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.”
“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