After Stevie’s death, Wayne is taken into care and I don’t see him for years. I’d like to say I’ve almost forgotten him, except I can’t really forget him because whenever I close my eyes I see him sitting beside Stevie’s body, and I’m screaming and he’s staring round the room as if he can’t quite make out what’s happened and can’t believe any of it. He’s got his hands on his head, and his eyes are wild and scared, and I can remember exactly where he’s sitting and how he looks and how his eyes eventually meet mine and maybe we know that nothing can ever be the same again.
It’s that kind of moment. It’s not something you forget.
Then one Saturday afternoon, five years later, I’m in the lounge reading. Mum’s saying something but I can’t make out what it is. She’s in the kitchen which in our house is at the front and the door’s shut. I figure it’s about some job she wants me to do so I just shout, ‘yeah,’ and keep on reading.
Then the door opens and she’s standing there, wiping her hands on a tea towel.
‘Who’s that at the end of the drive? Is he a friend of yours? He’s just sitting on the fence and staring at the house.’
I go to the window which overlooks the garden and there he is – Wayne Keech. Only he looks different, not different as in five years older different but different as in smart and clean, and sitting quite still. I grab my coat and head for the door, sidestepping the questions my mum throws at me. Wayne jumps down from the fence and takes a couple of steps.
‘I didn’t know if you’d want to see me,’ he says.
‘Of course I want to see you. How long are you here for? Where are you staying?’
‘I see my mum’s gone,’ he says, nodding back towards the estate where he used to live.
‘A few years back. Didn’t you know?’
He shakes his head, not sorrowful, more matter of fact, as if he’s talking about someone he hardly knows, which I suppose he is now, after five years.
‘Where did she go?’ he asks.
I tell him I don’t know. She skipped one night about a year after Stevie died. I’m surprised she lasted that long. Feelings were running pretty high back then and she had more than her share of nasty letters, phone calls and things stuffed through her letterbox. There was even an incendiary attack – some righteously indignant citizen with a can of petrol and some matches. She was lucky he couldn’t pour it properly and the fire only damaged the outside of the door.
Still, it was enough, and eventually she just disappeared.
‘No-one knows. She just went.’
He laughs quietly. ‘“Not with a bang but a whimper,”’ he says.
‘Fuck, are you quoting poetry at me?’
‘I like poetry.’
‘So how long are you here for and where are you staying?’ I ask again.
‘I just came up for the day. I thought maybe it was time.’
‘Does anyone know? I mean, are you allowed?’
‘No,’ he says, then, ‘C’mon, lets walk down by the river.’
So, we cut across the estate where he lived and then across the recreation ground and down to the river bank. They’ve improved it a lot in recent years, got rid of the shopping trolleys and the old bikes and built a path. The water looks clean, and there are trees and bushes.
‘There are fish in the river,’ I tell him, ‘and there are otters further up.’
He doesn’t speak for a moment then he suddenly stops and says, ‘How are Stevie’s folk?’ He looks as if a searing pain has just torn through him.
‘They left too,’ I tell him. ‘They didn’t want to stay here, not after...’
My words trail back to the days following the death. There are just isolated images now – Stevie’s mum and dad standing at the window of their house, his arm draped round her shoulder, looking out at nothing, the terrible sight (to me then) of a group of adults crying, Stevie’s little sister...
‘I would’ve gone to see them,’ Wayne says, ‘just to say sorry.’
‘I guess so. Only saying it is better.’
‘It wasn’t your fault.’
‘If I’d never...’ he began.
I repeat slowly, ‘It wasn’t your fault,’ just like my mum and dad said it to me, over and over. But the thoughts go on and on, repeating and repeating, until at last you come to terms with them or maybe you grow into them. Of course, I know now that it wasn’t my fault or Wayne’s fault. What could we have done? Maybe if we hadn’t gone to his house that afternoon, maybe if we didn’t want to play football, maybe if Wayne hadn’t taken my ball – but we did those things and Stevie is dead.
It still wasn’t our fault.
Maybe Wayne doesn’t see it like that.
We sit on a bench by the river. It’s actually quite a nice day with clouds and blue sky and trees in leaf. It’s late spring. The trees are still small; silver birches the sign says. There’s grass beneath them and flowers and not much litter which is a change from the old days.
‘I’ll need to go,’ he says, looking at his watch. ‘They’ll wonder, and maybe guess.’
‘Are they good, your new people?’
‘Yeah, they taught me how to be clean and tidy and honest.’
‘That’s good too. I like learning. I don’t have many friends but I’m okay. I like my own company.’ He turns towards me now, and there’s a faint blush suffusing his cheeks. ‘How’s Tina?’ he asks.
‘Good, I think.’ I tell him. ‘She’s just the same, still fighting for what’s right. I don’t see her much now. She’s at a private school so we’ve kind of drifted apart.’
‘I’d have liked to see her.’
‘Why don’t you?’
‘I tried but I couldn’t get past the door. You can understand, I suppose.’
‘Tina wouldn’t. She’d want to see you.’
‘Her dad came out. He was very polite, very nice. He said she was away but I could tell by the way he kept looking over his shoulder that he was scared she’d look out of her window and see me.’
‘You should try again.’
He shook his head and cast a stone softly into the water. Ripples spread across the still surface and broke against the reeds beside the bank.
‘Sometimes I imagine ripples like that go on forever,’ he says, ’making wider and wider circles, like after Stevie died. The ripples are still going. They’ll never stop.’
He clambers to his feet.
‘I’ll write, maybe,’ he says.
‘That’d be good. I’ll write too.’
Only he doesn’t, and neither do I.
It’s only later that I learn he does see Tina that afternoon. She overhears her dad telling her mum that Wayne called, and all hell’s let loose. She storms out of the house and heads to the only places she can think of – the bus station and the train station. Eventually she sees Wayne crossing the road towards the railway. She nearly loses him in the late afternoon crowd in the terminal then catches a glimpse as he heads towards one of the outer platforms. She runs after him and grabs him by the arm.
They only have a few minutes but it’s enough to put a smile on Wayne’s face for the rest of the day. That’s all he tells me when we meet again, years after. What they talked about in those few minutes before his train arrived, where they sat, how they parted, is all locked away in a part of his mind marked ‘private and personal’.
A couple of years later he has a Facebook Page and I get a Friends request. There are only a handful of friends, most of whom I don’t know, but Tina’s name is there. I guess Stevie’s would’ve been there too, if he hadn’t died.
Me, Stevie, Wayne and Tina - memory is what you make it, I guess. The truth has no place there.