The house was not what Stu Hicks had in mind. He had gone from being one of the elite warriors of the British forces and found himself unable to hold down a job. Twenty years of elite soldiering had not prepared him for this. He had been out for over two years now. There had been a series of menial jobs. Security man at a shopping precinct, the economic collapse had seen the town centre collapse in its turn. There had been no need for a security guard in a precinct with boarded up shops. They let him go.
There was always mercenary work. Offers had been forthcoming regularly. He was very good at what he had done. He was one of the most skilled people in his field. He had established a reputation for solid professionalism. The thought hurt now, a skilled professional, a professional at what? A professional at killing. He was not sure anymore. The tide of his certainty seemed to have ebbed away from him. He handed it in when he handed back his uniform. The direction and order that at one time had governed every aspect of his life was removed from him. No, he would not re-enter the sphere of combat soldiering. He knew his dreams were filled with the faces of the dead already. There was no more room in there to add more.
All the time in the Royal Marines and then in the Boat Service he dreamed of living a life free of the fetters of military discipline. He was trying to live that life now. He grew his hair for the first few months and stopped training. But he looked at himself in the mirror, saw the man he had been fading away behind the blood shot eyes and belly. He looked for his soul and realised the more he abandoned it the more it abandoned him. He saw behind him his wife Dianna. He saw the sorrow in her eyes. The more of him that he lost, the more of her he lost in turn. He looked at the decay before him in the mirror and knew that this was a deciding point in his life. If he failed to deal with what he saw he would lose all he ever was and all he ever could be. He turned from the mirror and kissed Dianna as he walked past her into the kitchen. He walked to the fridge and opened it. There was a case of Kestrel super strength lager. With no hesitation he reached for a can.
Dianna cried inside. The silent sob of a person watching the man she loved destroy himself certain in the knowledge that she would not be able to curb this streak. She heard the ring pull open, the hiss of the beer froth. A minute later she heard another. It would be one of those long nights of picking up the pieces of her broken man as he sat crying on the floor like a child scared of the monsters in the wardrobe. She decided to make herself a coffee, it would be a long night. She got up from the sofa and as she walked through she heard another can open. She stepped into the light of the kitchen and picked up the kettle. It was empty. She walked the two steps to the sink and as she filled the kettle Stu stood beside her. He popped another can, that was four now. She looked him in the eyes, he didn’t smell of beer. He poured the beer into the sink. It ran down the plug hole and away into the drains. He placed the empty can with the other three on the work top. He crossed to the fridge and picked up the remainder of the case of beer. He said nothing as he emptied all of the beers down the sink. She knew he was not a man to make false promises. This might be a corner that he was turning.
Silently he walked through to the bathroom and she heard the buzz of the hair clippers start. He knew if he looked better he would feel better. In the bathroom mirror a different face looked out at him now, older, greyer, a little heavier. He could get the weight off, the years would stay.
The iron industry had built the town into what it was, in the industrial revolution the town hammered out huge quantities of iron and steel for the new locomotives, ships and trains. The exploding economy’s thirst for the iron town’s products was matched only by the works’ appetite for labour. The Crosby area of the town housed the majority of these workers in the newly built, red brick terraces. The housing was built in linear streets backed onto each other with gardens and alleyways between. Early in their life, when the iron industry was healthy, they were smart and well maintained with gardens turning out vegetables to nourish the families.
A hundred years later and the area was very different. The steel industry had reduced and employed only twenty percent of the amount of men. The houses had been bought up, cheap, by investors and landlords. Many had been split into bedsits or flats. They now provided cheap housing, with all that goes with that. The pristine gardens were gone. The alleyways now a jumble of rubbish, burned out cars and filth. Rats ran in these alleyways, pursued by feral cats and dogs. Waves of immigration had given the area colour and life. The smells of Asian cooking enriched the area. The area had housed many of these immigrants within the cheaper housing. Many had come from Pakistan then Somalia after World War Two to work in the furnaces, in the steel mills. Prospects were now sparse for the children and grandchildren of that pioneering generation. They gathered on the street and hung around in gangs. The latest waves of migrants moved into the area from the former Warsaw Pact countries of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Like the previous waves of immigrants they sought out opportunities to work hard and make a little. Some sent their money home to family. Others spent it on vodka.
When Hicks retired from the service he had invested his savings in a nice house in the village of Kirton Lindsey, in Lincolnshire, ten miles away from the town of Scunthorpe. He had a small mortgage to pay and a steady job as a security man in a shopping centre. The job was not a big earner, but on top of his pensions it would be ok, they would be able to afford the small mortgage that was outstanding on the house. This was until he was made redundant. With only his pensions and no wages coming in it was a matter of time. Dianna had found a cleaning job in the big new medical centre on West Street in the town centre. But it was not enough to stop the rot. Sure enough the HSBC foreclosed on the mortgage and the house was repossessed. Stu had gone into the local branch to talk to the manager, to try and work something out with him. It had not gone well. The young manager was governed by what the computer told him and could not make any other decision. Stu had asked him for some sort of discretion and just a couple of months whilst he got back on his feet. The lad had made the mistake of telling Stu that he was not in the army anymore and people didn’t do what he told them. Stu’s reply of “It was the fucking Navy, you jumped up little fuck. Go and get a fucking grown up to sort this out, cunt”, ensured he could only do his banking on the phone or the internet from then on.
So Stu and Dianna found themselves tenants of a house on Acheron Street. They wanted to keep themselves to themselves and just get on with their life. They could shut the world out behind the curtains and be together. They had visited the rescue kennels and rehomed a German shepherd dog that Stu had insisted on calling Winston. He liked to take Winston down to the memorial gardens and throw a ball for him. Dianna watched their bond grow and she knew that Winston was a major part of Stu now.
Later in the night Stu lay awake and thought whilst beside him Dianna snored quietly. Winston was down stairs, he had the run of the ground floor at night, if anyone was foolish enough to break in then he would be waiting to greet them. Periodically the flashing blue lights of a police car or ambulance would illuminate the room through the light curtains. Stu thought about how he could make his way forward and how he could start working again. He decided he would have to get fit and take up one of the adverts for “interesting work abroad”. He could no longer run from who he was. He has a very specific skill set that Her Majesty’s forces had given him and he needed to work to his strengths.
He felt desire starting to rise in him again. He knew that he had been very down and this had really damaged his libido. He could see the hurt in Dianna’s eyes when he had rejected her advances. It was time to put things right and start to get a grip of himself, and her.
She was softly snoring laying on her side facing away from him. She slept in a dark blue vest top and a pair of briefs. He could smell her body as he moved closer to her and reached his hand onto her hip. The smooth skin of her body felt warm and soft to his touch. He moved closer again and wrapped his arms around her.
He held her tightly to his chest and felt her breathing through her skin. She was so close and she turned him on so much. The feelings flooded back to him. He slid his hand into the front of her panties, he felt her start to wake.
The response was not what he expected, she grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand away from her and moved away from him.
“Don’t touch me” she said.
“What’s wrong?” He was confused and hurt by this rejection. But then he had rejected her enough times over the past couple of months.
“I don’t want your hands all over me. I am not just some kind of piece of meat for you to maul when you want to.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked in a small voice.
“Look, just get away from me” she sat up on the edge of the bed and turned on her bedside lamp. She turned and sat on her pillows, pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them tight. She buried her face between her knees and cried.
He could see her shoulders shake as she sobbed deeply and he saw the tears on her naked thigh. Her long chestnut hair was becoming wet as she cried more and more tears.
“What’s wrong?” He asked simply.
She made no reply and just carried on crying, weeping.
He sat on his side of the bed with his back to her. “Is it me, Di?” he was scared that his problems and all of the rejections that she had suffered at his hands had now caused her not to want him.
“It’s not always about you, for fuck sake” she replied in a sobbing voice.
He was in turmoil now. He knew he had not been the best husband of late but he had always loved her and wanted her. He was a different man to the one that he was when she married him. Maybe she was fed up of working and living in this place when she had been used to a nice house and plenty of money in the bank. The days of driving a two year old car were now passed for them. Indeed they could not afford to drive at all now.
He got up, pulled his jeans and fleece on and slipped his trainers on. “I know I have not been up to much lately, but I love you and I only wanted to love you tonight to let you know that you are still everything to me. I am going for a walk.” She had wounded him deeply.
“Winston, wake up, time for a walk” the dog was fast asleep stretched out on the sofa. He was nearly as big as the full three cushions of the old three seater. The dog lifted his head and opened his big brown eyes. It was just after half past two in the morning. He looked as if he would say “What, at this time?” Once Stu had picked up the lead and tennis ball from the worktop Winston was at the door wagging his tail and ready to go on this late night excursion.
They stepped out of the back door and walked down to the alley way that ran between Acheron Street and Percival Street. It was a mild May night. The air was heavy with the smell of sulphur from the remaining steel works. A slight mist filled the air. Stu was convinced that the steam of the cooling towers would decent on high air pressure and make the town always damp and misty. The sky was illuminated by the deep orange glow of the blast furnaces. It seemed to reflect down upon the mist and low clouds above the works. The rumble of the machinery of industry echoed across the town. As the man and his dog walked down the path towards the alleyway Winston curled his lip back and started to growl. Stu secretly hoped there would be some local thug wanting to chance his arm in a mugging or an attack. He was in the mood for some of that.
They stepped into the alley way. Stu saw what Winston was growling at. In the dim sodium street light there was a black rubbish sack spewing its contents across the alleyway. The bag had been torn open by the feral dogs that now stood over it. One of the dogs was eating the contents of a disposable nappy whilst another held a can with its front feet and had its muzzle inside trying to reach in. The alley was littered with bin bags, and carrier bags, there were beer cans and plastic two litre cider cans randomly distributed along its length. A dark shape ran from a pizza box and into the shadow of the garage across the alley. The garage was a wreck now, the door hung off. Inside was dark. Old Mr Karnas had kept his little Honda 90 in the garage for years. He used it for work. Every morning he would kick it over and ride it to the poultry processing factory. Until the kids from the Acheron crew broke in and took it. They rode it up and down the street, round the alley way. Mr Karnas was scared to go out and challenge them. They burned it in the alley.
Now the garage was a haven for rats and for junkies and street drinkers. Mr Karnas had quietly moved away.
Stu bent and picked up a piece of broken brick that lay in the alleyway. He threw it in the direction of the mutts at the end of the street. The brick bounced into the bin bag near to one. They looked up and saw the man and his dog and ran from the alleyway and around towards the memorial gardens.
“Heel boy” The big dog did not really need to be told to heel. He was immaculately well trained and well behaved. He walked close to Stu’s left calf. Both Stu and the dog were alert and aware as they made their way through the alleyway amongst the waste from the houses and the dog shit that littered the old street.
As they got down to Teal Street they turned to the right towards the patch of green space that had been left when the old houses of West Street had been pulled down. Piece at a time the old Victorian houses were being swallowed up and removed. Compulsory purchase orders seemed to be issued freely for people’s homes to be torn down and wild flowers planted in the space where the community had been once, long ago.
On the other side of the green space was West Street. Late night traffic continued to move up and down the street. Pedestrians walked up and down, drunks from the town centre, young men in their tracksuits and their pseudo hard man swagger looking for trouble and then there were the working girls. Stu had imagined that Central America and the third world had a monopoly on this type of squalor. But it was alive and well here in Northern England. He felt such sorrow when he looked at the girls, they weren’t dressed up in glamorous mini dresses and big boots. The customary dress for the working girl in Scunthorpe was tight jeans and a hoodie. They plied their trade for just a few pounds. Most of them had terrible drug habits and used heroin or crack cocaine every day. They were shadows of people, the real world zombies of the underclass. The sorrow he felt for them seeped into him. Di couldn’t have kids, these whores had once been someone’s little girl. He wondered what sort of upbringing had lead them to this. He wondered if, when they were little, they had been transplanted to somewhere else and to some other parents would the same destiny await them. They paced the street under the false lights. Trying to make eye contact with the occasional passing car. They continued to work and ply their trade whilst a police van drove down the road past them. The van didn’t stop or slow down when it passed them. The cop, sat in the passenger seat turned his fluorescent back to the window and the pain as it passed the girl.
Further up the street he saw a young couple in the shadows at the full extent of the streetlight’s reach. He recognised the lad. It was Kharon Khan he lived just across the street from Stu and Di. He lived with his mum and younger brother. Sometimes an older man would visit the house, maybe an uncle. The mum and the older man dressed in traditional Muslim clothing and the man wore a large full beard. Kharon had changed a lot in the couple of years since Stu had known him. He was no longer the polite Asian boy that always said good morning. He was now strutting around the street at all hours with a group of other boys in tow. He wore designer jeans low on his back side, that style just irritated Stu. Whenever Stu saw him he said hello to the lad. Kharon had stopped saying hello to him. With Kharon tonight was a skinny white girl. With a mop of died black hair. Stu walked towards them with Winston. He could see the girl more clearly as he got closer. She looked young, maybe only fourteen or fifteen years old. It was difficult to tell with these girls they all looked so skinny and dressed so alike. Kharon was quite a lot older than she was. Stu thought he was approaching twenty years old now.
He could hear the conversation with between them as he got within about ten feet of them.
“You know I love you, if you loved me you would” Kharon said to her.
“I don’t know, I am going to be in trouble anyway” The girl replied.
“They don’t love you back there at the home, I love you, I care” He continued.
“I know you do Kazzy” she kissed him on the lips.
Stu was level with them. “Hi, Kharon, how are you?” He asked civilly.
Kharon turned to him with a look of savage malevolence in his eyes. “If you have to talk to me you can call me Kazzy Mad Man” and gave a loud hissing exhalation.
Stu was taken aback by this boy’s arrogance but did not rise to it.
“Yeah ok, Kazzy Madam” he replied with a chuckle in his voice. He walked on. He heard Kharon say to the girl how he would kick Stu’s white arse. Stu laughed a bit to himself. That boy was losing his grip on reality now he was running with the Acheron Crew. He would have a word with the boy’s mum or that man he thought was the uncle. The Pakistani community were respectful and decent people, he knew they would deal with this.
He turned into the park and stood in the dark. He liked the dark. Darkness was his friend. He could see out but no one would be able to see him. He did some of his most savage soldiering in the darkness of the jungle or under the impossibly inky desert night skies. He allowed his eyes to adjust to the night and watched the dog. Winston’s ears and nose were better in the dark than Stu’s eyes. He could hear grunts and shuffles in the bushes near the gate. Probably one of the whores and a punter doing their ‘business’. There was drunk laughing coming from the far corner interspersed with loud voices swearing in an eastern European language, maybe Polish maybe Lithuanian. He guessed a group of about five or six drunks, not a threat to him.
“Shall we play ball?” He said to his dog.
And he threw the ball out for the big black dog. As the dog ran out for it across the grass Stu stood and thought about what had happened at home. He wondered if this was it for Di and him. He wouldn’t blame her if it was. He was not the man that he had been. He had not been near her for ages. He had it coming. It was just sad that this had happened today when he had decided to turn the corner in his life. He might have to go on alone. Di and the dog were the only people that he had in his life now.
Winston sat in front of him and presented him the ball. “Good lad, let’s go again”. He took the ball from the dog and threw it again. He continued to muse over his current life. He threw the ball again and sent the dog. He would go home and settle himself down on the sofa. Then in the morning would have a chat to Di and sort this all out. He felt a lump rising in his throat. Emotion was not a new thing to Hicks but he tried to keep it in check and control its effects on him.
“Ok,” he said to himself, let’s go and sort this out. He turned and walked from the Memorial gardens and headed back towards his house. Kharon had left Teal street, the girls still worked on West Street. No matter what time of day it was there were always girls working on West Street. As he walked up the filthy alleyway he could see the lights in his house were on, the bathroom at the rear of the house and the kitchen lights spilt white light into the alleyway. He was a little worried about what he might find when he arrived at home. Would his bag be packed for him or would it be Di waiting to go.
He unlocked the back door and stepped into the bright and clean kitchen. Di was sat at the table. She was wearing her white towelling robe and a white towel on her head like a turban. Her skin was red and scrubbed from the shower. She had put the filter coffee machine on and there was a jug of strong dark coffee filling the air with its wonderful aroma. Stu, not for the first time that night, felt confused.
“Stuart, let’s have a talk, there are some things we need to sort out”. Di said as she poured him a coffee.
“Right” he replied, he felt nervous and a little shaky. He sat down at the table with his coffee in his hands, he looked down at it. He averted his eyes from her.
“The first thing that you need to know is that I love you, Stuart Hicks” Began Di.
“I love you too, Di.”
“You are the only man in my life and the only man that will ever be in my life. But there are a few things that you need to know about me”, she continued.
“Ok”, he replied.
“I have never told anyone the things I am going to tell you now, please don’t say anything until I have finished, this will be really tough for me to do.”
“Ok, I won’t say a thing” he replied.
“You know that Michelle and I were in care when we were kids?”
“Yeah for sure,” he said. Michelle was Di’s sister, they were pretty close although Stu didn’t like Michelle much. He thought that she was a shallow and workshy skiver that had never worked a day in her life.
“Well it all happened then”
“Yeah, ok, what did?”
“Well we were in a children’s home in the town at that time, I was about thirteen and Shelly would be about fourteen. We depended on each other and looked after each other. The children’s home was a rough place to be. The carers didn’t care. For sure, they were professional enough, but that’s not the same as caring. I started to come across town and hang about on Frodingham Road.”
Di had never spoken to Stu about her upbringing before, he knew nothing of this.
She continued, “I started to knock about with an Asian lad in the town. Back then he worked in one of the kebab shops” Stu was watching her eyes now as she spoke to him, they were filled with a great sadness. “He treated me well, showed me some affection, or so I thought at the time. He used to give me cigarettes and beer, I thought it was great to start with. I was only a kid and I fell in love with him. It was an escape from the care home life and a little bit of something that was mine. Shelly used to come along with us and soon this lad’s mate started to go out with Shell, we double dated. The lad was a couple of years older than me and used to work in one of the restaurants as a waiter. I don’t know where he is now.” Stu saw the lie on her face as soon as she had said it. She knew where he was but didn’t want to tell Stu.
“Ok”, Stu said.
“Well I had been going out with him for a week or so, he used to encourage me to stay out all night and not go back to the children’s home. The staff would report me missing and the police would come and look for me. He would tell me that the police would take me away from him if they found me. He said that they would lock me up so that we couldn’t be together. I believed him and did what he said. I viewed the police and the carers as my enemies. He would get me drunk and then have sex with me. I had only just started my periods and wasn’t ready for it. It hurt and made me bleed. But he used to tell me that he loved me and that I would do it for him if I loved him too. So I did.” She looked back to his face.
Stu reached forward and over the table he clasped her hands in his. “It’s ok, sweetie” he said to her. She was crying.
“Why haven’t you told me before?” He asked her.
“I am so ashamed of it and worse happened to me. I just never wanted you to know. One day he said that if I loved him he would take me to see his friends in Sheffield. I was excited. He had kept me separate from his friends and family because I wasn’t a Muslim. So I thought this must be quite an honour.”
Stu had no idea about this part of his wives life. This was a journey into the unknown for him.
“When we got to Sheffield he took me to a house, like ours, and we went in there for a drink. I had a couple of drinks with him but he had spiked mine. I only had a beer or two and I was so drunk I could hardly stand. He led me through to a room… Oh Stu … I am sorry” she sobbed and put her head down on the table. A second later she had recomposed herself and was sat back up, tears ran down her cheeks. Her eyes blood shot and red rimmed. She continued. “In that room there were lots of older men. All Asian, all of them laughing and joking. In the middle of the room was a table. He said to me “If you want me you get undressed now.” So I stood there in front of all of them leering and letching men and stripped down to my bra and panties, I didn’t know what they were saying, they didn’t speak in English. The men all watched me as I took the last bits of clothing off. He got hold of me and pushed me down on the table. The men all raped me, there were fourteen of them. They raped my mouth and the raped my bum. They all hurt me so bad. Some of them took me several times over.” She had stopped crying and looked angry and tough. “When I left there I was bleeding and hurt. He threw me in the back of his car and drove me back to Scunthorpe. He didn’t speak to me at all. When we got to town he said he had something to take away the pain and injected me with heroin. It washed away the pain, but left me numb. I felt numb without the heroin. When we got on Frodingham road he told me to fuck off and called me a ‘Kafir bitch.’”
Stu reached across to her and stroked her face.
“That’s why I can’t have kids. My cervix was torn and I got infected. I kept it quiet and went back to the home. By the time I got really ill the infection had spread and I was sterile.”
“Oh my God, You should have told me.”
“I know, but I am so ashamed of it, I was used and soiled and broken by them.”
She wiped her running nose on the sleeve of her dressing gown and reached over and held his hand.
“Stuart Hicks, I love you more than anything you can imagine. Tonight when you touched me I was dreaming of it. It made it flood back and I am sorry. It wasn’t you Stu.”
“That’s ok my sweetie. I am so glad you told me I thought it was me, you know that we can overcome everything together”
She went on, “they never got to Shelly. I am scared for Rhianna, I love her, she is like our daughter. Shelly isn’t like me and she doesn’t keep a close enough eye on her.”
“No, Di, she is not like you. There is only one of you!” They both smiled a welcome smile in this most intense of conversations. He continued, “She will be ok, she is doing well at college and will be fine”
“Yeah, I hope so.”
They talked until the morning. They talked about how Stu felt they had turned a corner and that it was time for them to move on together. Time for him to get another job, maybe some security contracting. In the morning Di went to work, Stu went running and then looked online for work.