It was a reflex action. The naked man standing opposite me in the corridor of my home was Mackenzie Crabtree – no stranger to me – a man I had every reason to hate. My fury took over. I half-pushed, half shoulder-charged him, thrusting my full weight against his chest and sending him staggering backwards, off balance, into my mother’s room in what should only have been a beginning. I would have finished him, then. I would have followed him, crashing over the furniture to get to him. I would have flayed him, pounded him until no sense remained in that arrogant head, but my intended follow-up never happened because my mother’s bedroom door, rebounding from some obstruction as it was thrust wide, sprang shut with the ferocity of a man trap. Sounds of furniture splintering and my mother wailing in distress came from within, but as I made to throw the door open once more a hand gripped my arm, pulling me back.
“Coom away, man!” Angie’s hand it was, restraining me. Surprisingly strong, she interposed herself between me and the door. “Chas! Chas, pet! Coom away, man, Coom on!”
She pushed me back into my room, closing the door behind us. She stood in front of me, neither of us wearing a stitch of clothing, with her hands clamped over her mouth and her whole body shaking. “Oh, bloody ‘ell!” She fluffed the words through her fingers: she gasped the words through a gale of laughter. And my anger left me.
She was convulsing, helpless. “Man, you’ve no idea how bloody’ hilarious that were! It were like a French farce or something! That’s no way to treat yer guests!”
“What’s he doing with my mother?”
“Why, does that deserve an answer?” Angie turned to pick up her clothes. She threw my trousers at me. “Here, get yerself covered. I think wor might be interrupted soon.”
“You’re best out of this,” I told her. “I’ll take you home”
“Are you kiddin’? Act two’s just startin’ hon. I wouldn’t miss this for the world!”
She was right. I was still zipping up and Angie was at the knickers and bra stage when my mother burst into the room. She was wearing a slip, a flimsy thing trimmed with lace which put me in mind of a garment I had seen her wear some years before; in lilac then, in green satin now.
“I can’t wake him, Chas! Friggin’ help me, will yer? He hit he’s head on the dressing table as he fell. I canna wake ‘im, Chas! Ah think ye’ve killed ‘im!”
Mackenzie lay on his back with his head still resting on the top of the ruined dressing table, which had passed through the assembled part of its history and rediscovered its status as a flat-pack. In a transient fit of propriety my mother had draped a towel over his nether regions. His legs were already starting to kick around, as if anxious to prove he wasn’t dead.
“He’ll be brain damaged!”
“He won’t, Mam. He knocked hisself out, that’s all.” I gave Mack’s face a couple of slaps that may have been harder than they needed to be. His eyes opened, glaring at me. “There you are. Give him some water, then get him out of here. I’m guessin’ you’ve finished with him for tonight?”
“There’s no need for that, Chas!”
Had my mother been a woman blessed by the hand of wisdom she would have hustled Mackenzie Crabtree from the house then, as I advised. I wish she had. After Angie and I had returned to my room to finish dressing I heard the pair of them arguing, although the words were indistinct, and following that the sounds of footsteps on the stairs. When we descended, though, Mack was slumped in the easy chair by the fire. My mother was tending his head with a cold flannel. His face was tinted a none-too-delicate shade of vermillion and he was clearly displeased.
“I want a word with you!” He snarled.
“Gladly,” I said; “But not tonight. Frig off home, Mack!”
“He can’t drive. He’s confused!” My mother shrilled. “You’ve bliddy ‘urt him, yer fool. An’ ‘e’s done nothing wrong, has he, like?”
“Nothing wrong! He tried to get me put away that was wrong. He’s in my house, that’s wrong. He’s banging you when he’s married to Shelley, and god knows I don’t like her any more than him, but it’s still wrong! Now get ‘im out, before I really hurt him!”
Mack launched himself at me, half-stumbling. “You listen ‘ere, yer little frigger. If you… ”
I stood my ground. “If I what, Mack? What will you do, eh? What could you do, that you haven’t done already? I’m not afraid of you, not no more. There’s the door, man!”
He pushed his face close to mine. His breath was a gale so foul I could almost taste it. “Afraid of me? You should be, lad. You should be. You don’t say a word about this, y’hear? If you ever do, you’ll be the one who’s hurt, understand? And that goes for you too, young lass. Not a word. Just keep quiet, both of you. Mary…” He turned to my mother, “talk some sense into him, right?”
Mackenzie Crabtree swung on his heel and stormed out of the door.
I summoned up a shaky smile for Angie, who had been standing at the foot of the stairs all this time with her mouth agape. “Carlo’s still open. Fancy a pizza?”
We sat in the storeroom-come-office at the back of Emporio Da Pizza and discussed my fate in lowered tones while Carlo and his son Darren dispatched their last orders of the night. I no longer worked for Carlo, of course, but I still counted him as a friend, and he was happy to give us somewhere warm to sit and consume the best his oven could produce.
Angie was concerned. “I never met ‘im before. He’s a bad man, isn’t he?”
“He’s a frightened man, and when someone like Mack is frightened, he’s dangerous,” I told her. “He’s a Councilor, and now he wants to be a Member of Parliament. If word gets out he’s cheating on his wife…”
“What will you do? You shouldn’t go back there, Chas; not tonight, like.”
I agreed I could do with some space. “It’s my home, Ange. Where else am I to go?”
“Just for tonight, yer could come to mine.”
“Oh, aye! I can imagine your Da’ welcoming me with open arms!”
“He won’t mind, man! They know we’ve slept together, yeah?”
“You’ve told them!”
“Why, nor’ever’body’s as old-fashioned as Mack, yer kna’? No, I haven’t told ‘em, but they know. Anyways, there’s a spare room. You can sleep in there – least, you can start in there…” She giggled. “We’ll sort things out once they’re asleep. If they’re not asleep already, like.”
Angie was right. Her parents were broad-minded and besides, I think they saw me as an ideal soulmate for their daughter. Malcolm, her dad, was a Casterley supporter, Debbie, her mother, shared his generous spirit. I liked them a lot.
Darren wandered through, on his way to the alley with the first of the takeaway’s waste bins. “Glad that one’s over!” He said cheerfully. “T’scooter’s a bugger in this weather. Ah reckon ye’ knackered it, Chas!”
“It were knackered already,” I told him. Then, to Angie: “Tomorrow I’ll look for my own place. Can’t live back home, not now.”
Early the next morning I found my mother in our kitchen, sorting laundry. Dressing gowned and bleary-eyed, she blinked at me. “Where’ve you been?”
“I slept over Angie’s.” I had left home after confronting Mack with only the clothes I stood up in. This morning I was compelled to go back to get my training gear. “I’m getting myself a place,” I said.
“Oh man, why? You movin’ in with Angie?”
“No. I’m movin’ out of here. I can’t stay here, Mam.”
My mother’s face began to crumple. “Chas, man, don’t blame me. You don’t have to leave me, do yer? Wharama ganna do wi’out yer?”
“You’ll manage. Get Mack to take care of you. You’ll have the house all to yourselves, and I’m sure he’ll be pleased to make you a little allowance, like – especially if it’s the price for keeping me quiet.”
“He already does.”
My mother had begun punching laundry into the washing machine as though her clothing was the cause of all her misfortunes. “Look around yer, Chas! D’yer remember when we was short of money last? D’yer remember when you’s was always persterin’ wor for presents wor couldn’t afford? Don’t us live a little better na? Did y’think the Benefit was payin’ for all this?”
I stood justly accused. I had been so set upon my own career, so occupied with my own concerns I hadn’t seen the little changes my mother had wrought within our home. The kitchen with better units now, new covers on the chairs, curtains replaced, a new carpet in the front room. Had I really believed her evening job with the taxi firm had paid for it all? Or was it just convenient to avoid asking the difficult questions?
“You and Mack. How long have you been…”
“When yer brought the Social down on us, an’ I thought I was goin’ ter lose me job. He came then.”
“That’s two years. Two years!? He’s been givin’ you money for two years?” The full weight of revulsion struck me. “He’s been coming here for two years! And I’ve not known?”
“Nah, Chas, not all the time. Jus’ now and then, when I needed the cash, y’kna’? Not when he were takin’ yer to court – not then, Chas. I wouldn’t do that ter yer, man!”
“Oh, sure! But the week before, and the week after….”
“No! It weren’t offen. Mebbees a half dozen times, that’s all.” She grabbed my arms. “Chas, we was friends from way back. You kna’ that – remember the times yer used to go visiting wi’ David and Susan? When Mack heard yer Da’ left me, an’ ah was down on my luck? He helped out, y’see?”
“I do see. A true friend! It’s so hard to put an hourly rate on generosity, isn’t it, Ma?”
“It isn’t the way you think it is, son. Really not.” My mother paused to sort the strong colours from the bottom of her basket of clothes. “Looka, whatever yer think of me, stay here, man! As long as you don’t say nothing, Mack won’t harm yer. I made ‘im promise he wouldn’t harm yer, Chas.”
“Oh aye, like he always keeps his promises? No, Mam, I won’t hide from him, but staying here makes me just a little too easy to find.”
There was a tangle of blues and yellows that she put to one side. There was the green satin slip she had worn last night, there was…thin and flimsy…one garment more. She held it up briefly to fold and then, as though she suddenly realized what she was doing, slipped it quickly from sight at the bottom of the pile. It was too late. I had recognized the red dress.
Speechless, I picked up my training kit bag. I clutched it to my chest as if it were a child. I turned away. I walked out of the door.
You can, and do, walk away from many things in life, but you can’t walk away from the questions, the memories, the host of images from your past that need no camera to engrave their likeness on your mind, no album to keep them fresh. They meet you at every street corner, they admit themselves unbidden in every idle moment, they find you as you lay your head to sleep. Wherever you sleep. If – ever – you sleep.
In wakefulness now, I can see myself on that morning, knowing. Because I did know, even then, even as it happened, that its message would relay itself to me again and again down the years. It was a seminal moment I would never forget, the step from that door and the closing behind me that locked away all of my childhood and all of my growing forever.
I attended training, accepting all of Joe Pascoe’s carps and snarls, barely noticing as the hours passed. Some sort of desperation drove me, a pressure not to pause, not to think. As soon as I was released I headed for the largest of Casterley’s two letting agents to begin the process of finding myself an apartment – not difficult, you’d think, for Casterley Town’s new star striker, and not difficult in any town where the supply of accommodation far outstripped demand, especially on a cold day in January. I had reckoned without the agents’ reluctance to leave a warm office, which put much of the day behind me, idly kicking at intransigence, unable to control, unable to dictate. It was already dark when I got to view a first floor flat in a townhouse that was no more than ten minutes’ walk from the town, and I liked it well enough, for all that there is no chill like the chill of empty, unfurnished rooms in an empty house.
“The bottom flat’s available too, for a slightly higher rent – the garden goes with that one. The owners of the house have moved to Dubai. We’d have to get you approved, of course.”
She was a nice enough girl, just doing her job to the worst of her ability. She was cold and showed it. “How quickly can you get me in?” I asked her.
“Oh, within a week I should think.”
I was not without a roof. Angie’s mother had already set her seal of approval on her daughter’s guest and I could manage that week if I wanted, but I was driven. One door had closed, I wanted the portal to my new life to be opened – I wanted to step through.
“I’ll see what I can do. When I tell them who it is…”
I took the garden apartment, on the mistaken premise that because it was a little more expensive the deal might be done more quickly. In the event it took three days, during which the agents stripped my bank account with ruthless efficiency.
“They wanted a grand for a deposit,” I told Malcolm, Angie’s Da’, over tea. “And then the rent on top of that. It won’t leave me enough for furniture. I’ll be sleeping on the floor.”
Malcolm was a tower of a man with receding hair and many chins that concertinaed when he looked down at his hands, something he often did when he was deep in thought. He worked for the local council and his network of friends and acquaintances was endless. Everyone liked Malc, as he was commonly known. “A bugger ‘tis, that.” He agreed. “When’s’a get the keys?”
“It would be Saturday. The team’s away to Calhampton this week though, so I won’t be back ‘til about twelve. Is it all right to shack up here one more night? I’ll pay you back, I promise.”
“Nay, you’ll pay me nowt, lad! Lissen, can you set it up so our Ange collects the keys for yer? You’ll be able to get over there on Sunday and get stuck in, then, won’t yer?”
“Thanks, Malc. Good idea. I’ll meet her for lunch tomorrow and we’ll drop in at the agents.”
“What’s the prospects then, wi’ Calhampton? Are wor goin’ ter win, d’y’think?”
“Win? We’ll have to. I need the bonus!”
Calhampton was third in our league, and a three hundred mile tortuous journey in our team coach, which meant any vehicle the local tour company had to offer that week, after they had fulfilled their other obligations. This particular week’s choice did at least promise a safe arrival, something that had not always been a given in the past, but I hated the long journeys. Atmosphere between myself and the rest of the lads had thawed somewhat, so there was room for a certain amount of cut and thrust, but most of the time it was stultifying. I read books, I listened to tapes, I slept. Even the prospect of a match in a seaside town offered little solace. Hours of those unwanted memories and acres of fresh regret awaited me and I was powerless to keep them at bay. Had I wronged my mother? Was she genuinely in love with Mack? What if the red dress was just that and no more? What if those legs had belonged to some other unknown woman and I had jumped to conclusions once again?
Worst of all, it seemed to me that Sue’s voice was reaching out to me in the silence, sympathizing, telling me she understood my hurting, but insistent. “She is your mother, Chas. If there’s one person in the whole world who deserves your forgiveness, it’s her. She raised you. You can’t turn your back on her.”
The Calhampton game was an exhausting affair, one from which I could claim little glory because the home side had a valiant left back who stuck to me like glue. Patrick Boyle and I would become close friends later in our respective careers, but I was still learning how to deal with the better class of defender that afternoon, and he kept me subdued so thoroughly that I failed to score – the first time that had happened to me since Pascoe had allowed me to wear the number nine.
“Thanks,” I said heavily, as we left the field together.
Patrick grinned at me. “Not at all. I hope I get you next time!”
We still faced our return journey after playing the match to a draw, a result that seemed to please Pascoe. Whether as a consequence of the emotional upheaval of the last few days, or of the match itself, I slept for most of the eight hours we spent on the coach.
It was nearly one-thirty before I finally arrived at the Carey household to find Angie waiting up for me, with cocoa and secret smiles, full of the news she had picked up my keys; then gone to look at the apartment herself ‘just to be sure they were the right ones’.
“It’s a fabulous place, Chas. It’s just great! Can I come over with you tomorrow?”
I poured myself into bed to sleep, fitfully, for another six hours.
Sunday morning was born bright and dazzling; sun on snow. Angie and I rattled in an empty house as we ate breakfast.
“Where’re your parents?” I asked.
“Oh, they’ve gone to church, I ‘spect.”
“They’re not religious, are they?”
“Sometimes.” Angie was bubbling with eager energy.
“What are you going to do in the flat?” She asked as she bounded beside me on our walk towards the town.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll have to get a bed from somewhere, I guess. Hey, slow down will you, antsy?”
We should accept, I suppose, that whenever we close a door, finish a chapter in our lives, those who care about us will be anxious to help us journey to the new page; so I should not have been surprised to see Malcolm’s van parked in The Avenue, outside the townhouse at number fifteen. Nor could I find it in my heart to express anything but delight when I entered my new front door to discover Angie’s paint-spattered parents standing proudly, brushes in hand, amidst freshly painted walls.
“We’re just about finished, lad.” Malcolm declared. “Debbie’s still doing the little kitchen ‘cause it needs a bit o’cleaning, whiles you and me can get the furniture in, awreet?”
What furniture? A van loaded with furniture, and another load waiting at the Council Store. Carpets, a double bed, a table, chairs, sofa, television, washing machine – the resource, it seemed, was inexhaustible. As I supported my end of the heavier items, Angie ran in and out of the flat with crockery, ornaments, even a couple of paintings.
“Malc, I’ll never be able to afford all this!” I protested, from my end of a wardrobe.
“Nay, lad, there’s nowt to afford. Awreet, some o’ it costs a bit, but yer can pay me back whenever. See, most o’ this is stuff the Council disposes of, anyways. There’s nowt wrong wi’ it, don’t misunderstand me, but they nivver bother to auction it off. It’s furniture and effects from council properties that get abandoned. It happens all the time, the tenant does a runner, or maybe gets took into hospital and doesn’t come out. Sad to see it go to waste. I’ve a mate in house clearances, so we’re doin’ ‘im a bit of a favour, actual, like.”
It was a full day of toil in which the whole Carey family acquitted themselves amazingly, and they could never have known just how grateful I was. At the end of it, when the sun had long since departed, I tried to insist upon buying everyone dinner, which of course they refused. Malcolm and Debbie left, Angie did not.
“I just wanted to have a minute with you.”
She was nervous, expectant, maybe a little scared. We looked around my new place together, already a home with furniture, not all of which might have been my choice, but I had no complaint. She fussed, making little adjustments here and there, tidied some small things, straightened others – until at last we faced each other in the living room with nowhere else to go.
“We was lucky t’get the keys early so wor could finish most of the painting yesterday,” She said, speaking too quickly. “A’had to scrub mesen’ raw when I got home to clean it all off. If I’d smelt of paint it would have spoiled the surprise!”
“It was a brilliant surprise!” I said.
“Do you like it?”
“I do, very much.”
“I should be getting home.”
Was I corralled into it? Was I cornered? The significance of the double bed was not lost on me. Throughout the day, Debbie and Malcolm had been careful to avoid saying anything about my relationship with their daughter. Throughout the same day, Angie had been held in thrall by my new adventure. No, I did not feel trapped, or obligated; rather, I felt glad I would not be starting my new page alone.
I found the unspoken question in Angie’s eyes. “Can you stay?” I asked.
“Tonight? I don’t know if I should, like. Ma’ and Da’ll be expecting…”
“Not just tonight.”
At those times when I could make her happy, Angie had a smile that was like the breaking of a summer dawn. “Why, ah don’t know! That’s a very big thing to ask, Chas Haggerty!” Then, as she tried to turn away because she felt embarrassed by her tears, I held her so she would rest her head on my shoulder instead.
And Angie stayed.
© 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.