“Mack and Martin, they go way back.”
I had discovered my father eating breakfast in the lounge bar of ‘The Black Horse’. He leaned over the table toward me, confidentially. “It’s a business relationship no-one talks about, son. Not out loud, anyways. Best ter keep it that way.”
I didn’t pursue the subject further because I construed my father’s words to mean both men had their toes dipped in the subterranean rivers of petty corruption that dominated politics in any northern town. As a councillor, Mackenzie Crabtree would have been party to the mutual back-slapping culture that determined how the plummiest council contracts were awarded. Martin Berry, a substantial employer in the area might have sheltered from the financial rain under a council umbrella from time to time, too. It was more than possible Mack was one of those holding the umbrella.
My father nodded down towards my leg. “Did yer go ter t’ ‘ospital, son?”
“No,” I told him. The wound inflicted by the slashing iron bar wasn’t serious. “It’ll take care of itself. Did you hear any more?”
“Nah. Likely we won’t; an alibi would do no harm, though. So I were at your’s las’ night, and I comed straight back ‘ere.”
“Aye, you did. And the weather were that bad we stayed in, all evening.” I watched him making steady work of a generous slice of black pudding. “Da’, are you going to look in on Mam before you go back?”
“Nah.” His answer was stifled by a mouthful. “Ah don’t hate Mary no more, but I’ve nothin’ ter say to ‘er, man. Ah’m well away. Ah’ve no wish ter open old wounds.”
“Tell me what happened to you two, Da’? I never understood, y, kna?”
My father glanced around him. “Why would you? You was just a kid, like. There’s too many ears around ‘ere. Lerrus finish this off and wor’ll tak’ a walk, awreet?”
And we did, but once out of doors I saw how quickly the cold got to him, so we went back to my apartment together, where I made him coffee and stirred the fire back to life. Then he told me his story.
“Mary, she were always the showy one, y’kna, when we was at school together? Mack and me, we both fancied her, like, but it were me who won her, an’ I thought she were a real honey, in them days. I was so young!
“Anyways, I got a good job at Pinder’s Castings, up on the old Carrow Road Estate, and Mack, he went to college for his trades. We was good friends, I thought. Us used to go out drinking together, go to each other’s parents’ homes, everything. And when I was twenty I married Mary,” My father laughed. “Mack were my best man.”
“Shelley, she were there all the time. Us knew ‘er from school too, and she were a nice girl, but Mack had never seemed interested, y’kna? Then Shelley’s Ma’ and Da’ were killed in that motor crash on the West Wood road and he got canny interested then! They left her a hunderd thousan’ pound! I remember ‘im sayin’: ‘I’m havin’ that!’ and he did. He married ‘er that Autumn. From then on, ever’thing changed.”
“So he married Shelley just for her money…”
“I’d say so, aye. And her family house, ‘cause that had belonged to her parents’ too. Within a year, Mack’s got ‘e’s own business goin’ and the money’s flowin’ in, but I’m not envious ‘cause he’s Mack and he’s my friend, y’see? And I’ve got a good job at Pinders’, wi’ promotions an’ that. It were like that for about five-six years. You would h’a been about five, I s’pose. Then I went into work at Pinders’ on a Friday an’ the union rep. met us at the gate. He told us we’d all been fired – Pinders’ was in receivership.”
“That must have been quite a blow.”
“It were. Then there were another blow – because I had nowt to do that morning but go back ‘ome an’ when I did I found Mack in bed wi’ Mary.
“Jesus, Da’, what did you do?”
“Nowt, lad; what could I do? I’m unemployed; we’ve got you, and Mary’s braying me telling me it’s my fault. She won’t give up Mack, Mack won’t give up Shelley; what’s to do? Well, in the end, like, when things calmed down, we did nowt for a couple o’ year. It were on’y when Mack started pushin’ hisself to get on the council an’ he thought his opponents might make capital out of him for ‘e’s extra-maritals wi’ Mary that he dropped her like a red hot brick.
“Oh, man, we was poor then! I were workin’ ower in Maberley, but I were drinkin’ and I’d got hooked on the odd bet – the hosses, y’kna? I know it weren’t right,but it were the strain, keepin’ up pretences with that woman.”
“Da! Why didn’t you make Mack pay? I mean, he ruined your marriage and bloody nearly ruined you! Don’t you think he owed us something?”
My father stared into his coffee. “Blackmail, yer mean? No, son, I couldn’t do that. Ah’m not made for that. Anyways, Mary wouldn’t have let me. I could sting Mack for a bit o’ cash now and then, least for a while, ‘til he got fed up and reckoned he’d put enough distance between us. Us even managed to remain friends, of a sort. I think he felt guilty, y’kna? Aye, I kna’ he felt that. Mary, she had her own answers, didn’t she? Turns out while I were away she were ‘entertaining’. It were on’y now and again at first, then I started finding clues. Give ‘er credit, she’s very good at it, ‘pparently. It were the last straw for me, that.
I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “So the only ones left out of the loop were Shelley and me?”
“Aye. Shelley didn’t find out; at least not then. She must have done, eventual, I think.” My father nodded, half to himself. “Aye, she must ha’ found out. And now you know.”
I was raised in a love triangle! It made sense, now I thought back on the scraps of evidence I had collected for myself in those growing years. “We were quite poor. I remember Christmases when you couldn’t afford to get me presents. Ma got me a bike, but she had to borrow off the Provvy.”
“Nah, it weren’t the Provvy. I don’t know where she got that money from. I was past askin’.” My Da’ sighed. “I couldn’t stay in the house and off the sauce, son. My fault, that.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t blame yourself – I was wrong to blame you. If I’d known…” I left the sentence incomplete. “I don’t understand why you didn’t leave much sooner: I think I would have!”
“Yer don’t, though. Yer want to bring up yer kid an’ yer want a home, so yer hang in there, an’ just hope it gets better, y’kna?”
“But still, you’ve found your way, now.” I said.
“And I must be getting’ back to it. So, it’s been grand, like – t’see yer again. You’ve growed. You’ve growed a lot.”
We hugged before we said goodbye, something I never thought I would do with my father. As I watched him out of the door, looking old and ill, I thought of the hugs I’d missed, the times apart when we could have – should have – been together. And it hurt. Although he is long gone now, it still hurts.
I remember I had one more important thing to do that day, and if the wind had already stirred my sails for a new adventure, the spinnaker of my father’s story drove me into it with even greater determination. In my case, though, the quest was on land and my fated voyage involved a trip to Bedeport on the ‘bus. It meant I was departing from my bus stop at the end of The Avenue at about the same time my Da’ would have been boarding his train at Casterley Station, and because the main road and the railway line each kept company with the river as they made their way down the valley, I was able at one point to look out from the bus window and see the train as it ran alongside me.
It was late afternoon when I returned to Casterley. An apologetic sun was creeping down to rest behind Burdlehope Hill at the end of an ineffectual day, pursued, in a desultory fashion, by evening cloud. On Saturday our home match with Abberton conflicted with the Aintree Grand National, that infamous steeplechase which, unless the unseasonable weather released its hold, would reduce our crowd to practically zero. I hated playing in front of sparse, disinterested spectators who loitered on the empty terraces where their only cure for boredom was violence, and their only motive for attendance was alcohol. This had been a decade of bad crowd problems and pitch invasions in our beautiful game. I had little doubt there would be trouble.
On the fifteenth of this month at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium ninety-six fans would be crushed to death and hundreds injured, caught between too much crowd pressure from the main gates on one side and a perimeter fence on the other. It would lead to removal of the dangerous ‘crowd control’ fences and change a lot of thinking about traditional terraces, which ultimately I suppose was good for the game because it induced most well-supported clubs to install seating in their stands, as well as persuading the powers that be to call time on crowd hooliganism.
At times such as these in years to come I would be looking forward to a break – with maybe two or three matches left in the season I would be not so much tired as stale. Casterley, however, approached their remaining games with affected boredom; scarcely bothering to train, arriving late for sessions, and leaving holiday brochures scattered about the dressing room. To me this was ludicrous – we were within arms’ reach of promotion to a higher division – but I came to the conclusion I was the only one motivated towards that target. Everyone else was predisposed to lose because to them promotion would mean their jobs – many of them were approaching retirement – were likely to be forfeit, replaced by younger blood.
After I returned from Bedeport I suggested to Angie we should eat out. We booked a table (needlessly, the place was less than crowded) at the ‘Old Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant’. ‘Old Hong Kong’ held a middle ranking in the local newspaper’s guide to Casterley eateries, which was a short guide. Few people ate out in Casterley, even fewer on a Tuesday night when the sky threatened fresh snow. I remember Angie’s elegant silver-grey dress and her black leggings, which, as she put it, stopped her knees from knocking. I remember how she could make the waves of her long blonde hair flow over her shoulder like surf, and the slow sadness of her smile. And I hated that love and doubt had begun to become a torture for her. I wanted the sun to shine through the dark clouds. I wanted to see those ice-blue eyes light up, hear the deep chuckle her throat emitted when she was knowing, and happy.
We ate plates of moderate Chinese food to a background of quarrelsome Mandarin, hissing pans and banging freezer lids. Angie pointed out a cat making its way up the near-deserted pavement outside, remarking how it seemed to quicken its pace as it passed the restaurant.
“I reckon the standards will be better than this in Carlton.” I said.
Angie reached across the table to place her hand on mine. “Don’t!” She rebuked me. But I persisted.
“Angie, I know you don’t belong to me. I can’t make you come to Carlton.”
“You can’t own someone.”
“I know that, darling.”
“It’s a big decision for me – oh, I don’t know – I’m scared, I s’pose. Sad, frykened little Angie!”
“So what do I do? I love you too much to leave you behind. It’s just tragic! Look, this is only an idea, yeah, but if you love me and you think you might be able to stay with me…” I reached into my pocket, produced the little box I had bought in Bedeport and slid it gently across the table to her.
Angie stared at it. “Oh, you bastard! That’s so unfair!”
“Angie darling, we’ll still do all the things kids should do. I promise you won’t miss out on life. I know we’d be starting early but there are so many good things waiting for us, and I’d love if we could do them together! Angie, please will you marry me?”
Angie snatched at her serviette. “Sod you, Chas, you’ve made me cry again! Now I’m going to have to fix me face.” She rose from her chair, hurrying away across the restaurant.
I called after her. “Will you?”
She answered over her shoulder. “Yes, of course I bloody will!”
Alright, judge me. I’ll defend myself by saying I had marriage on my mind long before I heard my father’s story and I’ll tell you why; I’ll say to you I proposed because everything in my life at that time was about Angie, and making her happy. If the security of a ring could act as compensation for my reclusive nature, and assuage her fears, that was okay: if you can’t place your trust in me, trust the ring. Then you’ll come with me, Angie; then you need not be afraid.
But you might see into my state of mind and reach a different conclusion. You might see someone cast adrift, or at least dragging my anchors, in the wake of my father’s revelations. You might even think of me as floundering, panicked by the threat of utter solitude, and if you do think of me that way, you will also see my proposal as more a plea for support than a declaration of love.
Yes, I admit my heart was driven by no small measure of desperation. The reputation of my family throughout my childhood had prevented me from forming deep bonds of friendship with all but a very few of my age, and those I had befriended were either gone or distanced by my success. I will not agree to the word ‘loneliness’ because that implies a destitution I did not feel, but Angie came to me ready to confront that success at a time when my aloneness was weighing heavily upon me, and hers quickly became the deepest friendship I had ever known. The thought of losing Angie caused a great empty chasm of sadness to open beneath my feet. Wasn’t that love?
Were my struggles no more or less than those of any very young man who has to confront a captivating young woman with such a profoundly serious choice? I do not know. I am Chas Haggerty, and I cannot see myself as you will see me. You must decide.
I can now tell you my time in Bedeport that day was not entirely consumed by the purchase of a ring. There is more to relate, but it must be deferred until another time.
After the unseasonably cold spring it was a peculiar summer that year, with my switch between clubs and the imperative of having to find a new place to live in a new town. Given that little added assurance of a ring, ‘Team Angie’ instantly gelled, if you know what I mean. We were a unit, we coordinated everything; learned to drive in the summer, the two of us; because for one reason or another we were constantly shuttling back and forth between Casterley and Carlton. For me, that meant introduction to my new club, and all it entailed. I wasn’t played until the three last friendlies of the summer, but there were promotions, medicals, training sessions. Angie found us a new place, an apartment near Carlton Park’s stadium, and performed her home-making miracles upon it so successfully that she was occupying it by the end of June, while I was still commuting between there and Casterley. Her office transferred her to their branch in Carlton, where she began reaping the kudos that came with being engaged to a footballer!
For all the hoops we had to jump through, for all the dashes from one base to another, there were still times when Angie and I could relax. We took to walking, taking ourselves away from town and away from roads, come to that. We hiked the moors when the weather was rough, loving the rain’s lash and the scourge of raw wind on our faces. Calmer days inspired calmer walks: to the south-west of Casterley there was a small deciduous wood that clothed a steep bank beside a stream. A long rustic staircase cut into the bank to make climbing among the trees easier inspired its simple name: ‘The Step Wood’, and we loved it there. Angie declared it first on her list of enchanted places, and certainly, dappled by sun on a hot June day, it was inspiring. There were many magic moments, such as woods inhabited by faeries are almost obliged to provide, but one – just a very elemental little thing – remained with us.
Angie found it. “Oh, Chas, look!”
In the mosaic of sunlight that filtered through leaves of birch and oak, lying atop a brown carpet of loam, was a little bouquet of woodland flowers. They were tied together with a wild onion leaf, and quite fresh, as if they had been placed there no more than a week since. Yet they were sort of timeless, a gift of someone who had loved the wood and left them as a memento until they returned.
While my fiancée was diving wholeheartedly into her new Carlton life, I was caught betwixt the old and the new for unexpected reasons. A journalist, Michael Norris, who was initially commissioned by Carlton Park to do a two-page spread for their fanzine, had his eye set on higher things. I was one of six changes ‘Park’s’ new manager, Hamish Merchison was making to his side, and the least experienced: why had he picked me?
“I’m putting together a video, and for your part of it I need to tie up your connection between Casterley Town and ‘Park’. Who are you, and what the transition means to you, and so on.”
“Fine.” I said.
“The problem is nobody seems to have bothered filming Casterley Town’s matches. There’s a little area TV stuff…” He gave me a conspiratorial frown, “VERY expensive; and not much else. So, I thought, get you down to the Casterley ground, film you doing a bit of showboating, maybe bring a few of your former colleagues in – why the wry smile?”
“Good luck!” I said.
Rather as I anticipated, Norris’s simple shopping list of tasks mired him in a turgid pool of refused permissions, contractual small print and profound reluctance on the part of any of my former team ‘mates’. Technically, I was out of contract. Suddenly, Casterley’s football stadium was private property which I was denied permission to enter. I was no longer entitled to wear the Casterley shirt or display team sponsorships. At the time I still had three weeks to run on my tenancy of The Avenue apartment, so I settled back to wait while Norris fought his battles.
Norris was a good journalist, and there is nothing a good journalist relishes more than an unexplained refusal. He won several of my ex-teammates around by the simple argument of free publicity, and, I am told, used much the same tactics to get Mack Crabtree onside: after all, his perimeter boards would be ‘in shot’ throughout the planned film sequences. But Martin Berry could not be shifted. If we filmed at the ground we would be trespassing, and we could be sure legal action would follow.
I raised the issue when I visited John Hargreave one Saturday. “Tell him to catch Berry at his warehouses,” John advised. “Especially in the evening.”
“Oh?” I said, inviting further comment. Having visited Berry myself in his domain and never caused him any anxiety, I was interested to know what might have changed.
“Yeah; put him under pressure. Our Marty doesn’t like people hanging around his sheds these days at whatever time, but he’s definitely paranoid about evenings. I wanted to take some pictures from the hill over there last year – just atmosphere, backcloth, that sort of thing. I had two bloody great security bozos on my back almost afore I had time to set up the camera. Biggest blokeys I’d ever seen. They were like, massive!”
“What did you do?”
“What d’you think? I left, man! But Berry’s place was jumpin’, and it’s my guess he has some heavy stuff goin’ on! Now a nice, persistent journalist paying an evening call might just be given whatever he asks for, because nice persistent journalists are not like me, mate. They dig. I don’t think our Marty would like that. He might just be glad to come up with those permissions you want – to get rid, y’kna?”
“It’s a long shot.” I thought.
“Aren’t they always the best?”
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental. 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