I was staring down into the deep fissure formed by the banks where the town had met the river, long ago. The water’s knife was blunted now, with neither fervour nor edge to cut its valley deeper, but the once-upon-a-time was easy to imagine…
When coal mines prospered, the river’s shore was called ‘The Fellings’, a vibrant pile of warehouses and small works stacked against the side of the valley, so tightly clustered the streets between were no more than alleys, narrow conduits leading down to the quay. The river was a proper waterway in those days, a navigation for barges taking coal down to Bedeport, bound for steamers waiting to transport it to Europe and the world. Days long gone.
The mines closed, one by one. As trade diminished, so the river was neglected, until, in the early nineteen-sixties, they made a dam twelve miles upstream for a reservoir on Raddon Moor. That was the end of the navigable water, and the end of industry on ‘The Fellings’. Gradually those old thrown-together buildings tumbled, their windows boarded, their roofs caved. The cobbled alleys that had rattled to a cacophony of iron wheel-rims and echoed to carters’ curses, now choked beneath the weight of lorries and cars. Trains, like the coal, no longer came, so engineers widened an old viaduct that once used to carry the railway high across the valley, and they made it into a road bridge. It was given a name, I suppose, but we never heard it: we just called it ‘The Bridge’.
The Bridge was where Sue and I ended up, leaning on the stone parapet, after school that Summer Thursday. Hungry or not (a jam sandwich and a school dinner were all I had eaten in thirty-six hours) I didn’t want to go home.
I told Sue about Ma and our broken kitchen. She nodded sombrely as I related the diary of my week, staring down at the ruined pile of The Fellings, and the river, so far below us.
“I shouldn’t worry.” She said. “She had a bit of a fit I reckon. My mam throws things at my dad quite a lot. They have a shout, she chucks a plate or two at him, then they go upstairs.”
“What, you mean like…..?”
Sue glared at me as if I was being deliberately obtuse. “Yeah; well, they’re married, aren’t they?”
“But my Da’ wasn’t home.” I pointed out.
“She was on her own?”
Sue pondered this. “She’s a manic oppressive, then.” She diagnosed. “I still shouldn’t worry. She can get pills for it.”
“How long are they upstairs for?”
Sue giggled, nudging my ribs. “Hours, sometimes.”
We parted, Sue to her tea and I to whatever awaited me behind a front door which, in a peculiar kind of way, no longer seemed to be mine. I remember how long a walk it was that evening, across the town centre by the new road and through Addison’s Estate. If I had known Trevor Bull would be out by the garages there I might have taken an even longer way.
A football smacked against my head, knocking me sideways. As my vision cleared, it focussed on Trevor, who was leering at me. Trevor was large and basic. He had lips like cohabiting slugs. “Hey, Spakker! What’r you doin’ out?”
“Slumming, Trev. Just slumming.”
“Oh yeah? Get the ball for us, then. Yeah? Did y’hear what I say? Get the ball for us, Spakker.”
A pair of Trevor’s hangers-on sidled into view from a burned-out garage, guffawing at what must have seemed a major diversion in their lives. I was never able to attach names to Trevor’s sidekicks because they never went to school. Trevor himself would visit there occasionally, usually after his da’ had been visited by the school inspectors.
The odds were three-and-a-half to one. I retrieved the ball. “Where d’you want it?”
“Don’t get lippy wi’ us, yer little frigger! You got any money then? Has mummy gived yer yer sweeties money, yeah?”
I had no cash to boost Trevor’s meagre income, and no inclination to donate if I had; the alternative, though, was to be ‘frisked’ by having my pockets torn off. A quick calculation was necessary. “Here. Here’s your frigging ball!”
I punted the ball on my good foot, my right foot, with all the punch I would have used if a goal was open and Trevor was the goalkeeper. Like a missile it flashed past his left hand to hit the side wall of one of the garages at his back. Enough rebound remained to whack against Trevor’s calves, then pinball between his two sidekicks a few times: sufficient to afford a moment of confusion and space for me to sprint away, out of the Addison estate and back into the comparative civilisation of the South Town. He was big and he was ugly, but I had one advantage over Trevor. I was quicker – much quicker. His ringing threats dwindled into distance behind me. I was pursued for no more than a couple of streets.
Finding the front door of our house unlocked I went through all the rooms in search of Ma’. There was no sign of her. A five pound note on the table in the back room was accompanied by a scrap of a note in her scrawl;
‘Get your tea out’
I went to MacDonald’s – they had just opened then – and stuffed myself sick.
Our kitchen remained in wrecked condition for a couple more days, my Mam for about the same length of time. She did reappear downstairs on Friday morning with a warning to “Say nowt to your Da’; understand?” I got some tea that night, baked beans with egg, sausage and bacon, so I knew there had to be money in the house. This fry-up was my favourite food in those days; a sort of apology from Ma’, though I knew the wrong that lurked in the still corners of the house had not been righted – would probably never be righted. But I kept my side of the bargain by keeping my story from Da’, even agreeing with Ma’s explanation that she had just ‘leaned on the worktop a bit too hard’.
That Saturday the rain relinquished its hold for long enough to allow a morning stroll with Sue in bright sunshine along Rob Bentley Way to The Bridge. I suppose I was too young to dwell on it at the time but thinking back I can see how changes were happening in my life. A summer since I would not have dreamed that Sue Crabtree and I would be walking with one another on The Bridge. – Jonna had always been my companion then: throughout our growing years we were sworn friends; amigos, inseparable. Girls? Well, girls were all right, but they had their own world, their own society. Suddenly, though, the lines were becoming fudged, the divisions not so clear.
Sue in her shorts and a green halter top, me in a white t-shirt and jeans that had seen better days, we stopped to gaze down at the black lizard of river far below.
“It’s that high up, this! It makes me giddy!” Sue said. “How can they do it? I couldn’t, Chas. I really couldn’t.”
“Maybe they sort of have to. Like there’s no other way, or something?”
There was an expression in our town, known to us all. To go ‘down The Bridge’ spoke of a final solution for some who had ended themselves by climbing over that parapet and leaping to the stony waters far below. In our town, everyone knew someone who had gone that way. With time and legend, the numbers had grown.
We walked on. I was anxious not to stay. No-one tarried longer than they had to on that bridge unless a memory drove them there, or for other, darker reasons. Being even a distant cousin to someone who had taken the leap was sufficient to taint your name, and the memory of two unfortunate relatives blighted our family. The association made us different in a sad, almost morbid way. We became the earthly ghosts of those departed, the pale faces staring in at the window.
Sue said: “Didn’t your Aunty May…”
And I cut her off. “Yeah. Yeah that’s right. But I never knew her much.”
A half hour from town we left the footpath to trudge through long grass beside a farmer’s hedge, eyed as we passed by speculative sheep. A small woodland of oak and beech led us back down to the river. Here, where the sun could find us, in shelter from the wind, we could sit and talk about weighty things, or not talk about still more weighty things, and the time would melt away.
This was the river above the town, wooded on both sides; skittish from a playful squeeze between obdurate whinstone cliffs. The water was deep and black and sometimes, when the hills were laden with rain it became a red roaring fury, jostling and barging through rocks which braced themselves grimly against the onslaught. On such days it was dangerous to cross – you could stand just toe-deep in the current and the pull on your foot could make you slip Even today, with the flow still bloated after a week of rain, the wisest thing would be to remain on the northern bank: but we were young; we were not wise. And Sue, so nimble, leapt from stone to stone like the young deer she was. I could only admire and follow.
“It’s wrong, you know.” Sue stretched her shoulders. “They don’t move.”
We had found a patch of shorter grass already drying in fierce sun. Side by side, we sat staring at the rush of water.
“How d’you mean?” Sue’s top exposed more of her flesh than I was used to seeing, and I was distracted by a tiny mole on her right shoulder. “You’re not going to go on about your stick again, are you?”
Years ago, when she first came to this place – long before I knew of its existence – Sue told me she had pushed a stick into the soft ground on the higher riverbank; just beyond reach of the water. By standing in a certain place, her back to a certain tree, she could line the stick up with a tree on the other side of the river, her idea being to track any movement of the larger boulders on the river bed.
“They tell us how the river carries stones and rocks downstream. They’re wrong; it doesn’t.”
“Suppose someone moved your stick?”
Sue shook her head. “I’d know. I think the water only moves the smaller stones. Glaciers have to do the big stuff.”
“That’s no good, then, is it? We haven’t had a glacier down here in years.”
Without thinking, I had let my fingertips explore Sue’s skin around that mole, intrigued, I suppose, by its slight imperfection. My absent, soporific expression gave me away. She flashed me a quirky smile.
“You’re not going to start getting funny, are you?”
I felt my colour rising. What had I done? “Funny? Nah!”
I grasped my hands around my knees, wrapping them almost convulsively to my chest, and stared hard at the river. And even though I knew when Sue’s hand softly brushed my neck, and I heard her say gently: “It’s all right, Chas.” I held myself rigid.
They kept happening! I didn’t like them, those awkward, clumsy moments; like an afternoon by the old jetty two weeks before when Sue had planted a spontaneous kiss on my cheek, in front of our sniggering friends.
“Careful! You’ll get him going!” Sarah Coldbatch had warned. She didn’t really know what she meant, of course, and neither did I, but she made it sound like kick-starting a motorbike.
“I’d better get back.” I said, when I dared scramble to my feet.
Sue agreed. “Yeah.”
“I’m going to football this afternoon.”
Few words were exchanged as we walked back to the town. Yet, if we seemed awkward, tongue-tied, there was nothing broken, or even bruised between us, and I remember Sue’s hand finding mine, and how I clasped it with new-found meaning. No, we were faster, deeper friends. We had simply found a new level, one which was confusing to us both. It was something we had to work out.
As we crossed The Bridge we came upon John Hargreave, elbows resting on the same parapet that had supported us, an hour before. John’s chin rested on his hands, and his eyes looked empty and remote, intent upon something in the far distance.
“Now then, John!” I said. Sue joined in with my greeting.
John responded slowly. “Chas; Susan.” He did not turn, or acknowledge us in any other way. Somehow, we knew he did not want our company, and we walked by.
Sue glanced back over her shoulder. “Is he all right, do you think?” She was concerned.
“It’s just Greavesie,” I said. “He’s deep, yeah?” But I worried, nonetheless.
John Hargreave, the quiet, thoughtful one; whose thoughts were never spoken, but kept hidden somewhere inside him until a time of his choosing. John Hargreave was the clever one in our little group, and we were friends, but always somehow at arms’ length. No-one I knew had or would get close to John.
I said goodbye to Sue at the corner of Ox Terrace. We faced each other with the same awkwardness we had felt after that moment at the river bank, filled with an emotion new to us, feeling more than a little frightened. I thought she would just walk away, was not ready for her quick kiss on my cheek, or the squeeze of my hand. Then she was gone. I watched her easy, swinging gait until she was lost to view.
My birthday was still a month away, and it was suddenly important to me. I could not wait to be fifteen.
© Frederick Anderson 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.