A Place that was Ours. Chapter Four – Splendour.

I never discovered the name of the friendly police officer who asked me questions at my bedside in Bedeport Hospital.  The constable who stood in our front room about a month later was certainly not cast from the same mould, in either stature or demeanour.  His voice was sour, his thin face drooped like a glob of grey mucus from his slit-peaked hat, and his eyes did nothing to disguise his distaste for my mother or me, or our house.

“Sit down, man!”  My Ma rapped at him irritably.  “You’re making the place look untidy.”

“No thank you, Mrs Haggerty.”  The constable seemed concerned that he might contract something nasty if he as much as touched our furniture.

“Well now,” He said in a peremptory tone; “what are we going to do about this?”

The conversation was already far advanced.  In essence, I had failed to appear at Casterley Police Station as I was urged to do by my nice Bedeport officer, so Casterley Police Station, in the person of Mucus-Face, had come to remind me of my obligation.

“You can’t arrest him.  He didn’t know nothing about the bike being stole.”  My mother’s voice was shrill.  The noise embarrassed me.

Mucus-Face frowned in my direction.  “You’re sticking to your story, Charles?”

I nodded.  “It isn’t a story!  Da’ gave me the bike as a birthday present.  He didn’t say anythin’ about it being stolen.  I don’t expect he knew.”  I was trying to maintain my bravado, while my insides were churning.

The constable pinned me with a disbelieving stare.  “And you don’t want to tell me where your father is, or where he works?”

“He doesn’t know!”  My Ma snapped.  “And I don’t know, neither.  He’s left us.  Last year.”

Mucus Face heaved a weighty sigh.  “Then, Madam, I think you, your son and I had better take a little ride.  We’ll continue this discussion at the Station.”

He had parked his police car outside our door; where, of itself, it would scarcely attract a second glance.  Police cars were common on our street. The sight of Ma and I being shepherded into its back seat, however, sparked the odd little island of conversation.  Mrs Bennet and Amy Forbes were head to head a few doors up, their eyes surveying and their tongues assessing.  Margaret Roberts and Mary Higgs, on their return from shopping had paused, stripy carriers laden, at the corner.   They turned to each other as if engrossed in a discussion of no relevance to us, but their surreptitious glances comically betrayed them.

Let me explain.  There was a code on those crowded Casterley Streets, a law stronger than any passed by the Parliament of London people.  You did not snitch.  Much as she claimed to hate my father, Ma would not dream of helping the police to find him.  She even felt that implicating him at all was a breach of etiquette.  Ours was a tight society,  houses of soot-blackened brick crowded up together, backyards with walls that were always high enough but never too high, so when the owner of number twenty-six returned home bearing contraband from nighttime thieving our curtains stayed drawn.  But if the police arrived with a search warrant, number twenty-six’s ill-gotten gains were handed over the walls so fast they would be safely housed up the street at number thirty before the first copper had time to knock on his door.  And there it would stay until the police, the ‘Chatties’ as they were known, had moved on.

The trouble was, of course, if I did not direct them to my father as the thief of the bike, the police would assume I had taken it. I was caught in possession of stolen property with nothing to prove my innocence or ignorance.

What happened?  I signed my name to a statement that Mucus-Face managed to pad out to three-quarters of a page, for all that it contained no more than three lines-worth of denials.   My Ma assured me that the police case would never get to Juvenile Court.

“That bike were took in a town sixty-five mile away when you was at school.  Tell ‘em that, Chas, and they won’t do no more.”

For once my Ma was right.  I was cautioned for receiving stolen property and force-marched out of the legal system, which should have been the end of the matter.  In fact, it was just the beginning.

At school the next morning I discovered word of my criminality was already running free through the corridors:

“Ah knew yer Da’ couldn’t afford to gi’ yer a bike like that, Chas, yer frigger!”

“Yer Da’, he didn’t ‘ave that much readies, ivver!  ‘E were a loser, ‘im.”

I enjoyed my notoriety, slight though it was.  I had done nothing wrong, but it drew back to me many of those less steadfast friends who had distanced themselves after my father left home.  I regained my place in the bigger group, at least for a time.  My infamy also seemed to attract attention from some girls in my class, of whom Angela Carey was the least inhibited.  Angela was attractively proportioned for her years, determinedly blonde and overtly blue-eyed.  She began joining me at table for our school dinners, brimming with toothy smiles and empty conversation.

“Y’gan to football, Sat’day, Chas?”

“Nah.  They’re playing away this week.”

“What y’doin’ then?”

“Just hanging out.”

“With me, yeah?”  Sue almost dropped her plate of Shepherd’s Pie onto the table beside mine.  She clearly felt I needed rescuing.  “Weren’t we going over to Greavesie’s, Chas?”  John Hargreave had just been given a new game for his computer, which we had agreed to share with him.

“Yeah.”  I said.   I couldn’t admit, even to myself, that I might have enjoyed testing the waters with Angela.

Angela was not so much abashed as suppressed.  I was at once happy to be rescued and reticent concerning my relationship with Sue.  Sue had told me several times that we should be faithful to each other, and I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.  Despite my sometimes quite desperate feelings for her, I believed in myself as a free spirit.  I should be able to look at other girls, shouldn’t I?

It is time to tell you a little more about Sue, and to point out that although our friendship had mushroomed in our fourteenth and fifteenth years, we had known one another since we could first toddle.  The whole of our group of friends had been together since Casterley East Gate Infants’ School had made us into a homogenous mass, prepared to be regurgitated into the education system.   However, Sue, her brother Dave and I went back even further.    Our fathers had been school friends; close friends who had gone out into the world together, so that for a while they had spent a lot of time in each other’s company.  I could just remember weekends when Sue and Dave came to visit, and days when I was taken to play or stay a few hours at the Crabtree household.

There were subtle hints, even in those early years, of our families’ divergent fortunes.  I remember my Da’ coming home drunk and late, might have recalled how it was Uncle Mack, Uncle Mackenzie Crabtree, who helped my Ma to get him to bed.  At the time I could not know how often Uncle Mack’s money had bailed Da’ out of a gambling debt, or got him through until his next payday.  There were many such details I had to wait years to learn, because by the time I was old enough to have the gift of understanding those friends had become enemies.   While Uncle Mack was building an increasingly lucrative living as an electrician my Da’ was earning a reputation for bad debt.

Through all the turmoil of their husbands’ relationship, Shelley Crabtree and my mother stayed friends of a kind.  They, too, had been close since their schooldays, and I think Shel sympathised with Ma’s plight.  I grew up accustomed to seeing the Crabtrees’ old vacuum cleaner working its way around our floors, and sometimes I suspected the clothes on my mother’s back might once have hung on Aunt Shel.

Of course, Mack Crabtree was not really my uncle, any more than Shel was my aunt.  These were just handy terms we sprinkled about in childhood, terms that would become awkward as we grew older and more aware.

As Sue’s father accumulated greater wealth his social position kept pace.  He joined a succession of local committees and trade associations, letting it be known he intended to stand for the Town Council at the Nineteen-Eighty-Seven elections.  He and Shel bought a house on the hill with more bedrooms than they needed, a double garage and a spare car.  And Mack became Mackenzie, and Shel became Shelley, and they made my skin crawl.  When I met them on the street, as in any small town you must meet more than once, they spoke no more than a few brusque words, so I felt the greeting was an obligation rather than a pleasure.

Sue seemed oblivious to the changes surrounding her, although I made my reluctance to call at her house fairly obvious, I think.   She circumvented the problem by agreeing to meet at one of our traditional trysting places, which would work well for a while, despite pressures upon her I could not help but detect.

“It’s Da.  He’s getting really strict.”

Jonna was never slow to voice an opinion.  “He’s getting right up hisself; that’s wha’ he’s getting.  He told Becca’s Da’ her ‘ouse needed a complete rewire, or sommat.  He were goin’ ter charge eight hunderd pound!  Eight hunderd!   Becca’s Da’ got  Todd Shiney down ter look at it.  Todd fixed it up for fifty quid.”

“He’s my Da’, Jonna!  I expect he just wanted to do it right.”  Sue defended.

“Nah!  He’s right up hisself, an’ I don’t care he’s yer Da’.”

Sue would blush a furious pink when she was affronted, which in past days would have been followed by delivery of a swift, stinging cuff around Jonna’s head.  Now, though, it was plain the barbs were hurting, and she was rather more inclined to turn away.  Did I see her crying sometimes?  So much I have forgotten.

As for Dave, her brother – well, older, stronger Dave commanded respect, so we were inclined to forgive him more.  We contented ourselves with just mild protest, even when he joined the Tennis Club.

“Tennis!”  Jonna expostulated.  “It’ll be bloody cricket next!”

On a hot evening of the fourteenth of May in air that had been still and humid since early morning, and beneath a sky of angry blue that denied clouds their right to appear,  I arrived home from School to find a stranger standing on the street outside my house.  A man of middle years, small in stature, rumpled in appearance and very, very sweaty, he clutched a brown briefcase to his chest like a hot water bottle.

“Are you Charles Haggerty?”  His voice had a metallic rasp.

“Who wants to know?”

“I take it you are, then.  My name’s Hubert Powell. I’m from Social Services Child Care.”

“I’m not a child.”  (Obviously, I thought.)

“In the eyes of the law you are.  Is your mother home?”

“No.”

“Where is she?”

“Out!”

Hubert Powell fixed me with a stare full of needles.  “And is she to return soon, may I ask?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe.”   I wasn’t about to inform this stranger of my Ma’s work commitments.  I knew what ‘Social Services’ meant.  But Hubert Powell had already put two and two together.

“So she’s at work, presumably.”  He hunched over his case, resting the hinge side of it above a bent knee, and withdrew a red covered book which told him he had a space the following week.  “I’ll return on Monday 21st  at 4:00pm.  Please ensure you are both present.”

Hubert Powell went away.

My Ma was incandescent.  “You see someone like that – anyone – waiting outside here, you walk straight on past, d’you hear me? Don’t come back until they’ve gone.  If you’re in and they knock don’t answer the door.”

When Hubert Powell returned he would find Ma waiting for him and me thoroughly briefed; ready to counter anything I was asked with a solid wall of ignorance.  He had been given my case, he told us.

“What case?  I asked.

“Whenever a juvenile commits an offence Social Services open a case file.  We want to be sure your circumstances don’t lead you to re-offend.”

This would all have sounded very worthwhile and convincing, were it not for the monotone of the explanation, and the clear disinterest of Mr Powell.  Today, in addition to his red book his briefcase contained a form with a list of questions to which he did his best to get answers, just as Ma and I did our best to avoid providing them.

“With you working, Mrs Haggerty…”

“Who said I was working?”

“On my last visit, your son assured me…”

Did I jump in a little too quickly?  “I assured you nothing!  I said Ma was out.”

“He’s right!”  My Ma confirmed.  “I was out – visiting a friend.  She’s not well.”   She added, feeling a need for extra detail.   “Now, if that’s all, Mr Pole?”

But no, it was not all.  ‘Mr Pole’s’ questions dragged on, and I could feel the net closing tighter with every sentence.  The man from ‘The Social’ wanted to know about all the benefits my Ma claimed, and whether she felt anything about our lifestyle had contributed to my ‘misdemeanour’.

“He didn’t do nothing wrong!  It was ‘e’s bloody father gived ‘Im a knocked-off bike.  It’s him you should be hounding!”

Did my father contribute towards the maintenance of his son?  Had my mother considered the Child Support Agency, were we sure we had no idea of his whereabouts?  No, no, no; the answers became a rhythm, with a steady undercurrent of suspicion and a certainty that, no matter the insignificance of my offence, we were in a frame without any means to extricate ourselves.  Hubert Powell left us with a small pile of helpful literature, and a strong sense of foreboding.

We spend useless hours, days or even years of our lives in fighting her, but Nature has a way, a quiet way and kind, and she always wins.  At fifteen, young as I was, I thought myself a man, just as Sue was a woman in her eyes and dangerously close to a goddess in mine.   I will not deny the thoughts I had, the nights I dreamed, the touches I longed for in the year of ’86.  Our friendship grew to more, and we took each of those tender moves to the threshold of love before the heat of summer burst upon us.

Looking back, I think Sue understood far more than I.   She was always wise, filled with a solemn wisdom far beyond our years, whereas I was young and clumsy, and far too angry to see the world as it was.  Only Sue could penetrate my inner rage.  Only Sue’s eyes could see so plainly what my mind burned upon, and only Sue, with a smile and a flick of that rebellious hair, could dampen the embers.

“Your Da’s always going to be your Da’, Chas.  You can’t do anything about it, any more than I can do anything about mine.  They’re the way they are, and it doesn’t matter.  We just have to try to love them now, because they won’t always be there.  Don’t rage at him.  It’s his life, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

I remember this, so well.  We were sitting at our secret place beside the river in the sun while the water moved lazily past us in waves and eddies, and I thought that if ever Sue’s stones were going to move it should be today – this day.

“It’s awful hot.”  Sue said, dangling her toes in the shallows. “I wish we could swim in this.”

“You know what I wish?”  I said.  “I wish I was eighteen and far away from all of it.  I dreamed about that, last night.”

She rested a hand on my shoulder.  “And was I part of your dream?”  She asked.  Then, when I didn’t answer, she laughed.  “Not that it matters, I don’t suppose, because when I’m eighteen I’ll certainly be far away.  I’ll be at Uni., studying pharmacology.”

“A pharmacist, is it now?  Not a teacher or a nurse?”

“Nah.”  Sue was serious again.  “I’m good at chemistry, Chas.  I didn’t realise before.  I was talking to Mr Carter, you know, and he thinks I should try.  They’re going to be short of pharmacists, he reckons.”

Ray Carter, our science teacher, was a favourite of Sue’s.   I might have reflected how easy it was for our teachers to influence us, in those high school years, but my mind was elsewhere.  Sue’s fingers were idly stroking my shoulder, and the threat of our future parting loomed before me.

I had to ask something, one of those questions you don’t want to begin because you already know what the answer will be, and you don’t want to hear it.  “I s’pose that’s the end of us, then.  When you go to University, I mean?”

Sue put her arm around my shoulders.  “I don’t know.” She gave me a playful squeeze.  “Will you miss me, Chas?”

“Nah!”  I sneered; then:  “Yeah.  Yes I would.  Will, I mean.”

“Still, I’m here now.”

My gaze was fixed upon the river, the way it had been when we were first together there; as if the water somehow held answers to my questions.   “Here now, yeah.  But this isn’t forever, is it?”

“Do you want it to be?”

I was careful with my words.  “Yes.  I think I do.  Thing is, though, do you?”

Sue’s voice deepened in sadness.  “I can’t answer that.  Whenever I try to see into the future everything gets hazy, so I just feel confused.  Maybe when we’re older…”   She drew herself close to me, so her head could rest against mine.  “Don’t ask, Chas.”

“I have to!”  I told her.  “I need you, Sue.  I need you so much…”  It was a plea, loaded with all the passionate urgency of my inexpert heart, dwindling on my lips as I saw the alarm growing in Sue’s eyes.

She stilled my speech with a chastening finger.  “That’s good, then, isn’t it?”  She drew away from me a little, so we were side by side, avoiding each other’s gaze.   I could not see her face. At last, when what seemed like minutes had passed, she broke the silence, saying brokenly:

“Chas, dear, you aren’t the only one who dreams.”

All, above all, I wanted to be tender.  I reached to take her cheeks between my two hands and found them wet with her tears.  Turning her to me I drew her into a kiss and she responded – hesitantly at first, then deeply enough for me to understand the richness of its meanings.   I was suddenly alive to the sensation of her body moving against mine, to her scent filling my head with all the wanting that a year of closeness had intensified.  There were other scents too, the aromas of summer and the song of the water buzzing in my brain, driving me onwards, pushing me towards those forbidden words until my lips found a will of their own.

“I love you.”   I said, and through her tears, Sue smiled at me.

“Chas.”

Lying together that summer afternoon in the warm grass it was so easy, the forgetting.  Easy to slip away from a real world of sorrow and guilt and responsibility into a world that was ours alone.

For what we did, reader, you might censure us or applaud us and your reason be the same:  we were so young.  And I would say, in our defence, that we were in love as only those so young can be.   It was not a thing of glory, inexpert as it was, yet there was something exquisite, a bright, bright jewel, found and lost in a fleeting moment there.  Yes, we were young; very, very young – and I suppose we knew what retribution must follow, although we might not have expected it so soon.

“You’re mine now.” Sue said.

Time vanished into nowhere.  It was early evening before Sue and I wandered back through the farmer’s field, to re-join the road leading over the bridge to Casterley.  We were artless, I suppose, rapt in each other as we walked, Sue’s arm entwined with mine.    We made promises of fealty to each other, and, I suppose, we must have talked of love.   When she went to University I would follow her:  I would find a job in the town where she was – any job, any town, as long as she was there.   I wanted her to succeed, to become a great pharmacist, and although I would not admit as much, I would be happy to live in her shadow.

Sue saw the car first, speeding from the roundabout at the top of The Fellings.

“Oh god, no!”

The car came roaring across the bridge towards us, a furious thing with frowning grill and flaring red paint.   I knew at once whose car it was.  It stormed past us, its driver fixing me with a cold stare.

“It’s all right.”  I told Sue.  “I won’t let him…”

“Don’t, Chas!   You’ll only make things worse!” A little further up the road, the car was slowing, setting up to turn.

“What if he hurts you?  I won’t let him do that.  I won’t, Sue!”

“Hurt me?   Chas, he’s not going to hurt me.  He’s not!”

The car had turned back so it was behind us and in no time alongside us, its window winding down.

“Get in, young lady!”  Mackenzie Crabtree snapped.  “You!  Haggerty!  Take your hands off her, understand?  You’d better not have done what I think you’ve done, you little bastard!   I frigging hope I’m wrong, ‘cause I’ll frigging kill you if I’m not.”

 

© 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Bill Shankly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I really know him at all?

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

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

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

“Ma, he’s got a key!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A place that’s mine.”

“If you like.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I bad?”

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.