I knew. Oh, yes, I knew what I was doing.
My friend John Hargreave coined the phrase that perfectly described my situation.
“You’re painting yourself into a corner, Chas.”
He was right. I was.
It all began well enough – Angie and I caught up in the novelty of living together, building a home at 15 The Avenue. In so many ways a home I never had, growing up; free of censorious neighbors, intrusive social workers, the frequent attention of the ‘chatties’ – the police. I had moved from a street where such things were expected to a road where they would be deplored. I had moved away from my mother and a whole web of emotional ties, into the bright sun of Angie’s unconditional love.
And that felt a lot like being free.
Angie waxed transcendent. She exulted in a circle of close friends and a large, devoted family. Her conviviality drew aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, and ‘just lads she knew’ like moths to a flame, all ready to sit around our living room bathing in the wash of her exuberant charm. Among the host, I watched the ‘lads she knew’ with some amusement because they were drawn to her for ignoble reasons. Be they visually pleasing, erudite, brash or diffident, their cause was hopeless; whoever Angie wanted Angie would choose, and for the moment, at least, that choice was me.
For myself, I trained harder and harder; spending long hours pounding pavements with my Walkman filling my ears. My goal-scoring rate was consistent, but more importantly my message of confidence fed through to the rest of the team, and Casterley Town’s fortunes improved steadily. As January gave way to February we were third in our league.
If you had joined me on one of my training runs, or spoken to my heart through the conversations of our socially brimming living room and suggested I was lonely, I would have laughed at you: lonely? My life was full, I never stopped. I was building my career, I was priming myself for success, wasn’t I? But behind my dreams there were empty spaces; great caverns my thoughts dared not enter, for if they did they would find all of my past waiting for me there. And they would find Susan.
I was on our home pitch warming up for the first fixture of the month before I realised our perimeter boards were featuring ‘Crabtree Electrical Contractors’, and I did not play well that afternoon because wherever I turned I was faced with the Crabtree name. Then, a week later, the club issued us with new shirts that featured a Crabtree logo, and suddenly I was wearing the totem of my most sworn enemy every time I ran onto the pitch.
Angie was philosophical. “Well, ah thought you’d have been pleased to tak’ e’s money, like? Divvent worry about it, Chas. It’s not something you can change.”
Martin Berry, Casterly Town’s largest shareholder, sent for me the Monday after that. He greeted me in his office.
“Well, now, if it isn’t Roy of the Rovers! Sit down, lad. D’you want a coffee or owt?”
I refused politely and we went through the motions – how was business, was Jackie (Jacqueline, his wife) well, was he pleased with his team’s progress?
“Pleased? Aye, you could say I’m pleased. I made a good choice when Jack Masters picked you out. We were watching you from right before you left school, did you know that? Jack said he had a real diamond and he wasn’t wrong, was he? You’ve brought money into the club, Chas.”
“Money? Are we talking about Mack Crabtree?”
“We are.” Berry nodded. “Sorry Chas, I know you and Mack don’t exactly get on, but you should realise he made you a condition of his investment. He would only sign on the dotted line if you were in the side. Does that make you think differently?”
“Not really. If he was so interested, why wasn’t he present when you announced my signing?”
“Would you have signed if you saw him there?” Berry chuckled. “No, I thought not. I asked him to stay away, and he didn’t take much persuading. Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about that contract of yours. You went to Ranton. No blame! Good move on your part, everyone needs representation. But Ranton tied us to a one-year, one season period Chas, and that’s not enough for me. I’m greedy, lad; I want you with us for two, three, four years. You, me, yes, and Mack, we can do big things with Casterley Town. For the first time since I can remember we’ve got three or four new local sponsors interested in us. If we can get ourselves promoted this season, and it’s a real possibility, who knows where we can go from there, eh?
“Chas, there’s an envelope for you on Sandra’s desk. Collect it on the way out. I know you’ll have to go back to Ranton, but I want you to read the contents of that envelope first, and if there are any problems ‘phone me. We can sort them out. I might be wrong, y’see, but I think you’re happy here. It’s your choice, Chas – don’t let anyone make your decision for you, alright? Now, I’ll get one of the lads to drive you back.”
So Jack Masters, my erstwhile teacher and football coach, he who testified for me at Magistrate’s Court, had first brought me to Berry’s attention when I was in his class at school! What was more, when it would have been easy for him to conspire with Berry and tie me into a cheap long-term deal he had provided the link to Allen Ranton, so I could be properly represented. The more I reflected on events, the more I saw how big a part Jack had played in getting me into the Casterley Town side, and how deserving he was of my thanks.
But then what should I make of Mack Crabtree’s involvement? Surely his stipulation that I join the ‘Town’ as a condition of his sponsorship had been made on purely commercial grounds? In his relentless drive for local recognition sponsorship of the football club could only help him if the club was successful. No less than Martin Berry, he saw me as part of the key to that success; which would have been very flattering, if the sponsor had been anyone other than Mackenzie Crabtree. Was it the full story, though? My past dealings with Mackenzie were telling me he had other motives.
Angie was at work when I returned to our apartment on The Avenue. I threw the large buff envelope Berry’s personal assistant had given me down on the coffee table and I looked at it for a half-an-hour before I tore it open.
Our telephone had been connected only two days before.
Ranton’s booming voice was on speaker. “Chas! Hello, lad! So what’s he offering you?”
“How did you know there was an offer?”
“I’ve been expecting it. Actually, he’s left it quite late. How long does he want the contract to run?”
“Never! He’s got some balls, you’ve got to give him that. Feed me a few of the bottom lines, will you? What does the money look like?”
I reeled off the figures that had taken my breath away just a few minutes before, and I relayed the substance of my conversation with Berry. Ranton listened, quietly, until I was done.
“Well, aside from the five-year term, it’s not bad. He certainly wants to keep you. Thing is, Chas, you’ve got to consider if Casterley goes up to Third Division, how much more money this Crabtree character and Martin Berry are prepared to put in.”
“He says he’s got other sponsors interested.”
“I hope he has. He’ll need ‘em. That team wants renewing, lad, starting with the manager and working down. You can’t do it all by yourself. What if I told you Carlton Park have been watching you?”
“Carlton Park? No! They’re Second Division!”
“Not just Second Division – their new manager Merchison’s got a pedigree, Chas. He’s a First Division man through and through and a good spotter; you can take my word, if he wants you he’s got a role for you, a good role in a good team. He’s putting something really interesting together up there.
“There are some very big changes happening in football at the moment. TV money’s feeding into the top of the game and the rich boys want a new, smaller First Division. If it happens, the lower division clubs will get cut out of much of the action, and most of the money. Likely you’ll know about Newport County, yes? They won’t be the only Fourth Division or Conference side to go out of business, you mark my words. Get on that ladder and start climbing, Chas; you’ve got the gifts. For you it should be easy.
We wound up the conversation. “It’s up to you. I’ll negotiate a better Casterley contract for you if you want to stay. I’ll get you better terms, and I’ll certainly make sure they don’t tie you up for more than two years, but it’ll be nothing like what Carlton’ll offer. If Carlton Park comes after you, you can pretty much treble those figures, and still be in the market for a sponsorship or two.
“No rush, lad. In fact, stall. I’ll come back to you when I’ve got something firmer from Merchison, then you can let me know what you decide.”
“Carlton Park Athletic! Carlton’s like, an ‘undred mile away, man!” Angie rarely protested with such vehemence. “An’ it’s a big city! It’s bigger than Bedeport!”
“More like sixty miles.” I corrected her carefully, “And it’s a town, not a city. Look, hon, it hasn’t happened yet. It might not happen, but if it does, we’ll find a way.”
“We? AhI’d have to gi’ up my job, an’ everythin’.”
“I know. I know.” I hugged her. “I also know you’re clever enough to recreate everything you’ve done here and more – but only if you wanted to. It’d be up to you, love.””
She nodded solemnly. “Ah’ll think about it.” She said.
In the lea of that conversation I saw how presumptuous I had been. It had never even occurred to me that if I moved on I might have to leave Angie behind! Now, suddenly, the choices were not so clear. Angie’s strong connections with Casterley had to bear upon my decision. The town was home to both of us, but her roots probed so much deeper than mine. I can’t deny that her intimacy with her large family had come as a surprise to me, because when I troubled to count, I had just as many relatives in or around the place as she, yet most of mine were such strangers that if I passed them on the street I might not know them. Was this merely because Angie was gregarious when I was not, or had my father’s reputation contributed to our household’s isolation in my growing years?
I could not doubt the soundness of Allen Ranton’s judgement. Even I could see that Casterley Town’s football club was in a precarious state. Petty feuding among the playing staff, a management (Martin Berry aside) either disinterested or inadequate, non-existent marketing – the list could go on and on. Although the dressing room atmosphere had cleared somewhat from my early days, I had no sense that I was playing for a strong team. Guy Harrison rarely got off the bench during matches now, so I could understand his reason for disliking me, but sniping from others in the side was continual, and it puzzled me sometimes. Gary Webb, with whom I had struck up some sort of a playing relationship on the field which meant we both took a share of the goals, did not restrain his jibes:
“How’s yer Mam, Chas? Still doin’ the taxis, like?”
“She still answers the ‘phones, yes.”
Typically, Herbie Volkes, goalkeeper, would join in. “D’yer use them taxis then, Gary?”
“Na! Too expensive fer what yer get, man. Anyways, I got me own car at ‘ome, haven’t ah?”
These exchanges were liberally interspersed with sniggers from other occupants of the dressing room, and there was something definitely unpleasant about that laughter. The truth was right in front of me, of course, if I had been wise enough to see.
A couple of teams in our league were so far away as to be unreachable in anything less than a day, so an away fixture with them, such as our first game in March, meant a hotel stay overnight. It was Sunday afternoon before I was able to return to the apartment. Angie was out.
A note on a scrap of paper by the telephone said: ‘Gone to my Mums’.
With hours of claustrophobic ‘rest’ in a coach seat behind me, waiting in the apartment for my girlfriend’s return was an unattractive prospect so I decided to go out, which was how, a half-hour later, I found myself wandering with no particular destination in mind, through Casterley’s Victoria Park. It was raining – nothing unusual because, of course, March in the north of England is necessarily a wet month. I did not mind the rain. Rain kept the pavements free of people, a rare blessing for someone whose work involved constant exposure to crowds.
The first buds of spring were all around me, birds anticipating summer had begun some diligent nest building, and the stately trees that lined the paths set up a solemn rhythm of drips as backbeat to a comfortable, noisy silence.
A silence stirred by a sound of distant footsteps.
I resisted turning around for quite some time. It developed into a game, one in which I turned from path to path, sometimes in circles, once even cutting across the wet grass; never looking back. The tread was always behind me, neither closer nor further away, not menacing, not pressing, until at last my curiosity overcame me. I swung on my heel. My stalker was at the far end of the path I was about to leave. He stopped as I stopped; quickly turning away as if afraid I might see his face. Of course I couldn’t, over so great a distance. I suppose I might have chased him down; after all, he had been following me, but he posed no threat, and I was in no mood for confrontation. I reasoned he must have recognised me at some point, as I had become quite well-known in the town, and elected to follow me because, like me, he had nothing better to do with his Sunday afternoon. Fans could behave oddly. I continued my walk through the park, checking behind me a number of times, but I did not see him again.
Yet – and yet – what is the clever little knob the mind can turn that switches on a doubt, or amplifies a suspicion so indelibly that no conscious effort of will can switch it off again? How could it happen, that every time I left our apartment after that I had to look over my shoulder to persuade myself my stalker in the park was not behind me still, tracking my every move? Although he was nowhere to be seen I sensed his presence. I found myself glancing back at every corner, listening for that same faint and far-off fall of foot that might betray him.
The month of March passed quickly, the busier because I expressed my gratitude to Jack Masters by helping him coach the Juniors. Following our Carlton Park discussion Angie was more sparing of her time at home. She became less frivolous, given less to the spontaneous laughter that endeared her to me. There were changes in her, so subtle that only one who knew her as well as I might notice them, but notice I did, and I could feel her unhappiness.
It was on the last Friday afternoon in March. I had just arrived home after training and Angie was still at work when the telephone rang. Ranton sounded tired.
“There’s a nice big brown envelope in the post, Chas. I sent it recorded delivery, lad, because if you want what Carlton are offering you have to act fast. Windows like these don’t stay open long. Read through it as soon as you can and get back to me. See here, Chas, the choice is yours but frankly, lad, I think you’d be mad to turn this down. You could be a First Division player in a couple of years! Call me as soon as you can, right?
I said nothing to Angie, fearing the storm that was about to break and praying she wouldn’t be home when the letter came, so I could read it first, and think – think very hard about my future. First Division! I could be a First Division footballer!
We played at home on the Saturday, so on Sunday I took Angie to a gig in Bedeport to hear a new band she liked called the Happy Mondays. We were on the late ‘bus home when a storm blew in from a different quarter. There had been a tension in the air all evening, as if Angie was working herself up to say something that she knew I wouldn’t want to hear. She picked the quiet top deck of the Casterley ‘bus to say it.
“Chas, you remember a couple o’ Sundays ago when ah went over me Mam’s?”
“Aye. I went for a walk in the park and got soaked.”
“Well, there was something ah had to talk to somebody about, yeah? Even though ah wasn’t sure ah should. Ah wasn’t sure….”
“Right.” I put an arm around her, immediately feeling her shoulders stiffen. “What weren’t you sure about, hon?”
“See, you were away the Sat’day night, y’kna? And Terry com’d over t’see us. Terry – you know Terry?”
“Yes.” Terry was ‘just a lad she knew’ – one of her more determined suitors. I felt a lead weight dropping through my chest. He would have known I had an away match and used my absence to make a move. “I know Terry.” I bit my lip. “What happened, Angie?”
“He’d had a bevvy or two, ah think. He started comin’ on to us, y’kna? I had to slap ‘im down and ah was a bit mean, prob’ly. Anyways, he turned nasty, He said sommat. He told me something ah should’ve known but ah didn’t. He caught me out. Oh, Chas!”
“You did right.” I squeezed her shoulder. “What was it he said?”
Angie turned her head away from me, staring miserably into the moving darkness beyond the window.
“You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to.” I said gently.
“No. No, Ah want to tell you. AhI know ah’ve gotta tell you.” She still avoided my gaze. “It’s jus’ so hard. Thing is, ah told me Mam because ah had to share it wi’ someone an’ you weren’t there, y’kna? An’ ah’m not sure ah should have told her because you might be mad; but Terry said ever’body knows, an’ it seems with me finding out you’re the only one who don’t. Chas, love, it’s about yer Mam…
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