The shadow of my forthcoming court appearance loomed large on the Wednesday evening when I dutifully turned up for football practice with Casterley Town Juniors. I was so preoccupied with the prospect (as foretold by Trevor Bull) of a certain custodial sentence that even the news I would be wearing the number seven shirt for our season’s first match two weeks thence did little to lighten my mood. I said nothing, but privately doubted I would be able to honour that commitment. Danny, picked to wear the number eight, tried his best to encourage me, although he was as much aware of the sitting magistrates’ fearsome reputation as Trevor.
“H’away, man, it might not be that bad, y’na? Time soon passes, dunnit?”
The general ethos that evening was ecstatic: Casterley Juniors had only beaten Maberley Juniors twice in twenty years, and never by a margin of three goals. Danny and I were interlopers, though, which caused a certain amount of atmosphere despite Jack Masters’ careful avoidance of any particularly targeted praise. My newspaper article did not help. Throughout the session I was reminded of my new-found fame:
“Don’t just sit on’t ball, man, pass it to The Star!”
“Star! Star! Ah’m bloody out here, man. Hand it off!”
We were to practice again the following week for our impending match with Hall Park. This was to be an away game against a side with a tendency towards the physical. Jack’s comment as we broke up betrayed his concern:
“If you haven’t got shin guards, buy some!”
Dusk was gathering as I turned the corner into our street, one of those rare, rose-red sunsets that cast a wash of pink over grey tarmac, grey slates and grey walls. Our town, never beautiful, never sensual, clothes its native hills with a beguiling dignity at certain times and this was one. Such was the oasis of peace I found there, the sense of tranquil waters in a day of stormy seas, that I caught myself softening my tread upon the paving, as if in reverence. But then, suddenly, the Wednesday peace was shattered. An ancient Audi, a road warrior, screeched around one corner at speed, blasted its discordant anger at walls that rattled back, screeched around another corner, and was gone. In its memory it left a pungent aroma of hot catalyser, a blue haze and a deeper, more silent silence.
Sue was erased from my life unless, somehow, I could fight for her. A disturbance, climactic and profound, that had been as brief as a warrior car in its passing, with as much nobility, as much intractable fury as a fierce act of love could muster, now over and silent ever after. Just a blue haze of memory and a darker, deeper silence. I would always love her, I would never forget her. Did she, would she, remember me?
‘This is how it’s got to be, Chas. It’s for the best.’
A slam of a front door, the door of my home, brought me to myself. A female figure, tall and formidable, was storming away up the street in a fusillade of heels. Shelley Crabtree, freshly outraged.
I found my mother in our living room, pacing angrily.
“What did she want?” I asked.
“What did she want? What did she want?” My mother shrilled. “You might well ask, what did she want! T’think I used to be friends wi’ that woman! Bloody bitch! Bloody, friggin’ bitch!”
Not for a long while, not since her last towering row with my father, had I seen my mother so incensed. She was wringing her hands so tightly her knuckles were white and the muscles in her neck stood as proud and taut as hawsers. Those eyes I had thought to have cried themselves dry many years ago were red with tears.
“Chas; Chas, pet. They’ve got it all sorted out! Mack, he knows the magistrates. That cow, she wants you to plead guilty to buggering her bloody windows, plead guilty to all of it, or…”
“Oh aye?” I couldn’t keep the tremor from my voice; “Or what, Ma?”
“Or she says Mack’s going to have you charged with rape.” My mother shook her head convulsively, as though trying to loose herself from the malevolent black crow of misfortune that had sunk its talons in her skull. “Oh, and she’s goin’ to dob us in for workin’ on the knock, and I don’ kna’ what else, so ah’l have nae money. Oh, Chas, man!”
Ours was not a tactile relationship. I could not remember the last time I had put my arms around my mother in an embrace. It felt awkward, I felt inhibited, even now when I could tell how desperately she needed – not so much to be loved, but to know she was not standing against her world alone. I held her, feeling the strangeness of unaccustomed intimacy, for a while, until those tightened sinews in her neck and shoulders relaxed. “Is that what I’m to do, then?” I asked her at last. “Do you want me to say I’m guilty, Ma?”
She plucked a grubby handkerchief from her sleeve to mop her eyes. “I dunno. You didn’t do nothing bad to young Susan, did you? Tell me you didn’t Chas: tell me the truth, pet!”
“No, Ma, I didn’t. I wouldn’t ever hurt Sue; you must know that.”
“That’s the truth, is it then? I suppose I do.” My mother sniffed, drawing back from me. “As much as I kna’ anythin’ anymore.”
“Why is she doing this?” I wondered. “She doesn’t think I should go out with her daughter; well, she’s fixed that. Does Mack honestly believe I attacked his house? What’s it about?”
“If I knew, son, I’d tell yer. I don’t know. You’ll have to decide what’s best to do. I’m going to tell Bertie I can’t work for him no more, unless he puts me on his books. We’ll have to manage on just the benefits if I can’t get nothing else.”
I carried the mystery of it all away to my bed that night, lying awake for long hours into the morning, thinking about what was to come, listening to the clock ticking down, and wondering why I did not quite believe my mother.
Thursday dawned, as all dread days inevitably must. I dressed in my best charity shop shirt, tie, bomber and trousers, then my mother summoned me downstairs, already feeling like an errant schoolboy, to be cooked a wholesome breakfast of fried eggs with sausages, fried bread and black pudding. As an only child who rarely ate more than cereal and toast for breakfast it was hard for me to escape the inference; perhaps this was to be my last meal at home for some time – Ma was not expecting me back for tea.
Mother and son, then, we sat side by side on the Bedeport bus, rattled and jarred like two wooden marionettes; facing forward, unspeaking, thoroughly ill at ease. The Casterley to Bedeport route included a bus stop right outside the County Court building. It was a request stop, so the moment either of us stood to press the bell our destination and our purpose was clear. I could feel the eyes of the other passengers on my back as we descended to the street, and as the bus pulled away behind us, my mother and I, I am sure I heard the jury go into session.
The County Court was a modern building, light and spacious. Perhaps its generously proportioned vestibule, or maybe the people who were already waiting there, made me feel intimidated,? Nel Kershaw, who stood apart from them, earnestly warned us against speaking to anyone. This for the benefit of my mother, who had already bridled at the sight of Shelley and Mackenzie Crabtree, engaged in discussion with a man of middle years whose improbably luxuriant white hair overflowed his collar.
“You look smart!” Nel treated me to a bright smile. “Be yourself, Charles, okay, and whatever you do, be respectful. Don’t get cross.”
“I won’t” I assured her. “Who’s the albino?”
She chuckled. “He’s representing The Crown. His name is Charles, too. Charles Cole – and he isn’t an albino! Try to relax, everyone here has your welfare in mind. We want to do what’s best for you.”
“They don’t!” My mother responded bluntly, nodding towards the Crabtrees.
An hour elapsed before we were ushered into the courtroom by a spare, sallow clerk. Whatever my expectations, the room seemed innocuous enough, as amply lit as the waiting area and lined with light oak veneer. There were seats laid out in three rows and a dock, but I took a chair beside Nel in the front row of seats. My mother sat on the row behind us, Mr. Cole on the front row to our right, the Crabtrees in the seats behind him, and the detective constable from the day of my arrest, with a burly companion (obviously there to restrain any over-exuberance on my part) to the right of my mother. Three red leather-backed chairs faced us from behind a close-fronted desk on a dais at the front of the room, and a substantial woman with a stenotype occupied a little booth to the left. We were asked to stand as a door beside the red chairs opened and the two magistrates entered.
“Only two?” I whispered to Nel. After all, there were three chairs, weren’t there?
“For a case like this, yes.” She nodded. “Sometimes it’s three.”
They seated themselves on two of the red chairs, the magistrates, and we sat down too. Throughout my appearance I remained unsure which was Councillor Taylor and which was Mr Stuart March. I improvised my own identification, naming the bloated, bucolic man in blazer and cords Councillor Taylor, because he was reasonably close to my image of how a Councillor should look. Ruddy in appearance, almost hairless, when he sat down his eyes bulged like a frog. His companion, he whom I entitled Stuart March, fitted my mind’s image of a magistrate: grey suited, thin, wispy, and generously thatched. He seemed to have a crooked back, for throughout my hearing his head remained bowed, forcing him to look at me through a pair of brambly eyebrows.
The one I have named Taylor stared down upon us. “Who is the accused here?” His voice was breathy, and the breath was short, so he spoke in gusts.
Nel made a gesture of rising to her feet, and nodded in my direction. “Charles Haggerty, your worship.”
Taylor addressed the pale, slight man who had ushered us in. “Mr Trevelyan, this is a criminal case, isn’t it?”
“Er, yes Sir.”
“Very well, then, put the accused in the dock. We won’t have slipshod standards in our court.”
Nel muttered: “Oh, really!” A heavy police hand clamped on my shoulder and propelled me from my seat around the back of the room to the little pulpit enclosure that was an accusation in itself. Mackenzie Crabtree observed my progress, his face creased in a sneer that was less than pleasant, but it was Nel’s protest that encouraged me. “May I respectfully remind your worships that Mr Haggerty is a juvenile?”
“We need no such reminder, young woman.” March retorted. “Read the charges, if you please, Mr Trevelyan?”
Little Trevelyan recited the allegations against me. Taylor stared at me: “Mr Haggerty, I trust you are going to save us all a lot of time by entering a guilty plea to this?”
Nel’s fury wafted up to me. I could almost hear her tongue being bitten. “Sir, my client wishes to enter separate pleas to each charge.” Taylor flashed daggers at her. He sighed heavily. “Very well. Read each charge individually, Mr Trevelyan.”
And Mr. Trevelyan did. I entered my guilty plea to the charge of damage to William Hill’s shop window, then pleaded innocence to the others. The Crabtrees’ reaction to this was barely restrained: Mackenzie twisted his neck to look back at me with such explosive anger I startled like a scared rabbit, while Shelley hissed something inaudible across the centre aisle at my mother. My mother showed no restraint at all.
“Don’t threaten me, yer slattern!” She got to her feet, advancing on Shelley, and forcing the Detective Constable to step quickly across her path.
March’s voice slid between them like a flow of arctic ice. “Order in this court. Madam, if you interrupt proceedings again we shall evict you. Sit down.”
The chill was contagious, apparently. My mother sat down as if she had been punched. I caught a glimpse of Mr Trevelyan’s raised eyebrows. In her little booth the stenographer, who had been typing every sniff, continued tapping with the confidence of one who knew how to spell ‘slattern’.
Details of damage to the shop window were read out, together with an estimate of costs. Mackenzie gave his evidence, prompted expertly by the albino, giving him opportunity to accuse me of assaulting his daughter. Nel rose to her feet to object – I was not being tried for attacking Ms Crabtree.
Nel was ruthlessly efficient in dissecting Mackenzie’s story. She asked him to recognise a copy of his own statement to the police, and as he squinted and leant forward to read it she pounced. “This is no more than six feet away in broad daylight and you have difficulty in reading it, Mr Crabtree. How close do you claim to have been to this assailant, standing as you were in your first floor window, at night, overlooking your unlit drive?”
“I saw him clearly. He broke our windows. It was his voice shouting. It was him.” Mackenzie pointed straight at me. “He’s a danger to me and my family. He should be put away.”
It was my mother’s fifth shouted accusation of “liar!” at about this time that finally got her thrown out of the courtroom. Thereafter proceedings ground on for another hour; evidence from the arresting officer and production of a file by Mr Trevelyan that was, if I recall, Hubert Powell’s report concerning my adequacy as a human being; throughout all of which their worshipss slouched in their leather-backed chairs with expressions of bored disinterest. The clock was nudging midday when the albino produced David Crabtree’s written testimony that he had seen me in the Crabtree’s drive when the windows had been broken.
Nel was on her feet instantly. “Is he here? Your worships, this is a material witness. We have a right to cross-examine.”
Taylor huffed. “I’m afraid she’s right, Mr. Cole. Can you produce him?”
“Not immediately, your worship.”
“Well, you had better try to find him. Madam..erm…Kershaw, do you have anyone else you want to call?”
“I have a witness who will testify my client was at home at the time of the alleged offence, sir.”
“Is this person here?” March enquired.
“Somewhere, sir. You evicted her.”
“Ah. His mother then. No doubt she will insist he was playing cards with her, or some such. Is her testimony corroborated? No, of course it wouldn’t be, would it? Let’s move on, shall we, Mr. Cole?”
The albino assented. Nel tried to object, but Taylor dismissed her with a gesture. She said, coldly: “I’d like the opportunity for my client to take the stand?”
“Very well, we’ll adjourn for an hour. Get some lunch. Mr. Cole, if you can produce your witness we’ll hear his testimony, and that of Mr Haggerty, when we re-convene. If not, we’ll make our judgement on the evidence we have. We’ve spent enough time on this”
Outside in the corridor there was visible panic in the Crabtree camp. Nel commented. “They somehow have to get young David here for one o’clock if they want his evidence to be admissible. I can only think that they believed he wouldn’t be needed. In other words, they had reason to suppose you would plead guilty. Could that be true?”
My mother watched Shelley Crabtree as she hastened away towards the telephone booths at the end of the foyer. “Her.” She said. She told her story of the previous evening, inducing Nel’s eyebrows to rise higher and higher.
“Really? Mr Crabtree made that accusation just this morning, didn’t he? Look, I have to do some catching up – life goes on, back at the office. I’ll meet you here again at One.”
“Miss Kershaw?” I caught her as she was turning away.
“Call me Nel, please. What is it Charles?”
“Have we got a chance?”
“I don’t know. We’ll soon see.”
My mother was even less encouraging, if that was possible. “I don’t know, son. All the while I was in there, them two mag’strates just sat like they was half asleep, not payin’ attention, y’kna? I think they’d got their minds made up before they comed out of that door, meself.”
We ate some sandwiches my mother had packed, sitting on a bench in a small park behind the court building. The wind was rising, clouds gathering for rain. As people rushed about us, hither and thither, I wondered what detention would be like, and how, once I was inside, I would pass the time. It could not be for long, my incarceration, but suddenly freedom seemed extraordinarily important, somehow.
My mother nudged me. “Leave yer crumbs for the pigeons, pet. Time we was getting back.”
Shelley had not been able to find her son, so Nel moved that his evidence be set aside, and this was accepted, grudgingly as I thought, by Councillor Taylor. All that was left was for me to take the stand and read off the oath that was written on the card: “I swear by Almighty God that…”
Nel questioned me kindly. She asked me to repeat my guilty plea to the shop window damage, then confirm my innocence of the other charges. “Where were you when the alleged crimes were committed?”
“I was at home.”
“And you had no knowledge of offences against Mr Crabtree’s home and person until you learned about them in your interview with Detective Constable Worsley?”
Did you break the windows of Mr Crabtree’s home?”
“Did you threaten Mr Crabtree’s person?”
The albino (as I had entitled him – his eyes were actually brown) stood up. “Mr Haggerty, I’m puzzled. Why are you so antagonistic towards Mr Crabtree?”
I shook my head. “I’m not. He used to be friends with my Da.”
“And yet you were heard shouting your threats of violence against him in the street, at the dead of night, and you broke a shop window. Why?”
“His daughter was a – a close friend. He took her away, told me I couldn’t see her anymore. I was drunk. I didn’t mean the things I said.”
“The exact words you used, I believe, were: ‘I’m going to slit him’. Is that right?”
“It’s just an expression, sir. Not something I was going to do. I know that was wrong. I’ll never use those words again.” I added, humbly.
“Yet you did use them again – those exact words – to his face, as he looked down on you from his bedroom window.”
“No, sir. I wasn’t there. I didn’t go to his house. I never, sir.”
As soon as Cole had finished questioning me, Nel stood up. “One further question, Charles. Earlier, Mr. Crabtree accused you of assault against his daughter. Is that true?”
“No, Ma’am. I would never hurt Sue. I love her.”
Other than the growls of Crabtree protest at my declaration, the room dropped into an expectant hush. Their worships Taylor and March conferred. It was a brief discussion. Stuart March turned his eyebrows in my direction.
“Young man, you plead guilty to the charge of criminal damage. For this offence the court sentences you to perform 40 hours of community service.
“As to damage to Mr Crabtree’s property and threats made against his person – this Court feels it should set an example.” He fixed me with a fierce look; “So we consider a custodial sentence should be appropriate to this case. However, prosecution asks us to rely only on Mr Crabtree’s recollection of events, and…” March waved a sheet of paper from the desk before him; “A respected teacher in your community who is also your football coach, apparently feels you have a successful career beckoning. So…” the magistrate’s face softened into his version of a smile…”We shall sentence leniently and bind you over to keep the peace for a period of one year, during which you do not approach Mr or Mrs Crabtree or go within five hundred yards of their home. Mr Haggerty, you are free to go.”
I’ll admit to my jubilation, I’ll admit that in the exuberance of my gratitude I performed a small and totally ridiculous dance in that big, airy foyer as I spouted a verbal shower of thanks over Nel Kershaw’s head, and I will admit it took a full minute for me to realise she was not smiling.
“Charles, there’s something I think I would be wise to tell you. At lunchtime I spent a lot of effort trying to find someone who, because of what your mother told me, might have assisted our case; someone I thought might have been loyal to you. I couldn’t find her. In fact, no-one seems to be able to find her.
“Susan Crabtree has vanished.”
© Frederick Anderson 2018. 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.