Shadows. Chapter Thirteen – A Place that was Ours

People on a street like the one I grew up in rarely used taxis.  A cab fare took a sizeable slice of the weekly benefits cake, leaving too small a margin for such family essentials as TV, potato crisps, canned sugar drinks and beer.  I’m not saying there was anything at all luxurious about a Casterley taxi cab, far from it.  They were just dearer than buses.

At the end of the 1980s Casterley barely afforded a living for the gaggle of self-employed taxi drivers and two taxi or hire car companies who ran offices.  It was not a vehicle fleet of which anyone could be proud, and a taxi ride was not to be relished, since strong regulation applying to the age or safety of cabs remained conspicuously absent until well after the Millennium.  Customers who called the offices wrestled with the unenviable position of not knowing what form or age of cab would grind to a stop outside their door, or if it was in any condition to comply if, say, they wanted to be taken to the airport some forty miles away.

You couldn’t ‘hail’ a cab – you had either to telephone the office or pick one up from a taxi rank, of which only two existed; one opposite the old Town Hall – usually quite busy – and one at the railway station which was not.  Now the through line was no longer open, Casterley Station was a terminus, supporting a diet of four trains a day that linked to the main line at Bedeport.  Three or four optimistic cabs would sidle up to the rank at arrival times.  For the rest of the day it was unattended.

There were a couple of taxi offices you could call.  Bannon’s, the larger of the two, tended to attract smarter cabs and issued roof signs, stickers and other paraphernalia publicising them.  Then there was Bertie’s.

In my defence, I must tell you that up until the age of sixteen, like most in my street, I had never ridden in a taxi.  Growing up I had been so poor even ‘bus fares were a stretch; so had I questioned when my mother took a job ‘answering the calls’ at Bertie’s?  No, because I had been glad she could be paid in cash, thus avoiding any loss of her child allowance or unemployment benefits.  I was not naïve. In my separate boyhood universe how should I have known what a substantial undercurrent of the adult male population of Casterley knew, that Bertie’s Cabs owed their survival to a unique blend of services that went a lot further than the provision of taxis?

Our late evening ‘bus stopped at the end of The Avenue.  Angie and I stood face to face on the pavement, hunched against a fresh onslaught of rain.

“But I didn’t even suspect!”  I protested.

Angie was grim.  “It’s not your fault, Chas man.  When y’think o’ it, it’s the perfect cover, y’kna?”

“So there’s others, then, answering ‘calls’?”

“Aye.  I think so.  Brenda Wallis – she’s Terry’s auntie, that’s how he knows, Harriet somebody, from Cheviot Close, I can’t remember her second name, and…and yer Mam.  Oh, Chas, I’m sorry, pet, I really am!”

“Well, it’s not your fault either.  But where do they go – to…er..to do it, like?”

“Some ‘o it’s private, like the taxis take ‘em out to the customer, go an’ collect ‘em later…”

“Or the customer drives them back,” I said, half to myself, as I recalled a BMW and a red dress.  “Some – what about the rest?”

“There’s a couple a’ rooms ower the taxi office.  Bertie takes a bigger cut of what they earn, but the women like it ‘cause it’s safer.”

“Which makes Bertie a brothel owner as well as a pimp, doesn’t it?”

Angie grinned ruefully.  “I s’pose it does.  Are you really angry, Chas?”

“No.”  I had to be honest, “I’m maybe angry with myself for not seeing it a lot sooner.  I’m glad I’m out of that house, and I’m glad I have you.”  She huddled against me unconditionally then, at least for a moment freed from doubt, and I kissed her forehead.  “Come on.”  I said, “Let’s go home.”

In not leaping to my mother’s defence you might say I was remiss  You may reproach me for my altogether placid response; or think I should have stormed into my mother’s house, delivered a diatribe of disgust into her ear, slammed doors, ranted, humiliated and disowned her; but the truth is, I did not feel the need.  My mother was a prostitute and the most direful admission I had to make was my complete lack of surprise.  In my street, whilst hooker may hardly have been the noblest of professions, it was a career choice. So beyond that, what did I feel?   To this day I do not know.  Was it love, of a kind, or pity?  Or fear?

Since the morning following my encounter with Mackenzie Crabtree, I had not returned home – and yes, there was guilt to be suffered for that, because even before I was armed with this new knowledge I could not face another meeting with my mother.  I was afraid of what I might find inside that faded blue door, scared to see the tense, hand-wringing figure she had become, fearful of that shrill, mechanical voice and the sheer misery it concealed.  And now I knew she sold sex for money it was all the excuse I needed to draw a line under my past life.  I wanted to get away.

Lying next to Angie that night, so close I matched her breathing, my fingers brushed tears on her cheek and I asked her why she was crying.  She said:   “Because I’m sorry for your pain.”  Then she was silent for a while.  I’m certain she knew, though I said not a word, that I had made up my mind to take the Carlton Park offer, for I heard her say to her pillow, in barely a whisper,  “Because I don’t want this to end, Chas.  Don’t let it end…”

The next morning before I set out on my daily run I told Angie I was expecting an envelope by special delivery in the post.  When I told her what I believed the envelope would contain she became very solemn, promising gravely that she would look after it until I returned.

Persistent rain had sluiced over the grey roofs of the town all through the night, lacing the pavements with rivulets and gathering in lakes at intersections.  Water seeped through my tracksuit, squelched inside my trainers as I ran; not enough to provide a distraction for me in normal circumstances – footballers play an outdoor sport in winter, after all – but today I felt my resistance grow with every step.  My mind was filled with brooding thoughts and unanswered questions, so even the prospect of a huge upward step on my career ladder did not raise my spirits as it should.  The way ahead seemed fraught with complications, the path behind muddied and indistinct.

our apartment was empty when I returned.   Angie had left Ranton’s buff envelope on the coffee table with a note:  ‘Signed for this.  Gone to work so you can read it in peace.  See you tonight’…and beside her signature ‘Ange’ were two words she had never used before in our relationship…’Love you xxx’.

I went through the motions.  I did all the proper things.  After I had wound down from my run, I showered and changed into day clothes; I brewed coffee, I put my feet up on the sofa, made myself relax.  Then I stared at the ceiling for a full twenty minutes before I reached down for the envelope.  I picked it up, examined both sides, put it down again, drank my coffee.  Finally prepared, I snatched at the envelope and tore it open.

The contents took a long time to read, not because their wording was particularly complicated, or because I needed to study each sentence with meticulous care – no: rather it was because I had to persuade myself to believe what they said.

At school I had hoped to be a carpenter or a bricklayer, like Jonna’s dad; not an accountant like Greavesie’s father, no, that was flying too high.  Bricklayers had excellent earnings; Jonna reckoned his Da’ made £300, or more a week whenever he had work: if I could have reached that kind of wage before I was thirty I would have been more than content.  That was good money to me.  Yes, Sue had once tempted me to consider even greater things, like studying for a Phys. Ed. Or a Sports Science Degree, but I had never entertained it.  I knew my limits.

Which was why the document I held in my hand that morning seemed so unreal – no, not just unreal – unfair.  Jonna would follow his father into the building trade, and I had no doubt he would earn enough to get a small house, raise a family, do all the normal, Casterley things; whereas I, at nineteen years old, was being offered twice as much to be a player in a game – to do something I loved.  And that felt morally wrong, somehow.  I felt I was cheating.

“I don’t see how I can turn it down,”  I admitted, when I called Allen Ranton on the telephone.

“Very wise, lad; very wise.  Believe me, Carlton Park will be a completely different experience.  If you handle it like you’ve handled Casterley, you’ll do well.  Now, we have to arrange for a medical and inform Casterley Town, that’s only courtesy, but it’s also when the story gets out.  Don’t talk to the press yourself – it’ll be local stuff, mostly – any enquiries, refer them to me.  If you get cornered ‘unfounded speculation’ is a good phrase.  I’ve got all I need for now.  I’ll be back to you soon.”

I made one more telephone call.  I asked Angie if she was free for lunch.

From the moment my feet touched the pavement of The Avenue I nearly broke into a run, the crawling sensation in the short hairs at the back of my neck felt so intense.  I had made my now customary check up and down the road and seen no-one, yet I knew my stalker was watching, and following. No paranoia this time, no doubt.   At the end of the road I turned to look behind me, in time to see a furtive figure melt back into the buildings at the far end.  The rain had stopped, the light was good.  I could not be mistaken.

Angie had agreed to meet me at Mr. Pellosi’s Ice Cream Parlour in the town centre, no more than a ten-minute walk away.  I would check several times in that ten minutes, and twice more I got a distinct view of the same figure, red bomber jacket collar raised, flat cap pulled down over his eyes as he quickly averted his head to avoid recognition, then vanished into the shadows.  Always in the distance, so other than in the moment when I first realized he was there I felt no sense of threat from him.  Who was he?  What did he want?

When I pushed aside the glazed door of the Ice Cream Parlour, Angie was already inside.  She had ordered us salads from the lunch menu Mr. Pellosi was forced to serve to ensure his survival through the long northern winters when only the bravest wanted ice cream.  His restaurant was popular and always crowded, but we found a table where I could sit with my back to the room.  Unfortunately, someone sitting by the door had spotted me on my way in.

“You going to win for us on Sat’day, then, Chas?”  He leaned over the table between us, his pinched face inches from mine, all grey-toothed smile and unhygienic breath.   “Three-one, eh?”

“We’ll try,”  I replied, with as much politeness as I could muster.

“We?  We?”  The face sniggered.  “The’ mean you, pal, doesn’t the’?  Them others, they divvent kna’ a glass from a bottle!  Shall I tell yer what I think?”

“Actually, I’m trying to have lunch…”

“That fella Jackson, man.  Yer shud ‘ave ‘im fer support on the left, see?  He were always gud down tha’ wing, were Jackson..”

“Right.  I’ll remember.”  I told him.  “Now, will you excuse us while we…?”

I heard the sound of an unseen blow and a shock ran through our intruder which brought him uncomfortably close to spitting in my salad.

“Haway, dippa!  Piss off!”  Angie’s voice was quiet but venomous.  “Like Chas says, we’re tryin’ to eat, man!”

Indignant, the pinch-faced man drew himself up to his full height.  “Why, don’t youse bray me, yer friggin bitch…”

“Hey!”  I warned him.  “Now you’re pushing it.  Just go back and eat your dinner, right?  Leave us alone.”

Outfaced, and possibly more daunted by Angie’s aggression than mine, my self-appointed advisor retreated to his seat, muttering invective at every step.  I grinned at Angie.

“Now if ever I needed an excuse to get out of this town…”

She was suddenly serious.   “You’re going then?”

“You know I am.  And I’m hoping you’ll be coming with me.”

Angie smiled ruefully. “See, I rather hoped you’d say sommat more like ‘I’ll go if you come with me’.  Ah hoped that’s what you’d say.”  Then she added,    “I can see it’s askin’ a lot, like.”

“I’ve thought long and hard about the words.”  I told her.  “I don’t want to leave you behind, hon, but this is a dream for me, you know?  To play with a good team, to have the chance to play in the big league, that’s all I can expect from life.  If I could have you too, that would be awesome.  Shall I tell you what they’re offering me?”

“Na, it’d only confuse me,”  Angie said.  “Listen, Chas; I’ll think about it, yeah?  And I’ll see you tonight.  Meantime, why don’t you go visit yer Mam?”

“I don’t know, Ange…”

“She’s your Mam, Chas!    You can’t change that.  She’s the only Mam you’ll ever have, an’ you mustn’t turn away from her, pet.  Go and see her.  She’ll be proud for you.”

So, upon Angie’s insistence, I set off for my old house, unable to disassociate her words and sentiments from those Sue had expressed concerning my father, some years before.  Sue’s words, and in my head, Sue’s face.  Somewhere, far behind, I could feel the patient tread of my shadow, still there and tracking my every step.

My mother was sitting in the front room with the television up loud.  When she saw me she tensed visibly, as though she was afraid I had come to beat her.   “Now then, Chas.  Ah’ve not seen you for a while, have ah?”

“I’ve been staying away,” I told her.  “I thought you might be busy with your clients.”

Her shoulders slumped perceptibly.  “Tha’s found out, then.  Ah thought yer would, once yer was moved out, like.  How’s Angie?”

“She’s fine.  How come I’m the only one who didn’t know, mother?  How come?”

“About us bein’ on the game?”  My mother sighed, and that plaintive, familiar note crept into her voice.  “Ah always tried to protect yer from it, son.  Ah kept it discreet, y’kna?”

“Why did you do it?  Why are you still doing it now?  I mean, you’ve got the benefits, and your job at the taxis, so it can’t be the money, surely?  Why?”

“Oh, aye, the taxis.  That is me job, man!  Did yer nivver wonder how ah kept it affer that Powell git ‘starteds ‘e’s nosin’ around?  D’y’kna what Bertie’s really like?   He were happy enough t’keep me on he’s books as he’s receptionist, as long as ah kept on wi’ ‘e’s ‘extra services’ for cash.”  She had begun twisting her fingers together, cruelly, as though her hands were abhorrent to her.  “Why do ah do it?  Well, ah like it, ah s’pose.  Ah’ve not got you no more.  Ah’m nor’about ter give it up, anyways.”

“One thing nobody’s told me,” I said, “And I’m not sure I want to know now, but I have to ask.  How long have you been doing it?  When did it start?”

“Oh, I can nae remember, Chas.  Years ago.  Years!”  She got to her feet and walked to the window, there to stand looking out at the street, her fingers drumming on the sill.  “Don’t matter now, do it?”

I said: “Even when you were with my Da?”

“That fool!  ‘E nivver found out.  Wha’, did yer think I ran this ‘ouse on fresh air, or summat?  ‘E never earned enough to kep’ a fly alive an’ what ‘e did earn he gambled away.  Or ‘e drank it away.  Ah did it t’keep youse in yer expensive presents an’ yer fancy ideas.  A little bit on the side, just here and there, eh Chas?”

A little bit on the side.  I remembered a summer back in my school days when I came home to find my mother sprawled upon her bed, all but insensible, and now, at last, I understood.  How glad she must have been to get the job at Bertie’s, so she could enjoy the sanctuary of his ‘rooms’!

“I’m going away soon, Mother.”

“Yer already away, issen’ yer?  Livin’ wi’ yer Angie now.  She’s a gud lass, that one, but you don’t love her, pet, do yer?  You’re still in love wi’ your Susan.  Divvent fret, lad, Mack’ll not let yer near ‘er ivver again.  Not ivver.”

#

“I’m telling you all this off the record.”

Poultney throws me a quizzical look.  “You’re telling me a hell of a lot.  You aren’t by any chance under the illusion I’m going to write your life story for you?”

I grin at him.  “Would you?”

“My rates are reasonable.  But, in a word, no.  And that isn’t what we’re here for, is it?  Bear in mind I’m a journalist, Chas; if I’m going to keep schtum about little gems like your mother’s failings I’m going to need something pretty impressive from you to make up for it.  It’s all good copy, remember.”

“It would be all very old copy, should you try to use it.  And yes, there is something impressive at the end of this – I think so, anyway.  I asked you to come here because I read your piece in the ‘Herald’ about sports philanthropists and you mentioned Mack Crabtree. It brought back a basket of memories.”

“Which we’re indulging.  For heaven’s sake, Chas; put up or shut up, will you?  I guess you knew Crabtree when he was sponsoring Casterley?  You know how big a wheel he is now, I suppose?”

“Member of Parliament, hotly tipped to be next Minister for Sport, fingers into every pie, inexhaustible supply of money, principal sponsor for the new National Stadium…”

“That is the basis for his place in my series – I am writing about other people as well, Chas; why so – no, I won’t use the word ‘obsessed’ – why so interested in Mack Crabtree?”

“Because of history.  Because you’ll be getting an interview with him, and because of other concerns I have, too.  For example, where has all his money come from?”

“Northern entrepreneur!  You should be proud of those, Chas!  As I understand it, he bought back the lease on Casterley Town’s football ground.  When the club went bust he sold the land for a fortune…”

“Aye, he did.  To a company called Wesfane Electronics that was desperate for a new plant in the area to make their industrial coolers.  Curious how it all linked together…”

“Business, Chas!  That’s how it works, mate.   You should know, you’ve got a couple of companies of your own, now, haven’t you?”

“Matthew, there’s something very wrong about Mack Crabtree.  I crossed him, unfortunately, and yes, you could say I harbour a bit of a grudge, even after all this time, but he has just too much money for a small-town entrepreneur.   You’re so thorough with your homework, tell me what you’ve discovered about his family.”

“I’m not sure I want to, Chas.  I dig pretty deep.  Some things are given to me in confidence – like the background of an international footballer whose mother was a prostitute?”

Just basic stuff.  It’s all right, I already know his ex-wife is an alcoholic.”

“She’s in rehab…”  Poultney qualifies.

“For the third time, before I stopped counting.  Maybe she drinks to forget.  Speaking of which, will I refill that glass of yours?”

“Well, thank you, I won’t refuse.  His new wife’s sober enough.  His setup should be pretty standard in this day and age.  Wife, who works, she’s a commodities broker, an only son who runs his own chandlery company, likes cats, favourite food Mexican, all the usual stuff.”

When you interview him,”  I say,  “ask him about Susan.”

“Why, was she some juicy ex-lover, or something?”

“No, I grew up with her.  She’s his daughter.”

“Daughter!  He hasn’t got a daughter.  Has he?”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

 

 

 

 

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

It was a reflex action.  The naked man standing opposite me in the corridor of my home was Mackenzie Crabtree – no stranger to me – a man I had every reason to hate.  My fury took over.   I half-pushed, half shoulder-charged him, thrusting my full weight against his chest and sending him staggering backwards, off balance, into my mother’s room in what should only have been a beginning.  I would have finished him, then.  I would have followed him, crashing over the furniture to get to him.  I would have flayed him, pounded him until no sense remained in that arrogant head, but my intended follow-up never happened because my mother’s bedroom door, rebounding from some obstruction as it was thrust wide, sprang shut with the ferocity of a man trap.   Sounds of furniture splintering and my mother wailing in distress came from within, but as I made to throw the door open once more a hand gripped my arm, pulling me back.

“Coom away, man!”  Angie’s hand it was, restraining me.  Surprisingly strong, she interposed herself between me and the door.   “Chas!  Chas, pet!  Coom away, man,  Coom on!”

She pushed me back into my room, closing the door behind us.  She stood in front of me, neither of us wearing a stitch of clothing, with her hands clamped over her mouth and her whole body shaking.  “Oh, bloody ‘ell!”  She fluffed the words through her fingers:  she gasped the words through a gale of laughter.  And my anger left me.

She was convulsing, helpless.  “Man, you’ve no idea how bloody’ hilarious that were!  It were like a French farce or something!  That’s no way to treat yer guests!”

“What’s he doing with my mother?”

“Why, does that deserve an answer?”  Angie turned to pick up her clothes.  She threw my trousers at me.  “Here, get yerself covered.  I think wor might be interrupted soon.”

“You’re best out of this,”  I told her.  “I’ll take you home”

“Are you kiddin’?  Act two’s just startin’ hon.   I wouldn’t miss this for the world!”

She was right.  I was still zipping up and Angie was at the knickers and bra stage when my mother burst into the room.  She was wearing a slip, a flimsy thing trimmed with lace which put me in mind of a garment I had seen her wear some years before; in lilac then, in green satin now.

“I can’t wake him, Chas!  Friggin’ help me, will yer?  He hit he’s head on the dressing table as he fell.  I canna wake ‘im, Chas!  Ah think ye’ve killed ‘im!”

Mackenzie lay on his back with his head still resting on the top of the ruined dressing table, which had passed through the assembled part of its history and rediscovered its status as a flat-pack.  In a transient fit of propriety my mother had draped a towel over his nether regions.  His legs were already starting to kick around, as if anxious to prove he wasn’t dead.

“He’ll be brain damaged!”

“He won’t, Mam.  He knocked hisself out, that’s all.”  I gave Mack’s face a couple of slaps that may have been harder than they needed to be.  His eyes opened, glaring at me.  “There you are.  Give him some water, then get him out of here.  I’m guessin’ you’ve finished with him for tonight?”

“There’s no need for that, Chas!”

Had my mother been a woman blessed by the hand of wisdom she would have hustled Mackenzie Crabtree from the house then, as I advised.  I wish she had.  After Angie and I had returned to my room to finish dressing I heard the pair of them arguing, although the words were indistinct, and following that the sounds of footsteps on the stairs.  When we descended, though, Mack was slumped in the easy chair by the fire.  My mother was tending his head with a cold flannel.  His face was tinted a none-too-delicate shade of vermillion and he was clearly displeased.

“I want a word with you!”  He snarled.

“Gladly,”  I said; “But not tonight.  Frig off home, Mack!”

“He can’t drive.  He’s confused!”  My mother shrilled.  “You’ve bliddy ‘urt him, yer fool. An’ ‘e’s done nothing wrong, has he, like?”

“Nothing wrong!   He tried to get me put away that was wrong.  He’s in my house, that’s wrong.  He’s banging you when he’s married to Shelley, and god knows I don’t like her any more than him, but it’s still wrong!  Now get ‘im out, before I really hurt him!”

Mack launched himself at me, half-stumbling.  “You listen ‘ere, yer little frigger.  If you… ”

I stood my ground.  “If I what, Mack?  What will you do, eh?  What could you do, that you haven’t done already?  I’m not afraid of you, not no more.  There’s the door, man!”

He pushed his face close to mine.  His breath was a gale so foul I could almost taste it.  “Afraid of me?  You should be, lad.  You should be.  You don’t say a word about this, y’hear?  If you ever do, you’ll be the one who’s hurt, understand?  And that goes for you too, young lass.  Not a word.  Just keep quiet, both of you.   Mary…”  He turned to my mother, “talk some sense into him, right?”

Mackenzie Crabtree swung on his heel and stormed out of the door.

I summoned up a shaky smile for Angie, who had been standing at the foot of the stairs all this time with her mouth agape.   “Carlo’s still open.  Fancy a pizza?”

We sat in the storeroom-come-office at the back of Emporio Da Pizza and discussed my fate in lowered tones while Carlo and his son Darren dispatched their last orders of the night.  I no longer worked for Carlo, of course, but I still counted him as a friend, and he was happy to give us somewhere warm to sit and consume the best his oven could produce.

Angie was concerned.  “I never met ‘im before.  He’s a bad man, isn’t he?”

“He’s a frightened man, and when someone like Mack is frightened, he’s dangerous,” I told her.  “He’s a Councilor, and now he wants to be a Member of Parliament.  If word gets out he’s cheating on his wife…”

“What will you do?  You shouldn’t go back there, Chas; not tonight, like.”

I agreed I could do with some space.  “It’s my home, Ange.  Where else am I to go?”

“Just for tonight, yer could come to mine.”

“Oh, aye!  I can imagine your Da’ welcoming me with open arms!”

“He won’t mind, man!  They know we’ve slept together, yeah?”

“You’ve told them!”

“Why, nor’ever’body’s as old-fashioned as Mack, yer kna’?  No, I haven’t told ‘em, but they know.  Anyways, there’s a spare room.  You can sleep in there – least, you can start in there…”  She giggled.  “We’ll sort things out once they’re asleep.  If they’re not asleep already, like.”

Angie was right.  Her parents were broad-minded and besides, I think they saw me as an ideal soulmate for their daughter.   Malcolm, her dad, was a Casterley supporter, Debbie, her mother, shared his generous spirit.  I liked them a lot.

Darren wandered through, on his way to the alley with the first of the takeaway’s waste bins.  “Glad that one’s over!”  He said cheerfully.  “T’scooter’s a bugger in this weather.  Ah reckon ye’ knackered it, Chas!”

“It were knackered already,”  I told him. Then, to Angie: “Tomorrow I’ll look for my own place.  Can’t live back home, not now.”

Early the next morning I found my mother in our kitchen, sorting laundry.  Dressing gowned and bleary-eyed, she blinked at me.   “Where’ve you been?”

“I slept over Angie’s.”  I had left home after confronting Mack with only the clothes I stood up in.  This morning I was compelled to go back to get my training gear.  “I’m getting myself a place,” I said.

“Oh man, why?  You movin’ in with Angie?”

“No.  I’m movin’ out of here.  I can’t stay here, Mam.”

My mother’s face began to crumple.  “Chas, man, don’t blame me.  You don’t have to leave me, do yer?  Wharama ganna do wi’out yer?”

“You’ll manage.  Get Mack to take care of you.  You’ll have the house all to yourselves, and I’m sure he’ll be pleased to make you a little allowance, like – especially if it’s the price for keeping me quiet.”

“He already does.”

“What?”

My mother had begun punching laundry into the washing machine as though her clothing was the cause of all her misfortunes.  “Look around yer, Chas!  D’yer remember when we was short of money last?  D’yer remember when you’s was always persterin’ wor for presents wor couldn’t afford?  Don’t us live a little better na?  Did y’think the Benefit was payin’ for all this?”

I stood justly accused.  I had been so set upon my own career, so occupied with my own concerns I hadn’t seen the little changes my mother had wrought within our home.  The kitchen with better units now, new covers on the chairs, curtains replaced, a new carpet in the front room.   Had I really believed her evening job with the taxi firm had paid for it all?  Or was it just convenient to avoid asking the difficult questions?

“You and Mack.  How long have you been…”

“When yer brought the Social down on us, an’ I thought I was goin’ ter lose me job. He came then.”

“That’s two years.  Two years!?  He’s been givin’ you money for two years?”  The full weight of revulsion struck me.  “He’s been coming here for two years!  And I’ve not known?”

“Nah, Chas, not all the time.  Jus’ now and then, when I needed the cash, y’kna’?   Not when he were takin’ yer to court – not then, Chas.   I wouldn’t do that ter yer, man!”

“Oh, sure!  But the week before, and the week after….”

“No!  It weren’t offen.  Mebbees a half dozen times, that’s all.”  She grabbed my arms.  “Chas, we was friends from way back.  You kna’ that – remember the times yer used to go visiting wi’ David and Susan?  When Mack heard yer Da’ left me, an’ ah was down on my luck?  He helped out, y’see?”

“I do see.  A true friend!  It’s so hard to put an hourly rate on generosity, isn’t it, Ma?”

“It isn’t the way you think it is, son.  Really not.”  My mother paused to sort the strong colours from the bottom of her basket of clothes.  “Looka, whatever yer think of me, stay here, man!  As long as you don’t say nothing, Mack won’t harm yer.  I made ‘im promise he wouldn’t harm yer, Chas.”

“Oh aye, like he always keeps his promises?  No, Mam, I won’t hide from him, but staying here makes me just a little too easy to find.”

There was a tangle of blues and yellows that she put to one side.  There was the green satin slip she had worn last night, there was…thin and flimsy…one garment more.  She held it up briefly to fold and then, as though she suddenly realized what she was doing, slipped it quickly from sight at the bottom of the pile.  It was too late.  I had recognized the red dress.

Speechless, I picked up my training kit bag.  I clutched it to my chest as if it were a child.  I turned away.  I walked out of the door.

You can, and do, walk away from many things in life, but you can’t walk away from the questions, the memories, the host of images from your past that need no camera to engrave their likeness on your mind, no album to keep them fresh.  They meet you at every street corner, they admit themselves unbidden in every idle moment, they find you as you lay your head to sleep.  Wherever you sleep.  If – ever – you sleep.

In wakefulness now, I can see myself on that morning, knowing.  Because I did know, even then, even as it happened, that its message would relay itself to me again and again down the years.  It was a seminal moment I would never forget, the step from that door and the closing behind me that locked away all of my childhood and all of my growing forever.

I attended training, accepting all of Joe Pascoe’s carps and snarls, barely noticing as the hours passed.  Some sort of desperation drove me, a pressure not to pause, not to think.  As soon as I was released I headed for the largest of Casterley’s two letting agents to begin the process of finding  myself an apartment – not difficult, you’d think, for Casterley Town’s new star striker, and not difficult in any town where the supply of accommodation far outstripped demand, especially on a cold day in January.   I had reckoned without the agents’ reluctance to leave a warm office, which put much of the day behind me, idly kicking at intransigence, unable to control, unable to dictate.  It was already dark when I got to view a first floor flat in a townhouse that was no more than ten minutes’ walk from the town, and I liked it well enough, for all that there is no chill like the chill of empty, unfurnished rooms in an empty house.

“The bottom flat’s available too, for a slightly higher rent – the garden goes with that one.   The owners of the house have moved to Dubai.  We’d have to get you approved, of course.”

She was a nice enough girl, just doing her job to the worst of her ability.  She was cold and showed it. “How quickly can you get me in?”  I asked her.

“Oh, within a week I should think.”

“Tomorrow?”

I was not without a roof.  Angie’s mother had already set her seal of approval on her daughter’s guest and I could manage that week if I wanted, but I was driven.  One door had closed, I wanted the portal to my new life to be opened – I wanted to step through.

“I’ll see what I can do.  When I tell them who it is…”

I took the garden apartment, on the mistaken premise that because it was a little more expensive the deal might be done more quickly.  In the event it took three days, during which the agents stripped my bank account with ruthless efficiency.

“They wanted a grand for a deposit,” I told Malcolm, Angie’s Da’, over tea.  “And then the rent on top of that.  It won’t leave me enough for furniture.   I’ll be sleeping on the floor.”

Malcolm was a tower of a man with receding hair and many chins that concertinaed when he looked down at his hands, something he often did when he was deep in thought.  He worked for the local council and his network of friends and acquaintances was endless.  Everyone liked Malc, as he was commonly known.   “A bugger ‘tis, that.”  He agreed.  “When’s’a get the keys?”

“It would be Saturday.  The team’s away to Calhampton this week though, so I won’t be back ‘til about twelve.  Is it all right to shack up here one more night?  I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

“Nay, you’ll pay me nowt, lad!  Lissen, can you set it up so our Ange collects the keys for yer?  You’ll be able to get over there on Sunday and get stuck in, then, won’t yer?”

“Thanks, Malc.  Good idea.  I’ll meet her for lunch tomorrow and we’ll drop in at the agents.”

“What’s the prospects then, wi’ Calhampton?   Are wor goin’ ter win, d’y’think?”

“Win?  We’ll have to.  I need the bonus!”

Calhampton was third in our league, and a three hundred mile tortuous journey in our team coach, which meant any vehicle the local tour company had to offer that week, after they had fulfilled their other obligations.  This particular week’s choice did at least promise a safe arrival, something that had not always been a given in the past, but I hated the long journeys.  Atmosphere between myself and the rest of the lads had thawed somewhat, so there was room for a certain amount of cut and thrust, but most of the time it was stultifying.   I read books, I listened to tapes, I slept.  Even the prospect of a match in a seaside town offered little solace.  Hours of those unwanted memories and acres of fresh regret awaited me and I was powerless to keep them at bay.  Had I wronged my mother?  Was she genuinely in love with Mack?  What if the red dress was just that and no more?  What if those legs had belonged to some other unknown woman and I had jumped to conclusions once again?

Worst of all, it seemed to me that Sue’s voice was reaching out to me in the silence, sympathizing, telling me she understood my hurting, but insistent.  “She is your mother, Chas.  If there’s one person in the whole world who deserves your forgiveness, it’s her.  She raised you.  You can’t turn your back on her.”

The Calhampton game was an exhausting affair, one from which I could claim little glory because the home side had a valiant left back who stuck to me like glue.  Patrick Boyle and I would become close friends later in our respective careers, but I was still learning how to deal with the better class of defender that afternoon, and he kept me subdued so thoroughly that I failed to score – the first time that had happened to me since Pascoe had allowed me to wear the number nine.

people-men-grass-sport“Thanks,”  I said heavily, as we left the field together.

Patrick grinned at me.  “Not at all.  I hope I get you next time!”

We still faced our return journey after playing the match to a draw, a result that seemed to please Pascoe.  Whether as a consequence of the emotional upheaval of the last few days, or of the match itself, I slept for most of the eight hours we spent on the coach.

It was nearly one-thirty before I finally arrived at the Carey household to find Angie waiting up for me, with cocoa and secret smiles, full of the news she had picked up my keys; then gone to look at the apartment herself ‘just to be sure they were the right ones’.

“It’s a fabulous place, Chas.  It’s just great!  Can I come over with you tomorrow?”

I poured myself into bed to sleep, fitfully, for another six hours.

Sunday morning was born bright and dazzling; sun on snow.  Angie and I rattled in an empty house as we ate breakfast.

“Where’re your parents?”  I asked.

“Oh, they’ve gone to church, I ‘spect.”

“They’re not religious, are they?”

“Sometimes.”  Angie was bubbling with eager energy.

“What are you going to do in the flat?”  She asked as she bounded beside me on our walk towards the town.

“I don’t know yet.  I’ll have to get a bed from somewhere, I guess.  Hey, slow down will you, antsy?”

We should accept, I suppose, that whenever we close a door, finish a chapter in our lives, those who care about us will be anxious to help us journey to the new page; so I should not have been surprised to see Malcolm’s van parked in The Avenue, outside the townhouse at number fifteen.  Nor could I find it in my heart to express anything but delight when I entered my new front door to discover Angie’s paint-spattered parents standing proudly, brushes in hand, amidst freshly painted walls.

“We’re just about finished, lad.”  Malcolm declared.  “Debbie’s still doing the little kitchen ‘cause it needs a bit o’cleaning, whiles you and me can get the furniture in, awreet?”

What furniture?  A van loaded with furniture, and another load waiting at the Council Store.  Carpets, a double bed, a table, chairs, sofa, television, washing machine – the resource, it seemed, was inexhaustible.  As I supported my end of the heavier items, Angie ran in and out of the flat with crockery, ornaments, even a couple of paintings.

“Malc, I’ll never be able to afford all this!”  I protested, from my end of a wardrobe.

“Nay, lad, there’s nowt to afford.  Awreet, some o’ it costs a bit, but yer can pay me back whenever.  See, most o’ this is stuff the Council disposes of, anyways.  There’s nowt wrong wi’ it, don’t misunderstand me, but they nivver bother to auction it off.  It’s furniture and effects from council properties that get abandoned.  It happens all the time, the tenant does a runner, or maybe gets took into hospital and doesn’t come out.  Sad to see it go to waste.  I’ve a mate in house clearances, so we’re doin’ ‘im a bit of a favour, actual, like.”

It was a full day of toil in which the whole Carey family acquitted themselves amazingly, and they could never have known just how grateful I was. At the end of it, when the sun had long since departed, I tried to insist upon buying everyone dinner, which of course they refused.  Malcolm and Debbie left, Angie did not.

“I just wanted to have a minute with you.”

She was nervous, expectant, maybe a little scared.  We looked around my new place together, already a home with furniture, not all of which might have been my choice, but I had no complaint.  She fussed, making little adjustments here and there, tidied some small things, straightened others – until at last we faced each other in the living room with nowhere else to go.

“We was lucky t’get the keys early so wor could finish most of the painting yesterday,”  She said, speaking too quickly.  “A’had to scrub mesen’ raw when I got home to clean it all off.  If I’d smelt of paint it would have spoiled the surprise!”

“It was a brilliant surprise!”  I said.

“Do you like it?”

“I do, very much.”

“I should be getting home.”

Was I corralled into it?  Was I cornered?  The significance of the double bed was not lost on me.  Throughout the day, Debbie and Malcolm had been careful to avoid saying anything about my relationship with their daughter.  Throughout the same day, Angie had been held in thrall by my new adventure.  No, I did not feel trapped, or obligated; rather, I felt glad I would not be starting my new page alone.

I found the unspoken question in Angie’s eyes.  “Can you stay?” I asked.

“Tonight?  I don’t know if I should, like.  Ma’ and Da’ll be expecting…”

“Not just tonight.”

At those times when I could make her happy, Angie had a smile that was like the breaking of a summer dawn.  “Why, ah don’t know!  That’s a very big thing to ask, Chas Haggerty!”  Then, as she tried to turn away because she felt embarrassed by her tears, I held her so she would rest her head on my shoulder instead.

And Angie stayed.

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

 

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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