Sebastian

Dim, reflected street lighting found its way into the alley, glimpsing features from the shadows:  a large half-opened refuse bin, stacked pallets by a steel-clad door, timber leaning on a wire frame.

The boy looked back.  Sebastian looked back.  “My front yard!  Urban Gothic is so alluring, don’t you think?”  

“No, I don’t.”   Nell had been watching Sebastian’s long torso swing easily with the rhythm of his stride; wide shoulders, slender waist.  “But I’m not a postcode snob,”  she said.

He stopped,  turning suddenly to meet her eyes, making the blood rush in her cheeks.  She knew, as did he, why she was here.  “It would be nice just to have a postcode!”  He waved to the high wall on her left:  “almost there!”

‘There’ was a doorway, steel-lined like a scattering of others punched into the sheer brick cliff-face of this minor chasm in the City’s heart.   Sebastian’s long fingers played over the numbers on the lock.  Strange, she thought, the determinants of attraction.  Even in the unlikely setting of the discotheque, her eyes had been drawn – she had been drawn – to those fingers.  A pianist herself, she knew there had to be a piano somewhere in this frail boy’s life.  But here?

A switch flooded a staircase with warm light.   “Only thirty-three,” he encouraged her;  “I count them every time I go up.  Helps fill in the time.”

“You’re lucky.  Not everyone can live over a concert hall.”

He tilted his head, bird-like – another mannerism she found irresistible.  “Over a garage, actually.  It wakes me every morning at half-eight, when they turn the compressors on.  Better than any alarm clock.  Otherwise I hear surprisingly little from it.”

On the stairs he didn’t race ahead as some men might, but matched her pace so she, following, could drink in the grace and sinew of him as he climbed.  Fitted shirt, tight flares, every ripple.  Cream walls, brass rail, bare concrete treads.  Thirty-three.  Footsteps echoing; thirty-one, thirty-two…

“Here we are.”

So this was it, the theatre of her deflowering.  Her birthday gift to herself.  She had planned no less, coolly setting out, short, short dress and chilly in the early evening air, to lose the virginity that had begun to weigh like a yoke.  Her twentieth birthday, still carrying the reluctant secret of her virtue on her shoulders.  Was she nervous?  Yes.  She was doing something she could never have contemplated before: a first time, a first date; a pick-up, frankly, her friend Rosanna would call it that.  But then, caution had only served to preserve the unwanted, and Rosanna was still at the discotheque, unlikely to be going home alone.

It was the scent that assailed her senses before all else, a subtle nuance to conjuring pictures of green fields and purple, heather-covered hills.   As Sebastian opened the door; as Sebastian switched on the light it was almost physical…

“Oh, my goodness!”

…yet the  hallway was small, a colourless vestibule only, and a metal spiral stair  Stairs that once again led upwards.

“A bit more climbing.”  He said.

Sebastian slipped his hand into hers.  She was being coaxed, gently.

There was no door atop these stairs.  There was an emerge – a rise from beneath through a floor reinforced thickly with steel beams into another world – from star-trap to stage – 

“Nell?”  He prompted her.  He was expecting a response.  Nell had been stunned into silence.

She found her tongue.  “I suppose it’s good to have a hobby.”  She said.

Foetid sweetness hung on air so thick it was hard to breathe at first, and humidity permeated her short, short dress so utterly its thin fabric clung to her skin.  All about her, above her, even around her feet, as Sebastian led her up the last few treads of the stairway, was growing and green; relentlessly green.  Sphagnum moss formed a carpet, softly yielding beneath her feet, weeping cherry made curtains they must brush aside to imbibe the heady glory of this place.  An umbrella pine shaded them like a hood, a wisteria clambered and tangled its way randomly about trellis-lined walls.  Planters, pots and containers were everywhere, large and small, brightly coloured or plain; each one abrim with leaf and growth, flower and life.  A decadently large butterfly settled on Nell’s wrist.

“Do you like her?  If you do she’ll be yours for a while.  They know if they are loved.”

“What kind is she?”

Sebastian shrugged;  “A white swallowtail, or something, I don’t know.  She’s beautiful, though, isn’t she?  How do you like my gaffe?”

“It’s amazing!  Are you actually living here?”

“Of course – where else?”

Nell cast about her, seeking the accoutrements of accomodation.  Certainly there were elements: withdrawing room furniture – a salon chair or two, a touch of Victoriana nestling between festoons of vine, a few small tables fashioned from stumps of hardwood, bookshelves extending high into the glazed roof, access to whose treasures could only be gained by a precarious set of library steps.  But a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom? And where was the piano?

Embarrassed by the way her short, short dress was misbehaving in the humidity, she asked: “Is there somewhere I can…”  and let the sentence rest.

“Freshen up?  I mean, not that you don’t look…”  His confidence also seemed to be ebbing a little.  He recovered himself,  “Through there.  The date palm and turn left.  I’ll fix us a drink – what would you like?”

“Oh, anything!   This lovely thing – is she coming with me?”  

“She’ll fly off.  Give her a bit of a nudge if you want.”  She did.  Nell’s graceful passenger winged away to find companionship with three or four of her kind that were performing a complex ballet around a pendulous cluster of mauve flowers.

“Sehra Bhale – it’s Indian”  Sebastian explained, noticing her rapturous expression,  “They love the flowers.  For the nectar, I guess.”

Only by traversing the floor did Nell get an idea of the true scale of this place. A full twenty yards away a date palm occupied a huge wooden barrel.  The tree was all but fully grown so its crown reached high into the roof.  From the same barrel sprang a screen of dense foliage, behind which she discovered the door to the bathroom and although she half expected the extraordinary here there was little more than a passing resemblance to a potting shed and aside from the presence of a stalwart iron garden tap, the necessary porcelain was white-ly normal.  If a certain amount of loam had left a tidemark in the hand-basin it seemed no more than she should have anticipated.  There was even a mirror…

“I fixed us these,”  Sebastian said when she returned to him;  “I hope you’ll like it.”

He cradled a stoneware chalice in each hand, one of which he offered to her.  She glanced at the contents suspiciously.  They were green.

“Swop you!”  She said, trying to keep her tone as light as possible.  Had it occurred to her he might lace her drink?  She wanted to remain in command of her situation.  

He just grinned.  “Of course.  They’re the same.  I wasn’t going to – you know – try anything.”

She hoped she was arching an eyebrow,  “I’m sure there are some things we could try.”  Flirting, she decided, was the only way to cover her nerves.  Her knees were about to give her away by shaking.  “This place is stellar!  Did you do all this yourself?  You must be very strong! I mean, do you have a gardener or something?”   As a line of conversation it was excruciatingly lame, but such was the gulf in her understanding she felt she must say something.  The room was unquestionably affecting her.  A first tentative sip at that green drink would deepen the affinity.

“On my gosh!  Whatever is this?”  Drinks can impress in many ways; by their alcoholic heat, a peppery sting on the tongue, or an intensity of flavor that can sometimes vanquish the most insensitive of palates.  Sebastian’s cocktail ( she would be obliged to call it that) performed each of those tricks at once, and left a trace of warmth behind for good measure.  

“Do you like it?”  He was smiling more broadly now.  “I make these myself, you know?  This is one of my favourites,”

“It’s a bit heady,”   was Nell’s verdict,  “Some serious alcohol.”

“Really not.  Only the natural sugars from the fruit I grow in here. Some more?”

Nell stared into her cup in disbelief.  How had she finished the drink so quickly?  Never mind; she enjoyed its taste.  “Yes, please.”

“Let’s sit down,”  Sebastian gestured towards a pair of salon chairs,  “Are you hungry?  Would you like something to eat?”

“No,”  She answered quickly; too quickly, perhaps, but all there seemed to be on offer was fruit.  The chair was a little too upright, a little too hard, for her mood.  She needed to relax.  “Them – the palm and that – there are real trees in here, yeah?  What made you do all this?”

“My jungle, you mean?”  He nodded,  “Fair question.  I like plants and stuff – will that do?”

Nell frowned.  Somehow, she had necked her second drink.  It was only moments since he had poured it, but after all, if it wasn’t alcoholic…  “Maybe just one more,”  she said, uninvited.

He poured.  There was a bottle.  It was half-empty.  “I wanted a garden,”  he told her,  “This place didn’t have one, but it was cheap and there was acres of space, so…”

“So this.  Okay.  Some of these guys, Sebastian, they’re seriously mature, aren’t they?  They couldn’t have been like that when they came through the door.  I mean, how many years…damn it, how old are you?”

He smiled angelically: a perfectly youthful, innocent smile.  “Does that matter?”

“To me?  I mean, no, I guess not.”   Nell blushed, as enthused now by his beauty as she had been when he first asked her to dance with him in that disco; so long ago she felt almost in danger of forgetting it – of forgetting what had drawn her here.  Her hand had reached for the bottle, she was topping up her drink without his assistance and he was smiling, and watching…

“You like me, don’t you?”  He wasn’t seeking reassurance, simply stating a fact.  “You want us to boogie, don’t you?”  Blatant, but another fact, the articulation of which should have made her feel acutely uncomfortable but didn’t, not at all, because it was true, and yes, that was why she had selected him – why she had accepted his invitation.  

“Can I call you Seb?”

“I’d like that.”

If a little courage had been missing, the mysterious green, rich drink emboldened her.  Rising from her chair, she crossed to his and, demurely at first, perched herself on his knee.

“That’s nicer, isn’t it? I enjoy being close, Seb.”

His answering smile feigned innocence:  “And I really feel close to you,”  he murmured, as if he was half afraid to speak.  “Are we -what do you call it – making out?”

She giggled,  “Maybe not yet.”  Stroking his arm, “Is there somewhere we can…”

“I don’t understand.”  He clearly looked as though he didn’t.

“Somewhere we could be more cosy?”

The intimacy, how did it happen?  When did they move from the chair and how were they suddenly entwined on a bed of soft, dry moss, and breathing together, almost as one?  How had she learned the words she was whispering – how could the caress of his fingers be so impossibly soft as to chase away any last clouds of maidenly guilt, or resistance?  Did ‘how’ matter?   In a necessary pause she glanced at her cup which was, once again, stubbornly empty.  She lamented it and he had the bottle ready in his hand. 

Which was when he did this curious thing.

Nell extended her arm, offering the chalice to be refilled, but Sebastian did not comply.  Instead, he tipped the bottle so all that remained within it cascaded over her.  Green verdance filled her eyes, her nose, her mouth, poured down her neck, between her breasts.  Diligently, remorselessly, the liquid probed and sought out each secret part of her, and it was clever, this balm.  It was intelligent.  It had no interest but in her flesh; it left the short, short dress unsullied in its quest yet it discovered all, absolutely all, that lay beneath.

She panicked at first.  She would.  She was outraged; though only for a second – as long as it took to feel the warm enclosure of her whole self, the gentle insidience of something that was rendering her limbs helpless to resist, her senses too benumbed to protest.   

Fiery heat rushed and retreated in waves through her veins, leaving tiny rivulets behind at every pass.   The blood in her body was changing, its flow was no longer the same.  Sebastian was there and Sebastian was watching, but how close he was, or how far away, whether or not she could touch him, did not seem to matter.  If her sight was fading, if everything was green, that was sufficient.  That was enough.  And in the end, the silence, too, would be enough.

In her altered state Nell could not see – would never ‘see’ again, but she could ‘feel’: her whole essence was of feeling, defined by twisting and climbing, but only Sebastian knew how that urge was driven by anger and aggression, for she could not talk, or shout out; so she had no way to express her pain.

#

Jarvis  Bowbeaker prided himself in being incapable of surprise.  After twenty-two years of steady progress in the plain-clothes division of his local police force he was fairly certain he had seen everything.  So when he ducked beneath the ‘Scene of Crime’ tape and passed through the steel-clad door in the dank old alley, when he climbed the spiral stair to that room he was immured from its severest effects by experience.  He merely dismissed the chaos into which he emerged as ‘disturbing’.

“You weren’t kiddin’ son, was yer?”  He nodded to the young DC who stood with an older, slightly too well-oiled man on a patch of floor that had been cleared.  It’s a feckin’ jungle!  Are those butterflies or bats?”

“They’re butterflies, Inspector.”  The oily man offered the explanation.  “Tropical varieties.  And the stench is down to a combination of ridiculously high humidity and rot.  I’m grateful to you for requesting my opinion – I would hate to have missed this one!”

Bowbeaker cocked an eyebrow at the young Detective Constable.  “Wilkinson, isn’t it? “What’s in it for us, son?  Suspicious death?”

“Hard to say, sir.  We’ll be waiting for SOCO’s report on that, I reckon.  Been dead for a lot of years, Sir.” 

“And you’re Professor Lombard, yes?  Our biologist?   What’s gone on ‘ere, then?”  Bowbeaker encompassed the tangled overgrowth expansively;  “All this?”

“Nothing.  Well, nothing in the way of husbandry, anyway.  This was tended and well ordered once, but not in the last forty or so years.  Whoever started it was quite a horticulturalist, managing to mix species from a number of different climatic zones and combine them so they effectively formed their own micro-climate. But it seems they abandoned it.”

“Did a runner, most likely,”  the DC opined;  “On account of the death, Sir.”

Bowbeaker sighed,  “Alright, son, lead the old horse to water.  Where’s the deceased?”

“Well, that’s it, you see…”  D.C. Wilkinson guided his superior and the Professor along a cleared path across the floor of the room.  “Watch where you tread, Sir.  This place is due for demolition.  It was the demolition lads who found it.  They  had to hack through here…”

“No snakes, are there?”  Bowbeaker thought he’d mention it.  After all, the place was in most other respects a jungle, its floor a mass of tangled roots, their way veiled by liana and festoons of creepers  of every kind.  Why wouldn’t there be snakes?   “Is that rain?”

“There’s hardly any roof.  It was a glass skylight at some time or other, before these larger trees pushed through.  Fortunately, you said, Professor, didn’t you?”

“Indeed!”  Professor Lombard acknowledged;  “Growth like this absorbs a lot of moisture.  Drought would certainly have inhibited it.”

“And here she is.”  The DC waved a hand aloft.

They had reached the far wall of the space, although that was hard to identify, clad as thoroughly as it was in greenery that clambered and tangled.  Swiping aside a suspicious-looking insect Bowbeaker followed his young assistant’s upward gesture.  Hanging almost directly above him and leaning forward as if ready to descend like an avenging angel, was a form that was unmistakably that of a corpse – or the remains of one.   

“‘She’?”  Bowbeaker questioned.  “How d’yer know our Doe’s a Jane, Constable?”

By way of reply, Wilkinson pointed downward at the wreckage of a series of tubs, one-time planters in a line along the wall.  The roots of their hungry tenants had long ago breached them and stretched out to claim their share of the mossy floor, but into each tub had been inserted a label, and on each label, faded but still distinguishable, was written a species name;  T/spermum Jasmine ‘Rebecca’, Bomarea Tropaeolum ‘Holly’, Ixora coccinea ‘Anna Lis’, ‘Rosa Macha ‘Joanne’, Lonicera ‘Angelina’, and finally, directly beneath the corpse, Epipremnum Devil’s Ivy  ‘Nell’.”

“Names for the species grown from each tub, Inspector,”  Lombard contributed.  “You’ll probably recognise most of them.  The Christian names underneath have nothing to do with a variety, and so we thought…”

Bowbeaker drew a breath, which he held for a very long time.

“I reckon that must be Nell, Sir.”  The DC said.  “Weird, Innit?  Sort of a marker for her, don’t you think?  Do those other names mean anything?”

Bowbeaker nodded, because they did.   “Rebecca Shelley, yes, I remember that one, and Angelina Scarcci.   Nell Wrekins, too.  All a bit before my time.  Girls in their twenties who were listed as missing.  I think the others will ring a few bells too, back at the office.”  He stared into the canopy of forestation above each planter, half-hoping to see more evidence that these poor tragedies had ended here.

“Take samples for analysis and ask the lads to get her down.  That’s hardly a dignified way to spend eternity.  Who owns this place, do we know?”

“Trying to trace that now, Sir.  It was a Council repossession  A garage business traded downstairs; it closed thirty years ago.  The owner died last March.  All dead ends, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

“Dead ends;  yes.”  Bowbeaker could not tear his eyes away from those human remains.  “Constable, get a step ladder in ‘ere, will yer?  I want to take a closer look at our Miss Nell.”

But he already knew, didn’t he?  No more than a skeleton after forty years, and only intact because the ivy that held it in its clutches would let nothing escape, nevertheless there were certain details his experienced eye could not miss; like the sized 12 shoe that hung upon one large foot, and the shirt that was not a blouse, because enough threads remained to see it plainly buttoned from the right.  Above (or beneath) all, the narrower pelvic bones that could belong only to a man.   He could not be certain, but if his memory served, young Nell Wrekin was the last of those disappearances, all those years ago.  Without knowing how, or why, he was quite sure she had something to do with whatever had happened here.

Bowbeaker silently watched as the body was freed at last from the grip of the vine, and it did not escape his notice the difficulty the SOCO’s people had in cutting away the stalwart wood that enclosed its throat.    He stayed a long time with the scene, so it was only after everyone had moved to leave that he crossed to the ivy’s woody trunk, placing a hand on the bark.

“Nell Wrekins, is it?”  He said, quietly, so none of the departing company should hear;  “Ye’re Devil’s Ivy, right enough.  Privately, I think yer did pretty well, back then, Miss Wrekin.  And even though it’s technically a crime, I can’t imagine how I’d go about charging a pretty plant like you with murder, can you?”

Feeling the touch, which was soft and insistent, he looked down to see that a root had wrapped itself around his foot.  He extricated himself gently.  “Don’t worry love, I’ll ‘ave a word with the Professor.  He’ll see ye’re taken care of.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Picture Credits:

Header image by Ambitious Creative from Unsplash;

Girl with butterflies by Victor Mendoza from Unsplash

A Place that was Ours: Chapter Three. A Beautiful Game

Bill Shankly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I really know him at all?

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

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

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

“Ma, he’s got a key!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A place that’s mine.”

“If you like.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I bad?”

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

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

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

 

© Frederick Anderson 2017.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content