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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Place That Was Ours

“History,”  Jonna once said to me,  “Is all about Christmases.”   

I might have raised an eyebrow at that, but he insisted.  “Think back on it, Chas.  Like, nineteen-eighty-one:  what do you remember about that year?””

“I got a bike.”

“Aye, and when did you get it?”

“Christmas.”

“There y’are then!”  Said Jonna, his case proven.

“I’ll tell you about hist’ry.  Nineteen eighty-three was the goal I scored against St. Luke’s!  That’s hist’ry!”

“Aye, but what got you started with the football?”

I had to admit it.  “I got a ball for Christmas.”

“See?   Last year was the exams, but no-one wants to remember them!   The computer under the tree on Christmas morning – that’s what they want to remember.   History!”

“You getting a computer this year then?”

“Aye, likely.”

It was lunchtime, so we slid down from the wall at the corner of Ox Terrace, plodding homeward up the grey street which wound like a discarded snake-skin through the houses on the hill.    Perhaps I might have raised objections to Jonna’s simplistic reasoning, but I was only thirteen, and I was hungry.   He had a point.   There were many reasons to remember Christmases in our family; many more than that pine needle quilted pile of presents beneath the tree on the day itself.

The lines for battle would be drawn long before November’s foggy end.   It would be at the breakfast bar when I might first burble something over my bowl of Coco-Pops, like:    “Can I have an Amstrad for Christmas, Ma?”   Although I raised the subject as a request it was not a question.

My mother’s face would darken, and had I paid more attention I would have seen the slight droop of her shoulders, the way she had of becoming smaller as each blow struck.  She was smaller with the years – there had been a lot of blows.  “I dunno, Chas, they’re too expensive for us, pet.”

Five or six years earlier I might have thrown a sullen fit, or bashed my cereal into volcanic eruption with my spoon;  nowadays I was  a lot more subtle:    “Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.   He says they’re really cheap down Argos.”

Of course I knew how envious my mother was of Jonna Sutley’s family.

“Well, I’ll have a look.”

“I need a new bike an’ all.  Mine’s too small now.”

That was the beginning of a process as irreversible as Advent.   Over the weeks that followed, always at breakfast, I would open another small door:  the Manchester United shirt, the puzzle game, fishing rod, Tonka truck.

“Jonna’s Ma’s getting him one.”

The list grew; my mother shrank; and though I knew the pain I was causing I could never desist.    My Da’  only learned about it in the evening, after each new demand had a day to settle.   If I thought he was going to shout I’d be well away, playing with Jonna down the recreation, or over at the halls with Sue and the girls. I’d hear them shout at night, though, he and Ma, and I’d hear Ma crying sometimes.

On Christmas morning that heap of gaily wrapped boxes harboured more guilt and despair than anything in Isaiah’s most desperate moments.

“Aye, give him his presents.”  There would be a bitter edge in Da’s voice, even though he’d started on the beer an hour earlier.

I opened each gift with savagery, and the only element of surprise was in guessing which demand each packet would satisfy, and the overwhelming disappointment at those which remained unmet.

“The bike’ll have to wait another year, son.  We can’t afford it, we really can’t.”

“What’s a lad need a bloody computer for, anyways?”

No thanks, no shining faces; by Christmas dinner our sitting room was Hiroshima after the bomb:   by five o’clock all but maybe one or two of the gifts would be forgotten.  Amid the snores of evening I would plot my appearance on the street the next day.  Which of these should I take out with me – which could I claim proudly:  what presents had the others, Jonna and the lads, been given that would outmatch mine?

The gifts of Christmas were good for a week – the boxes they came in often hung around the place much longer.   It took three days for me to get Da’ to set up the computer, and I played with it almost obsessively for five.  Ten days into the New Year a brand new bike stood waiting in the back shed when I got home from my football.  Ma was watching from the kitchen when I discovered it, so she heard my crow of delight.  Nor did she miss the crisp punch at the air – my expression of victory.

“I borrowed off the Provvy.”  She said.  She was wringing her hands together in a way I had not seen before.  Did I thank her?  I don’t remember.

That was the way the fire curtain dropped on Christmas nineteen eighty five.   The repercussions would last all year.

Da’ lost his car in the spring.   A repo. van came for it when he was down the Waggoner’s.    It wasn’t a very good car, Da’ said; which was right, because it was always breaking down, but I saw his face when Ma told him it had gone.  From then on he had to start for work even earlier in the morning, getting a lift from Jamie Hicks down the South Side.

It was the beginning of my fourteenth year, a year when meanings began to change for me and new emotions needed explanation.   As Spring sun bathed our grey slate roofs I found myself more frequently in the company of Dave Crabtree and the girls, and especially deepening my friendship with Sue Crabtree.   Just as Dave was a little older than me, his sister was a little younger, a sprightly girl whose raven curls bounced across her pale face as she ran, so that she was forever brushing them back:  the hand movement was habitual:  once when we were talking I sat in front of her, mimicking each pass and she stared at me for a full minute before she understood.    One afternoon, sitting by the river, she asked me:

“Do you want to be my boyfriend, then?”

“Nah, no time for that!”  I said it dismissively, but it still didn’t come out right.  Sue was not deceived.

Words like ‘boyfriend’ and ‘lover’ had been common parlance between us for years – they were without interpretation – just things we said because they existed everywhere in the world around us; we had no idea of their significance.  Now the curtains were drawing back.   Sarah Coldbatch, a stubby, hearty girl of my own age, always wore dresses of gingham.  She possessed knickers in as many colours as my socks, and since her speciality was handstands we knew Sarah’s knickers almost as familiarly as I knew my own socks, and  it never worried any of us.  Then one day the handstands stopped.   Suddenly, for no apparent reason I could see, even a brief revelation of those gaily coloured undergarments would bring a flush of embarrassment to Sarah’s apple cheeks.

“You can stop starin’, John Hargreave!”

Jonna, not to be outfaced, would counter with:  “I would if you’d stop  flashin’ em at me.  Same pair as last week, I see.”

We spent a lot of time by the river that year.  There was a place that was ours, down the wooden steps behind the Rugby Club – a wide, stony stretch of placid water that rattled with shiny black pebbles and accompanied our games and songs and conversations with an orchestral murmur to rival any piped music.   Here was a bend in the river, where it gently nosed its way around Burdlehope Hill, beneath the old brewery walls which still clung to the slope, though roof and windows were long gone; and once, before they dammed them up in the hills, the waters here would have been much deeper.  A concrete jetty, chewed by neglectful years, pointed out across the stream, in memory of times when boats would navigate all the way from the sea.    It stood eight feet above stony scree:  the shoreline did not even reach it anymore.

Beyond the jetty a patch of level grass rich with buttercups was wide enough for play, hidden enough to pretend secrecy.   There, upon a sunny afternoon in May, Sue and I shared our first kiss.   It was an inelegant affair, a mixture of nervous peck and film star tonsillectomy that brought none of the thrilling sensations my television-based sexual education promised.

“Do you want to kiss me, then?”  Sue had stumbled as we clambered down from the jetty.  I had caught her and our faces were suddenly inches apart.   I was taken completely by surprise; such a thing had never occurred to me – but I was a man, wasn’t I?  So I tried.   I snapped turtle-like at her lips:  they were cold and thin – our teeth banged together.  She grabbed my head and moved her mouth around mine, convulsively grinding until my own lips felt as though they had been minced.   I prayed for it to end.   At last she stepped back.

“You’re not a very good kisser, are you Chas?”

For the rest of the afternoon she and her companions kept catching me with covert glances, giggling conspiratorially as though I had something stuck on the end of my nose.    I was far too naïve to understand the rules of the game:  I was plunged into fathomless humiliation, a perpetual blush which stayed with me through all the hours to sunset.  By the time the others had begun to drift homewards I had resolved to restore my tattered reputation, and when Sue made to leave I grabbed her wrist:

“Stay a bit?”

I had expected Sarah Coldbatch’s disparaging laugh; been afraid Sue would do the same:  she didn’t.

“Alright then, Chas.”

We sat watching for fish in the water, catching the subliminal rubies of red sunset in the ripples.  We talked; about what I don’t know, now, but I know they were adult things:  how I worried for my Ma now Da’ was away at work all the time, and how Sue wanted to move to another desk at school, because Jess Abbott was a distraction.  She wanted to work, she said, so when she left school she could go to university and become a nurse, or a teacher – she couldn’t decide which.  There were other things, but, as I say, I can’t remember what they were.

Nor can I remember exactly when I put my arm around her shoulders, or when I drew her to me.  But her lips were warm, their touch soft.  I know we got it right that time, both of us, obeying rules neither of us understood.  We were learning though.  From then on, everything was changed.

It would have been the end of June:  rain had been falling for days; cold rain that got under my collar so that I ran home from school to be away from it – rain that kept me in my room after tea, wiling away the hours with comic books or my Amstrad.   It was a Wednesday.

The front door was open, yawning an invitation to the street.  Seeing this from several doors away, I thought I would find Ma and Mrs. Potter or someone inside out of the weather, wrapped in one of those conversations neighbours seem to have about nothing in particular; but the house was silent.

I took off my shoes as I always did, adding them to the scruffy little pile of footwear behind the door.   Then – I don’t know why because I was never this careful – I closed the street door behind me.  The doormat was soaking wet.    Maybe something – some quiet voice – was reminding me that this was my home and it was precious to me:  that same quiet voice told me something was different, something was wrong.

I went through to the kitchen.   We had blue plastic worktops in there that Da’ had bought from the Auctioneers one week when he was flush.  I helped him put them in:  I held his tools, I even drove in some of the screws, turning them so hard my hands were red raw and my fingers hurt for days afterwards.  Looking back, those tops were crudely assembled and probably not very strong, but at the time I was proud of them:  I had helped to make them – they were partly my own work.  So seeing how one of them had collapsed, breaking the spindly leg supporting it and tipping the toaster, a pot of the raspberry jam I liked and the last of a loaf of bread onto the lino floor affected me more profoundly than it should.  There were other things scattered about, too.  A saucepan from the stove by the door to the back yard, my Da’s weekend jacket ripped from its peg with a big tear in the sleeve, some recipes Ma had cut from her magazines in a heap at the end of the surviving worktop.

“Ma?”  I called out.  I was seriously worried now and half-way to tears.   “Ma?”

My Da’ should have been there then.  He should have led the way up the stairs to search each room and make things right.  But he worked away these days – he wouldn’t return until Friday night, or sometimes even Saturday.  There was only me:  I had to climb those narrow twilight stairs one by one, listening to my own breath as it followed me.   I wanted to go straight to my room; to hide there, to wait for whatever was baleful and angry in this cold place to leave; but I could not.  At the head of the stairs I turned the knob on the big bedroom door.

“Mam?”

She was lying on the bed.  At first I could barely recognise her because I was seeing another person in my mother’s body and her head was turned away from me towards the window.   I had seen her in a slip before, though never this slip:  never this lilac thing with purple lace.  Bras and knickers were not new to me either, they were the stuff of sniggers when she came down half-dressed to make breakfast, sometimes inadvertently letting the coat she wore as a dressing gown peep open to reveal the forbidden things beneath.  But they were never carelessly uncovered; never displayed  as openly to my sight as these.    She lay very still.

“Mam, wake up, please?”

For an age she didn’t move.  Then, so, so slowly my mother turned her head to me. A clown face of thick make-up and cheap mascara smeared by weeping said, in a stranger’s voice:

“What do you want?”

When I could find no words to answer her she repeated it in a shout:  “What do you want?”

Closing the door on her, I went to my bedroom and sat on my bed, staring at my wall with the picture of Mick Jagger on it, as if he might provide a solution.  I stared for an hour before I heard the light switch on the landing and her footsteps on the stair.  I cringed inside as her feet approached my door, shrank back as the latch turned.  And there she was, standing in front of me with a different, alien smell about her; her open dressing gown exposing that lilac slip, and a plate in her hand.

“Your bike’s gone.  I sold it. You’ll have to have this.  There’s no tea.”

She closed the door.  A moment after, I heard the door of her own room close.

I ate the bread and jam she had slapped together in a sandwich for me, carefully picking off the bits of dirt from the kitchen floor.   A shard of glass in the jam cut my gum.   It hurt for days.

This piece feels as if it should be the start of a book.  Maybe I’ll work on more episodes to feed into the blog, if anyone wants them.  It’s an idea to explore, anyway.

 

© 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.