A Place that was Ours. Chapter Nine – Moving On.

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“I don’t know, Chas, do I?”  Sarah Coldbatch protested. “I’m not Sue’s keeper.  She’s gone, that’s all I know.”

“Said nowt to none of us, man.”  Jonna declared in his girlfriend’s support.  “Joost booggered off, middle of the night, Dave said.”

The scene was MacDonalds on the Friday morning, the day after my case.  It should have been a time for celebration, had I not been told of Sue’s unexpected departure.  The joy of my small victory had dwindled to dust alongside this news, and I was trying to get more information.

“Looka,”   Jonna leaned across the table;  “She were changed, Chas.  Affer you’s had that run in wi’ ‘er Da, she barely spoke to us, nivver!  She coomed to school wi’ Dave, she walked ‘ome wi’ Dave.  She divvent want ter know us, man!”

Sarah nodded.  “It was like she couldn’t wait to get away; from the school, from us, from ever’thing.   I Mean, we were her friends, y’kna?”

Jonna said:  “We didn’t wanna tell yer. Chas man, ‘cause yer were hurtin’ enough already, y’kna?  ‘Cause it wasn’t nuffin’ terr’ble nor nowt.  She was jus’ stand offish, like.”

What were my feelings?  I was worried, I was puzzled; maybe I was a little confused.  I tried to express these conflicting emotions to John Hargreave, when I called at his house later that day.   He was evasive, to begin, and tried to divert the conversation to other matters:  did I feel relieved now the court case was over, what were my plans for the coming football season, how was I going to serve my forty hours of community service?  I gave answers, inasmuch as I knew them, to each of these things.

“Have you seen this?”  We were in his bedroom.  He reached for a magazine that lay open on his desk and thrust it at me.  Photographs of some unattractive black electronics dominated the page.  “That’s the future, man!   Analogue cellular phones, Chas!  No strings, yeah?  You can carry them around with you, make calls from them, get calls on them.   They’re the future!  America’s got them, Japan’s got them, Australia, Israel – we’ll be having them next – think o’ that!”

I remember my scepticism.  I never shared John’s gift for prediction.  To me, the prospect of carrying something around which resembled in appearance and probably weighed the equivalent of a house brick seemed uninspiring.  I said so.

“They’re just the first.  They’ll get smaller, you’ll see!  Give it five years and everyone will have one.”  His tone was suddenly grave.  “She always fancied you, you know?”

“Sue?”

“Aye, daft really, the way it works.  She liked you, right from when we were nay high.  I liked her, she didn’t even notice me.  Seems to me girls decide like that.  No reason in it, none at all.  I’m cleverer than you, I’m better lookin’ than you, and she still  picked you, y’bastard .”

“And now she’s unpicked me. So we’ve both lost, haven’t we?”  I said.

“She must have took her sunglasses off.”  John nodded.  “I miss her.”

“Even without her glasses?”  On reflection, I must have been aware of the candle John held for Sue, but I had taken little account of it until now.  John was, in Sue’s assessment, ‘deep’, and that was undeniably so; his heart was buried deep, a treasure in a labyrinth where only those who had need could find it, but it was a strong heart and loyal, and it served his true friends, be they few, with unswerving faith.

“So you’ll be off with Angela Carey, now then?”  John asked.  “You’ve pulled there, man.  You must have noticed?”

“Aye.  I’m not much in need of a lass right now.”  I said.  “I was hoping to find Sue.”

“Aye.”  My friend burrowed into a sheaf of papers on his desk and extracted a large photograph.  “Seen this?  While you was busy getting’ your end away ah took a train down to Heathrow for the day.  Took that from the observation deck, man!  That is one radical aeroplane, isna?”

“Yes, it is.”  I found myself looking at an extremely good picture of a British Airways Concorde, taken as it approached the terminal buildings from a taxi lane, and I had to remind myself that by entering John’s room I was voluntarily immersing myself in his world of technological enchantment, because that was the essence of him – it was where he found solace when reality proved too painful, as it often did, for John.

“The day after you left school she came back – she’d been on ‘study leave’ or something, at least that’s what was said –  and she hardly spoke to any of us.  She just sat through lessons, answered the questions Chemical Carter asked, stayed in the classroom for breaks, sat at a separate table wi’ Dave for dinners; all that.  She came to school with Dave, she walked home with Dave.  It was like he was her bodyguard, or summat; and he wouldn’t say anything, neither.  We used to have good chats, Dave and me.  Weird!”

“She was under pressure.”  I surmised.

“Off her Da’, you reckon?  Mebbe’s.  How well d’y’know him, Chas?  He’s serious.”

I shook my head.  “I thought I knew him quite well, once.  Mind, it could have been her Ma who was leaning on her.  Jonna says she left in the middle of the night.”

“Aye.  We did get Dave to tell us that much.  It was like he didn’t want to talk about it at all, y’na?  She slipped out in the night, he reckons.  She packed some stuff, cleared her savings book the day afore.  Not even her Ma and Da’ knew.  Just sneaked off.  Doesn’t seem sense to me – she was due to sit her GCEs in a couple of months. Everything goin’ for her, man.  Doesn’t seem sense.”

“She was supposed to be going to live with her aunt, or someone, in Bedeport – study for her ‘A’ levels there, at the college.”

“I know a couple of lasses who go there.”  John volunteered.  “I can find out if she’s there, easy enough.”

It would be a week or two before I knew for certain.  Sue was not attending Bedeport college.

What do you do?  What do you do at sixteen, with all your life before you and a love already in your past?  This you do not do – you do not forget.  You try to find someone who has left this massive hole in your life:  you ask questions, you follow trails that were not taken, you ponder and reason and scheme within yourself as you try to understand; but you are young and your days are full, and with time you learn to consign to the past that which belongs there.

Yes, you ask: at the railway station if anyone remembers a dark-haired girl with blue eyes who boarded an early morning train, at the bus station, the cab drivers your mother knows, even your own mother if she could have taken Susan’s call one night.  You try to get to talk to her other friends, to visit the club where she went to practice Judo, the amdram group where she was cast to play in a Christmas pantomime; but all you find are dropped threads, others as clueless as yourself.  With time and without funds eventually there is no other place to turn, so you cease your search.   Then, finally, you move on.

Carlo made pizzas.  His Emporio Da Pizza wafted an air of toasting cheese and baking bread down the length of Front Street every night promptly at six o’clock, drawing a steady dribble of customers, and no matter if the occasional ‘roach might be seen tanning itself in the reflected heat of his stone oven, his food had a reputation of which he was proud.

“Is the best, the ingredients I use.  Is the tomatoes, sun-dried fresh from Napoli, the best-a mozzarella of the buffalo of my blessed country, the finest pepperoni!  Is beautiful, that I cook!  Is perfecto!”

I met Carlo while my community service group was cleaning the alley behind his Emporio.  He wanted a delivery rider and I wanted a job, so I will always be grateful to Carlo.  From him I learned the joys of riding a motorised vehicle because a scooter with a set of ‘L’ plates came with the package.  He even financed my first licence.

The very first thing I learned about Carlo was his nationality, because Carlo was an Italian of convenience.  His real name was Carl, he actually came from Sheffield, and although he insisted he had an Italian grandfather somewhere I was inclined to believe his parentage was shrouded in mystery.  To his customers, he was from Napoli, which was probably the only Italian city name he knew.  At the back of his shop, in his storeroom, or when the takeaway was devoid of clientele, his accent and his dialect was broad Yorkshire.

Then there was all I gained in knowledge from Carlo.  He taught me how to make his ‘perfecto’ pizza; how to knead and spin the dough into a symmetrical base and how to deck it with the buffalo mozzarella that was analogue cheese, the tomatoes that originated in a tin and the pepperoni that came from Tesco’s.  In short, he taught me much about the quintessence of commercial success; that it is not the integrity of the item you sell but the intensity of its presentation.

“You buy-a from me you buy the finest – the very finest!”

His customers believed him.  They believed him knowing if you wanted pizza the alternatives in Casterley were even worse, or because they liked his floor show, or after ten o’clock because they were so drunk it didn’t matter anyway.

Carlo was kind.   “You ask-a my people he work for me I am a generous man, no?”

“Carlo, can I take the scooter home tonight?”

“Aye, lad, awreet.  Keep it in yer yard, mind, we don’t want it stolen do we?”

He would agree, such was his faith that I would return the bike to him promptly at six the following night.  If it would start, of course.  That was a lottery in itself.

In the meantime, football dominated more and more of my days, as my involvement with Casterley Town Juniors grew.   Although our fixtures were limited in number, I played in all twenty matches against the other Junior teams in our league, and I scored at least one goal in each.  By the following summer we were second in the league and I was the top scorer.   By the summer of ‘eighty-eight I was eager for another season, and indecently pleased with myself.

It took Jonna to remind me of my fan club:  Angela.

“When’re yer gonna date the poor lass, man?  She’s gorrit sommat chronic fer thee, like.   Ah’m tempted ter try for ‘er mesen’.  Ah cud let her use me fer a night so she’s cud get to thee.  Wha’ d’yer think o’ that?”

“I think that would be immoral.”  I told him.  “And I wouldn’t advise it, like.  What if Sarah found out? She’d eat you alive!”

Jonna broached the subject in December, the middle of the season.  I was zealous in my asceticism.  Dating was out.  But came spring there was Angela, still faithfully cheering in the home stand, and I weakened.  From the terraces above the tunnel one Saturday in April, the last before our season closed, after a wet match on a soaked pitch, most of which I seemed to be carrying back into the dressing room with me, I couldn’t have seemed at my most attractive.

I called up to her.  “Hi, Ange.  What are you doing after?”

Her face lit up.  “Oh, not much.”

With that Angela Carey and I became friends.   We hung out together that first evening at Mr Pellosi’s, an ice cream parlour in the town, and we talked.  Actually, Angela did most of the talking; rather as though she had been saving up everything she wanted to say to me for a year of distant longing and this was her time to let it out.  Her voice was light and musical, her eyes were icy blue and bright as air, and it was a very pleasant evening, although, looking back upon it now, I cannot remember one thing she said.  I walked her home in the rain to a house very like my own in a street quite near to mine.  She was still talking, her eyes flashing with relections of the lamplight – because somehow evening had turned into night, and at her door her face came suddenly to within inches of mine, inviting a kiss.  Was I ready for that yet?  Did I even think before our lips were touching, reminding me painfully of a sweetness I had almost forgotten?  When she stepped away she was aglow with happiness, so I was happy too, for a time.  Yes, I was ready for that.

“Can I see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah, if you want.”

“Yeah, I want.”

The stamping feet of conscience were loud on the street behind me as I walked home.  Almost a year had passed when all I had of Sue was memories and regrets, yet she still spoke quietly in my head, reminding me of our brief moment of union.  A tiny demon, a creature I had kept buried in my psyche for a year sat upon my shoulder now, refreshing my conclusion that love meant trouble.  Attachment always ended in pain.  Concentrate on who you are and where you want to be, and never permit anyone to distract you from your path.  Angela was very, very distracting.

Nevertheless, I fell into a relationship with her.  It was so easy.  She expected nothing from me, and that was her gift.   If I was late, or if I cancelled an outing we planned together she did not complain; if I became impatient or angry she would remain quiet and step aside to let me flail at the cruel air for a while, knowing when to come close – knowing I would return to her when I was tired and ready to bathe in the calmness she bestowed.  Her talk could flow over me and around me like warm rain, no matter that it lacked the food my intellect required.  Angela was nothing about intellect:  she was everything about presence and, I suppose, about love.  Did I ever love her?  To answer in the negative would seem unkind because she was no cypher, and all she gave to me should be acknowledged and honoured, but we were only seventeen.  I felt privileged to be with her, and I think, conceited as I am, she had some love for me.  We enjoyed each other, for a while.

Angela taught me that beauty was power, a lesson that has helped me through many a honey trap moment since those days.   Motorists would stop at a pedestrian crossing when she was still ten yards from it, just so they could watch her cross in front of them, and maybe harvest a smile.  Once, taking her home (illegally, because I was a learner) on the back of Carlo’s scooter the inevitable happened and a police motorcyclist pulled me over.  My background being as it was, I quaked as the copper took out his notebook.  Then Angela unclipped her helmet and shook out her long blonde hair, and the notebook disappeared.   I could never completely define that quality in her, but some of it must have been down to her natural grace and some to her complete lack of angst or defiance.  She exuded gentleness.

So that was my seventeenth year:  Angela was my girl, John Hargreave was my friend, and football was my life.   My photo appeared twice in the sports pages that season so I thought of myself as a pretty important member of small town society – hard though it may have been to equate such high status with a job delivering pizzas.  Had you seen me then, you might have felt that my preposterous self-importance deserved a sharp dose of ego-puncture.  Certainly there were cauldrons bubbling – in terms of celebrity Mackenzie Crabtree outdid me by three to one.  A member of the council now, rumour suggested Mackenzie had his eye on selection as the local Member of Parliament; something of no concern to me, were it not for increasing evidence of the Crabtree finger in every pie.  Mack’s portly figure made front page news for our local ‘paper – attending this or opening that; his money loudly supportive of good causes, his opinions sought on matters as diverse as local housing and national politics.  And Shelley?  Shelley was always on his arm, supporting him or, in my mother’s more acid opinion, being supported.

“Look at ‘er eyes, Chas.  She’s ‘ad a skinful, that one!”

I regretted that there seemed no longer any prospect of personal contact between the Crabtrees and my mother.   I might have wished it otherwise, because it offered the only means to gain information about Sue, but my mother was adamant.

“I’ll never talk to that bitch again!”  And that was that.

Dave Crabtree had been moved to Ramphill, a private school over the river, down Lambtree way, apparently to help his ‘A’ level studies and prepare him for university entrance.  We rarely encountered Dave, and if we did he ignored us.

One evening in July of 1988, just before my eighteenth birthday, Carlo dispatched me with a pizza order for Rossiter’s Hotel.  Rossiter’s, a relatively new concrete barn on the riverside about two miles east of Casterley, is one of those anonymous multi-room establishments frequented by the business community, and popular because of its proximity to Bedeport.   Orders for pizza emanated from there quite frequently, so this was a routine call.  I knocked on the door of room 41.  It opened promptly.

The man whose tall and substantial figure greeted me had a face and a voice I recognised.

“Mr Benton!”

The face grinned at me.  It was a very broad, Cheshire Cat, ear-to-ear grin.   “Ranton; call me Allen.”  He said, standing aside for me.  “Come in, Chas.  Is this my pizza?  Do you want a share?”

“I – I have to be getting back.”  I stammered.  Two years before, I remembered meeting  Allen Ranton while training with Jack Master’s football class.   Then he had been wrapped in an expensive suede jacket, sufficiently opulent for Jonna to suggest he might be a chicken ripe for the plucking., Back then he had commented upon my conduct in the tackle.  Now, three seasons later, I understood what he had meant.  I was in the congenial presence of a man who really knew about football.

“Don’t worry, lad.  I had a word with your boss, Carlo.  He isn’t expecting you back for a while.

Come and sit down, Chas.  We’ve got summat to talk about.”  He had a habit, I remembered, of leaning close to me, bending over me from his superior height and looking down.  I had grown since then, yet not enough to meet him eye to eye.  A coffee table with two tub chairs were clustered beside the room’s large window and he threw the pizza box down on the table, planting himself in one of the chairs, waving to the other.  “Here y’are, don’t be shy lad.  Grab a piece!”

He led by example, grabbing a fistful of Four Seasons and stuffing his cheeks with it.  Trying to catch up with this string of surprises, I followed more timidly, picking at a slice of pizza as I slithered into the chair and wondering what could possibly be happening.

Allen was not averse to speaking with his mouth full.  “Right!  Now this isn’t complicated.   Do you know what I do?  No.  Alright, I’m an agent.  You know what an agent is, right?  Well, I’m one.  I represent footballers.   Why do footballers need me?  Because the bastards who want them to play in their teams try to tie them up as tight as possible and pay them as little as possible.   I do the scrapping, I do the bargaining, I do the politics, Chas.   I get players the money they deserve and more besides.  Now, lad, do you know what this is?”  A briefcase was stashed, open, beside his chair and from it he produced a binder full of A4 sheets.

My eyes must have been as wide as saucers by then.  “A contract?”

“That’s right.  You catch on quick; I like that.  It’s a contract with your name on it, Charles Haggerty, and if you sign it you will be bound to me.  I’ll explain why…”

And explain Ranton did.  He showed me his ‘client list’, names familiar to me as among the top earners in football.  Then he told me how his business thrived on new, young talent, and how he took no more than a basic fee while he ‘developed them’ through the game.

“If I didn’t think you had the ability, lad, I wouldn’t be having this conversation; there’s no money in it for me, not at this stage.  But you’ve got a future, and if you’re my client it’ll be profitable for both of us.”

That was when he dropped the bombshell.  “Casterley Town are interested in you.  They want you in the team for the beginning of the season.”

I remember it so well.  I think – no, alright, I admit, though I’m not proud of it – I burst into tears.  Allen thrust a napkin at me.

“Don’t get too excited.  I’m sure you know they’re in danger of dropping out of the league, and most of the team make up their earnings from their old age pension, so they won’t pay you much, although there are some politics involved – you needn’t bother with them – which give us leverage.”   He passed the contract to me.  “Now I don’t want you to sign this tonight.  Take it with you, show it to a solicitor, make sure you’re happy with everything.  If you are, sign it and give it to Jack Masters when you see him on Wednesday.  He’ll see that I get it.  Don’t put it off, though, I need to get the deal sorted soon.”

 

© 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 Eight – Nel and the Albino

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The shadow of my forthcoming court appearance loomed large on the Wednesday evening when I dutifully turned up for football practice with Casterley Town Juniors.  I was so preoccupied with the prospect (as foretold by Trevor Bull) of a certain custodial sentence that even the news I would be wearing the number seven shirt for our season’s first match two weeks thence did little to lighten my mood.  I said nothing, but privately doubted I would be able to honour that commitment.  Danny, picked to wear the number eight, tried his best to encourage me, although he was as much aware of the sitting magistrates’ fearsome reputation as Trevor.

“H’away, man, it might not be that bad, y’na?  Time soon passes, dunnit?”

The general ethos that evening was ecstatic:  Casterley Juniors had only beaten Maberley Juniors twice in twenty years, and never by a margin of three goals.   Danny and I were interlopers, though, which caused a certain amount of atmosphere despite Jack Masters’ careful avoidance of any particularly targeted praise.  My newspaper article did not help.  Throughout the session I was reminded of my new-found fame:

“Don’t just sit on’t ball, man, pass it to The Star!”

“Star!  Star!  Ah’m bloody out here, man.  Hand it off!”

We were to practice again the following week for our impending match with Hall Park.  This was to be an away game against a side with a tendency towards the physical.  Jack’s comment as we broke up betrayed his concern:

“If you haven’t got shin guards, buy some!”

Dusk was gathering as I turned the corner into our street, one of those rare, rose-red sunsets that cast a wash of pink over grey tarmac, grey slates and grey walls.   Our town, never beautiful, never sensual, clothes its native hills with a beguiling dignity at certain times and this was one.   Such was the oasis of peace I found there, the sense of tranquil waters in a day of stormy seas, that I caught myself softening my tread upon the paving, as if in reverence.  But then, suddenly, the Wednesday peace was shattered.  An ancient Audi, a road warrior, screeched around one corner at speed, blasted its discordant anger at walls that rattled back, screeched around another corner, and was gone.   In its memory it left a pungent aroma of hot catalyser, a blue haze and a deeper, more silent silence.

Sue was erased from my life unless, somehow, I could fight for her.  A disturbance, climactic and profound, that had been as brief as a warrior car in its passing, with as much nobility, as much intractable fury as a fierce act of love could muster, now over and silent ever after.  Just a blue haze of memory and a darker, deeper silence.  I would always love her, I would never forget her.  Did she, would she, remember me?

‘This is how it’s got to be, Chas.  It’s for the best.’

A slam of a front door, the door of my home, brought me to myself.  A female figure, tall and formidable, was storming away up the street in a fusillade of heels.   Shelley Crabtree, freshly outraged.

I found my mother in our living room, pacing angrily.

“What did she want?”  I asked.

“What did she want?  What did she want?”  My mother shrilled.  “You might well ask, what did she want!  T’think I used to be friends wi’ that woman!  Bloody bitch!  Bloody, friggin’ bitch!”

Not for a long while, not since her last towering row with my father, had I seen my mother so incensed.  She was wringing her hands so tightly her knuckles were white and the muscles in her neck stood as proud and taut as hawsers.  Those eyes I had thought to have cried themselves dry many years ago were red with tears.

“Chas; Chas, pet.  They’ve got it all sorted out!  Mack, he knows the magistrates.  That cow, she wants you to plead guilty to buggering her bloody windows, plead guilty to all of it, or…”

“Oh aye?”  I couldn’t keep the tremor from my voice; “Or what, Ma?”

“Or she says Mack’s going to have you charged with rape.”  My mother shook her head convulsively, as though trying to loose herself from the malevolent black crow of misfortune that had sunk its talons in her skull.  “Oh, and she’s goin’ to dob us in for workin’ on the knock, and I don’ kna’ what else, so ah’l have nae money.  Oh, Chas, man!”

Ours was not a tactile relationship.  I could not remember the last time I had put my arms around my mother in an embrace.  It felt awkward, I felt inhibited, even now when I could tell how desperately she needed – not so much to be loved, but to know she was not standing against her world alone.   I held her, feeling the strangeness of unaccustomed intimacy, for a while, until those tightened sinews in her neck and shoulders relaxed.   “Is that what I’m to do, then?”  I asked her at last.  “Do you want me to say I’m guilty, Ma?”

She plucked a grubby handkerchief from her sleeve to mop her eyes.  “I dunno.  You didn’t do nothing bad to young Susan, did you?  Tell me you didn’t Chas:  tell me the truth, pet!”

“No, Ma, I didn’t.  I wouldn’t ever hurt Sue; you must know that.”

“That’s the truth, is it then?  I suppose I do.”  My mother sniffed, drawing back from me.  “As much as I kna’ anythin’ anymore.”

“Why is she doing this?”  I wondered.  “She doesn’t think I should go out with her daughter; well, she’s fixed that.  Does Mack honestly believe I attacked his house?  What’s it about?”

“If I knew, son, I’d tell yer.  I don’t know.  You’ll have to decide what’s best to do.  I’m going to tell Bertie I can’t work for him no more, unless he puts me on his books.  We’ll have to manage on just the benefits if I can’t get nothing else.”

I carried the mystery of it all away to my bed that night, lying awake for long hours into the morning, thinking about what was to come, listening to the clock ticking down, and wondering why I did not quite believe my mother.

Thursday dawned, as all dread days inevitably must.  I dressed in my best charity shop shirt, tie, bomber and trousers, then my mother summoned me downstairs, already feeling like an errant schoolboy, to be cooked a wholesome breakfast of fried eggs with sausages, fried bread and black pudding.   As an only child who rarely ate more than cereal and toast for breakfast it was hard for me to escape the inference; perhaps this was to be my last meal at home for some time – Ma was not expecting me back for tea.

Mother and son, then, we sat side by side on the Bedeport bus, rattled and jarred like two wooden marionettes; facing forward, unspeaking, thoroughly ill at ease.  The Casterley to Bedeport route included a bus stop right outside the County Court building.   It was a request stop, so the moment either of us stood to press the bell our destination and our purpose was clear.  I could feel the eyes of the other passengers on my back as we descended to the street, and as the bus pulled away behind us, my mother and I, I am sure I heard the jury go into session.

The County Court was a modern building, light and spacious.  Perhaps its generously proportioned vestibule, or maybe the people who were already waiting there, made me feel intimidated,?    Nel Kershaw, who stood apart from them, earnestly warned us against speaking to anyone.  This for the benefit of my mother, who had already bridled at the sight of Shelley and Mackenzie Crabtree, engaged in discussion with a man of middle years whose improbably luxuriant white hair overflowed his collar.

“You look smart!”  Nel treated me to a bright smile.  “Be yourself, Charles, okay, and whatever you do, be respectful.  Don’t get cross.”

“I won’t” I assured her.  “Who’s the albino?”

She chuckled.  “He’s representing The Crown.  His name is Charles, too.  Charles Cole – and he isn’t an albino!   Try to relax, everyone here has your welfare in mind.     We want to do what’s best for you.”

“They don’t!”  My mother responded bluntly, nodding towards the Crabtrees.

An hour elapsed before we were ushered into the courtroom by a spare, sallow clerk.    Whatever my expectations, the room seemed innocuous enough, as amply lit as the waiting area and lined with light oak veneer.  There were seats laid out in three rows and a dock, but I took a chair beside Nel in  the front row of seats.  My mother sat on the row behind us, Mr. Cole on the front row to our right, the Crabtrees in the seats behind him, and the detective constable from the day of my arrest, with a burly companion (obviously there to restrain any over-exuberance on my part) to the right of my mother.  Three red leather-backed chairs faced us from behind a close-fronted desk on a dais at the front of the room, and a substantial woman with a stenotype occupied a little booth to the left.   We were asked to stand as a door beside the red chairs opened and the two magistrates entered.

“Only two?”  I whispered to Nel.   After all, there were three chairs, weren’t there?

“For a case like this, yes.”  She nodded.  “Sometimes it’s three.”

They seated themselves on two of the red chairs, the magistrates, and we sat down too.  Throughout my appearance I remained unsure which was Councillor Taylor and which was Mr Stuart March.  I improvised my own identification, naming the bloated, bucolic man in blazer and cords Councillor Taylor, because he was reasonably close to my image of how a Councillor should look.  Ruddy in appearance, almost hairless, when he sat down his eyes bulged like a frog.  His companion, he whom I entitled Stuart March, fitted my mind’s image of a magistrate:  grey suited, thin, wispy, and generously thatched.   He seemed to have a crooked back, for throughout my hearing his head remained bowed, forcing him to look at me through a pair of brambly eyebrows.

The one I have named Taylor stared down upon us.   “Who is the accused here?”  His voice was breathy, and the breath was short, so he spoke in gusts.

Nel made a gesture of rising to her feet, and nodded in my direction.  “Charles Haggerty, your worship.”

Taylor addressed the pale, slight man who had ushered us in.   “Mr Trevelyan, this is a criminal case, isn’t it?”

“Er, yes Sir.”

“Very well, then, put the accused in the dock.  We won’t have slipshod standards in our court.”

Nel muttered:  “Oh, really!”  A heavy police hand clamped on my shoulder and propelled me from my seat around the back of the room to the little pulpit enclosure that was an accusation in itself.   Mackenzie Crabtree observed my progress, his face creased in a sneer that was less than pleasant, but it was Nel’s protest that encouraged me.   “May I respectfully remind your worships that Mr Haggerty is a juvenile?”

“We need no such reminder, young woman.”  March retorted.  “Read the charges, if you please, Mr Trevelyan?”

Little Trevelyan recited the allegations against me.  Taylor stared at me:  “Mr Haggerty, I trust you are going to save us all a lot of time by entering a guilty plea to this?”

Nel’s fury wafted up to me.  I could almost hear her tongue being bitten.  “Sir, my client wishes to enter separate pleas to each charge.”  Taylor flashed daggers at her.  He sighed heavily.  “Very well.  Read each charge individually, Mr Trevelyan.”

And Mr. Trevelyan did.  I entered my guilty plea to the charge of damage to William Hill’s shop window, then pleaded innocence to the others.  The Crabtrees’ reaction to this was barely restrained:  Mackenzie twisted his neck to look back at me with such explosive anger I startled like a scared rabbit, while Shelley hissed something inaudible across the centre aisle at my mother.  My mother showed no restraint at all.

“Don’t threaten me, yer slattern!”   She got to her feet, advancing on Shelley, and forcing the Detective Constable to step quickly across her path.

March’s voice slid between them like a flow of arctic ice.   “Order in this court.  Madam, if you interrupt proceedings again we shall evict you.  Sit down.”

The chill was contagious, apparently.   My mother sat down as if she had been punched.  I caught a glimpse of Mr Trevelyan’s raised eyebrows.  In her little booth the stenographer, who had been typing every sniff, continued tapping with the confidence of one who knew how to spell ‘slattern’.

Details of damage to the shop window were read out, together with an estimate of costs.  Mackenzie gave his evidence, prompted expertly by the albino, giving him opportunity to accuse me of assaulting his daughter.  Nel rose to her feet to object – I was not being tried for attacking Ms Crabtree.

Nel was ruthlessly efficient in dissecting Mackenzie’s story.   She asked him to recognise a copy of his own statement to the police, and as he squinted and leant forward to read it she pounced.   “This is no more than six feet away in broad daylight and you have difficulty in reading it, Mr Crabtree.  How close do you claim to have been to this assailant, standing as you were in your first floor window, at night, overlooking your unlit drive?”

“I saw him clearly.  He broke our windows.  It was his voice shouting.  It was him.”  Mackenzie pointed straight at me.  “He’s a danger to me and my family.  He should be put away.”

It was my mother’s fifth shouted accusation of “liar!” at about this time that finally got her thrown out of the courtroom.  Thereafter proceedings ground on for another hour; evidence from the arresting officer and production of a file by Mr Trevelyan that was, if I recall, Hubert Powell’s report concerning my adequacy as a human being; throughout all of which their worshipss slouched in their leather-backed chairs with expressions of bored disinterest.   The clock was nudging midday when the albino produced David Crabtree’s written testimony that he had seen me in the Crabtree’s drive when the windows had been broken.

Nel was on her feet instantly.  “Is he here?  Your worships, this is a material witness.  We have a right to cross-examine.”

Taylor huffed.  “I’m afraid she’s right, Mr. Cole.  Can you produce him?”

“Not immediately, your worship.”

“Well, you had better try to find him.  Madam..erm…Kershaw, do you have anyone else you want to call?”

“I have a witness who will testify my client was at home at the time of the alleged offence, sir.”

“Is this person here?” March enquired.

“Somewhere, sir.  You evicted her.”

“Ah.  His mother then.  No doubt she will insist he was playing cards with her, or some such.  Is her testimony corroborated?  No, of course it wouldn’t be, would it?  Let’s move on, shall we,  Mr. Cole?”

The albino assented. Nel tried to object, but Taylor dismissed her with a gesture.  She said, coldly: “I’d like the opportunity for my client to take the stand?”

“Very well, we’ll adjourn for an hour.  Get some lunch.  Mr. Cole, if you can produce your witness we’ll hear his testimony, and that of Mr Haggerty, when we re-convene.  If not, we’ll make our judgement on the evidence we have.  We’ve spent enough time on this”

Outside in the corridor there was visible panic in the Crabtree camp.  Nel commented.  “They somehow have to get young David here for one o’clock if they want his evidence to be admissible.  I can only think that they believed he wouldn’t be needed.  In other words, they had reason to suppose you would plead guilty.   Could that be true?”

My mother watched Shelley Crabtree as she hastened away towards the telephone booths at the end of the foyer.  “Her.”  She said.  She told her story of the previous evening, inducing Nel’s eyebrows to rise higher and higher.

“Really?  Mr Crabtree made that accusation just this morning, didn’t he?  Look, I have to do some catching up – life goes on, back at the office.  I’ll meet you here again at One.”

“Miss Kershaw?”  I caught her as she was turning away.

“Call me Nel, please.  What is it Charles?”

“Have we got a chance?”

“I don’t know.  We’ll soon see.”

My mother was even less encouraging, if that was possible.  “I don’t know, son.  All the while I was in there, them two mag’strates just sat like they was half asleep, not payin’ attention, y’kna?  I think they’d got their minds made up before they comed out of that door, meself.”

We ate some sandwiches my mother had packed, sitting on a bench in a small park behind the court building.  The wind was rising, clouds gathering for rain.  As people rushed about us, hither and thither, I wondered what detention would be like, and how, once I was inside, I would pass the time.  It could not be for long, my incarceration, but suddenly freedom seemed extraordinarily important, somehow.

My mother nudged me.  “Leave yer crumbs for the pigeons, pet.  Time we was getting back.”

Shelley had not been able to find her son, so Nel moved that his evidence be set aside, and this was accepted, grudgingly as I thought, by Councillor Taylor.  All that was left was for me to take the stand and read off the oath that was written on the card:  “I swear by Almighty God that…”

Nel questioned me kindly.  She asked me to repeat my guilty plea to the shop window damage, then confirm my innocence of the other charges.  “Where were you when the alleged crimes were committed?”

“I was at home.”

“And you had no knowledge of offences against Mr Crabtree’s home and person until you learned about them in your interview with Detective Constable Worsley?”

“None.”

Did you break the windows of Mr Crabtree’s home?”

“No.”

“Did you threaten Mr Crabtree’s person?”

“No.”

The albino (as I had entitled him – his eyes were actually brown) stood up.  “Mr Haggerty, I’m puzzled.  Why are you so antagonistic towards Mr Crabtree?”

I shook my head.  “I’m not.  He used to be friends with my Da.”

“And yet you were heard shouting your threats of violence against him in the street, at the dead of night, and you broke a shop window.  Why?”

“His daughter was a – a close friend.  He took her away, told me I couldn’t see her anymore.  I was drunk.  I didn’t mean the things I said.”

“The exact words you used, I believe, were: ‘I’m going to slit him’.  Is that right?”

“It’s just an expression, sir.  Not something I was going to do. I know that was wrong.  I’ll never use those words again.”  I added, humbly.

“Yet you did use them again – those exact words – to his face, as he looked down on you from his bedroom window.”

“No, sir.  I wasn’t there.  I didn’t go to his house.  I never, sir.”

As soon as Cole had finished questioning me, Nel stood up.  “One further question, Charles.  Earlier, Mr. Crabtree accused you of assault against his daughter.  Is that true?”

“No, Ma’am.  I would never hurt Sue.  I love her.”

Other than the growls of Crabtree protest at my declaration, the room dropped into an expectant hush.  Their worships Taylor and March conferred.  It was a brief discussion.   Stuart March turned his eyebrows in my direction.

“Young man, you plead guilty to the charge of criminal damage.  For this offence the court sentences you to perform 40 hours of community service.

“As to damage to Mr Crabtree’s property and threats made against his person – this Court feels it should set an example.”  He fixed me with a fierce look; “So we consider a custodial sentence should be appropriate to this case.   However, prosecution asks us to rely only on Mr Crabtree’s recollection of events, and…”  March waved a sheet of paper from the desk before him;  “A respected teacher in your community who is also your football coach,  apparently feels you have a successful career beckoning.   So…”  the magistrate’s face softened into his version of a smile…”We shall sentence leniently and bind you over to keep the peace for a period of one year, during which you do not approach Mr or Mrs Crabtree or go within five hundred yards of their home.  Mr Haggerty, you are free to go.”

I’ll admit to my jubilation,  I’ll admit that in the exuberance of my gratitude I performed a small and totally ridiculous dance in that big, airy foyer as I spouted a verbal shower of thanks over Nel Kershaw’s head, and I will admit it took a full minute for me to realise she was not smiling.

“Charles, there’s something I think I would be wise to tell you.  At lunchtime I spent a lot of effort trying to find someone who, because of what your mother told me, might have assisted our case; someone I thought might have been loyal to you.   I couldn’t find her.  In fact, no-one seems to be able to find her.

“Susan Crabtree has vanished.”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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 Seven – Entertaining Maberley

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Once upon a very long time ago when names like Stanley Matthews and Billy Wright reigned supreme in the English League, Casterley Town was a successful football club.  An upwardly mobile board and legendary manager Joe Burness took ‘Town’ to third in its division and, with promotion a certainty, decided to invest in a stadium larger than the couple of open stands that housed their (at an optimistic count) two thousand faithful supporters.

The stadium they built was a monument to those glory years – years long gone and, to most, long forgotten.  Legend had it that ten thousand fans could be crammed within its high concrete walls, although no-one knew if the legend was true, because that ten thousand, like the promised promotion, never arrived.   Joe Burness was poached by a club in a higher division, the mortgage on Casterley’s Grand Palace of Football starved the club of cash, and lichen grew where supportive feet failed to tread.  A team that once threatened to climb into the Second Division, as it was known in those early days, now teetered on the brink of ignominy and demotion from the Football League, surviving only upon the generosity of sponsors and the pity of its small kernel of fans, who still believed in it enough to chip in for a season ticket.

The space beneath the north stand to the side of the players’ tunnel did sport a manager’s office, though its function had long since altered to a storeroom.  The changing rooms and separate facilities, however basic, still existed there for the Casterley players and visitors at home games.   Jack Masters guided me into the visitors’ dressing room.

“Park yourself, lad.  I want to talk to you.”  He threw his crutch down onto the wooden bench that ran the length of the dressing room wall.  “Sit!”

When Jack said ‘sit’ you sat.  Like an obedient dog, I perched on the edge of the unpadded timber. “What’s wrong, Mr Masters?”  Although curious to see it, I had never been inside this space before.  As attendees to Jack’s ‘practices’ it was strictly off limits.   As a changing room it was unimpressive.  My eye was caught, for some reason, by a plastic carrier bag in the far corner.

“Call me Jack.  You’re not at school anymore, are you?”  He said crisply. Unsmiling?  Did I ever see Jack smile?

At school, Mr Masters was our physical education teacher.  Here, apparently, he was ‘Jack’.  I didn’t think I would be able to make the adjustment.

He sat down on the basic wooden bench beside me. “You probably won’t have heard of Councillor Robert Taylor, or Stewart March, will you, Chas?”

I shook my head.

“No.  Well, we’ll leave that on one side, then, for the moment.  Now, I’ve a proposition for you, and I want you to think carefully about it.  Casterley Juniors have got a pre-season friendly match coming up.  You probably know that.”

“With Maberley Juniors.  We never win, though.”

I bit my lip upon the indelicacy of my remark.  Jack, as the Juniors’ coach, might hold out some hope.  Realistically, Casterley Juniors only ever considered themselves a training run for the superior and much better financed Maberley team.   Their senior side was in the Second Division.

“It was eight-nil last year.”  Jack acknowledged.  “I don’t suppose you’d like to give me a hand trying to change that?”

“I can’t see how I can…”

“By playing for us, you daft bugger!  Can you be on our bench on Saturday?”

“Can I!”

No, I won’t pretend I had not dreamed, from time to time, of playing for our town’s junior team.  Every boy in our school entertained a similar wish.  I had faith in my ability, but faith was not enough.  I was just sixteen and slightly built for my age.  The average age at which most boys were chosen to play for the Town’s junior arm was eighteen, and they were picked from beefier stock than I would ever make.  I was astounded, amazed, disbelieving, overjoyed in equal measure.  My body language must have given me away.

“I take it that’s a ‘yes’, then?”  Jack said.  “We’ve got training on Wednesday night –  on the recreation ground pitch, at six.  Make sure you’re on time.  Oh, and that..”  He waved his hand at the carrier bag,  “…that’s your kit.  You’ll be wearing number twelve.  Now get out there and do some work.”

I emerged from the players’ tunnel that Saturday afternoon to a brighter daylight than in recent weeks.  A watery August sun had broken through the morning’s sheet of nimbus cloud, so an amber sheen overlaid the darkening turf Tommy Travers (we knew him as ‘Pops’) tended so lovingly.  Tommy had been Casterley’s Groundsman for more years than we had in any of us, the youngsters who scuffed up his precious work on summer weekends.   He would appear from time to time, the more rarely as he got older, to curse us for our careless treatment of his hallowed grass, and we would reciprocate by serving our turn on the roller, or mowing, or raking, but never by painting in the lines.  Only Tommy ever painted the lines.

The action that afternoon was developing at the south end of the ground, where a group of regular attendees were practising – the usual melee that happened before Jack arrived to take control and set up a five-a-side game, or some other diversion.   I sat on the front row step at the north end to put on my boots, a new pair my mother gave me for my birthday, and to stare reverentially into the carrier bag.   A hand gripped my shoulder.   Danny, the older youth who had persuaded Lard to get me some beer on a fateful night not long before, squatted beside me.

“Nice boots.”  He said.  I had been breaking them in but they still looked new.   “So ye’re in the juniors na, are yer Chas?”

“Aye.”  I said.  “How did you know?”

“Ah’m in too, man.  Jack just tell’d me, like.  Is that yer kit?”

“Aye.  Blue and white!”

“Lissen, we kna’ each other’s game, Chas.  Ah’ve somethin’ ah’d like us ter try.  Are yer oop for it, like?”

We stayed away from the others for the whole session, Danny and I, keeping to our end of the ground, and Jack Masters watched us now and then, but did not interrupt.    Jonna though – Jonna was curious.  As soon as he got a chance, as we were shedding our boots for the walk home, he insisted on knowing what was going on, and when I told him I had been picked to play for the Juniors – the moment I told him – I felt the bonds that had linked us together for almost all of our lives tear apart.  Was it envy, jealousy?  I don’t know.  But I always thought a true friend should be glad for you when good fortune smiled, and although he tried to hide it, Jonna clearly was not.  I felt cheated.  I deserved a stroke of luck; Jonna was the one I expected to help me celebrate.  Instead, I found myself watching his deliberate form stamping away from me at Ox Terrace corner, heading for his home with barely a word beyond goodbye.

The news I had most dreaded came in the post the very next Monday morning.  A court date was set for Thursday of the following week.   As if to prove that misfortunes always visited in pairs, Hubert Powell, who marched under the Social Services banner as my ‘care worker’ turned up at our door, conspicuously without any prior notice, and hoping, was my guess, to find my mother absent.  Fortunately, she was not.

“We are informed when any court action is pending, Mrs Haggerty.”  I expected he might show more interest in me, now I was a serious offender, but no; he spoke in the same bored monotone.  “We need to ensure at least one parent will be free to attend.  In the absence of Mr Haggerty I’m afraid that’s you.  I trust you can arrange your work commitments around that date?”

My mother snapped back at him. “I told you, man, I don’t work!”

“Be that as it may…”

When my mother learned that I wanted to get in touch with Nel Kershaw she laughed at me.  “You won’t see ‘er again.  She’ll ‘ave passed you off to one of her juniors, and you’ll be lucky if anyone turns up on your side come Thursday!  I think you’d better wake up, young man.  They’ll not be doing you any favours, them lot – they sit up there, all high and mighty, and they hand you down a sentence before you’ve time to open your mouth.   Solicitor?  Don’t make me laugh!”

“You’ll be on my side, though.  You’ll be there.”

“Oh aye, I’ll be there.  And much good will that do you!”  Her voice was beginning to find the hysterical treble that now punctuated her conversation so frequently I was inclined to agree with her.  I tried not to think how a courtroom would react to one of her excitable outbursts. It was not a pleasant thought.

Despite my mother’s prediction, I managed to get an appointment with Nel for early on the following Monday.   Meanwhile, Danny and I went to Wednesday training, where we met the rest of the Casterley Juniors football team, many of whom, of course, were already known to us.  After some work and a general team brief, Jack Masters took Danny and me to one side to explain how Maberley’s defence was weak on their left, and how a fullback called Dewhurst was indecisive and slow.  Slow, for example, if Danny took the ball deep on the right wing, and I worked around Dewhurst on his left.   I exchanged glances with Danny:  wasn’t that exactly what we had been practising that Saturday afternoon?

Thursday and Friday passed unbearably slowly.  At loose ends, now I no longer had school to attend, I spent hours in the backyard kicking my football around or in my room, listening to music.  Which is not to say that home life was free of complications; it was not.   The heavy menace of the court hearing hung over my mother and I in different ways, such that it became one of those great unspoken anxieties never mentioned in conversation, although the anticipation of it was clearly upsetting to my mother.  When she was not at work I tried to spend time with her, worried by her behaviour, her rapid mood swings and the almost palpable tensions that were playing tricks with her mind.   Television was her evening habit; with the varied hours her job demanded sometimes a daytime habit too.  Yet she could not relax as she watched from her armchair, but tapped upon the arms of the chair incessantly, drumming out the rhythms that played in her head.  In the simplest conversations her voice was always close to a panic-driven trill so edgy and harsh I found it difficult to stay and listen at times.  The wringing of hands that once betrayed her most fragile moments was a constant presence now.   Even in sleep.  Yes, even in sleep.

Today I remember those things, those precious clues that did not draw my attention as they should have done – those warnings I ignored.   No, not ignored: they disturbed, or more than that, they frightened me, now and then.  Had I been older, wiser, I might have done more – so much more; but oh, the self-absorption, the selfishness of youth!  I was too deep in my own troubles – too deep to see.

Saturday dawned after a sleepless Friday: the sky was grey and filled with autumn rain.  I passed the uneasy hours before it was time to go to the ground thinking about football, and all that the game meant in my life.  You may believe I was attaching too much importance to a mere Juniors game – and a ‘friendly’ at that – but to me; to the snivelling working-class wretch with his alcoholic absent father and his screeching, unpleasant mother it was a validation, a chance to shine.  At whatever level I was representing my town:  I was carrying that loyalty on my shoulders, and I was proud – so, so proud!

The Maberley lads arrived in a modern, yellow bus which, probably coincidentally, matched their football strip.  Most of our team straggled in on foot, wearing our kit rather than change in the mercilessly depressing atmosphere of the home dressing room.  Nevertheless, we had to pause there for long enough to change into our boots, and that was long enough to hear our visitors cheerily pouring derision on the facilities, or their lack.  They were amicable enough; certainly I had no reason to dislike them, but they were adversaries, and they were very confident of their skills, which was enough to make me keep my distance.

Danny and I both started the match watching from the bench.  This was irritating for Danny, who had expected to play the full ninety minutes, but for myself, useful.  Perhaps my expectations were much lower, or perhaps I valued the time to assess the Maberley players.   Dewhurst stood out for me.  He was, as Jack Masters had foretold, not the fastest of backs, but he was big, and he tackled with all of his weight.   When, after our team had conceded three goals in the first twenty minutes, Jack replaced his left half and outside right to put Danny and me on, I was more or less ready.  It took a while, until the half-time interval, for the rest of our team to understand our reasons as we drew the Maberley back line further and further down the pitch.   Then Rob Yarker, our left back, found space to feed Danny a long pass that reached its mark, and I found the back of the net from his cross.  Thereafter it became a very different game.

I want to describe the exhilaration I felt as I became more and more attuned to the game – as I found a rhythm of my own and opportunities to entrap and humiliate poor Dewhurst (his first name, I quickly discovered, was Paul) productively time after time.  In the game’s second half I was robbed of his company, because the Maberley coach replaced him with a slightly more agile equivalent, but by then I felt unstoppable, and I probably was.  Of the six goals which carved out our victory four were mine, one belonged to Danny, and one to Bobby Wells, our centre.

Jubilant, receiving pats and slaps of congratulation, I looked up into the North Stand, really for the first time, because Juniors games did not exactly pack the spectators in.    I saw, as I expected, acres of empty terrace.  I saw Jonna and John Hargreave celebrating wildly, I saw Angela Carey’s bright smile, and I saw Dave Crabtree, Sue’s elder brother, staring down at me with a stony expression.  For the first time, maybe because of the plastic macs worn by the small group of middle-aged men engaged in conversation with Jack Masters, I noticed the rain.

No, Sue’s memory had not faded from my mind.  The game had given me some relief, another focus for my concentration, but now the game was over, Dave’s hostile expression was all I needed to bring our last meeting sharply back.

“I don’t know what he was doing here, mind.”  John Hargreave said.  “He wasn’t enjoying the game.”

“I did!”  Jonna chipped in.  “Bluddy marvellous, that was!”

“Curious,”  John continued.  “He wasn’t there in the first half.  Almost as though someone told him you were playing, and he came when he heard.”

The offices of Wimpole and Goodrich lurked furtively in a block of Victorian terraced townhouses beside a road known as Leadyard Hill on the south side of town, next door to a commercial stationer and uncomfortably close to Webbeth’s Funeral Parlour.  There was little within its doors to uplift my already depressed spirits; a receptionist who doubled as a keyboard operator directed me along a dingy passage to some naked stairs.

“Up there.  Hers is the door on the left.  I’ll tell her you’re coming.”

Nel Kershaw was waiting on the first-floor landing to lead me into a small office as chaotic as my bedroom at home and marginally less well decorated.  Light was provided by a large sash window which overlooked the street, odour was lent by a propensity of paper old and new, loose and in files, one of which I had to assume was mine.

She cleared a chair of a small stack of files.   “Have a seat, Charles.”

The contours of a desk were vaguely distinguishable among the stacks of files, and Nel wormed her way through to sit on her own chair, which lay somewhere beyond it.  She was dressed in a grey skirt and white blouse, a few buttons of which were left open – just enough to be distracting.   She flipped the cover of my file and glanced quickly over the first page.   “You may have wondered why this has taken so long.”

“Not long enough.”  I think I said.

“Well, it is long.  The lists are fairly clear at the moment, and your case has been passed over twice.  I can’t see any reason, other than somebody at Town Hall juggling the schedule.   It is almost as if…”  She paused to reflect on her own words; “…as if someone wanted you to come up before these particular magistrates.  There’s nothing untoward in that, I suppose, unless that someone wanted to influence your case by ensuring you appeared before them for some reason.   Have you heard of Robert Taylor, or Stewart March at all, Charles?”

My mind immediately jumped back to my conversation with Jack Masters.  “Councillor Robert Taylor?  My football coach might have mentioned them.”  I told her.

“Really?  That’s curious.  You don’t know them personally – they’re not uncles or anything?”

“No.  Are they the magistrates I’m going to get, then?”

“So it seems, it’s certainly their turn on the list.  Pity, I rather hoped you had a connection – I’m a little disturbed, I don’t mind telling you.  I think we should go over your version of events thoroughly, now, to be sure you give clear and concise evidence.  Are you up for that?”

Nel Kershaw’s green-eyed invitation drew me in.  Yes, I was surely up for that.

It was mid-morning before I left the office on Leadyard Hill to make my way back home.   As I closed our front door behind me, my mother shouted from the kitchen.

“The paper’s on the table.  I thought you might like a read!”

‘The paper’ was our local daily rag.  At sixteen I never gave a newspaper more than a passing glance, so I had no idea why she should wish me to look at it; but there it was, on our dinner table, its back page – the sports page – uppermost.   And there was a headline; a big headline, the full width of the page,  ‘Casterley Town’s Rising Star’ with a four-columns-wide picture of me – one I could not remember being taken – underneath.  Then a lead paragraph which began: ‘New young striker shines at season’s first junior match.   Juniors today, Town team tomorrow?’

I spent the remainder of that morning reading, and re-reading every word printed about me.  When my mother brought a ham sandwiches for our lunch, we read the article together, and despite her scornful comments and her low opinion of the newspaper, I think she was pleased.

My head was buzzing.  They couldn’t select me to play for the Town, could they?  As soon as I had eaten, I went in search of my friends, over-brimming with pride and desperate to share my good fortune with them.   Now the school holidays were upon us our usual haunt was MacDonalds, where we nibbled at fries and drank Coke or Fanta and swapped tales left over from the rigid discipline (as it seemed to us) of school.  Of course, school was some weeks behind me now, But Jonna and John Hargreave had only lately sampled the joys of final release, so my success had to take its turn.  I didn’t mind.   Jonna seemed to have swallowed his jealousy, and Greavesie was his usual measured self, so we could discuss, and analyse, and plan the remainder of our summer days.

Meanwhile, faces we knew came by, and some stopped to parley for a while. Some had seen the newspaper, some not.  Trevor Bull, now free of his compulsion to make my life miserable, paused in passing.   I told him I was going to court on Thursday.

Trevor nodded.  “Up before the beaks, like.   Does tha’ kna’ who the magistrates are, like?”

I told him the names.

“Fookin’ ‘ell, Chas!  Y’kna who they are, doesn’t tha’?   Bloody hangin’ judges is what!   They sent Dowie Parshire down for six month las’ year, joost for breakin’ a street lamp!  Oh, man, pack yer jammies!  Yer’ll not be comin’ home, I’m tellin’ yer!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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 Six – Nel Kershaw.

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Sue Crabtree stood in the shadow of the bridge with the river at her back, pale in t-shirt and jeans, and when she saw me she brushed her ringlets of hair back from her face, so nothing should hide her solemn expression, her downcast eyes.  She did not smile.   “They know what we did.”  She said, tearful.

“Did you tell them?”

“They just – knew.  They want us to stop seeing each other.”   She spoke so quietly I could barely hear her.

“Your parents.”  I said.  “They can’t stop us, can they?”  Wanting her to say no, she wouldn’t obey them, that I was more important to her than some stupid threat from her father.  “Sue, we can still keep seeing each other.  You can get away, can’t you?  I mean, we can get away – get away from here, you and I, Sue.”

She did not answer.

“What’s wrong?”  I struggled to keep the plea from my voice, fought back the unmanly tears that were trying to make themselves known.   “Are you frightened of your Da’- because I can handle him for you?”

“It’s not just my Da.  Chas, Mam’s been telling me some things…”

“Oh aye, I don’t doubt that!   She was telling me some things too!”

“Don’t be too hard on her.  She’s right, Chas.  I’ve got a lot left I want to do, and I don’t…look, if we keep seeing each other, Da’s going to make it really bad for you.  I know he is!  And us – it’s going to happen again, yeah?  We just got too close, Chas, too close.”

I moved forward, desperate to touch her but she stepped back, almost flinching away from me.  “No, don’t!   Don’t!

“All year it’s been you told me I had to be faithful to you, that you had dreams too.  What happened to them?”

“I was wrong.”  Sue said miserably.  “I was wrong and I’m sorry.  I’m so, so sorry.  Chas, this is really hard for me.  I’d do anything not to hurt you, but I think we should stay away from one another, at least for a while.”  Her eyes met my own and I could see the tears there.  “Just for a while.”

“Sue, no!”

“I had to see you.  I couldn’t just drop out of your life without saying anything.  I couldn’t do that.”

“Sue…”

“This is how it’s got to be, Chas.  It’s for the best.”

She reached out, gave my hand a quick squeeze, then before I could return the grip she was running away from me, up the lane towards the town.

Shaken as I was, sometime would elapse before I, too, made my way up through the dereliction of The Fellings, following that gloomy, winding lane of moss-covered cobbles and dank shadows that even summer’s raw heat could not penetrate.   Walking away from a place of memories I must now wipe from my mind.

If you forgive me I will not share my feelings on that friendless evening, or recount which of the many streets I walked, or how the hours passed.  I will draw a veil over the secret places that I found where I might hide my face from the world.   These were private things which, although I remember them all, are too personal to ever be revealed.

Somehow, the night passed and I did not go down to the bridge, although I thought of it.  Perhaps, if I had known what the next morning would bring I might have succumbed to that temptation,  because at eight o’clock while my mother was still in bed came the hammer on the door, and when I pulled back my curtain there were two police cars in the street.

Here I must pause to explain, for if you are not working class, or you did not live upon those tight urban streets where the houses huddled to one another in rebuttal of the storm, or upon one of those council-built estates whose noble purpose once was the housing of the poor, you would not understand.   The police always adjudged themselves defenders of the middle class, saw it as their duty to seek their offenders among the working class; and class, to the police, was an address, and no more.  If you were middle class, living on the hill and your son or daughter should offend, you did not need to fear; a discreet visit from a uniformed officer would serve to correct what was obviously an error of judgement, a mistake.   There would be a conversation, firm but polite, and the arm of the law would depart, in most cases without charges being made.

If you lived on a street like ours, then you were by default a threat to society.  The uniforms would arrive in force, overrule all argument, and decide upon your guilt according to the set model in their minds that your address dictated.   It is now as it was then – little enough has changed, and the class divisions are as stark as they ever were, but years from those times I understand it now:  I look back and see why four officers pushed me aside and entered my mother’s house that early morning, demanding she rise from her bed.   In their eyes I was guilty of whatever accusation had been levelled; my cause was lost before I even knew there was a cause to lose.

We were bundled to the Police Station without ceremony, thrust into an interview room and seated before a table occupied by two others, a woman and a man.  It was the man who did the talking.

“You’ve been a busy little lad.”   He was wearing the deliberately casual clothes of CID; a tan leather jacket, summer-weight green trousers and a white t-shirt.  For all I know he was wearing the Miami Vice slip-on casual shoes, too –  if I noticed, I can’t remember.   He had a young face, full cheeks, a narrow mouth that muttered to itself even when he wasn’t talking, and eyes; grey eyes that accused.   He flapped the file he was holding up in front of me.  “Says here you’ve been very naughty, Mister Haggerty.  Do you want to tell me about it?”

“No,”  I said.  I was feigning ignorance.  What did he mean?

My mother, seated beside me, was still waking up.   The woman across the table from her was no more than twenty-five years old, thin as a willow twig and dressed smartly in a lilac suit  No-one introduced her to us, although she also had a file with my name printed on the corner.

“All right then,”  Said the Detective Constable,  “let’s start with a question:  Monday morning, really early, say about 12:30am, where were you?”

“I was at home in bed, I expect.”

“He was.”  My mother interjected.  “He was home with me, all night.”

“Really?” The DC smirked unpleasantly.  “I’ve got CCTV footage says you were on Front Street, shouting some things.  Good light on Front Street; helps the camera: it’s clearly you, lad.  And there’s an eyewitness who lives in the flat over the shop; you woke him up with your swearing, so he saw you do it.  Then we’ve been having a chat with a taxi driver says he picked you up from Front Street.  He couldn’t deny it; camera evidence shows his registration plate.  So, will I ask you again?”

“It wasn’t me.  Must have been somebody else.  Mistaken identity, see?”  I hoped I was sounding convincing.  I knew I wasn’t.

“You dragged us all the way down ‘ere, just ‘cause he was drunk and disorderly?”  My mother’s vocal cords were finding their pitch.  “You must be mental, man!”

“I didn’t say he was drunk.  Irrational behaviour, not always drink.  Can be drugs, too.  You put out William Hills’ window, are you still going to try and deny it?”

“Aye.  Wasn’t me.”

“Very well.”  The Detective Constable sighed.  “I’ll put that on your statement, shall I?”

“Why?  Is this going to court?  Just because you think I broke a window?”

“No, lad, not just because you broke a window.   Next question – around about the same time last night, where were you?”

“I was at home, in bed.  What are you accusing me of this time?”

“Believe it or not…”  The Detective Constable produced a photograph from his folder,  “…this is the sort of stuff we have to present as state’s evidence, these days.”  He placed the picture on the table so I could see it.  “Do you recognise this?”

I studied it as carefully as I could, which was not too carefully, because I was shaking, for some reason.  “It’s a stone.”

“That’s right.  A stone.  Not up to much, is it?  But it should give you a clue where this is going, young Haggerty.  Now tell me again; where were you around midnight last night, please, and I want you to think hard about your answer.”

I was suddenly aware that the eyes of the thin woman in lilac were staring straight at me,  They were green eyes, very large and somehow hypnotic.  The detective was asking me another question:

“Do you know  the address 32 Lampeter Drive?”

I came to myself.  The reminder of that particular address was not pleasant.  “Yeah.  Yeah, I do.”

The DC consulted his file again.  “Which is the home address of Mr and Mrs M. Crabtree.  You know it then?”

“I said…”

“Were you there last night, around about midnight?  Did you put this stone, and five others like it, through each of the ground floor windows of 32 Lampeter Drive?”

“No!  No I didn’t!”

“Did you shout out threatening Mr Crabtree?  ‘I’ll slit you, you bastard’ I believe were your exact words?   The same words you were shouting the night before, on Front Street, when you broke the betting shop window.  We have a witness for that, too.”

I was too shocked to respond.  My mind was running through a labyrinth of thoughts and meeting the stern figure of Mackenzie Crabtree at every turn.  Never once could I have imagined he would go so far to separate me from his daughter as to accuse me falsely.  With my mother’s protestations ringing in my ears and no possible arguments to defend myself I was dumbfounded and I was helpless, more helpless than I had felt in all my life.

What happened thereafter was something of a blur.  My mother’s insistent treble, the Detective Constable and his violet-suited companion conferring, the words of the charges against me being read out in the Detective Constable’s bored, dismissive monotone; strong hands hoisting me from my chair.   Finally, a march along a short, bare corridor past featureless brown doors to one door, a door which slammed behind me – leaving me without laces in my shoes or a belt around my waist.  And silence.

Silence.

It may have been hours; after those first terrifying moments I lost all sense of time.  Within that little white-painted cell I had the minimum essentials for existence, a toilet, a bench long enough to function as a bed, a thin mattress.  The steel door that separated me from everything in my world was sturdy, the viewing panel within it closed.  Few sounds penetrated its obdurate substance – occasional distant voices caught in snatches of conversation, instruction or laughter; thin slices of life, growing and fading.  Air heavy with disinfectant caught in my lungs, making it hard to breathe.

The viewing panel in the cell door clicked open to reveal a man’s face, his eyes flicking left and right as he checked the room.  Then the panel snapped shut, the door’s heavy bolt withdrew, and the tall figure of the lilac woman walked in.  On her nod, the hand that had opened the door closed it again.

“Well now,” She said, in a steady, assured voice.  “What are we going to do with you?”

“Who are you?”  I asked.  In the interview room no-one had introduced her.

“I’m Nel Kershaw, Charles, and I’ve been commissioned to act as your counsel.”  She proffered the same file she had been studying in the interview room.  “You don’t have to accept me, of course.  You’re free to appoint your own legal representative if you have anyone in mind?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t.”

“It’s me, then!” Nel Kershaw perched herself on the edge of the shelf that formed a bunk, inviting me to do the same. “How old are you, Charles – fifteen?  Let’s see, what have we got here; two charges of criminal damage, one of breach of the peace, threatening behaviour – that’s quite impressive for a couple of days – oh, and previous for receiving stolen property.   I think we can leave that on one side.  What on earth set you off on this trail of destruction – was it drink?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”  I said sullenly.  “I didn’t do it.”

The violet woman gave me a crooked smile.  “Charles, the Front Street window incident was witnessed, seen clearly on CCTV, and fits perfectly with a statement made by the taxi driver who took you home, so I think we can agree you did it.   The second and third charges rely upon the wording of your uttered threats during the Front Street incident, and the evidence of the owner of 32 Lampeter Drive, Mr Crabtree.  He says he got a clear view of you from his bedroom window with the last of the six stones in your hand just before you threw it ‘viciously’ at his downstairs bathroom window.  Then there is a statement made by his son, David Crabtree, who claims to have seen you running away down the drive of the Crabtree house…”

“NO!”  I shouted at her.  “I didn’t go near his house.   Why is he saying that?  I didn’t break his bloody windows!”

“He asserts that you threatened him, that you intend him and his family harm, and he fears you.  Why should he be afraid of you, Charles?”  Her green eyes were boring deep into mine, soulful and searching, stripping away my ability to deny.

So I told Nel Kershaw the truth.  I told her about Sue, and as much as was needed about that fateful afternoon when we made love on the riverbank.  I recounted her father’s threats to me, his wife’s visit to our home, and my drunken adventure involving a brick and William Hill’s Betting Shop window.  Nel wrote down the substance of my words, I think, to add to her file, and when my tale was ended she re-read what she had written.

“So, this is what happens.  Because you are under eighteen your case will be heard before magistrates convening as a Youth Court, where you will enter a plea.  If that is guilty you may get a sentencing decision straight away, or they could ask for further reports.  I see you were assigned a care officer after your previous offence…”

“But I didn’t do it!  Alright, I broke the Betting Shop window, I was drunk and I was mad, but none of that other stuff.  He’s lying!”

“What are you suggesting; that he broke his own windows?”

“I don’t know!  I wouldn’t put it past him!”

“Well, I did say the testimony was unreliable for the Threatening Behaviour charge.  Even less so, if this Mr Crabtree is proven to hold a grudge against you.  We can take that line, and we can ask for his wife to account for her visit to your home.  When the alleged offence took place it was dark, he could not be certain to have identified you, and his son only saw your back.  The case against you is weak, and you could defend it, but…”

“But?”

“If Mr. Crabtree is called, he may raise the matter of your relationship with his daughter, and that could open a new can of worms.”  She shuffled her papers together, making preparations to leave.  “Look, I see the court wanting to just hustle this through.  However, if we can get them to hear separate pleas for each offence they might treat you more leniently.  That’s for then; now I’ll see what I can do about your bail.

“What will I get?”   I asked her as she rapped on the cell door.

Nel Kershaw shrugged.  “A fine for the shop window, probably, maybe a community order.  For the other offences you might be in for a stretch in a Young Offenders Institution, anything up to six months.”  She offered a smile.  “Sorry.   I believe in giving my clients the worst scenario first.  The Youth Court is supposed to be sympathetic, so I imagine it may turn out a lot better than that.”

The cell door opened for her to leave.  “That’s it for now.  We’ll get you out of here.”  She paused, turning to fix me with her green-eyed stare.  “Sometimes in my job I meet people who really shouldn’t be in here.  You are one such person, Charles Haggerty.   You are truly worth saving, but in the end it’s up to you; there are two turnings and only you can decide which road you want to take.  Do what they tell you and stay out of trouble, okay?”  She treated me to a quick smile and then the door closed once more, leaving me to my silence.

#

“Been in the dungeons, like?”  Jonna was doing his own version of sympathy.  “Terrible in there, innit?”

“Nah, lovely.”  I told him.  “They’ve got wallpaper on the walls and tellies and the food’s just great, man!  I didn’t want to come out.”

For a moment he believed me.  I could read it in his face.  “Yeah?  Nah, man!”

“It was, I’m telling you!  They’re that nice to you!  I can’t wait to get back in, me!”

“Away, man, give us credit, will yer?  You’re on bail – did they take yer passpoort, like?”

“I haven’t got a passport – which you very well know.  I’ve got to report in every day and be indoors by 9:30.”

“Doesn’t do much for yer nightlife, then.”

“No, it doesn’t.  If they see me on the streets after that I go back in detention, that’s what they told me.  Oh aye, And I’m not allowed within half a mile of Lampeter Drive:  not that I’d want to go near the bastard, mind.”

“Crabtree.  There’s all sorts of stories about ‘im.  Don’t worry, Chas, us’ll batter ‘im for yer.”

“No. No, don’t go near him, any of you.  It’d be just what he wants.  The cart’ll be coming round for him soon enough.”

“Why, he’s crafty enough, that’s the truth.  How’re yer goin’ to get Sue away from him else, though?”

“I’m not.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happened, Jonna, and I won’t try to rescue somebody who doesn’t want to be rescued.  I made a mistake.  I’m not lying, I like Sue, you know I do; but maybe she doesn’t like me quite as much.”

Jonna shook his head, bewildered.  “Ah don’t believe it, man!  You two have knowed each other since you was bairns, we all did!”

“That’s what I thought, too.”  I told him.  “I thought we were good friends.  I was wrong.”

“So your mind’s made up, like?”

“It is.  It was made up for me.”

“Well then, us’d better get down McDonalds an’ exploit your fame a little.  Word’s all around town how it took two copper loads o’ ‘blues and twos’ to nick yer, so there should be a free lunch in it, y’na?”

My reputation for toughness was laid upon the table before me, so that all I had to do was pick it up.  In the weeks before my case was due to be heard I enjoyed a mildly legendary status that extended beyond my school friends, even as far as the mild admiration of Trevor Bull, who warmed to me enough to engage me in his version of a conversation, on the Saturday after my sixteenth birthday, as I was making my way to football practice.

“Now then, Spakker!”

“Now, Trev.  You alright, man?”

“Aye.”  Trevor had a way of standing within inches of me when he talked, looking down on the top of my head.  “Ga’n football?”

“Aye.”  I said.  “It’s Saturday, mind.  Season starts soon.”

“Aye, it does.”

“Yes. Will you be coming to the home games, Trev?”

“Aye.”

“Right then, see you there.”  I said cheerily, ready to move away.   Trevor laid a hand on my shoulder.  “Man, that’s a grip you’ve got there, Trev.  You been going to weight training again?”

“Aye..”  Said Trevor.  “Lissen, Spakker, word is you got a score to settle wi’ Crabtree, like.”

“Nah, not really, Trev.  I’m on my best behaviour, see?”

“’Way aye, good thinkin’.”   Trevor tapped his sizeable nose appreciatively.  “Mussen’ say nothin’ the Chatties might hear, like.   Jus’ sayin’ Spak, if the’ wants a hand or two, Ah’m up for it.  Ah hates that bugger, me!”

I thanked him before I hurried on, making an excuse that I was late.  His offer did not entirely surprise me – it was a bad offer made with a generous heart, and one that had already been made by several others, not least of whom were Jonna, Sarah Coldbatch and John Hargreave.  If I wished, I had a small army pledged to my cause, loyal servants at arms whose loyalty was rather spoken than intended.  In a town like ours, many a fealty pledged beneath the disguise of twilight could be relied upon to return to clay before the dawn.  Yet it was flattering that anyone should see fit to rally behind me with even the slightest degree of sincerity.  I felt somehow honoured by it.

My thoughts were crowded as I entered the football ground, preoccupied with the breaking of old alliances, the making of new.

“Chas.   Come here lad.”  Jack Masters was coming across the pitch to meet me with his peculiar hobbled gait of leg, crippled leg and crutch; and there was an anxious expression on his face I did not recognise.  “I want a word with you!”

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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.

 

 

 

 

Wilbur’s Ghost

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It was imperative Wilbur should discover the exact location of the ghost.   He had no doubt there was a ghost; he had witnessed its activities often enough in the years since he had removed himself with his family to Abbot’s Croft, and he had become accustomed to its presence.   Although a little short-tempered at times, it was not a malevolent ghost; Abbot’s Croft did not feel especially cold or suffer the clamminess associated with traditional hauntings, there were no clanking chains or cries of suffering, in fact, the ghost made no noise at all, generally speaking.   Sometimes he would not be aware of it for weeks on end, at other times it would visit almost daily.

Yes, daily.  Wilbur’s ghost was not averse to making daylight appearances.  A haunting, Wilbur had learned, was not entirely a night-time phenomenon, not at Abbot’s Croft.

“Is that your gardener?”  Roberta Mordegrave enquired, one fine afternoon over drinks on the terrace.

“Possibly; where?”  Wilbur was reluctant to admit he had been unable to retain a gardener for more than a few weeks, and on that particular Tuesday, he was gardener-less.

“Over there, behind the fountain.”

It was a small fountain – more of a large water feature really – with enough spray to almost disguise someone standing behind it:  and there, standing behind it, was a disguised somebody; an opaque and watery silhouette that was undoubtedly the ghost.   Wilbur wisely confirmed his ‘gardener’s’ identity, then fell to distracting Roberta from the moment when the ghost must dematerialise, which it did.

“Where did your gardener go?”  Roberta asked, when next her eyes were drawn to the fountain.

“Oh, he does the roses in the front drive.  He’ll be there, I expect.”  Wilbur added knowledgeably:  “They’re budding, you know.”  He refrained from admitting that his last gardener had left at a canter, after catching his horticultural tools performing a square dance in the vegetable garden.

This is not to say the ghost lacked a nocturnal aspect, which could assume many forms.  On an evening devoted to a game of Bridge Wilbur found himself guided by a mysterious influence that, using neither vision nor voice, insisted he lead with a ‘low club’ at a crucial juncture, resulting in a small slam for himself and his partner.   On another occasion he was reading peacefully in his drawing room when he heard a resounding bang followed by a sense of overwhelming pain and anger.   Wilbur scurried into the hall, where he found his Indian rug crumpled in a heap on the polished floor, suggesting that someone had slipped over while stepping upon it.

One early morning he awoke to find his bedclothes pulled from over him.  Chilled and irritable, he snatched at the covers and wrapped them around himself.  Within seconds he was exposed again as a powerful force snatched the covers back.  Infuriated, he turned to rebuke his wife for her selfishness, but his wife was not there.  The other side of the bed was empty.  Only then did he remember that his wife was away, visiting her mother in Chipping Sodbury.

So there was a ghost.  Wilbur’s wife refused to make it a secret; instead, if a haunting was mentioned she would simply say “Oh, the ghost!” and move on to the next subject for conversation.  His two children, who had now flown the coup, would never admit to any sort of a ‘presence’, although through the last five of their growing years (those spent at Abbot’s Croft) they had passed more hours of their nights giggling than sleeping.

Wilbur’s worries about the ghost’s actual whereabouts stemmed from a meeting with Delbert Fruit-Hughes.  Now that Wilbur’s children were gone, Abbot’s Croft’s rambling old corridors and twelve bedrooms seemed too large for just himself and his wife.   He loved the house, did not want to downsize, so he suggested to his wife that they throw open their doors to others:

“Let’s take in guests.”

“Homeless people!”  His wife ruled.  “People sleeping in cardboard boxes everywhere.  Ghastly mess.”

Wilbur, who had more of a hotel in mind, demurred, but this was the sort of argument his wife always won.   So, on the following Wednesday morning, he kept an appointment with the County Planning Officer, whose name was Delbert Fruit-Hughes.

“An HMO,” DFH decided.   “How many rooms?”

“We can make nine available.”   Wilbur calculated.  “What’s an HMO?”

“House of Multiple Occupancy – eight rentable units and a living area with cooking facilities.  You’ll need to update the rooms, add a couple of bathrooms.  Any bats?”

“What do you mean, ‘update’?  Surely our rooms are better than cardboard boxes – colder, maybe, but a bit drier?”

“There are standards we require.  And fire doors, you’ll need fire doors.  Any bats?”

“Bats?”

“You must be sure any work you have done will not disturb your bats. They’re protected, you know.”

“We don’t have any bats!”

Delbert Fruit-Hughes screwed up his suspicious eyes suspiciously:  “Really?  Have you looked?”

“No bats.”

“Newts, then?  A rare newt can hold up construction for years!”

“No, no newts.  Although,”  Wilbur added, with a smile. “We do have a ghost;”

“Ah!  Oh, dear me!   Oh, my days!  Oh goodness!  That really is trouble!”

“How do you mean?  We quite like him.”

“He’ll have to be re-homed.  If there’s any chance of disturbing him, or if he’s likely to disturb your new occupants – I’m saying ‘him’, it’s not Mary Queen of Scots, is it?”

“I don’t think so.  Why, should it be?”

“She’s rather popular, we find.  Anyway, ghosts – part of heritage you see.  Heritage Britain is very protective of its ghosts. FMM, that’s my advice.”

“FMM?”

“Oh, those dreadful three-letter acronyms!  Find him, Mollify him, Move him, m’dear sir.  Oh, and if it’s MQS, you might have to deal with the head separately.  I wish you very good luck!  That aside, the process is deliciously simple.  I shall study your plans, to be assured that your proposals are in keeping with the age and listing of your house and that you intend using appropriate materials.  Then I shall come and visit the site in a few days.  As long as I’m satisfied, planning permission should be granted.  Tickety-boo!  Shall we say Monday?”

#

“It’s quite simple,”  Wilbur explained to the empty air in his bedroom.  “we want to find you somewhere more comfortable.  More comfortable to haunt, that is.”  No-one answered.

Wilbur was taking breakfast with his wife in Abbot’s Croft’s voluminous kitchen.

“I should tell you,” said the figure at the end of their table, “I’m perfectly happy where I am.”

Wilbur’s wife glanced up, taking in a pale young woman wearing a grey business suit.  “You don’t look well.”  She said brusquely.  “You’d be much healthier if you got out more.”

“Of course I don’t look well.  I’m dead!”  The figure retorted.  “And I get outside often enough, thank you.”

“She does – he does.  I thought she was a him; or do I mean a he?”  Wilbur stumbled.  “I’ve seen her, after a fashion.”

“Well, I have my work to get to.”  His wife said.  “Sort this out, please, Wilbur.”  And she left.

“The thing is…”  Wilbur began.

“The thing is,”  The ghost cut in;  “You want to tear this house apart and fill it up with vagrants.  Well, no dice, I’m afraid.  No dados, kein wurfel, saikoro.   No.”

“Only part of the house.”  Wilbur protested.  “Anyway, how did you know?”

“I’m a ghost, sweetie.  Ghosts know everything.   Now please understand this:  we all have our place here; places important to us because they correspond with our deaths.  We won’t be moved.”

Wilbur tutted.  “We?”

“Of course!  You didn’t think I was the only spirit in this joint, did you?  There’s a nine-year-old girl bricked in behind the fireplace in the old refectory, a forty-year-old stonemason who fell off the roof, an unlucky monk who ate too much pigeon pie, and a murdered eldest son under the floor more or less where you’re sitting.  This house is over six hundred years old, you know.  It’s seen some action!”

Wilbur was aghast.  “I didn’t realise!  I thought…”

“Thought it was just me?  By no means.  I’m simply Abbot’s Croft’s EHR.”

“EHR?”  Wilbur enquired politely.

“Those damned three-letter acronyms!  Elected Haunting Representative.  I do the manifestations on the others’ behalf (and you don’t need to move your chair, he’s at least four feet down).”

“And whose ghost are you?  You look – well, you look very modern.”

“I can appear in any clothing I want, if that’s what you mean.  One has to keep up with the times, doesn’t one?  Although I must admit…”  The ghost squirmed uncomfortably  “…I find the current fashion for underwear very strange.   I am, let me see…”  she counted on her fingers “…four hundred and seventy years old.  I don’t suppose that will mean anything to you, though.”

“Should it not?   Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, dissolution of the monasteries?  What happened to you?  Did you get dissolved?”

“Very nearly.  I fell in a cooking pot, alright?  The cook pushed me.  Then she got scared because all the household knew she didn’t like me, so she hid my body inside the kitchen chimney. It was very embarrassing, and I don’t really want to talk about it, but I have to because my remains are still there.”

“What, here?”  Wilbur stared at the kitchen Aga and the great chimney breast above it.

“In the room you use for your ‘home cinema’, I think you call it.  It may not look like it anymore, but that was a kitchen once, and the chimney is part of the south wall.”

“We have to take that down.  It’s in the way of the alterations.   We’ll find you, and we’ll give you a decent burial.  Then you’ll be released, and you can rest in peace.”   Wilbur suggested helpfully.  “Although we’ll miss you.”  He added.

“Absolutely not!”  The ghost declared.  “I like it here.  I would miss you, too.  You’re a nice family, you know.  I feel we have got quite close, over the years.”

“But you’d be at rest in Heaven!”

“Not after the life I led!  Anyway, what would I do, puffing clouds around all day?  I’m sorry, but your plans are out of the question. None of us want them.  Why can’t you just go on as you are?

“Because the place is too big for us now.  We do this, or we move somewhere smaller.”

“I can’t dissuade you?”

“No.” Wilbur said tersely.  “We’ve submitted the plans, they’re all ready for approval.  You can’t do anything about it.  We’ve decided.”

Wilbur was treated to the eerie sound of ghostly laughter.  “Can’t do anything about it?  Oh sweetie!  Have you heard of poltergeists?”  To reinforce her point, the ghost raised a vase of flowers gently from the sideboard and floated it across the kitchen.  Wilbur watched it nervously, half-expecting to see it fly at his head.

“You may throw a few things, but it won’t make any difference; it’s decided.”

“Hmm.”  Said the ghost.  “I see you’re determined.  I’m sorry because I always thought I was a good ghost to you.  Things clearly need to be brought under control.”  And she vanished, leaving the flower vase to drop, shattering, to the flagstone floor.

Wilbur and his wife were waiting on the Monday when Delbert Fruit-Hughes parked his car at the end of their drive and watched him retrieve his briefcase from the back seat.   They moved to make him welcome, flinging wide Abbot’s Croft’s  old double front doors, and if Wilbur, stepping outside, noticed the driveway beneath his feet was wet, he took no account of it at first, although it had not rained for a day and a half.  In his endeavour to greet DFH halfway down the drive, however, his ears began to pick up a strange squelching sound.  He looked down.

Delbert Fruit-Hughes cried out:  “Oh, newts!”   And newts there were; hundreds, possibly thousands of the rarest newts nature could provide – newts that floundered on the gravel, crawled over Wilbur’s shoes, climbed his trouser legs, and when he bent to brush them off, one somehow attached itself to his hand and sat upon it, regarding him with a thoughtful expression.  But if there were thousands of newts, they were comfortably outnumbered by the bats.   The bats burst from the end gables of Abbot’s Croft in an effusion of black wings like a pharaoh’s plague, descending upon the running form of DFH and flapping about his head as he struggled to regain the safety of his car.

As for Wilbur, he turned to his wife with a gesture of despair, but it was not her incredulous expression that caught his eye, it was the presence, at each window of Abbot’s Croft, of a smiling, grey, wispy ghost.

The letter denying Wilbur and his wife planning permission came promptly, not from DFH, who had suffered a nervous breakdown, but from his successor.  So it is a story of failure; the tale of a well-meaning couple who attempted to launch Abbot’s Croft as an HMO ( a House of Multiple Occupancy) only to be thwarted by a PSI (Protected Species Infestation); yet it is not quite the end of the story.   No sooner had Delbert Fruit-Hughes departed than the newts departed too, the newts and all but two pairs of the bats.  The entire host simply melted away.   The two pairs of bats that lingered, however, required feeding; and they were bats of a certain habit.  They took their fill from Wilbur and his wife as they slept, that very night, so that by morning they had wrought great changes.

Through the centuries that are to come rumours will strengthen and fade about the shy, retiring owners of Abbot’s Croft and their odd, nocturnal ways; but hey, they seem to be nice people, and though they never seem to get any older they are not at all the sort who could be connected in any way with the strange instances of dead farm animals that occur in the area now and then.   And as for tales of ghosts that linger in the old house, well, some claim to have seen a figure of a woman drifting about the gardens, but no-one has ever felt threatened by her.  She seems quite happy, for a ghost.

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  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 Five – Criminal Acts

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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’.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Y’gan to football, Sat’day, Chas?”

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

“What y’doin’ then?”

“Just hanging out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who wants to know?”

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

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

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

“No.”

“Where is she?”

“Out!”

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

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

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

Hubert Powell went away.

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

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

“What case?  I asked.

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

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

“With you working, Mrs Haggerty…”

“Who said I was working?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still, I’m here now.”

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

“Do you want it to be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chas.”

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

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

“You’re mine now.” Sue said.

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

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

“Oh god, no!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Writer’s Rant at Christmas

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It’s come around again.

Somehow, every year, the media dredge up new perspectives at Christmas, incurring my admiration because  I confess freely I cannot.  Christmas confounds me.  Miraculous survivals, acts of goodness and extraordinary achievements are being reported on every side.  Why do I miss them all?  Why do I not know where every royal person is spending their festive season – and why do I not care?

Frankly, I don’t know why any aspect of Christmas should be news.  After all, it begins unfailingly around 1st November, and swoops in like a great dark cloud, gushing forth episode after episode of trauma to finally collapse like a half-set jelly on December 25th.  Equally routinely, we are to be found sweeping up its victims in the cold dawn of Boxing Day, amidst the pitiful groans of the suffering, a secondary feast of medicaments and salves, and ladles brimming with schadenfreude.

So what’s new?

With my Bah-Humbug specs planted firmly on my nose, I am going to issue you with an invitation you will rarely get:  how do you really feel about Christmas?   I am going to ask you for an extraordinary degree of honesty; for truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Where are you reading this?

Are you at the airport?  Have you been there for more than five hours because your plane is late,  your cabin crew are on strike, or there is a bomb scare?

Are you on the motorway?  Have you been stuck in traffic for more than five hours, missing your plane because it was the only one today that departed on time?

Honestly, what is it like being marooned in that changing cubicle at John Lewis, convinced that if you try to step outside the mob will kill you?

On a register of one to ten, how joyful do you feel about spending eight hours of Monday in the close company of Uncle Freddy after he has stuffed himself to the gills with turkey and drunk enough whisky to sink the Nimitz?  Do you really want to hear that song again?

How do you describe the complexity of your feelings, watching the educational toy which cost you a hundred pounds (give or take a penny) being systematically ignored by its recipients in favour of the cardboard box in which it arrived?

“He’ll grow into it.” His mother assures you.

Is there a moment more memorable than that in which ‘our youngest’ falls on top of the laptop you bought for ‘our eldest’?  It will stay with you, will that crunching sound – a memory to carry to your grave.  The family rows, the burnt mince pies, the drinks you never normally touch and certainly shouldn’t, the vomiting dogs and the panicking cats – with so much living to pack into twenty-four hours; no wonder Christmas’s popularity endures.  We humans are naturally masochistic, after all.

Cynical?  Me?  Hah!  I confess it.  I love watching others engorge themselves in Bacchanalian feasting, while I consume my allowance of boiled fowl and steamed broccoli, and I may even have a sip of wine or two, whether or not I am forced to go and lie down afterwards.   While the young whirl and screech about me, I will take my ease watching Julie Andrews doing her own whirling and screeching on top of that damned hill and I won’t be envious – no, I will not!

I suspect though, like most of you, I will be glad when the day is over, and I am able to wash up, wipe up, clear up, sober up, and go exhausted to my bed (or whatever appalling equivalent has been reserved for me).

All right, I will acknowledge that it is not all doom and gloom, this Christmas thing.  There are experiences not to be missed, pleasures to be found.  Yet how fresh and crisp the dawn of the twenty-sixth, the promise of another year!  How sweetly the robin, his voice no longer drowned by one hundred and forty decibels of Black Sabbath, sings!  And how freely the EBayers bid for that educational toy, in the year’s only real sale!

Happy Christmas, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, Doctor!

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Brothers and Sisters!

Today’s moment for thought is dedicated to our wonderful British National Health Service.  The envy of the world, it performs a sterling function in the community, for which I do not feel sufficient appreciation is given.  As you know, illness is generally suffered by old people, and old people can be notoriously difficult to deal with, especially in times of stress, so I think doctors generally, and nurses especially, show incredible patience.

But…

Doctor – dear nameless doctor ( because I never get to see the same one twice) – why do you need to know what’s wrong with me before you see me?   Why, when I call to make an appointment, do I get fed this line:

“For what reason do you want to see a doctor?  The doctors have requested that I ask you this.”

“Er…why?”   I presume my answer – this information, if I give it, will be passed on to the medical practitioner I am booked to see.  Does this person have special treatment kits they need to remember to bring for my particular complaint?  Or is it a matter of fine tuning?  The length of the consultation might be pertinent:  five minutes for anything above the waist, seven or eight minutes for anything involving removal of trousers.   Three minutes for a sick note, four minutes for flu, twelve minutes for a liver, and so on.

This is a receptionist.  She is not a doctor, she is not qualified.  I may have met her before, or not. She may have the phone on speaker, I don’t know.  Is my confidentiality being respected; are my details being broadcast for the amusement of the office, kept for blackmail purposes, for transmission to insurance companies, drug suppliers, the Russians?  There are certain things I would rather not discuss with anyone other than a qualified practitioner, and why should I?

However, not wishing to seem obstructive, I have come up with a solution that should be agreeable to all.

I have made a list of medical conditions I am at all likely to suffer and given each an easy to remember code.  I have used as my key Stations on the East Coast Main Line railway timetable.   I am ready to distribute this list to every doctor in the practice, so that, for example, when I tell the receptionist:

  • London King’s Cross is throbbing a bit
  •  I am failing to stop at Newark North Gate (or occasionally missing the end of the platform)
  • I’m still at Peterborough
  • Edinburgh Waverley hasn’t worked for three weeks now, or
  • The very thought of Berwick Upon Tweed is agony –

she will be able to relay this information in a form that respects my privacy and is at once easy for the doctor to understand.

The National Health Service is very good, but it tends to be a bit mercenary.  For example, apparently the last time our local surgery advertised for a new doctor they got a zero response.  Nobody wanted to sample the pleasant coolness and invigorating rain of County Durham.   The standard NHS explanation for such difficulties is always centred around money.  “We are under-funded”, they say, “which is why our doctors migrate to other countries where they can earn more.”   Could it be that these brave  doctors want to surf, and swim – to bathe themselves in a balmy sunlit glade somewhere?  Is it possible they simply want to get warm?

There are, however, a few – a very few – areas where, in my personal experience, financial improvements might help to oil the wheels, so to speak.

Dear Jeremy Hunt (Minister for Health), please give these matters some consideration:

  1. In a hospital with ten lifts (elevators), it would be preferable if more than two were working, especially if one of those is being used to transport patients to and from the operating theatres.  If there are times when an elderly person feels disadvantaged – or even, dare I say, humiliated – lying on a gurney in an inadequate hospital gown must surely be one.  Sharing a lift with a full load of ward visitors and their children is, for some less exhibitionist types, a very good reason to choose euthanasia.
  1. If the NHS is truly a seven-days-a-week service, why are almost all procedures booked for Monday to Friday and in ‘office hours’?
  1. Allowing people to sit or lie about in corridors is untidy and generally bad for your image. I thought at first these individuals were homeless persons, but it turned out they were just waiting for a free lift (elevator).
  1. In the above stated negative lift (elevator) situation, installing the cardiac ward on the fifth floor might be regarded as:   a.  an ingenious solution to patient overload, or b.  a sick joke.
  1. Adequate signage is essential. In hospitals please reconsider the seemingly ingenious method of direction which instructs visitors to follow coloured lines painted on the floor when searching for their appropriate department.  Allocating a green line to STI Clinic and a blue line to Maternity can cause real difficulties for colour blind patients.

Dear patient, dear (dare I say?) geriatric patient, be – well – patient, I suppose.  You may feel the NHS’s constant bleating about inadequate resources is inconsistent with your consultant’s Aston Martin in the hospital car park; you may feel victimised as your buttocks numb to their fourth hour on that plastic waiting room chair, or slightly patronised when a young intern tells you that persons of your weight and sedentary habits must expect to start bleeding out every now and then.

Remember he is overworked, and in the front line of a battle with an increasing army of the aged and the drunk.

What would we do without these selfless people?  More seriously, what will we do when they are gone?   For bad as it is, the NHS is under threat from rampant private interests who would have us all pay the real price for our medical care.

And who, in creaking austerity Britain, could afford THAT?