It was a Saturday, the sun was shining and in the days before hoodies we were outside of the Church Hall doing good deeds in full Guide Uniform. I was the oldest and I was mostly playing the role of site supervisor, happily telling my patrol what rubbish went were. The only time I got involved was when I needed to use my not inconsiderable muscle. The abandoned door, if I’d thought about it, which I didn’t, seemed to have been placed strategically. The girls couldn’t lift it so I did.
It wasn’t the biggest mistake of my life, but it came quite close. Underneath the door was a stash of whiskey, other booze, fags and chocolate. I immediately knew I was in trouble. It also explained something that had been nagging at the edge of my consciousness: Paul Hastie loitering around his garden.
There isn’t a reverse in life, but if there was, I’d have deployed it then. The upstairs window of the Hastie’s house swung open and Mr Hastie, Tommy, hung out of it. “Put that bastard door down,” he said. I looked at him and did exactly that. He was naked but for his underpants.
“You better not have smashed owt!” Charlie Hastie snarled, who’d appeared as if by magic, beside Paul. Peter was there too, each boy an exact facsimile of the other, only in decreasing size. They were like Russian dolls.
Charlie, the eldest after his sister Angelina, whispered that he’d kill us if we ‘grassed’. I am, as I was then, one of life’s survivors. I’d no more grass than undertake 4 flip turns in quick succession. Paul (the middle boy) offered that he’d be on every corner waiting for me. Peter just grinned.
It was then that Mrs Hastie appeared, wearing only a bed sheet. It occurred to me with the acute embarrassment of a 14 year old that they’d been in bed. In the afternoon. With each other.
“I know your bleeding mother,” she said. I wasn’t sure how to judge this comment, so continued to stand still, “she works at the chippy.” This was true. She did.
“Don’t you worry,” Charlie said, “I’ll keep her on track.” He would too – on the track that he wasn’t on, I would make certain of that. I was hyper-aware as it was, and this would only make matters worse. I have never not seen anyone before they’ve seen me. Never. Charlie Hastie (and the other marauding families of my childhood) saw to that.
More shouting happened and then the other girls and myself skulked off…
I next saw Charlie Hastie a few weeks later when I inadvertently discovered his porn cache behind a grave in the actual church yard (when I was trying to snog a Boy Scout!) and that saw me being chased half way round west Hull (diverting back down Ena Street to avoid them and to get back to the Guides where I was supposed to be.) I’m not sure why he didn’t have it at home. It’s not as though his parents were renowned for their strict moral code.
I didn’t see Charlie again for about a year, when he’d somehow grown a foot and acquired a very nice looking girlfriend.
The news of the arson attack filtered through slowly: this was before 24 hour rolling TV and social media. I first got wind of it when I got home from school. My mother had heard from someone who had heard from someone. By the time I was pushing newspapers through doors on my round, Charlie Hastie was already dead.
For the week or two that followed I pushed his face and that of his brothers (and their mother) through letter boxes. I read the full story avidly as I walked my paper round. First Charlie (15), then Paul (12) and then Peter (8). Each of the boys suffered colossally extensive burns, 90% of their bodies were covered. No one deserved this. It didn’t matter that they terrified me – no one deserved this. They were just kids.
Everyone had a theory about why it had happened, and quite a number of people had motives. The Hasties had managed to piss off more than half of the neighbourhood. These kids were feral before that phrase was coined: they roamed and marauded and were cock ‘o the estate – the police even found a note threatening to bomb the Hastie house, but that turned out to be an old lady who did what others thought of doing: sending an anonymous note to tell them what she’d thought.
But something had changed for Charlie in the run up to the arson attack that killed him. He had met a girl and was trying to reform. I’d seen it, fleetingly, myself at the bus stop and others had witnessed it too. And he saved his mother: pushing her from the window as the house burned around them.
I have a vivid memory of the boys’ mother surrounded by people from their estate, pointing and yelling that one of them had done it. It was raw, guttural and it silenced the gathered mass.
We were all interviewed by the police in their door-to-door inquiries. My mother called me in, and asked me to come through to the living room and to speak to the constable sitting uncomfortably on our couch. I told them they’d chased me, and I had been terrorised by them with their Alsatian Dog (which also died in the fire.) I did also mention finding their contraband in the Church Hall wasteland. I wasn’t telling the police anything they didn’t already know. Tommy Hastie, the father, was in prison at the time of the fire, serving a sentence for theft. The police said thank you and left. My tales was unremarkable.
I spoke to my Guide Captain about what happened and she said they deserved it. If I had ever had a faith, it came to an end at that point. How could a person of God think like that? But she was not alone. Everyone had an opinion and it was rarely a generous one.
The Sunday Times ran a story about a sophisticated plot of drugs’ lords fighting over territory who – by some tragic happenstance – had set fire to the wrong house. As a neighbourhood we wanted this to be true, because the alternative was that it was one of our own. Someone exactly like us.
Peter Dinsdale, Daft Peter, who had changed his name to Bruce Peter Lee, was arrested after what seemed weeks of investigation. He confessed to the arson attack that killed the Hastie boys, as well as a number of others too. By his own admission, he had killed 26 people in total (although, in the end, Wesley Lodge, an old people’s home he claimed to have set alight and where 11 old men died, was removed from the charges on appeal meaning he was convicted of killing 15 people.)
Was Daft Peter like us? A bit. He lived among us but was, like a lot of individuals with special needs, largely ignored. He had a slightly disabled arm and walked with a limp. He had a lower than average IQ. He had, by his account, had some run-ins with Charlie, but as Charlie is not here to defend himself, it’s hard to ascertain what these were. Daft Peter, by way of retribution in the early hours of that night, poured paraffin through their letter box, retreated to the flyover to watch the flames flick into the night.
He was reputed to have said, “I just like fire.”
Bruce Peter Lee, one of Britain’s most prolific killers, is still held at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and is likely to die at Rampton Secure Hospital.