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.

 

 

 

 

A Place that was Ours. Chapter Five – Criminal Acts

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

As I look back upon it now, I realise how my childhood ended that evening in June of’86.   A shell of my former self made its way across the bridge towards town, its mind in turmoil, its muscles bunched in helpless fury.   A man who had become a monster in my eyes had the one person I loved in his power.  I had failed Sue, let her father snatch her from me.  In my irrational head Mackenzie Crabtree was beating, torturing, humiliating the only person I loved, while I did nothing to defend her.

I could not go home.  Home would mean an empty house, because my mother was at work, and I could not face the constriction of walls around me.  So, instead, I directed my feet by way of Lower Town Road to the Old Hall, a one-time civic building that was now housed Maisie’s nightclub.  It shared a frontage with a Fish and Chip shop, and an off-licenced general store run by an enterprising little Pakistani character we all called Javid.

I was looking for a youth everyone knew as ‘Lard’.

Around this time of the evening, Lard would be found loitering, usually in the company of a brace of hangers-on, either outside the Golden Chip, one of eight fish and chip emporia in Casterley, or on the steps of the Old Hall entrance.   A lad of maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, Lard was a car salesman by profession.  Really named Richie, his nick-name referred to his thick black hair, which he was in the habit of plastering back from his face using a liberal quantity of hair gel.   He was where I expected to find him, together with a couple of other faces I knew, sitting on the steps eating chips from a plastic tray.

I ferreted through my pockets for the last of my weekly dose of small change.  “Hey Richie, man.  Gerrus a six-pack, yeah?” (I would offend him if I called him Lard to his face.)

Lard looked up at me with a negative expression on his acne-flecked features.  “Nah, can’t.  Ah’m eatin’.”

Danny, whom I knew from football training, was leaning against the wall at the top of the steps, stuffing in some chips of his own.   “Gan on, Richie.  Ah cud use a tin mesen’.  Ah’l look after yer chips, like.”

Lard grunted.  “Aye, awreet.  What’ya want, like?”

Danny said. “Tuborg,”

Lard hauled himself to his feet. “Gi’us yer pennies then.”

If Lard ever had any money for drink, he rarely needed it.  The arrangement was, you gave him money for a six-pack of beer and he visited Javid’s emporium to make the purchase on your behalf, which was how, when you were underage in Casterley, you got your alcoholic beverages.  And when the deal was completed, you got five cans from the six pack, and Lard got one.  It was simple, basic commerce that salved Javid’s conscience, kept Lard (or in this case Danny) supplied with beer, and every lad in my school year who could not pass off as eighteen years old did it.   There were some nasty rumours that girls had other ways of repaying Lard, but it was hard to imagine.  You see, Lard wasn’t exactly personable.  In fact, he was a bit dim, poor lad.

“Now then, Chas.”  Danny descended the steps towards me as Lard disappeared into Javid’s store.

“”Now, Danny.”  I returned the greeting.

“How’r’y’gannin’ like?”  Danny was a fair-haired lad, closer to Lard’s age than mine.  He had a strong face and a wide, genuine smile.  “You don’t look so good, y’na?”

“I’m all right, s’pose.”  I muttered.  “Just had a run-in with Sue Crabtree’s Da.”

“Ah.”  Danny sympathised.  “That’s Mack the plumber, right?  Mean bastard, ‘im.”

“I could bloody slit ‘im!”  I said, with appropriate venom.

“Nah, man, yer couldna’.   Tha’s already got the Chatties after yer hastn’t tha?  Don’ give ‘em reason to nick yer for more.   Take tha’ beer home, man.  Sleep it off, like.”

I spent little time wondering how Danny had learned about the bike incident.  Everybody knew by now.  No  matter how minor the crime, it was hot news in Casterley.   After ‘Lard’ had returned and Danny had split off his tin of Tuborg from my six-pack, I walked away.  I didn’t want to sit and commiserate, I wanted to be alone, to let my anger fester and grow.

Danny called after me.  “You sixteen next month, Chas?”

“Aye.  Who wants to know?”

“Jack Masters was askin’.”

Eleven-thirty that night found me propped up against the old concrete jetty beside the river, my five tins of beer consumed and a very imprecise intention whirling around in my mind.  I was not a drinker by nature; this was only the second time I had availed myself of Lard’s merchant activity, so five beers was a substantial inebriant as far as I was concerned.   My intention, as I had to keep reminding myself somewhat fuzzily, was to pay Mr. Mackenzie Crabtree’s house a nocturnal visit and liberate Sue – my Sue – from his grasp.  I had not worked out the final detail (my concentration kept fading) but it involved the use of the brick I had carefully selected from one of The Felling’s many half-demolished properties and which now lay beneath my hand.

Above and behind me sounds of activity from the town were drifting away into slumbering silence.  Right now the Fish and Chip shops and Kebab shops and Chinese Takeaways would be dispensing their last meals, the final gaggle of weekend drinkers would be meandering home.

Soon it would be my time.  I would move through the sleeping town with feline stealth in pursuit of my revenge.   My problem, though, was persuading my legs to share my sense of mission, an immediate issue which came to a head when I tried to execute a very necessary bodily function and fell over.   Thereafter, although my attempts at emulating a cat were limited, I certainly smelled like one.  Actual progress, with frequent stumbling, needed the support of the jetty and, when that ran out, any wall adjacent to the pavement, or lamp-post, or parked car that offered.

If my sense of equilibrium had faltered, my anger had not.  As it quickly became apparent I would not have the stability to reach my intended goal, I believe (although my recollection is hazy on this point) I began fulminating loudly at Mr. bloody Mack Crabtree and itemising my charges against him at the top of my voice.  Staggering along Front Street, in despair of my failing body I hurled the brick with all my force at the window of the betting shop, which gave me the satisfaction of cracking in three places whilst dealing finally with any remnants of silence, because the shop’s intruder alarm resented my assault, and said so.

Just how aware was I of the car that appeared so suddenly beside me, or of the hands grabbing my shoulders, forcing me into its back seat?  I remember lashing out, convinced the hands belonged to Sue’s father – after that, though, very little.   Vague images of a car interior, maybe, or of strong hands pulling me from the seat once the journey was complete; then nothing.

#

“Oh, you’re awake, are you?”  My mother’s voice, strident and at its falsetto finest.  “You stupid little bastard!”

Where was I?  “Where am I?”

“Where d’you think you are?  Whose bed is this?”

I managed to prop myself on an elbow.  My head hurt.  “Mine.”  I said.  I was in my own bedroom.  Insipid daylight was filtering through the unlined curtains.

“Aye, and lucky you are you’re not in a police cell after last night.  Boozing at your age!  That’s how yer father started, boy!   You won’t remember breaking William Hill’s window, I suppose?”

“I might…”  My head hurt.

“You might.  You Might!  You did, you silly little sod!  How you didn’t get nicked I don’t know.  Thank god Terry, one of the taxi drivers from work saw it were you and had the goodness to put you in his taxi and bring you home.  Otherwise…”

So it was that my attempt at rescuing Sue ended in blackly comical failure.   Nor did Terry’s rescue protect me from its consequences in the end because in selecting William Hill’s window on Front Street I had picked the only location in town where a security camera was fitted.   This time it would be criminal damage and breach of the peace and all sorts of other things they would read out to me down at our friendly local police station.  All that came to light on the Wednesday of the following week.  I was destined to appear at the Juvenile Court after all, and with a record of an official caution like a yoke across my shoulders.

In the meantime, Sue was not at school that Monday, nor was there any sign of Dave, her elder brother.  Dave was in his first ‘A’ Level examination year and one year above mine, so it was possible he was on study leave, but if I had entertained some sort of vain hope Sue would appear and everything would be normal again, of course it wasn’t.   Instead, when I returned home that night I found two people in our front room waiting for me.  One was my mother, the other was Shelley Crabtree.

Shelley?  ‘Shel’ as my Ma liked to call her – had altered greatly since my early years.  My first memories of her in the days when Sue, Dave and I played together as kids were of a tall, slender woman, clothed casually in blue jeans and t-shirt, whose clowning could be relied upon to produce childish laughter.  Her startlingly pale blue eyes were always alight with fun in those days:  I don’t remember when that light went out – perhaps it was after, in the fallow time when my family and the Crabtrees had grown apart.  Anyway, there was no obvious connection between the woman of my memory and the one standing on our worn carpet, her loose white over-blouse spotless, the red dress beneath it quite tight, as it seemed, on her much fuller, almost matronly figure.   Posed beside my Ma’s t-shirt and jeans yet hidden behind dark glasses only her height and the determined set of her jaw gave her away.

“Sit down.”  My Ma’s tone was ominous. “We’ve been talking about you.”

“Hello, Mrs Crabtree.”  It did no harm to be polite.  I decided to make an effort at innocence.  “About me?”

“Yes, you, you dirty little bugger!”  My mother’s verbal assault, I knew well, would start as a snarl, before it rose to a crescendo.  I decided to try and cut her off.

“How is she, Mrs Crabtree?  Is she alright?”

I failed.  My mother pounced upon my intervention and drowned it with a screeching:  “How is she?  How d’ you think, you  little…”  She drew breath.  “It’s a bloody crime, what you’ve done!  It’s bloody criminal!”

So they knew – chapter and verse.

“Mary, don’t upset yourself.”  Shel cut in, putting a restraining hand on my mother’s arm.  “I’m sure Chas understands there have to be consequences for his actions.”  Shelley Crabtree removed her sunglasses, treating me to those eyes which the years had made humourless, lifeless, tired and just a little sad.  “Charles, young man, my husband is very angry with you.  We know that you and my daughter were intimate – Susan has told us…”

The two women were standing, looming.   I was perched on the edge of our old armchair.  Feeling my disadvantage and with my anger rising, I got to my feet. “What did he do, beat it out of her?”

“You  insolent little bugger, sit down!”  My mother shrilled.

“No, Mother!  It looks like you’ve decided to pass sentence on me, on Sue and I, so I’ll stand, all right?”

“Now Chas!”  Shelley soothed.  “Of course we didn’t ‘beat it out’ of Susan’!  Certain things are obvious to parents, and there is simply no point in denying what has happened, you see?”

“So what?”  I was confused.  The verbal assault I had anticipated was coming from my mother, not Sue’s.  By comparison, Shelley seemed almost sympathetic.  “If she’s alright, why wasn’t she at school today?”

“Susan thought it best.  This – this unfortunate thing is something that we can’t ignore, and some action has to be taken.  She sees that, and I’m sure you do too, don’t you?”

Why?  Why did ‘some action’ have to be taken’?  “What ‘thing’?  Why should it change anything?  It’s not like I raped her, Mrs Crabtree!  We wanted to – to be together, that’s all.”

Shelley sighed.   “Chas, you’re both so very, very young, aren’t you?”  She levelled those cold eyes at me.  “Susan has other priorities before she gets into a relationship.  She wants to study, to take her exams and go to University.  I’m sorry, Chas, but you don’t play any part in that.”  She gave an elegant shrug.  “Maybe after…?”

At some point, my arms had begun to shake.  Now I could not control them.  “Why are you doing this?  What are you trying to do – stop us seeing each other, or something?  You can’t!”  I was shouting, knew it, but couldn’t control my voice or the well of fire from which it sprang.

The louder I yelled, the softer, the gentler Shelley’s voice became.  “Oh, we can, Chas.  We can.”

My mother chipped in.  “You would have been leaving school in a month anyways…”

“Three weeks.”  I snapped back.  “What’s that got to do with it?”

“I telephoned your Principal this morning.”  Shelley said, taking command.  “I didn’t tell him absolutely everything, just enough so he would agree to make an exception and release you from attendance earlier, if your Ma allows it. You aren’t taking any exams, apparently;” she smiled bleakly, “so congratulations, Chas, tomorrow will be your last day at school.”

I felt as though a boulder had settled on my chest.  “And Sue? ”  I asked, drily.

“Susan won’t be there tomorrow.  She’s on home study leave until Wednesday.  The Principal’s been very helpful and suggests she should be ready to take her ‘O’ Level exams in November.  After that, for her ‘A’ Levels, she’s going to stay with her aunt in Bedeport.  The college there has a very good examination record.”

“Bedeport!  Why?”

“To get her away from you, young man – to give you both some time to think about what you’ve done.”

“You can’t!   You can’t do this to us!  Sue won’t ever agree to that!”

“She already has,” Shelley said harshly.  “She understands that what you did to her is a criminal act, Chas.  Now, Mackenzie and I don’t want to involve the authorities, and we won’t, as long as you also agree.  We can’t stop you seeing each other, we all live in the same town, and this is 1986, not 1956; however, we can advise you not to do anything foolish.  If you do…”  She smiled; a competent, professional smile.  “So, now.  Do I have your agreement?”

“No.”  I said, mustering all the venom I could.  What could I do?  With my best glare of defiance I turned on my heel, wanting to be away from that room, out of the grasp of those two judgemental women who wielded such power over me.

Shelley caught my arm.  “Chas!   We have to do something, you see?   Susan deserves her chance at life, and you shouldn’t get in her way, should you?  If you feel so strongly about her, and she still feels the same in another five years, then you’ll both be adults, and you can make adult decisions, but now – now is just too soon, Chas.”

“No, I don’t see.”  I told her.  “I don’t see why we can’t go out together?  I can’t see what’s changed.  You, you’re acting like some Victorian woman, or something, yeah?  You’re trying to keep her prisoner, wrap her up…”

“Look around you, Chas!  Look at the girls pushing prams and living off benefits at sixteen or seventeen.  Open your eyes and look at this town.  We don’t want that for Susan, and Susan doesn’t want it, either.”

“Are you sure it was her told you that?”  I swung back to face Shelley, challenging her.  “Are you sure Sue told you she doesn’t want to see me again?  Because it’s you and Mack, isn’t it?  You’re trying to keep her away from me, aren’t you?”

“It’s Mister Crabtree to you, and if I’m honest, yes.”  Shelley’s expression was grim.  “I didn’t want to say this, but since you accuse us, our daughter deserves better than you.  You’re not exactly a prize, are you?  A prize fool, maybe, and with a record on your head, by all accounts.  We’re not going to stand by and watch her waste herself on you.”

My mother caught up at last.   “Now wait a minute, Shel!  Are you sayin’ my lad’s not good enough for your Susan?  You listen here, lass…”

Shelley cut in.  “I’ve said all I’m going to say, Mary!”  She waved a finger at me.  “Now you mind, Chas.  Be sensible, right?”  And she strode briskly out of our front door, leaving my mother to stare after her.

“Stuck-up frigging bitch!”  My mother said.  “Come on, lad, I’ll get you some supper.”

I can’t tell you with what clarity I remember those few days, the ones that altered my life, really, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time.  After a sleepless night I wandered through my school day in a red haze of helpless fury.   ‘Hairy’ Harris, the school Principal, announced my name at assembly and told me to go and see him before any lessons, so I did, of course.  He didn’t say much, just reiterated what I had already been told by Shelley Crabtree and wished me luck for my future, which made me smile, as it seemed unlikely I had much of a future at the time.   Thereafter I drifted through morning lessons; lonely, angry and with no idea what I was going to do, or where I was going.

When the lunch break came I decided to take my leave early.  I made some excuse to my closest friends about feeling ill.   As I packed my few belongings from my locker, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  Dave Crabtree was standing behind me.

“She wanted me to give you this,”  He said, scarcely bothering to hide the hostility in his voice.  “I didn’t want to, but she insisted.”   He pressed a scruffy little piece of paper into my hand.  “If you harm one hair of her head, Chas, I’ll be comin’ for you meself.”  He skulked away, almost ashamed to have spoken to me.   On the paper, in Sue’s handwriting, was scrawled:

‘By the old stone jetty, six o’clock’

At six o’clock I was there.  It was by no means an easy decision.  Nothing would have made me keep the appointment if I had believed all that Shelley Crabtree had said, and I thought about that for a long time, but the note was a tiny spark of hope.   So I walked down that little winding lane through The Fellings to the place by the river which had sheltered my drunken binge two nights since; the same place we had met to play when we were children, my friends and I.  And Sue was waiting for me.

© 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