Carl Jeffreys is dead – murdered.
Jesus, I can’t get his image out of my head. It’s not the image of the thick-set dead beat I met in the Wheatsheaf, though. It’s the other Carl, the one I knew years ago, the morose tough who couldn’t hold a pencil properly and had weird plans for the future and liked to fight Wayne, the one who looked after his kid sister and did a paper round. I can’t help wondering what went wrong. A hell of a lot, I think.
Maybe it was there from the beginning. Maybe he was hardwired for failure. Still, you can’t help but wonder and you can’t fight off the memories that suddenly appear from nowhere, like you’ve caught a trip wire and triggered some screen in your head. Events I haven’t thought about in years emerge from the mists of the past like they’ve been hiding there, just waiting for that tug on the wire.
Chloe’s face emerges from the mist and her eyes catch mine and hold them and the whole day comes tumbling back like it was yesterday, and there we are, Tina, Wayne, Stevie and me, walking through the town towards Wayne’s house. I can’t remember why we’re going there, or where we’ve been, but I know we’re nine and it’s all part of that same year. Maybe we’ve been to the beach, because I remember it’s sunny and warm. Maybe it’s spring, because I remember the town’s busy, but not summer busy when you’re pushing your way through crowds of holiday-makers on the prom. It’s spring busy, when there’s still space for a few children to slalom past the old people who’ve arrived from the Midland towns on their coach trips. I think Tina’s mum drove us into town and I remember that Tina is excited because it’s the first time she’s been allowed to go into the town on her own. I remember that Wayne is nervous because we’re heading towards his house and he doesn’t want Tina to see it. I don’t know why we’re going there. He keeps saying we’ll have to wait at the end of the street.
‘You can wait at the end of the street.’
‘Why?’ Tina asks.
‘I’ll only be a minute.’
‘We can come with you.’
‘There’s no need. I’ll be quick.’
‘I’ve never been to your house.’
‘It’s just a house.’
‘Why can’t I see your house?’
He can’t tell her the truth. He’s already told her too many lies about it at school, about his garden and his swing and his trampoline and his pet dog. Tina is clever enough to see through it but I don’t think even she can picture just how bad it really is.
‘My mum might be in.’
‘I’d like to meet your mum. You’ve met my mum.’
A look of despair swims across his face.
‘It’s just a house,’ he says miserably.
Only it’s not just a house. It’s his house and it’s the worst on the street and the street isn’t that good either. I guess he thinks taking Tina there is like dropping a baby in a vat of pig’s blood.
Walking through our town is like travelling down some weird spiral where everything gets worse and worse as you head towards the town centre. You start to think maybe you want to go home, that someone might come out of a side street and mug you. There’s litter and graffiti everywhere. You go faster as you hurry past broken windows and shuttered shops, broken gates and smashed bottles, and you don’t slow down until it gets better and the houses are bigger and cleaner and the streets wider. Then there are hotels and the B and B’s and before you know it you’re surrounded by shops and tourist attractions and hundreds of people. When you reach the promenade it’s actually quite nice. The sea and the sand help.
Wayne’s house is several streets back from the hotels. Me and Stevie live about half a mile further out, just before the park with its boating lake, trees and flower beds, where the houses are bigger and modern and detached. The rec is the one patch of greenery between us. It’s like a no man’s land where different worlds collide. The school pulls us all together.
I can see Tina hasn’t been down here before. She’s looking anxious and staring around, as if she’s not sure what’s hiding behind the curtains. A couple of unemployables slouch by, hands in pockets, swearing, and she shrinks away from them. By the time we reach the end of Wayne’s street the feeling of menace is really getting to her.
Not that she’ll admit she wants to go home. That’s not Tina’s style.
‘This is my street,’ Wayne mumbles.
‘That’s a nice garden,’ Tina says, grasping at the flowery straw offered by a neatly presented house at the corner. It’s got a tiny lawn and narrow flower-beds, and the windows are clean and the paintwork fresh. ‘And that’s a nice house.’ She points to another, ‘and that one. Is that yours?’
Wayne shakes his head gloomily and points down the street towards his house.
‘Wait here,’ he says, ‘I’ll be quick.’
‘Not that one?’ Tina’s voice fades and Wayne looks as if he just wants to disappear into a hole in ground. It’s like he’s showing royalty his dirty underwear.
Stevie says if the town had an arse hole, this would be it.
But Tina can be really stubborn; it’s like she’s testing herself, testing the extent of her friendship, pushing herself to the limit. Well, Wayne’s house is a pretty stiff challenge.
‘I’ll come with you,’ she says.
It’s time for Wayne to tell her the truth.
‘It’s a dump. I mean, it’s a real dump. There’s a shopping trolley in the garden and an old bike and a smelly old mattress. Tell her, Phil. Tell her it’s a dump.’
‘It’s not like your house,’ he goes on. ‘We don’t have a nice carpet or furniture or flowers; just the tv and a couple of old chairs. And it doesn’t smell nice. It’s dirty. Then there’s my mum.’
‘What about her?’
‘Tell her, Phil. Tell her she can’t meet my mum.’
He’s got me there. I could say, “She’s lazy, she stinks of tobacco, she swears, gets nasty, cries, dresses like a tramp, nicks stuff from the supermarket and sits on her chair like some huge, shapeless sea creature…”
But it doesn’t do her justice and I don’t want to say things like that in front of Wayne.
Stevie says, ‘What about Tyrone? He might be in.’
Wayne grabs onto that like a drowning man with a piece of driftwood.
‘Yeah, Tyrone might be home.’
For a moment, Tina hesitates and I see a look of gratitude slip across Wayne’s face. But Tina’s not that easily dislodged.
‘You said he was playing snooker in town.’
‘You’ll have to wait at the gate,’ Wayne says, ‘the dog…’ and he runs ahead trying to get in the house and out again before Tina sees anything worse than the supermarket trolley and the broken bikes, the old mattress and the chair.
He disappears through the gap where a gate once stood, and heads into the house.
And Tina follows him.
And we follow Tina.
Wayne’s in the kitchen and his face is ashen because Tyrone’s there too and so is Chloe and she’s crying and her face is blotched red and her nose is dribbling down onto her lips. There’s something on the floor too, a pool of water by her feet. She pushes past us and rushes out of the door.
I’ve never seen Tyrone look worried before, like he’s been caught with no excuse and no alibi and he doesn’t know what to do. I just feel numb and scared and shocked and I don’t know what going on; but I know it’s bad, really bad.
Tina is the first to move; she turns and runs after Chloe and it’s like a spell’s been broken. Tyrone starts to swear.
‘Fuck off!’ he shouts. ‘FUCK OFF!’
We don’t wait. We head for the door and the street and we hear Tyrone behind us and he’s screaming at us, ‘YOU TELL ANYONE AND YOU’RE FUCKING DEAD! YOU HEAR ME? FUCKING DEAD!’
We do tell, of course. We’re only nine and when you’re as scared as that you tell your parents, don’t you? And there’s a flurry of parent activity, cars coming and going, police, serious looking people with reassuring voices and sympathetic smiles, who talk to us and ask strange questions. We know something really awful is happening.
Chloe won’t tell, not anyone. She says she went to call for Wayne, but he wasn’t there, and Tyrone was, and she’s scared of Tyrone because he’s big and he’s a bully and her mum and dad and Carl have warned her about him. That’s all she says.
But I reckon she tells Carl because, when we go back to school, he’s waiting at the gate and he lays into Wayne like he’s going to kill him. He has to be pulled off by parents and teachers.
Chloe doesn’t come back for weeks