Ghosts

 

A steel plate sky, pressed down upon the new estate. The advertising hoarding showed villas under a Mediterranean azure blue sky. The developers should be shot for breach of advertising standards thought Tom, reluctant to show any mercy for what he considered a heinous crime. What had really been built was allotment sheds with nostalgic architectural facades, plastic houses for plastic people. When did the country start looking back towards a past that had never happened? What had existed before had been real, which was why politicians had to destroy it. But the ghosts remain, at least for Tom. It would take more than corrupt politicians and soulless money-grubbing developers to bury his past. A voice in his head accused him of hypocrisy. Its charge was correct. It had been more than thirty years since Tom had thought in any depth about Colthorpe. He had been glad the place had been behind him. Even a short visit had proved to be an endurance test. 

Tom resisted the thought of a cigarette and sighed. He thought of the angry sixteen year old youth who thought the whole world and all the people in it were stupid. Why else was the world in its current state? Why else would people live like they do? If you used your brain, you would change things but no, people were too stupid for that. His parents were as dumb as the rest, struggling to get by and never questioning and never a note of anger at the system. “The world is the way it is!” was their philosophy. Happy with the weekly trip to the club to escape their hum-drum existence. Yes, people were dumb. The forty years between had not changed his views. People had a veneer of intelligence and self-knowledge but underneath they were just animals that respond to stimuli, like the old clichéd rats in a cage. Yes, people were dumb animals. He now included himself in that bleak assessment.

He cracked and bought a packet of Gauloises at the newsagent’s behind him. He opened the packet and flicked out a stick of tobacco and examined it. Was he really going to have his first cigarette in 25 years? Why Gauloises? He knew of course. Dominique. A French girl he met in Brittany back in the summer of 1975. It was his first serious relationship, his first experience of unabashed sex. Dominique was the first girl who didn’t appear to feel obliged to have sex because she was in a relationship. She demonstrated to him women could totally immerse themselves in the glories of sex. Dominique had taught him, the obligatory cigarette was a necessary part of post coital intimacy. 

His thumb worked the lighter. It felt awkward and alien, as though he was making the action for the first time. He inhaled deeply and immediately hit a high as his head dissolved and he floated free for a moment. Slowly his head solidified and left him with a dull ache between his eyes. His throat felt dry and scorched. He took a second drag with a sense of contented enjoyment as he watched the traffic on the main road. Dominique had unsettled him. Before her, he knew what his life would be. He was an apprentice at the pit and he was set to dumbly follow the path he had inherited. 

It was his first time abroad. He and Steve Bowers had bought an old Mini and did it up before setting off to France for a couple of weeks. There was but one goal, to have a good time with an excess of drink and women. Though they both knew it would probably be just drink. They ended up on a campsite in Brittany. Steve had met some French petrol heads and was away discussing all things mechanical in international sign language. Tom decided to escape the sun in an empty bar and was feeling sorry for him self. It was then Dominique entered the bar and colonized his imagination. She was small, slim and fragile, boyish. Her dark bobbed hair framed a mischievous face, which possessed the largest eyes and the biggest pout. She wasn’t a classic beauty but for Tom, he had collided with perfection. Steve would never understand Dominique. He would later call her a witch for the spell she had cast on his friend. Tom however, was happy to be possessed. 

The bar was empty but for Tom, sipping a beer. Dominique entered the bar. She was wearing a striped Brittany fisherman’s shirt, which was too large for her slight frame, shorts and sandals. She nursed a book in her arms. She scanned the empty bar and fixed her eyes on Tom. Tom fixated on her low-hipped gait as she danced round the tables towards him. Cheekily she stood before him and asked him a question in French. Tom had stuttered and spluttered as he disintegrated and completely surrendered to his instant infatuation. Somehow Dominique had gathered he was English and with a silky French lilt, repeated herself. ‘There doesn’t seem to be anywhere to sit, do you mind if I join you?’ Tom had started to point out there were plenty available tables when Dominique rolled her eyes. The summer of Tom’s life had begun.

Tom looked round for somewhere to dispose of his tab end but realized the ground was the world’s largest ashtray. He waited for the traffic to thin and then dodged across the main road. A narrow street led into the new estate, where the houses seemed to get smaller as he neared them. He read the street name on a pristine plaque attached to a low garden wall. Rose Tree Avenue. The street names were going to be as plastic as the houses, Tom thought. He assessed the immediate geography and thought Rose Tree Avenue followed the old road layout. Rose Tree Avenue, was really Foundry Way. He walked deeper into the estate. Birbeck Road had disappeared but up ahead, Coronation Place still seemed to exist.

He strolled towards Coronation Place, taking in his surroundings. For him, the concrete prefabs of his childhood still dominated the new plastic suburbia that had been created. How do people live in such small hutches? They seemed to have the same footprint as his toilet back in Holland or at least, his ex toilet. He turned onto Coronation Place and to his dismay he found it had been renamed. It was now The Shrubbery. What pretentious shit, he thought. Tom stopped where he estimated number ten, his childhood home, used to be. A small detached house with a reconstituted stone façade stood there now. To call the house detached was an exercise in optimism. A man could scarcely squeeze between the gap that separated one house from its neighbour. He stared at the house as he tried to imagine his old home. A draughty jerry built concrete shell, with ill-fitting doors and windows that turned draughts into stiff winds.

A curtain twitched, which snapped Tom out of his trance. Nosey bitch, he thought. Not everything had changed he chuckled to himself. He carried on along The Shrubbery remembering the neighbours of his youth, when he came to a road that shouldn’t be there. In the old days Coronation Place was a cul de sac or a dead end, a term he preferred, it described life on the housing estate of his youth perfectly. Now the road arced to the right onto Crocus Crescent! Now which poet made that up, Tom asked himself, as he shook his head. Crocus Crescent in its turn ended up at a roundabout in what appeared to be the middle of the estate. There was no need for a roundabout. There wasn’t enough traffic in this residential dead zone. Like the nostalgic architecture of the doll’s houses, the roundabout was an affectation.

Tom skirted the roundabout, even though there were traces of footsteps right across the middle of it. It was now clear to Tom, the new estate’s layout had obliterated the old layout and maybe The Shrubbery was only approximately where Coronation Place used to be. He made his way up Bluebell Wood Way at a steady pace. There was nothing left of the old estate. Developers had even created an artificial gradient, which he was now walking up. Tom found he was becoming angry but couldn’t explain why. As a youth, once he’d been to France and fell in love with Dominique, he couldn’t wait to see the back of Colthorpe. Why should he now lament that the crap housing of his youth was gone? Because it wasn’t about the houses, it was about the people, the community, his friends and his memories. Still, he’d been happy to leave them all behind he admitted to himself. He shook his head and lit a cigarette. He just wasn’t in the mood to be honest with himself.

His thoughts went back to Dominique. Those first few weeks and then later, a few months, had traveled with him throughout his life. His wife used to say, she felt like there was someone else in their marriage because he was never there. Never there in his head she meant. Tom had never told her she was right. Dominique had been there all the time, all the way through their marriage. But how can you tell someone about a ghost that is accompanying you through your life? Who would believe you? Not that Tom believed in ghosts, he believed in nothing, he was just haunted by memory.

An image of Dominique filled his head like opium. A lean, olive skinned, androgynous figure with a thick tuft of dark pubic hair, lying languid on a bed. She reminded Tom of an Egon Schiele drawing. Not just physically but the way she directed her sex hungry look at him. A look that suggested she was constantly on the edge of orgasm. He suddenly remembered the place where this image was etched into his memory. They were staying at a friend’s of Dominique’s and they were alone in the house but he couldn’t remember why. He had taken a shower because the heat had got the better of him. Returning to the bedroom as he dried his hair, he was confronted with Dominique. The late afternoon glow of the sun radiated through the window and ignited the sexual essence that was Dominique.

Tom had reached the busy high street when he realized he had an idiot grin on his face. He felt like the whole street was looking at him but the grin felt impossible to wipe off his face. If people think he is an idiot, they will think he’s one of them he chuckled, since Tom was inclined to think all residents of Colthorpe were idiots. He stopped and scanned the passing faces. He recognized no one. In his youth he would have recognized ninety percent of the people on the high street. There was nothing left to do but go to the pub. He looked at his watch and decided quarter to twelve was late enough for a beer. Most of the pubs had shut down but his father had told him The Colliers Rest was the only pub now worth a visit. The Colliers Rest was the old Red Lion re-christened. Bloody marvelous, thought Tom. Now there are no bloody colliers to disrupt the status quo, they are now heritage figures.

 

The Colliers Rest was an imposing Edwardian building at the top of the high street, built around the time the mine opened. It squatted amongst the remnants of the old village of Colthorpe, picturesque stone cottages and a large walled farmyard. No one really noticed what a beautiful rural setting old Colthorpe must have been. Industry came in and took over, along with an army of miners. Now the mine has gone and nothing but a few industrial units took its place, which employed a fraction of the workforce of the mine they replaced. Most people work elsewhere or don’t work at all. Colthorpe being close to the M1 meant it was an ideal dormitory town for commuters. On the surface, Colthorpe looked relatively affluent but Tom knew substantial poverty existed beneath the veneer of wellbeing. The place had been tarted up but you couldn’t hide from a local, the shit that had been swept under the carpet

The large maroon double doors were open, welcoming any visitor in. You then had a choice of a door to the left into the lounge or a door to the right into the taproom. Tom chose the taproom. The pub had been gutted in the seventies and the rooms opened up. Now the taproom was a large room devoid of any architectural value. Cream and gradient brown striped wallpaper coated the walls like organized nicotine stains. The bar was veneered Formica and chrome, cheap and ugly. Tom had a quick look round and then headed for the bar. He appeared to be the first customer of the day.

‘Well, well, well. Look who the wind’s blown in,’ came a voice behind him.

Tom looked round and squinted. There was a silhouette he had missed, sat at the table by the window. He walked over until the silhouette revealed a face with human features.

‘Cat!’ exclaimed Tom. ‘Do you bloody live here?’

Cat gave a grin. ‘I was here when you left and I haven’t moved since.’

‘And I believe you,’ grinned Tom. ‘A pint?’

Cat lifted his glass and inspected it. ‘I shouldn’t but I will.’

Tom went to the bar and waited patiently for the bored barmaid to finish pottering about. ‘Two pints love.’

You might as well ruin my day as your wife’s,’ said the barmaid with a straight face. She was young, in her mid twenties but her face was hard and world-weary. Tom looked round at Cat. 

Cat shrugged. ‘She’s probably been dumped.’

I wish,’ said the barmaid rolling her eyes. ‘I can’t get rid of the useless men in my life.’ She placed two pints in front of Tom. ‘Pay no attention to me, it’s been one of those mornings,’ she winked. ‘Five sixty.’

Tom gave her six. ‘Keep the change.’ The barmaid looked gob smacked.

We don’t tip here,’ Cat shouted across the room. ‘You must have plenty of money where you are.’

Ta,’ said the barmaid, eager to accept Tom’s generousity.

Tom took the beer and started across the room. ‘Habit.’

A bloody bad habit if you ask me,’ retorted Cat.

Tom took his place next to Cat by the window, placing one of the beers in front of him. He scanned the room before focusing on the barmaid. She was plain, made more so by her hair being severely tied back and her skin was pasty from lack of sun. She wore a black t-shirt with Colliers Rest emblazoned across her breasts, which shivered like jellies and accentuated her plumpness. Tom’s attention turned to Cat who was busy finishing his beer so he could start the fresh one Tom had bought. Tom could still see the handsome youth Cat had been, even if a mirror no longer could. He got his nickname because his features brought a cat to mind. But he was handsome as a youth, which along with a silver tongue made him a success with the girls. Cat put down his empty glass and rested his hand round the full one.

I heard you was on a royal visit,’ stated Cat turning to Tom. ‘Some say it’s a permanent visit.’

Do they?’ smiled Tom. ‘The local tom-toms are still working then?’

Still a tendency to exaggerate, misrepresent, slander and lie,’ replied Cat, lifting his pint and saluting Tom.

Well…’ sighed Tom. ‘The truth is I’m in the middle of a divorce and I’m a little lost about what to do. Stay in Holland or come home.’

There’s nothing here.’

Maybe there’s more than you think Cat.’

Maybe there isn’t.’

Tom shrugged. ‘What are you doing now?’

I’m still working at Harrington Special Steels.’ Cat gave Tom a fatalist look.

Are they still going?’ Tom asked raising his eyebrows.

Yep.’ Said Cat, licking beer from his lips. ‘They survived Thatcher and if they can survive her, they can survive a nuclear war.’ He gave a little thought then added, ‘Think of Harringtons as a Soviet Siberian labour camp. No one ever really thought about them though they vaguely knew they existed and probably still do. The world just passed them by without interference as though they never existed.’ Cat paused. ‘Then there are the inmates like me, who look out beyond the camp’s fence and know somewhere out there over the horizon, people are leading full and happy lives. However, you know that isn’t for you and you know if you had all that freedom, you just wouldn’t know what to do with it. Acceptance of what you have is sometimes better than happiness.’

Jesus Cat,’ breathed Tom. ‘There’s some heavy philosophy in there somewhere. I never had you down as a poet.’

You have time to think when you work at Harringtons,’ laughed Cat.

How’s Anne and the boys?’ asked Tom moving the conversation on and hoping to keep the subject off himself.

Anne’s fine,’ replied Cat taking a large gulp of beer. ‘She still drives me nuts with her nagging but I’d be lost without her. As for the boys…failures like their father I’m afraid. I wanted them educated but this fucking place has a gravity of its own and just holds you back.’ Cat gave Tom a sad eyed look. ‘Michael’s a worker, a bloody good worker but David…’ he shook his head slowly, ‘he’s got calluses on his arse. Justifies it with his fucking cod Marxism. In fact the only book he possesses is Marxism For Idiots.’

Dummies,’ corrected Tom.

No, idiots,’ insisted Cat, letting Tom know he was speaking metaphorically. ‘To be fair, he got his A levels, then he just stopped. I keep hoping he’ll come out of his bedroom shithole and apply for university but apparently that is for petty bourgeois reactionaries’

How old is he now?’ 

Twenty-five and never had a fucking job and probably never will. Where he gets his money from I’ve no idea but to be fair, he always has some.’ Cat looked at Tom, ‘And you? You’ve got a girl haven’t you?’

Two girls,’ smiled Tom sheepishly, not wanting to brag about their successes with Cat. ‘They’re both doing well but that’s down to their mother. I always promised myself I wouldn’t be like my old man, absent and in the pub all the time spending the family budget.’ Tom paused, doubting the wisdom of picking at old wounds. ‘I wasn’t in the pub but I was absent a lot, always pursuing my own interests. So in many ways, I’m an apple that didn’t fall far from the tree.’

Is that the reason for the divorce?’

What?’

You never being at home?’

Oh…’ Tom nodded with an air of fatalism. ‘I guess so. Even when I was there, I wasn’t. You slowly realize you are two strangers living under the same roof.’ 

You’ve just described ninety-nine percent of marriages there!’ laughed Cat, breaking the despondent air. ‘Anyway, I’ve got to go, the prison camp calls.’

You’re going to work now, after a drink?’ Tom raised his eyebrows.

I’m not going to break a forty year habit,’ exclaimed Cat. ‘I always have a couple of pints when I’m on afters. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t go.’

Why not?’ shrugged Tom.

Cat poured the rest of his beer down his throat, stood up and patted Tom on the shoulder. ‘I’ll see you around. If you’re in Sunday lunch, I’ll probably see you then.’ He went to go but stopped. ‘The only alternative place to be than here, is your coffin. That’s how bad Colthorpe is now.’ With that Cat left, letting the taproom door clap shut behind him.

The barmaid who was pottering at the bar looked over towards Tom. ‘You two are miserable old fuckers.’

It was friendly mocking but “fuckers” jarred. He didn’t like to hear women swear. No, that wasn’t true. He was being snobbish. He knew middle class women who swore but because of their accent, it didn’t sound quite so bad. Dominique used to like saying in English ‘Fuck me!’ both as an exclamation and in the literal sense and he used to be aroused by it.

Don’t worry, your time will come soon enough,’ laughed Tom.

I’ll top myself first,’ said the barmaid earnestly. ‘Do you want another before I disappear into the back?’

Tom studied his almost empty glass and considered a half, a pint or saying no. ‘oh why not. I’ve got nothing better to do.’

If the best thing in your life is here, you’ve got a pretty sad life,’ said the barmaid as she pulled a new pint.

Actually, he had a pretty sad life, thought Tom, sixty and no place to call his own. No job, not that he needed or wanted one and no real friends. People who he thought were his friends, just ended up being acquaintances. That wasn’t quite true. He had two friends he knew he could rely on if he needed help but both were in different parts of the country.

Here you are love,’ smiled the barmaid as she put a new pint in front of him and snapped him out of his trance. 

He watched the barmaid’s backside as she duck waddled back to the bar with his empty pint pot. Would he or wouldn’t he? He tried to banish the idea but an image of the barmaid in a fishnet body stocking entered his head. No, no, no, please no, he thought. Where did that come from? He consciously turned his mind to the walk home to his father’s house. It felt like an alien place to him, he had never lived there. His father was re-housed when Concrete Canyon was pulled down. His father always cursed the Jerry built houses on Coronation Place but he missed it when he had to leave. He will walk the same way home his father would have walked hundreds, no, possibly thousands of times. Since the death of his mother, his father would walk to the Colliers, have one pint and walk home again. It was more to get out of the house than going for a beer. 

In the past the high street bristled with life and had a breathtaking array of shops that were never appreciated until they were gone. You never had to go to Sheffield for anything, though people did because the buses were regular, reliable, fast and above all, cheap. Now the bus to Sheffield takes you away from Sheffield on a seemingly endless tour of the surrounding villages before finally heading into the centre of the city. The last part of the journey is the only time the bus is nearly full. Twice as fucking long as it was back in the day, exaggerated Tom. He then thought about the efficiency of the buses in Holland. Only in Britain could politicians contrive to make something that worked worse and then make it more expensive at the same time. He visualized himself walking down the now desultory high street, past charity shops, pound shops, junk food eateries, and vacant shops. Not to forget the cash machine at the bank that never seemed to work. He’ll turn up Quarry Lane, past the old back to back pit houses people have customized with such eccentric tastes they brought to mind a shanty town. He got no further. He was losing the will to live. His mind turned back to the barmaid who was back to pottering. 

What’s new?’ shouted Tom across the taproom.

The barmaid looked up and briefly gave him a dirty look as though he’d just made a lewd proposition. ‘You’re new here aren’t you?’

I was brought up here but I was one of the lucky ones who escaped.’

What have you done wrong to be dragged back then?’ asked the barmaid now happy to engage in small talk.

Tom shrugged. Dragged back, thought Tom, it felt more like he’d been sent back. ‘Gravity,’ said Tom eventually.

Gravity my arse,’ dismissed the barmaid. ‘You bloody missed the place.’

Divorce,’ Tom decided to become clean.

It’s still no bloody reason to come back here.’ The barmaid had now decided to polish a hole in the bar.

Nostalgia,’ offered Tom, thinking one word will satisfy her sooner or later.

That’s more like it. It’s still not a bloody good reason though,’ retorted the barmaid now leaning on her elbows. ‘I ended up getting married because of nostalgia. I thought I was nostalgic for Casanova but I was really nostalgic for Jim Royle.’

Tom smiled. The Royle Family had been big in Holland and watching it had made him nostalgic for home. Tom shook his head. He was making it sound as though he lived half a world away from Colthorpe. He was a ferry and an hour’s car ride away. It wasn’t as though he was short of money either. The family had more than enough money to make several trips a year if they wanted to. No, he was happy to wallow in nostalgia. He could put up with that, it was a trip to England he couldn’t handle. His relatives were happy to visit Holland, which allowed him to put off trips to England. When his mother became too ill to travel, his father would complain that his mother was missing the girls. Tom suddenly felt guilty. He kept saying he would take them to England and then his mother died. The girls were angry with him for not taking them to see Gran while she was still alive. His father said he could never forgive him “Did your mother have to die for you to bring the girls?” was his father’s bitter remark. Even his brother and sister offered little respite. They were firmly behind Dad. The atmosphere was such he couldn’t get back to Holland quick enough. He hadn’t been back to England since. That must have been nearly ten years ago.

Penny for your thoughts,’ soothed the barmaid before adding, ‘or is it a pound now in our greedy world?’

Oh!’ said Tom in some surprise, ‘I was just trying to think why it has taken me so long to visit home.’

Because it’s a shithole,’ remarked the barmaid with some venom. ‘It’s so bad round here, we don’t even get Romanian beggars, it’s beneath them.’

Aah thought Tom, the dreaded immigrants. He had yet to come across one in Colthorpe but he’d been assured they were there. The only Romanians he knew were five young Romanian women in his language class in Holland. All five were university educated and quite delightful creatures, he looked forward to seeing them each week. But he knew there was another side. He himself had migrated to Germany to work in the late seventies with an army of other Brits. There were some rotten bastards amongst them then. He recognized all the accusations against the new immigrants for he and thousands of other Brits had done the same. 

This whining about immigrants made him cringe because he was one himself. He never could bring himself to take Dutch nationality, not because he had anything against Holland or the Dutch, his family and all his friends were Dutch after all. He just didn’t want to be a plastic Dutchman. In a game of football between England and Holland, he didn’t want to shout for Holland while secretly hoping England would win. He gave a chuckle as he remembered being put out by his younger daughter shouting for Holland, not England, in the previous World Cup.

They only want to better themselves. Don’t they?’ offered Tom.

Well let them better themselves by stealing off people in their own bloody country!’ was the barmaid’s unforgiving reply.

Tom knew there would be some bastards amongst the immigrants to start these stories. There were some bastards amongst the British migrants at the end of the seventies in Holland and Germany. Most of the Brits wanted nothing to do with their rogue compatriots, wanting just to work and have a quiet life. He suspected the same was true with the current migrants in Britain. 

Aye, I suppose.’ He suddenly felt guilty for not having the will or the energy to put the barmaid right on a few things. He decided to leave his beer. ‘Well, I suppose I’d better get on. No doubt I’ll see you again.’

I suppose,’ said the barmaid as he made for the door. ‘This place is a dump but it’s a palace compared to anything else in Colthorpe.’

2

 

 

Tom woke up in a small bare mint green room. It reminded him of a police cell, though he’d never been in one. He scanned the naked walls and ceiling. The hideous colour, he assumed, was the idea of his brother. No bloody taste. The nakedness of the place was down to his father not being bothered to liven up a room he never used. The single bed he recognized as that of his sister’s from Coronation Place. 

He shielded his eyes from the sunlight with his forearm. The late morning sun was filtering through the too thin curtains. The cheap floral print hid you from the neighbours prying eyes from across the gardens but little else. There were voices downstairs. His father’s and what sounded like a female voice. Tom groaned at the thought it was probably his sister. He knew the reason for her visit. She had heard he was visiting and of his divorce and now she wanted to be updated on the gossip. Tom turned and pulled the duvet over his head. The bed gave out an audible groan. His bladder was full and aching but he could hold out a little longer.

Are you getting up today?’ shrieked a voice from downstairs. 

The confirmation of his sister’s presence depressed him more. It gave him less reason to get up. Just lately he was sleeping in later and later. There just didn’t seem to be a point in getting up. At some point, he knew he would have to confront this lethargy but not now, not today. He spun violently round from his left shoulder to his right, almost bouncing through the bed. It was no good. His full bladder wouldn’t let him relax. He threw off the duvet and propping himself up by his elbow, eased himself up into a sitting position. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands before pushing himself to his feet. His aching body reminded him he was pushing sixty.

The toilet bowl echoed as he sighed with relief. There’s nothing better when you need one, Tom told himself. He splashed his face and armpits. Normally in Holland he would shower every morning but that seemed over zealous in Colthorpe. He made his way back to the bedroom, got dressed and trundled downstairs.

Charlotte, his sister was rinsing through a few cups at the sink. 

What brings you here?’ Tom asked accusingly.

Not you,’ retorted Charlotte. ‘I know all about it, Katrijn told me over the phone.’

Tom rubbed his head as he eased himself into a chair at the kitchen table. ‘You’ll know more than me then.’ 

If it’s what you both want it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.’

Tom looked at Charlotte in surprise. He was expecting a lecture. ‘It’s what she wanted.’

You can’t blame her, you were never there?’ hissed Charlotte.

What do you mean, never bloody there?’ Tom felt the need to fight with Charlotte but it had nothing to do with their conversation. It was something innate, some residual grudge from childhood. ‘I worked bloody hard at being a good father. I can’t help it if the recession kicked my legs from under me.’

Father is the operative word,’ spat Charlotte, dumping a mug of tea in front of Tom. ‘You’re children aren’t divorcing you, your wife is!’

Tom took a swig of tea and told himself to watch his tongue. He could feel his venom rising. He looked round the kitchen. It all looked a little sad and old fashioned. The door was open and his father was pottering around at the bottom of the garden doing something and nothing. Charlotte joined him at the table. She was four years younger than him, a late arrival. His parents last effort for a girl. Not that there were that many efforts, there was only three of them. Charlotte was slim, well groomed, with simple but nicely trimmed short hair. She looked a good ten years younger than she was in Tom’s eyes. In that he was proud of her. She seemed to be one of the few women over fifty in Colthorpe who hadn’t given up on life. In fact, she looked rather classy.

Tom took a packet of cigarettes from his trouser pocket.

You’re not back on them are you?’ lectured Charlotte.

Colthorpe does something to a man.’

Well do it outside. I’ve been trying to get dad to stop.’

He’s eighty-five,’ Tom rolled his eyes. ‘It’s a little late for him to start on a healthy life style.’

We want him around as long as possible,’ insisted Charlotte, as though she was discussing an old sofa.

Mum lived a healthy life style and a fine lot of good it did her.’ 

Charlotte gave a quick glance down the garden. ‘Dad could have been more supportive.’

Let’s not go there.’ Tom placed the packet of cigarettes on the table, deciding he didn’t want to fight. Not today, not at this moment.

So. What are your plans?’ inquired Charlotte.

Tom shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’ He sighed as he looked at the floor and then at Charlotte. ‘That’s what I’m here to find out. Decide if I want to stay in Holland or come back here to die.’

Don’t talk like that!’ insisted Charlotte. ‘Sixty is the new forty,’ she smiled.

Yep. There is still a future. Or at least, a bit of one,’ smiled Tom weakly.

You’ll get over it,’ soothed Charlotte. ‘You were always in your studio anyway when you weren’t working, from what I hear.’

Tom ignored the fact that Charlotte must have got that information from Katrijn. ‘Oh, I’ve no doubt we’ve made the right decision. We both feel it is. It’s just that I don’t know what to do with myself. The girls don’t need me any more. They’re independent and getting on with their own lives. And even if sixty is the new forty, the future isn’t long enough to make plans for, it’s a matter of living for today.’

Which is no bad thing,’ interjected Charlotte.

No…’ tailed off Tom with a yawn. He nodded towards the kitchen door and the garden beyond. ‘How is he? He’s looking old.’

That’s because you only see him once every ten years.’

That’s not true.’

OK. Every nine years.’ Charlotte pursed her lips, the way she always did when she had an axe to grind. Tom was just bracing himself to give as good as he was going to get when Charlotte relaxed. ‘Oh he’s fine. The same selfish old goat,’ she laughed.

Yeah,’ smiled Tom. ‘He’s always been a bit of an arse.’

But our arse Tom, our arse.’

Tom smiled and nodded in agreement. Usually Charlotte’s moments of sentimentality would make him sneer but he wanted to get through his first week without a major argument. They watched their father as he neared the door, his plants inspected. He was a biggish man but age had given him a withered look. It was clear to see he was a strong man in his youth but a useless father, thought Tom. He did his duty and provided for the family but little else. He was never around, always at the pub or off fishing or somewhere with his mates. It was their mother who brought up the family and it was her who had ambitions for her children. On more than one occasion when Tom wrestled with his father over some trivial fact or political argument, his father would accuse him of having read too many books. Tom resented this. He knew the fathers of his middle class friends would engage in such an intellectual dual. They wouldn’t resent their offspring winning but have a sense of pride at how articulate their offspring had become. Tom’s father saw it as his position being threatened. Working class insecurity, thought Tom. He couldn’t really blame his father for that, could he? No but underneath it all he did and knew he always would.

Wet the bed?’ Tom’s father asked.

I would have if I stayed in any longer,’ replied Tom, giving into a cigarette now he had his father to back him against Charlotte.

He’s smoking again,’ Charlotte frowned as she snitched like a spiteful schoolgirl.

Is he now? Well he can give me one,’ said their father, holding out his hand.

Tom smirked at Charlotte as he lit a cigarette for his father.

Tom’s father looked at it. ‘French shit?’

If you don’t want it…’

I never said that.’

You’re like two big kids,’ huffed an exasperated Charlotte. ‘I’m not sitting in this filth and anyway, I’ve got a home of my own to look after.’ She put on her coat, picked up her car keys and gave their father a peck on the cheek before looking at Tom. ‘So. How long are you here for?’

Tom shrugged. ‘Until I go back. If I go back.’

Well, I’ll see you two around.’ It sounded more like a matronly warning than a goodbye.

Thanks love,’ smiled their father as he joined Tom at the table.

Tom raised his eyebrows. Since when had his father taken to thanking people? He must be aware of his own fragility and dependence. Maybe he was turning human now it’s almost too late.

They both waited for the door to close behind Charlotte, like two little boys wanting to keep a secret from their stern auntie. Tom stubbed his cigarette in a saucer that doubled up as an ashtray. They sat in silence for a moment. They had little to say to each other apart from the odd animal grunt, which passed as communication. In a way it was, it was a way of declaring they were fine with each other, things were cool. 

So what you up to today,’ grunted Tom’s father.

Look up a few people,’ Tom grunted back.

Don’t look up Steve Bower.’

Why not?’

He’s dead.’

What do you mean dead?’ Tom Frowned. 

Charlotte tried to phone you but you never answered. You must have been off on one of your jaunts,’ said Tom’s father as he helped himself to another of Tom’s cigarettes. ‘You just never answered.’

What do you mean dead?’ asked an irritated Tom.

Tom’s father raised his eyebrows to question Tom’s irritation until he realised ‘dead’ required an explanation.

Dead!’ repeated Tom’s father before adding, ‘He went to the proverbial corner shop for a packet of fags and never came back. Some gangsters chopped him up and fed him to the dogs or maybe his missus dissolved him in a bath of acid! How should I know? He disappeared!’

Tom made a show of putting his head in his hands in despair.

I told you Charlotte tried to phone you with the gossip.’ 

Tom thought about all the times he’d seen Charlotte’s name highlighted on the phone in Holland and how he instructed Katrijn and the girls not to pick it up. 

Something must have happened. No?’

Why,’ Tom’s father shrugged. ‘People disappear all the time. There was a rumour he was diagnosed with cancer and kept it to himself and six weeks later he walked off into the sunset.’

Thanks for the John Wayne analogy?’ sighed Tom, having given up hope of getting any worthwhile information out of his father. 

He had momentarily pondered upon the thought of cancer and lost his sense of immortality and this line of questioning wasn’t going to get it back. ‘Does that mean he was supposed to have commited suicide?’

How would I know? I just know they never found hair or hide of him.’ Tom’s father sucked hard on his cigarette. ‘He could be shacked up with a tart in London for all I know.’

So he might be selling cockles in Barking?’

Could be,’ sighed his father. ‘Anyway, his wife isn’t complaining, she’s already got herself a new fella.’

She wouldn’t need him gone a week for that,’ snorted Tom, thinking of Silvia Wilson as she was in their youth. ‘She never could keep her knickers on.’

What ever has she done to you?’ asked Tom’s father, stirred into genuine interest.

Nowt,’ said Tom, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.

Come on. Spit it out,’ urged Tom’s father with a glint in his eye.

Tom lit up a cigarette and pulled hard on it. How could something that happened over forty years ago suddenly seem so painful? It wasn’t that Silvia had meant that much to him, it was his ego. He’d been dating Silvia or thought he had. Showed her a lot of respect too. He only got a bit of tit though. Meanwhile Silvia was handing round the main course like it was going out of fashion. He was humiliated. He couldn’t work out why Steve actually fell for her. He tried to advise him against taking her serious but it was no use. He was getting his end away on a regular basis and that was enough for him.

Well?’ asked Tom’s father.

Well what?’

What have you got against the girl?’

Nothing,’ puffed Tom. ‘Other than she’s prone to losing her knickers. You know the rumour that their middle lad isn’t Steve’s?’

I haven’t heard that one before.’

Well there can’t be many men in Colthorpe of my generation who hasn’t been subject to a little charity from Silvia Wilson,’ mocked Tom, hating himself for indulging in such talk.

Tom’s father sat back on his kitchen chair with his arms folded and his shortening cigarette stuck to his lips. ‘She always struck me as a nice young lady. I thought young Steve had got himself a bit of a prize there.’

He certainly got more than he bargained for,’ winced Tom, aware at his inability to stop picking at the sore.

Well, he’s got no worries now. That’s for sure.’ Tom’s father pursed his lips before adding, ‘whether he is dead or alive.’

The two sat musing in their own worlds, absorbing each other’s company rather than experiencing it.

Will a bacon butty do for breakfast?’ asked Tom’s father breaking the long silence.

Are you making it?’

I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t.’

Can you put an egg on it too?’ perked up Tom, his gastric juices beginning to flow. He remembered how on Fridays when his father was on the nightshift, he would take the three of them to the pit canteen. He would buy them all a bacon and egg sandwich, a wagon wheel and a cup of tea, while he went to pick up his wages. They would sit there on the clean side of the canteen amongst all the miners coming and going. Many they recognized, even if they didn’t know their names. The canteen ladies would pamper them, while the men would joke and pull their legs. It was really the only time their father ever took them out and thinking about it, it was everyone else who entertained them, not their father.

 

3

 

 

It was the fourth time he had walked down Central Terrace. A street of semi-detached former council houses, which were in his youth, pit houses. Now they were privately owned and rented out in Britain’s great property speculation experiment. If it were a more affluent area, some curtain twitcher in the neighbourhood watch would have phoned the police by now. But the Terraces were the bum end of Colthorpe. Any nervous resident was more likely to attack you with a lump of three by two timber. Tom decided that when he passed number twenty-three, if he didn’t introduce himself, he would carry on walking back to the high street.

Before he allowed himself time to think, Tom had opened the garden gate and was stood in front of a front door waiting for an answer. He had the urge to run as he heard movement on the other side of the door. He felt an excited fear he felt as a youth when they used to knock on doors on mischievous night before running away. A couple of bolts could be heard being pulled back and a chain connected. An eye appeared in the narrow door opening.

‘Yes?’

‘Hello Silvia,’ 

The door closed, the chain taken off its latch and then the door opened again. A woman about Tom’s age stood in what appeared to be a defiant pose. She looked angular, with a hardness to her face gained with harsh experience. Her hair was dyed a red-brown that didn’t suit her complexion. Though what her skin colour actually was under all her makeup, it was hard to say. She was decorated with large costume jewelry and dressed in a too bright abstract patterned blouse over jeans. A bit early to be dressed up like a Christmas tree, Tom thought, immediately comparing the woman with Katrijn’s stylish understatement.

‘What do for you want?’ came a flat question.

‘It’s me, Tom Newton,’ said Tom apologetically, convinced he hadn’t been recognized.

‘I know who you are. I asked you what you want.’ Replied an unfriendly voice.

Tom shuffled his feet awkwardly. ‘I’ve just wondering about Steve. I’ve heard stories…well, you know Colthorpe and stories.’

‘You can ask at the corner shop,’ was the uncompromising answer.

Tom frowned in confusion. ‘What?’

‘A year ago he went to the corner shop for a packet of fags.’

‘You’re not making this easy Silvia,’ stuttered Tom, suddenly understanding the corner shop comment.

‘Why should I? You think I’m a slag.’

‘That’s not true…’ stated Tom, then knowing an outright denial would sound like a lie, changed tack. ‘That was over forty years ago. It’s water under the bridge, we are grown up now.’

‘It wasn’t forty years ago. You’ve always thought it. You always thought Steve was a mug for marrying me,’ stated Silvia with a confidence Tom felt he couldn’t challenge. ‘It wasn’t for nothing you avoided me whenever possible. You even avoided Steve to avoid me.’

In a need to do something Tom softly kicked at the doorstep. ‘Look Silvia, I’m sorry. You hurt me when we were teenagers and I never managed to grow up and get over myself.’ He looked Silvia in the eye hoping she’d crack but nothing. ‘Yes, it is childish to carry such nonsense around all ones life and yes, I’m a little man.’

‘No you’re not,’ replied Silvia without a change of expression. ‘I was a bit of tart back then.’ Tom looked at her, waiting for a sarcastic sting in the tail but none came. ‘You’d better come in. I’ll put the kettle on.’

Tom tentatively stepped over the threshold and followed Silvia along a hallway. It was decorated with so many varying patterns it hurt his eyes. The fitted carpet was of abstracted flowers in purple and orange. The walls were of diagonal interlaced stripes in white, gold and silver. It was an unintentional working class psychedelic wonderland he had grew up with but never really noticed until he moved abroad. His auntie had wallpaper Bridget Riley could only have dreamt of and so much brass and copper on the walls along with mirrors it was an LSD trip without the LSD. His own home changed to a more sober affair over the years. His mother developed pretensions and tried to create a cool continental look she read about in women’s magazines. But somehow, she never quite hit the right note. Home always had a “couldn’t be bothered” look about the place. Maybe there was some truth in that impression. Theirs were one of the few homes he knew with a bookcase storing serious books.

When they reached the Kitchen, Silvia indicated to Tom he should plonk himself down on a chair at the kitchen table. While he looked round Silvia filled the kettle and pottered around preparing the tea ritual. The kitchen was fitted with dark heavy oak affect cupboards and the floor had been tiled with gaudy Spanish floor tiles. It was probably all Steve’s handiwork. He was good with his hands, very good but no bloody taste. He was the same with women, thought Tom, suddenly feeling guilty with Silvia’s hospitality. One thing about Silvia, she was bloody house-proud. Every surface sparkled and you could be a stranger but you could still see nothing was out of place. In Holland, their home had always been untidy. He was too easy going and Katrijn eventually gave up and joined his couldn’t care less attitude. The girls didn’t seem to object to their lax attitude either.

Silvia eventually joined him at the table with two mugs of tea and customary biscuits. It could have been a scene out of his youth, tea and biscuits for every occasion, especially when things needed to be aired. Silvia looked at Tom, waiting for him to begin but he couldn’t think where to begin. He had neglected his and Steve’s friendship and now he was pretending it was an important part of his life. It was once but that was long ago, before Silvia had driven a wedge between them, simply by being Silvia.

‘What have you been told?’ Silvia deciding it was up to her to say something or nothing would be said.

Tom shuffled and took a sip of tea. He noted the ashtray on the table. ‘Mind if I smoke?’

‘Have one of these.’ Silvia offered, conjuring up a packet of cigarettes from nowhere.

He didn’t recognize the brand but felt it would be bad manners to reject the offer for one of his own. He took a cigarette and lit it with Silvia’s lighter, inhaling deeply. It was a cheap cigarette. Strange, thought Tom, how such a filthy habit can have a cheap end of the market.

‘The usual rubbish, you know Colthorpe. Everything from running off with the vicar’s wife to being zapped by Martians’ Tom had been disappointed by the lack of imagination of the gossip.

‘He had a bit of a scare. His prostrate had swollen and he was convinced he had cancer. Steve was looking forward to a long healthy retirement and suddenly he was confronted with the grave. It was all in his imagination, nothing else. A minor operation put it right but a seed of doubt had been planted. Why would he run off?’ Silvia pursed her lips, challenging Tom to come up with a rational explanation. 

‘So he was depressed?’ Tom really not knowing what to say and was quite happy to offer a banal question.

‘No,’ frowned Silvia. ‘We were planning a holiday. He had a little anxiety because he’d lost his sense of immortality but nothing else. Then two days before we were due to go on holiday he disappeared…’ Silvia’s eyes began to water but Tom couldn’t tell if it was through sadness or frustration, ‘… he became agitated and looking over his shoulder. At first I thought it was down to his scare but then, you don’t literally look over your shoulder to see if you are anxious about your health, do you? Even if it was just a bout of hypochondria.’

‘You mean someone was after him?’ This time it was Tom’s turn to frown.

‘That’s exactly what I mean,’ puffed Silvia. ‘I told the police but they never took me seriously. They said there was no evidence of any crime and marriages breakdown and men run off all the time. They just bloody patronized me.’

‘What do the kids think?’

‘The same as the bloody police,’ she huffed. ‘They think their mother is mental. They don’t say it but I know they think it.’

‘What if you are imagining it?’ asked Tom.

‘Don’t you bloody start!’ barked Silvia.

Tom was taken aback by the strength of Silvia’s admonishment. ‘There must be some reason other than just a feeling which makes you think Steve hasn’t disappeared on his own volition.’

‘He kept looking over his shoulder. How many times do I have to repeat myself?’

‘Did you ask him why he was looking over his shoulder?’

‘Of course I bloody did,’ grunted Silvia. ‘He would just say I was imagining things.’

‘But you have no evidence other than your feelings?’

Silvia rolled her eyes. ‘How many times do I have to spell it out? Me and Steve were looking forward to the future together, we were planning to go on holiday.’

The reason for Silvia’s sociability suddenly dawned on Tom. She saw him as someone to be recruited to her search party for Steve. Was that all there was to it? Tom became nervous. Maybe she wanted him to investigate or campaign for the police to look into Steve’s disappearance. Think before you make promises was written on the ticker tape running through Tom’s head. Tom remained silent, unable to make up his mind if Silvia was playing him or not.

Silvia ground her butt end into the ashtray. ‘Why do I keep digging Steve up? It doesn’t do any good and it just makes me angry at the world.’

Because you need to?’ offered Tom. ‘You need some form of closure.’ Closure? Tom hated Americanisms, they were like fast food, convenient and lacked substance. They helped you say the right thing without getting emotionally involved. He didn’t want to get emotionally involved.

It doesn’t do anyone any good. The boys have had enough of me going on about it. Sometimes I think they blame me for his disappearance.

Now why would they do that?’

‘I haven’t been the best mother,’ said Silvia rubbing her forehead before offering Tom another cigarette. 

‘You’re not on your own,’ offered Tom pointing at his chest, before taking a cigarette he didn’t really want. He was starting to feel his lungs and getting a little paranoid about his health.

‘Of course you’re not a bloody good mother, you’re a father,’ hissed Silvia, rolling her eyes.

‘I meant parent,’ chuckled Tom. ‘We like to think we do our best but sometimes I wonder if we aren’t just fooling ourselves.’

‘You’ve got two or three…?’ queried Silvia.

‘Two girls,’ replied Tom. ‘I’m proud of them, they’re doing well but that is down to their mother.’ Tom suddenly felt awkward. He felt he had implied his children were doing better than Silvia’s and Katrijn was the better mother.

‘You’ve done well yourself’ smiled Silvia weakly. Tom raised his eyebrows as if to say, why would you say that. ‘You got out of Colthorpe at least!’

‘Now that is questionable,’ said Tom with a sardonic smirk.

 

4

 

 

Tom took a short cut through what was locally known as “The Sheds”, a series of rows of back to back houses that had somehow avoided demolition. From the first day they were built in Edwardian times they were destined to be slums. Small claustrophobic rat holes, any civilized country would have ploughed into the ground to bury the shame they were allowed ever to exist in the first place. The pit sold them to the local council in the seventies and the right to buy policy of the eighties saw them bought by residents then sold on to speculative landlords. Each house had unique doors and windows and painted some sickly colour by their owner. The Sheds now looked like some gaudy Brazilian favela. 

Where the terraces were the bum end of Colthorpe, The Sheds were the turd. No one with self respect wanted to live there. You lived there because you had hit hard times or the gutter was your natural habitat. The landlords accepted DSS tenants, which apparently in this new brave England, were the scum of the earth. Being decent isn’t about where you lived but how you live, Tom’s mother would say. Tom knew there would be decent people in The Sheds who were just down on their luck, but ever since he was a child, The Sheds housed “scum”. Though he knew this was just prejudice he had absorbed from adults that should have known better when he was young, he couldn’t shake the feeling they were right. 

Tom exited The Sheds and turned up Common Road. Despite his morbid fascination with The Sheds, Silvia kept intruding into his thoughts and through Silvia, Steve. Why was she so certain something had scared Steve away or something had happened to him? She knew him best of course. Tom himself would have had Steve as the last person to disappear. Though what do any of them know, you hear stories of relatives often surprised by their loved ones actions. Still, Tom couldn’t picture Steve disappearing of his own accord, through thick and thin he’d been a home bird or so it seemed. Maybe he would have raced himself into oblivion on a powerful Japanese motorbike, taken a bend too fast in some souped up car and is lying in some undergrowth somewhere? No, this is England, you can’t disappear like that. You would be found soon enough. 

Steve was no intellectual. The intellectual world didn’t interest him. He was a man of things. What he couldn’t do with his hands couldn’t be done. He would never have passed an exam at car mechanics or engineering but put an engine in front of him in a thousand bits and he’d have it together and running in no time. It was Steve’s uncanny ability with things practical that made Tom realize academic intelligence is not all it is cracked up to be. It was just one facet of the human mind and not necessarily its superior facet. In fact Tom had come to think that the world would be a better place if practical people whose ability was to solve practical problems ran it. Certainly the know-alls who run the country are clueless, clueless or psychopathic. Why else do places like The Sheds exist?

It was Steve who had done up the old Mini that had taken them down to France in the summer of seventy-four, the summer he met Dominique. It was a car down to its rims and a body with more holes than a tart’s net tights. By the time Steve had finished, it looked new in its black and gold JPS livery. A “lady trap” is what Steve called it, though he had no need of it with his good looks. The girls were drawn to Steve, even though he would rather have had sex with an engine. This also proved true in France. If Steve weren’t discussing cars with some car enthusiast, some girl would offer herself to him. This was the reason Tom had had so much time to brood, wishing he was back in Colthorpe, until Dominique entered his life. She said she would never have approached him if she realized he was with a friend. Tom chuckled and shook his head. All the way home to Colthorpe, he couldn’t stop talking about Dominique. No wonder Steve had something against her. Tom had rammed her down Steve’s throat.

Tom looked up. A passing woman eyed him warily, as though he should be in a straitjacket. He gave her a wink, then concentrated on his journey. At the top of Common Road he could already see the new flats or luxury apartment block. How the fuck can you have luxury in Colthorpe, thought Tom. It is impossible. From The Sheds to the flats, you could see a steady increase in quality and value of houses but not in size. Everything seemed built for midgets, ones aiming above their station at that. Ever since he had been back, he noticed a snobbishness he never noticed in his youth. Yes, there was a low burn class war going on back then but snobbishness wasn’t so prominent. Was it? Maybe it is fear of having got on a bit in life and the realization with the slightest misfortune you could end up back where you began. He’d often read in the papers about how bad it was in the seventies and no doubt this was what people feared going back to. However, he had fond memories of the seventies, it was his decade. And anyway, the seventies saw many people get their first colour TV, first phone, first fridge and first holiday abroad so it couldn’t have been that bad. Yes, these things happened to the middle class in the sixties but seventies was when these things reached Colthorpe in quantities to be significant.

Tom arrived at the front door of the “luxury apartment building”, which was set back in its own car park, surrounded by a billiard table lawn. He looked for the name Paul Newton in a stainless steel grid of names and pressed the square steel button next to it. An electronic voice halfway between a Dalek and a hectoring school ma’am farted.

‘Hey Tom!’

Tom was confused for a moment until he saw the lens in the apartment’s control panel giving him the beady eye.

‘Are you going to let me in?’ he blurted.

‘Don’t bring your grumps up with you,’ chuckled the electronic voice, as the door buzzed.

Tom pushed the door open and then an inside door before entering a foyer. The brushed stainless steel of the lift looked sci-fi. He half expected the doors to open and be confronted with Daleks or Darth Vader . The place stank of newness and there was a faint whiff of floor cleaner in the air. He stabbed number five on the panel. The doors closed with the minimum of rattle and then an almost imperceptible hum as the lift set in motion.

Paul was waiting as the lift door opened. He hugged Tom as he stepped out of the lift. Such demonstrative affection, which was genuine on Paul’s part, unsettled Tom. Paul had their mother’s fine features, also inherited her characteristic need to be over affectionate to the point of sentimentality. Tom was heavy browed like their father and like their father, recoiled from anything that might be mistaken for personal feelings. Tom dutifully patted Paul on the back as Paul released him. It was as much as he could bring himself to do, not because he didn’t love his brother, he did, it was that such displays of affection felt false to him. 

‘Great to see you Tom, you’re looking well,’ Paul oozed enthusiastically as he led Tom a short way down a corridor and through an open door.

Tom smiled weakly. ‘You’re not looking too bad yourself.’

‘I’m A1,’ declared Paul. 

Paul was two years older than Tom, a retired engineer who had seen much of the world through his job. He had never married, though he’d been engaged a few times, four to be precise. Paul claimed this failure in his life was down to his job, the traveling and being away for months at a time. Tom knew it was down to Paul’s inability to commit and the grass always being greener.

‘Well, well, well. Is this what they call luxury in Colthorpe?’ asked Tom as he scanned the living room. ‘It’s not as big as I thought luxury required to be but nice,’ he nodded as he carried on inspecting the room.

Paul looked a little hurt. ‘What do you think of the view?’ asked Paul wafting his arm in the general direction of the huge windows.

The apartment block was right on the edge of Colthorpe and overlooked fields rolling south towards Nottinghamshire.

‘I bet on a clear day you can see the cooling towers along the Trent,’ Tom joked but in case Paul took it for sarcasm, he added, ‘It’s a great view, did you pay for it when you bought this place.’

‘No, not really. They had to drop the prices. I mean, who in their right mind would build luxury apartments in Colthorpe?’

‘That was my immediate thought, when I first heard you were looking at a luxury apartment.’ Tom looked round the room. You could see all the furniture was expensive but the room still had a look of being an IKEA show room. Paul just didn’t understand. Taste is not something you buy but comes from within. ‘Can I smoke?’

‘You’re smoking?’ frowned Paul. ‘Since when?’

‘Since a day or so ago,’ puffed Tom, fed up of explaining himself.

‘The balcony.’

Tom raised his eyebrows. ‘You’ve got a balcony? Now that is luxury.’

Paul walked over to the window and slid it open to reveal a balcony big enough to hold a table and chairs.’

‘I’m impressed,’ commented a wide-eyed and genuine Tom as he walked across the room and out onto the balcony. He looked out across the fields and commented ‘Best view in Colthorpe.’

‘Because you’re not looking at Colthorpe,’ quipped Paul, sensing his brother’s sarcasm.

Tom chuckled at being read and lit a cigarette. Paul left and quickly returned with a saucer for an ashtray he placed on the balcony table.

House proud aren’t we?’

Paul gave Tom a timid look. 

Are you expecting somebody else?’

Maybe later.’

And she doesn’t like cigarette ends littering the balcony?’

Paul broke into a laugh. ‘Yes I’m house proud and yes, I am thinking about someone visiting later who just happens to be a female.’

Do I get to know the name of this gold digger? It sounds like you need protecting,’ said a straight faced Tom as he blew smoke towards the fields opposite. 

It sounds like you’ve got the problems,’ mused Paul. ‘I hear you are homeless.’

Temporarily so,’ Tom nodded. ‘It’s not the first time since I’ve been back I’ve noticed the tom-toms are still working efficiently.’

So what went wrong?’

Nothing really,’ sighed Tom. ‘It’s just when the girls left home we realized they were the only thing that was keeping us together.’

How’s Katrijn taking it?’

Better than me I suspect,’ said Tom pushing his tongue in his cheek. ‘She has got the house, the car, the CDs, the mangy cat and every fucking thing else.’

You sound angry.’

Nah, not really,’ Tom looked at Paul who was standing just behind him. ‘Leaving with just a bag of clothes felt like a liberation…’ he paused, ‘even if at the time it didn’t feel like much for thirty years.’

Aren’t you taking your share of the house?’ Paul queried.

Tom puffed and twisted his tab end into the saucer. ‘No. Katrijn can have it.’ He stuck his cooling hand into his pocket. ‘Anyway, the girls would never forgive me if I made their mother sell the house.’

Paul nodded, as though sharing the burden of Tom’s fatalism.

Are you going to put that bloody kettle on?’ snapped Tom.

Oh yes,’ responded an apologetic Paul. ‘I’m not used to visitors.’

You’d better get used to it, you’ve got another coming later,’ smirked Tom, ‘or have you got something more up market than a mug of tea for her?’ 

Just a nice Rioja,’ shouted Paul from the kitchen.

Hoping to get laid?’ smirked Tom.

Just feminine company,’ came the reply above the clatter in the kitchen. ‘A genteel discussion about culture and the more sophisticated aspects of life.’

You mean like a good earthy shag?’ Tom laughed lecherously as he lit another cigarette.

No need to be crude!’ came back the reply.

Tom turned and looked across the fields. He felt the jealousy rising in him. He was feeling lonely and longed to feel a naked woman next to him. A woman who was new to him, who didn’t judge him and who didn’t have expectations. As always at such times his mind returned to Dominique. Even now at times, some thirty-five years later, he could still feel her limbs knotted about him, as he ground his hips into her groin.

Although he’d exchanged addresses with Dominique, once he returned to England he never expected to hear from her again. She was just a holiday shag, declared Steve in response to Tom’s declaration of his love for her. The entire journey back in the car, Steve dismissed what to Tom had become sacred. He could remember getting angrier and angrier with Steve throughout the journey but he too, thought reality would eventually kill his romantic notions. He was trying to hold onto something that was already in the process of dissolving.

It was of some surprise when only a couple of days after his return, he received a letter from France. It was written in neat uniform writing, the grammar was impeccable and the contents thought out and deliberate. This gave the letter a feeling of suppressed passion. He spent hours reading and rereading the letter to make sure he wasn’t projecting his own wanton interpretation onto it. He went through dark clouds of doubt, followed by bright sunshine of exhilaration. She had written that fate was in their hands and they should not let their relationship remain a holiday affair. It sounded so intellectual, so adult, so confident and in control. Could this superior being, this goddess, really be declaring her love for him? Him, a nobody, a fumbling accident prone clown who could barely put a sentence together in English, never mind in a foreign language. His blood pulsed through him like an injection of some life enhancing drug. The memory of Dominique naked in his tent and her lean torso glistening with sweat from the heat swirled through his head. His hand flat on her belly, the musky aroma from her pubis and the heady feelings she would submit to him at will.

Comeback!’ came a familiar voice behind him.

Tom started and felt found out, as though Paul could see the image in his imagination. ‘You can see the cooling towers along the Trent from here.’

Paul handed Tom a mug of tea. ‘They look romantic from this distance. Pastel blue impressionistic towers scattered across the horizon. They could be out of a fantasy.’

Don’t practice your romantic sensitive drop your knickers line on me,’ mocked Tom.

Paul smiled weakly and tried to ignore the jibe. ‘You wouldn’t know they were cooling towers if no one told you. They are too far away.’

Only we do know they are cooling towers, which sort of spoils the poetry,’ grumped Tom. ‘Oh, before I forget, I went to see Silvia Bower before I came here.’

Steve Bower’s wife?’

The one,’ confirmed Tom as he took a sip of tea. ‘She was adamant Steve didn’t run away.’

Paul looked blankly at Tom.

You’re supposed to respond,’ emphasized Tom.

To what?’

Tom gave a deep sigh. Paul’s mind was clearly on the evening ahead. ‘What do you think about his disappearance?’

Paul shrugged. ‘I was away working at the time but when I came back, wild rumours were still flying round. But then, this is Colthorpe, anything like that is going to feed gossip and conspiracy theories.’

Tom shook his head and then nodded at Paul with some force. ‘What gossip and what theories?’

Oh god, I don’t know anymore,’ sighed Paul. ‘If you picked up your phone instead of ignoring us all the time, I would have told you then. I wanted to know if the rumours were true myself.’

What do you mean if I picked up the phone…’

Stop pretending Tom. Katrijn told Charlotte she was under orders not to answer the phone.’

She said that?’ asked Tom weakly.

Yes and what’s true rings true.’

Tom felt like he’d been caught playing with himself and quickly moved on. ‘Well, what do you remember about the gossip?’

Paul shook his head and was just about to take a sip of tea when he noticed Tom taking out another cigarette. ‘Another one?’

You just sounded like our Charlotte snitching about my smoking to the teachers.’

A little respect,’ retorted Paul.

Well?’

Well what?’ Paul again lost in the evening ahead, before finding his way back. ‘Oh, the gossip, yes. Various stuff. Charlotte told me. That he was into drugs and crossed some bloke in Sheffield. The other I remember was he was into gambling and owed so much money he couldn’t see a way out. That sort of thing.’

Nonsense then?’ sighed Tom impatiently and a little put out that Charlotte hadn’t mentioned anything to him.

I don’t know, you knew him better than me,’ shrugged Paul.

Steve wasn’t a gambler. He didn’t even place a bet on the Grand National. As for drugs, he’d take the odd suck on a joint if one was being handed round but he wouldn’t buy the stuff. Cars and gizmos were his drug.’

Oh yes, cars,’ mused Paul. ‘That was another rumour. He was into ringing cars.’

Really?’ Frowned Tom.

It was one of the rumours,’ emphasized Paul, ‘I’ve no idea if he was or not.’

You know, I could believe that,’ said Tom thoughtfully, ‘but how you get from there to disappearing.’

Murdererd?’ interjected Paul. ‘You said Silvia didn’t believe he just disappeared.’

Oh bloody hell, I’ve been in Colthorpe too long already, I’m starting to trade in all this shit,’ dismissed Tom. ‘Anyway, how are you, apart from in love?’

I’m not in love,’ insisted Paul. ‘She is just a friend. Other than that, I’m OK. I tried a bit of trading but gave that up before it bankrupted me.’

Capitalist pig!’ sneered Tom.

Hey, don’t knock it. You benefit from all the speculation, exploitation and corruption,’ mocked Paul.

Other than hijacking a plane to Cuba I have no choice,’ sniffed Tom.

Cuba is passé. Nowadays it’s all jihad.’

Excuse me for getting my radicalism mixed up.’

You were always behind the curve Tom. Finding a cause and jumping on the bandwagon when others were getting off.’

What’s that supposed to mean?’

I bet you’re still a socialist.’

Damn fucking right I am!’ emphasized Tom, should there be any doubts.

It’s an ideology that has gone Tom and it ain’t coming back.’

Well I’ll soon be gone and I won’t be coming back.’

You’re still an atheist too?’

Tom screwed up his face and looked at Paul as though he’d just made a mess in his pants. ‘Are you saying you’re not?’

The older I get and the more I get to reflecting, I do wonder about such things more.’

You mean you fantasize and find it impossible that you will be extinguished, gone, no more. You know damn well the idea of an after life is just human conceit.’

No, I don’t know Tom. I’m not sure it is all wishful thinking,’ imparted Paul.

Tom lit another cigarette and pulled his coat tighter against the chill. ‘You’ll be telling me next you’re shagging the vicar.’

I didn’t know we had a female vicar in Colthorpe,’ Paul nodded in approval.

Neither did I,’ winked Tom.

I fell for that one,’ Paul despaired. ‘Anyway, what are your plans? Are you moving back to England or staying in Holland?’

I’m fed up of people asking me that, that’s what I’m here to find out. I’m not sure what I want.’ Tom paused. ‘Why did you come back?’

Paul shrugged. ‘It’s the only place I really know anyone. I might have been all over the world and I might have friends and acquaintances all over the world but they are scattered. And anyway, you just can’t pitch your tent up next to a friend like you’re stalking them.’

I thought that’s what friends are for?’

Maybe in your world.’

I realized when I left Katrijn or more accurately, she kicked me out, I didn’t have any friends.’ Tom looked at the slops in his mug. ‘How about something stronger?’

Sorry but you aren’t going to find a friend here today, I’m kicking you out soon,’ smirked Paul, obviously thinking about his lady friend. ‘Surely you made some friends in Holland.’

The culture is different. You have friends by appointment. You can’t just go round and slap someone on the back and break open a bottle,’ sighed Tom.

It’s getting a little like that here nowadays,’ shrugged Paul.

In your middle class social circle, yes, I believe you,’ sneered Tom.

And you aren’t middle class?’ snorted Paul.

No. I’ve never adopted middleclass attitudes. I can’t stand the hypocrisy,’ declared Tom, deciding on another cigarette since there wasn’t going to be a glass to keep his hand occupied. ‘The middleclass don’t have friends anyway. They have allies, people with the same vested interests as themselves. When someone’s vested interests clash with yours, they drop you as quick as they recruited you.’

Get off your soapbox Tom and put away the manifesto. Your thinking has had its day. You are the past. You were in the past when you were a teenager. There are no salt of the earth working class, there never was. People struggle to get by the best they can and if that means making allies, so be it.’

You’ve never struggled to get by.’ Accused Tom.

I got where I am under my own steam,’ sighed Paul, fast becoming depressed at the direction of conversation.

No you didn’t. You had a grant and mum used to pass you money. You weren’t wanting for much. Not like the kids of today.’

I still had to study hard,’ spat Paul.

We all had to do that,’ said Tom through gritted teeth.

If you worked at school, instead of being an arse, you could have gone straight to uni yourself. But oh no, plastic socialist you had to show solidarity and get a job at the pit, only to discover it wasn’t such a great idea after all. Then when your only option was night school, you let us all know how hard you had it, working and studying. Tom, you’ve always got some cross to hang onto like a fucking martyr. At sixty, don’t you think you are a little old for all that melodrama?’ Paul ended with his arms folded like a teacher waiting for a delinquent pupil to explain himself. 

Tom wanted to thump his brother. This made him realize he had no counter argument. His frustration had the effect of gagging him, his brain had stopped working and a head of steam was building up. ‘Look, it’s time I went, I’ll leave you to your lady friend.’ Tom pushed passed Paul and headed for the door. ‘I’ll see you around,’ blurted Tom, knowing that little compromise meant the next time they met, they would have forgotten about this little episode. They had forgotten about hundreds of such episodes over the years. They were all part of their sibling relationship.

Back out in the car park he breathed in deeply. Why he had to contrive such confrontations was beyond him. There was some anger in him that forced him into such dysfunctional behaviour. It wasn’t so much he was angry with the people he argued with, it was because they were just convenient targets for his anger with the wider world. 

As he lit a cigarette while telling himself smoking wasn’t getting to be a habit, a large silver BMW pulled into the car park. He watched it park and a smart looking woman about his own age get out. She briefly looked over to Tom and seemed to recognize him but he couldn’t place her. She had blond hair, coloured no doubt at her age, which was tied loosely back in a deliberately couldn’t care less way. It was a style that softened her sharp features. He watched her press a number. So she didn’t live there. Despite his best efforts he couldn’t tell if it was Paul’s number or hear if it was Paul’s distorted voice that replied. He exited the car park and started to walk back along Common Road.

 

5

 

 

The voice was not in key and somewhere between a yodel and a wail. The rhythm section was slightly out of time and there was far too much bass. Meanwhile the lead guitarist was on his own wrestling with his guitar, not playing to a thin crowd of indifference but a whole adoring stadium. Welcome to Saturday night in the concert room at the Colliers Rest. “Pay ‘em off and let’s get tombola on” was the shout back in the day and how right they were, thought Tom, as he scanned the room. Overweight people were everywhere. He had come to Fat City pig farm! Tom felt guilty at being so judgmental and tried to dismiss the thought but the piggy faces wouldn’t let him. The few thin people there, looked unhealthy and emaciated, as though they’d just returned from a six-month holiday on the Burma Railway.

He struggled in the low light to spot anyone he recognized but then, people he knew could have changed so much, as into pigs or skeletons. He was just about to return to the taproom and finish his beer and go, when he thought he’d heard his name.

Tom! Tommy Newton!’

Tom struggled in the din to work out the direction the voice was coming from. He nearly twisted his head off as he looked round the room. Eventually he noticed the waving arm of a man sat on the bench that ran along the sidewall. It was a piggy face, typical of the gathered crowd and no way of recognizing it. He pushed his way through the thin crowd, which refused to shift and negotiated the tables of stubborn unmovable piggies. As he approached the jolly bald man who was beckoning him, he slowly recognized a face through the bloated layers of fat. 

Rick! How are you?’ asked Tom, holding out his hand and feigning enthusiasm. ‘I barely recognized you!’

The good life,’ enthused Rick Hellesby, patting his belly before taking Tom’s hand. ‘Sit down and join us.’

Just for a short while,’ shouted Tom over the din, thinking of escape and wondering why he ever wanted to meet old faces. 

He sat opposite the table from Rick with his back to the stage. There was a woman sat next to Rick who looked bored, Tom’s arrival only eliciting mild interest. She had died black hair and a mask of makeup that covered a once pretty face but which had now sagged in its own misery. She wore a necklace of plastic rocks that even Wilma Flintstone would have shirked.

Oh, this is the wife,’ informed Rick with a bellow, ‘Kate.’

Pleased to meet you,’ mouthed Tom with a nod of the head.

Pleased to meet you,’ Tom lip-read Kate’s reply. It was mouthed with a measured indifference, before returning to watching the turn with similar indifference, only for the session to end with weak applause.

Tom was one of the gang before he defected to the frogs,’ laughed Rick as he informed his wife of where Tom fitted into his life. Kate nodded with indifference. ‘Then it was the krauts. He’s been all o’er.’

Kate tried to show interest with a thin smile but failed. This didn’t seem to be noticed by Rick, who carried on giving a random and inaccurate history of his and Tom’s relationship. Tom remembered Rick as a bit of a runt, attached to the group of friends but never actually central to it. Whatever any of the group of friends had done, Rick would better it with some Technicolor exploit he claimed to have done himself. He was impervious to the mocking these fictions would provoke. He was just too desperate to be one of the boys.

So how are things with you?’ asked Tom, not really wanting to know.

Well I’m here, still supping a couple of pints, which is more than some,’ beamed Rick, as though it was some form of achievement.

Oh?’ prompted Tom.

Well I suppose you heard about Steve’s disappearance, it was all over the local papers, even made the local TV news.’ Tom nodded. ‘Then Alan was buried some time ago. We gave him a good send off but a sad case. Drugs. Prescription drugs. Been on them for years apparently. His organs slowly stopped functioning. David Hebden. He got it in a car crash. Oh, Sue May died of breast cancer,’ Rick listed with a jollity the subject just didn’t have.

OK. OK,’ said Tom putting up his hand. It all made him lose his sense of immortality once again. ‘I get the picture, you’re a survivor,’ Tom tried to joke. ‘I heard about Steve’s disappearance the other day. It really doesn’t sound like him.’

How can you know what goes off in someone’s head?’ stated Rick, now with a serious face.

I suppose,’ frowned Tom, noting life seemed to be recorded in clichés in Colthorpe?’

You know what I mean,’ Rick went on, ‘We all have our secret life.’

Tom wandered how many secret lives Rick had apart from none. His beloved Kate looked the type to police him closely.

Word on the street is that Steve was up to no good, even had a gun and was doing deals with someone from Gleadless who goes by the name The Shroud,’ informed Rick in all seriousness.

Tom wanted to put his head in his hands but resisted. Rick had been watching too many American TV series. He decided to divert the conversation onto mindless trivia. ‘What is this shower called?’ he asked, tilting his head towards the stage.

Al Ryder and the Stallions,’ replied Rick, raising his eyebrows. ‘Good, aren’t they?’

Tom was filled with despair and wanted to bang his head on the table, when an amplified voice informed the audience bingo tickets were on sale.

Go get the tickets love,’ Rick gently ordered his wife, who seemed to gather some enthusiasm at the prospect of bingo. ‘Do you want her to get you some tickets Tom?’

No thanks. I’m going outside for a smoke,’ announced Tom finishing his pint, grateful to bingo for the first time in his life.

Rick shook his head as Tom left. ‘They’ll kill you, you know.’ 

Tom dismissed Rick with a wave of the hand as he tried not to make too much haste towards the door and freedom.

 

Tom joined a group of smokers at the entrance of the Colliers Rest. Not quite inside but not quite outside either. They snuggled between two sets of doors, out of the chilly breeze, hindering arriving customers. There were half a dozen of them or so, each sucking at their chosen brand of drug, while occasionally grunting at each other. Tom shivered in the chill. The dim lighting of the entrance added a feeling of poverty rather than warmth to the atmosphere. He scanned his fellow delinquents and realized that joining them meant his addiction was taking hold.

‘Well, well. What misfortune landed you here?’ asked a flat female voice.

Tom instinctively assumed the question was aimed at him and looked to his side to see a woman, maybe a little younger than him, with raised eyebrows fixed on him. She had short dark cropped hair with a large hippy style earring in one ear and a stud in the other. Her face was round but she was only carrying a modicum of extra weight. There was a familiarity about her features but he couldn’t place her. 

‘Well?’ said the woman in expectancy.

‘Sarah!’ Tom exclaimed as a picture of a young woman flashed in his head. ‘You’ve barely changed.’

‘Liar!’ laughed Sarah. ‘I know what I see in the mirror every morning and the bloody thing never lies.’ She seemed genuinely pleased to see him. ‘So how come you are here? I haven’t seen you in what…?’

‘Decades,’ informed Tom.

‘Well, give us the gossip,’ encouraged Sarah.

‘There’s none to give. I’m just visiting.’

‘You’re looking well. Life’s been kind to you.’

‘Is John here,’ asked Tom, nodding towards the pub’s interior and wanting to change the subject from himself.

‘Kicked him out yonks ago,’ stated a satisfied Sarah. 

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Tom, feigning regret.

‘He liked his oats too much,’ mocked Sarah, ‘or at least, he liked too much variety.’

‘So you’re not sad about it?’

‘What is there to be sad about? The man was a complete shit and I’m well rid of him.’

‘Where is he now then?’

Somewhere in deepest darkest Sheffield and probably making some other woman’s life a misery.’ Tom nodded in agreement. ‘Look, I’m going in, I’m getting cold. We’re in the taproom, why not come and join us for awhile.’ 

Sarah didn’t wait for an answer but wrapped her arms around herself and rushed back into the pub. Tom flicked his tab end onto the pavement and watched Sarah disappear inside. Who are “we” he thought but realizing he would find out soon enough, he lit another cigarette. He looked down the high street. There was little going on, a group of teenagers outside a late night shop, and a couple who seemed to be headed for the Colliers. Fine misty rain had started to fall. The cold had got to his bones. He felt melancholy and wanted to feel another human’s skin. He smiled as he remembered kissing Sarah round the back of the youth club when they sixteen or so. She had let him feel her breasts but no more. It was a major triumph at the time. That was all the history they had, apart from the shared history of being in the same gang who hung around together.

Penny for them.’ 

It was the couple, which a few minutes ago he had seen walking up the high street. His cigarette had burnt down to the tip so he dropped it on the step, stamped on it and then kicked it onto the pavement. He suddenly felt guilty about littering. He dismissed the thought and turned and went inside.

The taproom was full, mainly due to refugees from the concert room. Al Ryder and the Stallions were driving people out of town. The din was still there in the background but bearable. Tom bought himself a pint of bitter and then looked round. Sarah was over by the window, sharing a table with two other women. He pushed his way through the crowd.

May I join you?’ 

I’ve already invited you, stupid,’ smiled Sarah.

Can I get you a drink?’ asked Tom, looking at each of the women in turn.

Just sit down Tom,’ ordered Sarah as she rolled her eyes. ‘You don’t have to pay an entrance fee here, we’re liberated.’

That’s what’s worrying me,’ smiled Tom.

I think you know Alison,’ stated Sarah, waving a hand towards a platinum blond woman of a similar age to herself, ‘and this is Angela. Alison’s daughter.’

Yes, we were in the same class at high school,’ commented Tom while giving Alison a smile. 

There was really nothing else to connect them. She was in the same class. That was it. She was just there in the background. She had been a pretty thing but no energy. Nothing radiated out of her and with her still being in Colthorpe and in the Colliers, her quietness couldn’t have been down to studying. Could it? She had now joined the pigs. Her face was bloated and her body a pile of tyres, not even the generous size of her clothes could hide. Tom once again berated himself for being so judgmental but he couldn’t help himself. He imagined Alison naked and found the idea repulsive. All his imagination could see was folds of white fat marbled with blue veins, folds of flesh mimicking the many breasts of Artemis. Alison’s daughter, Angela, who was in her mid thirties, was the same. Stop fucking eating, Tom wanted to shout. Instead, he remained polite and told Alison she looked well.

Alison’s husband had apparently died of a heart attack some time ago. Tom looked sympathetic while rather cruelly thinking he probably must have snapped while they were having sex cowgirl style. Angela’s husband had apparently walked out on her and who could have blamed him. Angela was opinionated as she was ignorant. She knew everything and being wrong was impossible, even when she was contradicting herself. Tom felt less guilty about being judgmental as the four of them gossiped. The conversation was small minded and spiteful. The two As were very bitter about what life had served them but from what Tom gleaned from the tidbits, they had been served up their just desserts.

The only reason he stayed at the table was Sarah. She was visibly embarrassed by the tone of the conversation. She often interjected to defend people Tom had never heard of. Or she would try to change the subject so Tom could join in the conversation. Tom couldn’t decide if this was out of politeness or whether she wanted his company. Why did he stay? He wasn’t sure. What else would he do in Colthorpe on a Saturday night? He had no marrows to nurse. The truth was, he was burying the reason from himself. The thought of Sarah and him behind the youth club had stirred up in him, a storm of nostalgia.

Tom was wondering if he could hold out to the bitter end. He was finding the two As too poisonous for him to bear. It was with some surprise when it was Sarah who suddenly stood up and said it was time for her to leave. She looked at Tom and must have seen the alarm on his face at being abandoned to the two harridans.

You can walk me home if you like,’ she winked at Tom. ‘I’m your usual hypocrite, I want it both ways.’

Tom frowned, as if asking to be enlightened.

I’m only liberated when I want to be,’ said Sarah with an exaggerated smile and raised eyebrows.

Then maybe I can cope with you,’ said Tom, returning the smile.

They bid the two witches farewell and pushed their way to the exit.

 

They walked down the quiet high street in silence. Most of the shops were in darkness. It was a bit pointless charity shops lighting up their wares at night. It is not as though it is a community’s wealth that keeps them in such a prominent position. Tom wasn’t one for consumerism but even he had to admit, the absence of vibrant shops made the whole place feel poor. Misty rain filled the air but not enough to sense it was raining. It was rain without rain, like the impoverished that don’t recognize poverty. It still drenches and drowns you in the end.

There was a comfortable atmosphere about them, thought Tom. Their stroll was relaxed and didn’t require any communication other than going in the same direction. He got a whiff of Sarah’s perfume on the breeze, which was not the best quality, even to an ignoramus like him. Tom discarded the thought. He hated evaluating people by what they possessed and saw the fact that he sometimes did, as all part of the rancid culture he was brought up in.

‘I’m sorry those two spoiled your night,’ sighed Sarah. ‘I could see you were uncomfortable with all their bitching.’

‘Why do you put up with them?’ asked Tom, giving Sarah a quick glance.

‘I don’t,’ she stated. ‘I’m on my own when I go out so I tag along with any company that is available. That was Alison and Angela tonight.’

‘Are you lonely?’ inquired Tom, a little wary should he be trespassing on Sarah’s soul.

Sarah gave a sharp puff. ‘I suppose I am at times.’ She looked towards Tom and gave him a weak smile. ‘I feel it more when I go out, which begs the question, why do I go out?’

They fell silent again as they passed the empty chippy, which was readying itself for throwing out time. 

Sarah put her arm through Tom’s. ‘Do you mind?’

‘There’s no one to get jealous.’

‘That’s not what I asked.’

‘No. No, I don’t mind,’ smiled Tom. ‘I find it rather pleasant.’

The street was deserted. Tom remembered how in his youth the high street was so busy at this time of night. There was a disco in the old cinema, which was now converted into a largely unused gym. Then the Miners Institute was still open, The Comrades social club, The Eagle at the bottom of the high street, The Keys, just off the high street on Brook Lane and of course, The Red Lion, the present day Colliers. The police would be out in force clearing up the fights and picking up drunks as the hostelries emptied out their customers. Colthorpe was a rough place. Dog rough. But it had energy and despite everything, there was ambition. Now all that seems to be left is fatalism, even amongst Colthorpe’s better off residents.

‘Where do you live?’ asked Tom, realizing they were going to have to turn off the high street or carry on to the Sheds.

‘The Terracess for my sins,’ Sarah said as way of apology.

‘Do you really think I’m judging you?’

‘Aren’t you?’

‘I feel hurt you think I would,’ chirped Tom as he tried to make light of what he regarded as an insult.

‘Normally I give my address with defiance,’ laughed Sarah. ‘Fuck ‘em all! I think. But I am sensitive that I’ve ended up in a worse place than I started.’

They fell silent, as they turned left up Wallside, the long street leading to the Terraces. At Long Lane they were confronted with Central Terrace across the street, where Silvia lived. Sarah pointed right, in the direction of Western Terrace. They crossed over the road. There was no need to look out for traffic, as Colthorpe was dead. The only people out would be in the Colliers or further a field, in Sheffield. After a short distance, they turned left up Western Terrace.

‘This is it,’ sparked Sarah, bringing them to a halt. ‘Number thirteen. How appropriate can a number be?’

‘Well at least it’s got a roof on,’

Just,’ stressed Sarah.

Well, it’s been a pleasant walk and it’s been great to see you,’ said Tom, suddenly feeling lonely.

‘Look,’ said Sarah, breathing in deeply. ‘I said it before, at our age, there is not enough time to be coy. Do you want to spend the night?’

Tom hesitated as he tried to work out if Sarah was offering herself or the couch.

‘No conditions,’ smirked Sarah as she saluted. ‘Guides honour.’

‘You were never in the Guides,’ frowned Tom with a smile. ‘You’re a loose woman Sarah McAvoy.’

With that, Tom couldn’t help but notice Sarah almost skipped down the path. Since when had he become such an attraction? Since the fish in the pond have thinned out he told himself. He followed Sarah down the path and into the house. The house was exactly the same layout as Silvia Bower’s house but the décor was not so overwhelming. Sarah’s hallway was low key, magnolia with a couple of prints of paintings by van Gogh. The carpet was blue-grey and threadbare. Clean as Sarah kept the house, she was clearly struggling financially.

‘Make yourself comfortable in the room,’ as she opened the living room door for Tom to enter while she carried on to the kitchen. ‘It’ll be tea, tea or tea!’ she shouted.

‘Tea’s fine,’ Tom shouted back. ‘Milk, no sugar.’

If the living room was a person, you would call it world weary. Everything was rundown and had seen better days. The TV was the only thing that looked new. The leather three-piece suite was clearly expensive when bought but now had been pummeled by too many backsides bouncing down on them. Maybe it was secondhand? A Dali print decorated the wall above it. There was a mirror above the fireplace. Tom straightened his hair and checked his teeth. A small bookcase stood by one wall. Tom scanned the books. He smiled as he suspected Sarah had been studying English literature at evening classes. He pulled a book out. Fifty Shades Of Grey. Sarah walked in with the tea when she saw which book was in Tom’s hands.

‘I just had to find out what everyone was talking about,’ she said rolling her eyes.

‘And?’

‘Like reading the telephone directory.’ Sarah put the teas down on the coffee table. ‘Not my usual stuff.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ smiled Tom. ‘A’level?’

Sarah feigned a laugh but looked as though she’d been found out. ‘After I kicked John out I’d thought I’d do something with my life,’ she said shaking her head slowly. ‘I took some evening courses at the FE, passed but I never did anything with them. I’m still on the till at the local Tesco.’

‘You should have done something,’ stated Tom, in a way that he hoped sounded like she was worth more than working at the supermarket.

‘Thanks for the vote of confidence.’

‘I didn’t mean to be patronizing,’ Tom replied apologetically, as he picked up a photo from the top of the bookcase. 

‘That’s my daughter Michele with her husband Dave. They moved to Australia and who can blame them for getting out of this shithole.’

‘It upsets you?’

‘No. I just miss her.’

The air was hanging heavy. Tom felt he’d picked the scabs off a few old wounds. He decided to try and repair the damage.

‘You’re looking good, you know and I’m glad I bumped into you.’

Sarah sneered jokingly. ‘Sit down and drink your tea and don’t worry. There’s no escape when I’ve got a man cornered.’

They looked at each other. Tom felt a thrill of anticipation riddle through him for the first time in decades. Sarah’s eyes sparkled as though she recognized the feeling passing through him. Suddenly, they simultaneously belly laughed.

‘Sod the tea, we both know what we’re here for,’ Sarah chuckled.

 

6

 

 

Tom was sat at the kitchen table, which was against a wall. A mug of tea hooked in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He watched Sarah put on her supermarket overall, followed by her coat as she simultaneously took sips of coffee.

‘Don’t go,’ implored Tom. ‘Phone in a sicky.’

‘Don’t be daft. It’s my job,’ replied a frustrated and flustered Sarah. ‘Anyway. I need the money.’

‘I’ll pay you a day’s wage,’ smirked Tom, as though he was being smart.

Sarah frowned with indignation. ‘Are you trying to turn me into a prostitute?’

Tom shrugged, realizing he’d committed a faux pas and tried to make light of it. ‘What’s a few quid between friends?’ Tom shook his head. ‘It’s not as though I’m trying to pimp you.’

‘Look Tom,’ sighed Sarah. ‘I have sex with people I like because I like to and it kills the loneliness for a while. I know you mean well but money would make it all so…’ she looked for a word, ‘sordid.’

‘You’re going to be late,’ Tom surrendered.

‘I know I will, if I don’t rush,’ puffed Sarah as she finished buttoning up her coat. She turned and rifled through a drawer, ‘Here, the spare key. Stay and finish your tea and then post the key through the letter box.’

‘Are you sure?’ questioned Tom, who was ready to grab his jacket and leave with Sarah.

‘Yes. Have another cigarette if you want and if you are feeling useful, wash the cups and things.’ With that, Sarah planted a kiss on Tom’s forehead, ‘It was nice,’ she smiled before she quickly vanished down the hall.

‘It’s a crime working Sundays!’ shouted Tom after Sarah but the front door had already slammed shut.

Tom sat back, his head against the wall. He felt calm and contented. Amazing what a simple night of sex can do, he thought. In his head he relived the feeling of Sarah beneath him and her beating the mattress as he took her from behind. Despite her age and added weight, she was still firm and gravity had still yet to defeat her. He lit another cigarette and tried to recapture her expression as she climaxed. It defeated him. A whole series of accusing faces took Sarah’s place. Charlotte asked him, her face in his, if he’d no dignity or shame. Katrijn telling him he’d found his level. The girls with screwed up faces, as though studying something grotesque, were disgusted. But worse of all, there was Dominique, in tears at his betrayal. How can simple memory hold so much weight?

‘Fuck!’ he exclaimed as he pushed himself off the kitchen chair. He gathered the breakfast cups and plates and noticed Sarah didn’t have a dishwasher. He ponderously washed the little crockery they had used and wiped the table. There, he thought, before remembering the bed. Sarah might be pleased if he made the bed. It was the least he could do for services rendered. Services rendered? She wasn’t servicing him. She was indulging in her desires every bit as much as he was. He reprimanded himself for such misogyny. Old dog? New tricks? Naaah, he told himself.

The bedroom was like the rest of the house. The furniture had seen better days. No amount of being house proud was going to change that, it required money, which Sarah didn’t have. He stripped the bed before stretching the sheet back on the mattress and tucking it in. Just as he reached for the duvet, which was draped over a chair, the toe of his shoe hit a box under the bed. Curious, he looked under the bed. A large beige shoebox, the size for packing knee length boots, suggested a poor man’s strongbox. Initially he ignored it but the sound it made when he accidentally kicked it, told him the box contained something other than boots. Don’t be a shit, Tom told himself. He threw the duvet on the bed and pulled it straight, as he tried to ignore the box. The more he tried to ignore the box, the more he knew he wouldn’t.

Tom tried to leave the bedroom without opening the box but his willpower failed him. The box was on the bed and he was studying it while calling himself a shit for his sins. He took the lid off the box and placed it carefully on the bed. The box appeared to be full of personal letters, photos and mementoes. He studied the contents and their relative positions. He didn’t want Sarah to know he had rifled through her private life. Tom felt like a dirty pervert going through a woman’s underwear drawer but he was also getting the thrill a pervert might get. 

There was an old pocket watch, which was probably her father’s thought Tom. A pendent and other small pieces of old fashioned jewelry. He carefully removed the pieces, noting precisely how they were in the box. He then fingered through the letters, postcards and photos, taking care they all remained in their place. The date stamped on the letters all appeared to be from the seventies and eighties. The condition of envelopes pointed to the letters being often removed and read over the years. Tom took a letter out at random. It was a letter from an Alan Moorcroft from Worcester who Sarah had apparently met on holiday in Benidorm. Its contents were almost pornographic. Obviously a good time had by all. Another one was from someone Tom knew, Pete O’Mally. He had joined the army and was writing from Germany. It was a rather corny sentimental letter but racy enough to betray Sarah’s inability to keep her knickers on. The postcards, while the messages on the postcards were not as explicit, had plenty of innuendo.

Jesus!’ exclaimed Tom. No ones sex life can stand up to such scrutiny, not even yours Tom Newton, not even you, you lecherous shite, Tom lectured himself. He put the letters back in their place and carried on fingering through the box. There were holiday snaps of Sarah in various Mediterranean resorts and always with a male in tow. ‘Old lovers,’ muttered Tom. ‘To stop her being lonely at night.’ Tom felt his eyes watering as a sentimental feeling welled up in side him. He straightened up and breathed in deeply in an effort to dissipate the emotion. He then went back to fingering through the box’s contents. As he fingered the bottom few layers, his eyes widened, naked photos of Sarah and the limbs of a lover. 

He carefully extracted the photos from the box. Sarah was blindfolded and splayed across a bed. Not her bed. Her wrists and ankles tied to the four corners. Parts of a male were in the shots but not enough to identify him. He was fondling or torturing Sarah or whatever. Certainly sex games, nothing serious. Tom found himself getting aroused. He was disgusted with himself but the feeling was pleasant. He flicked another photo, which suddenly cured his arousal. There was a male hand holding a gun, its nozzle pressed into the entrance of Sarah’s vagina. There were two males and Tom thought he recognized one but there was never enough of the males on the photos to be certain.. 

Tom studied the photos in more detail. They could not be more than a couple of years old. They were not really photos but inkjet printouts. He hadn’t noticed a computer or a printer in Sarah’s house. Tom studied the photos again. There was a dozen or so. Two had the gun in them and yes, there were two males. Tom was no longer sure why he was studying the photos. I’m no cop, he thought, it was just titillation. Put them away, he told himself. After one last scan, he buried the photos at the bottom of the box where he found them. He then meticulously put everything back in place and returned the box to the place he found it, under the bed. 

After looking around the house for a computer and printer, he decided there wasn’t one. But then, the photos were a couple of years old and Sarah might have had one then. No, you don’t have a computer and then not have one. You buy a new one. Sarah, he speculated, had little interest in computers, probably because she couldn’t afford one. She was given the photos, which was why she had a hard copy rather than them being hidden on a computer’s hard drive. But then, she might have a smart phone. Tom couldn’t remember seeing her with one. But then, why would she use one when naked, in bed, with other things on her mind? Tom shook the conspiratorial nonsense out of his head and returned to the kitchen where he checked everything was clean and tidied away. He had one last cigarette while he mentally toured the house making sure he hadn’t left any evidence of his rooting. He then put his jacket on and left, posting the spare key through the letterbox.

 

7

 

 

Once again Tom was wandering up and down Central Terrace but this time, he was wondering why he was wandering up and down Central Terrace. He no longer had a sense of trepidation of his first visit. Now he was arguing with himself for being there in the first place. None of this was his business and even if it was, it was all history, a history he didn’t share. However, there was a voice nagging away in his head. It was telling him, not all is what it seems. Well, that is bloody obvious, Tom told himself. If the gun in the photo was real, who knows what creature lies dormant in the drains of Colthorpe? And why wake the thing!

Before the voice could gnaw away at him any more, Tom was stood in front of Silvia’s door having pressed the bell and waiting for her to answer. He heard footsteps down the hall as he tried to think what he was going to say to Silvia but his head had suddenly become a vacuum. Silvia opened the door a miniscule and peeked through the gap at the caller. On seeing Tom, she went through the ritual of releasing the chain and swung the door open to reveal herself with an expression of surprise. She pulled her bathrobe tight and touched her curlers, as though patting her hairdo into shape.

‘What do I owe this honour?’ she asked with some skepticism.

‘I was wondering about Steve disappearing and…’ Tom breathed out heavily, ‘I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.’ He waited for an answer but all he got was a gawp. ‘Maybe they’re a little personal so feel free to tell me to fuck off if you like Silvia. You have every right. It’s really not my business.’ The seconds stretched as Tom’s discomfort increased before the elastic snapped.

‘No, no. Come in,’ said a hesitant Silvia. ‘What have you found out?’

‘Why do you think I’ve found something out?’ asked Tom, nodding as he pushed past Silvia into the gaudy hall. 

‘Because you’re here wanting to ask me questions,’ Silvia raised her eyebrows, ‘Or did you think I’m an easy lay this time of the morning?’

A mixture of embarrassment and guilt riddled through Tom. He felt Silvia knew all about him and Sarah and what he’d found but that was impossible.

‘Make your way down to the kitchen. I’ll put the kettle on.’ There was puzzlement in Silvia’s voice as she let Tom pass her.

Tom sat at the table and tried to avoid looking at the floor should he suffer a dizzy spell, though the tiles behind the sink were no less dazzling. At least the oppressive dark oak effect fitted kitchen could depress your highs. Silvia put a cup of tea in front of Tom and an ashtray in the centre of the table, before sitting down herself.

‘Not drinking?’ queried Tom?

‘I’m swimming in the stuff,’ sighed a depressed Silvia, as she offered Tom a cigarette.

Tom already had one of his own out of his packet. If he had to put up with the black market stuff he’d pack in. Speaking of which, he should anyway.

‘Go on then, shoot,’ urged Silvia. ‘I’m assuming this isn’t a seduction.’

Tom pulled on his cigarette and braced himself. ‘You mentioned Steve had an affair or fling at some point. When was that?’

‘Years ago. It was before Kevin was born. He’s the middle ‘un.’ Silvia studied Tom. ‘OK, who is she?’

‘I didn’t say there was a she Silvia.’

‘I’m not stupid. The light still switches on.’

‘Look Silvia, I’ll tell you when I know anything for certain but I’m not here to spread malicious gossip and that is all this is at present.’

‘Is it?’ Silvia pursed her lips.

‘Yes,’ replied Tom sternly as he stared Silvia out. Once she blinked, he asked, ‘Did Steve have a tattoo on his right forearm. About here,’ he pointed.

‘A tiger. I think it was a speedway emblem,’ mused a worried looking Silvia. ‘You know him. Anything to do with engines,’ she said before adding a barb. ‘He should have bloody married one!’

‘Did he go to speedway events?’ Tom asked trying to keep to the subject at hand.

Silvia shrugged. ‘I’m not sure what speedway is, other than it’s about racing motorbikes. He went out and I trusted him like a fucking idiot.’

Tom sat back, sucked on his cigarette before screwing it into the ashtray. He then took a mouthful of tea as he contemplated the damage he had done.

‘Well?’ asked an impatient Silvia. ‘Was the bastard seeing someone?’

‘I don’t know for sure so I’m not going to tell you a name.’

‘Tell me her name! I’ll rip her insides out,’ growled Silvia through gritted teeth.

A grubby head with an unruly mop appeared around the door. ‘What’s up mam?’ asked a thirty year old with all the simple innocence of a child. 

‘Bugger off Kevin,’ snapped Silvia. ‘Can’t you see we’re talking?’

‘Sorry for breathing,’ puffed the head before disappearing.

Tom and Silvia looked at each other. Tom regretted being there, while Silvia gave the impression of wanting to torture the truth out of Tom. Why, why, why? It really wasn’t any of his business and now he’s thrown a hand grenade into someone’s life. Tom gave a big sigh.

‘Once I know what I’ve heard are incontrovertible facts, I’ll tell you everything. I promise.’ Promise? Promise? Stop fucking digging you retard, Tom lectured himself.

‘You’d better,’ warned Silvia. ‘Anyway, why are you doing this?’

‘You planted a seed and someone else decided to water it,’ mused Tom.

‘Gi’ o’er with the metaphors and talk straight.’

‘I’m being as straight as I can,’ stressed Tom.

‘Like a butcher’s hook,’ spat Silvia.

‘If I learn anymore I’ll let you know.’ Leaning on the table Tom pushed himself to his feet.

‘See your self out,’ hissed Silvia as she lit another cigarette. ‘And don’t come back here without a name.’

Tom declined a reply and headed down the hall towards the door.

 

8

 

 

Tom was back hanging out at the Colliers. There was really nowhere else in Colthorpe to hang out, apart from a couple of cafes. They’ll probably be closed on Sunday and anyway, that’s where old ladies hang out for a gossip between window-shopping. Not that window-shopping in Colthorpe could possibly give any of them an adrenalin rush. It was just a reason to get out of the house. It was quiet in the Colliers but then it was still early. Just the odd dyed in the wool drinker. Back in the seventies, the place would be filling up by now. Jukebox music would be playing and the dartboard already claimed. He would be sat round a table with the gang, staring at the hair of the dog, depressed that Monday morning and work was less than a day away. There was no work in Colthorpe now. Tom looked over his shoulder. He could see the ghost town of a high street, bereft of a population gone AWOL. Colthorpe used to be a bustling small town centre around steel and coal. The high street was always busy. There were always faces you recognized, even if you weren’t acquainted. 

Colthorpe was now a dormitory town to Sheffield and beyond with the motorway being so close and convenient. The town had expanded and was maybe double the size now, maybe more but it had never been so deserted and dead. No doubt people were stuck at home up to their eyes in debt with their mortgage and payment for the car. You really needed a car to get to work. While there were buses, they all did the milk run into Sheffield, taking significantly longer than they did thirty years earlier. This was why Tom had been putting off a trip into Sheffield. The thought of bouncing along in an uncomfortable bus for an extended period of time just depressed him. The buses weren’t cheap either. A reason why the low wages of what jobs there were in Sheffield was so unattractive. You ended up working for the privilege of living in poverty and there was a lot of hidden unemployment and poverty in Colthorpe. Not that you had to be unemployed to live in poverty, most jobs if you could call many jobs, a job, paid poverty wages, which couldn’t cover the cost of living.

Tom left his half emptied pint on the table and went outside for a cigarette. His thoughts had depressed him so much he needed a fix. Drugs, that was something else that had apparently risen with unemployment, being a lot cheaper than getting regularly sloshed. He breathed in the toxic fumes deeply. You couldn’t really blame people for turning to drugs when they had no future and no road out of this dump. “The Poles can do it,” he could hear his sister’s shrill voice complain. So now we are comparing the UK to Poland? What does that tell us he asked her. A question she avoided by changing tack and calling the unemployed scroungers. Fucking BBC, thought Tom, the official mouthpiece of the capitalist regime. Impartial reporting? They were impartial within certain parameters of establishment politics and classic economics. They never aired or gave credence to any alternative unless it was Brexit. They left their viewers doped up on vacuous half-truths and false arguments. His sister was a classic example of the somnambulant masses.

Is there dope in that fag?’ asked a distant voice.

Huh?’

You were on a different planet there for a moment,’ scoffed Cat.

Don’t tell me your working today?’ asked Tom, snapping out of his trance.

Naah.’ Cat shook his head. ‘There’s not enough work for weekends.’

I’m sat by the window,’ nodded Tom in the general direction of the window. ‘I’m going to finish my ciggie.’

You’ve only been here five minutes and you’re reclaiming your fucking seat?’ mocked Cat.

There’s nothing else worth reclaiming in this shitty town,’ sneered Tom.

So you’ve toured the place then?’ asked Cat, not waiting for an answer as he disappeared into the pub.

Oh, I’m touring the place,’ muttered Tom to himself.

He decided on another cigarette as he stamped on the tab end he dropped. He mulled over the problem of asking Sarah about her relationship with Steve. He had to allow some time to elapse before he asked her or she’d know he’d been rooting. Would that matter? Of course it would dipstick! It’s not as though he’s a copper, duty bound to expose people’s most embarrassing secrets to the world. It’s only nosiness that is driving you. No it isn’t, I want to know what really happened to Steve, he told himself. Liar! You just want to expose the sewer to the world as some sort of fucked up retribution for your own miserable failure at life. Tom couldn’t decide which was the honest voice or if either were or if they were even his. What could he possibly achieve? If there were answers, people would have found them by now. The police weren’t at all interested in Steve’s disappearance. There was no evidence of a crime having been committed, they said. Surely, if they thought there had been foul play, they would have launched an investigation.

Fuck it!’ spat Tom.

Two blokes looked his way with raised eyebrows as they passed him on their way into the pub. Tom gave and embarrassed snigger, letting them know he was talking to himself. Fuck it! He said to himself again. He’s interested because there’s nothing else to be interested in, in Colthorpe. If he had something to occupy his mind, he would have accepted Steve’s disappearance like everyone else, except Silvia of course. He threw his half smoked cigarette away and watched the sparks bounce off the pavement and turned to enter the pub.

He sat down and took a mouthful of beer. Cat was sat next to him. They were comfortable enough not to have to acknowledge each other. They stared into the middle distance as a couple of more of the dwindling Sunday afternoon regulars entered the taproom.

Does Sheffield still have a speedway team?’ asked Tom with looking t Cat.

Did it used to have one?’ Cat gave Tom a look of manufactured surprise. ‘The first I knew about it.’

A friend of mine from Sheffield used to go. I tagged along with him once,’ Tom checked Cat was listening, ‘that’s the first and last time I ever heard of it.’

Well ask thee mate,’ instructed Cat.

I can’t, he’s in America.’

Another bright fucker who had the good sense to leave the sinking ship,’ chirped Cat before shouting across the room. ‘Hey Colin!’ a large stocky man turned his head. ‘Does Sheffield have a speedway team?’

Yeah. The Tigers,’ the man informed, ‘At Owlerton Stadium.’ The man returned to his conversation.

Thinking about going or something?’ inquired Cat, his attention returning to Tom.

No.’ Tom shook his head. 

Cat looked at Tom. ‘Well don’t just fucking stop, enlighten me!’

Tom chuckled. ‘Steve Bower had a Tiger emblem tattooed on his arm.’

Did he?’ asked Cat. ‘I never noticed. So tell me, what is the significance?’

Tom smiled at Cat’s frustration and ignored the question. He had another to ask. ‘Do you know Sarah McAvoy?’

You know I do.’

How well?’

Well enough.’

How well?’

What is this?’ asked Cat, unsure whether he should be annoyed or not. ‘We had a thing going when we were in our teens.’ Cat allowed himself a smile of nostalgia. ‘Hot little thing she was. Still is, if you believe the rumours.’

Well, you think about the rumours while I get us another couple of pints,’ instructed Tom as he took their empty glasses back to the bar.

The plump barmaid of Tom’s first visit was on duty, working with a stick insect whose t-shirt was like a flag on a flagpole. It had been the stick insect who had served Tom his first pint earlier. She had a pinched face and a harsh voice. With the sparse custom, two barmaids the bar seemed a little overstaffed. However, their gossiping as they worked slowed them down enough for a queue to start forming. Eventually the plump barmaid targeted Tom, with a jut of the chin.

Two pints of bitter please.’

The barmaid ignored the two used beer glasses Tom had returned and got two clean ones and started pulling the beer. ‘I hear you got lucky last night,’ she winked, as she put the first beer on the bar.

Is nothing sacred in this place?’ asked Tom, uncertain whether to be annoyed or amused.

We hear more behind this bar than a priest in a confession box,’ smirked the barmaid.

I bloody believe you,’ said Tom. ‘Who’s been spreading this gossip?’

A guess,’ laughed the barmaid. ‘Not many leave with Sarah and not get lucky.’

Do you discuss such things?’

You’d be surprised what women discuss when men aren’t around.’

I’m not sure I want to know,’ stated Tom.

You’re not going to get to know,’ smirked the barmaid. ‘That’s five sixty please.’

Tom shook his head as he picked up the beers and made his way back to Cat. He slid a beer in front of Cat and took a slurp of his own before sitting down.

Well?’

Well what?’ asked Cat. ‘Oh Sarah. Now I don’t know if its true but the rumour is, she’s into what yer m’ call it.’

No. I don’t know what yer m’ call it.’

You do,’ stressed Cat. ‘Where you’re tied up.’

Bondage? S&M?’ helped Tom.

That’s it,’ mused Cat. ‘She wasn’t into it when I knew her. Just my fucking luck.’

Tom let out a giggle. ‘You were too early in the queue.’

Story of my fucking life.’

How did you get to hear these rumours?’

You just have to sit here day after day and the rumours find you,’ stated a straight faced Cat. ‘Our Sarah has a reputation. Whether there is any truth in the rumours, I’ve never been lucky enough to find out.’

But it could all be nonsense?’

It usually is, isn’t it?’ asked Cat, looking for confirmation.

Yes,’ yawned Tom.

Then why am I conflating your interest in Steve’s Tiger tattoo with Sarah’s kinkiness?’

Because, you’ve got a vivid imagination Cat,’ declared Tom. ‘I’m going for a cigarette.’

Not where Sarah’s concerned,’ Cat lamented to himself as Tom headed for the door.

Tom assumed Cat was thinking about when he and Sarah had something going on when teenagers. He pushed through the door with a silly grin on his face. In the entrance he lit up and joined a couple of other addicts in small talk. It was the exact place where less than twenty-four hours ago he had met Sarah. 

Sarah, now there’s a thought. What comes first, the sex or the loneliness? Tom was aware he suffered the usual hypocrisy around sex and disliked himself for it. Judging other people for what he would do himself if he were lucky enough to have the chance. Was it simply jealousy or socialization? He had enjoyed the night with Sarah. Enjoyed the friction of skin on skin. The whiff of sexual aromas and the way Sarah gripped him and pulled him into her. Why was he willing to ruin such a simple and pleasant memory by turning over a spade full of shit? There was something driving him but he couldn’t work out what. 

He took a long draw on his cigarette and closed his eyes as he relived Sarah taking him in her mouth. ‘Got a light mate?’ A voice broke the spell. By the time Tom could conjure up the mood again with another hard pull on his cigarette, Dominique had replaced Sarah. She was looking up at him with her big sex hungry eyes. Teasing him with her tongue and teeth. A precursor for almost violent sex, where they would kick, gouge, bite and claw at each other. They would end up in a heap of steaming exhausted flesh, glossed with a sheen of sweat. 

Why didn’t he ever think about Katrijn this way? Maybe if he had, their marriage would have survived. He knew the truth and he was uncomfortable with it. Katrijn existed. She was real. He had had to interact with her on the mundane but important things in life, like paying the bills and bringing up a family. They shared the despair when all the bills had been paid and there was no more money in the kitty. Then the blue envelope from the taxman would be delivered through the letterbox like a burning oily rag. No calculation telling you why you owed money, just a demand delivered with a threat for what seemed an arbitrary sum. He had never understood why the Dutch put up with such dictatorial behaviour. The minimum one could expect was an explanation as to why you owed the money. But no, it was as though the taxman waited for the most vulnerable time in your relationship and then SLAP, BANG, WALLOP. By the time you’d struggled through to better economic climes, there was no more juice in the tank. The hard times hadn’t strengthened you so much as broke you. You ended up as strangers wondering why you were living under the same roof. 

Twats!’ spat Tom aloud. ‘Oh. I was just thinking of the taxman,’ he explained to his fellow addicts who were looking in his direction.

More than fucking twats if you asked me,’ grumped one smoker. ‘Fucking Nazi sadists.’

A general conversation had started up about the evils of the taxman. Tom flicked his cigarette onto the pavement and abandoned the general unrest he had generated. Cat was getting to the bottom of his glass.

Want another?’ asked Tom as he stood at the table and downed his remaining drink in one. 

You paid last time,’ pointed out Cat.

I’ll pay this time,’ stated Tom picking up Cat’s empty glass. His sudden anger stirred up his urge to drink.

I shouldn’t but I will,’ explained Cat. ‘I normally just have the two.’

It’s not everyday you have a date,’ winked Tom.

Aye. Yer the best I can fucking hope far. What a sad bastard I am.’

Tom was already at the bar by the time Cat finished. The stick insect with the pinched face was serving him. She gave the impression she was working under duress but then she probably gave that impression with everything she did. The number of customers had settled at a gnat’s above sparse. The old days had certainly gone for good. Tom returned to a patiently waiting Cat.

Cheers,’ said Cat as Tom handed a beer and sat down.

Doesn’t it get livelier than this on Sunday?’

I dunno. I usually have my habitual two and leave.’

They sat in silence with the occasional man grunt at each other. The drinkers seemed limited to discussing one of two subjects. How pissed they were the previous evening or Wednesday and the Blades usual lousy results, which were incidentally, not so lousy that season.

You ought to come more often,’ said Cat out of the blue.

Huh?’

Karl Marx has suddenly issued a statement.’

Tom frowned in puzzlement.

He’s declared speculative capitalism is over and just needs to be buried and he’s gone and plastered the house with Green posters. The house now looks like a lettuce farm,’ said a straight faced Cat.

What?’ Tom looked at his beer as though it had been spiked.

Our young ‘un. He’s suddenly woke up. He’s caught election fever.’

Ooh! Your David.’ Tom shook his head. ‘For a moment I thought you were tripping.’

A chance would be a fine thing.’

Well, which way will you be voting for?’

I don’t and I won’t,’ declared Cat. ‘Voting changes nowt. I can’t even remember when I last voted. The only point of voting is to keep the Tory scum out but they won’t get in round here. And anyway, Labour aren’t much better nowadays.’ Cat mused awhile. ‘Well, how will you be voting?’

I won’t be voting,’ said a matter of fact Tom. ‘I’ve lived abroad too long, I’m not entitled to vote and I can’t be bothered to claim I live here to register. Not that I think there is a point in voting anyway. I’d burn fucking parliament down with the lot of them in it given the chance.’

You’ve got some jihad competition there.’

In some ways, you can understand them,’ spat Tom.

It’s not worth getting angry about,’ soothed Cat. ‘Not at our age anyway. It’s the young ‘uns who’ll be shit on.’

Yeah. I suppose our generation had it good.’

It was our generation that fucked everything up. Blair! The evil twat,’ hissed Cat, suddenly finding some venom. ‘Then the fucking lying bastard coalition and now the shambles we’ve got now.’

They fell silent and concentrated on their own thoughts while they drank.

 

There were whiney East London accents emanating from the TV in the living room and a smell of Sunday dinner. Tom opened the door to find Charlotte on the couch with their dozing father.

‘What are you doing here?’ Tom asked Charlotte as though her presence was suspicious.

‘I bring dad a Sunday lunch,’ Charlotte frowned. ‘And where were you last night?’

‘None of your bloody business,’ snapped Tom.

‘Don’t talk to your sister like that,’ snapped dad whose doze had been rudely interrupted.

Charlotte had a smirk on her face at her father’s intervention. The same smirk as when she snitched on Tom to the teachers at school about him smoking in the toilets. She seemed to have spies and allies everywhere. The same smirk as when he was dumped by a girlfriend after Charlotte had had a word to her about his standards of hygiene.

‘We’re not kids anymore,’ retorted Tom, feeling like one.

‘You’re still in my house,’ dad said with authority.

‘What’s her name?’ asked Charlotte, still smirking. 

Tom wanted to smack the smirk off her face. It is a feeling he had had since he could remember. She was a game player of the worst kind. Always stirring shit. He couldn’t help but think her closeness to their father had some ulterior motive behind it.

No dinner for me?’ Tom asked, seriously expecting a yes.

I can’t be meals on wheels for the whole of Colthorpe,’ announced Charlotte as if communicating to the whole street. ‘I thought your fancy woman would have fed you.’

I wasn’t with a fancy woman,’ hissed Tom.

It’s not what I’ve heard,’ stated Charlotte with that smirk again.

Jesus fucking Christ! The tom-toms are fucking broadband round here!’

Language!’ scowled dad.

You’re some need to talk about language,’ accused Tom, still in the doorway.

Well?’ Charlotte raised her eyebrows.

Well what?’

Is she into pain and Satan?’ chuckled Charlotte.

Yer cock ‘ill drop off,’ grumped dad.

Dad!’ exclaimed Charlotte, ‘don’t be so crude.’

Well, it’s where his brains are. He’ll go with any tramp,’ sneered dad. ‘What was wrong with Katrjn, the mother of his children.’

Since when have you seen marriage as sacred?’ snorted Tom.

That’s enough! Both of you,’ Charlotte demanded now things were getting out of hand.

I’m off to bed,’ snapped Tom, shutting the door with a bang.

 

9

 

 

Most of the industry had long gone. Collapsed when the Thatcher government raised interest rates and made cuts during the eighty-one recession and nothing of note had taken its place. Plastic entertainment venues, prefabricated industrial units that probably employed no more than a couple of workers. Out of town shopping. Car dealers. Basically, there was nothing but crap from a meaningful economic activity point of view. The tram running round the back of everything probably made everything look worse than they were but not by much, he thought.

Tom had cadged a lift into Meadowhall with Charlotte. The price he had to pay was to endure a couple of hours shopping. He’d noticed there were more than a few shop units boarded up. Not boarded up with cheap plywood but with large colourful printed panels but boarded up all the same. So the lousy economic situation had hit Meadowhall as well. Tom felt pleased about that. He hated these pleasure domes to mammon.

He spent an hour in Waterstone’s bookshop, while Charlotte spent the longest five minutes ever in French Connection. He did note that the shop had dropped the FCUK logo. It was either now too mainstream or didn’t want to narrow its customer base anymore or its plastic shock tactic had become passé. Tom was able to see Charlotte browsing and buying clothes she didn’t need in French Connection from the bookshop’s entrance. For someone with no money, she had scrapped together enough pennies to give the store a good profit. For all her belly aching about immigrants and scroungers, nothing seemed to be affecting her. Come to that, he had yet to come across any of these mythical ogres.

The tram trundled over the bridge at Park Square roundabout and up Commercial Street to Fitzallen Square, then Castle Square. At the Cathedral, Tom got off. He was suddenly hit by a sense of depression. There was a light drizzle. Everything looked grey and people were hunched and looking poor. Ever since he’d arrived this was a constant theme, people looked poor and fatalistic. None seemed to have any purpose to their stride. He crossed the road and walked up Fargate. There was nothing he could see that was amiss but there was something in the air. A passive acceptance that life was shit and it was going to get worse. Shit! Yes, that was it. The city had been dumped on, no, abandoned to its fate by Westminster politicians. 

Where was his youth? The rooting in Jeff’s Record Bargains on Cambridge Street was long gone, that much he accepted. He also accepted the demolition of The Albert, a piece of municipal vandalism if ever there was one. After thirty years or more, what could he expect? But it wasn’t that that irked him, it was something else, something psychological, and not physical. It was the corporate nature of everything. He could look for all the old little places and of course after such a long time you’d expect them to be gone but what replaced them? Bland, plastic logos of corporations, which were characterless in their pursuit of brand uniqueness and recognition. You can’t design character, it evolves by itself. 

Paul had warned him of what he would find but nothing could have prepared him for this. The Moor, the once majestic shopping street, was doing its best to look like Detroit. The condition of the road surface along Pinstone Street, which was like a ploughed field, should have prepared him. The Moor looked dreary, with cheap shops and charity shops. Large department store buildings boarded up. A fence hid a building plot where some large shop had been demolished, never to be built on again, or so it seemed. The squalor at the bottom of The Moor in front of the grotesque mountainous Moorfoot building, where the Department of Work and Pensions resided summed up the blight of Sheffield. A building fit for a faceless bureaucracy if ever there was one. Half baked plans never carried through because of a lack of money and the destruction of natural evolution brought about by small businesses. Corporate capitalism’s corporate partnership with national and municipal bureaucracy had basically created a dystopian nightmare.

Tom walked back up The Moor and along Pinstone Street. Turning right at the end, he strolled along Surry Street. He noted the old art shop was now a health food shop. Once he had nearly bought a Lowry sketch that was literally on the back of a Park Drive fag packet. Worse still, the alternative bookshop was a Starbucks. Nothing was sacred. Nothing seemed to exist of his past life here. Or if it did, it was decaying, rotting, like a corpse people take a wide birth to avoid. He noted the Lyceum looked renovated and The Crucible still looked in good order on Tudor square as he passed. It wasn’t long before he was climbing the steps of the Central Library. 

In the foyer, he scanned the poor man’s rather grand stairwell. He looked around for the lift but before spotting it, he decided the stairs offered some much needed exercise. By the time he got to the third floor where the art gallery was, he was breathing heavy and his heart was threatening to punch though his sternum. Fucking cigarettes, he muttered. He turned left and pushed open the heavy wooden door, which took him into the gallery’s shop come reception. For such a big city, Sheffield had a small gallery and collection but then probably most northern cities did. He lectured himself for repeatedly comparing his world here to the one he had left in Holland. He nodded to the woman busying her self behind the reception counter and pushed through the doors to the next gallery. Most of the paintings were second rate, even if the odd name was first rate. London has fucking everything he complained under his breath. 

The galleries formed a loop around the building so all he had to do was keep moving from gallery to gallery and he would automatically arrive at the café. In fact he only had to go through two galleries of mediocre art to arrive at the café, which was more like a small kiosk, which was clearly built as an afterthought. He looked round but there were only too old women sat in a corner having a natter over coffee latte and Danish pastries. Old, he thought, they were older than him but not by much. Have you looked in the mirror yourself lately Tom Newton, he sneered at himself. He looked at his watch and then the anaemic posters on the wall, before ordering a coffee. He looked round again while the friendly face pottered around with his order. It was cosy enough he thought, no pretention to make you feel uncomfortable. He thanked the lady behind the counter then sat in the corner opposite the two old ladies and waited as he sipped his coffee.

It was almost three-fifteen and Tom was thinking he’d been stood up when a tall thin gangly man entered the cubicle of a café, sweating and looking in distress. He looked at Tom and headed straight for him. The man was bald, with a large prominent nose with eyes that looked too far apart, giving him an alien look. His mouth was wide and curled up at the edges into a permanent smile. The man, whose forehead was sweating profusely, held out his hand.

Alan Ashcroft,’ he introduced himself apologetically, ‘Tom Newton I presume?’

Tom half rose from his seat and took the man’s hand. ‘Yes. Tom Newton. Pleased to meet you.’

The man sat down while straightening his jacket, which appeared to be sticking to him. ‘So sorry I kept you waiting,’ he said nervously, ‘but the damn…’

No need to apologize,’ Tom intervened ‘It was kind of you to spare the time to meet me,’ he paused while Ashcroft fidgeted into a comfortable position, ‘but an email would have sufficed’

No no no,’ insisted Ashcroft has he held up his palms with his fingers fanned out and waved them like a minstrel singer. ‘If you want nuanced information, it is always better face to face.’

Well, let me get you a coffee,’ Tom insisted, deciding he hadn’t inconvenienced Ashcroft on what is probably such a trivial issue.

Mint tea please,’ smiled Ashcroft.

Mint tea?’ Tom queried, wondering what ever had happened to whisky swilling journalists.

Ashcroft nodded, unaware that Tom’s query questioned his manhood.

Having got Ashcroft a mint tea and another coffee for himself, Tom instinctively looked round to see if there was anywhere he could have a smoke. Suddenly aware of himself, he accused himself of being addicted to the dreaded weed again.

I read your email and looked through my files. I’m not sure how much I can help you but I am intrigued.’

Tom took this as a prompt to expand on his email. He stirred his coffee while he gathered his thoughts and to give himself enough time to think of the best place to begin. ‘I’ve been living abroad for some time and have recently returned, and heard a good friend of mine has disappeared. Apparently he went ‘puff’ and disappeared into thin air. I went round see his wife, who doesn’t believe he disappeared on his own volition and is frustrated that the police and everyone else thought and still thinks he simply left her. A marriage break up. Initially I thought so myself. I mean, what did I know, I wasn’t here and his wife is the only one who won’t accept it. Then I learnt or heard it suggested he was mixed up in something dodgy and heard a name mentioned…’

The Shroud?’ intervened Ashcroft.

Tom nodded and raised his hand slightly to indicate he wanted to stay with his train of thought. ‘I also heard he, my friend that is, had a gun and later I found some evidence that he had one or at least a replica, which is just as good if you want to rob someone. Not many people are going to try and find out if it is real or not. So yes, we come back to our mutual friend The Shroud.’

Ashcroft sat back and stroked his chin and gave a cynical smile. ‘Yes, The Shroud.’

Tom raised his eyebrows in anticipation.

You are talking about Neil Greaney. The Shroud says more about Greaney’s narcissism and his own romantic image of himself than the man himself. It is actually said he coined his own nickname. How sad is that?’ Ashcroft took a sip of his mint tea, licked his lips and continued. ‘The Shroud is a common thug, nothing else and not even an intelligent one. He craps on his own doorstep and has seen the inside of a prison cell a few times, though not for as long and as often as he should. He’s a loan shark and a drug dealer, though he doesn’t actually deal him self, he’s not that stupid even if he is stupid in other ways. He runs a gang of dealers. Gang is being generous, more like a group of losers but they can be violent. He fences stolen goods and has a bit of a protection racket. He’s a nasty piece of work but not big time, not at all.’ Ashcroft hesitated and frowned as though he was struggling for words. ‘But disappearing someone? That sounds like murder. No?’ 

Tom sighed. ‘Not the type to kill someone or have someone disappear?’

I didn’t say that,’ Ashcroft said thoughtfully. ‘He’s an unthinking thug. I could imagine him or his crew killing someone by accident, simply because they are stupid, incompetent and violent thugs. If they killed someone, I could imagine them panicking and pointing the finger at each other. The reason Greaney has been inside a few times is because his minions pointed the finger at him when they had their collars felt.’ 

Tom raised an eyebrow. ‘What happened to them for snitching?’

The usual,’ stated Ashcroft as though it was obvious. ‘They’d end up with a visit to the local hospital, their homes ransacked and car set fire too.’

And what do the police do about this?’ Tom asked with an air of incredulity.

What can they do?’ shrugged Ashcroft, ‘Greaney would be inside.’ 

They both fell silent for a while. Neither seemed to have anything to add.

Could it have been a prank that had gone wrong?’ Tom broke the silence as though he had just had a brainwave? ‘You know, putting the frighteners on, threatening him so he disappears himself?’ Even by the end of his sentence, Tom’s voice was petering out as he realised how desperate he sounded for a way to pin Steve’s disappearance on Neil Greaney, aka narcissistic Shroud.

Ashcroft was already giving Tom a sceptical look before he had finished and was screwing his face up. ‘Naah! Not their style and anyway, we aren’t talking about Nobel prize winners here. Greaney wouldn’t be so subtle to threaten someone so they would disappear themselves, he would just beat the crap out of them. If they had killed someone by accident, news would be on the street, Greaney’s men would have panicked. We are talking about losers who can’t keep their mouths shut. One or two of his psychos wouldn’t panic but would probably see killing someone as giving them boasting rights.’

Tom’s eyebrows raised.

I jest,’ Ashcroft quickly added, as though not wanting to feed Tom’s expectations.

Tom settled back in his chair defeated, wondering why he had bothered, wondering why Ashcroft had even bothered to tell him something that could have been put in an email.

I suggest you try and find out what dealings your friend had with Greaney if you think Greaney is in on your friend’s disappearance. I’ll see if I can find out anything for you but I can’t promise. Paid work comes first and that is thin on the ground at the moment, I’m having to give that side of things a lot of attention.’

I appreciate it,’ Tom puffed, ‘and I appreciate you giving this some of your time.’

No need to thank me,’ replied Ashcroft, ‘you’ve given me food for thought. Before Tom could respond, Ashcroft was on his feet and holding out his hand. ‘I have to rush but keep in touch’

Tom was taken by surprise and took Ashcroft’s hand on reflex. Before he knew it Ashcroft was through the door of the café and gone. Tom was left to ponder if the food for thought comment was patronizing or whether he actually had given Ashcroft some food for thought.

 

10

 

 

Tom found him self having a pint in the Old Queen’s Head, a pub by the bus station that was reputed to be the oldest domestic building in Sheffield. At that moment he was feeling as old as the pub. He was weary and wondered in not being fully conscious of where he was. He could have just as easily wondered into The Penny Black across the way. His first foray into investigating Steve’s disappearance had ended in utter failure. When Ashcroft had suggested they meet in response to Tom’s email, Tom found himself in an almost euphoric state thinking he was onto something. However, Ashcroft had introduced a little reality, like giving lead weights to a drowning man. How the hell was he going to find out what dealings Steve had with Greaney and whether any possible dealings were relevant to Steve’s disappearance, if any? Tom shook his head and laughed at his usual arrogance of thinking he knew better than everyone else. 

He caught a glimpse of a man at another table with his head stuck inside the pages of The Daily Mail or The Daily ‘Hate’ Mail as Tom had learnt to call it. There was some headline claiming the Labour leadership was full of terrorist sympathisers. He had forgotten about the election, few people had mentioned it and his avoidance of the British sclerotic and hate inducing media meant it had passed him by almost altogether. 

He couldn’t help himself, he suddenly felt angry ‘Do you believe in that shit?’

The man, dressed in smart casuals was about Tom’s age. He gave Tom a double take, unsure if Tom was talking to him but there was no one else around. He looked at Tom who was frowning back, waiting for an answer. Tom suddenly felt a pang of guilt as the man clearly felt intimidated. Adjusting his spectacles the man looked at the front page with some trepidation.

‘It’s an opinion.’ stated the man trying to give some authority to his voice and failing.

Tom waved a hand indicating there was no need to reply. ‘No wonder this country is shit, people read shit and believe in shit.’ His voice tailed off as his will to engage in what he saw as an unthinking world evaporated. He hadn’t a vote anyway. He had lived abroad too long and anyway, he really didn’t know if he would stay or not. The one thing he did know was that the government was clueless.

Tom tried to shake the referendum and its possible dire consequences out of his head. To him there was no possibility ever of life getting better under the Tories. Hadn’t thirty-five years of neoliberalism proved that? Even though he had spent almost all that entire time abroad in Holland of Germany, what he had seen on his occasional visits back to Britain and what he had witnessed on this visit, proved his opinion that the country was shit, to be a fact. Of that he was in no doubt. The bus trip home was going to prove it, if anything needed proving. Decades ago as a teenager when he used to frequent the pubs and clubs of Sheffield, the bus took thirty-five minutes to get to Sheffield, now it takes an official fifty minutes and unofficially, often over a hour. Speaking of which, he couldn’t face the bus journey back without another pint so he heaved himself up and shuffled to the bar with some labour. 

‘Pint of Theakstons love.’ He assumed the barmaid was the landlord’s wife or maybe she was the landlord, imagining himself being rebuked for sexism by his daughters.

‘Have you voted yet?’ asked the smiling barmaid as though the government had put out an edict for all publicans to gently prick their customer’s consciences, should they think “fuck it”.

‘Do you really think there’s a point?’ he shrugged. He wanted to say he didn’t have the energy to ruin his day over a rigged system that was no better than voting in the USSR had been. He was also contradicting him self, he had always strongly urged his daughters to vote. Actually he insisted that they should but that was Holland and this was England. England as opposed to the UK, to Tom the Scots and Welsh had been endowed with more common sense than the English. He fantasized about Scottish independence as a way of waking the English up but he knew the whole system was rigged, which was the point of the first past the post system.

‘You can’t complain if you don’t vote,’ was the barmaid’s airy reply, as though the choice was about which flavour crisps he wanted.

‘I’ll take a packet of crisps too love,’ Tom added. ‘Salt and vinegar. That’ll be the best choice I’ll make today.’

‘Cynic.’ accused the barmaid with a grin before adding, ‘I’ve a suspicion you’re right.’

Money changed hands and Tom shuffled back to his seat nursing a new pint and with a packet of crisps in his jacket pocket. The bar was filling up. He looked at his watch. Quarter past five. He was going to be on a full bus unless he hung around for a while. He sipped his beer and decided hanging around might not be a bad thing. Taking the packet of crisps out of his pocket, he felt his mouth salivating.

He tried to focus on what Rick Hellesby told him. “Word on the street…” was the phrase he used and in that context he mentioned The Shroud, as though he had only heard of him in passing gossip. So Ashcroft was wrong, there was gossip that Steve had some sort of social or business relationship with Greaney. But Ashcroft couldn’t know everything and why would Steve attract his attention unless Steve raised attention? Ashcroft said he would have heard something if Greaney’s gang had murdered Steve, either directly or indirectly. Tom took a large swig of beer, washed it around his mouth before enjoying the sensation of if going down the hole. Both could be right Tom concluded, which takes him absolutely bloody nowhere. Anyway, it seemed rather stupid equating Steve’s disappearance as a possible murder, without any evidence. Even though he didn’t watch TV, he had clearly been watching too much of it. 

11

 

Tom entered the kitchen to see Charlotte putting a bacon butty down in front of their father. Charlotte looked up at him and rolled her eyes. Before she could follow with a comment, Tom had taken a hold of her and was waltzing her around the small kitchen singing Leonard Cohen’s Take This Waltz.

‘Calm bloody down!’ grumped their irritated father. ‘I’m trying to have me breakfast!’

‘You were drunk last night!’ scolded Charlotte, as she fought to release herself.

‘Pissed is the word,’ corrected Tom. ‘Anyway, how do you know?’

‘Dad told me,’ hissed Charlotte, as she broke free.

‘I was celebrating your beloved Tory Party shooting themselves in the foot.’

‘You haven’t even got a vote!’ sneered Charlotte as she filled three mugs with tea.

‘The youth of this grand island voted for an old socialist,’ smirked Tom. ‘It appears us old socialists are back in fashion. Maybe I’ll be able to catch myself a twenty year old student.’

‘As if!’ scoffed Charlotte. ‘They’ll live to regret their naivety.’

‘OK enough is enough!’ intervened their father.

‘Well, who did you vote for? asked Tom as he sat down and took a mug of tea from Charlotte without a thank you.

‘I didn’t. Fuck the lot of them!’

‘Dad! Language!’ admonished Charlotte, before adding, ‘More sense than your son.’

‘Do I sense I’m surrounded by reactionaries?’ Tom looked from dad to Charlotte and back.

‘They’re all the bloody same. More interested in themselves than who they’re supposed to represent,’ snarled Tom’s father. ‘And that goes for your bloody messiah too.’

‘You were drunk before anyone knew the result,’ accused Charlotte, refusing to let a chance of her moral superiority to be so easily passed by.

‘I’m a clairvoyant,’ smirked Tom sarcastically.

Silence fell before Tom and Charlotte’s attention was drawn to focus on the loud chomping of their father, open mouthed, loudly chomped at his bacon sandwich.

‘Dad!’ beseeched Charlotte. ‘Can’t you be more civilized while you eat?’

Dad stopped, looked at each of his offspring in turn with some surprise, which quickly turned to contempt. He stood up, taking the remains of his sandwich declared, ‘I’m going to check the garden.’ With that he pushed past Charlotte, opened the door and was marching, as indignant as he could, along the garden path to his small greenhouse at the bottom of the garden.

‘What’s got into him?’ Charlotte asked no one in particular.

Tom being the only one present, decided to answer. ‘Us.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Charlotte, genuinely confused.

‘He never did like us, which is why he never had the time of day for us. We were the necessary accessories of his day, like having a wife to cook and clean up after him.’

‘Now you’re being too cynical Tom,’ reproached Charlotte. 

‘It’s true.’ asserted Tom. ‘He’s grateful to you because he needs you, not because he cares about you. As for me, he’d rather I wasn’t here but he can’t be seen to be telling his own son he can’t use the spare bedroom for a week or two.’

‘If you really think like that, why are you here?’ asked Charlotte, sitting down at the table opposite Tom with her mug of tea.

‘Because the old bastard owes me. Owes you too.’ Tom hissed.

‘I’m not listening,’ declared Charlotte.

‘I don’t blame you, you’ll have a prominent place in his will.’

‘What the hell are you trying to say Tom? That I’m here most days for his money?’

‘You said it,’ smirked Tom.

‘Why the hell are you here Tom if you have such a low opinion of us? Why?’

‘I wish I could answer that,’ despaired Tom. ‘I truly wish I could.’

‘You’ve always thought yourself superior. A know all. But who has ended up approaching sixty with nothing?’ Charlotte hissed.

‘I have my girls,’ shrugged Tom. ‘They love me.’

‘You think.’

‘I know.’ Tom searched his memory for evidence of the girls love for him. They are grown up and independent now. They are out in the world finding their own way. How much does he really inhabit their thoughts? He had no right to expect anything from them, they never asked to be born but he hoped, along with Katrijn, he had brought up two offspring that will make the world at least a little bit of a better place. He hoped they would mourn him at least a little when he dies. Tom gave a shudder. He hated losing his sense of immortality. He hated the mawkish sentimentality he accused other people of possessing to soften the idea of death and of which at times, he could possess himself. Taking out a pack of cigarettes, he saw two left. 

‘Oh Tom. Why don’t you stop before you really start again?’ preached Charlotte.

‘Too late I think.’ Tom lit up and drew hard on the cancer stick, drawing in its toxins and enjoying the satisfaction as he felt his body relax. He was angry and he didn’t know why. He had gone through his whole life with a simmering anger but couldn’t pin point any event that provoked it. At school he resented being there, no matter how interested he was in a subject, the fact the system said he had to be there, made him angry. Of course, he didn’t think in terms of the system then. It, whatever “it” was, was just some force of nature, something untouchable pressure that couldn’t be resisted. It was more than his mother giving him no option about attending school. It was as though she couldn’t resist the force either. Now he is more aware after a lifetime and what made him angry, it was everyone’s passive acceptance of this is how society is and it’s pointless fighting it. Too many people seem to think society is intrinsic to nature, rather than a human construct that can be changed. Maybe most people think life is too short to engage in such a futile task as creating a better society but for him, Tom Newton, it is too long, even though he was in no hurry to make it to the other side. He thought of Steve. He’s done it. He’s arrived. He’s on the other side. Whether it is oblivion or the shear mawkish boredom of a choir of angels or even twenty-four sex starved virgins, he’s there. No more earthly shit.

‘Come back!’ Charlotte interrupted.

Tom snapped out of his trance. ‘By the way, do you know what Steve was into before he disappeared?’

‘How would I know?’ shrugged Charlotte. ‘All I know is the usual gossip.’

‘But you enjoy gossip so maybe you remember more than most do?’

‘You can be so insulting,’ snapped Charlotte giving Tom a withering look. 

‘In its way it’s a compliment,’ Tom lied but genuinely believing Charlotte might have retained more gossip than most would.

Charlotte gave out a deep breath as though she was being put upon. ‘I just know what was being said and it could have all been made up after his disappearance as a reason for him…well, disappearing. You know, people look for rational reasons when there probably aren’t any. Who knows, maybe detached from reality.’

‘He was psychotic you mean?’

‘Bonkers is a better word,’ sneered Charlotte. 

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Say what?’

‘Say he was bonkers.’

‘Because he disappeared himself and if there was any other reason a crime would probably be involved and…!’ Charlotte rolled her eyes, as though she had just stated the bloody obvious.

‘Yes, yea, yes, the police would be involved. If he were bonkers, people would question his disappearance. You know, wonder if something had happened to him, an accident or something?’

‘How would I know why it always rains in Scotland?’

Tom sighed and sat back in his chair, taking his last cigarette out of the packet. Why can’t she just answer a simple fucking question, he asked himself. He lit the cigarette and pulled hard on it before blowing the smoke up towards the ceiling. Charlotte wafted the smoke away but it was more a demonstration of disapproval than being irritated by it.

‘Look,’ Charlotte gave in, ‘the talk was he was in trouble. Debts if I remember rightly but there was talk of another woman who dumped him. There was a whole list of stories thrown up by people who had nothing better to do that gossip. Some where so outlandish they were laughable.’

‘Like?’

‘He was part of a gang of robbers who robbed a security van and he stole all the money from the gang. The sort of fantasy stuff you get in crap films. God knows what else he was supposed to have got up to, there were so many loony tune stories going round. It was laughable. It just bloody showed what boring lives people have round here.’

‘You said it,’ smirked Tom.

‘Don’t give your bloody superiority act again, it’s an affliction, not a virtue.’ spat Charlotte. She collected the cups with an air of irritation and got up and took them to the sink. ‘There was a story that he was in hock to a loan shark in Sheffield that sounded plausible. That was the sort of down to earth depressive nonsense you get round here.’

‘You mean, even the underworld is boring?’

‘Give it a rest Tom!’ Charlotte stopped rinsing the cups and turned to face Tom’s back. ‘Why the hell did you comeback if you can only take pot shots at the place?’

Tom turned as much as his chair would allow him. ‘Because I’m a fucking masochist like everyone else in this place.’ Tom turned back to face the table, taking the last few drags of his cigarette before stubbing it out on his father’s plate Charlotte had left behind.

‘Another cuppa?’ asked Charlotte as a way of a peace offering.

‘Why not,’ drawled Tom. ‘I’ve heard that loan story before.’

‘It doesn’t mean anything. Just because it’s more plausible than the other nonsense that was going round,’ stated Charlotte as she filled the kettle.

‘I have to say you have been as helpful as a chocolate teapot.’

‘Helpful?’ frowned Charlotte. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’

‘Nothing,’ said Tom, looking through the open door to the back garden. ‘Watch out, Darth Vader is coming back.’

‘What are you two conspiring between you?’ their father asked as he came through the door. ‘By the look on your faces you’ve been at each other’s throats again.’ 

‘Oh just our Tom, blaming everyone for not knowing why Steve Bower disappeared, as if he really cares.’ Charlotte stressed as she rolled her eyes.

‘I’ve blamed no one for anything!’ hissed Tom through gritted teeth. ‘I was just trying to get information from Colthorpe’s gossip disseminator.’

‘Yer’d be better off talking to what’s her name…yer know…’ frowned their father as he tried to think.

Tom and Charlotte gave him a look of anticipation.

‘Yer know.’ he puzzled looking at Tom. ‘The floosie you were screwing the other night.’

‘Why?’ asked Charlotte open mouthed. ‘Have I missed some gossip?’

Tom put his hands over his face in despair.

‘No need to be like that, everyone but me has been on a visit Tom’

‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ whispered Tom as his hands slid down his face, pulling it out of shape.

‘Well, tell us dad, ‘ urged a smirking Charlotte. ‘Have I missed something?’

‘Aren’t you supposed to be making a cup of tea?’ Tom directed his frustration at Charlotte, who didn’t notice Tom’s frustration at the turn of the conversation.

‘I’m going to,’ she replied, ‘but first I want to hear what dad has to say.’

Tom’s father sat down, joining his offspring at the table. ‘I was chatting to Jack, across the garden the other day about Steve Bower,’ looking at Tom, ‘because you’d been on about him.’ Father looked at his two offspring in turn as if he was going to explain the world was going to end that day. ‘He reckons him and …er...’

‘Sarah McAvoy,’ yawned Tom.

‘Yeah, her,’ agreed Tom’s father. ‘Her and Steve Bower were into heavy porn. Used to film it too and put it on the inter-thingy.’

‘Internet,’ corrected Tom.

‘He reckons you can still find it,’ Tom’s father looked too much like he was enjoying himself.

Charlotte had a wide grin showing her expensive dental care, said as a way of provoking Tom, ‘Well, it looks like an afternoon checking the porn sites out.’

Tom frowned. ‘Oh please! Who wants to see people in the fifties pumping meat?’

‘Why not?’ exclaimed Tom’s father, ‘People in their fifties are like teenagers to me and anyway, I think they were in their thirties when they were supposed to be entertaining the world’s perverts.’ 

‘Then it wasn’t on the internet but under the counter at the newsagents if it was anywhere.’ sighed Tom. ‘Have you got any ciggies anyway dad?’

‘No, I’m relying on you.’ 

‘Jesus!’ puffed Tom, as he levered his arms against the table and pushed himself up. 

‘Where are you going?’ quizzed Charlotte. ‘I thought you wanted a cup of tea.’

‘I need a fag more than a tea, I’ll get a drink at the caf’ on the high street if I’m that desperate. With that he left the kitchen without looking back. He heard his father ask Charlotte what was wrong with him and felt him nodding at his back as he pulled the kitchen door closed behind him. He put his jacket on and within a minute he was out of the house and heading for newsagents.

12

 

Tom found him self striding down to the high street burning up with anger but couldn’t articulate why. Was it the suggestion Steve and Sarah was making porn? Did the denigration of Sarah anger him? Why should he care, he wasn’t aware of any great passion he had for her. They just happened to have been ships that went bump in the night. They were two old friends, both lonely, who wanted to be less lonely for a night. Why all the anger? That it all might be true? He gave up and tried to empty his mind by concentrating on walking. It struck him that thinking about the physical act of walking made walking difficult. Just like life he thought. The more you think about life, the harder it is to live. He turned into the high street and without much of a do, he was in and out of the minimarket with a packet of Gauloises. Opening the packet of ciggies, he looked at his watch. If Sarah were working the same shift, she’d still be at home. He lit a cigarette, pulled deep on its toxins and exhaled with a sense of satisfaction. Hesitating and looking both ways, he eventually decided to head off in the direction of Sarah’s house.

By the time he arrived at number thirteen Central Terrace he was on his second cigarette. He stood in front of the door, quickly taking the last few drags on his cigarette before dropping the butt and grinding it into one of the concrete slabs that made up the path. Grass, several inches high was growing in the cracks between the slabs. He noticed the grass wasn’t a vibrant green but a dirty sap colour. It goes with the decoration, he snorted to himself. His arm had barely dropped to his side after knocking on the door when Sarah opened it. She already had her supermarket smock on and let out a frustrated sigh at the sight of Tom. 

‘Don’t expect a welcoming committee Tom,’ she looked at her watch, ‘I’ve got to go to work soon.’

‘How soon?’ Tom asked with raised eyebrows and a smile of humility.

‘Time for a quick cuppa and then I’m going to kick you out without ceremony,’ puffed Sarah, as she turned and disappeared down the hallway, leaving Tom to shut the door behind him.

‘So. What can I do for you?’ Sarah asked in a businesslike manner as she filled the kettle. ‘Why does seeing you this early give me an uneasy feeling?’

‘Mind if I sit down?’ asked Tom nodding towards the kitchen table.

‘Why are you acting like the police?’ frowned Sarah.

‘Am I?’

‘Yes’

‘Had much of a run in with them?’

‘Now and again,’ Sarah looked uncomfortable, ‘but not about me.’

‘Helping with enquiries?’ smirked Tom.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake Tom, what is it?’ Sarah raised her eyebrows, anticipating the answer but before Tom could answer, she went on. ‘I know you looked in my box of stuff. You did your best to put everything back as it was but you wasn’t careful enough.’ She paused. ‘That was a fucking shitty thing to do Tom. I felt raped!’

Tom’s face bleached in an instant as his brain ceased to function. He felt small and inadequate. ‘Jesus,’ he muttered on a heavy breath. ‘I’m sorry Sarah. I was making the bed when…when my foot kicked something under the bed.’

‘So you decided to take a look?’ Sarah plonked a mug of tea down on the table in front of Tom. “I felt molested. I might as well have been stood on the high street naked, exposing to the world my sagging tits and stretch marks!’ She got her own mug of tea from the counter and sat down opposite Tom, who was looking down at the floor. ‘I felt utter humiliation!’

‘I’m sorry,’ uttered Tom, doing his best to look Sarah in the face but failing. 

‘Are you now?’ snapped Sarah. ‘Not half as sorry as I am.’

‘Look,’ hesitated Tom. ‘I’ll leave if you want.’

‘No, I don’t want you to leave, that would be too easy.’

Tom felt Sarah’s stare burning into his head as he continued to look at the floor during the silence. He’d never felt so humiliated since Miss Morrison, his English teacher at High School discovered him playing with himself in English class. Explaining Sue Rawling, the girl sat next to him, had dared him would not have lessened the humiliation. He had been forced to sit next to Sue because he was disruptive sat next to Steve. Sue in that moment of his need, had clearly decided to play the innocent victim to his pervert.

‘Well?’ asked Sarah in the voice of a school ma’am, as she broke the silence.

‘Oh dear, I am desperately sorry Sarah. I felt such a shit at the time.’ Tom rubbed his face with the palms of his hands. He sighed deeply, as if to stress his genuine discomfort. ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ he asked as he reached into his pocket and offered it open to Sarah.

‘I thought you’d never offer,’ said Sarah through pursed lips. ‘I’m completely out.’

Tom gave a weak smile as he offered Sarah a light and then lit his own cigarette. They both inhaled deeply as Sarah fetched a saucer for an ashtray before sitting down at the table again. In unison, they both took a swig of tea and another draw on their cigarettes.

‘I know what this visit is about,’ said Sarah as a matter of fact. Tom with a slight tilt of the head looked at her. ‘It’s about me and Steve. Isn’t it?’

Tom frowned. ‘I’m not sure. It might be. I’m mixed up. It might be more about me.’ He paused as he breathed in deeply through his nose. ‘I thought I knew when I was coming here but now…’

‘After you’ve been found out….?’ reproached Sarah.

‘I suppose.’ answered Tom.

‘Look,’ said Sarah, grinding the stub of her cigarette into the saucer. ‘I don’t mind telling you about me and Steve but it will have to wait, I need to go to work.’

Tom gave a weak nod and in turn ground his stub into the saucer and took another swig of tea. Pushing himself to his feet, he turned to Sarah. ‘I’ll see myself out.’

Sarah nodded back, hesitated a little as if she was reluctant to say what she was going to say but said it anyway. ‘I finish at seven this evening. I could meet you in The Colliers. You can buy me a drink and maybe we could chat.’ 

‘Maybe,’ reiterated Sarah. ‘This isn’t easy Tom, even though it is all water under the bridge.’

Tom acknowledged Sarah with a nod, before turning to leave.

‘It’s only because I like you Tom Newton,’ Sarah shouted behind him, her voice cracking. ‘You fucking bastard!’

 

Head down and at astride, Tom was soon marching up the high street. He refused to lift his head should people read his self disgust and know what an arse he’d been with Sarah. He tried to reject any sense of shame, justifying his rooting through her sad life by finding evidence but evidence of what? Rationalization. Yes he was aware he was only fooling himself. He felt the humiliation too, no matter how much he tried to suppress it, it was there and he knew it was going to be there a long time. The embarrassment! Would he be able to look Sarah in the eye again? His guts were twisted and knotted, he just wanted a dark corner, a hole to disappear into. 

Halfway up the high street he had to compromise and lift his head. A coffee and a smoke were necessary. For all the café and eateries on the high street, and they must have made up half of the occupied shop units, only the monkey café appeared to be open. The monkey café was where the local monkeys gathered. These were a gang of obese mobility scooter riding wasters. “Never worked in their lives!” was the local cliché and probably true. They rode mobility scooters not because they needed to but because they were too lazy to walk. They then became so grossly overweight they required the mobility scooters to get around. This was the local explanation for the group of middle aged fatties who hung round the monkey café like a chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Tom, who would admonish himself for being judgmental, had to admit he was in full agreement with the popular perception.

Despite this, Tom’s need for a coffee with his cigarette was overwhelming and so he risked himself being associated with the gang of idlers and sat at a table outside the café on the periphery of the group. On the continent it would be called the terrace but this was Colthorpe so it was simply outside. The monkey café was one of a small row of low cheap sixties shop units set back from the road a little, between traditional Edwardian terrace of shops. Tom tried to remember what originally had stood on the plot before these dilapidated sixties units but there was nothing. He was too young when this sixties architectural vandalism too place.

Tha’ll have te ge in an get thee own tee,’ stated a croaky voice behind him.

Tom looked round but only saw too great mountains of fat spilling over the armrests of too oversized gleaming mobility scooters. Luckily the fat was contained in gaudy polyester blouses and leggings. This kept the fat in a modicum of human form. 

Don’t I noh thee?’ asked the croaky voice.

It was then Tom saw an emaciated geriatric on an emaciated scooter between the two fat mountains and their glorious machines. The geriatric’s face looked like it had been crushed in a vice it was so long and thin, with a concertina of mainly vertical lines. Its eyes pressed together and sunk inwards due to lack of space to go anywhere else. Having given the figure the once over, Tom decided he was a male, despite the long hair and bright oversized dress, which was really a Hawaiian shirt. It was the lack of a tight perm that was a giveaway. Given that the two female fat mountains had masculine faces, masculinity had to be assessed by other criteria.

I wouldn’t know,’ replied Tom as he pushed himself up using the arms of the cheap plastic garden chair that was the outdoor furniture. Before there could be any reply, Tom was in the café ordering a coffee. The woman serving looked remarkably human when you compared her to her customers. Her hair was tied up making an already masculine face look more masculine. Her mouth was hard, her nose, snub and her eyes were dulled, probably from a thwarted, miserable life. That was just projection but Tom knew the area enough to know he was probably right. The woman smiled at him as a way of asking for his order. To Tom’s surprise, the woman’s smile softened her face and radiated genuine warmth.

Coffee please,’ replied Tom with a nod that communicated hello.

Milk? Sugar is on the table.’

The woman did her pottering while Tom looked round. The place was Spartan, the table and chairs, cheap. Probably Ikea and not at all meant for commercial use. However, the café, despite how it looked from the outside, was remarkably clean and looked after. A couple of holiday posters of Greece decorated the white wood paneled walls. Clearly an after thought to add a little colour.

‘There you are love,’ the woman said in an inappropriate cheery voice as she put a mug of coffee on the glass top of a display cabinet exhibiting various unhealthy pastries. 

‘Thanks,’ replied Tom. He no longer had the ability to share a term of endearment with a stranger. He took his coffee outside and longed for what he considered a real coffee. A small strong hit. Not an expresso, just a normal coffee. He sat down at the table outside and pulled an ashtray towards him before tipping some sugar in his coffee from a glass sugar dispenser. Stirring his coffee his heart sank, it was going to be just coffee flavoured water. Lighting a cigarette he pulled hard on it before trying a mouthful of coffee. The heat made him baulk so he just took a small sip. Yes, coffee flavoured water. Still, it’s wet and warm he thought. Any thought was better than the thought of Sarah’s admonishment of him. Even his complete admission of guilt didn’t help him cope with what he’d done.

‘A tell thee. I noh thee!’ came the croaky voice.

Tom glanced around and gave a weak smile. ‘It’s possible. I’m from round here for my sins.’

‘It int tha’ bad,’ stated a squeaky voice which appeared to emanate from one of the mountains of fat.

‘Yeah. The’s wurse places,’ agreed the other fat mountain.

‘I’ll defer to your better knowledge,’ smiled Tom, wondering whether he should finish his cigarette and leave his coffee and just go.

‘Tha George Newton’s lad?’ croaked the Hawaiian shirt.

‘Is hi?’ squeaked one of the fat mountains.

‘Oo aye!’ squeaked the other.

‘My father is called Jack,’ intervened Tom, as a way of explaining there was a case of misidentification.

‘I noh,’ replied the shirt. ‘Tha fa-the was allas singin George Formby songs darn pit.’

Tom twisted his head in the direction of the shirt and frowned. ‘George Formby?’

‘Aaye. George Formby,’ stated the shirt. ‘I should noh, thee fa-the trained me darn pit. Ask ‘im. Am Ray Cooper.’

‘I believe you,’ stressed Tom, not being specific as to which part of the shirt’s statement he believed. It was more a case of declaring he was not so paranoid that he would think someone would lie over something so trivial.

‘Hi use’ te be a bit o’ a dancer, George,’ squeaked a lump of fat.

‘A fancied ‘im rotten at one time,’ confessed the other.

‘Do you mind if we leave my father out of this?’ asked Tom, wanting to rise out of his private depression with the aid of a couple of quiet cigarettes.

‘Ow can we leave ye fa-the outta a conversation about yer fa-the?’ pitched a squawk from one of the fat mountains.

‘Change the subject,’ explained Tom, lighting up a second cigarette with a frustrated draw that left him in a fit of coughing.

‘Hi must tek after ‘is mother,’ squeaked the other lump of lard, conferring with her confederates. ‘George wa ne’er anti-social.’

‘When I said change the subject, I didn’t mean change it to my mother!’ puffed Tom, having recovered from his coughing bout.

‘Wi ar’nt prying son,’ stated the Hawaiian shirt. ‘We’r interested. That fa-the was a good ‘un.’

‘Is, not was,’ corrected Tom. ‘He isn’t dead yet.’ He paused and then added in his frustration. ‘If he wasn’t out calovanting with the likes of you, he might have been a good ‘un.’ he spat. ‘Father, that is,’ immediately regretting he had aired such private feelings. ‘Look, if you want a subject to discuss, why don’t you tell me what you know about Steve Bower’s disappearance?’ said Tom, hoping to divert the conversation away from his family and his negative feelings towards them.

‘It wont suicide,’ stated the Hawaiin shirt with the authority of someone who knows they are right.

Suicide? This was the first time Tom had heard the possibility of Steve being dead actually mentioned.

The two fat mountains both looked in a constant state of surprise due to their plucked eyebrows and badly administered makeup, looked more surprised than ever.

‘’ow yer mean?’ queried one.

‘Come on Violet, tha must noh,’ commented the other.

‘Noh wat?’ 

Not wanting to be upstaged, the shirt blurted, ‘He wa’ inta porn an’ crossed a mister big.’

Tom, who a second before had thought he had accidently struck gold, suddenly deflated at the mention of a mister big. It was going to be another Colthorpe conspiracy theory.

‘Gi o’er,’ dismissed fat Violet. ‘The porn was back in the nineties.’

‘She’s right,’ concluded the other scooter of lard and went on to state with some authority, ‘The porn industri died becoz of all the ‘ome made stuff. E wa on Theroux’s Weird Weekends yonks agu.’

‘This wa’ ‘ome made stuff,’ argued the shirt.

‘Then ‘ow can there be a mister big?’ questioned the unnamed lump of lard.

‘Yeh ‘ow?’ echoed Violet.

‘Because that’s ‘ow hi met mister big!’ argued the shirt, refusing to give way.

‘Tha talkin crap man,’ mocked the fat lump.

Gis a name to this mister big,’ challenged Violet.

Tom got up and started to walk away. The argument between the monkeys had quickly depressed him in an entirely different form to the depression he wanted to get out of. 

Lemme think!’ insisted the shirt.

Whers hi goin’?’ asked Violet to no one in particular.

Anti-social in hi?’ answered the lump of lard.

Dun’t tek after his fa-the.’

That Greeny bloke from Sheffield!’ blurted the shirt as though his head had expanded and just burst.

Gi o’er man. Hi wa in ‘is nappies when they were doin’ porn.’

Who wa doin’ porn?’ asked a curious Violet.

Steve Bower an’ that ‘ore. Yer noh, what’s ‘er name. Up road from us.’

Tom stopped and listened but didn’t look round. He could sense the smug satisfaction on the lump of lard’s face.

Aaye but Greeny took o’er.’ came back the shirt.

Will tha shut up abart Greeny, hi’s nowt to do wi it!’

Hi wa!’

Hi wont!’

 

The Colliers was a place abandoned. Tom was the only customer and the young plump barmaid, the only other ghost in the place. She looked tired and as pasty as ever, as she potted around behind the bar, not doing anything in particular. She should never have such a hard face at such a young age, Tom thought. He couldn’t make up his mind if the harshness of her features were down to how she presented herself or a hard life, even with her being in her mid twenties or could simply be genetics. Her hair had been tied back with a few rat’s tails falling loose, which gave her a disheveled look. Her whole body wobbled under her regulation black Colliers t-shirt and skirt as she moved. She was somewhere between fat and nicely plump. Her curves hadn’t yet been lost to a mountain of lard but you could bet by the time she was thirty her waist would be a distant memory. She suddenly appeared nude as she waddled around the taproom wiping tables and placing beer mats in precise positions on each table.

‘Quiet this evening,’ commented Tom as he tried to stop himself debating if the barmaid shaved her pubic hair of not. He had already concluded she had cellulite because of the size of her thighs and buttocks.

‘People have homes to go to once they have turned this place into a tip.’ she complained.

‘Busy afternoon?’

‘Hmmm. Moderate,’ she concluded with a puff of air. ‘Just the usual anti-social monkeys.’ 

Tom took a mouthful of beer and was going to leave it at that, suddenly deciding he couldn’t be bothered with small talk.

You don’t seem to have a home to go to,’ stated the barmaid, half in observation and half sounding like a complaint.

I haven’t.’ replied Tom with a weak smile. 

The barmaid had now turned to Tom with her hands on her hips, which made her seem broader and her breasts bigger than they were. Or so he assumed.

Are you married?’ inquired Tom.

Don’t tell me you want a date,’ inquired the barmaid with a straight face.

I’m past that,’ admitted Tom, as if it needed admitting at all.

Well, I’m not married, I’m not that stupid,’ she stated. ‘However, I am stupid enough to live with someone. Though it would be right to say he lives with me.’ She shook her head slowly and pursed her lips. ‘I must have been desperate for sex at the time.’

Unemployed?’

Oh no,’ the barmaid appeared to take a more strident pose by shifting her feet slightly. ‘He’s a security technician or officer or something, whatever they call them nowadays. Once they used to call them night watchmen.’ Tom found it curious that someone of her age would refer to a word that was probably used to describe a security job before she was born. ‘He watches a bank of close circuit televisions all night,’ she paused as if giving her self enough time to grapple with an exasperating thought. ‘Considering that most of the time he’s at home he watches the sports channel, that means he spends most of his waking hours watching a fucking screen!’

A man has to do something,’ Tom shrugged.

You know. The man spends his life on his arse and eats like a horse and he’s still as thin as a rake. I work my arse off and look at me!’ she emphasized by holding out her arms like an opera singer reaching for the highest note.

He must use his energy somehow,’ commented Tom, not sure how to respond.

Well, he doesn’t use it on me nowadays.’ The barmaid suddenly saw the funny side of something. ‘When we actually do it,’ she paused, ‘in the missionary position he gets wedged between my tits.’

Tom couldn’t help himself from chuckling, despite not wanting to but his prurient mind compelled it. ‘Is that the only problem?’

Oh no,’ said the barmaid with some new found energy, as though she was just starting on a roll. ‘From behind, he gets wedged between my cheeks.’ With that she gave Tom a cheeky wink and started to walk back towards the bar, leaving a parting shot. ‘He struggles to find the right hole at times.’

This left Tom with a mind like a cesspit as he imagined getting down and dirty with the young barmaid. He concluded her hard look was genetics, accentuated by her hair severely tied back. With a little grooming she could soften her looks and be quite attractive. Tom stopped him self. He suddenly became aware he was excusing himself for imagining sex with the young barmaid, who was around the same age as his daughters.

‘I’ll take another,’ Tom shouted over to the barmaid who was now behind the bar.

‘You can come and fetch it yourself,’ puffed the barmaid, now back in business mode.

Tom slowly pushed himself to his feet, taking the money from his pocket and counting out the correct change as he walked towards the bar. The beer was put in front of him and he paid.

‘Still with the girlfriend?’ asked the barmaid.

‘By the way, what’s your name?’ asked Tom, ignoring the barmaid’s question.

‘Angela.’ Her face suddenly broke into a smirk and she nodded towards the door. ‘Speak of the devil…’

Tom looked round to see Sarah having just entered the pub. His face was one of surprise, having already accepted she wouldn’t turn up.

‘You’d better add a double gin and tonic to my order,’ raising his eyebrows to the barmaid, He then turned and nodded Sarah towards the table where he’d been sitting. 

‘Looks a grim night for you,’ whispered the barmaid, referring to Sarah’s darkened face, as she handed Tom the gin and tonic.

Tom rolled his eyes in agreement and then turned and strolled over to Sarah as if nothing was amiss.

‘I didn’t think you were coming,’ commented Tom.

Sarah ignored him, took the gin and tonic and took a gulp as though it was life saving medicine. ‘You know don’t you?’

‘Know what?’ asked Tom, sure he did know but wasn’t sure which particular knowledge Sarah was referring to. 

‘About me, Steve and the porn,’ sighed Sarah.

Tom took a long drink, which allowed him time to think. He had expected a heated lecture about rooting in other people’s private affairs. ‘It’s none of my business,’ he eventually stated.

‘Like my private things weren’t any of your business?’ puffed Sarah.

‘Look….’ Tom floundered, ‘I deeply regret wh….’

‘Oh shut up Tom, I’m not after contrition. It doesn’t really matter. Every bloody twat with a nose in this town has poked it into my private affairs,’ Sarah stated resentfully.

Tom realising he’d been given a “get out of jail free” card, suggested, ‘If you want to get it off your chest, I might as well get it from the horse’s mouth.’

‘It was long ago, it had nothing to do with Steve disappearing,’ Sarah felt the need to explain.

‘I get that. As much as I like your butt, I doubt the world are queuing up to pay to see it at our age.’ He was careful to insert “our” so Sarah wouldn’t see it as a personal slight.

‘No jokes Tom,’ Sarah closed her eyes as if her patience was coming to an end.

‘OK,’ agreed a contrite Tom. ‘Why don’t you tell me everything you want to tell me and I’ll just shut up.’

Sarah opened her mouth as to begin but hesitated. ‘I’ve been a fool Tom. I ruined my life before it had really began.’ Tom was about to make a comment, when Sarah’s look stopped him. ‘I don’t mean the porn, that was just a little episode. The whole damn lot.’ For a moment Tom thought Sarah was going to cry as her eyes watered but she carried on. ‘I need to go back to the strike. I was out working, doing extra hours at the co-op if they had any. Everyone wanted extra hours and when I wasn’t at the co-op, I was at home looking after Janice. While I was doing that, John was supposed to be out picketing or doing something else for the strike. In reality, he was bloody strike breaking other blokes’ wives. He was good at giving charity out to distressed females. Anyway, his antics became common knowledge and I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know anything anymore so to preserve a modicum of self respect, I kicked him out. It was then I found out he’d been dipping into our savings. No doubt playing the big boy and impressing the ladies. Oh I don’t know but he’d been pilfering when we’d agreed we do our best to get by without touching our savings. Needless to say once he left he never contributed to Janice’s needs. It was a bloody hell of a time Tom, I really don’t know how I made ends meet. After the strike John got his redundancy money but I saw none of it. Not that it would have been much, with being so young he hadn’t worked at the pit that long. That was true of Steve too. While the old ‘uns got manna from heaven, the young ‘uns got pennies with no job to earn from.’ Sarah looked at Tom to make sure he was following.

I know, I know,’ sighed Tom. ‘It was a lottery win for some and a slap in the face for others.’

‘The constant struggle to make ends meet,’ continued Sarah, ‘was getting me down. Life was a drudge and no future to look forward to or at least, none I could see. I even fantasized about killing myself but of course, with Janice to look after, I was never serious. However, it often felt like a way out and it helped knowing I could make an exit if I really wanted to.’

Tom began to struggle with the whole idea of how bad things were. He was already gone and only made a few ‘royal visits’ during the year of the strike and then he was playing the Good Samaritan. He remembered how his father resented him for it. Now he can see why. The big man was in need of charity and Tom was happy to rub the big man’s face in it. He was getting his own back but for what. Tom didn’t know then and still wasn’t sure. His father ignoring them as they grew up? His father’s selfishness at doing what he wanted to do regardless of what the rest of the family wanted? Or maybe it was precisely because these were the traits he had inherited from his father and he had to constantly fight against them throughout the childhood of the girls.

Realising his mind was wandering Tom returned to listening to Sarah. ‘It was about a year after the strike ended. Suddenly I kept bumping into Steve. I now realise it was no accident,’ smiled Sarah. ‘We chatted and eventually started having an affair. Let’s be honest, Steve was pretty near the front of the queue when looks and physique were handed out and he made you feel important. I knew Silvia was playing away so I didn’t feel bad about it. It was only a week or two after we started our affair that Steve put the proposition to me about making a porn movie. He asked me straight out, matter of fact and said there would be a couple of hundred pound for a video of thirty minutes. I felt at the time I should be shocked and insulted but I wasn’t, I felt quite excited by the idea.’ Sarah looked at Tom. ‘I can’t explain why. Maybe it was because life had been a drudge and a struggle for so long and I was depressed. It felt like a shot of heroin or something, whatever that feels like, some drug that sent me skyrocketing. Steve explained the chances of the video coming into the hands of someone we knew were small but he didn’t have to. I simply didn’t care. He then explained the videos were for a specialised audience, sado-masochism but a lot of it would be fake, it just had to appear real. Again he didn’t have to explain anything, hearing the nature video sent me into orbit again. Why?’ Sarah shook her head slowly. ‘I really can’t explain my reaction, other than it offered a momentary escape from the drudge. Not forgetting the money. It was more than a week’s wage for one video. Even when he told me there would be a third person shooting the video, which hadn’t entered my head at the time, it didn’t matter. It changed nothing. In fact the idea of someone watching and filming us only added to the excitement.’

‘Who was the other man making the video?’ intervened Tom, wondering about Steve’s dodgy connections, if there were any.

Sarah took and intake of air and held it while she rummaged through her memory. ‘No, I can’t remember now. He was a lot older than us, bit of a dirty old man type with a pot-belly and two days of growth. But he was polite enough and kept his distance. Anyway, he worked for someone else, whose name I also can’t remember but if I heard it mentioned I would.’ 

Tom shuffled in his chair. He had a question he was clearly uncomfortable with. ‘But…but…’

‘Go on. Spit it out.’ urged Sarah.

‘Apologies again for rooting through your stuff,’ declared an embarrassed Tom, ‘But in the photos there were two men.’

It was Sarah’s turn to look sheepish. ‘Ah yes…’ She took down her gin and tonic in one. ‘How about another?’

Tom nodded, sensing Sarah’s story was leading somewhere. He pushed himself to his feet, finished off his pint, which he’d been slowly sipping and sloped over to the bar with the two empty glasses. On his return, he gave Sarah a look, ‘You don’t have to tell me any of this.’

‘Oh, shut up Tom!’ she exclaimed. ‘This is embarrassing enough but I feel the need to do it and I sense you are desperate to know and I’m hoping it’s for the right reasons.’

‘And what are the right reasons?’ Tom raised his eyebrows.

‘Wanting to know what happened to Steve. Not that I think this has anything to do with it but so you can make your own mind up about that.’ Sarah paused and looked a little embarrassed. ‘I don’t know why but I just have the urge to tell you. It troubles me…I’m not really sure…’

‘Just carry on then,’ urged Tom.

‘I will,’ nodded Sarah.

‘Good,’ smiled Tom.

Sarah began to laugh. Tom couldn’t tell if it was a nervous laugh or a cheeky laugh. ‘This is where it gets naughty,’ winked Sarah. ‘I am starting to enjoy reliving this. Thanks for not being judgmental Tom.’ 

‘Believe me, I’m the last person who should be judging anyone Sarah.’

‘I don’t know, we’d made half a dozen or so videos with the same dirty old man videoing us. But this time, a younger man turned up. Only a couple of years older than us but he was more assertive than the older man and he was good looking with a good body to boot. Well, we had this scenario to follow. It wasn’t acting so much as living the part, even down to the caning and all the nipple torture and what have you.’ Sarah gave a pained expression as though she was reliving the part. ‘If I remember rightly I was tied down and Steve was doing some breast torture or what have you, it is too long ago and my head was in another place to be so precise. I just know his hands were occupied when I felt a third hand between my legs. It was quite thrilling if I’m honest. At some point I looked up, the camera must have been on a tripod I suppose, the light was in my eyes but then I felt something cold. I looked down between my legs and saw the cameraman sticking the nozzle of a gun in me. I freaked and tried to scream but I had a gag on. Steve and the cameraman started laughing crazily and then Steve got a camera and started to take photos. Eventually I calmed down and realised it was all part of the scenario. The realisation I wasn’t going to be harmed gave me a euphoric sensation. I suspect the cameraman knew what he was doing because while my head was up in the clouds he had sex with me, which I have to admit was sublime.’ Sarah shook her head and looked at Tom. ‘I know I’m shameless.’

‘Don’t stop for me,’ Tom insisted as he sipped his pint. ‘You are turning me on.’

‘Are you saying we have a date after this?’

‘We might,’ winked Tom with a wry smile.

‘OK, let me finish before I get too excited myself,’ smiled Sarah, returning the wink.

‘Where was I. Well that was about that actually. It soon came apparent that Steve and the cameraman had planned it all. I tried to protest but the problem was, I had never enjoyed such sexual pleasure in my whole life. But you aren’t interested in that are you?’ Sarah looked at Tom but continued before he had a chance to answer. ‘The gun was real and the cameraman had brought it. However, I later heard he gave it to Steve as a payment for letting him join in the fun. Though that doesn’t sound credible to me but I am pretty certain Steve ended up with it. I did try to talk to Steve about it, saying if he’s mixing with people with guns, he’s getting into something too heavy for me. He then claimed it was a replica and just a prop. I believed him for a time because I wanted to believe him. We made a couple of other videos but we were mixing with some dodgy people who I learned had guns. I then stopped believing the gun Steve was given was a replica. I implored Steve to give it back and told him I wouldn’t make any more videos if he didn’t. But he never did give it back as far as I knew and the videos had come to a natural end anyway. After that mad video the others became ordinary in my head and then rather seedy, which I suppose they were all along. I think Steve had had enough too. Anyway, we just stopped making them. We didn’t actually say we would stop, we just did and then Steve and I just drifted apart. I suppose we just burnt out because I wasn’t upset about things ending and nor did Steve seem to be, it was just a natural end.’ Sarah’s voice petered out, heavy with melancholy.

‘So Steve did have access to guns and was in with a bad crowd?’ Tom muttered, more rhetorical question than one to be answered.

Sarah gave Tom a quizzical look. ‘Come on Tom. That was thirty years ago. You don’t really believe it had anything to do with his disappearance, surely?’

‘Naah,’ yawned Tom, taking mouthful of beer. ‘But it does show he mixed with a dodgy crowd.’

‘Don’t we all?’ sighed Sarah.

‘Point taken,’ said Tom. ‘Why don’t we drink up and I walk you home and show you what porn really is?’

‘You’ll corrupt me yet Tom,’ replied Sarah with a suppressed laugh.

They quickly drank up and were soon out of the door and making their way down to the Sheds. Tom knew there were guns about in the eighties as jobs moved out and crime moved in. But who in Sheffield could distribute porn videos in numbers that were economic back in the eighties? A question he could put to Ashcroft he thought. All the same, now he knew Steve was on the fringes of the crime scene, if not in a player…Oh grow up, Tom interrupted his own stream of thought, get a life! This was all thirty years ago and Steve disappeared a year ago or so. Tom tried to concentrate on Sarah who was walking silently beside him, apparently lost in her thoughts or maybe just vacant. Colthorpe had a habit of making people empty their minds and hoping the place would just disappear. But nothing disappears, it’s all stored in the mind somewhere, waiting for some stimuli to awaken what would better be left in the attic of the mind.

Whatever happened to Steve was going to remain a secret until he turns up or his body is found somewhere. If he is alive he doesn’t want to be found. If he is dead, the authorities would probably discover who he was, wouldn’t they? You hear of anonymous dead people with the authorities not knowing who they are but too many people want to know what happened to Steve for him to disappear under the radar and into an unmarked grave. No? How could he possible know, it is all beyond his knowledge and experience. He hoped Steve had made his belated escape, gone abroad and escaped the black hole that is Colthorpe. Would Steve had gone to live in France if he had the chance or would he do the obvious and go to Spain? Spain probably, it was the El Dorado for people like those in Colthorpe, no imagination, the daily drudge had stamped it out of them. But really, would he have made such a move at his time of life. Who knows, Tom hoped so, desperate needs and all that.

Dominique was his escape that never happened and he can’t even remember why. He can remember how they feverishly made love for the last time. Made love? How quaint. They had totally unabashed sex. She was the first woman to have explored every inch of his body and he of hers. They were both upset at their parting that night and promised they would get back together as soon as possible. It never happened and he can’t remember why. There relationship had never run its course, they had never finished with each other and perhaps that was why she was always with him. It was always what might have been, the perfect what might have been he had always compared with imperfect reality. He had carried the romance with him and it had undermined his whole life because nothing could live up to such imagined perfection. Dominique would be sixty now, possibly with grandchildren. She might no longer be alive. There is no way of knowing. Whatever, she will always haunt him and undermine his present. He was aware he was comparing Sarah to Dominique. How can Sarah possibly compete? Maybe he should see if he could track Dominique down and exorcise her ghost? Grow up man, thought Tom. Get real. Maybe it was just too late for him to come to terms with reality.