Micah

Bear with me for a while; it has been so long and I forget so many things.   I forget, for example, exactly when I realised Micah was different to other boys I knew.  When the doubts began, or the first glimmer of enlightenment – I really cannot judge.  

Let me see – was it the spider?  Yes, I’ll tell you about the spider.

Micah and I, we had been friends as long as I could remember, because in Ollershaw – in the small village community where we grew up, every possible playmate was friend or enemy.  Naturally, age had a lot to do with this.  Matthew Carrell would be an example.  Matthew was two years older than me – therefore Matthew was my enemy.  So when Matthew tied me to the silver birch tree at the back of The Common, leaving me there in the rain, although I might have been frightened and vocal it was the least I had learned to expect.  It was Micah who broke those old, unwritten rules.  It was he who cut me loose with a penknife his stepfather gave him for his birthday, even though Matthew warned him to desist.  He braved Matthew’s wrath to save me.

We were children.  I was seven or eight, Micah’s birthday was a month before my own.  We all lived by a children’s code which was a part of our growing and as old as time itself, so Matthew was only acting in accordance with that code when he sought vengeance – something Micah surely anticipated.  In a quiet moment, in one of those places only children seem to know, Matthew took Micah’s knife from him, pinned him down while he went through his pockets and found it; then he took the knife along the mill path that leads down to the river (and is there still despite all the new development of houses on the riverbank), and he threw the knife into the water.   And Micah followed him, and Micah watched.

Micah did not cry.  Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever seeing Micah cry.

Now it was after school maybe the Wednesday or Thursday of the following week, when we were playing in the backyard of my house, that Micah and I came upon the spider.   There were empty apple boxes in a stack beside a brick lean-to shed my father always promised he would pull down, but never did.  We liked to fashion all kinds of fantasies from those boxes; they were made of thin wood and they were wide and flat, so we could stack them or arrange them in all sorts of ways to make pretend cars, or boats, or a secret den.  That evening I think we may have had it in mind to construct a spaceship, when, turning over one of the boxes from the bottom of the stack, Micah suddenly paused and gestured to me that I should be very still.

“What?”  I asked.

“Come and see,  Quietly, now.”

I came, I saw.  In one corner of the box my friend was holding, amidst a small nest of dead leaves, was the largest spider I had ever seen.   Wide eyed, I took in its long front legs, its thick grey body, the spread of its six remaining limbs.  I could clearly see the stalks that supported its eyes and two white stripes that ran either side of its thorax and abdomen.  It had no web.  We both understood that the small cluster of leaves was its home.

Micah whispered.  “Get me one of those Cocoa tins from the kitchen rubbish.”

“You’re never!”  I said.   Micah didn’t answer.

I brought the tin, removing its lid as I returned to the boxes.  

Perfectly calmly, as though it did not require as much as a second thought, Micah reached into the box, nipping the creature between thumb and forefinger as he plucked it into the open.   It curled up, tucking its legs so it resembled a ball, and I held the cocoa tin at arm’s length, closing my eyes as Micah dropped the spider inside it, and fastened the lid.

“We’ll have to make air holes.”  He said.

“Are you going to keep it?”  I asked.

“No.”

Micah regularly came home with me after school in those days, because both his parents worked full time and he was not considered old enough to be allowed home on his own.   We became close friends of necessity; two boys of similar age thrown together by circumstances will usually end up that way, even if there are differences.  I knew, right from the beginning, there were differences.

When you are young, with little experience of the world, there are a lot of important things that pass you by.  My mother and father were, I suppose, a satisfactory match:  My dad was an engineer whose work took him away for long periods, sometimes many weeks.  Letters from him would scatter on the doormat.  He always wrote letters when he was away, even if sometimes he arrived home before they did;  and my mother would sit at the kitchen table reading them, her face twitching with a mysterious smile I did not comprehend.   She kept them all.  Much later in life, when she was gone, I found the letters amongst her possessions;  I read only one, discovering with each successive word a side to my parents’ relationship that, as a child, I would have considered  profoundly shocking.  I burned the rest of the letters without reading them.  There was a privacy of language within them I did not want to expose.   At the time, they were just letters from my father with colourful foreign stamps upon them which I collected, in a desultory fashion.

“Does he mention me, Mummy?”

“Of course he does, darling.  He always remembers you.”

I would look forward to his return from those longer expeditions.  There would be a gift – a carving, a wooden toy or a doll, sometimes sweets.

“I’m not supposed to bring these into the country, Sprog.   But they’re delicious, you just have to try them!”  I felt so important then, because he had chanced capture as a smuggler, and he had done it for me!  I would imagine him on the run, fleeing across the windswept moor clutching my little bag of sweets, with police and dogs chasing him; although of course they were unable to prevent his heroic escape.  

As I said, in the innocence of childhood much about the lives of those close to you may pass unnoticed.  Nevertheless I knew that Micah’s home life was neither as happy or secure as my own.  Being ‘comfortably off’ for a child merely means food on your table, a warm bed and toys; Micah may have enjoyed these, but his family was not ‘comfortably off’.   My Dad’s car was new, large and almost silent, my Mum had a car of her own, so when the weather was bad I rode to school.  Micah’s step-dad drove his family’s only car, which was old and temperamental.  He never gave his stepson rides to school, so Micah and his mum would walk the mile from their home to the school gates, and they got wet:  a lot.

Once in a while, usually at weekends, I was invited to Micah’s home; on which rare occasions I was, of course, too polite to mention the paucity of furniture, or the absence of toys.  Micah’s mother would sit us on an aged sofa in their little sitting room, made fiery hot by a blazing coal fire, winter or summer.  We watched, sweating, through hours of cartoons on the ancient television before I could make excuses and leave.  I don’t think Mrs. Pallow (Micah’s surname was Pallow) resented my presence particularly; in all honesty, I sometimes wondered if she even noticed I was there, but neither did she make me feel welcome.  A nervous, shifting quicksand of a woman, I could see her mind churning its way through every waking moment – stabbing a poker at the fire she claimed was necessary to ‘heat the water’, fussing around the inexpensive china statuettes that were her hobby, or crashing and slamming in her kitchen.  Did I ever see her smile?  No, maybe I didn’t.

Personally, I never saw the spider again.  It left my home that Wednesday or Thursday evening in its new accommodation, tucked under Micah’s school blazer.   I believe it must have entered our school the next morning in similar fashion, though I have no specific memory of this.  I certainly remember when it turned up again, although I was not present.

Ours was the village school; albeit quite a smart one.  The uniforms were distinctive, the discipline strict, a burden upon Micah’s family which they must have found extortionate, yet they struggled to provide him with a new uniform each year, and finance the materials we needed.  So they obviously valued their son – something which seems quite curious, when I recall.  Atypical behaviour – not what my own upbringing was conditioning me to expect.   At school Micah and I were juniors: as yet more concerned with basic reading, writing and explorations in clay or cardboard.  Matthew Carrell was in the upper class, among those nine and ten-year-old children ascending the final upslope towards senior education.

We left our lessons at the school gates, Micah and I, whereas Matthew had ‘homework’.   Nothing very specific, though it did involve written exercises in school books, and handing work in to his teacher, the quite lovely Miss Comfort, whose name said everything about her that needs to be said – everything but one very specific thing.   

Quite when Matthew left his homework exercise book unguarded, or why, I cannot say.  Any more than I can explain how someone contrived to cut the centre out of all but the first and the last few pages of that book to make a rectangular space, lidded only by its cover page and a few leaves of carefully written essay.  And how our spider came to be occupying that space when Miss Comfort opened the book to peruse Matthew’s work I would rather not speculate.  I doubt anyone could have known Miss Comfort was an arachnophobe.  Micah and I, we were at music practice in another classroom, bells and triangles and a flat piano; yet we still heard the screams – all of the screams.

Mrs. Carrell collected Matthew that lunchtime.  She was very, very annoyed.  As they passed us by, as we stood in the playground, watching, Matthew turned his hung head to throw Micah a look – a look that was almost fearful.  It communicated an understanding which would spread amongst us all.  Micah did not live by the rules.

Then I remember distinctly how I shared a glance with Micah and saw his face twitch in a mysterious smile.  It was a smile that reminded me for one moment – just that one moment – of my mother.

 © Frederick Anderson 2020.  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

Featured Image Credit: Brett Hondow from Pixabay

Hallbury Summer – Episode Twenty. Night Moves

The story so far: 

After failing in his attempts to discover the whereabouts of his brother Michael, Joe Palliser has to deal with an aggressive journalist, and we learn that Jennifer Allthorpe, the journalist’s associate is to remain in the locality dig up some further dirt on Joe.

Meanwhile, Joe honours his commitment to Sophie Forbes-Pattinson, and takes her to a small café in a little harbour town for an evening meal.  The date gives them the opportunity to learn more about each other, and provides evidence, if any were needed, that they share a mutual attraction…

By the time Sophie and Joseph began their drive back to Hallbury the hour was late and the roads almost free of traffic:  on their way Joseph asked Sophie how much she knew of the Violet Parkin story.

“Only what I’ve read in the local ‘paper.  Village gossip tends to get filtered out before it reaches us.”

And Joe said that was good because he needed to confide in someone who could weigh the facts impartially.

“I am she!”  Sophie volunteered brightly.  “Prattle on!”

So he told her the story – about the murder and how Violet’s body was found, how evidence had placed Jack Parkin near the scene sometime on the fatal afternoon.  Then he retold Aaron’s account of the coven, and his concerns about Michael.  He resurrected little Christian Matheson, together with the stories that surrounded his disappearance; concluding with the slaughtered crows and the sad demise of Benjy the cat.

“All rather grisly, Joe.  I heard about the graves – that happened the other day, didn’t it?  Before Mrs. Parkin was buried?”

Joseph had half-expected Sophie to suggest he was falling victim to parochial superstition; even to ask why he really cared anyway.  But she didn’t.  She fell silent for a while, as the final miles passed.

“It all ties together, doesn’t it,” She said at last, “but witchcraft, Joe?  I’ve read about so-called witches who were just herbalists, or odd-looking octogenarians who managed to offend the wrong people.  There were a few bad apples, I suppose; who cursed people for a fee, brewed up nasty poisons, tried to invoke the devil, that sort of stuff.  Mostly rubbish, I should have thought, though the thing that strikes me is the probability that Mrs. Parkin counted herself as a witch.   Would one witch really murder another – black against white, maybe?”

Joe replied, grinning, that if Annie Parkin was a witch of any colour it would be black.  He was secretly pleased by Sophie’s interest.

Their last mile was covered and they were driving the lane through the centre of Wednesday Common when Joe slowed the car, bumping off the metalled road onto a grassy track.  After a hundred yards or so, where a clump of small trees offered concealment, he stopped, cutting the engine.

The inflection in Sophie’s tone was unmistakeable.  “Now I wonder why we’ve stopped here, Joe?”

He chuckled:  “It’s my surprise.  Time for adventure.  Come on!”

After opening the passenger door to let Sophie out, Joe extracted a canvas bag from the car boot.  Then, taking her hand for reassurance he led her, not back along the track towards the road, but further into the depths of the Common.  Sophie kept pace, refraining from complaint, though bracken scratched her legs and she could barely see in the darkness.  “Where are we going?”

“For a walk.”

“Oh, absolutely!  For a walk with a bag that clanks.”  Sophie’s voice shook a little.  “What have you got in there; tools to cut me up with?”

She seemed so capable and confident; it hadn’t occurred to Joe that he might frighten her, that he was still a comparative stranger who she might not completely trust.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  Emboldened, he found her in the darkness, gently taking her shoulders. She was breathing quickly. “I could never do you harm, Sophie.”

“It’s Okay,” She whispered:  “I didn’t really think you would….”And she turned into him, pressing her cheek to his.  “You’re sort of scary.”  She said; “And that’s sort of nice.”

He asked:  “You enjoy being scared?”

“Mmmm, sort of.  I enjoy being scared by you.”

Her cheek was cool, very soft. Joe knew he must kiss her then and he did, though it was not in his plan; and the taste of Sophie, her warmth against him gave him an unfamiliar sense of self-worth, of companionship.  It was a long kiss, sweetly comforting, that invited more.

“Down to business!”  He exclaimed, breaking away with difficulty and the feeling that, if fate should provide him with a dragon now, he would be able to slay it easily.  “Not far!”

The lights of the village were clear.  House windows, an occasional street lamp offered sanctuary, but Joe seemed intent upon avoiding them.

Sophie restrained him.  “No, we don’t.  Not until you tell me where we’re going, Joe Palliser.”

“Why, Sophie!  We’re going housebreaking!”

“Oh!”  Sophie cried, a world of doubt lifted from her shoulders.  “Excellent!  Why didn’t you say?”

The Parkin farm was in darkness when they stole through the gate, keeping in the shadow of the wall as they worked their way around to the back of the house.

“I want you to know;” Sophie whispered:  “I rather liked kissing you.”

“I liked it too.”

“If we’re arrested, do you think they’d let us share a cell?”

“I doubt it.  Please stop, this is very bad for my concentration!”  Joe begged.  Now hidden from view behind the farmhouse, he ferreted as quietly as he could in the bag of tools he had borrowed from Owen’s garage that afternoon (without Owen’s permission, of course); they rattled disturbingly in the silence.

“What’s that?”  Sophie asked, as he produced something metallic and heavy from the bag.

“I think housebreakers would call it a gemmy.”

A kitchen window, half-rotten, yielded to Joe’s assault with little resistance.  He pulled it wide open.

“You first.”  He joked.

“Certainly not!  You’ll get a perfect view of my bum. After you, Raffles!”

“I told you to wear jeans.”

It was an easy climb.  Joe made his way in, to find himself standing in what he assumed to be the kitchen sink.  Sophie passed him the bag of tools then focused upon retaining her dignity as she managed her short skirt through the window.

“Don’t stare!” She chided.

“It’s too dark!”  He complained.

“Such gallantry!”

What had Joe expected?  The smell of fungal damp was oppressive, but otherwise the limited light of his carefully-shielded torch flicked around a typical farmhouse kitchen; picking out an immaculately blacked range in a wide chimney breast, cupboards and a sideboard of polished wood, a scrubbed table, a couple of functional wooden chairs.  The red flagstone floor seemed to be clean; a mat (over which he almost tripped) protected an area around the sink.  It was a frozen moment:  there were two plates on the table, remnants of food on one from which Jack had probably eaten when he returned for his tea: had he thought his wife was out somewhere, possibly visiting in the village?  A cup with dregs on the sideboard – tea, probably; probably Violet’s:  Joe could not imagine Jack Parkin drinking tea.

Producing an extra torch from his bag, Joe passed it to Sophie so she might scan the room for herself.  “My Goodness!”  She exclaimed under her breath:  “Didn’t they bother to search this place at all?”

There was certainly no sign of disturbance:  everything was neatly arranged – too neatly, was Joe’s immediate thought.  He cringed at the creak of the kitchen door, casting his light back and forth along the narrow passage which sufficed for a hall. A besom was propped by the front door.  Sophie gestured meaningfully.

“Probably just to sweep the step?”

A panelled door on the opposite side of the hallway revealed a living room so pungent with the aroma of dry rot it almost choked them.  Joe’s torch hurriedly scanned shelves of bric-a-brac lining one wall: an armchair, its colourless upholstery worn into holes, a settee in such an advanced state of dilapidation it looked as if it might swallow its next unwary visitor, a rocker that quivered eerily as he stepped across the sagging floor.  Sophie held both torches while he searched through drawers and cupboards for anything that might reveal a clue to what happened the afternoon Violet died.  All he found, though, was the paraphernalia of everyday living.  A damp-damaged photo of Jack Parkin peered from a wooden frame on the mantelshelf; otherwise there seemed to be no personal effects at all.  What was he looking for?

“What are we looking for?”  Asked Sophie. “An edition of ‘Witches Weekly, or something?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!  So good to have a plan!””

They inched their way up threateningly unsteady stairs to a small landing that became a passage running the length of the house.  Two doors admitted them to rooms ostensibly above the kitchen, the furthest a tiny space at the end of the house crammed with enamel bowls, wooden chests, stacks of newspapers, what looked like a trouser press, a folding frame from a chair, even a Union Jack.  There was also an almost uninterrupted view of the stars where roof tiles were missing and the ceiling had collapsed.   Nothing that anyone prized could be concealed in this space.

The nearer door was a bedroom – or was it?   More the scrape of a wild hare than a room:  a single iron bed, its springs sagging, made up with a rag-bag of blankets, sheets and an old bolster pillow.  There were men’s unwashed clothes strewn neglectfully on the floor.  Cider bottles were everywhere:  some filled, some refilled and corked, mostly empty.

Joe heard Sophie trying to restrain a retching in her throat.  He felt for her.  It was unlikely she had ever seen squalor like this.  “Is this what he comes back to if he’s freed?  He’s better off in jail!”

Across the landing the other bedroom, over that damp lounge, was larger: here there were feminine touches.  There was a hint of boudoir, conflicting somewhat with Joseph’s recollection of Violet and her masculine stamp.  As they searched amidst the frills and favors they found more and more of Violet Parkin in this room.

“Photographs?”  Sophie pulled an album from a drawer in the bedside table.  She flicked through old sepia pictures titled in neat handwriting, depicting a younger if not much slighter Violet in her teenage years.  There were family groups in Edwardian dress with Violet the little girl in the company of a plumply optimistic woman and a wiry dry stick of a man not half her size.

“That must be Ben Wortsall,” Joe commented.  “He doesn’t look exactly fearsome, does he?”

A charabanc-load of posing faces followed (outing to Marsden, summer 1924), and some seaside snaps.  As Sophie neared the back of the book a small flat package, tied with some coarse thread fell from between pages and dropped to the floor.  It was just large enough to fill the palm of her hand.

“Oh, how tiny!”  She tried to undo the knot securing the wrapping.  “I believe it must have been sealed with something:  I might break it.”

“We’ll look at it later,” Joes said, slipping it into his pocket.

They left nothing unturned – took such clothes as there were from Violet’s ancient wardrobe, turned the bedclothes and the mattress from the bed.  They even looked beneath the carpet, but found nothing untoward.  No clue that would unlock the mystery of Violet’s death, certainly; in fact, apart from a few photographs, very little about Violet at all.

Defeated, Joe gave Sophie’s arm the gentle tug that indicated they should leave.  “I’m sorry,” he said,  “it’s been a wasted evening.”

“Not entirely wasted, Joe darling.”  Sophie gave his hand a squeeze.  “Although it would help if you told me what the bloody hell you hoped to find!”

“Something.  I can’t explain, Sophie, but I know it’s here.  Whatever it is that made Violet into a real person; that made her the way she was.  This house has a secret, I’m sure of that.”

They were descending the creaking stairway, careful in the torch’s limited light, when they heard the scrape of a key in the front door.

“Oh god!  Someone’s coming in!”  Sophie hissed.  “What now, Raffles?”

“Now?”  Joe whispered.  “Run!”

He grabbed her hand.  Throwing caution to the winds, they stumbled down the remaining stairs, bolting for the kitchen.  Their flight must have been heard, for the turning of the door-key paused.

“Who’s there?”  A man’s voice demanded.  “Who’s that?”

Now the front door was opening with some urgency – a heavy shoulder crashed against it to force it to yield, and swift footsteps advanced into the hall.

In the kitchen, Joe collided with the table, shooting a javelin of pain into his groin.  Cursing incoherently, he jammed the table against the door then, in the few precious moments thus gained he limped to help Sophie, who was struggling through the window, lifting her quickly by her hips. She scrambled, squealing her indignation, before disappearing into the darkness outside. As Joe grabbed his bag of tools the table shot out into the room and the kitchen door burst wide   His feet followed him in a headfirst dive through the window and he landed shoulder first on the cobbles.

“This way!”  He was back on his feet in an instant, grabbing Sophie’s hand as together they ran for the back of the yard – for the field gate that hung, half-open there; and the shielding darkness of the meadow beyond.

“Don’t look back!”  He warned.  “Don’t let him see your face!”

Sophie hopping to remove her heels, Joe wincing at the latent ache in his groin; both ran, and sheltered finally under a cloak of night, they chanced a peek behind them to see a man’s head in the window they had forced, silhouetted by the light of a hurricane lamp.  It was difficult to identify the figure, although something about him seemed familiar.

Crouched low, tool bag tucked beneath Joe’s arm to silence it, and with Sophie laughing so hysterically as to make any attempt at stealth futile, the pair struck out across the grass.  Joe deliberately avoided the most obvious route, allowing his memory to direct him to a gap in the hedgerow which he knew would lead out onto Church Lane.

“Through there?”  Sophie complained; “I hope you’re going to recompense me for this hair-do, Joey Palliser.”

From the lane they doubled back, eventually arriving undetected – or so they believed – at Joseph’s parked car.  Guided by what he hoped was inbuilt radar, supplemented by large helpings of luck, Joe manoeuvred the unlit Wolsey back to the road.  He drove the best part of half a mile before he felt confident enough to switch on the lights.

Although confident they were not followed, still Joe did not want his car’s headlights to be seen, or give away either his or Sophie’s connection with the village.  So he drove, not back into Hallbury, but towards Walcotter Bridge, the next large village.  He sought out a lay-by shielded from the road and pulled over; slumping back into his seat.

“That was close.”

Sophie had said nothing throughout this journey.  She was engaged in meticulous preening, pulling large amounts of green stuff from her fine, long hair and collecting it, thoughtfully, in the car’s ashtray.  Now she accorded him a cool look.

“Well, it was interesting.”  She said dryly.  “See the state I’ve got myself into?  I’m an absolute scarecrow!”

“A very beautiful one.  I’m really sorry.  Shall I take you home?”

“No.”  She shook her head, staring down at herself, “Although I suppose we will have to soon.  I’m all scratched!”  She raised her right leg, placing her bare foot on the car dashboard so Joey could verify in the dim interior light that her pale flesh was indeed a mass of minor scratches.

“How am I going to explain this away?  How?  Look!”

She laid the abraded leg across Joe’s lap.  He took her foot gently in his hand and she giggled girlishly at his touch.  Very tenderly, he stroked the wounded skin of her calf.  He was of a mood to explore further.

She flexed sinuously, “Oh, you are good!  You really are!  But it is awfully late.”  She disengaged herself gently, sinking back into her seat.  “I can’t quite make you out, Joe Palliser – are you someone really special, or just the sad old Lothario they say you are?  I saw someone different tonight – I see someone different every time we meet.”

“I thought you were supposed to be the chameleon?”

“True.  But I think perhaps I pale to insignificance beside you.  My camouflage might not be able to keep up, you see.  If I weren’t careful, I should become prey.  That much vulnerability isn’t something I’m used to.”

“No, I guess not.”  Together, they stared out into the night.  Finally, he said:  “I don’t think I like being a chameleon:  disguise isn’t me, Sophie; it really isn’t.  It’s nice to be vulnerable sometimes…take it from someone who’s vulnerable all the time.  Anyway, who are ‘they’?”

Sophie was lost in thought.  “They?”

“The ‘they’ who say I’m – what was it – an ‘ageing Lothario’?”

“Jennifer Allthorpe, for one; she seemed very interested in you.  Knew you were staying in the village, knew about your brother.  She told me quite a lot about you, Joe, quite a lot.”

Joseph asked, in a dead voice:  “So you heard about my life in London?”

“Some.  I don’t know how much there is to tell.”

“Yet you still wanted to come out with me?”

She nodded;  “Of course!”  Then:  “Because you’re interesting, Joe!  Because the world is full of two-dimensional men and you’re certainly not one of them!  Tonight’s been fun – different, but fun!”

“It lived up to expectations, then?”

Sophie reached for his hand and grasped it.  “I’ve enjoyed it, I really have.  Thank you.”

He slipped the Wolsey into gear. “Then we can do this again?”

She laughed: “Breaking and entering, you mean?” She studied him carefully.  “I don’t know; should I?”

Highlands House was in darkness when the Wolsey crunched up to its doors.  Sophie turned Joe’s head to her for a goodbye kiss which lingered, just a little, before she broke away.  “I’ll call you.”  She said, “Promise!”  And she was gone.  Joe watched her pause in the porch to tidy herself, then returned her wave.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  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.

Photo Credit:  Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

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.