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?”
“Where is she?”
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?”
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.
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