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A Place that was Ours. Chapter Five – Criminal Acts

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

As I look back upon it now, I realise how my childhood ended that evening in June of’86.   A shell of my former self made its way across the bridge towards town, its mind in turmoil, its muscles bunched in helpless fury.   A man who had become a monster in my eyes had the one person I loved in his power.  I had failed Sue, let her father snatch her from me.  In my irrational head Mackenzie Crabtree was beating, torturing, humiliating the only person I loved, while I did nothing to defend her.

I could not go home.  Home would mean an empty house, because my mother was at work, and I could not face the constriction of walls around me.  So, instead, I directed my feet by way of Lower Town Road to the Old Hall, a one-time civic building that was now housed Maisie’s nightclub.  It shared a frontage with a Fish and Chip shop, and an off-licenced general store run by an enterprising little Pakistani character we all called Javid.

I was looking for a youth everyone knew as ‘Lard’.

Around this time of the evening, Lard would be found loitering, usually in the company of a brace of hangers-on, either outside the Golden Chip, one of eight fish and chip emporia in Casterley, or on the steps of the Old Hall entrance.   A lad of maybe twenty-five or twenty-six, Lard was a car salesman by profession.  Really named Richie, his nick-name referred to his thick black hair, which he was in the habit of plastering back from his face using a liberal quantity of hair gel.   He was where I expected to find him, together with a couple of other faces I knew, sitting on the steps eating chips from a plastic tray.

I ferreted through my pockets for the last of my weekly dose of small change.  “Hey Richie, man.  Gerrus a six-pack, yeah?” (I would offend him if I called him Lard to his face.)

Lard looked up at me with a negative expression on his acne-flecked features.  “Nah, can’t.  Ah’m eatin’.”

Danny, whom I knew from football training, was leaning against the wall at the top of the steps, stuffing in some chips of his own.   “Gan on, Richie.  Ah cud use a tin mesen’.  Ah’l look after yer chips, like.”

Lard grunted.  “Aye, awreet.  What’ya want, like?”

Danny said. “Tuborg,”

Lard hauled himself to his feet. “Gi’us yer pennies then.”

If Lard ever had any money for drink, he rarely needed it.  The arrangement was, you gave him money for a six-pack of beer and he visited Javid’s emporium to make the purchase on your behalf, which was how, when you were underage in Casterley, you got your alcoholic beverages.  And when the deal was completed, you got five cans from the six pack, and Lard got one.  It was simple, basic commerce that salved Javid’s conscience, kept Lard (or in this case Danny) supplied with beer, and every lad in my school year who could not pass off as eighteen years old did it.   There were some nasty rumours that girls had other ways of repaying Lard, but it was hard to imagine.  You see, Lard wasn’t exactly personable.  In fact, he was a bit dim, poor lad.

“Now then, Chas.”  Danny descended the steps towards me as Lard disappeared into Javid’s store.

“”Now, Danny.”  I returned the greeting.

“How’r’y’gannin’ like?”  Danny was a fair-haired lad, closer to Lard’s age than mine.  He had a strong face and a wide, genuine smile.  “You don’t look so good, y’na?”

“I’m all right, s’pose.”  I muttered.  “Just had a run-in with Sue Crabtree’s Da.”

“Ah.”  Danny sympathised.  “That’s Mack the plumber, right?  Mean bastard, ‘im.”

“I could bloody slit ‘im!”  I said, with appropriate venom.

“Nah, man, yer couldna’.   Tha’s already got the Chatties after yer hastn’t tha?  Don’ give ‘em reason to nick yer for more.   Take tha’ beer home, man.  Sleep it off, like.”

I spent little time wondering how Danny had learned about the bike incident.  Everybody knew by now.  No  matter how minor the crime, it was hot news in Casterley.   After ‘Lard’ had returned and Danny had split off his tin of Tuborg from my six-pack, I walked away.  I didn’t want to sit and commiserate, I wanted to be alone, to let my anger fester and grow.

Danny called after me.  “You sixteen next month, Chas?”

“Aye.  Who wants to know?”

“Jack Masters was askin’.”

Eleven-thirty that night found me propped up against the old concrete jetty beside the river, my five tins of beer consumed and a very imprecise intention whirling around in my mind.  I was not a drinker by nature; this was only the second time I had availed myself of Lard’s merchant activity, so five beers was a substantial inebriant as far as I was concerned.   My intention, as I had to keep reminding myself somewhat fuzzily, was to pay Mr. Mackenzie Crabtree’s house a nocturnal visit and liberate Sue – my Sue – from his grasp.  I had not worked out the final detail (my concentration kept fading) but it involved the use of the brick I had carefully selected from one of The Felling’s many half-demolished properties and which now lay beneath my hand.

Above and behind me sounds of activity from the town were drifting away into slumbering silence.  Right now the Fish and Chip shops and Kebab shops and Chinese Takeaways would be dispensing their last meals, the final gaggle of weekend drinkers would be meandering home.

Soon it would be my time.  I would move through the sleeping town with feline stealth in pursuit of my revenge.   My problem, though, was persuading my legs to share my sense of mission, an immediate issue which came to a head when I tried to execute a very necessary bodily function and fell over.   Thereafter, although my attempts at emulating a cat were limited, I certainly smelled like one.  Actual progress, with frequent stumbling, needed the support of the jetty and, when that ran out, any wall adjacent to the pavement, or lamp-post, or parked car that offered.

If my sense of equilibrium had faltered, my anger had not.  As it quickly became apparent I would not have the stability to reach my intended goal, I believe (although my recollection is hazy on this point) I began fulminating loudly at Mr. bloody Mack Crabtree and itemising my charges against him at the top of my voice.  Staggering along Front Street, in despair of my failing body I hurled the brick with all my force at the window of the betting shop, which gave me the satisfaction of cracking in three places whilst dealing finally with any remnants of silence, because the shop’s intruder alarm resented my assault, and said so.

Just how aware was I of the car that appeared so suddenly beside me, or of the hands grabbing my shoulders, forcing me into its back seat?  I remember lashing out, convinced the hands belonged to Sue’s father – after that, though, very little.   Vague images of a car interior, maybe, or of strong hands pulling me from the seat once the journey was complete; then nothing.

#

“Oh, you’re awake, are you?”  My mother’s voice, strident and at its falsetto finest.  “You stupid little bastard!”

Where was I?  “Where am I?”

“Where d’you think you are?  Whose bed is this?”

I managed to prop myself on an elbow.  My head hurt.  “Mine.”  I said.  I was in my own bedroom.  Insipid daylight was filtering through the unlined curtains.

“Aye, and lucky you are you’re not in a police cell after last night.  Boozing at your age!  That’s how yer father started, boy!   You won’t remember breaking William Hill’s window, I suppose?”

“I might…”  My head hurt.

“You might.  You Might!  You did, you silly little sod!  How you didn’t get nicked I don’t know.  Thank god Terry, one of the taxi drivers from work saw it were you and had the goodness to put you in his taxi and bring you home.  Otherwise…”

So it was that my attempt at rescuing Sue ended in blackly comical failure.   Nor did Terry’s rescue protect me from its consequences in the end because in selecting William Hill’s window on Front Street I had picked the only location in town where a security camera was fitted.   This time it would be criminal damage and breach of the peace and all sorts of other things they would read out to me down at our friendly local police station.  All that came to light on the Wednesday of the following week.  I was destined to appear at the Juvenile Court after all, and with a record of an official caution like a yoke across my shoulders.

In the meantime, Sue was not at school that Monday, nor was there any sign of Dave, her elder brother.  Dave was in his first ‘A’ Level examination year and one year above mine, so it was possible he was on study leave, but if I had entertained some sort of vain hope Sue would appear and everything would be normal again, of course it wasn’t.   Instead, when I returned home that night I found two people in our front room waiting for me.  One was my mother, the other was Shelley Crabtree.

Shelley?  ‘Shel’ as my Ma liked to call her – had altered greatly since my early years.  My first memories of her in the days when Sue, Dave and I played together as kids were of a tall, slender woman, clothed casually in blue jeans and t-shirt, whose clowning could be relied upon to produce childish laughter.  Her startlingly pale blue eyes were always alight with fun in those days:  I don’t remember when that light went out – perhaps it was after, in the fallow time when my family and the Crabtrees had grown apart.  Anyway, there was no obvious connection between the woman of my memory and the one standing on our worn carpet, her loose white over-blouse spotless, the red dress beneath it quite tight, as it seemed, on her much fuller, almost matronly figure.   Posed beside my Ma’s t-shirt and jeans yet hidden behind dark glasses only her height and the determined set of her jaw gave her away.

“Sit down.”  My Ma’s tone was ominous. “We’ve been talking about you.”

“Hello, Mrs Crabtree.”  It did no harm to be polite.  I decided to make an effort at innocence.  “About me?”

“Yes, you, you dirty little bugger!”  My mother’s verbal assault, I knew well, would start as a snarl, before it rose to a crescendo.  I decided to try and cut her off.

“How is she, Mrs Crabtree?  Is she alright?”

I failed.  My mother pounced upon my intervention and drowned it with a screeching:  “How is she?  How d’ you think, you  little…”  She drew breath.  “It’s a bloody crime, what you’ve done!  It’s bloody criminal!”

So they knew – chapter and verse.

“Mary, don’t upset yourself.”  Shel cut in, putting a restraining hand on my mother’s arm.  “I’m sure Chas understands there have to be consequences for his actions.”  Shelley Crabtree removed her sunglasses, treating me to those eyes which the years had made humourless, lifeless, tired and just a little sad.  “Charles, young man, my husband is very angry with you.  We know that you and my daughter were intimate – Susan has told us…”

The two women were standing, looming.   I was perched on the edge of our old armchair.  Feeling my disadvantage and with my anger rising, I got to my feet. “What did he do, beat it out of her?”

“You  insolent little bugger, sit down!”  My mother shrilled.

“No, Mother!  It looks like you’ve decided to pass sentence on me, on Sue and I, so I’ll stand, all right?”

“Now Chas!”  Shelley soothed.  “Of course we didn’t ‘beat it out’ of Susan’!  Certain things are obvious to parents, and there is simply no point in denying what has happened, you see?”

“So what?”  I was confused.  The verbal assault I had anticipated was coming from my mother, not Sue’s.  By comparison, Shelley seemed almost sympathetic.  “If she’s alright, why wasn’t she at school today?”

“Susan thought it best.  This – this unfortunate thing is something that we can’t ignore, and some action has to be taken.  She sees that, and I’m sure you do too, don’t you?”

Why?  Why did ‘some action’ have to be taken’?  “What ‘thing’?  Why should it change anything?  It’s not like I raped her, Mrs Crabtree!  We wanted to – to be together, that’s all.”

Shelley sighed.   “Chas, you’re both so very, very young, aren’t you?”  She levelled those cold eyes at me.  “Susan has other priorities before she gets into a relationship.  She wants to study, to take her exams and go to University.  I’m sorry, Chas, but you don’t play any part in that.”  She gave an elegant shrug.  “Maybe after…?”

At some point, my arms had begun to shake.  Now I could not control them.  “Why are you doing this?  What are you trying to do – stop us seeing each other, or something?  You can’t!”  I was shouting, knew it, but couldn’t control my voice or the well of fire from which it sprang.

The louder I yelled, the softer, the gentler Shelley’s voice became.  “Oh, we can, Chas.  We can.”

My mother chipped in.  “You would have been leaving school in a month anyways…”

“Three weeks.”  I snapped back.  “What’s that got to do with it?”

“I telephoned your Principal this morning.”  Shelley said, taking command.  “I didn’t tell him absolutely everything, just enough so he would agree to make an exception and release you from attendance earlier, if your Ma allows it. You aren’t taking any exams, apparently;” she smiled bleakly, “so congratulations, Chas, tomorrow will be your last day at school.”

I felt as though a boulder had settled on my chest.  “And Sue? ”  I asked, drily.

“Susan won’t be there tomorrow.  She’s on home study leave until Wednesday.  The Principal’s been very helpful and suggests she should be ready to take her ‘O’ Level exams in November.  After that, for her ‘A’ Levels, she’s going to stay with her aunt in Bedeport.  The college there has a very good examination record.”

“Bedeport!  Why?”

“To get her away from you, young man – to give you both some time to think about what you’ve done.”

“You can’t!   You can’t do this to us!  Sue won’t ever agree to that!”

“She already has,” Shelley said harshly.  “She understands that what you did to her is a criminal act, Chas.  Now, Mackenzie and I don’t want to involve the authorities, and we won’t, as long as you also agree.  We can’t stop you seeing each other, we all live in the same town, and this is 1986, not 1956; however, we can advise you not to do anything foolish.  If you do…”  She smiled; a competent, professional smile.  “So, now.  Do I have your agreement?”

“No.”  I said, mustering all the venom I could.  What could I do?  With my best glare of defiance I turned on my heel, wanting to be away from that room, out of the grasp of those two judgemental women who wielded such power over me.

Shelley caught my arm.  “Chas!   We have to do something, you see?   Susan deserves her chance at life, and you shouldn’t get in her way, should you?  If you feel so strongly about her, and she still feels the same in another five years, then you’ll both be adults, and you can make adult decisions, but now – now is just too soon, Chas.”

“No, I don’t see.”  I told her.  “I don’t see why we can’t go out together?  I can’t see what’s changed.  You, you’re acting like some Victorian woman, or something, yeah?  You’re trying to keep her prisoner, wrap her up…”

“Look around you, Chas!  Look at the girls pushing prams and living off benefits at sixteen or seventeen.  Open your eyes and look at this town.  We don’t want that for Susan, and Susan doesn’t want it, either.”

“Are you sure it was her told you that?”  I swung back to face Shelley, challenging her.  “Are you sure Sue told you she doesn’t want to see me again?  Because it’s you and Mack, isn’t it?  You’re trying to keep her away from me, aren’t you?”

“It’s Mister Crabtree to you, and if I’m honest, yes.”  Shelley’s expression was grim.  “I didn’t want to say this, but since you accuse us, our daughter deserves better than you.  You’re not exactly a prize, are you?  A prize fool, maybe, and with a record on your head, by all accounts.  We’re not going to stand by and watch her waste herself on you.”

My mother caught up at last.   “Now wait a minute, Shel!  Are you sayin’ my lad’s not good enough for your Susan?  You listen here, lass…”

Shelley cut in.  “I’ve said all I’m going to say, Mary!”  She waved a finger at me.  “Now you mind, Chas.  Be sensible, right?”  And she strode briskly out of our front door, leaving my mother to stare after her.

“Stuck-up frigging bitch!”  My mother said.  “Come on, lad, I’ll get you some supper.”

I can’t tell you with what clarity I remember those few days, the ones that altered my life, really, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time.  After a sleepless night I wandered through my school day in a red haze of helpless fury.   ‘Hairy’ Harris, the school Principal, announced my name at assembly and told me to go and see him before any lessons, so I did, of course.  He didn’t say much, just reiterated what I had already been told by Shelley Crabtree and wished me luck for my future, which made me smile, as it seemed unlikely I had much of a future at the time.   Thereafter I drifted through morning lessons; lonely, angry and with no idea what I was going to do, or where I was going.

When the lunch break came I decided to take my leave early.  I made some excuse to my closest friends about feeling ill.   As I packed my few belongings from my locker, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  Dave Crabtree was standing behind me.

“She wanted me to give you this,”  He said, scarcely bothering to hide the hostility in his voice.  “I didn’t want to, but she insisted.”   He pressed a scruffy little piece of paper into my hand.  “If you harm one hair of her head, Chas, I’ll be comin’ for you meself.”  He skulked away, almost ashamed to have spoken to me.   On the paper, in Sue’s handwriting, was scrawled:

‘By the old stone jetty, six o’clock’

At six o’clock I was there.  It was by no means an easy decision.  Nothing would have made me keep the appointment if I had believed all that Shelley Crabtree had said, and I thought about that for a long time, but the note was a tiny spark of hope.   So I walked down that little winding lane through The Fellings to the place by the river which had sheltered my drunken binge two nights since; the same place we had met to play when we were children, my friends and I.  And Sue was waiting for me.

© 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 Writing Challenge: the thinking behind ‘A Place That Was Ours’.

In the Wear Valley of County Durham, there is a town called Bishop Auckland, and Bishop Auckland has a bridge.   A one-time viaduct, it bore the weight of rail traffic emanating from the coal and ore producing mines of the upper valley.  Now it is a road bridge.  The mines are gone, but the isolated communities that fed them with labour remain; villages without hearts, fossils of an extinct culture slowly re-establishing themselves as satellites to the cities.  It is this society, or an aspect of it, which forms the backcloth for ‘A Place that was Ours’.

The bridge was my start point for ‘A Place that was Ours’.   In fact, my working title for the first chapter was ‘The Bridge’.   The whole novel is a challenge to me and my philosophy that a writer, in composing a book should avoid planning as much as possible.

Let me explain.  This philosophy is not new.  I am not a planner.  In the past, though, I have always had a basic idea of how my plot would run, and the genre (how I hate that word) into which it should fit.  I retained two luxuries; I could trash the whole thing if it did not ‘work’, and I could ‘mess around’ with the completed project – introduce flashbacks, alter characters, eliminate inconsistencies, and so on.  And then, of course, I had the ability to edit; all before I offered the result as a completed book.  In my view, this is an easy way out and there are dangers implied.

I have a hard drive full of discontinued first chapters that could have been finished works, had I committed myself to them.  I have a book I completed years ago, so full of alterations, superimposed characters and corrections the original vision I had is lost, and so, by implication, is the book.

Not this time, not this book.  All the fun, all the adventure is back.  My characters are taking me where they want to go, not where I elect to put them.  I am posting each chapter as I write it.  There is no fully honed work waiting in the wings, to be transcribed episode by episode.  Chapter Five at the moment is only two paragraphs long.

I had – or have – no basic idea to work from.  I started with a bridge, the bridge depicted above.  That was the only solid element to work from.  I had no characters: two kids I saw walking up the road past my house became Chas and Sue, the rest of the dramatis personae have gathered around them naturally as friends and family will do.   A first trap, because writing so freehandedly invites a huge cast.  I am tempted to add someone new each time a situation seems to require it, whereas any theatre producer will tell me to do the reverse, to re-use an existing character because the audience, or reader, will accept them more easily.

Timeline, surprisingly, is the most difficult aspect so far, in a couple of ways.  Having established that Chas is my hero/antihero I may not need to know what ultimately happens to him, but I do have to place the completed work within a timeframe.   It needs balance.  Ten chapters on Chas’s last year at school (don’t worry, there won’t be) are far too much if the plot is likely to span twenty years, yet I cannot miss out the experiences of that year if they shape his character and dictate later events.   And within that I need pace and rhythm, or the story to becomes absolutely linear – diary mode, with no diversions or back stories.

I have to be wary that awful word ‘genre’ does not tag the piece as a ‘North Country’ novel, with all that implies.   The backcloth I describe above generates an image for some, a label I am anxious to avoid.  Casterley is NOT Bishop Auckland, any more than Chas is me, or Sue’s character relates to someone I have known.   The action of this book could as easily take place almost anywhere – in London, for example, because the greater part of London is a bloated version of Casterley, and Chas and Sue could as easily be Cockneys.  The book would contain more violence and less generosity of spirit, but it would work.

All right – BORING!  Let’s finish this off now, and go for tea.

What will happen to Chas, or Sue?  I don’t know.  I can only tell you it will make a book, and I hope it will be a good book.  That’s what is so exciting for me.  I can write a life that is subject to the same vicissitudes of fortune as your life, or mine.  Along came a bus?  What was that line from a lyric of John Lennon’s?   ‘Life is something that happens to you while you are busy making other plans’.

That’s it!   Mad!   No plans!    Another episode early in the New Year.

Happy New Year, everybody!

 

 

 

 

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