Nowhere Lane – Chapter Eleven. Expectations

If she were to judge, Karen thought as she watched the slumbering head beside her on the pillows, this would have to have been at once the worst decision of her life, and the most enjoyable.    There could be no denying the ecstasy of the previous night, or her feelings, no, her desires for Patrick.   The chaotic drive from her parents’ house to her apartment, the laughter; the moments of ineptitude, the intense passion of their love-making would become treasured memories.  But neither could she deny her abandonment of the promise she had made to herself: that she would not become involved with the owner of that sleeping head.  It was a relationship with no future, for however earnest he seemed, he was a son of wealthy parents.  Not only did he move in a different world, he was younger than her – and that was important, wasn’t it?

Bemused to find herself even thinking of their minor age difference, she slipped from the bed with as much stealth as she could muster, deserting her sleeping companion for the less distracting atmosphere of her kitchen, where the percolator awaited her.

She had dated, of course she had.  The years from sixteen were sprinkled with importunate boys, and men (not all of them so young), who saw her as their prize.  And a few, a very few, she had accepted.   Yet before Tim there had been no real intimacy.  Making love with Tim had always been a frantic, clawing search for a little crock of gold they sometimes found, mostly didn’t.  Painful, clumsy, unaware of his own strength he would hurt her a dozen ways and she would bite her lip at the wounds, continuing that quest.  So what else could she expect?  Not to discover that elusive treasure time after time, or to cling to someone so possessively that she could see no future anywhere other than within that moment…

Chiding herself for making comparisons, she took her coffee into her living room where, sitting at her table, she could look out over the buildings of the town, still demurely dressed in their negligee of morning mist. Ant processions of traffic were threading down from the hills or stringing beside the river like bright beads, vehicle metal caught in the long sun’s reflection.  It was as if she saw it all for the first time.

“You were still here this morning.”  She murmured half to herself, lacking the courage to voice her thoughts aloud.  “That’s promising.”

“Oh, now this is serious!”  His voice was right behind her.  How had she had not heard him enter?  He kissed her shoulder.  “Good morning!  Did you expect otherwise?”

Her little dragon of cynicism raised its bitter head, and spat: “We met, like a week ago, rich boy?  I don’t know what to expect – what I have any right to expect.”

“You resent me?”  His big hands clasped her arms, enwrapped her limbs and made her feel more certain than she should, perhaps.  “Let me ask you a question then.  Are you really over Tim?   Am I a rebound or something more?  See, I don’t know what to expect, either.”

“Touché, then, I suppose.  I’m sorry.”  She let herself sink back into his chest, took comfort in an enclosing arm that held her safely there.  “Tim and I broke up a few days ago.  It was a soft landing really – time, you know?”  She caught herself, adding quickly, “It had to be done.  It wasn’t because of you.”

“But you feel guilty.”

They lapsed into silence, watching the town rouse itself to face another Monday.  Karen, knowing she should have been happy felt sad and teary, aware her eyes were filling as her mind was already full – of Tim – a scrapbook of memories, all the moments she thought had been forgotten.  Yet her hand was grasping Pat’s, and the warmth of his grip was a feeling of home.  How, how she wished!  She was willing, so eager to be persuaded that this could all be real!

“If it isn’t Tim, then…you doubt me; you doubt us.  This ‘rich boy’ thing.  Why?”

“Pat, last night was wonderful, but this morning…  There are the practical things.  You need someone who can move easily in your world, someone who can fit into the parties, the social circle, the…”

“Are we on the same planet, here?”

“I think that’s exactly what I mean.  Are we?  Do you see the image I keep returning to, in my mind?  If we were to become an item…”

“You’re entertaining that possibility, then?”

“Are you? If we were, sooner or later my family would have to meet yours.  My dad would have to meet your dad – my dad who only lives for his football and who has never drunk tea from anything but a mug all his life, and mum, rabid socialist that she is…”

“You’re thinking you and I – we might become an item?”

“Pat!  Have you been listening?  Can’t you see how impossible this all is?”

“I get you’re ashamed of your family.  You shouldn’t be.”

“Not ashamed, no, just…”

“Karen, my family makes carpets.  Carpets, yes?  For all my older sister puts on airs (and if you think she’s bad, wait until you meet my younger sister), as a family we’re not aristocracy or anything.  We aren’t the Driscombes, we’re just people.  Now if you’ve decided you don’t like me, or if you’re regretting your decision over Tim, I have to accept that; but if – and this is what I understand, love – if you are just fighting yourself over some stupid belief in our inequality…”

“Thank you, I’m not stupid! But I have to go to work.  You have to go to work.”  She told him.

“Work can wait.”   He guided her gently to the couch and sat beside her.  “Great guy that he is, my Dad’s not the brains of the family.  My mother is, or was, a practising solicitor and a university lecturer:  she has three Doctorates.  She plays the piano so well she was contemplating a future on the concert circuit when Dad met her.  My mother can do everything except cook.”

Karen made a face.  “You’re not making me feel any more secure.”

“There’s no point in trying to hide things you’ll find out anyway.  I am what I am, and maybe we’re different in some ways.  Thing is, the differences don’t matter.”

“Pat, I…”

“No, wait:  listen, please – when you love someone it isn’t for the challenge they offer you, it’s about the small things.  It’s about how you feel when they are next to you (just like this), how their eyes crease at the corners when they smile, the way their cheeks redden when they’re angry, that little wisp of hair that always escapes.  You love them for those and a thousand other tweaks and habits.  See?  I said all that without mentioning class or money once.”

Karen’s heart was pounding despite herself.  “You’re using the ‘L’ word.”

“I am, aren’t I?”

“We’ve only known each other for a…”

“Long enough.  I think I knew the moment I met you…Karen, last night wasn’t just sex, it was transcendent; it was warm and loving and – I don’t know, it was just right, I suppose – absolutely bloody right!  You must see that, too?”

She bit her lip.  “You’re very, very good at this.”

“Oh, no; that phrase again!  Don’t do that!  Was it right, or wasn’t it?”

Her head was too full.  Her thoughts were crammed with unanswerable questions.   “Work,” she said.  “We have to go to work.”

“I know.  I’ll be in Harper’s Restaurant at half-past twelve.  Will you come?”

“Let me think, Pat.  Let me think.”

“I want to be with you, okay?  I want to always, always be with you.”

And that was so beautiful that for a moment she let herself believe.  “I’ll come.”  She said.

Karen did not leave for work, not immediately. After Pat had departed to walk back to his car she spent some time just tidying her apartment, giving her hands something to do while her mind relived the last twenty-four hours in all their different colors, setting her heart leaping again, He had said that he loved her, and if she answered herself honestly, did she not feel  the same?   It was all happening too fast.

The small package Karen smuggled from Gavin Woodgate’s bedroom was secreted in her bag, where it had remained throughout her weekend.  She had forgotten about it.  She delayed leaving for her office long enough to unwrap and reveal its contents – a wad of well-fingered, faded pieces of paper; old letters mostly, with a couple of photographs between the folds of one.  They had a lot in common, those pictures.  They were both in monochrome depicting the same girl, posed in such a way as to avoid any doubt of her nakedness or its purpose, and in each picture the man she was with was also naked. The faces of the men were turned towards the camera, and although Karen did not recognize either of them, she recognized the girl.

This was the same girl who had reached through the window of her car on Lower Bridge Street a few nights since – a girl named Kathy.  From the evidence it appeared Kathy was helping to exploit the sexual proclivities of these two males in every possible sense.  Whoever they were, these men, their success and happiness would not have improved if their exposure reached the wrong eyes.

The content of the letters was all too predictable.  Each lavished endearments on Kathy, the skinny prostitute in the photographs, the pathetic burblings of men in obese middle age who had persuaded themselves she was the girl of their dreams:

‘My darling, you don’t know how much I love you’.

‘Last night was fantastic.  I can’t wait until I see you again’.

‘You have taught me so much about love…’

There were also less poetic offerings, some specific biological references which she skirted over.  There were mentions of appointments:  ‘meet you at…’ or ‘don’t come to the office, I’ll see you on…’

The letters seemed determined to mock her.  They spoke graphically of the insincerity of men and the cavernous void of their promises.  The ‘L’ word – what, after all, was it really worth, other than a means to encourage compliance?  Karen bit her lip.  It was time she went to work.  She scooped up the letters and their illustrations, put them back in her coat pocket and headed for her car.  The morning traffic was already clearing, so she had little time to gather her thoughts.

Once behind her desk, she was able to assess the evidence more objectively.  The letters were clearly not addressed to a prostitute who charged by the hour.  Since Kathy was unlikely to offer herself to middle-aged men for anything but hard cash that had to mean she was assisting Gasser Gates in a blackmail racket; a good one, too, for a spotty teenager and a basic streetwalker.  But the evidence was stale, and if Gasser had not slept at home for two years, it had probably outlived its usefulness. Kathy was back on the streets, so had he turned his back on this probably lucrative source of income, or had he moved on to use a different girl – Anna Parkinson, for instance?

#

“Hello Ray.  I’m glad I caught you.  Can you talk?”

“Tim?  Tim Birchinall?”  The voice on the other end of the telephone line crackled.  “Yes, I’m off duty, chap.  Nice to ‘ear from you, mind.  You, still with the Met?”

Tim laughed.  “Even I don’t move that fast.  Yes, still with ‘em.  A lot less complicated.”

“That I can believe, I can.”  Constable Ray Flynn assented.  “So, you’re not on duty either then?”

“Not until tonight.  I was down at the weekend, Ray.”

“You old bugger!  Why didn’t you give me a call?  We could have downed a few pints, chap.  Difficult to find a good drinkin’ companion these days.”

“Listen, Ray.  Karen finished with me on Saturday…”

“Wha’?  Oh, that’s a pity, that is!  Nice girl, I always thought.  Still, ‘tis her loss.  It’s really over then, is it?”

“Afraid so. I guess I had it coming.  I think I just have to get used to it, but it’s hard, you know?”

“Yes, it will be, chap.  Yes, it will.”

“Ray, there aren’t any changes in your neck of the woods, are there?  It’s still going on?  Only Karen said something about Turnbull.”

The line was silent for a few seconds, then Flynn said:  “Oh lord, did she?  Yes, it’s still goin’ on, Tim.  Fact is, old lover, there’s been a few problems lately, since you been gone.  Between you an’ me, I’m not sure ever’thing’s quite under control, if you take my meaning.  Like sunspots, isn’ it?”

“Sunspots?”

“Y’know, solar flares, an’ that.  Periods of extra activity.  Won’t never stop, I reckon.  ‘Least in our lifetime.”

“And the Green.  She mentioned the Green.”

“Well, I can’t do nothin’, you know I can’t.”

“Career isn’t everything, Ray.”

“When you’re wed with two kiddies it is.  I see what you’re workin’ up to and you got no right to ask.  As to career, I could say the same to you.  You aren’t got my responsibilities, have you?  Anyway, I’m sure it isn’t…”

“So am I.”  Tim cut in hastily.  “Or at least, I hope it’s nothing.  I tried to get her to come to London, Ray.  She wouldn’t come.  But she was my girl, and I’m not going to stop having feelings for her.  If you hear anything – anything – could you just let me know?”

“I can do that of course.  Of course, chap.”

#

“Are you Mark Potts?”

The youth’s gawky, under-confident stance made him easy to pick out.  Besides, the bar of the King’s Arms was less than crowded.  It was Monday lunchtime, early, before the bar-meals rush, if there was one at a place like the King’s Arms.  As Karen walked in he saw her in the mirror at the back of the bar and shifted around on his stool, stood up awkwardly.

“You’re Karen, then.”

“Good guess, Mark.  How did you know?”

“Well, you sort of stand out, don’t you?  Especially in a place like this.  Drink?”

“No, no.  Can I buy you one?  After all, you’ve put yourself out for me.”  Karen nodded to the barman, who had suddenly become attentive.  “Same again for Mark, please?”

“What’s this about?  What was it you said on the ‘phone, mutual friend?  Who?”  He had a very snubbed round nose which, planted as it was above a wide, slack mouth made him look something like a rather amiable pig.

“Gasser.”

“Oh.”  Mark Pott’s optimistic expression crumbled like old sandstone.  “I’ve got nothing to say where Gasser’s concerned.”  He turned away.  “So if that’s all…”

“Friend of yours, though, isn’t he?”

“I’ve got nothing to say.”

“I mean, you must be worried, about his disappearance?”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.”

“Have you ever seen him with this girl?”  Karen waved Anna Parkinson’s picture in front of him.

“No, can’t say I have.”

“Not a very nice guy, Gasser, by all accounts,”  Karen said.  “Lots of people must be quite glad he’s disappeared.”

“So?  Look, Karen, if this is about the last time I saw him, I told the police all I know.  I’ve nothing else to say.  Terry…”  He called across to the barman:  “Don’t worry about that drink, mate.  This lady can save her money.”

“You go ahead, Terry.”  Karen insisted.  “Mark, I’m not the police.  I’m being employed to search for Gasser and I just need a few pieces for the jigsaw, that’s all.”

“I’ve nothing to say.”

“You know, I’ve been in this job for a while now, and I’ve learned the ones with nothing to say are the ones with something to hide.  So I have to ask myself; what could you be hiding?”

“Nothing!  I’m not hiding anything – why would I want to hide something?  You’re talking rubbish, you are.  Leave me alone!”

“You were the last person to see Gasser, is that right, before he dropped off the map?”

“Yeah, that’s what they tell me.  So?”

“You passed him in your car while he was out walking on the Pegram road; on the Sunday afternoon?”

“Yeah, so?”

“I don’t believe you,”  Karen said, watching Mark Potts’ eyes.  They gave her the confirmation she needed.

“Well, that’s your problem, isn’t it?  Why not?”  He muttered.

“Because the place you said you saw him was miles from anywhere.  An ambitious distance for an after-lunch stroll, Mark, and Gasser Gates isn’t much of a one for walking, is he?”

“You don’t know.  He might be”

“Any more than he’s a fanatical train-spotter or philatelist, or any of the other junk he makes up about his life.  Believe me, I do know.  So now, why would you lie about seeing him on that Sunday?”

“I didn’t lie!”

“You see, ever since I started investigating this case I’ve been dogged by the feeling someone is paying to protect themselves.”

“Yeah?  Really?”

“Yes.  But I don’t think anyone is paying you.  I might be wrong…”  Her pause was intentional.  She was watching for reactions, an alteration in expression, the twitching that had begun in the middle finger of his right hand.  “No, if you’re lying it’s to protect yourself,  because the last time you actually saw Gasser was that Saturday night, wasn’t it?”

“What?  What makes you think that?”

“Because you go bowling with Gasser on Saturdays and the manager of the bowl remembers you and Gasser were there, and Gasser was drunk.  Something went wrong, didn’t it Mark, on your way home?  I’m not here to accuse you, I just want to make sense of the stories about Gasser and find out why he’s vanished, that’s all.  Was he trying to blackmail you?”

“Look, Miss whatever you’re here to do, I’ve nothing to say.  I told the police all I know, and I’m sorry Gasser’s dropped out of sight, because I’m sure a few people’ll be wanting to talk to him.  But suppose that’s why he disappeared, eh?  Gasser’s that type of bloke, Miss.  Now, I’ll thank you for the drink and respectfully ask you to leave me alone.”

 

Karen had to rush, but she managed to reach Harpers Restaurant as she had agreed with Pat, at half-past twelve.  Harpers, an expensive centre of culinary excellence for a town like Caleybridge, was one of those eateries that relied for its existence upon assignations and trysts, a passing trade of business-people and hot lovers wooed by its discreetly exclusive atmosphere rather than the food.  Pat had not arrived, so Karen took a window table behind opaque etched glass, ordered wine and waited.

Misty shadows passed on the pavement outside.  The noise from the wheeling herd of traffic was muted but incessant.  Twelve-thirty became twelve-forty-five, then one o’clock.

And still Karen waited.

At what precise time did doubt become certainty; when did the cruel truth dawn?  One-fifteen, or one-thirty?  Pat was not coming.  And though she tried to rationalize it; to answer her heart’s questions with simple, straightforward reasons, only one could convince her.  For all the pretty speeches, the skilful deceptions, the beautiful, beautiful lies, last night was all the consummation he had wished.  Pat had fulfilled his needs, he had used her, and now his interest in her was spent.  Before it had really started, it was over.

 

© 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

 

 

A Place that was Ours. Chapter Eleven – A New Page

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.”

“What?”

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.”

“Tomorrow?”

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.

people-men-grass-sport“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.

 

 

 

 

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