Strings

Melissa: This story stands on its own, but readers might be interested in my first encounter with Melissa, which can be found in story-form here,

Melissa arches her back, stretching bare flesh against the quilting of her lounger, the better to observe a frisbee player on the beach.   “He’s quite the Greek, isn’t he?”

I grin at her,  “Periclean?”

“A ‘First Athenian’?  More of an Achilles, wouldn’t you say?”   She lowers her Ray-Bans for a closer inspection, “Fine physical specimen, valiant in battle, but none too bright.”  Her eyes follow the arc of the beach toy as it flies to the waiting hands of Achilles’ almost equally statuesque companion, a curvaceous auburn-haired beauty in one of those white bikinis best described as’ just legal’ and held together by lots of string,  “Run him past me again?”

“Kapadopoulos, George.   Aged thirty-two, from Thessaloniki, where he’s the CEO for most of the hotels – the big ones, anyway.”

“Really?”  Melissa sounds approving,  “Wealthy family?”

“Nope!  Beach bum.  He married the money, five years ago.   His wife is heiress to the Playton Beach fortune, he runs the hospitality arm of her Companies.  Does it quite well, actually.  Turnover up twelve percent year on year.”

“Didn’t she choose well?”  Melissa says, watching the lithe redhead at unself-conscious play;  “Rare to discover such perfect judgement in one so young.”

“Oh, she’s not that young:  forty-fifth birthday next week.”

Melissa growls at me,  “That girl is not forty-five!”

“No, she isn’t.  But that girl is not George’s wife.”

“You see?”   Melissa purrs.  I am watching a moment of charming intimacy between the pair on the beach, as they laugh and they kiss, but I am more aware of Melissa’s beaming smile;  “You see, my darling, why I’m so fond of you?  You’ve been doing your homework again, haven’t you?  I uncover my Achilles, you discover his heel!”  She sits up,  “Shall I give it a dry run?”

I shrug noncommittally, or so I hope.   “No harm in it.”

If ever there is pleasure to be gained from watching another human being, it must surely be from watching Melissa.   Each step in the soft sand is carefully  placed as she walks to the seashore, hips swaying not too much, ash-blonde hair flicking like thistledown in the breeze.  I am spellbound, as I never fail to be; but my attention is as nothing compared to the organ-stop eyes of Achilles.

It will be a while before she returns, time in which I will half-sleep in the sun, and reminisce upon  the day when my good friend Jorges first introduced me to Melissa; days of cold, winter car shares, of lingering debt.  How far have I come?  How far have we come, for I owe all this to Melissa.  And where is Jorges now, I reflect?  When did we last meet? 

Shortly my Melissa will return – she will have swum, she will have responded, laughing, to a child who splashes her, or a young male who risks a pass and is instantly rebuffed.  Only when she feels she has played the tamed warmth of the waves to her full advantage will she leave the water, skipping up the white sand, to me.

She slips onto the lounger beside mine with something between a sigh and a breath, finding the straw in the Pina Colada I ordered for her.    “He was watching?”

“Of course!”  I reassure her.   “His eyes were rooted on you all the way down to the water, and all the way back.  He dropped the Frisbee three times. Now he’s looking at me.”

“Is he sizing you up?”  She stretches, letting those besotted Kapadopalous eyes feast upon every inch of leg before she crosses her right foot over her left knee, making a pretence of examining a toenail.   “Oh, sweetie, he doesn’t think you present much of a problem!”

“I wonder what Jorges is doing these days?”  (Sorry, my  love, but I am curious).

“Jorges?”  Melissa sounds surprised.  “Why do you ask about Jorges?”

“I haven’t seen him in years.  Technically he still manages you, doesn’t he?”

Melissa gives me a long look,  “He gets his ten percent, darling.  And you, my sweet, you ask for nothing!  Now; business!  Our Achilles – is he hooked?”

“I should say so,”  I tell her,  “The girlfriend’s looking worried.”

Melissa purses those delicious lips and considers this for a minute.  “Who’s the girlfriend?”

I sigh.  “Ah!  As there are ointments, so there are flies.  She is, apparently, Lavinia Defries, Larry Defries’s most adored.  She seems to have slipped the marital bridle for a day or two.”

Sighing, Melissa sucks her straw deeply,  “Indeed she has.  When we say ‘lots of money’, darling, what do we mean?”

“Awash with the stuff.  In Larry Defries’s case, about four hundred million.  At one point, he was reputed to be the richest man in Argentina.”

“Was?  What happened?”

“He moved to Italy.”

So Jorges, Jorges who has no input, Jorges-the-never-seen, gets ten percent!  I profit hugely from my  relationship with Melissa, yet I cannot help that quiet inner voice – where is my ten percent? 

Melissa is asking:  “What do you think, can you flush Lavvy out?  Look at all those strings you’d have to untie, not to mention the dozen or so others Larry’s lawyers will find for you?”

I would not refuse her:    “If you want me to, I’ll try.”

“I don’t.  It’s too late in the season for a full-scale operation, and she’s a little bit above even your vaunted league, my darling.  We’ve done well this summer.   It’s time to go home, I think.”

Yes, you’ve rumbled us – you’ve broken our cover, exposed our racket, whatever.  We perform a very valuable service for the private client.   In return for a generous fee we guarantee their wives, husbands or voters won’t learn about that night of stolen bliss, that extremely awkward business deal or the little undeclared interest which is at the foundation of every worthwhile government contract.   

‘B********l?

Alright, you can call it that, but we prefer to think of it as insurance, and the wealthy vacationers on these tropical beaches have yielded no less than fourteen very gratifying premiums this summer.  With my developing talent for research and Melissa’s unerring nose for those harbouring a personal skeleton in their closet we have been very successful, and between us become extremely rich ourselves.  But in turning down this fifteenth potential client Melissa is wise; she warns against dealings that involve the very high rollers.  Their teeth, she insists, are too sharp.

We will be leaving on the morrow, so for once we spurn the beach bar’s more extravagant temptations and head back to our hotel.  There we relax in the Ocean Lounge and watch the more determined sun-worshippers drifting in from the beach.  George and Lavinia are amongst this gaggle, but we have already excluded them from our portfolio.   They are not of interest.

At about eight, I decide to go to our room, shower the sand from between my toes, and pack ready for tomorrow’s flight.   Melissa, not disposed to move as yet, dismisses me with an airy wave:  “I’ll be up soon, darling.  It’s deliciously cool now; I might walk a little.”

The corridor to our suite is on the fifth floor.  I am strolling along it when a door to my right is opened and an elegant hand grips my wrist firmly enough to pull me inside.

“Hi!” says Lavinia, who is still wearing half her white bikini,  “I wonder if you can help me?  These strings are tied so darned tight I can’t undo them.”

This must be my night for meeting astoundingly beautiful women, because the next woman I meet, about two hours later, is astoundingly beautiful.  It is Melissa, but unlike the a.b.w of my previous encounter, she is fully clothed,

“Two hours, sweetie;”  She says, in a mildly censorious tone,  “That’s something of a record, even for you.  I take it you decided to override my decision?”

“Think of it as a little bit of private enterprise,”  I reply, emboldened by recent triumph;  “In lieu of my ten per cent.”  I produce the mini recorder from my shirt’s concealed inner pocket:  “I taped the complete transaction.”

Melissa cocks an eyebrow,  “How felicitous of you.  Who do you envisage benefiting from your discretion?”

“I thought the young lady herself:  save her the expense of a marital tiff?”

“An inspired choice, sweetie.” She turns away, so I assume the issue is closed.  She never sets any great store by my fealty to her, after all.  Business comes first.  “You’d better pack,”  She says.  “Be careful in the bathroom.”

I find this remark curious, although I do not question it then.  Five minutes later, when I do visit the bathroom, I discover the explanation for myself.  Stretched out lifeless on the floor with his neck twisted to an unnatural angle, George Kapadopoulos is not looking his best.

“My lord, Mel, what happened?   What’s he doing here?  I take it he’s dead – he certainly looks it.”

“Very dead, darling.  Such a silly boy; he tried to seduce me.  It was quite flattering and I was tempted, knowing you were humping Lavvy so inelegantly just up the corridor, but something had troubled me, and I did a little research:  your speciality, I know, but for once you missed something…”

I frown at her,  “Where are we going with this?  Melissa, we have a dead body in our bathroom!”

“We are going towards sweet little Lavinia, who I suspect has gone one better and filmed your entire ‘transaction’, because she, whose septuagenarian husband is divorcing her on the lea side of a prenup, needs money.  All that play on the beach this afternoon when we thought we were doing the assessing, our intendeds were watching us.  They have been for most of the season, apparently.  Lavinia was teaming up with Gorgeous George to offer us some ‘protection’.  Unless we pay her a certain amount which she doesn’t seem to have nominated yet, she and George will bust us on social media and back it up with a couple of criminal charges from the local fuzz, who are extremely amenable, I understand.  When George imparted their plans to me I was naturally upset.”

“So you killed him!”

“What else could I do?  Any other course of action would have resulted in considerable financial loss.”

“Well, if ever we were going to be busted, we’re busted now!   I mean, if we got lucky and managed to smuggle George out of our bathroom, what about Lavvy?  She’s very much alive and kicking, I can assure you of that, and she’s not going to be pleased!”

Melissa touches my arm, reminding me, if I needed to be reminded, of the peculiarly hypnotic effect she exerts upon me,  “It’s all being taken care of.”  She says reassuringly,  “But for both our sakes,  I think you should take your bags and check us out of this hotel now.  Do that for me, will you, sweetie?”

“What about you?   How will you manage?”

“Don’t worry, just go. I’m culpable here, darling, not you.  You needn’t be involved, as long as we keep our distance from each other for a while.   At the airport tomorrow, check in on your own.  We’ll travel separately.  Come to the Bayswater flat when you get to London.  That’ll be our rendezvous.”

Melissa is intent upon taking the blame, and who am I to argue?  In matters such as these (though none so grave before) she holds all the cards.  She is cool, level-headed and intuitively brilliant.  So leaving her, however reluctantly, I trot down to settle our account at the desk and declare our intention to check out.   And there, in the hotel foyer, like a beacon from the past, is Jorges!   I spot him as he is walking through the inner lobby towards the stairs.  I call out to him;  “Speak of the devil! Jorges!”    

My one-time car share turns to acknowledge me but doesn’t.  Instead, he silences me with a quick warning finger to his lips, then begins his ascent to the next floor.   I understand instantly.  This is a very serious matter.  Jorges is going to help Melissa to clear things up.  Jorges is earning his ten per cent!   

A lonely night spent at the airport, alternating between a bar and a hard plastic seat, allows me plenty of time for reflection.  I am grateful to Melissa for protecting me but the evening’s events do beg certain questions: did she call Jorges to help her dispose of the body or was Jorges already there?  George’s neck had been cleanly snapped and such things take great strength.  In her place, I could not have done it, whereas Jorges, who is heavily built, probably could.    Come to think of it, he had to have been nearby, obviously:  England is eight hours away.  Has he been lurking here all season; unseen but ready, should an emergency occur?  If so, what does that say about my role?

 I do not see Melissa again that night, nor is she at the airport when I check in.  The plane is crowded, making movement without drawing attention to myself quite difficult, nonetheless I check throughout the passenger accommodation at one time or another, exhaustively enough to be sure Melissa is not on board.  Now I am like an anxious swain, beside myself with worry and insecurity: has she taken a later flight, or run into trouble?  Have I left her to fate, failed her?  Has she, for that matter, left me?  Oh, why did I mention Jorges’ name, back there on the beach – and why, oh, why did I make that remark about ten percent?

So anxious do I feel for my dearest Melissa, having landed in London, that  I find it hard to maintain my composure through customs, and even harder as I take my turn for a taxi from the rank.  My decision to head straight for the Bayswater flat is a distinctly uncool one, but in my distraught state of mind it makes sense, to me, to await her return in the comfort of one of our private spaces.

I like our apartment in Bayswater, it is furnished in the style of Louis Quinze, with exquisite oriental hangings that testify to Melissa’s impeccable taste.  When I relax there I have to pinch myself to remember that the over-mortgaged house Melissa once helped me to burn down was worth less than the furnishings and textiles in its salon alone.

My taxi delivers me to the door.  My key card buzzes me through.  Our apartment is on the ground floor so it is only a short step across the hall.  I enter, hang my coat on the stand and walk the short passage which has bedrooms (four) on either side and the salon at the end.  I step into the salon…

At first I try to persuade myself I have fainted:  this is a dream – it must be a dream.   To discover that Melissa is here before me is surprising enough, but it is as nothing – nothing – to the sight of the companion who sits beside her, holding her hand!

George Kapadopoulos is holding her hand.

“You’re dead!”  I tell him, foolishly when I can find my voice.  He must already know.  He doesn’t look dead.  He does look very pale, and quite – well – friendly, I suppose.  His face is fixed in a smile of greeting.

Melissa positively beams.  “Darling, did you have a good flight?  You two haven’t been introduced yet, have you?   This is George.”

George rises, albeit slowly, to his feet.   His eyes are glassy, and he does not speak, but he does extend his hand.  I take it.  It is cold, very cold.

“You must forgive him,”  Melissa says;  “He hasn’t really recovered yet.  He’ll be right as rain in a day or two.”

“Hello George,”  my tongue is very definitely on autopilot,  “How’s your neck?”

George looks as if he might be about to fall down, so I step in to restore him to his seat.  The look I give Melissa as I do so can leave no room for doubt.   “Ask away, Sweetie,”  She says.

“Well, first of all, how did you get here before me, and a very close second, how come he isn’t as dead as he was the last time I saw him?  Oh, and a supplementary, what has Jorges got to do with it, and why isn’t he here now?”

She smiles benignly, instilling the seeds of renewed confidence in me.   George is still smiling, which disturbs me slightly:  is his head sitting a little crookedly?  “We’ll start with Jorges,”  Melissa says,  “Because that’s a simple answer.  I’ve got him safely pinned down in Hampstead.   He’s quite comfortable there.”  She takes a sip of the red wine she always has near her when we are in this apartment;  “Now I have to tell you a little story.  Get yourself a drinkie, darling you may need it.

“I am not as I appear.  Does that sound too dramatic?”

“A bit,” I concede, pouring a whisky.  “Explain?”

“I come from a very old family.”

“Ah!  I thought there was a little Slav in your blood. Those adorable gypsy eyes of yours – Esmeralda eyes.”

“Close,”  Melissa says.  “My family was not always appreciated as it should have been.  We were nobility; we were owed respect.   Instead, we were driven from our homeland, condemned to wander the world as exiles.  This makes us very cautious.”

I have stopped pouring.  Melissa has barely mentioned her family before, apart from once alluding to her mother “This family…”

 “Certain of our practices attracted criticism,” she allows herself a whimsical smile,  “And we were a touch on the primitive side at times, it’s true.  But we changed.  Yes, we changed.”

I am settling on a chaise, drink in hand and starting to think the unthinkable.  “What changed?”

“Certain appetites,”  She purses her lovely lips, “ that made us easy to trace, easy to hunt down.  It has been a tortuous road.  Even my Grandmother, the twelfth Countess, found sunlight quite injurious for a while.”

“And now?”  I say, heavily.

“Oh, she finds it easier to live below ground.  I am three hundred years younger than her and I don’t suffer from the sun at all; nor does Jorges.  Science is a wonderful thing.”

“Jorges is…?”

“Oh yes!  Really, darling, what did you think I meant when I said he gets ‘ten percent’?” And you see, we are all quite warm-blooded now.  It isn’t difficult to appear normal when you can manage to eat a little food now and then, or take a drink or two.”

I am trying to remember the last time I saw Melissa with food, “You’re still not completely…”

“Completely mortal?  Bless you no. Each of our clients this season was persuaded to donate – I still need my little ‘fix’ now and then.”  She pats George on the arm.  His head turns slowly in her direction;  “Jorges and I had quite a feast last night!”

“Yet you still beat me home?”

“Private transport, shall we call it?  Not used often, and not without risk;   The Marchioness was almost shot down once by a French hunter just outside Le Touquet, .but yesterday was an exception.     Now, about you…”

“What about me?   Did you take your percentage out of me?  I don’t remember any biting.”

“You always compliment me on the passionate depth of my kisses.  You even say they make your mouth sore, at times.  Either the tongue or the back of the upper lip is favoured.”

“I haven’t bled, Melissa!”

“We’re like mosquitos, sweetie.  We seal the wound.  Now, after your debacle with George and his pretty mistress, I’ve decided it’s time you went out on your own.”

The true horror of what is happening overcomes me.  “Stop!  Stop, please, my darling!  I made one mistake – just one!   Don’t push me away!  I love you!”

“Oh, now who’s being dramatic?  Love?  It’s hypnotic suggestion and it passes in no more than a day. But no, I’m not dispensing with you, because you’re very good.   On the contrary, the family is always growing, so we’re opening up the Heidelberg apartment for your use.  I have shared our blood with you for years now, and in the next few days you will discover how to extract your own ten percent.  You will enjoy it!” 

Melissa squeezes George’s hand,  “Meanwhile George, who  as we discovered yesterday is also very, very  good, is my new recruit.  He shall learn from me,  and you will teach a new companion your wizardry.   You must meet her.”

Melissa makes no move or any detectable kind of summons, yet there is a vibration, and I feel it, too.   In response to it the salon door opens, admitting a graceful figure in a dress of bridal white who crosses the floor and melts onto the chaise longue beside me.

“Hi again!”  Lavinia says softly:  “No strings this time, huh?”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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.

Picture Credit: Airport – Jeshoots.com

Header: QK from Pixabay

Mary

Tonight he finds her in his living room, seated in her favorite chair, gazing out at the view of the city beyond their window.  “Mary?”

“Who else?”  She turns to greet him.

“It is you, Mary!  It really is you!    Why here, of all places?”

“Oh, Richard, come on, you’ve been here before – often.  You are always dreaming of us together, in this room, but tonight I thought I would join you.  I want to be part of your dream. Why should the geography matter?”

“No, but you are different somehow; as if you were really, really here!  I mean – you seem so young!  You look no older than the day we met, all those years ago.  And isn’t that the dress…?”

“…I wore on our first day together?  You remembered.”

“Dearest, I’ll always remember.  Twenty-four years, and every detail of that day is as vivid now as then, but this – this is special:  I want…I want so much to touch you, to hold you…”  The regrets – the regrets come flooding in again, the sorrow for the wrongs, the penitence he may not serve.  It is all too late – too late for that.

“Richard, you are sleeping – this is a dream.  In your dream you can do many things.  You can touch me, hold me, love me if you like.”

“Please, don’t torment me, Mary.”

“A little, maybe.  Should I not?  Don’t I have cause, Richard?  Or reason to tease you, or fear you?  I have been, you see, very afraid. I‘ve many good reasons to curse my fate, because I have the misfortune to be a memory of yours. Yet this night is a special night, and I will make it your own.  Tonight I am a ghost to do with as you will, I will not leave you until dawn.”

“Is this forgiveness at last?  Can you forgive me?”

“For pushing me from the balcony that lies behind those windows?  For insisting I was suicidal?  For telling the world that I leapt to my own destruction?   My forgiveness is what your conscience craves?”

The ghost revives the memory again, and often as he has relived the betrayal, the jealousy, the fury of that night, it can still bring tears.  “It was an accident,” he weeps. “I didn’t mean it to happen.  You must know that.”

“No, of course you didn’t.  Nobody means to kill.  Anger takes over and you find strength you did not know you possessed.  You can look for excuses, for justification; as you have upon so many nights – it is not the issue here, not the reason I have come to you – not my cause to hope this will be a unique night for you.  This morning is a very special morning, is it not?  Christopher is twenty-one, Richard.  Our son is twenty-one today.  Or have you entirely forgotten that?”

“No.  No, of course not!  How would I forget my own son?”

“Well, let us see.  You sent him away to live with your parents in England when he was five years old, sent him to boarding school when he was eight.  This was his home, Richard, but you swept it from under his feet, uprooted him from his little universe and despatched him to the other side of the world while you stayed here.  He lives in England, you in L.A. How many chances have you taken to refresh your memory since?”

“That isn’t fair!  After…after us, I couldn’t bear to be near him.  I tried, I did honestly, but his every look reminded me of you, my darling.  So what I did was for him, as much as for myself.”

“His every look reminded you of your guilt, you mean, don’t you?  Is that why you never so much as visited – sent a card at Christmas, or a telephone call on his birthday, congratulated him at his graduation?  Richard, he is your son – your son and mine!”

“He never knew what really happened.  I’ve done my best.  I left him a gift, a special coming-of- age gift.”

“Ah yes, the gift.  Remind me of your gift…”

“But you are Mary; you have been watching; you already know.  This morning, when he wakes for his twenty-first birthday, Christopher will receive the key to a safety deposit box I placed with my bank’s London office sixteen years ago.   When he opens it, he will find bonds and share certificates inside – enough to make him financially secure for the rest of his life.  He will never have to work, or worry.  That is my gift to him, Mary.”

“How good it must make you feel – to be able to trade all that for a childhood!”

Richard smiles because he has often congratulated himself for this rich gesture.  Yes, his benevolence must do more than compensate for Christopher’s lack of a father.  “It is generous, isn’t it?  Few children can ever hope to receive such a gift: and it is not that I don’t love him – in some measure.  I said so on a tape I placed within the box – a tape I made the day after we laid you to rest.”

“And the day before your parents took him away.  What did you say on this tape of yours?  How you adore him, how you repent?  ‘Grow strong, my son, and learn from the failings of your father’.  Does it say that?”

“You’re judging me unfairly.”

“Am I?  In this respect, at least, you are wrong: I was not ‘laid to rest’ – could not rest while my philandering, guilty assassin walked free. Yet in all the generosity of my heart I wanted to be with you in these small hours. I offered you anything you wanted, a last gift. You should have taken it. Dawn is almost upon us; it is too late, now.”

“I don’t follow you. How is it too late? Why the finality?” He genuinely does not wish to lose the spectre that he has kept secretly in his thoughts for so many years. “Are you leaving me?”

“I left you, as you put it, out there on that balcony, a long time ago. But I can answer you: with the dawn, yes.

“Richard, my dear, you didn’t even press playback, when you prattled into that little recorder of yours.  You just offered excuses, dismissed your love in a few sentences and you tossed the tape into the safe deposit box.  Such a shame, Richard.  Such a shame.”

He frowns, suspicious at last.  “What are you keeping from me….”

“I?  I would keep nothing from you.  Tonight I came to give you peace.” Mary’s smile is chill enough to freeze the marrow of his bones. “Come close to me, Richard; come close and I will whisper to you – such sweet words.  I will tell you – no, come closer – I will tell you of a woman in fear for her life, in this room, sixteen years ago.  I will tell you how, after you had telephoned her in your rage she knew you were coming to her with murder on your mind, so she took your little tape recorder from its drawer and switched it on.  And I will tell you that tape was never erased, and how that woman’s every cry of terror and despair, and every word and blow of yours was etched upon it.  And then I will tell you that is the tape you sealed in Christopher’s safe deposit box.”

“No!  That isn’t possible!  I recorded on a clean tape!”

“You believed the tape was clear, because before I switched the recorder on, it was.  But your fingers shook as you pressed the ‘on’ button.  You didn’t record.  You should have replayed the tape, Richard.  You should at least have taken some of your precious time to do that.”

Panic overtakes him, a fear as debilitating as the moment when Mary, overbalanced, slipped from his grasp, all those years ago.  Can he think back so far?  Did he check the red recording light had responded to his finger on the button?  “I can telephone him!”  He cries.  “I can tell him there’s a mistake, that I’ve sent him the wrong key.  I can stop him opening the box!”

“Oh, my darling Richard, you have forgotten, haven’t you?  It is early morning here in LA, but the sun is high over London.  Our son has already opened the box; the tape is already played.  It is time to wake up, beloved murderer because your dream is over.  Any second now the telephone will ring.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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.

Photo Credit: Feature photo: Free-photos from Pixabay

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Six – Nel Kershaw.

 

Sue Crabtree stood in the shadow of the bridge with the river at her back, pale in t-shirt and jeans, and when she saw me she brushed her ringlets of hair back from her face, so nothing should hide her solemn expression, her downcast eyes.  She did not smile.   “They know what we did.”  She said, tearful.

“Did you tell them?”

“They just – knew.  They want us to stop seeing each other.”   She spoke so quietly I could barely hear her.

“Your parents.”  I said.  “They can’t stop us, can they?”  Wanting her to say no, she wouldn’t obey them, that I was more important to her than some stupid threat from her father.  “Sue, we can still keep seeing each other.  You can get away, can’t you?  I mean, we can get away – get away from here, you and I, Sue.”

She did not answer.

“What’s wrong?”  I struggled to keep the plea from my voice, fought back the unmanly tears that were trying to make themselves known.   “Are you frightened of your Da’- because I can handle him for you?”

“It’s not just my Da.  Chas, Mam’s been telling me some things…”

“Oh aye, I don’t doubt that!   She was telling me some things too!”

“Don’t be too hard on her.  She’s right, Chas.  I’ve got a lot left I want to do, and I don’t…look, if we keep seeing each other, Da’s going to make it really bad for you.  I know he is!  And us – it’s going to happen again, yeah?  We just got too close, Chas, too close.”

I moved forward, desperate to touch her but she stepped back, almost flinching away from me.  “No, don’t!   Don’t!

“All year it’s been you told me I had to be faithful to you, that you had dreams too.  What happened to them?”

“I was wrong.”  Sue said miserably.  “I was wrong and I’m sorry.  I’m so, so sorry.  Chas, this is really hard for me.  I’d do anything not to hurt you, but I think we should stay away from one another, at least for a while.”  Her eyes met my own and I could see the tears there.  “Just for a while.”

“Sue, no!”

“I had to see you.  I couldn’t just drop out of your life without saying anything.  I couldn’t do that.”

“Sue…”

“This is how it’s got to be, Chas.  It’s for the best.”

She reached out, gave my hand a quick squeeze, then before I could return the grip she was running away from me, up the lane towards the town.

Shaken as I was, sometime would elapse before I, too, made my way up through the dereliction of The Fellings, following that gloomy, winding lane of moss-covered cobbles and dank shadows that even summer’s raw heat could not penetrate.   Walking away from a place of memories I must now wipe from my mind.

If you forgive me I will not share my feelings on that friendless evening, or recount which of the many streets I walked, or how the hours passed.  I will draw a veil over the secret places that I found where I might hide my face from the world.   These were private things which, although I remember them all, are too personal to ever be revealed.

Somehow, the night passed and I did not go down to the bridge, although I thought of it.  Perhaps, if I had known what the next morning would bring I might have succumbed to that temptation,  because at eight o’clock while my mother was still in bed came the hammer on the door, and when I pulled back my curtain there were two police cars in the street.

Here I must pause to explain, for if you are not working class, or you did not live upon those tight urban streets where the houses huddled to one another in rebuttal of the storm, or upon one of those council-built estates whose noble purpose once was the housing of the poor, you would not understand.   The police always adjudged themselves defenders of the middle class, saw it as their duty to seek their offenders among the working class; and class, to the police, was an address, and no more.  If you were middle class, living on the hill and your son or daughter should offend, you did not need to fear; a discreet visit from a uniformed officer would serve to correct what was obviously an error of judgement, a mistake.   There would be a conversation, firm but polite, and the arm of the law would depart, in most cases without charges being made.

If you lived on a street like ours, then you were by default a threat to society.  The uniforms would arrive in force, overrule all argument, and decide upon your guilt according to the set model in their minds that your address dictated.   It is now as it was then – little enough has changed, and the class divisions are as stark as they ever were, but years from those times I understand it now:  I look back and see why four officers pushed me aside and entered my mother’s house that early morning, demanding she rise from her bed.   In their eyes I was guilty of whatever accusation had been levelled; my cause was lost before I even knew there was a cause to lose.

We were bundled to the Police Station without ceremony, thrust into an interview room and seated before a table occupied by two others, a woman and a man.  It was the man who did the talking.

“You’ve been a busy little lad.”   He was wearing the deliberately casual clothes of CID; a tan leather jacket, summer-weight green trousers and a white t-shirt.  For all I know he was wearing the Miami Vice slip-on casual shoes, too –  if I noticed, I can’t remember.   He had a young face, full cheeks, a narrow mouth that muttered to itself even when he wasn’t talking, and eyes; grey eyes that accused.   He flapped the file he was holding up in front of me.  “Says here you’ve been very naughty, Mister Haggerty.  Do you want to tell me about it?”

“No,”  I said.  I was feigning ignorance.  What did he mean?

My mother, seated beside me, was still waking up.   The woman across the table from her was no more than twenty-five years old, thin as a willow twig and dressed smartly in a lilac suit  No-one introduced her to us, although she also had a file with my name printed on the corner.

“All right then,”  Said the Detective Constable,  “let’s start with a question:  Monday morning, really early, say about 12:30am, where were you?”

“I was at home in bed, I expect.”

“He was.”  My mother interjected.  “He was home with me, all night.”

“Really?” The DC smirked unpleasantly.  “I’ve got CCTV footage says you were on Front Street, shouting some things.  Good light on Front Street; helps the camera: it’s clearly you, lad.  And there’s an eyewitness who lives in the flat over the shop; you woke him up with your swearing, so he saw you do it.  Then we’ve been having a chat with a taxi driver says he picked you up from Front Street.  He couldn’t deny it; camera evidence shows his registration plate.  So, will I ask you again?”

“It wasn’t me.  Must have been somebody else.  Mistaken identity, see?”  I hoped I was sounding convincing.  I knew I wasn’t.

“You dragged us all the way down ‘ere, just ‘cause he was drunk and disorderly?”  My mother’s vocal cords were finding their pitch.  “You must be mental, man!”

“I didn’t say he was drunk.  Irrational behaviour, not always drink.  Can be drugs, too.  You put out William Hills’ window, are you still going to try and deny it?”

“Aye.  Wasn’t me.”

“Very well.”  The Detective Constable sighed.  “I’ll put that on your statement, shall I?”

“Why?  Is this going to court?  Just because you think I broke a window?”

“No, lad, not just because you broke a window.   Next question – around about the same time last night, where were you?”

“I was at home, in bed.  What are you accusing me of this time?”

“Believe it or not…”  The Detective Constable produced a photograph from his folder,  “…this is the sort of stuff we have to present as state’s evidence, these days.”  He placed the picture on the table so I could see it.  “Do you recognise this?”

I studied it as carefully as I could, which was not too carefully, because I was shaking, for some reason.  “It’s a stone.”

“That’s right.  A stone.  Not up to much, is it?  But it should give you a clue where this is going, young Haggerty.  Now tell me again; where were you around midnight last night, please, and I want you to think hard about your answer.”

I was suddenly aware that the eyes of the thin woman in lilac were staring straight at me,  They were green eyes, very large and somehow hypnotic.  The detective was asking me another question:

“Do you know  the address 32 Lampeter Drive?”

I came to myself.  The reminder of that particular address was not pleasant.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I do.”

The DC consulted his file again.  “Which is the home address of Mr and Mrs M. Crabtree.  You know it then?”

“I said…”

“Were you there last night, around about midnight?  Did you put this stone, and five others like it, through each of the ground floor windows of 32 Lampeter Drive?”

“No!  No I didn’t!”

“Did you shout out threatening Mr Crabtree?  ‘I’ll slit you, you bastard’ I believe were your exact words?   The same words you were shouting the night before, on Front Street, when you broke the betting shop window.  We have a witness for that, too.”

I was too shocked to respond.  My mind was running through a labyrinth of thoughts and meeting the stern figure of Mackenzie Crabtree at every turn.  Never once could I have imagined he would go so far to separate me from his daughter as to accuse me falsely.  With my mother’s protestations ringing in my ears and no possible arguments to defend myself I was dumbfounded and I was helpless, more helpless than I had felt in all my life.

What happened thereafter was something of a blur.  My mother’s insistent treble, the Detective Constable and his violet-suited companion conferring, the words of the charges against me being read out in the Detective Constable’s bored, dismissive monotone; strong hands hoisting me from my chair.   Finally, a march along a short, bare corridor past featureless brown doors to one door, a door which slammed behind me – leaving me without laces in my shoes or a belt around my waist.  And silence.

Silence.

It may have been hours; after those first terrifying moments I lost all sense of time.  Within that little white-painted cell I had the minimum essentials for existence, a toilet, a bench long enough to function as a bed, a thin mattress.  The steel door that separated me from everything in my world was sturdy, the viewing panel within it closed.  Few sounds penetrated its obdurate substance – occasional distant voices caught in snatches of conversation, instruction or laughter; thin slices of life, growing and fading.  Air heavy with disinfectant caught in my lungs, making it hard to breathe.

The viewing panel in the cell door clicked open to reveal a man’s face, his eyes flicking left and right as he checked the room.  Then the panel snapped shut, the door’s heavy bolt withdrew, and the tall figure of the lilac woman walked in.  On her nod, the hand that had opened the door closed it again.

“Well now,” She said, in a steady, assured voice.  “What are we going to do with you?”

“Who are you?”  I asked.  In the interview room no-one had introduced her.

“I’m Nel Kershaw, Charles, and I’ve been commissioned to act as your counsel.”  She proffered the same file she had been studying in the interview room.  “You don’t have to accept me, of course.  You’re free to appoint your own legal representative if you have anyone in mind?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t.”

“It’s me, then!” Nel Kershaw perched herself on the edge of the shelf that formed a bunk, inviting me to do the same. “How old are you, Charles – fifteen?  Let’s see, what have we got here; two charges of criminal damage, one of breach of the peace, threatening behaviour – that’s quite impressive for a couple of days – oh, and previous for receiving stolen property.   I think we can leave that on one side.  What on earth set you off on this trail of destruction – was it drink?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”  I said sullenly.  “I didn’t do it.”

The violet woman gave me a crooked smile.  “Charles, the Front Street window incident was witnessed, seen clearly on CCTV, and fits perfectly with a statement made by the taxi driver who took you home, so I think we can agree you did it.   The second and third charges rely upon the wording of your uttered threats during the Front Street incident, and the evidence of the owner of 32 Lampeter Drive, Mr Crabtree.  He says he got a clear view of you from his bedroom window with the last of the six stones in your hand just before you threw it ‘viciously’ at his downstairs bathroom window.  Then there is a statement made by his son, David Crabtree, who claims to have seen you running away down the drive of the Crabtree house…”

“NO!”  I shouted at her.  “I didn’t go near his house.   Why is he saying that?  I didn’t break his bloody windows!”

“He asserts that you threatened him, that you intend him and his family harm, and he fears you.  Why should he be afraid of you, Charles?”  Her green eyes were boring deep into mine, soulful and searching, stripping away my ability to deny.

So I told Nel Kershaw the truth.  I told her about Sue, and as much as was needed about that fateful afternoon when we made love on the riverbank.  I recounted her father’s threats to me, his wife’s visit to our home, and my drunken adventure involving a brick and William Hill’s Betting Shop window.  Nel wrote down the substance of my words, I think, to add to her file, and when my tale was ended she re-read what she had written.

“So, this is what happens.  Because you are under eighteen your case will be heard before magistrates convening as a Youth Court, where you will enter a plea.  If that is guilty you may get a sentencing decision straight away, or they could ask for further reports.  I see you were assigned a care officer after your previous offence…”

“But I didn’t do it!  Alright, I broke the Betting Shop window, I was drunk and I was mad, but none of that other stuff.  He’s lying!”

“What are you suggesting; that he broke his own windows?”

“I don’t know!  I wouldn’t put it past him!”

“Well, I did say the testimony was unreliable for the Threatening Behaviour charge.  Even less so, if this Mr Crabtree is proven to hold a grudge against you.  We can take that line, and we can ask for his wife to account for her visit to your home.  When the alleged offence took place it was dark, he could not be certain to have identified you, and his son only saw your back.  The case against you is weak, and you could defend it, but…”

“But?”

“If Mr. Crabtree is called, he may raise the matter of your relationship with his daughter, and that could open a new can of worms.”  She shuffled her papers together, making preparations to leave.  “Look, I see the court wanting to just hustle this through.  However, if we can get them to hear separate pleas for each offence they might treat you more leniently.  That’s for then; now I’ll see what I can do about your bail.

“What will I get?”   I asked her as she rapped on the cell door.

Nel Kershaw shrugged.  “A fine for the shop window, probably, maybe a community order.  For the other offences you might be in for a stretch in a Young Offenders Institution, anything up to six months.”  She offered a smile.  “Sorry.   I believe in giving my clients the worst scenario first.  The Youth Court is supposed to be sympathetic, so I imagine it may turn out a lot better than that.”

The cell door opened for her to leave.  “That’s it for now.  We’ll get you out of here.”  She paused, turning to fix me with her green-eyed stare.  “Sometimes in my job I meet people who really shouldn’t be in here.  You are one such person, Charles Haggerty.   You are truly worth saving, but in the end it’s up to you; there are two turnings and only you can decide which road you want to take.  Do what they tell you and stay out of trouble, okay?”  She treated me to a quick smile and then the door closed once more, leaving me to my silence.

#

“Been in the dungeons, like?”  Jonna was doing his own version of sympathy.  “Terrible in there, innit?”

“Nah, lovely.”  I told him.  “They’ve got wallpaper on the walls and tellies and the food’s just great, man!  I didn’t want to come out.”

For a moment he believed me.  I could read it in his face.  “Yeah?  Nah, man!”

“It was, I’m telling you!  They’re that nice to you!  I can’t wait to get back in, me!”

“Away, man, give us credit, will yer?  You’re on bail – did they take yer passpoort, like?”

“I haven’t got a passport – which you very well know.  I’ve got to report in every day and be indoors by 9:30.”

“Doesn’t do much for yer nightlife, then.”

“No, it doesn’t.  If they see me on the streets after that I go back in detention, that’s what they told me.  Oh aye, And I’m not allowed within half a mile of Lampeter Drive:  not that I’d want to go near the bastard, mind.”

“Crabtree.  There’s all sorts of stories about ‘im.  Don’t worry, Chas, us’ll batter ‘im for yer.”

“No. No, don’t go near him, any of you.  It’d be just what he wants.  The cart’ll be coming round for him soon enough.”

“Why, he’s crafty enough, that’s the truth.  How’re yer goin’ to get Sue away from him else, though?”

“I’m not.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happened, Jonna, and I won’t try to rescue somebody who doesn’t want to be rescued.  I made a mistake.  I’m not lying, I like Sue, you know I do; but maybe she doesn’t like me quite as much.”

Jonna shook his head, bewildered.  “Ah don’t believe it, man!  You two have knowed each other since you was bairns, we all did!”

“That’s what I thought, too.”  I told him.  “I thought we were good friends.  I was wrong.”

“So your mind’s made up, like?”

“It is.  It was made up for me.”

“Well then, us’d better get down McDonalds an’ exploit your fame a little.  Word’s all around town how it took two copper loads o’ ‘blues and twos’ to nick yer, so there should be a free lunch in it, y’na?”

My reputation for toughness was laid upon the table before me, so that all I had to do was pick it up.  In the weeks before my case was due to be heard I enjoyed a mildly legendary status that extended beyond my school friends, even as far as the mild admiration of Trevor Bull, who warmed to me enough to engage me in his version of a conversation, on the Saturday after my sixteenth birthday, as I was making my way to football practice.

“Now then, Spakker!”

“Now, Trev.  You alright, man?”

“Aye.”  Trevor had a way of standing within inches of me when he talked, looking down on the top of my head.  “Ga’n football?”

“Aye.”  I said.  “It’s Saturday, mind.  Season starts soon.”

“Aye, it does.”

“Yes. Will you be coming to the home games, Trev?”

“Aye.”

“Right then, see you there.”  I said cheerily, ready to move away.   Trevor laid a hand on my shoulder.  “Man, that’s a grip you’ve got there, Trev.  You been going to weight training again?”

“Aye..”  Said Trevor.  “Lissen, Spakker, word is you got a score to settle wi’ Crabtree, like.”

“Nah, not really, Trev.  I’m on my best behaviour, see?”

“’Way aye, good thinkin’.”   Trevor tapped his sizeable nose appreciatively.  “Mussen’ say nothin’ the Chatties might hear, like.   Jus’ sayin’ Spak, if the’ wants a hand or two, Ah’m up for it.  Ah hates that bugger, me!”

I thanked him before I hurried on, making an excuse that I was late.  His offer did not entirely surprise me – it was a bad offer made with a generous heart, and one that had already been made by several others, not least of whom were Jonna, Sarah Coldbatch and John Hargreave.  If I wished, I had a small army pledged to my cause, loyal servants at arms whose loyalty was rather spoken than intended.  In a town like ours, many a fealty pledged beneath the disguise of twilight could be relied upon to return to clay before the dawn.  Yet it was flattering that anyone should see fit to rally behind me with even the slightest degree of sincerity.  I felt somehow honoured by it.

My thoughts were crowded as I entered the football ground, preoccupied with the breaking of old alliances, the making of new.

“Chas.   Come here lad.”  Jack Masters was coming across the pitch to meet me with his peculiar hobbled gait of leg, crippled leg and crutch; and there was an anxious expression on his face I did not recognise.  “I want a word with you!”

 

© 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.