Continuum- Episode One: Beginnings

A new serial – one I hope everyone will enjoy.  I have written quite a lot of what you might call Sci-Fi or Fantasy, although personally I tend not to think in genres.  If a story fires the imagination, as I hope this one will, it shouldn’t matter where it is set, or in what period.  The pleasure of writing without the inhibitions of space and place is the utter freedom to let the imagination fly.  Care to join me?

Tom MOrel

In the shade of a dark forest where a river passes, around a compound of trodden earth there is a humble cluster of huts; simple, windowless hovels with reed-thatch roofs peaked and open so the smoke of fires can ascend, a village made from reeds and mud.  As yet the sun has not climbed above the mountains at the valley’s edge so it is half-light here, though still possible against the gloom to make out some crude essentials of subsistence living scattered among the dwellings; rough wooden tools, a rail of drying fish, a pelt on a wooden frame, bowls for grinding grain.

A small jetty of wood leads out into the deeper water of the river, moorings for a couple of dugout canoes that bob and rub one another gently in the current.  Two more such vessels are drawn up upon the riverbank a yard or so downstream.

Where all paths join at the center of the village, raised high on a timber scaffold to gain the best advantage of the sun there is a curious thing; a perfectly symmetrical bowl made and molded from cork-bark of the oak.  In depth and width this bowl is large enough perhaps for two grown men to sit inside, but no-one among those who live here would dare to try, for the symbols carved around its rim proclaim it a holy place.

On the compound’s western edge there is a dwelling smaller than the rest and within the dwelling, upon a table at its center, a wooden jar.  From here as a new sun rises the old one steps out with his hands cupped around a precious cargo; a gift he has made, fashioned from the invincible power of his belief.

In the time of The Making all that begin are like this; a space to be filled in the order of things, tiny spoors, germane to a wish.  Triumph of a month of wishing, a century or more of plans and dreams.  And as a wish they come to form in the darkness of the jar, in the darkness of the hut, in the darkness of the night.  The old one takes them up with pride, these last of his life’s labor, to bear them carefully the fifty paces to the middle of the village; to the scaffold and the bowl.  His legs are slow and weary.  Others gather around him as he walks: one steps forward to kindly offer a supporting arm but pride will not allow him to accept.  Though it may be long, this journey, and though his manner of travel may be slow he rejoices with each step and those who follow honor his joy with their respect.

They all await him, clinging to the scaffold or perched upon the narrow walkway around the rim of the cork bowl, chattering eagerly.  They part to allow him room as he falters up steps little better than a ladder, craning their necks to see what it is that he nurtures in his palms and breathing sounds of awe at the sight of the four tiny germs of life that nestle there.

Before the bowl the old one leans, his sinewy arms resting over its edge so his tired eyes can study the intense, odorous brown mist that swirls and fills the vessel.  His experience, his faith tells him where or how the vapor will receive his offering.   Meeting the eyes of the others of his community he begins a chant, a ritual verse that all about him know as well as he.  They join with him, raising their voices in celebration to their sky and then, at his moment, and in a certain carefully allotted place, the fog reaches up.  Gently he delivers his gift into its care.  His work is done.

The old one will never look upon those seeds again.  Others will perform the fashioning, tending them as they rise through the mist to greet the sun, honing them, re-forming them, sculpting them to match their dream.  He knows he has taught them well.

But these things the old one will never see, for this afternoon with those he loves the best he will make the long climb to his seat at the hilltop which has been placed so he can look down upon his greatest work.  Here, through as many sunrises as he has left to him he will study the tapestry of the valley, testament to his art.  He will not move from there – will never move again.  With time he will become part of all he has achieved; a part of the forest he has helped to create.

#

Just when it seems that it must snow forever it ceases snowing.  The wind drops, the clouds pass and there is sun upon the white garden.  Southward, the shroud of the storm draws aside to reveal winter-black trees, and across the valley of the Balna River distant hills glisten in the light of morning.

The child watches from his window.  “Mummy, may I play outside?”

She watches too.  Her eyes have not left him since she entered the room to stir him into wakefulness, for she loves this child more than life itself.  “I don’t see why not.  You mustn’t get too cold though, darling.  Promise you’ll come inside immediately if you feel too cold?”  She knows his weakness, loves him for it and because of it.  “Come now, let’s get your warm clothes.  What would you like to do out there?”

He turns to her, eyes alight with joy.  “A snowman!  I want to build a snowman!”

She smiles.  “Then you shall, my dear.”

His face is lit like a thousand angels.  “Then we will have warm honey cakes, Mummy.  Lots of warm, warm honey cakes!”

Again she catches herself wondering if there is any way not to love him, for his beauty constantly astounds her.  Yet she is puzzled for a moment.  “Honey cakes, Hasuga my dear?  I don’t recall…”

“Oh Mother, of course you do!  You make a batter with flour and ginger and eggs, and then you…”

“Ah yes!”  She recollects the recipe.  “Very well.  You make the snowman while I bake the cakes.  Then we shall eat the cakes together, darling, shan’t we?”

-#-

Just when it seems that it might rain forever, the rain stops.  With first light of dawn it parts like a warm curtain to reveal the rising sun.  Insistent sunbeams slip over the sill of Alanee’s bedroom window to nudge at her coverlet, tickle her nose.  She resists their invitation, sighs and turns in search of elusive sleep.  She would dream much longer if she could.

In her kitchen she stumbles beneath the weight of her night-time head as she brews tsakal, tries to think of food.  The hot liquid snaps at her throat, stinging her into wakefulness.  There is xuss mix in the chill room: she pours a measure onto her hot-top, flips the instantly-formed pancake quickly before it burns, adds a pat of sil and folds a xuss-bread sandwich.

She opens her door, tossing the heated xuss between skittish hands and pausing for a moment as she always does, to breathe the fresh new air, to allow the sun’s gentle balm to prickle her skin.  Before her, beyond her patch of garden, the packhorse road winds like mudded rope between terraces of bronzed pledas peas and banks of magnolia down onto the plain: the endless plain of the Hakaan.

The vast fertile plateau that is food basket to her world stretches into apparent infinity, a rolling ocean of lush green and gold, washing into mists of distance.  Somewhere out there the Southern Hills make up a horizon; not visible now, for now, the ancestors have written, begins the Hour of Spirits, when under the first onslaught of morning sun such rain-water as the thirsty earth has not absorbed clings to leaf and branch like a billion jewels, each of which will vaporise and wisp skywards in a wraith no coarser than a hair.  Altogether these fine, transient ghosts cover the land for a while, waving like wheat-grass in a faint breeze and raising long white tendrils towards heaven.  Alanee watches them with eyes that never cease to wonder.  An hour is this, before the fierceness of day, with the power to bring tears.

Her reverie is interrupted by a cry from the village street.  The Makar!  She has not troubled to dress – why dress?  The morning is already warm and her kitchen door is not overlooked:  nothing between it and the majesty of the plain; nothing between her and the plain but the shift she wears when she sleeps.  Hurriedly, she retreats to her room, slurping tsakal with one hand, rummaging clothes with the other.  Shorts and a top of thin linen, a passing thought that in her shift she would show far less of herself, but…ah, such are conventions: conventions of dress, conventions of class, conventions of behavior; conventions, conventions, conventions…

The Makar cry sounds again; much nearer now.  She snatches a Mak-Card from her chill-room.  No time to review it – she reaches her street door just as the Makar does, still buttoning the front of her top and treating herself to one of the sun-withered little man’s leery stares for her pains.

“Late again, Alanee-mer!   Scarce out of bed, eh?”

Alanee affects nonchalance, leans against her door-post.  He thinks she does not notice when his eyes slither down to feast upon a glimpse of her long legs.  “You are too much for me, Makar-meh.  Do you never sleep?”

The Makar grins broadly.  “If I begin my day early I have time, Alanee-mer.”

“You do?  You do indeed?  Ah, such a busy man.  Two calls only on the street and it is your tsaka-time already!”

“We could enjoy a cup together, Alanee-mer.  What do you think of that?”  The Makar knows the most tempting young woman in his village will do no more than flirt with him.  And in his heart he would not wish it.  His wife and child live close by.

Alanee flashes him a look.  “It would not be appropriate. Register my card Makar.  You are wanted at Shellan-mer’s door.”

Shellan-mer is indeed standing on her porch.  Shellan is Alanee’s neighbor, with whom she has enjoyed many a good joke at the Makar’s expense.

Grinning toothily the little man slots Alanee’s card into the reader strapped onto his hip.  It bleeps threateningly.  “Aargh!  A warning!”

Alanee sighs.  “Now what?”  Every day there is a warning.

The Makar turns the machine so Alanee may see its display.  “You haven’t any honey.”

“I don’t like honey!”

He shrugs.  “It is not for me to say.  Better order some or they’ll censure you.”

The Makar walks away, leaving Alanee to glare at his retreating back.  Honey, now!  To keep company with the chocolate bars, the sugary cereals, the fizzy drinks, the processed beans and all those other things she does not like, but which clutter her chill room just so she can escape ‘censure’!  Is everybody’s chill room the same as her own?  She knows the answer to this of course.  Shellan’s chill room is as neat and balanced as the system can make it.  But then, today she will be invited to join her neighbor for honey cakes.

Across the village street Malfis, the old bell-ringer, tends his garden.  Alanee would return within doors but something about his behavior takes her eye.  His spade is turning the rich soil into a large ball.  What in Habbach’s name can he be planting this time?

#

Ellar discovers Cassix the Soothsayer standing alone in the dome of the watch-tower.  From here seabirds can be seen wheeling in grey winter silence over white fields:  the snow is back, misting the unmoving distance in waves like ripples of soft organdie across a painting of pale hills.  But Cassix will not see this, for he is drawn to a thing beyond.

“Is it stronger this morning?”  Ellar asks.  “Sometimes I believe that even I can see it.”

Cassix turns to her so she may read the apprehension in his eyes.  Those eyes; those deep, deep inclosures of wisdom!   If she could see but a hundredth of what those eyes could see!

“Cassix, is it stronger?”

She will not address him by the ‘Sire’ that is his title; they have been familiar friends too many years.  Beside him at the glass she seeks his hand as she squints into the distance, above the black ragged fissure of the ice-bound Balna, far, far into the horizon.  In a moment Cassix will join his senses with hers and then, if she has practised well, she might gain a scattered ounce of his greater vision.  She feels the surge, sees that slate of far-off sky become distinct, picks out the ribs of racing cloud – and there!  A place above the Pearl Mountains (or is it east of that?) where the sky-scape might seem to lift and the direction of rolling procession turn inwards upon itself, a grey vortex in the greyer grey.  Just for a moment.  Then the pain comes and she must close her eyes to let it pass.  When she opens them once more the clarity is gone.

“Your mind is pure, Ellar.”  Cassix speaks in clear, bell-like syllables.  “That is good.”  He sighs.  “And yes the Continuum is bigger this winter, without doubt.”

The snow is its fiercest now.  Below them in the garden Hasuga’s snowman is hunched to windward, figurehead upon the prow of a white ship foundering in a whiter sea.

“He wants a war-game again.”  Ellar says.  Cassix says nothing.

“Go on, say it!”  She spits the words.  “Say he may not have one!”

“That is blasphemy.  You know it.”

“Cassix!  Oh, Cassix, it must be said!  A war game!  Thousands of lives!  Was that the intention of The Dream?”

“This was foretold in the time of Karkus.  It is Lore.”  The Soothsayer shakes his head.  “He comes to his manhood.  These emotions must be expected.  They will pass.”

Ellar restrains the angry outburst she feels rising inside.  “The Treatise of Karkus was a criticism.  Karkus recognised the folly of electing a male child.  It’s a pity we cannot acknowledge the same.”

Cassix treats her to a bemused smile.  “What would you have us do?”

“Don’t patronise me.  Whose decision was it to move him on?”

“Again you remind me?  Mine.”  Wearied by his efforts, Cassix slumps into one of the heart-shaped blue chairs that are scattered about the timbered deck of the watchtower.  He is growing old now, and though his perception has burgeoned with the years he has no energy to sustain it.  His body is ravaged by time, his craggy face blasted as a rock before an easterly gale.  “I know you doubted, Ellar.  I understand why:  but there were physical issues; very substantial ones.  When you keep a child at the same biological age for two thousand years it must deteriorate unless….unless it is permitted to grow.”

Ellar has remained by the window.  “And now?”

“He had to be allowed to go through puberty.  It had to be done.”

“And now we have a monster!”

“We have a teenage boy with all the fallibilities and angst and aggression any boy his mental age confronts.”

“For another two thousand years!  Two millennia of frustration, rebellion and war.  What price The Dream, Cassix?”  Ellar stands over him, forcing him to meet her stare.  “I don’t care if what I say is a blasphemy, I really don’t; because I know that when the Old Ones decreed that we should be governed by the pure mind of a child this was not what they planned.  They would have, they should have, foreseen this.”

“You under-estimate Hasuga.”  Cassix is unflinching.  “That brilliant mind is capable of so much more than you will acknowledge.  However, I hear what you say to me Ellar.  There will have to be changes.  The Domo and I have been getting our heads together on this.  In the meanwhile, you must find some way to divert our young master from his chosen task.”

The Lord Domo; the leader of Council.  In his hands so much of the administration of the land, so much of the trouble of the land.  The Lord Domo; unlikely as a master of anyone’s universe; short in stature, fleshily substantial in most other ways, yet with a mind that would hold all minds, other than that of Hasuga, in thrall.  A tower of intellect, a pillar of virtue:  what changes he could wreak if only he were inclined!

“I will try.”  Ellar hesitates.  “Is the Lord Domo amenable to change?”

“Is he ever?  We have agreed certain…shall we say subtle…alterations?”

“And may I know them?”

“They must first be sanctioned by the Council.”

Ellar seems to accept this.

The descent from the watchtower is long; one hundred and forty stairs, eight landing levels.  Ellar takes them with a practised ease, though her mind is deeply troubled.  And Cassix, behind her, does not intrude upon her thoughts; he knows how hard is the road she travels.  He admires much in Ellar:  she is the mouthpiece of Hasuga, the link between Mother and the members of the Council.  And Hasuga’s demands are never easy to satisfy, in either their complexity or their immediacy.  When Ellar emerges into the private courtyard of the inner palace he assumes Hasuga will be waiting for her, and if she fails him it will almost certainly be at cost of her life.

 

 

Copyright 2019 Frederick Anderson

all rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

This book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.

Picture Credit:  Tom Morel on Unsplash

 

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 Chapter Two. The Bridge

I was staring down into the deep fissure formed by the banks where the town had met the river, long ago.  The water’s knife was blunted now, with neither fervour nor edge to cut its valley deeper, but the once-upon-a-time was easy to imagine…

When coal mines prospered, the river’s shore was called ‘The Fellings’, a vibrant pile of warehouses and small works stacked against the side of the valley, so tightly clustered the streets between were no more than alleys, narrow conduits leading down to the quay.  The river was a proper waterway in those days, a navigation for barges taking coal down to Bedeport, bound for steamers waiting to transport it to Europe and the world.  Days long gone.

The mines closed, one by one.  As trade diminished, so the river was neglected, until, in the early nineteen-sixties, they made a dam twelve miles upstream for a reservoir on Raddon Moor.   That was the end of the navigable water, and the end of industry on ‘The Fellings’.  Gradually those old thrown-together buildings tumbled, their windows boarded, their roofs caved.  The cobbled alleys that had rattled to a cacophony of iron wheel-rims and echoed to carters’ curses, now choked beneath the weight of lorries and cars.  Trains, like the coal, no longer came, so engineers widened an old viaduct that once used to carry the railway high across the valley, and they made it into a road bridge.   It was given a name, I suppose, but we never heard it:  we just called it ‘The Bridge’.

The Bridge was where Sue and I ended up, leaning on the stone parapet, after school that Summer Thursday. Hungry or not (a jam sandwich and a school dinner were all I had eaten in thirty-six hours) I didn’t want to go home.

I told Sue about Ma and our broken kitchen.    She nodded sombrely as I related the diary of my week, staring down at the ruined pile of The Fellings, and the river, so far below us.

“I shouldn’t worry.”  She said.  “She had a bit of a fit I reckon.  My mam throws things at my dad quite a lot.  They have a shout, she chucks a plate or two at him, then they go upstairs.”

“What, you mean like…..?”

Sue glared at me as if I was being deliberately obtuse.  “Yeah; well, they’re married, aren’t they?”

“But my Da’ wasn’t home.”  I pointed out.

“She was on her own?”

“Yes.”

Sue pondered this.   “She’s a manic oppressive, then.”  She diagnosed.  “I still shouldn’t worry.  She can get pills for it.”

“How long are they upstairs for?”

Sue giggled, nudging my ribs.   “Hours, sometimes.”

We parted, Sue to her tea and I to whatever awaited me behind a front door which, in a peculiar kind of way, no longer seemed to be mine.  I remember how long a walk it was that evening, across the town centre by the new road and through Addison’s Estate.   If I had known Trevor Bull would be out by the garages there I might have taken an even longer way.

A football smacked against my head, knocking me sideways.  As my vision cleared, it focussed on Trevor, who was leering at me.  Trevor was large and basic.  He had lips like cohabiting slugs.  “Hey, Spakker!  What’r you doin’ out?”

“Slumming, Trev.  Just slumming.”

“Oh yeah?  Get the ball for us, then.  Yeah?  Did y’hear what I say?  Get the ball for us, Spakker.”

A pair of Trevor’s hangers-on sidled into view from a burned-out garage, guffawing at what must have seemed a major diversion in their lives.  I was never able to attach names to Trevor’s sidekicks because they never went to school.  Trevor himself would visit there occasionally, usually after his da’ had been visited by the school inspectors.

The odds were three-and-a-half to one.  I retrieved the ball.  “Where d’you want it?”

“Don’t get lippy wi’ us, yer little frigger!  You got any money then?  Has mummy gived yer yer sweeties money, yeah?”

I had no cash to boost Trevor’s meagre income, and no inclination to donate if I had; the alternative, though, was to be ‘frisked’ by having my pockets torn off.  A quick calculation was necessary.   “Here.  Here’s your frigging ball!”

I punted the ball on my good foot, my right foot, with all the punch I would have used if a goal was open and Trevor was the goalkeeper.  Like a missile it flashed past his left hand to hit the side wall of one of the garages at his back.  Enough rebound remained to whack against Trevor’s calves, then pinball between his two sidekicks a few times: sufficient to afford a moment of confusion and space for me to sprint away, out of the Addison estate and back into the comparative civilisation of the South Town.  He was big and he was ugly, but I had one advantage over Trevor.  I was quicker – much quicker.  His ringing threats dwindled into distance behind me.  I was pursued for no more than a couple of streets.

Finding the front door of our house unlocked I went through all the rooms in search of Ma’.  There was no sign of her.  A five pound note on the table in the back room was accompanied by a scrap of a note in her scrawl;

‘Get your tea out’

I went to MacDonald’s – they had just opened then – and stuffed myself sick.

Our kitchen remained in wrecked condition for a couple more days, my Mam for about the same length of time.   She did reappear downstairs on Friday morning with a warning to “Say nowt to your Da’; understand?”  I got some tea that night, baked beans with egg, sausage and bacon, so I knew there had to be money in the house.   This fry-up was my favourite food in those days; a sort of apology from Ma’, though I knew the wrong that lurked in the still corners of the house had not been righted – would probably never be righted.    But I kept my side of the bargain by keeping my story from Da’, even agreeing with Ma’s explanation that she had just ‘leaned on the worktop a bit too hard’.

That Saturday the rain relinquished its hold for long enough to allow a morning stroll with Sue in bright sunshine along Rob Bentley Way to The Bridge.  I suppose I was too young to dwell on it at the time but thinking back I can see how changes were happening in my life.  A summer since I would not have dreamed that Sue Crabtree and I would be walking with one another on The Bridge. – Jonna had always been my companion then:  throughout our growing years we were sworn friends; amigos, inseparable.   Girls?  Well, girls were all right, but they had their own world, their own society.   Suddenly, though, the lines were becoming fudged, the divisions not so clear.

Sue in her shorts and a green halter top, me in a white t-shirt and jeans that had seen better days, we stopped to gaze down at the black lizard of river far below.

“It’s that high up, this!  It makes me giddy!”  Sue said.  “How can they do it?  I couldn’t, Chas.  I really couldn’t.”

“Maybe they sort of have to.  Like there’s no other way, or something?”

There was an expression in our town, known to us all.   To go ‘down The Bridge’ spoke of a final solution for some who had ended themselves by climbing over that parapet and leaping to the stony waters far below.  In our town, everyone knew someone who had gone that way.  With time and legend, the numbers had grown.

We walked on.  I was anxious not to stay.   No-one tarried longer than they had to on that bridge unless a memory drove them there, or for other, darker reasons.   Being even a distant cousin to someone who had taken the leap was sufficient to taint your name, and the memory of two unfortunate relatives blighted our family.  The association made us different in a sad, almost morbid way.  We became the earthly ghosts of those departed, the pale faces staring in at the window.

Sue said:  “Didn’t your Aunty May…”

And I cut her off.  “Yeah.  Yeah that’s right.  But I never knew her much.”

A half hour from town we left the footpath to trudge through long grass beside a farmer’s hedge, eyed as we passed by speculative sheep.   A small woodland of oak and beech led us back down to the river.  Here, where the sun could find us, in shelter from the wind, we could sit and talk about weighty things, or not talk about still more weighty things, and the time would melt away.

This was the river above the town, wooded on both sides; skittish from a playful squeeze between obdurate whinstone cliffs.  The water was deep and black and sometimes, when the hills were laden with rain it became a red roaring fury, jostling and barging through rocks which braced themselves grimly against the onslaught.  On such days it was dangerous to cross – you could stand just toe-deep in the current and the pull on your foot could make you slip   Even today, with the flow still bloated after a week of rain, the wisest thing would be to remain on the northern bank: but we were young; we were not wise.   And Sue, so nimble, leapt from stone to stone like the young deer she was.   I could only admire and follow.

“It’s wrong, you know.”   Sue stretched her shoulders.   “They don’t move.”

We had found a patch of shorter grass already drying in fierce sun.  Side by side, we sat staring at the rush of water.

“How d’you mean?”  Sue’s top exposed more of her flesh than I was used to seeing, and I was distracted by a tiny mole on her right shoulder.  “You’re not going to go on about your stick again, are you?”

Years ago, when she first came to this place – long before I knew of its existence – Sue told me she had pushed a stick into the soft ground on the higher riverbank;  just beyond reach of the water.  By standing in a certain place, her back to a certain tree, she could line the stick up with a tree on the other side of the river, her idea being to track any movement of the larger boulders on the river bed.

“They tell us how the river carries stones and rocks downstream.  They’re wrong; it doesn’t.”

“Suppose someone moved your stick?”

Sue shook her head.   “I’d know.  I think the water only moves the smaller stones.  Glaciers have to do the big stuff.”

“That’s no good, then, is it?  We haven’t had a glacier down here in years.”

Without thinking, I had let my fingertips explore Sue’s skin around that mole, intrigued, I suppose, by its slight imperfection.  My absent, soporific expression gave me away.  She flashed me a quirky smile.

“You’re not going to start getting funny, are you?”

I felt my colour rising.  What had I done?  “Funny?  Nah!”

I grasped my hands around my knees, wrapping them almost convulsively to my chest, and stared hard at the river.  And even though I knew when Sue’s hand softly brushed my neck, and I heard her say gently:  “It’s all right, Chas.”  I held myself rigid.

They kept happening!  I didn’t like them, those awkward, clumsy moments; like an afternoon by the old jetty two weeks before when Sue had planted a spontaneous kiss on my cheek, in front of our sniggering friends.

“Careful!  You’ll get him going!”  Sarah Coldbatch had warned.   She didn’t really know what she meant, of course, and neither did I, but she made it sound like kick-starting a motorbike.

“I’d better get back.”  I said, when I dared scramble to my feet.

Sue agreed.  “Yeah.”

“I’m going to football this afternoon.”

“With Jonna?”

“Yeah.”

Few words were exchanged as we walked back to the town.  Yet, if we seemed awkward, tongue-tied, there was nothing broken, or even bruised between us, and I remember Sue’s hand finding mine, and how I clasped it with new-found meaning.  No, we were faster, deeper friends.  We had simply found a new level, one which was confusing to us both.  It was something we had to work out.

As we crossed The Bridge we came upon John Hargreave, elbows resting on the same parapet that had supported us, an hour before.  John’s chin rested on his hands, and his eyes looked empty and remote, intent upon something in the far distance.

“Now then, John!”  I said. Sue joined in with my greeting.

John responded slowly.  “Chas; Susan.”  He did not turn, or acknowledge us in any other way.  Somehow, we knew he did not want our company, and we walked by.

Sue glanced back over her shoulder.  “Is he all right, do you think?”  She was concerned.

“It’s just Greavesie,” I said. “He’s deep, yeah?”  But I worried, nonetheless.

John Hargreave, the quiet, thoughtful one; whose thoughts were never spoken, but kept hidden somewhere inside him until a time of his choosing.  John Hargreave was the clever one in our little group, and we were friends, but always somehow at arms’ length.  No-one I knew had or would get close to John.

I said goodbye to Sue at the corner of Ox Terrace.  We faced each other with the same awkwardness we had felt after that moment at the river bank, filled with an emotion new to us, feeling more than a little frightened.  I thought she would just walk away, was not ready for her quick kiss on my cheek, or the squeeze of my hand.  Then she was gone.  I watched her easy, swinging gait until she was lost to view.

My birthday was still a month away, and it was suddenly important to me.  I could not wait to be fifteen.

 

© 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.