of the past by establishing a brave new architecture.
He’d been a staunch advocate of that. Although his eventual career in designing brutalist
hotels had given him little professional pride, it had paid well. This building though, was an
exercise in the versatility of concrete; ramps that hinted of prehistoric ammonites, majestic
sculpted cast blocks and, rising skywards, the stairwell tower climaxed in a nod to
Goldfinger. The timber was dusty, he hesitated and brushed the dirt from his raincoat. Old
habits die hard. He remembered his wife and how she always used to joke that he never
switched off his corporate image. Outward appearances notwithstanding, he gulped back the
bile rising up from the knots and twists that wrenched his insides. He had hardly slept since
then. When he did, he was imprisoned in terrible nightmares that on waking he discovered to
be true. Every time he closed his eyes his thoughts returned to that moment when in the blink
of an eye, everything had changed. It had started out as a wonderful day. The proud
grandparents on babysitting duties. A film, a meal at a burger restaurant and then the short
drive home. By eight pm, when the kiddies should have been tucked up in bed and he and his
wife sipping a glass of something from his excellent cellar, he was a widower and his
grandchildren were no more. He carried on, trying each board in tum, but they were
unyielding. A movement alerted him and from the corner of his eye he saw a hand emerge
from behind a wooden panel. It seemed to be waving at him.
‘This way sunshine.’ She pulled him deftly into the darkness and quickly pushed the hoarding
back into place, napping them both in a world of damp silence. The blackened concrete
stairwell rose above them, she gripped his wrist and led him up the steps. He stumbled behind
her, his raincoat flapping gently against her bare legs, and she was grateful. He didn’t seem
like he’d be too much trouble. That was the way she liked them. She was fed up with obscure
requests and shenanigans. Plain old vanilla, easy money.
He was glad she’d appeared and seemed to know her way around. Momentarily he hesitated,
was she a thief leading him into a trap? His instinct said no and he decided to trust her. He’d
never have found the way in or been able to navigate the interior of this place without her,
even if he had had a hand in its design.
Still her presence unnerved him somewhat. What kind of women inhabited places like
this? The overbearing smell of urine and rotten food made him gag but he ignored it and
suppressing the nagging suspicion that she must be a lady of the night, he quietly relished his
first human encounter in many months. He’d gone to a great deal of trouble to speak to noone
since he’d come limping home from the hospital. He’d hidden in his house, curtains
drawn, ignoring the telephone and the doorbell. Messages from his daughter had been quickly
deleted from his voicemail.
‘Where are you taking me?’he asked at last, after they had climbed countless, dank,
‘Up to my place.’ She answered.
‘Yes, I’ve got a nice place, you’ll like it. Home from home so to speak. But I promise
you love, it’ll be better than home’
‘I think there’s been a misunderstanding.’
She stopped and turned to face him, two steps ahead, but eyes level. A shaft of
evening sunlight played with her features; hard eyes, emboldened with black liner, peered
angrily at him.
‘What d’you mean, misunderstanding?’her red lips revealed missing teeth. Those that
remained, stained the colour of tea. Affronted, he glared at her.
‘You think I’m a client?’ It was funny how certain professions used that expression.
Both architects and prostitutes had ‘clients’.
‘Am I?’ he thought.
Maybe one last time before? Before what? Obliteration? Liberation?
‘It’s not the reason I’m here.’
‘So what is then?’ She let go of his wrist. ‘You here to waste my time?’
He stared at her again. Mesmerised and faintly aroused, he was taken back to his
younger days. Her low cut t-shirt, revealing a black bra that pushed up a page three cleavage,
a short leather skirt and skinny legs that ended in brave six inch heels. Her voice was hard but
there was a hint of kindness behind it. No harm in telling her he supposed. What would she
do? Call the police? Unlikely.
‘I’m here to end my life.’ There. He said it. For the first time. Out loud. No going
That was a first. Punters had backed out for all sorts of reasons. They suddenly didn’t have
enough cash. She’d learnt to get cash up front. They realised they couldn’t perform. Even if
she told them she was an expert in the field. They became guilty about their partner back at
home. She said there was no cure for that. He didn’t seem the type. But what was the type?
All sorts of people were hurting in all sorts of ways. She’d certainly had her share of weepers
She liked to think that she had helped them in some way. Not cured them, just given them
hope and relief of course. She wondered if he was looking for something else. Something to
ease him. No harm in asking.
‘So there’s nothing you want then?’
She raised her eyes to look for his reaction. He shifted uneasily and straightened his
‘Ok’ His eyes met hers.
‘Fifty quid.’A bit above the usual rates but she reckoned he wasn’t in a position to
Sex had been off the agenda for quite a while. Before the accident he and his wife had
gradually drifted into an almost platonic relationship. She’d had her garden to tend and he
took an interest in wine. An ‘oenophile’ his son-in-law had called him. Occasionally, he
lusted after his wife. Her body had changed over the years but when they were on holiday or
at Christmas, when a surfeit of alcohol gave him courage, he persuaded her to be intimate
with him. Her willingness was dosed with a hint of reluctance and her satisfaction,
perfunctory, but he made the best of it and it gratified him enough to prevent him searching
for other outlets.
So now he’d agreed to have sex with a prostitute. It didn’t matter anymore, did it? Sex
or no sex. In less than hour all would be over. But he could see that fifty pounds would make
a difference to this woman. He began to feel a stirring and he moved his raincoat further
across his body. It was just a normal reflex he thought. Emotion didn’t come into it. Feelings
had left his body from the moment he woke up in hospital.
They’re all the same aren’t they? They only have to think about sex and there you go. He had
tried to hide it, but really? He didn’t seem suicidal and she should know. Miserable yes, but
agreeing to sex when you’re on a mission to kill yourself? How was that better than her. She
hadn’t expected her life to turn out this way. She glanced at the marks on her arms. Brown
sugar Danny had called it. Sounded harmless enough but there was nothing sweet about your
kids being taken away and finding you had a new job with inegular hours and a slow loss of
control over your life.
His hands smoothed the surface of the concrete wall noticing the small holes and
imperfections. Was this really what he wanted? Could he even perform in his state of mind?
They had arrived on the first car park level. The sides were open to the elements. Rain,
disoriented by a strong westerly wind, intruded noisily into the space. He looked up at the
distinctive moulding above. It looked like an armadillo had been unfurled and pasted on the
ceiling. The parking areas stretched before him, the empty expanse, punctuated with
monumental concrete columns and one lonely vehicle. ‘I used to have one of those’he
thought. A Ford Capri GT red, with black go faster stripes, stared back at him from a sea of
‘It’s up here.’ She pointed towards another staircase.
Suddenly the memories flooded back.
‘Yes, yes. I know’
‘I worked on this building. I helped design the flats.’
‘You did?’ she threw her head back and laughed.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘That’s where we’re going. I live in one of the flats.’
‘So the flats are still occupied then?’
‘Well, I’m the only one living there now. All the fancy lot moved out.’
‘They were designed for the ‘it crowd’.’
‘That was me once upon a time. Before everything fell apart.’
He tried not to look , but he couldn’t help notice her absentmindedly stroking the
marks on her arm.
‘I remember my boss was determined the flats should be the talk of the town.’
‘They certainly were.’ She looked up at him and smiled, putting her hand into his this
‘Why don’t you lead me? See if you remember the way’
He hadn’t held a woman’s hand since his wife. Her’s was large and powerful,
calloused from gardening, whereas this hand was small and delicate. The skin dry and cool.
He held her tightly and a surge of life flowed through his body reaching every extremity. He
remembered her earlier promise. Would this be better than home?
‘Ok. We go along to the end of this walkway and then if I remember correctly, we’ll
come to a large open area with stairs and lifts.’
‘You do remember! But the lifts are out of action’
They followed the stairs up one more floor. He kept hold of her hand and took her out
into the next lift area.
‘This is familiar. You see we have to slip behind this concrete wall here, duck around
this column and along the corridor. Et voila!’
They were suddenly in the lobby area of the flats. Slipping her hand out of his, she
approached a glossy red painted door and fiddled with the lock. She felt shy all of a sudden.
Like bringing someone home after a first date. Like when she first brought Danny back here
after meeting him at the glam rock concert. Her friends were jealous. He was god’s gift they
said. But they couldn’t see the future. Only that brief moment when her and Danny were the
talk of the town. Before it all went wrong. Before they’d had the kids. Before he got in with a
bad crowd and dragged her down with him.
She flipped the switches on the wall and a soft glow, from fittings he’d chosen, lit their way.
‘Come through to the lounge.’
He followed her silently, along a concrete lined hallway. The narrowness of the
corridor a clever device that allowed the room revealed at the end, to sing. He found himself
in a space that immediately drew him back in time. The room was a throwback to those heady
days of the 1970′s. Shag pile carpet still covered every surface of the floor and crept its way
over the sunken seating that formed a semi-circle in the middle of the room.
‘It’s not bad is it?’
‘No it’s fabulous’
He looked in awe at the smoked glass walls and suspended ceiling, memories
flooding back as he recalled leafing through suppliers’catalogues looking for just the right
fixtures to complete the design.
‘I can’t believe that after all these years it’s still in such good condition.’
She went over to the windows and drew down the blinds. Light radiated from button
shaped lamps set into the ledge behind the sunken seating.
He stepped down, taking off his coat and stretched out on the carpeted bench. He
watched as she lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and then blew three smoke rings into the air.
‘Want one?’ she offered
‘No, thanks,. Gave up years ago.’
‘How about a drink?’
‘Sure, that would be nice.’
She brought a bottle and two glasses.
‘Black Tower?’ He tried to conceal his disapproval.
‘Yes, of course.’What could he say? The Liebfraumilch was all the rage when he was
younger, but his tastes had refined over the years.
‘Look I hate to say it, now we’re acquainted and that, but it’s cash up front.’
He nodded, reached for his wallet and peeled off three twenty pound notes from a
He sure seems to have a lot of cash on him for a jumper. She thought.
He handed her the notes.
‘Sixty ok? Considering the wine and all that?’
‘Lovely’ She took the notes and put them into her purse. It was good to be free of her
pimp for once. He took his cut but he never really protected her, just kept her in a drug
‘So any preferences?’ He looked confused. As she thought. Good old vanilla.
‘Why don’t we have our date here?’ She asked him. ‘You seem to like this room.’
‘yes, I do’ He contemplated his surroundings again. The walls were of shuttered
concrete, with vertical striations and he wondered what it would be like to live in a place like
this. It would suit me he thought. Minimal and clean. Bereft of the past and uncomfortable
‘I’ll go and change then. Be back in a moment.’
He waited, wondering what to do. He removed his jacket and tie and unbuttoned his
shirt. Picking up his glass he downed the remaining wine.
She watched him sleeping on the shag pile. Naked and content as a baby. He had surprised
her. His stamina, and what she felt sure was a pent up sexual appetite, finding it’s release. She
was glad he’d turned up. He hadn’t felt or behaved like a client. They’d shared a connection
that somehow seemed to join the circle. His nostalgia had rekindled her own memories and
she felt an overwhelming sense that things must change.
He opened his eyes. She was nowhere to be seen. He sat up and felt a rush to his head.
They’d finished two bottles of wine. He realised he was completely naked, his clothes sat in a
small pile, neatly folded, his watch and wallet set on top. It was nine thirty. He’d been here
for over two hours. He couldn’t believe it. He’d never in his life spent so long making love.
Yes, making love, that’s what it felt like, even if he had paid. He guiltily wondered if he had
paid enough. She had done more than he expected a whore would do and with such
tenderness. But what did he know? She seemed to enjoy it though, or was she faking it? His
wife had faked it. He was sure of that.
He remembered why he was here and he quickly dressed. Where was she? He
explored the rest of the flat, knocking on doors and whispering her name. It was empty. In the
kitchen, two wine glasses sat upturned on the draining board, the empty bottles, neck down in
the waste bin.
Her body felt old and tired despite the brief ecstasy that the stranger had rekindled in her. She
knew that the sixty pounds wouldn’t last long and she’d have to get out there again and open
herself up to the abuse and beatings that her pimp and many clients dealt out. She’d had
His head still thumping, he lay back down on the shag pile bench. He started to feel that
everything was a dream. The accident, the funerals, coming here to kill himself. He started to
question his intentions and that was because of her. She’d shown him that life goes on. She
wasn’t moaning about the awful hand life had dealt her. He sat up. He couldn’t do it. He was
unhappy of course. Probably depressed. He’d go to his GP and get help. He’d call his
daughter no matter how painful that would be. He had to. He couldn’t shut her out of his life
He walked out of the flat and down the stairs, past the nearly empty car park, down
more stairs and then he squeezed himself back through the fence panel and into life. Sirens
wailed in the distance and rain spotted his coat. He imagined the sirens coming for him if
he’d gone through with it and he took a deep breath. He splashed through the puddles and
headed for the station. Not this time.
The wind blew around the stairs up to the top of the carpark, lifting empty paper bags high
into the night sky. The rain had started up again and she sheltered in the lee of the stairwell.
The needle was packed with a week’s supply, but she knew that if she didn’t inject it all right
now, she’d never go through with it. She started to feel light headed. I must get up there now
before it’s too late, She heaved her sluggish body onto the parapet that ringed the very top of
the tower. The wind was howling now and it caught her off balance. She tottered and
instinctively reached towards the delicate texture of the concrete slab, her small, dry hands
clutching at the air.
After a few months he started to feel better. The pain would never completely go but he
began to take each day as it came. He busied himself looking into the history of brutalism, in
which he’d played a small part. He’d decided to write a book and was deep into the research
phase, a useful barrier to the feelings that surfaced if he wasn’t careful. In particular he
wanted to find out more about that hulk of a building where he’d nearly ended it all. He
found out that it was going to be demolished and his thoughts trickled back to the whore. I
wonder what will become of her? He leafed through some old newspaper clippings, faded
and yellow, that the son of his old boss had sent him after he’d got in touch and told him
about his book. He found an article about suicides at that distinctive building. Could have
been me I suppose? He carried on reading. The article listed at least ten incidents and went on
to describe them. Suddenly he felt his heart thumping. Once suicide, a particularly tragic one,
recounted the tale of a prostitute who had lived in one of the flats. She was an addict who had
taken her own life by jumping from the top of the carpark stairwell. This had happened
twenty five years ago and the journalist was keen to point out that she’d recently drunk two
bottles of Black Tower wine with an unknown guest. The police had found two glasses on the
draining board and the bottles in the bin. They had tried to trace her companion, but he or she
could not be located.