It’s Tina’s ninth birthday. Half the school is invited to her party, even Carl Jeffreys and Wayne. There are others too, not from school, friends from somewhere else, relatives maybe. There’s a marquee on the lawn and the sun has been ordered to attend and bring a few light clouds so’s we don’t burn. Mr Oldfield expects to be obeyed.
There’s a new extension to the house which you reach from inside, only today nobody can go that way. The outside door which leads onto the lawn is open and there’s a ribbon across it. From the lawn you can get a glimpse of aquamarine in the newly constructed pool. Tina’s birthday present is to have its own opening ceremony and Tina will perform the honours. After the party tea (or dinner) most of the guests will go home but a small group, special friends I suppose, have been invited to jump into the birthday present and swim about making excited noises. I’m invited but Wayne isn’t. I think Mr Oldfield has drawn a line.
Everyone has brought something for Tina, even Wayne, and everyone is smartly dressed, although Wayne’s party dress is the same as he wears everywhere except at school. His present is a book, one he knows Tina hasn’t read yet and that she really wants to read.
‘It’s the fifth part of that trilogy you like,’ he tells her.
Carl Jeffreys and some others snort with laughter but Tina looks pleased, and not just pretending either.
‘I’ll start it tonight,’ she says. ‘Thanks, Wayne.’
She might be less pleased if she knew how Wayne came by it. I could tell you but I guess that would make you an accessory.
The party is a roaring success until just after dinner (or tea). It’s only when the food has been eaten, the games have been played and parents are beginning to arrive and everyone is getting ready to leave, that things go seriously wrong. The first sign of catastrophe is when Tina appears on the staircase which leads down into the lounge and she’s obviously upset. A girl a couple of years older, a cousin I think, has an arm around her shoulder, like girls do when one of them is crying or something. There are some hurried words and Mr Oldfield strides across to the room where we’ve all dumped outdoor coats.
Something serious is afoot. A whisper spreads like a bush fire in a dry breeze. Someone has stolen money and jewellery from Tina’s room. A second whisper spreads even faster than the first and the bush fire turns into something unstoppable. All I hear is a name, Wayne Keech.
Mr Oldfield emerges from the cloakroom with a ragged looking jacket made from blue denim. He holds it between a finger and thumb and looks at it with disgust, as if he’s just rescued it from a cess pit.
‘Hey, that’s mine,’ a voice cries from the back of the crowd who’ve gathered to watch. There are children and parents all around. The voice comes from Wayne; he pushes his way through, his face scarlet. Most of the people think it’s guilt but it’s not; he’s embarrassed. Wayne doesn’t have new clothes and he knows he stands out like a turd in a swimming pool. He doesn’t need Mr Oldfield to draw everyone’s attention to it.
Mr Oldfield turns the coat upside down like a magician performing a trick, and watches as money and rings and a necklace drop from the pockets. The silence is broken by the sudden in-drawing of breath. People mutter things like, ‘Shocking,’ ‘Dreadful,’ and ‘Look at his background,’ or ‘What about his brother? What more proof do you need?’
None, apparently; I start to bristle. It’s not fair picking on him even if the evidence does look damning. Wayne’s face has changed from scarlet to ashen white, a sure sign of guilt, you’d think, but I know it’s not guilt. Wayne wouldn’t steal from Tina. He’d rather have his finger nails torn out. He’d break his own wrists rather than enter her room and take her things. He’s very loyal in his own way, especially to Tina.
‘Well?’ Mr Oldfield stares down at him from a height that seems to grow greater with every second. ‘How do you explain this?’
Wayne can’t explain it. He looks from side to side but the only eyes he lingers on are mine. ‘I didn’t do it,’ he says and I believe him.
‘Call the police,’ Mr Oldfield says to Mrs Oldfield. ‘Let’s see what they say.’
It’s then I catch a glimpse of Carl Jeffreys and three of his mates. They exchange quick glances and sly smiles; it’s not much, and it doesn’t last more than a fraction of a second, but it’s enough for me to know what’s happened. I turn and stare at them, just to let them know. They turn away but I see a flicker of uncertainty in Carl’s eyes. I mutter another of those words my mum and dad don’t let me use.
I take a deep breath. I’m going to speak out to defend Wayne. Normally, I’d wait for Stevie, but Stevie isn’t here. He’s gone away for the week-end. I manage to mumble, ‘Wayne wouldn’t do that,’ just loud enough for the people next to me to hear, before someone steps forward and makes it unnecessary to say anything else. I feel guilty but relieved. I don’t want to be the centre of attention any more than Wayne does, especially with some of the parents looking at me as if I’m an accomplice.
It’s Tina who steps forward and whispers to her father. He looks confused, but he hands her the coat and she takes it to Wayne. She says something that only he can hear, but he shakes his head and then he turns and runs out of the door.
‘Wayne didn’t take anything,’ she says in a loud, clear voice so everyone can hear. ‘He wouldn’t.’
You’ve got to admire her. That really was super cool, in front of all those people and her parents, and with the damning evidence right there. She bends down, collects her things and walks, stately and ladylike, to the staircase. Then it’s all too much for her, she starts to sob and runs up to her room. Her friend runs after her, and then her mother.
Mr Oldfield is left holding nothing but our attention.
‘Well,’ he mutters, ‘no harm done. We’ve got everything back. I suggest we get back to the party. Now, who’s staying for swimming?’
Only it’s too late for that. No-one’s in the mood. A few relations are forced into swimming costumes and pushed into the water but the rest of us leave. No-one has any doubt about the culprit. I can hear people saying nice things about Tina, about her kindness to her disadvantaged friend, but I can also hear them telling each other that he doesn’t deserve her friendship, that he’s a bad lot, that his family are all bad and what can you expect?
I grab my coat and run off down the drive to look for Wayne. He might be a pain, he might annoy me half to death, and sometimes I might wish he lived on a different planet and would leave me alone, but he’s still my friend. Besides, I know who’s responsible, and my parents keep telling me I have a well-developed sense of fairness and justice for my age. Well, this is neither fair nor just.
Only I never find him.
I walk round to his house but there are no lights on, and I don’t want to knock. Tyrone might be home. Even if he isn’t I don’t want to meet his mother. We had enough trouble from her after my mum called the social about his burns.
In the end, after checking the dens we’ve built in the shrubbery at the recreation ground, I wander along the river bank looking for a floating body. There isn’t one so I give up and go home.
He isn’t at school the next day or the next. A week passes before he comes back.
Life is always tough on Wayne but after the party it gets a whole lot worse. Now, you can count the number of his friends on the fingers of a hand with three fingers. The mood of the other kids varies from indifference to hostility and disgust. Right at the top of the hostile and the disgusted are Carl Jeffreys and his cronies. They’re called Simon Walsh, Tommy Sands and Winston Smart and in a list of things I don’t like they come just above pickled eggs, raw fish and stomach infections.