The first chapter of my novel The Boys from the Backfields
The door to my past opened easily, it was a surprise. I’d intended to confront Angel directly, but she was out when I arrived. Considering her profession, she should have changed the locks.
I was hiding in the attic when she came back in.
I’d climbed up there to see if I could find any clues among the bits we left behind when we’d gone to LA in the nineties. The questions raised by the anonymous emails needed answers. I found a heavy wooden box crammed with old photos, and two large manila envelopes, stuffed with my scribbles about the events that had come to define my life.
I was sitting in an old deckchair waiting for Angel to go to bed. The answer had to be there, in those damp, limp bundles, some detail I hadn’t realised was important when I’d written it down.
My cell phone vibrated as another text arrived. It was my PA, Helene, again. No. I couldn’t think about work, or too much about Helene. I had to focus. The past had to be resolved before I could think about the future again.
I wrote the first ‘book’ in the late seventies, when I felt I was able to give some time to myself, after half-a-dozen years of frantic success. Hell, I even considered retiring then, before my thirtieth birthday.
The paper was thin and stained, but the typewritten text was still crisp and bold.
I started to read.
1963 – 1973
Have you watched those wildlife programmes on the television and seen the images of big cats dealing with porcupines? That was me and trouble. I sniffed at it in a circumspect way, and then, when it showed any sign of life, I ran like hell. That was me usually, but that day the taunting just got to me.
The smirking face begged to be squashed into the muddy grass of the field. It was a wet summer and I had recently come into that phase of life that marks your earliest memories, the few vivid incidents from early childhood that you remember when you eventually emerge into the heaviness of adulthood.
The boy’s name was David, an innocent sounding name for what was a vile specimen of childhood. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, he slithered and oozed his way around my consciousness, an evil, ugly, smelly, little boy. I knew him as Snobby, a name that invoked gross images of dirty dried-up snot and filthy fingernails.
The lesson he taught me was worth a lot I suppose. His existence showed me that there is evil in the world, and dealing with him gave me my first practical lessons in coping with it. He was a year or so older than me and a lot bigger, a real bully.
Some people talk about their earliest memories with pleasure, the feeling of warmth and security, the excitement of a trip to the seaside, even the wonder of their first days at school. The memory of that encounter was pleasurable too, the elation of pride and triumph, the look of astonishment on Snobby’s face, as I, the quiet helpless victim, fought back. I squashed his face hard into that mud, singing inside and juddering with fear at what the consequences might be. As it was, he yelped like a hurt puppy and loped off home to his equally hideous mother. I suppose he was only six years old himself.
They told me that at that time travelling showmen presented real Punch and Judy shows on the field. I had a vague memory of dodging through a crowd of adult legs and tree trunks, and feeling a sense of occasion. Soon after, the council felled the remaining trees, and in the years after the incident with Snobby, I played boisterous games there, on the rough grass of the field that passed for our village green.
The Backfields Estate was split into three sections. I don’t know if the council intended it that way when they built it, but nature demanded it. The bottom site was the oldest part, and as I remembered it, the toughest. The top site was the newest part, and apart from small gangs of fiercely territorial boys, was then relatively quiet and refined.
I lived in the middle site, a motley collection of colourful families gathered from all over the town. Those were the beginning of great times, the late fifties and then the sixties, when we thought we could change the world, as if we alone in all human existence had the opportunity to participate in major evolutionary and revolutionary changes.
Early in the history of the estate, before bitter memories and endless vendettas developed, we all came together on the field. I remember long summer days when dozens of children tumbled with primal joy on the damp grass and rushed home en masse for dinner, and a scolding for the green and brown stains on their knees and clothes. Small groups would converge from the top, middle, and bottom sites, and join in friendly tests of strength. Piggy-back and shoulder-back fights, and games where everyone collapsed into a laughing, sweating heap were the best.
These exciting tribal games were punctuated by the occasional match of football, cricket, or rugby – pretty tedious stuff. Those games were for the real competitors, who charged about the field, panting with determined looks, sweating to claim the glory of a goal or a try, or contorting in athletic ways catching and smacking hard leather-clad balls.
We made French arrows by slitting the tops of small sticks of bamboo and forcing folded paper flights into the grooves. We hurled them across the field with lengths of waxy twine twisted around our fingers, not aware of or not caring about the consequences.
The bottom site was separated from the middle by the main road, an uncrossable barrier for a young child alone, unless, like many of the parents then, yours didn’t care or were too stupid or naïve, or too exhausted by debt or poverty, to keep the reins of caring tight. Even then that road was busy, the busiest in the county they said, the main road from our town to the next, full of trundling noisy motor vehicles.
The barrier between the middle site and the top was more subtle, yet just as effective. I lived on the edge of that barrier, a row of larger private houses that loomed and bragged about their affluence with deep bay windows and bleached lace curtains. The few children who lived there had piano lessons, took week-long holidays, and got driven around by parents with cars. Our small comfortable council house faced the posher people across the road, and the view from my bedroom window bequeathed me bothersome hang-ups about background and social status.
In one of the owner-occupied houses lived a lively, nosy old lady known to our small gang as Betty Fish. Her husband had been a fishmonger who drove around the estates in a small white van selling overpriced fresh fish. Friday was his best day. A couple of years earlier on a Friday night visit to the pub to drink some of his profit he’d collapsed and died. Betty Fish remained, living alone in that big house. The van had been driven away a few months after her husband’s death, with her perched on the edge of the pavement waving good-bye to the new owner with a smile and a bundle of fivers in her fist. As a single woman Betty became nosier and happier, spending most of her time bustling to and from the few small shops on the estate and chatting in a patronising manner to the natives from the council houses.
One late summer day in 1963 Betty Fish was murdered. I was thirteen years old and I saw it happen.
Our gang had gone out quite early due to plans we’d made the day before to pick blackberries. The most fruitful place was in a small overgrown field that buffered some of the private houses from the top site. That’s where we were.
“You’re useless,” I said to Pogo, clearing my throat and spitting at the bramble bushes to emphasise my lack of uselessness.
“It’s not my fault,” replied Pogo, in a small hurt voice, adjusting his large black-framed spectacles with his purple-stained index finger, the top of his curly-haired head a good four inches below mine. “You pinched the best bush.”
“Shall we nick some apples from Betty Fish?” It was Trevor Thomas, Trev as we called him, a wise, calm person, tall and sinewy with ruddy complexion and tousled fair hair. Trev was not a know-all but he knew it all. He was immensely respected by us lesser mortals and was the natural leader of our group.
The fourth member of our regular gang was, much to my chagrin, Snobby. Yes, that Snobby. I didn’t like him, but Trev kept him under control. More than once Snobby had been given a quiet word and a black eye behind a hedge or in a dark alley. He’d become more subdued than he’d been before I viciously retaliated that day on the field. Maybe he’d learnt his lessons, life isn’t easy for anyone, and perhaps he couldn’t help his obnoxious personality? So being a level, tolerant person I put away my misgivings and put up with him.
Snobby, trying to impress Trev, was already hanging over the top of the mossy stone wall at the bottom of Betty Fish’s garden before we had a chance to react to Trev’s suggestion.
We put our blackberry gathering basins behind a bramble bush near the wall and followed Snobby’s example, intending to retrieve the basins later and carry on gathering the fruit. Then we would plague the houses on the estate, our haul of berries tastefully displayed in wicker baskets decorated with fern leaves. We could get a shilling a pint for the soft black fruit (even maggot-ridden). We’d use the money we earned to buy a pack or two of five Woodbine cigarettes from Tight Bert, the newsagents on the main road.
As we approached the wall Snobby dropped down back towards us unexpectedly, and said in an uncharacteristically faltering way: “Let’s not bother boys, I’ve got a much better idea.”
Trev laughed: “Your ideas are never better.”
He pushed Snobby aside and we scrambled up the wall.
I poked my head up and began a slow recce of the garden. At the foot of the wall inside the garden the bramble bushes from the field had spread their tentacles, creating a wild unkempt area. Beyond that were the mature apple trees laden with ripening fruit. Betty Fish wouldn’t miss a few apples, many were already rotting on the ground. Through the gaps in the trees my eyes swept over the lawn, tended every week by Jacko’s father, the squint-eyed alcoholic from the top site, for the price of a bottle of sherry.
Behind the trees, if we moved carefully, we would be hidden from the view of anyone but a determined observer from the house, and if we were spotted we could always make a run for it, at least Betty Fish didn’t have a dog. I saw no sign of any activity, so I hauled myself over and dropped into the blackberry thorns. I heard the others following me and soon we were creeping around, stuffing the apples into our jumpers, adrenaline pumping, hearts beating hard with the excitement. I nearly dropped my haul when I heard a muffled cry from the direction of the house. I looked up. Through the open curtains at the rear window I saw two darkened figures struggling.
We froze in our positions, like that silly party game, and stared intently at the scene. One of the figures fell away and the other disappeared into the depths of the house. I looked over at Trev, who shrugged, then at the bewildered baby face of Pogo. Snobby had disappeared.
Long slow motion seconds later the back door sprang open, and a person, under cover of the rhododendron bushes that shielded the door, came out. The distance was too great to see clearly but there was something familiar about the shape and the gait. The person jerked its head quickly from right to left, composed itself, and set off down the side of the semi-detached towards the street where I lived at the front.
Pogo whispered first: “Let’s go boys, I don’t like this at all.”
Trev, ever the boldest, moved slowly towards the house. I followed cautiously a few paces behind. We approached the rear window from its side and peeked in nervously. We pressed our faces right up against the glass. Lying sprawled on the red Persian carpet was a distinctly immobile Betty Fish.
‘‘Fucking Hell!” Trev said.
“Fucking Hell!” I echoed.
“Blooming Heck!” came a small weak voice beside us.
I looked at Trev, his sun-bleached eyebrows lifted. We all turned and ran back to the shelter of the trees. Pogo’s little legs pumped unbelievably fast and by the time Trev and I reached the small orchard he was over the wall and gone. We crouched, panting, gathering our thoughts.
“Let’s go and phone the cops,” I said. “We don’t have to say who we are.”
Trev nodded breathlessly. We jumped over the wall together. At the top of the wall I glanced back and saw the trail of apples, strewn from the rear window of the house, over the lawn, and into the trees. There was nothing I could do about it so I dropped down and followed Trev.
We headed for a phone box that normally worked, on the far side of the top site. It would mean risking our lives by going through other gangs’ territories, but we were more afraid to go to our usual box in the middle site in case the police traced the call. My fears about the top site were realised when from a side alley a group of three boys and two vicious-looking dogs appeared and almost bumped into us. The boys were older and bigger than us, and looked mean, so I increased my pace to get away from them, all the time glancing sideways to make sure the dogs hadn’t picked up the smell of my fear. Trev touched my arm.
“Wait a minute. Don’t panic. You’ll be all right.”
One of the boys shouted “Oi!”
Trev stopped and turned to face them, I had no choice but to do the same.
“Trev, isn’t it?” the stranger said, smiling paternally.
Trev smiled and nodded.
“You’re OK you are, what you doing?”
“Looking for my dog, Smokey. He’s like a sheepdog, lots of black and white, you know. Have you seen him?”
“He’s a good rabbit catcher isn’t he? We’ll keep an eye out.”
Trev could handle every situation, he knew everyone, and everyone liked him. We carried on walking purposefully, pretending to look around for the dog, whistling and calling for Smokey. The other boys turned down another alley, I sighed with relief.
“You worry too much,” Trev said. “There’s the phone box.”
Luckily, although the coin slot was jammed, the telephone still worked for 999 calls.
Trev did the talking, he was older and more composed.
“Police? I think there’s been a murder.”
“Yes, it’s Betty Fish.”
“Betty somebody, I don’t know…”
“It’s in the Backfields.”
“In the private houses.”
“Opposite the council houses.”
“In Meadow Road.”
We carried on walking, talking excitedly.
“How do you know she’s dead?” I asked stupidly, because of course Trev knew these things for sure.
“Did you recognise who did it?” he asked.
“No, though there was something about…”
“Yes, I thought there was something.”
“Do you think Pogo will say anything?” I asked.
Trev laughed, shaking his fair hair in the sunlight. “Got any fags?” he asked.
“Here,” I said. “I’ve got a stump of a Players, I nicked it off the mantelpiece this morning, my old girl won’t miss it, there were another five or six there. Have you got a match?”
We reached the outer limits of the Backfields and crossed a busy road where a farm track led into the countryside and a place where we spent much of our time trying to catch rabbits and grass-snakes among the ivy covered ruins of a group of stone buildings. We leant against a hedge just out of sight of the road and Trev lit up. We shared the Players’ stump, taking great pride in smoking it down until it burnt our lips and fingers and became impossible to hold.
“Fuck me!” Trev said, spitting the dregs of tobacco from his lips. “We’ve left the fucking blackberry basins behind.”
Preferring to avoid the possibility of another confrontation with the top-siters, we made our way back to the field behind Betty Fish’s house by skirting the outer boundary of the estate and walking quietly through a long privet-straddled alley. The basins still sat undisturbed under the brambles and we retrieved them with relief. I couldn’t resist a quick look over the wall.
At the back of the house two uniformed policemen plodded slowly examining the ground for clues. I tried to keep very still and quiet, breathing heavily with the effort of hanging on the wall. One of the police turned in our direction and following the trail of apples walked up the lawn towards us. As he came closer I recognised him as Sergeant Conway, a slow determined giant, frightening, but easy to avoid. He didn’t worry me. He looked up towards the apple trees and our eyes met through the gaps in the foliage.
“Oi, stop you. Wait!” he commanded in a large voice.
We took our cue, grabbed the basins and ran. We hid in the doorway behind Good Stores for twenty minutes before edging out tentatively.
“Better go home,” Trev said.
I nodded. “I’ll give you a shout after dinner, we’ll see what’s going on then.”
I turned right up Meadow Road and Trev walked nonchalantly down School Lane towards his house.
A group of neighbours chattered with jabbing fingers on the pavement outside my house. Mrs Lee a small round woman with gypsy black hair talked incomprehensibly fast and pointed unselfconsciously at the police activity across the road. Mr Lee, her dull, thick-set husband puffed on a slipshod example of a rolled up cigarette and smiled with malign satisfaction at the prospect of someone other than himself being in trouble with the law. Snobby’s, thin, ferret-eyed father peered short-sightedly and tipsily with a puzzled expression. No doubt he’d walked into the drama on his way back from a lunchtime visit to the Carpenter’s Inn.
My mother, a young and always tired thirty-five, commanded her usual position at the centre of the group; and my older brother Ralph sat on the low brick wall behind them, gently patting his hair into shape. I tried to look surprised.
“What the heck’s going on, Ralph?”
“Hi, little broth, it’s the cops, something’s happening in Mrs Johnson’s house.”
Who the hell is Mrs Johnson? I thought, of course it must be Betty Fish’s real name. My mother spotted me.
“Mick, come here, where have you been? Are those blackberries?”
I looked down at my hands, I was carrying two basins, mine and Pogo’s, one squashed on top of the other, both almost empty.
“Er, yes, we didn’t get much.”
“We, who’s we?”
I backed away instinctively, she had kind eyes my mother, but those hands, they carried a sting.
“You know I don’t like you playing with that boy, where have you . . ?”
“Mick, look.” Ralph grabbed my arm, saving me from further interrogation. I was already starting to crack.
An ambulance pulled up outside the house opposite. A policeman looked protectively up and down the street as two uniformed ambulance men dismounted and went up the path carrying a folded stretcher. I took the opportunity of the distraction to slip down my own path and into the open front door. I dumped the basins on the table in the galley kitchen and rushed upstairs to my bedroom where I could watch the developments in comfort and security through the window.
A noise behind me made my heart and my body leap.
“It’s only me, Mick.”
“Oh, Ralph,” I sighed with relief.
Ralph looked good, his oily hairstyle not yet a relic, the black leather jacket a symbol of his maturity and independence. Although he still lived with us he was no longer subject to the same parent-imposed rules as I was. His nineteen years, his job as an apprentice fitter, and the three or four pounds that he contributed to the household expenses each week saw to that. A fatal accident at the site of the new steelworks, where my father was earning big money, working long tiring hours trying to beat construction deadlines, placed the sixteen year old Ralph as the oldest male member of the family three years earlier.
He took the burden uncomplainingly at the time and had since matured, supporting my mother and me with a calm paternal benevolence. I liked Ralph and often confided in him, but I couldn’t decide whether or not to tell him what we’d seen, after all we hadn’t done anything wrong, had we? Stealing apples was not a capital offence, yet I was reluctant to involve the adult world in the adventure until I’d at least discussed it with Trev.
“What’s happening now?” I asked, hoping Ralph hadn’t noticed the guilt.
“Old girl’s probably had a heart attack or something. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. All those police, you’d think they had nothing better to do.”
Another police car pulled up and three people got out, a man, a woman, and a girl. She looked like the new girl from the top site to me. I’d seen her around, she was small and pretty, with long golden hair, and seemed to have a bit of a cocky attitude about her. I liked that.
They stopped on the pavement near the ambulance. The man put his arm around the woman’s shoulder and took the girl’s hand in his.
The two ambulance men came out of the house carrying a laden stretcher, and put it in the back of their vehicle.
The ambulance pulled away sedately and quietly, confirming my supposition that Betty Fish was dead, no rush to the hospital for a corpse. The three people were led into the house by a policeman. Most of the uniformed police dispersed, leaving a man standing by the front door and another walking along the path to the rear. I saw my mother detach herself from the group on the roadside and make her way to our front door.
Ralph looked me up and down. “Been picking blackberries Mick? Where did you go?”
“MICK, RALPH,” my mother shouted up the stairs. “Come and get your dinner. I’m warming it up.”
We sat in the living room with bowls of leek and potato soup balanced on our knees. I kept quiet while Ralph and my mother talked.