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?”
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.