Nowhere Lane – Chapter Three. Remembering Wenceslas

The little auditorium of the Gaiety Theatre was hushed, expectant. The audience, held in thrall, focused, every eye upon the stage and the motionless figure of Daphne Scott-Halperton, slumped in a chair that had baronial pretensions.  Daphne suddenly stirred.  Her arms and fingers quivered.  “I feel,” she declared in a stentorian tone, “I am in the presence of spirits!”

“She certainly is!” Jack Eversley, seated in the seventh row, murmured audibly.  “At least half a bottle, I’d say.”

A red-hatted woman a row in front turned to glare at him.

Karen squeezed her father’s hand.  “Shut up, Dad.  Give her a chance – you’ll see how good she is.”

Brutally exposed by the scrutiny of a single spotlight Daphne, in a black-fringed red silk gown, did seem to have imbibed a quantity of something.  A woman of impressive stature, approaching six feet in the vertical when standing and five feet in circumference, she seemed more fitted to a career in heavyweight wrestling, perhaps, or grand opera.  There could be nothing frail about her; yet after that one initial spasm her head lolled to her left and her arms hung lifelessly over the chair’s ornately carved armrests.  She might have fainted or been asleep.  Knowing better, her pensive audience waited.  Daphne stirred, jerked and looked up, emitting a groan like a rusted gate.

“Are you there, May?”  She cried in a passable imitation of a male tenor.  “I can’t see you, May.  I can’t see you!”

“I’m here…I’m here.”  A voice bleated plaintively from the gloom at the back of the auditorium.  The owner of the voice hesitated, then emitted a further squeak.  “Is that Bert?”

“Bertram!”  Daphne’s alter-ego growled:  “How many times have I told you, May?  My name is Bertram!”

“But you said you didn’t like…”

“You were late again this week, May!”  ‘Bertram’ snapped.  “Why are you always late?”

“Oh, Bertram – Bert – I’m not always…”  May protested, only to have Daphne Scott-Halperton silence her with an imperious hand.

“I miss you, May.  I miss your singing about the house.  When you sing I can hear you.  It brings me close to you.”

“Does it?”  May’s voice from the darkness wavered with emotion.  “Oh, Bert, I miss you too, my dear…”

This confession of loss stimulated a muted chorus of ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ from the audience, who leaned forward in their seats in case they should miss the next communication from beyond the grave.

Not Jack Eversley: Jack slumped back in his seat.  “Oh, bloody hell!”  He muttered.

“Dad!  Behave yourself!”

“I am always nearby, May my dearest.  You mustn’t worry about me.  I’m always there.”

“No he’s not, he’s dead!  It’s a bloody pantomime, this!”

“Father, be quiet!”

A wit from somewhere back in the dimmed auditorium took up Jack’s thread:  “He’s not dead.  He’s behind you!”

From somewhere else:  “Oh no he isn’t!”

May piped up again.  “Can I ask…”

Daphne, glaring balefully at Jack Eversley, who had by now also incurred the undying hatred of the red-hatted woman, cut May off again.  “He’s gone, I’m afraid.”  Her voice returned to its usual strident pitch, and said, in a tone designed to wither the bones of any heckler:  “He was called away.  The channel to the afterlife can be such a busy place, you know.”

“But I wanted to ask where he put the keys for the shed.  It’s been six months now and I can’t…”

“Have you noticed;” Jack Eversley said, none too quietly, “How nobody ever gets called July?  All the other summer months – April, May, June, even August.  Never July.”

He was heard on stage.  Daphne Scott-Halperton, who had lapsed back into a posture which contrived to be both angry and somnolent at the same time, opened one eye.  “Someone is trying to get through.”  She said flatly.  “Someone recently deceased is seeking a young woman or a girl here, and she is being blocked.  There is an unbeliever standing between us.”  She threw Jack a baleful look, then enunciated with great deliberation.  “She wants to speak to Kerry.”

Karen caught her breath.  “Sis?  Oh, Sis?  Dad!  It’s Suzanne!”

The hand Karen was squeezing went suddenly cold.

Daphne sat forward, squinting at somewhere far off.  “She can’t get through.  She’s being prevented.  However I can just hear her and she wants to tell you she’s sorry, Kerry.  The accident, that wasn’t her fault.  She tried very hard, but she couldn’t stay with you.  She wants you to know she’s out of her pain, she’s healed and she’s in a beautiful place.”

Karen had to force her words through her tears: “Is that true?  Is she really happy?”

“Could not be happier, my dear.  Oh, this is so much clearer!  Wait now!”  The medium reached before her as if she were parting curtains which clouded her sight.  “Yes!  Yes, there!  I see warm sun upon yellow corn.  I see a pretty, red-haired girl with a broad smile, and I see cottages with thatched roofs beside a little stream.  I can just feel it!”  She smiled benignly.  “I can feel the cool breeze on my face!”

“Can I – can I talk to her?”

Daphne Scott-Halperton sighed.  “It is such a distance, Kerry, and the way is so crowded.  But she waves – you see?  She waves as she walks away…what tiny steps she takes in those green shoes!”

That put paid to a few doubts, the elderly medium thought as she surveyed her audience.  Research; research was the key!  He might have been a sceptic when he came in, the middle-aged barracker in the blue coat, but his saucer eyes and white face told her he would be back.  As for his daughter, struggling to restrain her emotion?  She had always believed – been one of her regular attendees, usually at the front.  Probably she had anticipated her companion’s behaviour and wanted to bury him in the audience to keep him quiet.  This was the high point, the climax to an hour of predictions, communication with her ‘spirit guides’ and education in her version of the hereafter.  It was time to close.

Miss Scott-Halperton rose to her feet, her eyes widened, her lips apart.  For a moment she seemed to stagger, catching herself quickly to prevent a fall.  Slowly she raised her hands, palms open in supplication, and then, as if quailing from some unseen terror, she clenched them to her chest.

“There is wickedness here.”  Her voice was deep, her lips trembling.  “There are dark forces – vile creatures from a pit of demons, and they mean such harm – such harm!  Stay close, all you who hear the spirits, I beg you!  Stay close to one another tonight, for if there is one thing in the universe with the power to vanquish all evil, it is love!”

Daphne’s next words were to be a benediction.  Now she would spread her arms over her audience and give them her blessing; tell them how the good spirits with their ineffable love would watch over them and guide them safely to their homes.  These things she would have said, had she not raised her eyes – had she not seen.

The gallery of the little theatre should have been empty for Daphne never drew a crowd large enough to fill all two hundred of its seats.  So the upper tier remained in darkness.  Yet she saw the figure distinctly, in spite of the gloom.  Robed in the colours of night, a man with long, lank hair stared down from the gallery rail, his head cocked bird-like to one side, and his craven eyes set upon one person in her audience – one person alone.

Daphne collapsed into her chair, her benediction frozen in her throat.  Her customers, believing she had finished her closing words, gave a polite spatter of applause, then began to disperse.  When she gathered sufficient courage to look upward once more, the man had gone.

#

“It was rubbish!  A load of cheap parlour tricks!”  Jack Eversley complained.

“Oh, Dad, admit it!  She had you believing for a minute, didn’t she?”  Karen grabbed her father’s hand, hurrying him through the rain.  “It was Suzanne!  It really was.  Who else ever called me Kerry?  And the red hair – how would she know that?  Where could she possibly have got that sort of information?”

Jack Eversley doubted.  “I don’t believe it.  I don’t.  Just tricks.”

Karen hugged his arm.  She knew how deeply he felt her older sister’s loss, and though five years had passed since the road accident which took her life, how little he had forgotten. “I miss her so badly, too.”  She said.  “Suze was special to me, Dad.  Really she was.”

“Of course she was!”  Jack drew his daughter into the shelter of a shop doorway, taking her shoulders and turning her so she could look into his eyes.  Wet from the rain, his face shone, as though the polish that furbished the furniture he made had somehow glossed his skin.  “Karen love, you’re being deceived, can’t you see?  That woman can’t bring Suzanne back to us.  All the stuff about thatched cottages and yellow corn – Suzanne hated that sort of thing:  Chocolate Box England, she called it.  And in all her short life I never saw her wave – she made a few other signs, but never a wave.  If the old dear really got a picture of her she would have seen a girl on a motorbike, or wearing those daft glasses of hers.”

Karen sighed, then gave her father’s wet cheek a patronizing pat.  “Green shoes, Father?  How would she know about the green shoes?”

In the noise-filled silence only rain on a pavement can make, father and daughter half-walked, half-ran the empty streets.  Beyond that brief discussion, neither spoke.  Their memories of Suzanne still defied expression, despite the passing of time.  There were wounds too deep for mere years to heal.

Karen shared her father’s pain although perhaps for other reasons that were uniquely hers, for as much as she had loved her sister, close as they had been through their growing up Suzanne was always the great talent, the superior intellect, the Wenceslas to her page.  Suzanne was the junior clerk at chambers who would have been a barrister one day, and a brilliant one.  In sport, Suzanne always excelled – the runner who had represented her county, the motorcyclist who could ride as fast or faster than most men.  When the motorcycle brought her down at last, in their parents’ eyes Suzanne was still the great hope, and Karen, just twenty then, the lesser child who lived forever in her shadow.  It was rarely stated, and direct comparisons were never made:  ‘Suzie would have known what to do’ or ‘Suze was cleverer than that’.  No, but Karen was just a pen-pusher in those days, a worker at Balkins’ Food Mart; Karen would never take silk, or win at anything.  She remained the lesser child, existing in shoes she could not fill.

Green shoes; Suzanne’s favourite pair.  The shoes she bought in Bulmouth when they shopped there together, years ago.

It might have been those shoes, or something other:  a chance remark by her father, perhaps – he was always ready with the tart comment, the clumsy put-down – that had driven her to make the change.  One workday Monday, while a dozen trivial clerical problems from the clutter of her desk were buzzing in her head, she had turned a corner into a street on the north side of the town, and paused for a while outside a jaded shop front with empty windows and a large ‘To Let’ sign on the door.

“You’re bloody mad!”  Jack Eversley’s anger was unconstrained.  “You! – A what-do-you-call-it?  A Private Investigator?  You?  You’re just a kid.”

“I’m nearly twenty-five, dad.  I’ve got to do something with my life!”

“Find a nice fella.  Settle down.  That’s the best you can do with your life, lass.”

And so ‘Eversley Investigations’ had started.  With a shop-fronted office Karen redecorated herself, a cheap car she bought on the ‘never-never’, no clients and very little money.  In a profession that was frowned upon by almost everybody, not least the local police force, and a role which was generally considered ‘inappropriate’ for a woman.

“I don’t understand: why do you want to be a gumshoe?”  Bea asked.  Bea was Karen’s best friend.  They were lunching together.  Bea was paying.

“It must be something hereditary.”  Karen had wondered herself.  Was it a way of hiding behind her sister’s shadow?  “Anyway, it might not work.”

“Or be really dangerous.”

“Do you think so?  I did wonder.”

They were hard, the early days, and bestrewn with problems that somehow got missed in Phillip Marlowe novels, but not dangerous.  She quickly learned that her prospective clients disliked sitting and talking to her before the large display window of her rented ‘office’, although blinds were fitted, so she painted over the glass.  And because even that was not enough to entice the shyest customers, she had her telephone number added in large figures to her sign above the door, after which hoax calls came thick and fast.  There were other calls too, less savoury in character, from less savoury characters.  She learned when it was best to cut off the line, and when not…

Patrick picked Karen up for their drive to Baronchester with her weekday image in his mind and she surprised him, emerging from her parents’ house in a denim mini-skirt and jacket, with a cap on her head closely resembling one of his father’s.

Karen spied Patrick’s outfit:  “Oh, no!”

“It’s alright,”  Patrick assured her, wishing he had gone for something more formal than his own denim jacket and jeans.  “They’ll just think we’re twins, or something.”

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum!  I could change, but…”

“But we’d be late.  Stop worrying!”  Patrick threw his own cap into the back of his car.

“It’s the Beatles, isn’t it?”  Karen said.  “They make you want to dress down, don’t they?  Nice wheels – now I wish I’d worn my pearls!”  She snuggled into soft leather.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with clothes.”  He told her, trying to keep his eyes levelled on hers and ignore her long legs, which graced his car’s foot-well as if they belonged there.  “And if this is dressing down I want to be around when you dress up.”

“That sounds slightly pervy, I think.  Is it your dad’s motor?”

“No, mine.”  Then Patrick added, wanting to be absolutely truthful:  “My parents gave it to me for a twenty-first.”

He still took adolescent pride in his Daimler sports car; hubris he had exorcised that afternoon by manic buffing which ensured that his date would be transported in a silver bullet of impeccable radiance, even at the expense of polish-scented fingers.  He loved the machine, and he was already entering a hazard zone of besottedness with Karen Eversley.

If Patrick’s news that the Daimler was a birthday present inhibited Karen’s free-and-easy camaraderie for a while it did not last long.  She was soon asking him more about his relationship with Bob Stawkley.

“Everybody knows Bob.”  He told her.  “He’s a good old soul, and I guess he must be near retirement soon.  He has a few less kind nicknames, though, I’m afraid.”

“Do tell!”

“The way he walks – you know, that kind of bouncing gait?  ‘Roo’, they call him in School Meals.  Oh, and sometimes he’s ‘The Gerbil’.  But that’s not the most unkind…”

“Oh, go on!”

“I’m not sure I should, but blabbermouth that I am, I will.  ‘Scrotty’: around our department, he’s known as ‘Scrotty’.”

Karen caught on immediately.  “Because of his wrinkles?  Oh, fab!”

Looking back, Patrick would not remember much of those early conversations.  On reflection, though, perhaps Karen found his use of his father’s membership card to access the car park above the venue where the band was to play intimidating, or even offensive.  Nevertheless, he caught the slightly smug expression on her face when they descended together from carpark to foyer, by-passing the queue of hopefuls waiting for tickets outside.

These were the early days of the Beatles.  Amplifiers that failed them in the stadia of their first American tour were powerful enough to rock the rafters of Baronchester’s Capstan Hall, and enough to fill Karen with their message.  She held Patrick’s hand and bathed in outrageous sound for a long set amongst the screams of the devoted; then, when it was over and the streets were in darkness they climbed Capstan Hill to Rush’s Bar for chicken in a basket while the ringing faded from their ears.

“I’m glad you didn’t book a restaurant;”  Karen told him, as they walked back to the car together.

“Is that sarcasm?  I’m not really as tight as that.”

“No, I mean it.  It would have been too much.  Besides…” She let herself relax into Patrick’s side, matching her stride to his.  “This is so much nicer.  Informal, you know?”

The concert crowd had gone.  In the hall they had the lift to themselves: lifts travelled slowly in those days.  There was plenty of time to turn to each other and seal something with a brief, gentle kiss.  Walking the final few yards to Patrick’s car Karen leant against him, her head on his shoulder.

“Tired?”  He asked her, imagining her head and that hair tousled on a white pillow.

“Hmmm?  No, just checking.”

“Checking?”

“I wanted to see how it felt, that’s all.”

He was so close – so close.  The luxuriant floss of her hair between his fingers, her breast nestled against his side and the warmth of her filling him.  At the car door, he held her, unwilling even for an instant to put distance between them and certain she must share his feelings.  The darkness made darkness itself of her eyes, her fingers traced soft patterns on his cheek.  All he need do was allow his lips to find hers and touch, just brush them enough to tantalize, before uniting in another, much deeper kiss.

“Hey.”  She murmured quietly, after a while.

“Hey?”

“Take me home?”

They were miles covered in silence.  Patrick drove with Karen’s head resting against him once more and he drove slowly, drifting in his mind.  When he finally pulled up outside her door they kissed again; a familiar, goodbye kiss that held no promise or commitment, but simply said:  ‘I know you now’.

“Will I see you again?”  He asked.

“What if tonight is too hard to follow?” His face must have reflected his disappointment because she quickly reached for his hand: “Your offices are just down the road from The Hunters, aren’t they?  Shall we meet there – maybe Monday after work?”

“I’d like that.  You can tell me all about Boulters Green.”

“Ugh!  Shop!”  She leaned across to peck his cheek a final time.  “Thank you for tonight, Pat.  It was special.”

Inevitably Patrick and Karen had been seen together.  Nothing ever happens in a small, closely interwoven town like Caleybridge that is missed by its purveyors of gossip, and eager demands as to the success of Patrick’s date with Karen greeted him as soon as he entered the office on Monday morning.

“Karen Eversley!  Woo-hoo!  You’re aiming high, aren’t you, little man?”

Only Jacqui, dear, over-sensitive Jacqui Greenway, who worked in the office next to his and who helped him because she was better at his job than he, detected his serious look.  She brought coffee, leant against his office door scrutinizing him with her grey-green eyes as she sipped tea from an old Coronation mug.  Jacqui knew Karen – but then, Jacqui knew everyone.

“She’s a nice girl.  She should maybe get over her private investigations thing, but she is nice.  A little older than you perhaps…”

“Jacqui, stop it!”

“I made you a drink – there’s a price.  You do know, don’t you?”

“Oh, Jacqui!  I don’t have to know, because you’re going to tell me.  Come on, out with it!”

“Patrick, I’m serious.  If you aren’t aware of this you should be, before you get too deep.  She has a boyfriend, Pat.  They’ve been together for years.”

It was a blow:  a low punch.  It hit Patrick in the midriff so hard he almost lost his breath.  “Really?”  He said, with a nonchalance he did not feel.

“Yes; Tim, Tim Birchinall.  He’s a policeman, works in London with the Met.  Plays a lot of rugby.  Oh, and Karen, she does Ju-Jitsu.  She’s a blue belt, I think.”  Jacqui added with a meaningful look.  “Honestly, did you think a girl like that would be unattached?”

“That mug…”  Patrick affected nonchalance.  “George Fifth, isn’t it?”

Nevertheless, a little paper kite of dreams Patrick had been flying took a dip towards land. He hesitated before persuading himself to honour his Monday evening meeting with Karen Eversley, thinking maybe he should step back while there was time?  But he didn’t.

 

© 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 Three. A Beautiful Game

Bill Shankly

Bill Shankly, one of the great football managers, once said that some people regarded football as a matter of life or death.  He expressed his deep disappointment with their attitude, adding:   “I can assure you football is much, much more important than that.”

If, like me, you were a kid growing up in our town of Casterley in the nineteen-eighties, you cared a lot about sport.   If you didn’t there were very few places you could put yourself on a weekend without risk of being battered by a ball, whether hard or soft.   You learned quickly if you were good at sports, without having to resort to self-criticism: others told you readily enough.  If you were good you played, if you were bad you watched.

Cricket?  That was the nobs’ game,  played on an immaculately manicured pitch behind their big semi-detached houses on the hill, and Casterley being a northern town, played mostly in the rain.   To join the cricket club, all you had to do was knock on the pavilion door (it was a shed, really, though adorned with some beautifully painted signs) and show interest.  Then they’d look at you to see if you were wearing whites, ask where you lived, and put you to work cleaning kit.

Football was a lot more democratic.  Jack Masters, who was the physical education teacher at our school, also coached Casterley Town Juniors, and he didn’t mind what you wore or where you lived as long as you could play.  There may not have been any match fixtures in summer, but that didn’t stop Jack.   He held his ‘training’ sessions or Five-a-Side games at the Club ground from May to August, when anyone who was interested came along.

Sun or rain, on ground that was iron hard or quagmire soft, I unfailingly turned up for those Saturday afternoons with however much kit I could afford, and Jack would be there.  Tall, broad shouldered,  his black curly hair an unkempt mop, always with a football under his right arm and a crutch under his left elbow, he never smiled.  He got angry, he got tired, he shouted and he cursed, but anyone who loved their football loved Jack.  So, an hour after parting from Sue, that was where Jonna and I could be found.  We joined a score of other lads on the Town’s pitch, all eager to benefit from Jack’s pearls of wisdom.

I confess even in those days I got a little buzz from the experience of walking out between the football ground’s spectator stands.  They were rickety and they were bare of paint, but they were our club’s stands, and just being there was enough to make my chest swell with pride.  Sue’s elder brother Dave and her classroom distraction Jess Abbott had already arrived, along with several others of our friends, John Hargreave excepted.  Jonna commented:  “No stickability, that lad.”  referring to Greavesies’ decIared interest at a few sessions earlier in the year.

I felt that was a little unfair.  “I think he tried.  Jazzer was picking on ‘im, a bit, wasn’t he?”

“Why, that makes ‘im a bit o’ a Jessie, then, don’t it?  Silly bugger should pick back.  All he’d ’ave to do to crush Jazzer is sit on ‘im.  ”

It was true; Jess Abbott always looked underfed to me.  “I see Sarah’s here again.”  I nodded towards the East Stand, where Sarah Coldbatch and a couple of her mates had set up camp.  “Reckon she’s after you, Jonna!”

Jonna shuddered.  “Nah!   Affer you, more like.  Oh, I forgot!  You’re spoken fer, aren’t yer?”

 

Jack had spotted us.  “Where’ve you been?  Get over here, Chas; five-a-side – you’re playing!  John Sutley, you work with Mark Higgins on those short passes, lad; I want to see you keeping your heads up, both of you!  I’ll put you on for the second half, all right?”

As a match it was unremarkable.  I scored three before the sides changed ends, and missed two more.  Jack pulled me off at half-time to give Jonna and Mark Phelps a game.

As he passed me, Jonna nodded towards a tall figure engaged in conversation with Jack.  “He’d be worth robbing.”

I had noticed the man earlier, a portly, middle-aged figure with thin hair and the cleanest, sleekest suede jacket I had ever seen.  He was a stranger, and strangers, coat notwithstanding, always aroused suspicion amongst us lads.  He was also clearly packing a well-stuffed wallet, something he would need to protect if he planned upon leaving Casterley with it still in his possession.

Jack called me over.   “Chas, this is Allen Ranton.”

Ranton grinned at me so broadly his mouth nearly reached his ears.  “Hello, Chas.  You got two good goals today, didn’t you?”

When he spoke he leaned over me (I had a bit of growing still to do) so his face was just inches from my own.  Since I’d scored three times, I wondered which goal he considered to be of less merit.  “There was no-one stopping me.”  I said.

Ranton appeared to consider this for a moment.  “You step into your tackles a bit, don’t you?”

“I know which of us has got the ball.”  I said.

Ranton nodded.  Then he asked: “How old are you?”

I told him I was nearly fifteen.  “Dangerous age, eh?”

And that was it.  He turned to address our coach:  “Well, Jack…”

“Aye.”   Jack seemed ready to resume the conversation I had interrupted, so I turned away.  “Hang on, Chas.   I need to show you what to practice.  Come here.”

Our beautifully upholstered visitor backed off so Jack could set me up for some sprints.   “Here to the corner marker, all right?  Then back to here.  Standing start and as fast as you can.”

I enjoyed running when I was fourteen, not merely for the rush of wind to my face, but for the science I was just beginning to learn:  to reach for each stride, use the spring of my feet, to command legs which were no longer just a windmill of motion below me, but instruments of power.  So I ran.    I was still practising when the call came up for a return Five-a-Side match, mixing up the teams to make things more equal.  Without effect – my team still won.

Only at tea time as Jonna and I were leaving did we notice that Ranton had gone.

“Opportunity missed there, I reckon.”  Jonna commented.  “Us could have boned and rolled him properly, ah’m thinkin’.”

Jonna was fond of inflammatory comments.  “You’ll get yourself in trouble saying things like that, young Sutley!”  I warned him.

Jonna laughed:  “Get us in trouble, aren’t y’sayin’?  D’yer think I’d leave you out o’ it, man?”

I cocked a lip back at him.  “When did he leave?”

“Just a bit after Jack put yer on those sprints, I think.  A bit weird, like.  He watched you down the field a couple o’ times – d’er think he fancied you?”

“Dunno.  I’m pretty, there’s no denying that.”

When I got home there was tea on the table, and Ma and Da’ were pretending they were friends.  After the events of a week that had shaken my world it seemed like the tremors had ceased.  On Sunday I helped Da’ resurrect our kitchen worktop with a new leg, a process which stretched his temper, and expanded my swearword vocabulary.   Us kids, we were resilient enough; it was easy to forget, to pretend we had forgotten, to believe in everything returning to normal.  Normal service is resumed; isn’t that how we say it?  After all, I had only one version of ‘normal’ to draw upon, then.  I had much to learn.

With the turn of the summer, I turned fifteen.  My Da’ gave me another bike for my birthday, which wasn’t exactly new, but it had twelve gears, so I thought it was really special.

“Good bike, that, lad.  Keep it in our shed when yer not usin’ it.  Don’t want t’get it stole.”

I had a bike again!  It was my getaway vehicle, a further means to outwit and outdistance Trevor Bull, who had a score to settle with me ever since I worsted him that afternoon on the Addisons Estate.  What was more, a bike meant freedom.  It was a ticket to faraway places, to the homes of friends whose good fortune was not to be domiciled amidst the maze of Casterley’s squalid streets.   August was a month of distractions, when the open road, with Sue cycling beside me if her parents allowed, first introduced the conflicting loyalties that would dog our teenage years.   Those stamping grounds of our childhood, the riverside haunt beside the old jetty, the playground on Bread Street, the town park, became neglected as our friendships drifted: not apart, not yet, but falling into imperfect orbit.  The unquestioning cohesion of childhood was no more.

Summer became Autumn.   With September the football season began, and the hallowed turf of our home ground, though scarcely worthy of worship, drew its congregation nonetheless.  Every home game, a masochistic gaggle of five hundred or so faithful supporters watched as it was churned to mud beneath a motley assortment of boots.  Rain or shine we came, our hopeful eyes devouring a succession of ritual humiliations, because Casterley Town Football Club was not from the top drawer, but rather from the bargain bucket.  Our centre half was forty-four years old, and nobody knew the goal-keeper’s age, or why he kept turning up.  If he dived to make a save the move was greeted by ironic applause, because he spent the majority of his time watching the ball go past him.

We turned up, and we cheered.  We cursed, threatened, or derided the visiting teams, and we went home in a sort of ritual depression.

“We’ll be going down this year, certain.”

“We’ve got Radley North End next week.  They’ll slaughter us!”

Was it that other Liverpool hero John Toshack who likened a football team to a piano, because it took eight men to carry it and three who could play?  ‘Town’ in my growing years not only lacked piano players, it had nobody strong enough to lift the piano.

Football was surely more vital than life itself to me, then  Jonna and I, we spent long hours watching, discussing, arguing about the ‘beautiful game’.  I would have given much for a father who would stand beside his son on the terraces, but my Da’ didn’t share my enthusiasm.  “Ah’ve no time for it, lad.  No time and no munny.”

Instead, my father was given to following the horses, which rarely had the courtesy to compensate him for his interest.  I knew better than to suggest that Casterley Town’s very reasonable gate prices offered a cheaper Saturday afternoon than those he spent in the Bookmakers.  Our relationship was never that close.

Did I really know him at all?

Throughout the summer he worked away from home, returning only at weekends.  Then, one Friday night in late November his supper stayed on the stove.  I remember that night; I remember my Ma moving like a ghost through the house, tidying, dusting, adjusting; going to the window to gaze out, unfocussed, at the darkness.  I remember the silence.

When Saturday morning was well advanced with still no word of my father, my Ma put on her outdoor coat and set off for the ‘phone box at the top of the street.  She was not gone for long.  I watched her return past our window, her face set in stone.  I met her in the hall as she closed the front door on the outer world, and I saw the tears come.   I had never seen my Ma cry like that, or had to listen to her sobs as she told me my father would never live with us again, and it was a surprise to me – a shock.  Where was he?

“Never you bloody mind!  Listen you!  If he comes back here again, you don’t let him in, you hear?”

“Ma, he’s got a key!”

“I’m changing the bloody locks!  You don’t let that fornicating bloody bastard in here, in my house, wi’ my things…”

Did I lament the loss of a father and a friend?  No, not as I thought I should.  Not immediately.  I blamed him.  He shouldn’t have left us.  He shouldn’t have caused my mother pain; but I was more confused than angry – I didn’t understand why he had chosen the woman in whose house he had stayed on weekdays over us.  We were his family, Ma and me.  It made no sense.

From that sad weekend, the bedrock of family was irrevocably lost to me.  Everything changed.

My mother took a job minding the phones for a local taxi company, which meant I got my own house key. I was to tell nobody she was working, because she was being paid ‘on the knock’ and if ‘Social’ found out she would lose her benefits.  The work kept her late some evenings, so I found myself learning to cook, and taking some share of household chores.  I minded neither of those things, quite enjoying the sense of responsibility they gave me.   And if Christmas that year brought less of the plunder I was accustomed to expect, well, I was prepared to be forgiving in a cause.  The one thing I could not forgive was my inclusion in that most onerous of lists, the recipients of free school meals.

The content of the meals was unchanged.  I was fed neither differently, nor less.  My social status, however, nose-dived.  In those days, ‘benefits’ kids had no cloak of anonymity, and the Monday register lit us up like beacons for the whole class to see.  Those whose parents paid for their meals began to subtly distance themselves – the more worthy and wealthy gave me looks that suggested I might have lice, and even my friends could be caught occasionally pretending they would rather be talking to someone else.  Of all the things I have never forgiven my father for, stiff as the competition was, that was the most heinous.

I was only saved from total ostracism by football.   In January, Jack Masters made it clear he wanted me to play for the school team as a forward, or striker.  The mob of kids who gave me the silent treatment every other day of the week dropped their animosity if I played well in school matches and cheered me instead.  I think I dealt with their duplicity amicably enough, although my last year at school was also the year I lost many of my friends.   The orbit had finally decayed, and a lot of my belief was falling to earth.

My last year?  Yes, I was determined that was how it would be.  I wanted to leave school in the summer of ’86.  If I was good at football I was talentless in most other subjects and realistic enough to know it.

Sue tried to change my mind.  “You could do a sports degree, couldn’t you?  Physical Education?  You’d be excellent!”

But no; I had been poor too long.  I needed work, I needed to have money to spend, and to get out into the world.  More than anything, I had a point or two to prove.  And a tiny fire in my stomach told me my course must be different.  When I said this to Sue she flicked her hair back from her face, smiled sadly, and patted my hand.

“Then all you have to do is find out what that course is, yeah?  Shouldn’t be hard.  Eventually you’ve got to get to a place where you can see everything clearly, though.  You won’t be happy until you do.  That might take longer.”

“A place that’s mine.”

“If you like.”

Sometimes it was difficult to acknowledge that Sue, with all her maturity of wisdom, was actually younger than me, but at the time of this conversation she had passed her fifteenth birthday too.  The grown-up world loomed large for both of us.  For her, it meant study, university and a life given to a career.  For me…?

I was still thinking about Sue’s words on a Sunday in March, when I heard that ‘Spirit of Lübeck’, a four-masted schooner, had docked in Bedeport for fitting out before she joined in the Tall Ships Race later in the year.   Had I some vague idea of joining the crew of one of those impressive vessels?  I don’t know.  Anyway, under rain-laden skies I decided to take my bike and ride down to Bedeport to see her.  It was a journey I would do alone, because Jonna did not possess a bike that could be trusted over distance, and Sue’s parents would forbid her going on such an adventure.

The rain began when I was still some miles from the port, and it got very heavy, very quickly.  In water-saturated sweater and jeans I had no choice but to keep going.  The road that followed the river from Casterley down to the coast was an old one, always busy with heavy traffic which churned the surface water into a mist.  Unthinking, teeth firmly clenched, I kept my rhythm.   The rain became a curtain through which vehicle after vehicle dashed down upon me, headlights blazing.  I did not see the one that hit me:  I just felt the sideways blow.

My eyes opened first.  I spent a few moments wondering why I was looking at a white ceiling.   Then everything fell quite rapidly into place, as I recognised I was in a hospital, and the pain in my side told me why.

“Hello, lad.”  He wore a police uniform.  He was sitting beside my gurney.  “We have to find out who you are…”

A nice man, I thought, a man with an open face, a family man of a nature that would make him a better father than mine.  I couldn’t be in trouble, not from a man like that. Maybe he had rescued me from whatever it was that had brought me there.  I told him who I was.

He mulled my name over to himself:  “Charles, eh, lad?  Chas.”

“What happened?” I asked him; because at that point, I really didn’t know.

The nice man smiled generously.  “You came off your bike, lad.  Got knocked off it, likely.  No lights?”

“Am I bad?”

“Hurt, you mean?  No, no.  You’ll be all right.  A cracked rib or two, most likely.   It was no weather to be riding without lights, Chas.  Where did you get that bike?”

I frowned.  My memory still wasn’t perfect.  “My Da gave it me.”

“Did he now?  Well, we’ll be wanting to talk to your Dad then, Chas.   Because that bike…”  The nice man drew breath, whistling as he sucked the air between pursed lips; “That bike has an identity stamp on it, you see.  It was reported stolen last August.”

 

© 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