Meeting on the Motorway

He was driving home, not for the first but the third time this week, and he was tired.

Paul’s weariness  was an insidious thing, .  It had begun not weeks but months since, an insistent fatigue beyond sleep’s cure with roots that grew a little deeper each day, spread a little wider each week; so now it invaded his very bones.  He felt older, much older than his forty-two years.  Today he had worked late and far from home, swaddling that tiredness in a further layer of exhaustion. 

Almost as indistinct, the traffic of the motorway processed about him in sound and rhythm, fast and vast, marauding or crawling, assertive or furtive.  A tune – a slow ballad – a lullaby to woo him into sleep.   His eyelids were heavy, his reason was blurring.

The mile-post for a service area found him just in time:  even then he almost missed it, sinking eyelids hiding the warnings, an articulated trailer unit veiling the essential final sign until he was forced into an ugly lane-change.  The car park beckoned him and he fell into it, slumping back in his seat.  With the tensions of the road dispersed nothing could arrest the orderly march of slumber. Recognising the futility of defence, he surrendered unconditionally.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look absolutely wrecked.”

At some point he must have wakened then taken a decision  to leave his cocoon in search of food.  His steps must have led him to this café, his payment app to the stack of meat, cheese and mayo which leered back at him from this plate. 

“You aren’t actually going to eat that, are you?”

He couldn’t remember ordering the food, although it seemed sustaining enough to answer a need.  Clearly, he had slept for some hours, a simple truth his digestive tract insisted he acknowledge.

“I rather think I might,” he said, and “Who are you?”

He must have dozed again, that was the explanation.  While he was in a torpid state this young woman must have slipped into the seat across from his, but why?  The café was less than crowded.  There were whole tables to spare.

“Hi,” She said brightly, “I’m Seph.  Nice to meet you!”  She removed the heavy-looking spectacles through which she had been conducting her examination of his choice of comestible and extended a hand so absolutely inviting that, caught unawares, he almost kissed it.  Convention stepped into the line of fire just in time with an admonishing finger.  He shook the hand.  “Paul,”  he said.  “I’m sorry, how did …?”

“You needed me.”

The forthrightness of the statement alerted prickling, suspicious hairs on the back of Paul’s neck.

 Awake now and thinking, it didn’t take much working out, really, did it?  Easy to watch for such travellers as he:  Mercedes in the car park, expensive business suit, new, high-end ‘phone…  She was certainly convincing, he told himself, allowing his eyes free rein; a ‘class act’, her hair darkly frizzed to emphasize the portrait of a perfectly-featured face, the widest of soft mouths, the bluest of blue eyes.  A pale blue cloud-blue shift dress draped over shoulders otherwise bare, free of straps and encumbrances.  But still…

“I needed you.  Really.”  He placed some cynicism behind the words.

“Yes,”  She said.  And when she said it, when her eyes insisted his should meet with them, he felt himself melting.  “You’re not happy, are you?”

Now what on earth would make her say that?  “I’m on my way home,” he replied defensively.  “When I get home, I’ll be happy enough.”

It was a lie.  He dreaded going home.  “You’re very direct,”  he accused her.

Home?   A very expensive roof protecting a string of complex and irresolvable debts; remortgaged many times in the cause of his his business activities.  The domain of Adrienne, his wife; very much her domain, her furniture, her colours, her choices – bought without sanction because he was never there, always working.

“Is it my home?”  did he say that aloud?  Seph’s smile of understanding seemed to suggest she had heard everything, even the thoughts he was sure he had not spoken aloud.

“There’s someone waiting for you there?”  She coaxed, settling her hand on the table so her fingers played gently with the tips of his own.

“My wife.  Are you conducting some kind of confessional?”

“Do you love her, your wife?” 

He wanted to frown, to show he was affronted, but somehow he was drawn into an answer:  “This is getting a little too personal, isn’t it? What was your name?  Seph?   I mean, considering we’ve never met before, Seph.”

Seph leaned her elbows on the table, letting her chin rest prettily upon her interlocked fingers,  “I’m genuinely afraid for you, Paul.   It’s three o’clock in the morning, it’s a summer dawn; if love and happiness are waiting at the end of your journey, what are you doing here?”

“I had to pull over to rest.”  Just by reminding himself, he stirred a cloying mist of sleep.  Why was he so, so tired?  Adrienne slipped back into his thoughts, bringing contemplation and silence…

  Oh, there was a presumption of love.  There was a history, a time when there had been something between them they could excuse as love, when Paul was the beautiful young man and Adrienne his feminine equal, courted by an eager succession of suitors.  Perhaps Paul was the man Adrienne had been looking for, then.  Perhaps his relentless energy, his quiet, distant manner satisfied her, for she was never a passionate woman and she had few sexual needs.  Salivating young grads with nervous, uncertain eyes who danced on her strings amused her, but never tempted.  Paul saw her as she was, focussed; and she was drawn to his perspicacity.

That was then, and maybe it was a flawed foundation for a marriage, a mutual admiration rather than a friendship, a partnership rather than a passion: now it was a floor show, played out on their public stage.  In private, it was ice.

 “That will be cold,”  Seph interrupted his thoughts, rescuing him from despondency.  She directed his leaden eyes to the plated enormity stacked before him.  “If there’s anything worse than grease, it’s cold grease.”

Paul had to agree.   He was hungry.   But the challenge which confronted him was, in construction, a burger, and he hesitated to engage in the two-handed assault that threatened to release missiles of gherkin and cascades of mayonnaise while under the scrutiny of this attractive companion.  He was drawn to her, wasn’t he?  He was intrigued.

“Knife,”  She said, producing one from somewhere and sliding it across the table.

Paul accepted it.  “Do you work here or something?”

“No.  You hate her, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,”  his mouth was half-full.  “Hate who?”

“Adrienne.”

Paul stopped chewing, staring into Seph’s eyes as he sought some answer to a question so obvious he almost baulked at asking it;  “How do you know my wife’s name?  Do I talk in my sleep, or something?  Have we met before?”

“Have we met before?   Let me see…”  Seph’s hands slipped below the table and came up with a small notebook.  With her spectacles replaced halfway down her nose she flipped pages.   “Well, no.  No, we haven’t actually met.   Do you think I look too stern in these?  He says they make me look stuffy.  What do you think?”

Had Paul been in a mood for honesty, he would have replied that in his opinion she looked beautiful, but he saw a small advantage.  It seemed unlikely someone so lovely, and so overtly happy, would not be in a relationship.   “’He’?   Is ‘he’ your boyfriend?”

She pouted, an admission perhaps that she had been caught out?  But then there was a trace of a smirk,  “I wouldn’t call him that, exactly.  Anyway, we were talking about you.  I know all about you, Paul; you and Adrienne.  I’ve been studying you both for a few months now.”  She slid the spectacles right down to the end of her nose, treating him to a penetrating look over the top of them.  “Stern, yes?”

Genuinely, Paul was beginning to feel a little out of his depth.  Although this woman’s research begged explanation, he still favoured his initial theory.  This was a pick-up; a very professional one, but nonetheless…“Is this a regular haunt of yours?” He asked brutally;  “Cruising the motorway stops for tired professionals with fat wallets?”

“I see, sir,”   Seph took off her glasses;  “So I assume this is a practice of yours, trawling for chicks at night in tawdry dens of lust like Knutsford Services?  Fat professionals with tired wallets?”  But her eyes were liquid.  She looked solemn and genuinely sad.   “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I’m not for sale.   Not even for rent.”

“Then what are you, what is it that you do?  Where DO you work?”

“Wherever I am needed.  At the moment, that’s here.”

“I don’t need you,” he tried to say it kindly.  “Look, Seph, I’ve no idea where you’re coming from, so let’s agree to a moment of honesty, shall we?  You seem, for reasons only you can explain, to be interested in the state of my marriage.   Well, if I admit it isn’t the best marriage in the world, and from your perspective it must seem pretty depressing, can we close the subject and get down to whatever this conversation is really about?  Can we dispense with the subtleties?”

“No!”  Seph gripped his hand fiercely, then released it as quickly and sat back in her chair,  “This is a one-time offer, Paul.   One stop only, no repeats.  Do you know what I see?  Someone who’s ruled by life, Paul.  A caged soul.   It isn’t your fault, perhaps; you have the fast car but someone else is driving.  Nor is the fault Adrienne’s, because a woman like her was raised with expectations and her choices have failed her.   But you are not free and I must free you, yes?   That’s why I sat down at this table.  That’s why you have to take my hand, now, and let me guide you.  Please?”

Paul felt he had to shake his head because the sleep was coming in storm clouds.  Suddenly, it seemed imperative to think clearly, but clarity wouldn’t come.  He strove for an answer.  “See, Seph, that’s just how it is.  It’s the life I’ve got.    There are moments in it you could call happy.  If I’m prepared to settle for that version, and I am, although you are the most wonderful-looking reminder of the youth I once had, you must accept I don’t want rescuing – even by you.” 

“So,” Seph sighed,.  “You don’t need my help, then.  You’re going home and you’re ‘happy’, Paul.”  She shrugged.  “An opportunity missed.  I’m very glad for you.”

“Thank you for the thought,” he replied generously, “It was nice to meet you, Seph.”

A slow smile of kindness, tinged with regret, played across her face.  She rose gracefully from her seat, turning to follow the aisle to the doors, her blue dress floating about her – reeds in a stream, the rush of breeze in the willow.  He watched her go.

“Seph?”  

What made him do it?   Adrienne made him do it, the future in that hard voice, those acerbic jibes, waiting at the end of his road.  The darkness made him do it.

Then out of the darkness came Seph, taking his hands, drawing him to her.  “I was rather hoping you were going my way,”  she said sweetly.  “This is the very best thing!  Thank you, Paul!”

“My car’s in the car park,”  he said.

“We don’t need a car,” Seph replied.

© 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.

Nowhere Lane. Chapter One

Preface

This is my apology for a proper author’s preface.  A few weeks ago I posted the final chapter of a short novel which was a writing experiment.  It proved to be quite popular, I think (thank you to all my new followers) but I hesitate to impose a new book on my long-suffering readers, so I rely on you to tell me honestly if a second serial is a good idea.

‘Nowhere Lane’ is somewhat of a contrast to my previous attempt, and it is different, too, in that a synopsis has lurked on my hard drive for a year or so.   There are elements, even whole passages here that are pre-planned, but the hard writing still has to be done, which will offer plenty of opportunities for trouble!

Oh, and one more thing.  The subject matter could best be described as ‘edgy’ and the work may contain parts that will be rather more explicit than you are accustomed to reading in this blog.  Please let me know your margins, and tell me if I offend.

So, here goes!

 

Chapter One.  To Begin at the Very Beginning…

The Honorable Mary Brocklehurst was a delicate child, with the pale beauty and graceful carriage of a swan.  Beneath her silkily groomed and bobbed sable hair was a fashionably long, arched neck, the consequence of elegant bone structure that could only be acquired by centuries of refinement.  Her eyes were a misted blue, her chin narrow but determined, her breasts small and her hips a gynaecologist’s nightmare, but in the terms of her time, she was desirable.  Coiffured and self-assured, the picture she presented to her mirror as her final wedding dress adjustments were made was one of classic perfection.  She was to be an autumn bride, a spectral wisp amongst leaves of amber and red, prepared like a white ghost to stand before the altar beside a peer of the realm who was to be her husband, with an earl to give her away.

The dress was her mother’s decision.  Lady Hortense Brocklehurst had steered her daughter through her debutante season.  She had impeccable taste.  The contemporary dropped-waist style suited Mary’s wand-like figure, but with a hemline that must be modest.  Although Mary was a determined flapper, and her groom no less dedicated to nineteen twenties society living, their union would be a dignified, stately affair befitting two titled families.  Money was marrying money; the dress must observe and reflect great British traditions.  Her father, Viscount Brocklehurst of Saul demanded it; a guest list of a thousand expected it, and the mother could be confident the daughter would deliver.

Mary was not vain.  Growing up in a large household with two brothers, educated in one of the country’s best boarding schools, finished in a prestigious college in Berne, she carried self-image as her due and did not dwell upon her own reflection once the women who were helping her had withdrawn.  She stripped the expensive silk from her body with practised ease, then throwing on a housecoat as she withdrew to her bedroom, she gave the tassel of the servants’ bell an impatient tug.

“Yes, Miss?”  Florence had taken almost ten minutes to appear.  Mary glared at her.

“I’m simply gasping for a drink.  Would you bring me a decanter of dry sherry, Flo?  Oh, and have you seen this month’s Cinemagazine?  I distinctly remember leaving it here, on the table?”

“No Miss.  Although…”  Florence bit her lip.

“Well?”

“I shouldn’t tell tales, Miss, but I think I saw your magazine in Master Clive’s room this morning.”  Florence gave her mistress a knowing look.  “I’ll bring your tray, Miss.”

For all the promise of her upcoming nuptials, Mary was in a sombre mood.  She often found herself tasked with filling long hours when no-one called upon her, and the sun stubbornly refused to set.  Her parents were dutiful rather than attentive.  Her husband-to-be visited in his Prince Henry motor perhaps twice a week, and there were always parties. For the stultifying social deprivation in between, although Mummy would not have approved, alcohol was one valuable adjunct.  Reading magazines was another.  This afternoon, thanks, she was sure, to her younger brother Clive’s kleptomania, she lacked the latter.  Not that there was a dearth of periodicals she could read, but the particular one she wanted to read was in Clive’s possession.

For an hour she wandered about her room with a sherry glass never far from her hand.  She rehearsed dance steps, hummed the tunes of evening to herself, sighed at the window and fussed with the pile of journals on her table; she flicked through pages, scanned sketches.  It was a lubricious hour, and the lubricant did nothing to mollify her temper:  she wanted her favourite journal; it was not here, where it should be.

At last, when the resources in the decanter were well reduced, her irritation with her brother reached heights that could be contained no more.  Clive might bring the magazine back, at his own convenience, but she wanted it now.  Riding upon the thundercloud of her anger and slightly aided by a breeze of imbibed alcohol, she floated along the length of carpeted landing that separated the family bedrooms to her brother’s door.  The carpet was to blame – her bare feet were to blame.  Clive did not hear her approach.  He did not even hear her as she gently opened the door.  And then it was too late.

“Oh, no!  Oh, my gracious heavens, what are you doing?”  Mary exclaimed.

Clive was lying on his bed, face down.  Mary’s magazine was propped open on his pillow at a page featuring a photo-print of a contemporary film star, Pola Negri.  Clive’s body was caught in rhythmical movement.  It froze.  Clive froze.  Clive emitted a squeal like a startled pig.

“Get out, Sis!”  He spluttered, reaching for modesty in the form of a bed sheet that was rucked at the bottom of his bed and exposing, in doing so, rather more of himself than he would have liked.

Mary chuckled.  “Oh, vile!  Just vile!  Whatever is that?”  In truth, the best all-girls’ school education had instilled a certain amount of worldliness in Mary.  As pure a virgin as she might have been, she knew very well what ‘that’ was, even if she had only seen artists’ impressions of a rampant example until now, but she was of a mood to play the outraged innocent.  “For goodness sake, worm, will you please stop rubbing yourself?”

“I’m not,”  Clive muttered.

“Yes you are!  It’s utterly disgusting!  Especially over pictures of that woman, you ghastly little monster.  She’s scarcely a model of propriety, is she?  And that’s my magazine!  How on earth can you get yourself so – so excited about that?”

“Well I think she’s awfully attractive, if you must make a thing out of it.  Don’t you have the manners to knock?  Leave me alone.”  Humiliated, Clive made a further attempt at reaching the bed sheet, turning the other way this time, so he presented his sister with a glimpse of his buttock cheeks to feast her eyes upon.  He did look surprisingly muscular for such a little wimp, Mary acknowledged to herself; that backside would probably appear quite wholesome to a less jaundiced eye.  The sheet retrieved and his respectability restored, Clive managed to muster up some bravado.  “We all do it, us chaps.  The dorm’s positively heaving some nights.”

A fit of giggling caused by Clive’s turn of phrase required determined suppression. “That is not an excuse!”

“It is mine.”

“Don’t be so silly!  Awful things happen to you if you do that …that sort of thing.”  Mary’s initial outrage gone, curiosity took its place.  For all the new freedoms the nineteen twenties bestowed upon women, a girl of her background was still presumed to be sexually naïve until after her marriage.  Yet she had certain feelings, and some qualms – her intended husband was neither gentle nor patient.  She dared not ask about such issues in the stilted drawing-room world her parents inhabited.  She was not immune – nor, apparently, was Clive.

“That’s utter rubbish, Mare, it really is!  Just because you haven’t…”

“Don’t you DARE!”  Mary interrupted him hotly.  A rush of beetroot red flew to her cheeks, an anger that made her head threaten to spin.  “I will not discuss my…my private affairs…with you!”

“You could always leave – now.  And if you’re so repulsed you could take your eyes off it, couldn’t you?  But you don’t want to, do you – leave, I mean?”

Mary began to wish she had taken breakfast that morning.  Suddenly unsafe on her feet, she sat heavily beside her brother on his bed.  She held out a demanding hand.  “Give me back my magazine and I’ll go.”

Clive closed the book and passed it to her.  “There!”

Yet she did not leave.  Why?  Did her dizziness prevent her?  Was it the alcohol that whispered in her ear, spoke to her of forbidden, unmentioned things?  She slurred:  “You don’t know what to do – with a girl, if you’re…you know…with them.  Do you?”

The Honorable Clive leered, yet it was not quite a leer.  It might even have been a confident smile.  “Suppose that I do know?”

“Don’t you practice your cheap seductive moves on me!  How could you know!  You’ve never done it, and don’t pretend…oh, gosh, not Janine Parker?  Did you do it with Janine Parker?”

“A chap should never tell, but since you ask, in her father’s hay barn; last month, when I came back from school.  You would have been busy waltzing around the Court of St. James’s at the time.”  Clive added, acidly.

“Oh, that must have been awful for her!”

“I think she rather enjoyed it, actually.  Frightfully amused!”

“What did you do?”

“How do you mean?”

“Did you put your hand on her knee or something?”

“Oh much, much more than that.”  Clive looked at his sister carefully.  “You don’t know anything about what happens, do you?  I think that must be really dreadful.  I mean, you getting married and all that…”

“I most certainly do! I don’t choose to speak of it, that’s all.”

“All right then.  What will you do together, you and your chap?  Tell me.”

“I choose not to.”  Mary knew her face was giving her the lie.  She was deeply confused, as she had always been, about what would ensue when the wedding was over and she was left alone with her bridegroom.  Worse, she was fairly sure he would be equally clueless.  He was clumsy, rather bumbling in the simplest tasks.  She had no expectation that a bed would make a difference.  The secrets and covert meanings, the knowing looks and sotto voce comments of her friends seemed to allude to some mystical act, but what the nature of ‘it’ finally was remained shrouded in innuendo.

At some stage her housecoat had slipped aside enough to expose some thigh.  To her horror she felt Clive’s hand there, stroking her skin.  She recoiled.

“Now Sis, don’t be such a prude!”  Clive rebuked her.  “You need to have a modicum of experience, don’t you?  If I do this” – he allowed his hand to slip a little higher; “Not me, of course, but imagine I’m a chap doing it.  Imagine I’m St. John, if you like – don’t you get a bit of a rush?  Sensations, you know?”

“Sinjon.”  Mary corrected him, aware she was shivering and unsure why.  “It’s pronounced ‘Sinjon’”

She felt a kind of eagerness that was new to her.  Was this what Clive described as a ‘bit of a rush’?  St. John’s hand had never strayed higher than her knee.

Clive’s voice was gently persuasive; his lips crept closer to her ear.  “And then if a chap – if St. John – should do a little bit of this, don’t that make you wonder what will happen next?”  His hand began exploring places nowhere near her knee.

“Oh golly!”  Mary said, with rather more of a gasp than she would have liked.  “Remove your hand, you little reptile!”

Clive neither answered nor obeyed,  She knew, of course, she should push the hand away, but alcohol had made her bold, and her brother seemed so very knowing, so very self-assured.  Instead…

“Well?”  She asked tentatively.

“Well what?”

“I suppose you’re going to insist upon showing me – what happens next, I mean?”

 

© 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 Eighteen – Premiership

 

 

So my story must assume a mantle of years, rather than days; the tale of my growing up is told, and now, from a spring of frequent storms, you could say my summer days began.  In the season of 1989-90, as Hamish Merchison predicted, Carlton Park was promoted to the English First Division, and Allen Ranton’s investment in my talents paid off at last, as he negotiated my new contract at a much-inflated fee.

Through neglect as much as anything, I suppose, the shadows of my past were put aside.   I, filling one hundred percent of my life, rushing between training and travelling, match days and corporate events, had barely time to think of Mackenzie Crabtree or his daughter – my absent sister.

Even plans for a November wedding to Angie seemed as if they must be put on hold, however strenuously I sought to fulfil my promise.  In the end, Merchison found us a couple of days and we tied the knot in Carlton registry office one foggy Tuesday morning.   Our witnesses were Teri and Stevie and we snatched a brief honeymoon in a country house hotel, equally fog-bound.  We shared a few hours away from our busy lives and pledged to ‘do the job properly’ in the summer to come.

Christmas meant returning to Casterley and Angie’s family.  I left it late on Christmas morning to visit my mother.  I found a blue BMW parked outside. I found Brasso Moziadski inside.

The sharp-nosed drug dealer lay slumped in that old chair which, like the central prop in a theatre show, had at one time or another supported most of the characters in my life.  Brasso wore a dressing gown for his guest appearance that plainly said he had spent the night, and a distinct odor of stale beer wafted about him.  He smirked at me.

“Why, if it in’t the friggin footballin’ hero.  Happy Christmas, Charlie!”

“Where’s my mother?”

“She’s upstairs, lad.  She’s right out of it, mind.  Had a hard night, she has, if yer see whar I mean, Charlie.”

I saw what he meant.  I saw what he meant lying on her bed in a mess of stained bed clothing.  I did not see my mother that day; but a stranger, a thin shell of a creature unknown to me and I turned my back on her, not because of pain, but because I could feel none.  She was asleep or drugged, and I did not want her to wake and catch the scent of my disgust.

I will always berate myself for my lack of compassion.  I am never free of the memories that catalogue all the ways I failed my mother in those final years; because I simply could not feel for her.  The line between us, scored so deeply, had become too wide for me to cross, so I absolved myself of my responsibility, as I saw it, with money.  Little enough at first; for although my income seemed large there was extra expenditure too, and the greater returns of Premiership days were yet to come.   I sent cheques which were never acknowledged but always cashed.  Letters were returned with childish epithets or drawings scrawled across them.  When once I sent a letter without money inside the letter came back with £!?? emblazoned across it in red felt pen.  I would go and see her, wouldn’t I?  Definitely; next week because we were playing at home, or in the summer when I had more time.  Somehow those visits never happened; there was always another reason, another excuse.

“You’re afraid of her.”  Angie accused.   “Addiction frightens you, man.”

I disappointed Angie in this.  “She’s the only Mam you’ll ever have, an’ you mustn’t turn away from her!”  she once said.   She was right, of course.  You will see me as Angie saw me – as heartless.  I will defend myself by saying…saying what?  That I was numb, perhaps.  Yes, that was it.  Or maybe – maybe tired?

I think at that Christmas dinner I must have been quiet, which Angie, always with her gift of understanding, accepted without asking why.  In so many of life’s ways, she was the wiser one, knowing when to stop to give solace to a fellow traveller, or when to respect his space.

My Christmas break lasted no more than a day.  Angie stayed on with her parents while I had a match on Boxing Day and another just before New Year’s Eve when Angie returned to Carlton.  We spent New Year’s Eve at a party given by Matt Frierly and his wife (Matt being the Carlton Park Club Chairman) in a private suite at the Royal Hotel.  Angie hated parties – I think because any more than the minimum amount of alcohol made her ill.  She left early, I stayed on.  It was expected.

I kissed someone at the midnight hour, someone I could not remember when I woke the next day.  That was expected, too.

Angie’s stature grew.  Her employers quickly recognized her potential as a standard-bearer, and she responded by studying hard for the specialist qualifications that had never bothered her in the backwoods of Casterley.  She still garnered admiration wherever she went, and her consummate social skills steered her through the network of footballers’ wives that dominated team society, though she was never really a part of the ‘WAG’ circle, as they are known.  It surprised even me how easily she adapted to city life.  From the very first days of our move to Carlton she challenged her apprehensions and she resoundingly won.

Nel Kershaw, John Hargreave, Jack Masters and I kept in touch.  Jonna and Sarah had drifted away, no longer, seeming interested in friendship, although Greavesie did run across them occasionally.  The news that interested Jack Masters was all to do with my progress in my new team, and my continuing curiosity concerning issues at ‘Town’, where the prospects were diminishing steadily.  I know how much this upset him, for he had bound up his whole life in the team and its affairs, but there was little I could do other than offer sympathy.  I appreciated the problems, I just did not know how to resolve them.  Did he blame me for leaving?

John Hargreave had gone to university in pursuit of his electric dreams.  Telephone discussions between us conjured up images of a certain kind of future that belonged only to him and to the few enlightened, his new friends and the missionaries of his post-apocalypse world.  I should have seen the signals.  I did not.

Nel and I kept a much closer liaison.  She visited Carlton frequently in the course of her work, and if I was free we would have coffee or the occasional lunch.  Ms ‘X’ formed the spine of many of our conversations:

“She’s opened up more with her feelings about performance-enhancing drugs,”  Nel told me.  “Yes the whole idea of cheating is anathema to her, but the threat of injury terrifies her at least as much.  She had a friend she used to train alongside – in fact, this person was the reason she became interested in heptathlon.”

“And they were injured?”

“Worse, Chas.  A stroke.  She died.  Apparently, steroids can induce reactions as strong as that in some people.  One accepts it is very unusual, and tragic as it was, she might have kept it in proportion, were it not for the furore that followed.  The club closed ranks about their coach, the sponsor group descended on her head, and everyone else’s, to make it perfectly clear that anyone who squeaked a word about doping might as well say goodbye to their career.  ‘X’ said she was disgusted: ‘This is the real world, girlie.’ Is a phrase she particularly remembers.  That was a representative of her friend’s main sponsor.  Sexist guy.”

“They’re still out there…”

“Thing is, Chas…”

I looked up to meet the hypnotic gaze of her green eyes.  “Oh-oh!”  I said.

“The thing is, I’m getting nowhere.  The wheels are too big for little old small-town solicitors like me.  I can’t divulge ‘X’s identity, but just suppose I could persuade her to get in touch with you – I mean, just suppose?”

“Why?  I don’t see how I could help.”

“Oh, come on, you have status now!  Your word will carry weight.”

“Not much,”  I said.  “I think of myself as a bit of a nonentity, really.  I’m still learning.”  I raised an eyebrow.  “I’m impressed you’re following my career so closely, though.”

“Am I?”  Did Nel colour slightly?  “Anyway, I think if I can persuade you and others like you to get behind ‘X’ those faceless people who work on the darker side of the big sponsors would have to front up.  Whatever you lend your name to will be news, won’t it?”

“In a small way, maybe.”  I agreed to think about it.

That evening I discussed the story with Angie, who added her perspective.

“Ah think if they want to stifle this ‘X’ lass they’ll come after you as well.  You might be endangering yer own prospects, Chas.”  She was eating a ‘lap supper’ from a plate balanced on one knee while studying a test paper on the other.  She lapsed into silence for a while, dividing her concentration between reading and eating, then she said:  “Why, ah never thought there was so much o’ this dopin’ gannin’ on, y’na?  Mebbees I should ha’ been a chemist.  Remember your friend Susan?  She was a bit of a genius with the pills and potions, wasn’t she?  Chemical Carter, wor science teacher, he reckoned she had a special talent.  He was dead sorry when she left, like.”

I could recollect Sue mentioning her ambition to become a chemist, once.  I had dismissed it as a response to her teacher’s enthusiasm.  “She really was good at chemistry, then?”

“Aye, she could spout off all those weird names and the whatsits – the Periodic Table?  She were dead good, like.”

Although I quickly recognized the gulf separating my Angie from any form of science, that snippet of information remained in my mind.

The telephone call took me by surprise.  Sleeping in after a late return from an away fixture, the ringtone roused me, but it was Angie who picked it up and brought the receiver through to our bedroom wearing an expression of studied inscrutability.  “It’s for you.”  She retreated to the living room, shutting the door behind her.

“Hello, is that Mr Haggerty.”  The voice was silvery.  “We have a mutual friend, Nel Kershaw.  She suggested I get in touch with you.”

“You’re ‘X’.”  I said.  “Nel thinks we should meet.  Do you?”

Isita Pennell had already arrived at the coffee house and made herself comfortable at a table.  I was a little late and apologized.  I suggested her name was unusual.

“It’s Indian.  My mother’s family came from Gujarat.  I won’t tell you what it means – it’s embarrassing!”

Isita, in a simple white dress, had the definition in her hands and arms of a honed athlete.  Her shining black hair had been tied back in a no-nonsense bun, framing a face with all the fresh directness of a child.

“You can never get directly to these people; they hide behind their precious contract.  Vary it?  No.  No negotiation, no exception.  Sign, or face exclusion.  They control almost all the prestige competitions now, and certainly all of the money.  What can I do?”

“I guess you have to prove that you can hit their targets without resorting to peptides, or whatever.  There’s no argument then.”

“I can so nearly do exactly that.  If I had access to the best coaches I know I could get there.  But they’re all locked into this conspiracy and they won’t break it.  ‘Accept our dietary regimes, or we want nothing to do with you.  You are on your own’.”

Our meeting really yielded nothing new.  Isita was mortally afraid of entering into an obligation that could mean fueling her body with foreign substances over which she could exert no control.   “Have you seen what over-prescribed anabolic steroids can do to a person?  Can you imagine the long-term damage artificially increased erythropoietin  will inflict on someone’s kidneys or liver in later life?”

I pointed out that any contract which contained an illegal clause was null and void.

“The contract doesn’t actually mention drugs.  It just stipulates diet, which could be quite healthy stuff, that might just happen to contain human growth hormone or EPO the day before a big event.  Oh, and don’t forget the diuretic, to take immediately someone tips you off that you might be tested.  Get caught, it’s the end of your career, it was your decision, you take the accusations, you suffer the shame.  Maybe your coach gets investigated, but somehow there is always money to buy him out of trouble.  Not you.”

There was little I could contribute, at that time.  Nel, however, was tireless, so it wasn’t long before a lobbying group was taking shape, one which I was happy to join.   Isita, too, became a strong voice, forgoing her anonymity and with it, as I thought, any hope of a future as an athlete.

For myself?  I came away from my meeting with Isita having learned a little about an industry without a face, an unseen underworld of drug research that was always working, fighting to stay ahead of the testers.   Would I know them in the street, these people skilled enough to administer blood transfusions, calculate the correct measure of dope for the body mass of each athlete?  Where were their laboratories, and what means did they have to move the drugs around?

However, this was a year when such matters must be shelved.  I had to become accustomed to the pressure and the work-rate of my new team, while helping Angie plan for our wedding at the season’s end.   Our betrothal would be solemnized in an Anglican ceremony at Carlton Abbey, celebrated at the nearby Tithe Barn Hotel, then followed by a May honeymoon in Majorca, which had to be cheap because by that time the money, as well as most of my credit, had run out.

Angie’s guests were her family, her Casterley friends, to whom she remained steadfastly loyal, and those more recent acquaintances she had made through work and her personality in Carlton.  Although most of the team turned up for my side, together with their families, Allen Ranton and even Hamish Merchison, the crowd appeared a trifle one-sided.  I invited my mother, of course, with little confidence she would show, and my father, in whom I had greater hope, but neither appeared.  I would learn all too soon that my father was too ill to make the journey.   Malcolm, Angie’s father, walked her proudly up the aisle, as well he might, because she was the closest to a goddess I would ever see.  John Hargreave was my best man.

It was, in all ways, a good day.  It was the beginning of a good summer.

I could make a journal for you.  I could describe my days, weeks, and months of the years which followed if you wished, were I a diarist.  This, is a story, though – a mystery of a forgotten girl who only I, it seems, remember.   And so only a few mileposts remain along the journey that brings us to this time and place:  my apartment, 23rd July in the millennium year 2000.  Some of those milestones have served to close the doors upon my Casterley past, others have called me back.  All are clues to our mystery – stepping stones on the path to its solution.

Just as life can separate us, so death can bring us together.  Three deaths:  the first, tragically, that of the man I still regarded as my father.  A letter with the news awaited me at the football club one morning in April 1991 – ‘after a long illness bravely borne’ – my intention to see him again was just one more broken promise now, sacrificed on the bonfire of my career.  I went to see him that one last time as he was laid to rest, and there I met Brenda, the woman who had taken care of him and loved him as neither I nor my mother could.  Brenda was a nice person; a fine person.  I know she made him happy.

News of the second death, and the most unexpected, was broken to me by Angie.  Returning from my morning run at the beginning of the 1993 season I found her waiting for me, red-eyed from weeping.

“Come and sit down.”  She motioned me to the couch, holding my hands, “There was a ‘phone call just now, Chas.  It’s Greavesie – he’s gone.”

I must have shown my disbelief.   John Hargreave and I were the same age.  “How?  Was he ill?”

“Oh, Chas, darling, I don’t know why but he did it to hisself.  He went down The Bridge.”

Down The Bridge; the Casterley tradition.  When life in my sad old town, for one reason or another, became too much, a walk along Rob Bentley Way to the one-time viaduct that passed high above the river offered itself in invitation; a reasonable alternative to pain, or debt, or the black dog of Despond.  John had taken it:  he had looked down at the rushing waters, the green banks, at the rocks and the old quay where as children we once played together, and our ghosts had risen up to offer our embrace and he had leapt.  He had leapt to join his memories.  He had leapt to put an end to something only he could explain, but now, of course, he never would.

“John wanted you to have this.”  His father said on the day of goodbyes.   “I think it’s some sort of diary.  I didn’t intrude.”

The last of these sad endings was my mother’s.  Just last year, in the autumn of 1999, she destroyed herself by injecting something which pretended to be heroin and was not.  Her future had been written in the stars for a number of years by then, yet I still wonder if she knew when the last fix would happen.  A month earlier she had sent me a letter, the only response she ever made to one of the regular cheques I mailed.  I made sure she had a decent funeral, drumming up as many relations as I thought we had which, to be candid, ensured there was a sizeable crowd of mourners but for all the wrong reasons.  Most who attended had few favourable memories of my mother.  They were more interested in cementing their relationship to a potentially famous footballer and his money.

In my tales of the last decade, none has a more important place than Angie.  My wife in 1990, she flowered in the warm nurture of her new Carlton home and prospered in her career.  Increasingly this involved travel, spreading, as she understood it, the area of her specialization throughout the region.  Or, as her company perceived it, building their business through the power of her personality; something so natural to her she was oblivious to its existence.   Because she was so busy and so successful, because she was apt to be away from home for days at a time, and because I was away equally frequently, we were together less and less.    Our team’s summer tours proliferated once we were defending our First Division status, and these were holiday occasions for many of the WAGs (wives and girlfriends of the players) who joined the tour to soak up the sun and the social scene.  Angie was too busy.  She did not join us on tour in either 1991, or the following year, when the lid lifted clean off the football scene and the First Division became the Premiership.

My selfishness in the shower of money following the transformation was reprehensible.  The unattainable came suddenly within my grasp, allowing dreams of my childhood to become reality by the simple device of a signature on a cheque.   One dream made real was the purchase of a boat big enough to allow me time at sea.  Much of my year was spent learning to sail, making short sallies into the inhospitable waters of the North Sea.   The chill and battle with conditions quickly took hold of me.  It was an enthusiasm Angie did not share; one short but choppy voyage was enough.  Thereafter she remained at home.

We avowed our love for one another often, but the substance of our love, not unpredictably, perhaps, was diminishing as we grew.  Lives that the adversity of Casterley had so closely intertwined were drawing apart – not through any intentional lack of affection, but because they lacked the glue that had held them.  How strange the paradox, remembering that in our early days together I was the one who felt bound by chains to our relationship, and how soon it became obvious those same chains now wrapped themselves about my wife.   Nevertheless there was much that was strong in us, and we might have ridden it out, had there been children.  I know there was a stage, at least, when Angie’s desire for a child would have been all it took to check her in her stride, but it didn’t happen. In the summer of 1993 it became apparent the time for a ‘conversation’ was near, and to our credit, we did not try to put it off. Anyway, events were about to force it upon us.  The Premiership had dawned, prompting Allen Ranton to do what a good agent should.  He put me up for sale, and my price was high.

It was inevitable.  I would be moving south to join one of the bigger clubs which could showcase me for an international career.  Angie had, once again, to make her choice, but the ties that still bound her to her hometown had stretched to their limit.   A time for sad smiles, breaking hearts and reluctant acceptance:  we had tried.

 

© 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