People on a street like the one I grew up in rarely used taxis. A cab fare took a sizeable slice of the weekly benefits cake, leaving too small a margin for such family essentials as TV, potato crisps, canned sugar drinks and beer. I’m not saying there was anything at all luxurious about a Casterley taxi cab, far from it. They were just dearer than buses.
At the end of the 1980s Casterley barely afforded a living for the gaggle of self-employed taxi drivers and two taxi or hire car companies who ran offices. It was not a vehicle fleet of which anyone could be proud, and a taxi ride was not to be relished, since strong regulation applying to the age or safety of cabs remained conspicuously absent until well after the Millennium. Customers who called the offices wrestled with the unenviable position of not knowing what form or age of cab would grind to a stop outside their door, or if it was in any condition to comply if, say, they wanted to be taken to the airport some forty miles away.
You couldn’t ‘hail’ a cab – you had either to telephone the office or pick one up from a taxi rank, of which only two existed; one opposite the old Town Hall – usually quite busy – and one at the railway station which was not. Now the through line was no longer open, Casterley Station was a terminus, supporting a diet of four trains a day that linked to the main line at Bedeport. Three or four optimistic cabs would sidle up to the rank at arrival times. For the rest of the day it was unattended.
There were a couple of taxi offices you could call. Bannon’s, the larger of the two, tended to attract smarter cabs and issued roof signs, stickers and other paraphernalia publicising them. Then there was Bertie’s.
In my defence, I must tell you that up until the age of sixteen, like most in my street, I had never ridden in a taxi. Growing up I had been so poor even ‘bus fares were a stretch; so had I questioned when my mother took a job ‘answering the calls’ at Bertie’s? No, because I had been glad she could be paid in cash, thus avoiding any loss of her child allowance or unemployment benefits. I was not naïve. In my separate boyhood universe how should I have known what a substantial undercurrent of the adult male population of Casterley knew, that Bertie’s Cabs owed their survival to a unique blend of services that went a lot further than the provision of taxis?
Our late evening ‘bus stopped at the end of The Avenue. Angie and I stood face to face on the pavement, hunched against a fresh onslaught of rain.
“But I didn’t even suspect!” I protested.
Angie was grim. “It’s not your fault, Chas man. When y’think o’ it, it’s the perfect cover, y’kna?”
“So there’s others, then, answering ‘calls’?”
“Aye. I think so. Brenda Wallis – she’s Terry’s auntie, that’s how he knows, Harriet somebody, from Cheviot Close, I can’t remember her second name, and…and yer Mam. Oh, Chas, I’m sorry, pet, I really am!”
“Well, it’s not your fault either. But where do they go – to…er..to do it, like?”
“Some ‘o it’s private, like the taxis take ‘em out to the customer, go an’ collect ‘em later…”
“Or the customer drives them back,” I said, half to myself, as I recalled a BMW and a red dress. “Some – what about the rest?”
“There’s a couple a’ rooms ower the taxi office. Bertie takes a bigger cut of what they earn, but the women like it ‘cause it’s safer.”
“Which makes Bertie a brothel owner as well as a pimp, doesn’t it?”
Angie grinned ruefully. “I s’pose it does. Are you really angry, Chas?”
“No.” I had to be honest, “I’m maybe angry with myself for not seeing it a lot sooner. I’m glad I’m out of that house, and I’m glad I have you.” She huddled against me unconditionally then, at least for a moment freed from doubt, and I kissed her forehead. “Come on.” I said, “Let’s go home.”
In not leaping to my mother’s defence you might say I was remiss You may reproach me for my altogether placid response; or think I should have stormed into my mother’s house, delivered a diatribe of disgust into her ear, slammed doors, ranted, humiliated and disowned her; but the truth is, I did not feel the need. My mother was a prostitute and the most direful admission I had to make was my complete lack of surprise. In my street, whilst hooker may hardly have been the noblest of professions, it was a career choice. So beyond that, what did I feel? To this day I do not know. Was it love, of a kind, or pity? Or fear?
Since the morning following my encounter with Mackenzie Crabtree, I had not returned home – and yes, there was guilt to be suffered for that, because even before I was armed with this new knowledge I could not face another meeting with my mother. I was afraid of what I might find inside that faded blue door, scared to see the tense, hand-wringing figure she had become, fearful of that shrill, mechanical voice and the sheer misery it concealed. And now I knew she sold sex for money it was all the excuse I needed to draw a line under my past life. I wanted to get away.
Lying next to Angie that night, so close I matched her breathing, my fingers brushed tears on her cheek and I asked her why she was crying. She said: “Because I’m sorry for your pain.” Then she was silent for a while. I’m certain she knew, though I said not a word, that I had made up my mind to take the Carlton Park offer, for I heard her say to her pillow, in barely a whisper, “Because I don’t want this to end, Chas. Don’t let it end…”
The next morning before I set out on my daily run I told Angie I was expecting an envelope by special delivery in the post. When I told her what I believed the envelope would contain she became very solemn, promising gravely that she would look after it until I returned.
Persistent rain had sluiced over the grey roofs of the town all through the night, lacing the pavements with rivulets and gathering in lakes at intersections. Water seeped through my tracksuit, squelched inside my trainers as I ran; not enough to provide a distraction for me in normal circumstances – footballers play an outdoor sport in winter, after all – but today I felt my resistance grow with every step. My mind was filled with brooding thoughts and unanswered questions, so even the prospect of a huge upward step on my career ladder did not raise my spirits as it should. The way ahead seemed fraught with complications, the path behind muddied and indistinct.
our apartment was empty when I returned. Angie had left Ranton’s buff envelope on the coffee table with a note: ‘Signed for this. Gone to work so you can read it in peace. See you tonight’…and beside her signature ‘Ange’ were two words she had never used before in our relationship…’Love you xxx’.
I went through the motions. I did all the proper things. After I had wound down from my run, I showered and changed into day clothes; I brewed coffee, I put my feet up on the sofa, made myself relax. Then I stared at the ceiling for a full twenty minutes before I reached down for the envelope. I picked it up, examined both sides, put it down again, drank my coffee. Finally prepared, I snatched at the envelope and tore it open.
The contents took a long time to read, not because their wording was particularly complicated, or because I needed to study each sentence with meticulous care – no: rather it was because I had to persuade myself to believe what they said.
At school I had hoped to be a carpenter or a bricklayer, like Jonna’s dad; not an accountant like Greavesie’s father, no, that was flying too high. Bricklayers had excellent earnings; Jonna reckoned his Da’ made £300, or more a week whenever he had work: if I could have reached that kind of wage before I was thirty I would have been more than content. That was good money to me. Yes, Sue had once tempted me to consider even greater things, like studying for a Phys. Ed. Or a Sports Science Degree, but I had never entertained it. I knew my limits.
Which was why the document I held in my hand that morning seemed so unreal – no, not just unreal – unfair. Jonna would follow his father into the building trade, and I had no doubt he would earn enough to get a small house, raise a family, do all the normal, Casterley things; whereas I, at nineteen years old, was being offered twice as much to be a player in a game – to do something I loved. And that felt morally wrong, somehow. I felt I was cheating.
“I don’t see how I can turn it down,” I admitted, when I called Allen Ranton on the telephone.
“Very wise, lad; very wise. Believe me, Carlton Park will be a completely different experience. If you handle it like you’ve handled Casterley, you’ll do well. Now, we have to arrange for a medical and inform Casterley Town, that’s only courtesy, but it’s also when the story gets out. Don’t talk to the press yourself – it’ll be local stuff, mostly – any enquiries, refer them to me. If you get cornered ‘unfounded speculation’ is a good phrase. I’ve got all I need for now. I’ll be back to you soon.”
I made one more telephone call. I asked Angie if she was free for lunch.
From the moment my feet touched the pavement of The Avenue I nearly broke into a run, the crawling sensation in the short hairs at the back of my neck felt so intense. I had made my now customary check up and down the road and seen no-one, yet I knew my stalker was watching, and following. No paranoia this time, no doubt. At the end of the road I turned to look behind me, in time to see a furtive figure melt back into the buildings at the far end. The rain had stopped, the light was good. I could not be mistaken.
Angie had agreed to meet me at Mr. Pellosi’s Ice Cream Parlour in the town centre, no more than a ten-minute walk away. I would check several times in that ten minutes, and twice more I got a distinct view of the same figure, red bomber jacket collar raised, flat cap pulled down over his eyes as he quickly averted his head to avoid recognition, then vanished into the shadows. Always in the distance, so other than in the moment when I first realized he was there I felt no sense of threat from him. Who was he? What did he want?
When I pushed aside the glazed door of the Ice Cream Parlour, Angie was already inside. She had ordered us salads from the lunch menu Mr. Pellosi was forced to serve to ensure his survival through the long northern winters when only the bravest wanted ice cream. His restaurant was popular and always crowded, but we found a table where I could sit with my back to the room. Unfortunately, someone sitting by the door had spotted me on my way in.
“You going to win for us on Sat’day, then, Chas?” He leaned over the table between us, his pinched face inches from mine, all grey-toothed smile and unhygienic breath. “Three-one, eh?”
“We’ll try,” I replied, with as much politeness as I could muster.
“We? We?” The face sniggered. “The’ mean you, pal, doesn’t the’? Them others, they divvent kna’ a glass from a bottle! Shall I tell yer what I think?”
“Actually, I’m trying to have lunch…”
“That fella Jackson, man. Yer shud ‘ave ‘im fer support on the left, see? He were always gud down tha’ wing, were Jackson..”
“Right. I’ll remember.” I told him. “Now, will you excuse us while we…?”
I heard the sound of an unseen blow and a shock ran through our intruder which brought him uncomfortably close to spitting in my salad.
“Haway, dippa! Piss off!” Angie’s voice was quiet but venomous. “Like Chas says, we’re tryin’ to eat, man!”
Indignant, the pinch-faced man drew himself up to his full height. “Why, don’t youse bray me, yer friggin bitch…”
“Hey!” I warned him. “Now you’re pushing it. Just go back and eat your dinner, right? Leave us alone.”
Outfaced, and possibly more daunted by Angie’s aggression than mine, my self-appointed advisor retreated to his seat, muttering invective at every step. I grinned at Angie.
“Now if ever I needed an excuse to get out of this town…”
She was suddenly serious. “You’re going then?”
“You know I am. And I’m hoping you’ll be coming with me.”
Angie smiled ruefully. “See, I rather hoped you’d say sommat more like ‘I’ll go if you come with me’. Ah hoped that’s what you’d say.” Then she added, “I can see it’s askin’ a lot, like.”
“I’ve thought long and hard about the words.” I told her. “I don’t want to leave you behind, hon, but this is a dream for me, you know? To play with a good team, to have the chance to play in the big league, that’s all I can expect from life. If I could have you too, that would be awesome. Shall I tell you what they’re offering me?”
“Na, it’d only confuse me,” Angie said. “Listen, Chas; I’ll think about it, yeah? And I’ll see you tonight. Meantime, why don’t you go visit yer Mam?”
“I don’t know, Ange…”
“She’s your Mam, Chas! You can’t change that. She’s the only Mam you’ll ever have, an’ you mustn’t turn away from her, pet. Go and see her. She’ll be proud for you.”
So, upon Angie’s insistence, I set off for my old house, unable to disassociate her words and sentiments from those Sue had expressed concerning my father, some years before. Sue’s words, and in my head, Sue’s face. Somewhere, far behind, I could feel the patient tread of my shadow, still there and tracking my every step.
My mother was sitting in the front room with the television up loud. When she saw me she tensed visibly, as though she was afraid I had come to beat her. “Now then, Chas. Ah’ve not seen you for a while, have ah?”
“I’ve been staying away,” I told her. “I thought you might be busy with your clients.”
Her shoulders slumped perceptibly. “Tha’s found out, then. Ah thought yer would, once yer was moved out, like. How’s Angie?”
“She’s fine. How come I’m the only one who didn’t know, mother? How come?”
“About us bein’ on the game?” My mother sighed, and that plaintive, familiar note crept into her voice. “Ah always tried to protect yer from it, son. Ah kept it discreet, y’kna?”
“Why did you do it? Why are you still doing it now? I mean, you’ve got the benefits, and your job at the taxis, so it can’t be the money, surely? Why?”
“Oh, aye, the taxis. That is me job, man! Did yer nivver wonder how ah kept it affer that Powell git ‘starteds ‘e’s nosin’ around? D’y’kna what Bertie’s really like? He were happy enough t’keep me on he’s books as he’s receptionist, as long as ah kept on wi’ ‘e’s ‘extra services’ for cash.” She had begun twisting her fingers together, cruelly, as though her hands were abhorrent to her. “Why do ah do it? Well, ah like it, ah s’pose. Ah’ve not got you no more. Ah’m nor’about ter give it up, anyways.”
“One thing nobody’s told me,” I said, “And I’m not sure I want to know now, but I have to ask. How long have you been doing it? When did it start?”
“Oh, I can nae remember, Chas. Years ago. Years!” She got to her feet and walked to the window, there to stand looking out at the street, her fingers drumming on the sill. “Don’t matter now, do it?”
I said: “Even when you were with my Da?”
“That fool! ‘E nivver found out. Wha’, did yer think I ran this ‘ouse on fresh air, or summat? ‘E never earned enough to kep’ a fly alive an’ what ‘e did earn he gambled away. Or ‘e drank it away. Ah did it t’keep youse in yer expensive presents an’ yer fancy ideas. A little bit on the side, just here and there, eh Chas?”
A little bit on the side. I remembered a summer back in my school days when I came home to find my mother sprawled upon her bed, all but insensible, and now, at last, I understood. How glad she must have been to get the job at Bertie’s, so she could enjoy the sanctuary of his ‘rooms’!
“I’m going away soon, Mother.”
“Yer already away, issen’ yer? Livin’ wi’ yer Angie now. She’s a gud lass, that one, but you don’t love her, pet, do yer? You’re still in love wi’ your Susan. Divvent fret, lad, Mack’ll not let yer near ‘er ivver again. Not ivver.”
“I’m telling you all this off the record.”
Poultney throws me a quizzical look. “You’re telling me a hell of a lot. You aren’t by any chance under the illusion I’m going to write your life story for you?”
I grin at him. “Would you?”
“My rates are reasonable. But, in a word, no. And that isn’t what we’re here for, is it? Bear in mind I’m a journalist, Chas; if I’m going to keep schtum about little gems like your mother’s failings I’m going to need something pretty impressive from you to make up for it. It’s all good copy, remember.”
“It would be all very old copy, should you try to use it. And yes, there is something impressive at the end of this – I think so, anyway. I asked you to come here because I read your piece in the ‘Herald’ about sports philanthropists and you mentioned Mack Crabtree. It brought back a basket of memories.”
“Which we’re indulging. For heaven’s sake, Chas; put up or shut up, will you? I guess you knew Crabtree when he was sponsoring Casterley? You know how big a wheel he is now, I suppose?”
“Member of Parliament, hotly tipped to be next Minister for Sport, fingers into every pie, inexhaustible supply of money, principal sponsor for the new National Stadium…”
“That is the basis for his place in my series – I am writing about other people as well, Chas; why so – no, I won’t use the word ‘obsessed’ – why so interested in Mack Crabtree?”
“Because of history. Because you’ll be getting an interview with him, and because of other concerns I have, too. For example, where has all his money come from?”
“Northern entrepreneur! You should be proud of those, Chas! As I understand it, he bought back the lease on Casterley Town’s football ground. When the club went bust he sold the land for a fortune…”
“Aye, he did. To a company called Wesfane Electronics that was desperate for a new plant in the area to make their industrial coolers. Curious how it all linked together…”
“Business, Chas! That’s how it works, mate. You should know, you’ve got a couple of companies of your own, now, haven’t you?”
“Matthew, there’s something very wrong about Mack Crabtree. I crossed him, unfortunately, and yes, you could say I harbour a bit of a grudge, even after all this time, but he has just too much money for a small-town entrepreneur. You’re so thorough with your homework, tell me what you’ve discovered about his family.”
“I’m not sure I want to, Chas. I dig pretty deep. Some things are given to me in confidence – like the background of an international footballer whose mother was a prostitute?”
Just basic stuff. It’s all right, I already know his ex-wife is an alcoholic.”
“She’s in rehab…” Poultney qualifies.
“For the third time, before I stopped counting. Maybe she drinks to forget. Speaking of which, will I refill that glass of yours?”
“Well, thank you, I won’t refuse. His new wife’s sober enough. His setup should be pretty standard in this day and age. Wife, who works, she’s a commodities broker, an only son who runs his own chandlery company, likes cats, favourite food Mexican, all the usual stuff.”
When you interview him,” I say, “ask him about Susan.”
“Why, was she some juicy ex-lover, or something?”
“No, I grew up with her. She’s his daughter.”
“Daughter! He hasn’t got a daughter. Has he?”
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental. 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