“I don’t know, Chas, do I?” Sarah Coldbatch protested. “I’m not Sue’s keeper. She’s gone, that’s all I know.”
“Said nowt to none of us, man.” Jonna declared in his girlfriend’s support. “Joost booggered off, middle of the night, Dave said.”
The scene was MacDonalds on the Friday morning, the day after my case. It should have been a time for celebration, had I not been told of Sue’s unexpected departure. The joy of my small victory had dwindled to dust alongside this news, and I was trying to get more information.
“Looka,” Jonna leaned across the table; “She were changed, Chas. Affer you’s had that run in wi’ ‘er Da, she barely spoke to us, nivver! She coomed to school wi’ Dave, she walked ‘ome wi’ Dave. She divvent want ter know us, man!”
Sarah nodded. “It was like she couldn’t wait to get away; from the school, from us, from ever’thing. I Mean, we were her friends, y’kna?”
Jonna said: “We didn’t wanna tell yer. Chas man, ‘cause yer were hurtin’ enough already, y’kna? ‘Cause it wasn’t nuffin’ terr’ble nor nowt. She was jus’ stand offish, like.”
What were my feelings? I was worried, I was puzzled; maybe I was a little confused. I tried to express these conflicting emotions to John Hargreave, when I called at his house later that day. He was evasive, to begin, and tried to divert the conversation to other matters: did I feel relieved now the court case was over, what were my plans for the coming football season, how was I going to serve my forty hours of community service? I gave answers, inasmuch as I knew them, to each of these things.
“Have you seen this?” We were in his bedroom. He reached for a magazine that lay open on his desk and thrust it at me. Photographs of some unattractive black electronics dominated the page. “That’s the future, man! Analogue cellular phones, Chas! No strings, yeah? You can carry them around with you, make calls from them, get calls on them. They’re the future! America’s got them, Japan’s got them, Australia, Israel – we’ll be having them next – think o’ that!”
I remember my scepticism. I never shared John’s gift for prediction. To me, the prospect of carrying something around which resembled in appearance and probably weighed the equivalent of a house brick seemed uninspiring. I said so.
“They’re just the first. They’ll get smaller, you’ll see! Give it five years and everyone will have one.” His tone was suddenly grave. “She always fancied you, you know?”
“Aye, daft really, the way it works. She liked you, right from when we were nay high. I liked her, she didn’t even notice me. Seems to me girls decide like that. No reason in it, none at all. I’m cleverer than you, I’m better lookin’ than you, and she still picked you, y’bastard .”
“And now she’s unpicked me. So we’ve both lost, haven’t we?” I said.
“She must have took her sunglasses off.” John nodded. “I miss her.”
“Even without her glasses?” On reflection, I must have been aware of the candle John held for Sue, but I had taken little account of it until now. John was, in Sue’s assessment, ‘deep’, and that was undeniably so; his heart was buried deep, a treasure in a labyrinth where only those who had need could find it, but it was a strong heart and loyal, and it served his true friends, be they few, with unswerving faith.
“So you’ll be off with Angela Carey, now then?” John asked. “You’ve pulled there, man. You must have noticed?”
“Aye. I’m not much in need of a lass right now.” I said. “I was hoping to find Sue.”
“Aye.” My friend burrowed into a sheaf of papers on his desk and extracted a large photograph. “Seen this? While you was busy getting’ your end away ah took a train down to Heathrow for the day. Took that from the observation deck, man! That is one radical aeroplane, isna?”
“Yes, it is.” I found myself looking at an extremely good picture of a British Airways Concorde, taken as it approached the terminal buildings from a taxi lane, and I had to remind myself that by entering John’s room I was voluntarily immersing myself in his world of technological enchantment, because that was the essence of him – it was where he found solace when reality proved too painful, as it often did, for John.
“The day after you left school she came back – she’d been on ‘study leave’ or something, at least that’s what was said – and she hardly spoke to any of us. She just sat through lessons, answered the questions Chemical Carter asked, stayed in the classroom for breaks, sat at a separate table wi’ Dave for dinners; all that. She came to school with Dave, she walked home with Dave. It was like he was her bodyguard, or summat; and he wouldn’t say anything, neither. We used to have good chats, Dave and me. Weird!”
“She was under pressure.” I surmised.
“Off her Da’, you reckon? Mebbe’s. How well d’y’know him, Chas? He’s serious.”
I shook my head. “I thought I knew him quite well, once. Mind, it could have been her Ma who was leaning on her. Jonna says she left in the middle of the night.”
“Aye. We did get Dave to tell us that much. It was like he didn’t want to talk about it at all, y’na? She slipped out in the night, he reckons. She packed some stuff, cleared her savings book the day afore. Not even her Ma and Da’ knew. Just sneaked off. Doesn’t seem sense to me – she was due to sit her GCEs in a couple of months. Everything goin’ for her, man. Doesn’t seem sense.”
“She was supposed to be going to live with her aunt, or someone, in Bedeport – study for her ‘A’ levels there, at the college.”
“I know a couple of lasses who go there.” John volunteered. “I can find out if she’s there, easy enough.”
It would be a week or two before I knew for certain. Sue was not attending Bedeport college.
What do you do? What do you do at sixteen, with all your life before you and a love already in your past? This you do not do – you do not forget. You try to find someone who has left this massive hole in your life: you ask questions, you follow trails that were not taken, you ponder and reason and scheme within yourself as you try to understand; but you are young and your days are full, and with time you learn to consign to the past that which belongs there.
Yes, you ask: at the railway station if anyone remembers a dark-haired girl with blue eyes who boarded an early morning train, at the bus station, the cab drivers your mother knows, even your own mother if she could have taken Susan’s call one night. You try to get to talk to her other friends, to visit the club where she went to practice Judo, the amdram group where she was cast to play in a Christmas pantomime; but all you find are dropped threads, others as clueless as yourself. With time and without funds eventually there is no other place to turn, so you cease your search. Then, finally, you move on.
Carlo made pizzas. His Emporio Da Pizza wafted an air of toasting cheese and baking bread down the length of Front Street every night promptly at six o’clock, drawing a steady dribble of customers, and no matter if the occasional ‘roach might be seen tanning itself in the reflected heat of his stone oven, his food had a reputation of which he was proud.
“Is the best, the ingredients I use. Is the tomatoes, sun-dried fresh from Napoli, the best-a mozzarella of the buffalo of my blessed country, the finest pepperoni! Is beautiful, that I cook! Is perfecto!”
I met Carlo while my community service group was cleaning the alley behind his Emporio. He wanted a delivery rider and I wanted a job, so I will always be grateful to Carlo. From him I learned the joys of riding a motorised vehicle because a scooter with a set of ‘L’ plates came with the package. He even financed my first licence.
The very first thing I learned about Carlo was his nationality, because Carlo was an Italian of convenience. His real name was Carl, he actually came from Sheffield, and although he insisted he had an Italian grandfather somewhere I was inclined to believe his parentage was shrouded in mystery. To his customers, he was from Napoli, which was probably the only Italian city name he knew. At the back of his shop, in his storeroom, or when the takeaway was devoid of clientele, his accent and his dialect was broad Yorkshire.
Then there was all I gained in knowledge from Carlo. He taught me how to make his ‘perfecto’ pizza; how to knead and spin the dough into a symmetrical base and how to deck it with the buffalo mozzarella that was analogue cheese, the tomatoes that originated in a tin and the pepperoni that came from Tesco’s. In short, he taught me much about the quintessence of commercial success; that it is not the integrity of the item you sell but the intensity of its presentation.
“You buy-a from me you buy the finest – the very finest!”
His customers believed him. They believed him knowing if you wanted pizza the alternatives in Casterley were even worse, or because they liked his floor show, or after ten o’clock because they were so drunk it didn’t matter anyway.
Carlo was kind. “You ask-a my people he work for me I am a generous man, no?”
“Carlo, can I take the scooter home tonight?”
“Aye, lad, awreet. Keep it in yer yard, mind, we don’t want it stolen do we?”
He would agree, such was his faith that I would return the bike to him promptly at six the following night. If it would start, of course. That was a lottery in itself.
In the meantime, football dominated more and more of my days, as my involvement with Casterley Town Juniors grew. Although our fixtures were limited in number, I played in all twenty matches against the other Junior teams in our league, and I scored at least one goal in each. By the following summer we were second in the league and I was the top scorer. By the summer of ‘eighty-eight I was eager for another season, and indecently pleased with myself.
It took Jonna to remind me of my fan club: Angela.
“When’re yer gonna date the poor lass, man? She’s gorrit sommat chronic fer thee, like. Ah’m tempted ter try for ‘er mesen’. Ah cud let her use me fer a night so she’s cud get to thee. Wha’ d’yer think o’ that?”
“I think that would be immoral.” I told him. “And I wouldn’t advise it, like. What if Sarah found out? She’d eat you alive!”
Jonna broached the subject in December, the middle of the season. I was zealous in my asceticism. Dating was out. But came spring there was Angela, still faithfully cheering in the home stand, and I weakened. From the terraces above the tunnel one Saturday in April, the last before our season closed, after a wet match on a soaked pitch, most of which I seemed to be carrying back into the dressing room with me, I couldn’t have seemed at my most attractive.
I called up to her. “Hi, Ange. What are you doing after?”
Her face lit up. “Oh, not much.”
With that Angela Carey and I became friends. We hung out together that first evening at Mr Pellosi’s, an ice cream parlour in the town, and we talked. Actually, Angela did most of the talking; rather as though she had been saving up everything she wanted to say to me for a year of distant longing and this was her time to let it out. Her voice was light and musical, her eyes were icy blue and bright as air, and it was a very pleasant evening, although, looking back upon it now, I cannot remember one thing she said. I walked her home in the rain to a house very like my own in a street quite near to mine. She was still talking, her eyes flashing with relections of the lamplight – because somehow evening had turned into night, and at her door her face came suddenly to within inches of mine, inviting a kiss. Was I ready for that yet? Did I even think before our lips were touching, reminding me painfully of a sweetness I had almost forgotten? When she stepped away she was aglow with happiness, so I was happy too, for a time. Yes, I was ready for that.
“Can I see you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, if you want.”
“Yeah, I want.”
The stamping feet of conscience were loud on the street behind me as I walked home. Almost a year had passed when all I had of Sue was memories and regrets, yet she still spoke quietly in my head, reminding me of our brief moment of union. A tiny demon, a creature I had kept buried in my psyche for a year sat upon my shoulder now, refreshing my conclusion that love meant trouble. Attachment always ended in pain. Concentrate on who you are and where you want to be, and never permit anyone to distract you from your path. Angela was very, very distracting.
Nevertheless, I fell into a relationship with her. It was so easy. She expected nothing from me, and that was her gift. If I was late, or if I cancelled an outing we planned together she did not complain; if I became impatient or angry she would remain quiet and step aside to let me flail at the cruel air for a while, knowing when to come close – knowing I would return to her when I was tired and ready to bathe in the calmness she bestowed. Her talk could flow over me and around me like warm rain, no matter that it lacked the food my intellect required. Angela was nothing about intellect: she was everything about presence and, I suppose, about love. Did I ever love her? To answer in the negative would seem unkind because she was no cypher, and all she gave to me should be acknowledged and honoured, but we were only seventeen. I felt privileged to be with her, and I think, conceited as I am, she had some love for me. We enjoyed each other, for a while.
Angela taught me that beauty was power, a lesson that has helped me through many a honey trap moment since those days. Motorists would stop at a pedestrian crossing when she was still ten yards from it, just so they could watch her cross in front of them, and maybe harvest a smile. Once, taking her home (illegally, because I was a learner) on the back of Carlo’s scooter the inevitable happened and a police motorcyclist pulled me over. My background being as it was, I quaked as the copper took out his notebook. Then Angela unclipped her helmet and shook out her long blonde hair, and the notebook disappeared. I could never completely define that quality in her, but some of it must have been down to her natural grace and some to her complete lack of angst or defiance. She exuded gentleness.
So that was my seventeenth year: Angela was my girl, John Hargreave was my friend, and football was my life. My photo appeared twice in the sports pages that season so I thought of myself as a pretty important member of small town society – hard though it may have been to equate such high status with a job delivering pizzas. Had you seen me then, you might have felt that my preposterous self-importance deserved a sharp dose of ego-puncture. Certainly there were cauldrons bubbling – in terms of celebrity Mackenzie Crabtree outdid me by three to one. A member of the council now, rumour suggested Mackenzie had his eye on selection as the local Member of Parliament; something of no concern to me, were it not for increasing evidence of the Crabtree finger in every pie. Mack’s portly figure made front page news for our local ‘paper – attending this or opening that; his money loudly supportive of good causes, his opinions sought on matters as diverse as local housing and national politics. And Shelley? Shelley was always on his arm, supporting him or, in my mother’s more acid opinion, being supported.
“Look at ‘er eyes, Chas. She’s ‘ad a skinful, that one!”
I regretted that there seemed no longer any prospect of personal contact between the Crabtrees and my mother. I might have wished it otherwise, because it offered the only means to gain information about Sue, but my mother was adamant.
“I’ll never talk to that bitch again!” And that was that.
Dave Crabtree had been moved to Ramphill, a private school over the river, down Lambtree way, apparently to help his ‘A’ level studies and prepare him for university entrance. We rarely encountered Dave, and if we did he ignored us.
One evening in July of 1988, just before my eighteenth birthday, Carlo dispatched me with a pizza order for Rossiter’s Hotel. Rossiter’s, a relatively new concrete barn on the riverside about two miles east of Casterley, is one of those anonymous multi-room establishments frequented by the business community, and popular because of its proximity to Bedeport. Orders for pizza emanated from there quite frequently, so this was a routine call. I knocked on the door of room 41. It opened promptly.
The man whose tall and substantial figure greeted me had a face and a voice I recognised.
The face grinned at me. It was a very broad, Cheshire Cat, ear-to-ear grin. “Ranton; call me Allen.” He said, standing aside for me. “Come in, Chas. Is this my pizza? Do you want a share?”
“I – I have to be getting back.” I stammered. Two years before, I remembered meeting Allen Ranton while training with Jack Master’s football class. Then he had been wrapped in an expensive suede jacket, sufficiently opulent for Jonna to suggest he might be a chicken ripe for the plucking., Back then he had commented upon my conduct in the tackle. Now, three seasons later, I understood what he had meant. I was in the congenial presence of a man who really knew about football.
“Don’t worry, lad. I had a word with your boss, Carlo. He isn’t expecting you back for a while.
Come and sit down, Chas. We’ve got summat to talk about.” He had a habit, I remembered, of leaning close to me, bending over me from his superior height and looking down. I had grown since then, yet not enough to meet him eye to eye. A coffee table with two tub chairs were clustered beside the room’s large window and he threw the pizza box down on the table, planting himself in one of the chairs, waving to the other. “Here y’are, don’t be shy lad. Grab a piece!”
He led by example, grabbing a fistful of Four Seasons and stuffing his cheeks with it. Trying to catch up with this string of surprises, I followed more timidly, picking at a slice of pizza as I slithered into the chair and wondering what could possibly be happening.
Allen was not averse to speaking with his mouth full. “Right! Now this isn’t complicated. Do you know what I do? No. Alright, I’m an agent. You know what an agent is, right? Well, I’m one. I represent footballers. Why do footballers need me? Because the bastards who want them to play in their teams try to tie them up as tight as possible and pay them as little as possible. I do the scrapping, I do the bargaining, I do the politics, Chas. I get players the money they deserve and more besides. Now, lad, do you know what this is?” A briefcase was stashed, open, beside his chair and from it he produced a binder full of A4 sheets.
My eyes must have been as wide as saucers by then. “A contract?”
“That’s right. You catch on quick; I like that. It’s a contract with your name on it, Charles Haggerty, and if you sign it you will be bound to me. I’ll explain why…”
And explain Ranton did. He showed me his ‘client list’, names familiar to me as among the top earners in football. Then he told me how his business thrived on new, young talent, and how he took no more than a basic fee while he ‘developed them’ through the game.
“If I didn’t think you had the ability, lad, I wouldn’t be having this conversation; there’s no money in it for me, not at this stage. But you’ve got a future, and if you’re my client it’ll be profitable for both of us.”
That was when he dropped the bombshell. “Casterley Town are interested in you. They want you in the team for the beginning of the season.”
I remember it so well. I think – no, alright, I admit, though I’m not proud of it – I burst into tears. Allen thrust a napkin at me.
“Don’t get too excited. I’m sure you know they’re in danger of dropping out of the league, and most of the team make up their earnings from their old age pension, so they won’t pay you much, although there are some politics involved – you needn’t bother with them – which give us leverage.” He passed the contract to me. “Now I don’t want you to sign this tonight. Take it with you, show it to a solicitor, make sure you’re happy with everything. If you are, sign it and give it to Jack Masters when you see him on Wednesday. He’ll see that I get it. Don’t put it off, though, I need to get the deal sorted soon.”
© 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