The Big Impossible

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Michaela Tobin was my best friend.  She sat beside me at school and a week or so before I fell through the greenhouse, she disappeared.  She never came to see me.

It would be a lie to say she didn’t come to the hospital.  She was right there all the time.  Not that anyone ever told me. Even when I was in the very next ward, and a bit sad about her absence, no one thought to mention it.  No one thought to say anything at all.

That was the way it was in the 70s. 

For years, I fantasised that I could shift across time and space and change that outcome, that I could see her and tell her everything I needed to, but it’s the big impossible: you are either in the moment or you are nowhere at all. You exist neither in the past nor the future. But still I imagined I could go back and change it: not the falling through a greenhouse bit, I never sought that but over and over again I imagined ways to connect with Michaela, to speak to her, to say all that I’d meant to.

The fantasy often went like this: somehow I’d get wind of her illness or her dying.  Someone let it slip. And I’d make the trip to see her: alone or with Dawn, my other friend.  Somehow I’d be magicked to Michaela’s side.  It was improbable, a falsehood, but over and over I worked the story so that sometimes I even believed it was true.

Here it is:

The air was crowded with noise, pipping, buzzing and electronic sounds, and it was white, pure, pure white – a bit how I imagined heaven. I checked I was still breathing. Down the corridor there were a number of doors leading to rooms, some open to reveal patients attached by wires to machines, not moving. No flowers, no animated conversations just people looking sad at other people in beds. All patients looked the same: nearly dead or so fast asleep an earthquake wouldn’t shift them.   There were machines with accordion like actions, others with screens with information that must mean something to someone. I felt my breathing adjust to the rhythm of the place.

“Can I help you?” A tall, thin nurse looked down on us. She looked like she’d inhaled sherbet.

To be fair we must have looked a sight – two girls, one on crutches, and the other in big framed glassed wearing a ruck sack that she could have been folded into.

It was a good question though. Could she help us? Would she help us?

“You might be able to.” I said.

Was that cheeky? Dawn grinned.

The nurse crossed her arms. They were like snakes as they curled one over the other against her non-existent belly. She had fine white skin, a lot of freckles and ginger hair. “Well?” she said, finally.

“We’ve come to see our friend, Miss.” I said.

“Have you now? And who is your friend exactly?”

I wondered if there were so many children tied up to machines in this place that the nurse couldn’t guess who we belonged to.   How sad, I thought. How very, very sad. I looked round again. We were quite far onto the ward but wherever Michaela was she wasn’t visible. She’d been in my head so powerfully, but now I couldn’t hear her.

“That would be Michaela is it?” The nurse said. Green eyes – staring into us as though the neat sides of our real lives weren’t there. There would be no secrets in my life from now on, I thought, no secrets at all. Ever. I would always tell the truth, even if it wasn’t the smartest move.

“Yes,” Dawn said, “And Mary’s walked all the way on crutches and her leg hurts. And we’ve no sandwiches left. But we’ve got chocolate.”

“Are you hands sore, Mary?” The nurse asked.

“They’re okay.”

It’s not about me, I thought.

It was just Dawn and me in the corridor, just us and the nurse. I looked up and straight into those green eyes. Feel bad for me, I thought. I could have died. I could have been in these rooms. It could have been me you were looking after. I could have been Michaela. But for those two millimetres…that meant I avoided the main artery.

“Michaela can’t do visitors really.”

“We only want to see her, that’s all. We know she can’t talk.”

Should I cry? That sort of thing usually worked with grown ups.

The nurse looked behind us – did they have security? Was she about to call them?

“Are you sure that her mam said you could come?”

We did not speak.

“Because so far only her family have been and then really only her mam and dad.”

“I never asked,” I said.

“The thing is,” Dawn was saying, “We’re already in a lot of trouble and it would be a shame if we were grounded for the rest of our lives and we didn’t even see her.”

“Thank you,” the nurse said, “Thank you for telling the truth.”

“We’re her school friends. Mary sat next to her because they’re both clever but not quite as clever as Tracey though and I’m not that clever at all.”

“We are as clever as Tracey – just not suck ups like her. And you are clever Dawn Geraldine Matthews.”

“Not as clever as you.”

The door opened behind them.

“What in God’s name are you two doing here?”

The girls turned slowly as if to face a firing squad.

“We came to see Michaela.” Just the truth.  From now on, only that.

I thought for a minute that Mrs Tobin would cry. She looked so tied.

“She’s…not here.”

“I’ve been thinking about her all the time – because she didn’t come when I hurt my leg and then no one would say anything. And if I’d known she was here, I could have popped in. I had loads of spare time on the ward. I just had some rubbish colouring in and a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t fit on my table.”

“Say anything?” Mrs Tobin frowned. She was so beautiful – lovely black hair cascading down her back, her skin so pale it was almost see-through, light blue eyes.

“No one would talk about her.” I said then ran out of words.

“How did you know?” Mrs Tobin trailed off. She looked at the nurse, smiled weakly – then she stepped properly into the corridor. She knelt in front of me.

“How is your leg?” She asked.

“Getting better now.”

“I hear you were lucky.”

I didn’t feel it.

Mrs Tobin looked down. She shrugged, then with another smile she said,

“Michaela isn’t the same. She’s heavily sedated – she’s sleeping really. She might be able to hear us but we don’t know.”

“Sleeping all the time?”

“Yes…she’s…she’s…she’s got something called a brain tumour which means that something’s gone wrong in her head, and that it’s growing inside her and she’s not really with us now.”

“Where is she then?” It was Dawn.

“It’s a good question…I hope she’s making a path to another life.”

I looked at Mrs Tobin, “You mean she’s going to die?”

“Yes love, she is.”

I fought back the tears then, “When?”

“I don’t know love. All her body is still quite well.”

It was quiet now, apart from the beep and swoosh of machines – all four of us a tableaux of concentration.

“Please can we see her?” I asked. “There’s stuff we need to tell her.”

Mrs Tobin looked to the ceiling.

“Okay then,” she said.

Mrs Tobin swept past the nurse – and we followed on.

The room was clinical although she’d tried to make it look more like Michaela’s bedroom, with limited success. I recognised a teddy, and some other things: knick-knacks.

Michaela was totally still – is that what sedated meant? There were tubes going every which way, and the gentle pulse of the machines: it was a complex mix of things, none of which I understood. I imagined that Mrs Tobin would hear the noises forever, late at night when the world slept her mind would be invaded by a buzz and a pop and a whoosh.

I looked directly at Michaela.

Dawn stood beside me, all her challenge and bravery had stalled – she looked at her shoes, which were scuffed along the toes. She stayed beside the door, as I moved into the room, afraid to come closer in case she broke anything. She carried on wearing her rucksack.

“Will she wake up?” I asked Mrs Tobin.

“No love.” She looked away and I was sorry I’d asked a stupid question.

“Do they switch the lights off at night, Mrs Tobin?” I said aloud.

“No love. There isn’t really a night here. There’s just one time. All time. Just time, ticking through.” She paused.

“You can hold her hand love – she seems to like that. Perhaps you could tell her about school?”

“We’re not at school yet. There’s another week or so to go.”

Up close, Michaela seemed a bit fatter in the face than she had done – how was that? But her body was tiny, like a little bird curled up in its nest.

I picked up her hand and not knowing what to do, stroked it slowly. There was no sign that Michaela noticed, but I carried on.

I’m going to get in such mighty trouble for you, I thought and who knew that that was even possible? Michaela, the best-behaved girl ever, causing all this fuss.

“I’ve been talking to you – in my head. I’ve been hearing you, listening to you, waiting for you and now I don’t know what to say. Can you hear me? Can you?”

I closed my eyes. The skin of my friend’s hand was cool, but not cold. I remembered when we started school – reception class, waiting for dinners that we’d both  hated, hand in hand.

There were so many words.

“Mary and Dawn have come to see you,” Mrs Tobin said.

I took a deep breath and dived in.

“I’ve missed you mate,” I said, “although we haven’t done much because of my leg. I fell through a greenhouse. And Mrs Sweeney came to see me – after school – and she was wearing a lime green polo neck, you wouldn’t have liked it. Everyone’s been very nice though – even though I’ve been rubbish to them – even K. We had a whole conversation once. He does say I’ve got men’s blood though, because of the blood transfusion and that one day I’ll turn into a werewolf or something. But that’s his weird way of showing he loves me – at least I think that’s what that is. KM’s just been moody but that’s her age, me mam says.”

I stopped. Mrs Tobin smiled. So I started again.

“I’ve had to do all this physiotherapy with a woman called Julie and I think she quite likes causing pain. She says, “No pain, no going on the rowing machine.” I’m not that bothered by the machines but I do want to walk again. I have to go every other Wednesday now. I’m going to be the only girl who wears trousers in school – and that’s good innit? I’ll be able to climb.”

Mrs Tobin was wide-eyed.

“Well, maybe not climb – that might not be the best idea – right not….” I dried up then.

“It’s fine to say whatever you want Mary. I say all sorts. I tell her what we have for tea, stuff off the telly… all sorts. Mr Tobin thinks I’m mad. Yesterday I even told her the contents of my shopping list.”

So I started again, talking ten to the dozen about nothing very much – I talked until my mouth ran dry.

“She’s probably saying ‘for God’s sake Mary shut up!’ in her head! Won’t she think it’s a bit boring? ”

“Who knows love? I don’t know if she can hear – but if she can, hearing friendly voices has got to be better than this.” She gestured to the room.

The beeps kept coming whether we spoke a lot or a little, the machines kept working.

“How long will she be here, Mrs Tobin?”

“They can’t say. May be a day. May be a week. May be a month.”

“A month?”   It was the first thing Dawn had said. “You have to come every day?”

“I don’t have to love.”

“I don’t like it much,” Dawn said.

“Neither do I!”

“Sorry.” Dawn opened the door and stepped outside. There was a silence then.

“Should I say goodbye?”

“You could. Or you could do what the French do… They say au revoir. It means until we see each other again, goodbye for now.”

“I’ll say that then. Can I come another time and see her?”

“I don’t know love, may be. But if you say au revoir then it’s always possible, in this life or another one.”

“Do you believe in another one?”

“Sometimes.” Mrs Tobin said.

I moved closer to Michaela again. I looked at my friend but it was not my friend really. She was bloated in the head, like her skin was stretched, and she couldn’t smile. Her eyes were shut, she was still.

She wasn’t dead but I knew then that the essence of Michaela had already gone.

84 Stitches

FullSizeRenderThree days before the summer holiday when I was  nearly 9 years old I fell through a greenhouse and sliced my leg in two. A half moon red-faced chunk of a smile stared back at me when I looked down and some of my leg seemed to be missing. Quite a large bit of it, as it happens. I knew I was in trouble. Not just with Mr Cundill for messing up his greenhouse, and not just my mother – who would be furious with the state of my shorts – but really, really in trouble. Not being able to walk trouble. And if I couldn’t walk that meant I couldn’t run. Not running was trouble.

Tracey Cundill was mouthing words at me but I wasn’t catching them. I turned my head to the side and really stared. Was Tracey actually even speaking to me? Tracey pointed to me then the greenhouse and then my leg and then she screamed.

“I’m sorry about the greenhouse,” I said.

There was glass everywhere.  Really, a whole window of glass.  It was a mess and when I looked I noticed that there were spots of my blood all over Mr Cundill’s tomatoes.

They probably wouldn’t be able to eat them.

“I’m sorry about the tomatoes,” I said.

Tracey went through the same pointing and screaming routine at least twice more and then she left. It wasn’t like her to be so incoherent: she was one of the cleverest girls in my class.  It was, however, typical of Tracey to run away and just as typical that she was going to tell my mother that it wasn’t her fault that I’d come a cropper in her yard.  Neither Michaela nor Dawn, my other friends, would have done that to me. They’d have stuck with me through thick and thin, they’d have let me tell my mother my own story. They’d have at least tried to help me get home. Tracey always had an eye for the main chance.  She was a survivor.

I shifted my weight on to my good leg and then started to work out how I could drag the gaping one across Tracey’s yard, over the road and into my own yard. Once I got going it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Slow, but also not as sore as I thought a gaping hole should be. It didn’t hurt that much at all. Not that I could look at it any more – because the last time I did I saw yellowy cream bits in there and that scared me.

When I was halfway across the road I could hear Tracey shouting; “Mrs B, Mary has broken her leg!”

“Where is she love?” I heard my mam say.

“She’s walking across the road!”

And then I heard my mam laugh, a big belly laugh that echoed all round the street. At least she was in a good mood I thought. At least she wouldn’t actually kill me.

My mother stopped laughing as soon as she saw it. Her face crumpled like a dishcloth. She swore quite a bit too. I knew it was best to wait until she was through with all that before I spoke… Then the questions came thick and fast. There were lots of questions about what I’d done to myself and what I was playing at that I couldn’t answer. The blood had started to pool around my ankle and my sock which had been pristine white, was now red. My mother disappeared and I heard a call to the emergency services. She didn’t scream, which was a bonus.

“Why are you  standing out there for?” my mam said.

“I’m not messing up your floor, mam.” I felt brave, superhuman.

“I don’t care about the floor,” she said.

She did care about the floor though; and the towel, that we threw between us for a while.

“Use the towel love, to stem the flow.”

“No.” I said.  This was the most defiant I had ever been.

We were still passing the towel between us when the ambulance men arrived.

“Blimey – got a bit of a scratch have you darling?”

“Always been the master of understatement Dave,” his mate said in the direction of my mother.

Dave started to bandage my leg.  It felt tight.

“You’d better get your stuff love… and some night clothes for Flossie Teacake here.”

“I’m called Mary,” I said.

When we got into the street a crowd had gathered around the blue flashing lights of the ambulance. There was a traffic jam of people. Me – in a wheelchair now – waved to everyone. It was like being a celebrity and I knew as we drew away I would be the talk of the neighbourhood. Everyone would know the story by the end of the day and those who didn’t would make up the details. By the end of the week no doubt I would have had my leg amputated three times and re-attached – or I’d have had a leg transplant and would have one leg permanently longer than the other.

There was some kerfuffle when we finally arrived in A and E.  Firstly, I’d had sweets which meant that I couldn’t be put to sleep.  Secondly, and inexplicably, I told my mother that I wanted my dad.  I knew this had wounded her, but I had no idea just how deeply this had hit her until years and years later, when she confessed it to me when she thought that she might die of cancer.  She didn’t, and I spent the 30 years following that feeling like an utter moron for saying such a thing.  I was 8.  I was weak. And I was a daddy’s girl.

The details were bad but I had been lucky. The doctors said I’d missed the main artery by two millimetres. I didn’t really know what a main artery was but I could tell by the way the doctor looked at me a bit ashen and downbeat that it was a good thing I’d missed it. I stared back and forth between my mam and dad, who looked as though they hadn’t slept for a week and they smiled weakly. I was alive.  I’d never noticed my mam’s grey hair until then or the lines on my dad’s face particularly around his eyes.

At about midnight, I was deemed fit enough to go down to theatre.  My mother and my father had gone home, and I recall the tribe of doctors and nurses who steered the trolley I was on down the corridor.  The taste of the rubber from the mask is a distinct but thankfully distant memory: I was told to count myself to sleep. When I awoke, I’d had 84 stitches.  61 inside and 23 outside.  If this doesn’t seem that many think of the average 8 year old’s leg. I was very lucky.

The next day my brother and sister had arrived.

“You’re alive then,” my brother, K said, “I had to clean up the blood with Laurie next door. It was everywhere.”

My sister, KM brought me a comic. And didn’t say very much.

“There was flesh and stuff. Up the walls. Everywhere. Wouldn’t go down the drain. Everywhere. You know you’ve had a blood transfusion – that means you’ve got someone else’s blood in you. It could be an evil murderer. Or a Zombie.” K was excited.

“You’re only jealous,” I looked at KM. “Are you okay?”

“I should have been looking after you,” she said. “I’m supposed to keep my eye on you.”

“It could be a vampire’s. Or a werewolf’s. You’ll probably howl at the moon from now on whenever it’s full. It could be a crazed lunatic’s or a Druid or something.”

“It’s probably just the butcher’s,” I said.

Tracey and Dawn visited that evening. Their parents were very good – and Mr Cundill didn’t shout at me for messing up his greenhouse. He said that he’d given my mother some beetroot and would be taking the rest of the greenhouse down. “I didn’t know it was dangerous,” he said apologetically as he and Dawn’s mam retreated to the waiting room to give the us girls ‘space.’

“It’s only dangerous if you’re standing on it.” I said.

“He’s really upset.” Tracey looked around. “It smells a bit funny in here.”

“Probably thought he was going to be sued.” Dawn said. Tracey frowned as if to say he didn’t but didn’t speak.

“Can I see your scar?” Dawn was not backwards in coming forwards.

“It’s wrapped up. I haven’t seen it meself yet.”

“Me mam said you’d had 84 stitches. She said that’s more than you cast on for a jumper!”

“Where’s Michaela?”

I noticed a slight waver in Tracey’s stare. I looked at her, but she did not waver again.

“She’s not very well.” Dawn said. “Got a headache.”

“Is she going to come up to see me?”

They didn’t answer and talked about school instead – about the excitement of the last day of the year coming up, that I would miss.

A succession of people did come up to the hospital to see me – Uncle John and Aunt Vi brought me ten bars of chocolate which my mam said I would have to share with K and KM (which wasn’t fair), my teacher – Mrs Sweeney – gave me a jigsaw. Aunt Vic sent me a bundle of colouring stuff bought cheap off the market (“Probably fall to bits in a matter of seconds,” my mam said, curtly). Mrs Binchy from next door bought me some fruit, and my mam didn’t say I would need to share that! Loads of people came, but Michaela never did.

There was a very good reason for this, of course…

(To be continued…)

 

Taken

FullSizeRenderMy most impressive achievement as a young person was the Queen’s Guide Award.  Not many girls managed this and fewer still from the neck of the woods that I was from: there was no precedent for it, and I gained it by sheer force of will and a ton of support from Guiders who came in all shapes and sizes, and who taught me a whole bundle of stuff about women and their power.  There were police officers, nurses, high-powered educators, administrators in the NHS, probation officers – determined women who did not take the world lying down. I can remember their names: Audrey Lord, Carol Selwyn Jones, Kay Button, Bev Smith, Pat Sugden, Mrs Tansey and the Scout leader, Celia Worley.  Those women, and others, taught me how to be myself. I would have been lost without them: working in a factory packing peas or making ends meet between low-paid and unskilled jobs.  This sounds like an exaggeration – it isn’t.

I sucked up the brilliance and madness of this world of women from 1975 to 1981 against the backdrop of a sinister force that gave an entirely different message – one that forced women off the streets, and that questioned our rights to take up space.  One that made us all just a little bit more frightened.

The sequence of attacks began in 1969, but the first murder came in October 1975.  I had just flown up to the Guides leaving the toadstool of the Brownies behind, and was battling my mother for a uniform (she was convinced I wouldn’t stick at it, and made me wear a blue shirt that was not the right colour and made me stand out like a sore thumb; not a position I enjoyed.)

Wilma McCann, a known prostitute, was stabbed in the neck, chest and abdomen multiple times and twice hit over the head with a hammer – her body was left in Chapletown, Leeds.  It barely created a ripple in the news, and I was more concerned with the Christmas Carole concert and singing the descant (badly).

I was bored initially by Guide activities so me and my mate Dawn took it upon ourselves to write Swallow on all of our patrol’s equipment.  Then, we’d try to.  We’d try to swallow the pencil.  We tried to swallow the notebook.  We even tried to swallow the kit box which was bigger than both of us and weighed as much as a grown man.  The Captain told us our antics were ridiculous. We protested: it clearly said swallow notebook, didn’t it?  It clearly said swallow rubber? The Captain was not impressed… we laughed like drains!

Meanwhile, murder number two took place: Emily Jackson, 42. Struggling to make ends meet, she was eking out her slim income by turning tricks. She was also killed in Leeds.

“Something’s not right here,” my dad said, “Don’t you go wandering around at night, you two.”

“Don’t be soft,” my mam threw out, “You’ll frighten them.”

I looked at my sister who looked at me, and then we went to Tuesday club.  We liked it at Coltman Street mission where the Tuesday Club took place because they had a better class of biscuit than the Church of our Guide Company.  It was January, perishing cold.  A woman would need to be desperate to go out on a night like this to be paid for sexual favours.  “Don’t go down the tenfoot*,” our mother yelled after us.  I didn’t like going through there in the daytime and never would at night. One of the Mainprizes once chased me with a Rubber Johnny** on a stick making me divert down the tenfoot, which practically scarred me for life.

In 1977, four more women were killed: Irene Richardson, Tina Atkinson, Jane McDonald (who was just 16 and not a prostitute) and Jean Jordan.  Each of the women were hideously mutilated, and getting careless, the killer had left a boot mark on one woman’s sheets and a crisp new fiver for her services on another, that could only have been in 8000 people’s wage packets: the police interviewed 5000 men in relation to this including the killer.  Still the police could not find The Yorkshire Ripper (as he was now dubbed in the press even though Jean Jordan was killed at Hough End, Manchester, where years later, I often walked my dog.)

1977 also happened to be the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.  There was much talk, as I recall, about the killing of Jane McDonald who was just a few years older than all of us, and like us: just walking home from a night out.  She could have been us.  We had to travel in twos: not wander off on our own. I raced my sister home after Guides to watch Cagney and Lacey, which by a country mile, was the best thing on TV. A street away, women were keeping the wolf from the door by prostituting themselves. I worried for them.

At Guide Camp, that year, the fancy dress theme was ‘I’m backing Briton’.  I can’t remember what my sister did, although it was something to do with arguing about ‘back in’ and ‘backing’ when she proposed to wear her clothes on the wrong way and that would definitely win a prize, but she made me cry.  Our Captain, who was the Quarter Master at the camp, noted this – I saw her watch the scene play out, and a steely determination took hold of her. Later, she said to me, “I was the younger sister, too.”

As 1977 folded into 1978 and bored out of our tiny brainboxes my sister, me and our friends Alison and Dawn wrote “This is crap” and “Wash me!” all over the Captain’s old estate  car.  For good measure, Dawn and I also shoved an old exhaust we’d found up the back of the vehicle to give the Captain a bit of a jolt when she saw it.  This was just high-spirits but a few days later when  Audrey, the Captain, was driving up to Scotland, her actual exhaust fell off.  Of course, this could have been a coincidence but she was a practical woman who would not believe it.

She rang up our mother who listened patiently to a list of complaints about us.  Hanging our heads in shame, that Friday we walked up to the Church Hall.  We began the evening in a circle, and the Captain called us to attention.  She spoke quietly saying that my sister and Alison would be banned for life for their antics, without any hope of return, and Dawn – who she’d never liked – would be suspended for three weeks.  “You,” she said, “Will have your stripes removed.”

I tried to open my mouth to explain that it was me that had actually put the old exhaust up the back of the car, along with Dawn, but she would not hear of it.  In a moment of great pomposity she said, “The older ones should take responsibility.  They should know better!”  I knew this wasn’t fair, but I just stood and looked on sadly as my three co-conspirators left the hall.  “I’m sweeping clean with a new broom,” Audrey said, “I’m making room.”

Meanwhile, two further killings had happened: Yvonne Pearson and Helen Rytka, both young girls, both street workers.  Helen was only 18 years old. As I read the circumstances around her death in the Daily Mail on my paper round, I wondered how a girl barely out of school had found this was the only thing she could do to survive.  I knew nothing of the world of drugs and although we were as poor as church mice (I knew this because of what we didn’t have compared to my peers, and compared to the girls from the better off Guide Companies who enjoyed activities I had never heard of: wind-surfing and rock-climbing and sailing), it was not the grinding poverty of those who have no options at all.

Within weeks, the Captain had restored my stripes and began subtly introducing me to the steps I’d need to take to reach greatness (in her eyes).  I should volunteer at a Garden Party she’d suggested.  So I did. I sold raffle tickets.  And I also bought some too.  And won the main prize, much to my acute embarrassment.

It was more than a year before the Ripper killed again. By this time, he was killing any woman who dared to venture into the night.  His 10th killing was a young woman called Joanne Whittaker who was only 19 and worked in a building society.  His 11th was a student – Barbara Leach.  She was just 20.

By now, everyone was talking about the Ripper – about how he didn’t care who or what you were, that he would kill you if you stayed out late: we were worried, but not in a coherent way.  We learned our lesson well – women needed to watch out. There was a pervasive message right there: girls should not be out at night.

There was extensive coverage of a tape allegedly made by the Ripper, sent by a bloke with a Wearside accent, that tormented the detective in charge of the case and his inability to catch him.  This man – who sent the investigation in the wrong direction – was never caught.

I was coming on in leaps and bounds – something about the responsibility I’d been given suited me.  One Sunday every month, I was responsible for church parade and often carried the colours or the union flag.  I enjoyed this.  And the badges kept on coming: I had an armful.  The Captain said, “We’ll get you that Queen’s Guide Award.” I undertook long-term volunteering.  I cleaned the church brasses.  I wrote, I swam, I cooked, I knitted, I collected, I looked after children, I orienteered, I saved lives, I prevented accidents, I was a backwoodsman, I knew all about the commonwealth. I ticked each badge off in turn.

Two days before my 15th birthday, Marguerite Walls, a 47 year old was killed and three months later the Ripper committed his final murder, that of Jacqueline Hill, 20: another student, this time of Leeds University, on 17th November, 1980.  I vividly remember her mother: the anguish, the anger, how articulate she was in her grief.  (Years later the poet Rosie Garland, who I was briefly in a theatre company with, read a poem about Jacqueline Hill, a girl she shared a regular tutorial with.  Rosie – who is now a novelist and long time member of the band The March Violets, could have been that 13th woman whose life was snuffed out but she hadn’t attended the tutorial that night. It could have been her.  Easily.  On such a small axis of chance do we survive, sometimes. All that potential and promise, all those lives gone and still others who he attacked but who did not die, whose lives where nonetheless destroyed. All those who lived a half life because of what he did: the victims’ mothers and fathers, their children.  Sisters.  Brothers.  Cousins. Friends: the pain rolling out in circles, crashing over whole neighbourhoods.)

By May 1981, I had completed the collection of all the badges I needed to be awarded the Queen’s Guide.  I received a certificate from the Queen.  I was chuffed as mint balls. This was a big enough deal to warrant my picture being taken by the local paper. It was very exciting for me and my family.  The photographer came to the church and he stood me underneath a tree.  I beamed. I would appear a week later. I looked forward to everyone seeing me.

Peter Sutcliffe’s trial began on the 5th May 1981 and lasted two weeks.  He was found guilty of 13 murders and 7 attempted murders and was sentenced to 20 concurrent life sentences.  This verdict set newspapers into a frenzy: he had tried to say he’d heard the voice of God and this had compelled him to act.  Page after page of coverage of this man and what he’d done, then, at the very right-hand edge on page 5 me, a sliver of space, smiling, with my certificate on show. And beside my beaming face, the headline in bold, filling the rest of the page from left to right but for my small triumph, ‘Ripper Victim talks…’  And that was when I really thought: it could have been me.

It could have been any of us.

*tenfoot = an alley, ten foot wide

**Rubber Johnny = a condom

I used facts about the Ripper’s Victims from the Wikipedia entry for Peter Sutcliffe.  You can read the whole thing here

I have written about Audrey before here

Shadows

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Still reeling from a drama I didn’t fully understand which featured my normally (at least outside the house) mild-mannered mother yelling uncontrollably at the head teacher about the shame caused by the label pinned to my jumper on my first day at school: ‘has fits’, I made my way innocently to the toilets.

Neither did I fully understand the nuance of what my mother had been yelling but I’d picked up something about public humiliation, something about discretion being the better part of valour (or Valerie – which my father always said), and something about how my mother assumed that the other children could actually read, this being a school where education occasionally happened?

“It’s probably already too late!  You’ve probably made a laughing stock of my child.” I’d looked at my mother in awe: I didn’t remember her standing up for me in quite this fashion before although I was concerned that she was making the kind of first impression that wouldn’t serve me well in the long-term.

I was thinking this as I entered the toilets.  This was 1970, and Constable Street Primary School was an old Victorian building with a few utilitarian 1960s additions.  The main feature of the playground was the wall wrapped around the infant building. Babbapapa and Babbamama had been painted on one wall in garish pinks and black.  Also, the entrance to the toilets was outside: built in stone, it curved round, and, from memory, a single light served half a dozen stalls. It was cold.  And it was not a place for the faint hearted: the shadows danced along the walls.

I have an older brother and an older sister so I did possess a general awareness of threat: when you’re the youngest (as I was then) you tend to keep your eyes peeled, have a sense of something imminent that follows you around, a menance,  and you tend to be on the lookout for the demands coming down the line to you (I had, cleverly, adopted two tactics to avoid doing things: pretend I couldn’t do it OR cry and run away.  I had major successes with both approaches.)

It was dark in the toilets and I knew, immediately, that I was in trouble.  Three girls appeared.  One was a girl called Wiggy: I didn’t know that then, I just knew she was wearing a blue knitted bonnet that was really too small for her head which from the angle I was looking at her, made it seem unnaturally shrunken.   There was not a trace of hair on her head. She was also very tall. The other two were Hilton girls: one of them, Kim, was stocky – and I knew instinctively, as birds know the moments before the sun rises, that she was to be feared, that she was to be avoided. Like the plague.

“Now then,” Kim said.  I think the older girl was probably her sister.  She was taller, but otherwise indistinguishable.  The only thing I knew about the Hilton clan was that there had been 24 of them – 24 children in one family.  I’d given this a passing thought: we struggled to get into the bathroom in a morning, so how they managed it was anyone’s guess.

“Now then,” Kim said again.  “You’ve got fits?”  This was phrased as a question but I sensed that she was not expecting an answer.  I thought about crying.  I thought about running away. I thought about how this might be my only way out of the situation.  I looked from one girl to the other to try and see what the right answer might be.  Kim smiled: if I’d had teeth like hers, bright white, I’d have smiled all day.  Kim Hilton did not smile all day, her default position was simmering rage.

“Have one then,” she said.  Kim was not making a joke. Kim did not make jokes.

The thing about having fits, from what I can remember, is you have no idea what happens or what it looks like because you’re busy having a fit not observing it from a distance for a later date when someone commands you do it on demand.

So, I lay down on the cold concrete, and started to shake.  Vigorously.

At that point, my sister came in. My sister who did often hate me hanging around all the time and who generally got fed up of me said, “What’s going on?”

“She’s having a fit,” Kim Hilton said, matter of factly.

“I think that’s enough now.” My sister said.

Miraculously I made a full recovery. My performance had been enough to satisfy them for the moment.  “Alright” Kim said, and walked away. Wiggy and the other Hilton girl followed. Kim would hover at the edge of my playtime daily, waiting for me to go into the toilets.  I did not make the same mistake twice.

I often saw Kim Hilton out and about around Chomley Street and down the Boulevard where her family lived.  She and Wiggy were often companions, and, when I did see them, I did invariably find something really interesting to look at in the opposite direction.  Lots of members of the family had a reputation for hitting first and then – if the mood took them – considering later.

My next serious encounter with Kim was not one of my finest moments.  A couple of years later, when I was about 7, my sister and I were looking after two smaller children.  Kim, for no better reason than she fancied a bit of sport, swaggered towards us.  Words passed between my sister and Kim, and possibly me, that quickly escalated into World War 3.  I did what any self-respecting survivor would do: I ran away.  Yes, I left my sister with two small children and ran.  This is not something I’m especially proud of, and I accept I did not cover myself in glory but it taught me an important lesson… flight is a legitimate tactic even if it appears selfish, even if your sister reminds you of it for the next 150 years.

One  time, one of the Hilton children was knocked over in the street, a pure accident – cars were infrequent at that time, and there was much less need for speed.  The child had simply stepped into the road.  This was not how the Hiltons saw it. They were totally committed to each other, a tight-knit clan who were fiercely loyal, and would do anything if that commitment was questioned or challenged, who would do anything if something (or someone) came between them.   Clearly, I did not match that level of loyalty. I was too frightened for that.  Too cowardly. After the ambulance had taken the child to the hospital, the family turned on the car driver, 20 of them rocking his vehicle from side to side, as the guilty man, Mr  Fairhead, sat inside it, terrified for his life.  This level of threat cloaked them like an aura, like a veil – they had an undercurrent of hostility that rested among them like legionella, invisible but lethal.

That anger never left Kim Hilton.  Years later, I saw her rugby tackled by a police officer after she had allegedly stolen a few packets of biscuits from the shopping centre on Bransholme housing estate.  The police roughed her up unnecessarily, and in my student inspired hopes for a better world, I was outraged by the brutality that she was subject to. She swore black was blue as a knee in her back held her flat to the floor.

Brutality was a world Kim understood.  She was often angry and provocative. And that, in part, contributed to her death. On that particular day, Kim and her then girlfriend began drinking strong lager at lunch time.  The drunker they got, the more Kim’s partner convinced herself that Kim was having an affair. The argument raged on and off all day, with Kim being punched, and then, later each viciously shouting at the other in the street, before going their separate ways.

At midnight, or thereabouts, the partner, Andrea, returned with an iron bar as a weapon and managed to get herself into Kim’s flat.  All those years of fight, had stood the test of time, and Kim was never going to do the coward’s thing, and run away.  Instead, she fronted up and disarmed Andrea, taking the weapon she’d brought to smack her, and placing it out of harm’s way.  But the fight did not end there. Neighbours shouted for the women to shut up…and then silence came – still in a rage, Andrea grabbed a knife and stabbed Kim Hilton through the heart.  She died straight away, her rage fading away with her shadow.

Transformations

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“Hello Transformations, can I help you?”

“Have you got a stiletto in a size 12?  Red, if possible?”

“We’re a theatre company.  The number you need is…”

When I first met Jackie R, she often gave me the tally of calls she’d received that day from men seeking a transformative experience on their transvestite or transgender journey.  It surprised her, in the back water of Cheadle Hulme, that so many men called in.  It was particularly surprising since she was a mask based theatre company. Each time, she would patiently read out the number they actually needed.

I was a relatively young Head of Drama in a secondary school at the time and received countless offers of interventions from new and established theatre companies which arrived in the form of leaflets.  In truth, I was the worst responder to much excellent work, tied up as I was in the business of surviving each day.  So, when my burgeoning pigeon hole was full, I’d re-file the leaflets in the car.  Here they would stay until such times as I (or more likely someone else) removed them.

Snotty at that stage was studying on a course about community arts.  There was an expectation that individuals on the course would find their own placement.  Snotty rifled through my (by now) impressive flyer collection in the car, and by chance, selected Transformation Theatre Company. On such whimsy are life-time friendships made.

Jackie answered the phone – probably relieved that Snotty actually wanted to participate in her world and immediately agreed a placement.  It was an exciting time for Transformation – they had (basically through more competent teachers than me) managed to book a tour of the Seasons shows and they were looking for Winter.  Snotty got the part.

I met Jackie sometime later, when she’d wanted lots of hands to take part in mask making.  I went along for the fun of it. We hit it off straight away.  As I am tall, Jackie was small.  I like to tell jokes, Jackie liked to laugh at them. So we quickly became firm friends.

A few months later two significant life events took place.  I left teaching for a freelance life (without any idea of what that might look like) and Jackie got a job at Mid-Pennine Arts as an arts development officer.  It was an excellent coincidence and we began an enduring on/off working relationship over the next 20 years or so.  I know that without Jackie I would have had no career to speak of.

She had an innate belief in me to make theatre or to make work with any difficult or challenging young person anywhere across the Mid-Pennine district and to always take a can-do approach.  Without doubt, a person thrives with that kind of investment and belief.

Before too long, Jackie moved on to an exciting new position and became the first paid worker at BYT (Burnley Youth Theatre – a place that twisted and turned between us for the next 15/20 years or so).  I was invited over to talk about some project or other and was surprised to find a blue hut in an old disused quarry, with a portacabin next door.  This was her office. That day, I also met Alan D.  Initially, I thought he was just walking his dogs – a couple of lassie type critters – but he was actually coming in for the day to work as a volunteer.  Alan was one of what I later came to know as the 3 amigos and although he didn’t know me from Adam, he immediately made a beeline for me.  That was the beauty of that place: if you were in, you were in and you were welcome.  Alan, Moira and Andrew were three key players who gave hours of their time for free at BYT to build a youth theatre like no other in the country: each in different ways, but each intensely. It might have been a blue hut in a field but those three had plans for it – those three wanted to transform the place into the single most important youth theatre anywhere in the UK.  I don’t know where that vision came from, but they each gave up their free time year on year to see it through to an impressive conclusion.

Alan had been the arts development manager at Burnley Council but had left.  I do not know why although rumour had it that he had always liked to take a drink, and sometimes this got in the way of his productivity. I don’t know the truth of this…but I do know that he worked day after day on bids for the youth theatre, putting in hours of time to raise money for a new building.  He spoke with a gentle Scottish burr and wore what can only be describe as a Greek Fisherman’s hat, and always looked a little like Captain Bird’s Eye.  He laughed heartily.  I always passed the time of day with him, and he reciprocated, offering me an insight into whatever weird or wonderful thing was in his mind that day.  He smiled often.

There is something strange between paid workers and volunteers: something that has to be negotiated.  Alan took up a lot of space, and sometimes, because of his history and his former job, chipped in when his thoughts weren’t welcome. Jackie tolerated this as well as anyone could be expected to – but it can’t have been easy.  It got better as BYT began to flex its muscles and become a bigger organisation, taking on new staff each year: a marketing person, an outreach person, a caretaker and, finally, a general manager.  Jackie became Artistic Director.  All this time, young people came to the youth theatre to do sessions, and shows, and a whole lot more.  All this time young people grew, changed, fledged and left.

In the early 2000s the 3 amigos and Jackie got perilously close to achieving their ambition of receiving grant aid to build the youth theatre.   They were invited down to London to be told of their success only on arriving to be ushered into a room and told there was no money left.  No one give up hope.  They dusted themselves off and started the long, arduous process of fundraising again. That place was special – generation on generation of children came and went often moving on to other bigger and better things, always giving a really clear sense of the impact of their stay.

Finally in 2003 (or maybe 2004) success came.  It was a momentous time: all celebrated this extraordinary thing that had happened.  Building work started straight away… and out of the disused quarry sprang the most extraordinary building.  It was designed to look like a building that belonged in a the footprint of the forest of Burnley, and it did, clad with beech that aged over time.

The building was completed in 2005 – an extraordinary achievement by Jackie and the 3 amigos.  Soon after, Jackie wanted to move on: she had, she felt, completed what she’d set out to do – created the biggest youth theatre space in the country and it was someone else’s turn to take it to the next level.

A new Artistic Director came in and – as is often the case after a successful tenure – he struggled to make an impact.  This was compounded by the early (and unexpected) death of Alan D: instrumental in changing the outcomes for so many young people and still committed to bid writing, he allegedly fell down the stairs of his home having had too much to drink.  I don’t know if this was salacious gossip or truth: I do know he was a massive loss to the organisation.

To honour him, and early in the new building’s life, Alan’s funeral took place in the main studio.  He had been so instrumental in its creation.  It was a strange and sombre affair: his coffin on the stage area, as if it wasn’t really happening at all.  His children and his wife players in this performance that no one wanted to see took their parts, his daughter delivering an extraordinary powerful eulogy.  No one applauded as he left the building, no curtains closed – there was no curtain call and, when it was over, the foyer was full of arts people dressed awkwardly in black who drifted off with few words.

Afterwards, the studio was named for Alan, a fitting tribute. Beneath his name it reads: “Anything can happen, if you don’t care who gets the credit” his favourite homily.  And something worth remembering in the business of making a difference, in transforming lives. Something I’ve taken with me.

Mary and Howard

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When I first took to country living – not the idyllic, glossy magazine lifestyle that implies but rather a sort of rough-hewn version carved out of the Lancashire rocks – we moved into a falling down Victorian Villa. Our metropolitan friends assumed we had entered into a collective madness: water poured down into the kitchen forming a small stream that never dried up and the front conservatory had more holes than windows (and there were a lot of windows!)  In fact, none of the windows opened anywhere in the house.  The balcony, built on the whim of Mr Waring (who we were trying to buy from and who was indeed very wearing) almost claimed our builder (it leaned sideways as he explored it, and he did a near perfect comedy fall gently settling on the ground like a giant leaf. ) Every single room was bruised by an unforgiving brown hue: dark brown doors, brown walls, brown skirting boards, brown architraves.  The stairs, and indeed most rooms, had extra carpets so that they were less stairs, more a ski-slope. The toilet was on a pedestal: meaning every visit was like a tiny performance, staged for an audience of trees (and, occasionally, unsuspecting workmen.)

But in the midst of this madness there was also magic.  At the top of the stairs, for example, a wardrobe like cupboard (also brown) stood.  It opened to a ladder which led into the loft and we, though neither Snotty or I spoke,  both made the decision to buy the house at that moment.  Climbing up the ladder and spying yet more carpets (along with the bumpiest floor known to mankind) sold the house to us.   Totally without thinking it through we made a cash offer over the phone  later in the pub as if we were in a very bad episode of a Channel 4 programme: the second time we’d done something that reckless.  We were entranced by its potential, by the 3/4 acre of overgrown untamed vegetation around it, and the unspoilt view of the Pennines.

In fact, it was really only semi-rural.  And although it looked perfectly lovely, it also sat in a very poor area of the country – rural poverty cheek by jowl with great riches.  A famous Man United player lived round the corner, for example.  But so too did families who had endured unemployment for three or four generations.   Our house sat on the very end of what we laughingly called shoe mile.  Rossendale was renowned for two things: mizzle and felting, the mizzle being the prerequisite of the latter. Through the Industrial Revolution, city folk moved to mills neither caring for or loving the country, and set up home.  That was how it worked.

Our house (Glenmallan) was originally  the Under Manager’s house at a long-closed down Foundry and though smaller than the Manager’s next door (Palm House, where Mary and Howard lived) it was in possession of a significantly better aspect.  Below sat three cottages converted from an old coach house.  Together, this was Foundry Vale and the day I moved in I halved the mean age of the residents.  If I’d have thought about it, I should have realised that this was a worry: old people get older.  Older people need care and help. Aside from Howard and Mary next door: the cottages were occupied left to right Mr and Mrs Speke, Tommy and Agnes and Joe and Betty.

My first introduction to Agnes and Mr Speke was a bit inauspicious.  A few weeks after our arrival Agnes shouted up to me, “Do you have a black and white cat?”  We did.  We had three.  Two of these, Jelly and JoeCat had belonged to our friend who had emigrated and they had struggled to integrate: particularly Jelly who had transitioned from female to male (a case of mistaken identity) and who would not, in spite of our best efforts, come in at night.

“I do,” I said.

“I think it’s not very well,” Agnes said, “Or maybe sleeping.”

I walked through Agnes’ house to reach her garden.  It smelt of cigarette smoke and fried onions.  There were catholic icons on the walls.  Agnes’ thin frame darted ahead. She looked desiccated.

“I don’t think he’s sleeping,” I said.

Mr Speke popped his head over the wall: a powerful chap, an ex-farmer with ruddy cheeks and the sort of Lancashire accent no longer heard, deep and musical. “That cat’s dead, that is,” he said.  Very soon afterwards, within months, Agnes herself would be dead.  I saw her one day cocooned in a blanket and on a stretcher chair, oxygen mask strapped to her face.  She was driven away in an ambulance and I never saw her again.

Mr Speke was right.  He also carried Jelly home and we buried him (possibly her?) under a slab of concrete topped with a stargazing hare.

The longer you live in a place, the more you rub along with your neighbours. Over the years, relationships deepen.  The fact that you are significantly younger than your neighbours makes not a jot of difference when you are trying to find common ground. We enjoyed a Christmas drink with Joe and Betty, but it was Mary and Howard whose life began to intertwine with our own.

For a while, like our neighbours, we speculated about Howard and his issues.  He seemed a lovely chap, but distant and occasionally physically uncertain.  Gossip (mostly from Betty) suggested that he was a depressive, but given his failing vocal chords (he squeaked when he spoke) it seemed more complex than that.  And who were we to judge in any case?  As time moved on, he looked up less and shuffled more but we did not assume (as Betty did) that he had an alcohol problem, neither that he refused to work or that he’d always been a mummy’s boy. He was, largely speaking, self-contained.  He sometimes did engage.  Sometimes did not.  Mary, his mother, was also diffident, not given to self-aggrandisement or big displays.  Mary popped over occasionally, to chat about a bird she’d seen or some other piece of news about our cat Charlie who she fed milk to, but mostly they kept themselves to themselves and we were fine with that. Mary was religious, kind, a musical lover and passionate about animals (she was often distraught about animal cruelty).

Our journey to close was slow and then very fast. Things began to change when Mary could not make her legs work.  Well, that only tells some of the story.  We began to look out for Howard and Mary when her cleaner who – not be too unkind – was quite stupid, and her equally stupid partner said they were moving in.  Stupid, but still an eye for the main chance.  All the alarm bells that side of the Pennines started to ring out: Mary’s hip had seized up and she could not get up the stairs to bed.  Perhaps their motives were laudable but they also requested payment for everything: for shopping, for bringing the bed downstairs, for doing the garden… and so on.  And they’d taken a sudden interest in undertaking a lot of different chores around the place many of which didn’t need doing.

The trouble was, Mary was old by this time, and vulnerable and she was often persuaded that her back door did need painting or of some other spurious and entirely unnecessary job. Snotty – the other half – got wind of this, and knocked all that shenanigans on the head straight away.  It wasn’t that they were unkind: but they did see Mary and Howard as cash-cows, living in that grand old house as they did, always having cash around and about.

Soon, Snotty, being neighbourly, was bobbing in and out of Palm House on a daily basis, making sure that both were okay.  Taking in cakes, making a pot of tea, cooking up a storm: sharing our food.  Howard, it transpired had Huntingdon’s disease: a miserable, low-down, sneak of a condition that stole away another bit of his personality every single day; that robbed him of his abilities by degrees. It was the same miserable disease that had killed his father twenty years before, an unforgiving hereditary illness that wipes out whole families.

In the next few months before Mary had her hip operation, Howard changed on a daily basis and before long he was confined to bed, unable to move without assistance.  It was his blessing that he was zen-like in his deterioration; uncomplaining, benign, taking each new insult the disease lobbed at him with a resigned metaphorical shrug.  There was no raging into the night with Howard.

After that Snotty became the unofficial unpaid manager of both their care packages, looking out for them, making sure carers turned up, and did the best they could for them.  Snotty took action when carers stepped over the line (including instigating disciplinary proceedings against one who had taken to, oddly, lying beside Howard on his bed and stroking him.)  Every day, month after month, Snotty popped in once, twice, three times a day: often taking the last shift because some carer or other had not turned up and helping to put them both to bed.

Months before Howard died Snotty arranged for the owl man to bring his birds to his room: he had always loved birds of prey (and drag car racing, apparently!)  Howard was as animated that day as he’d been for years.  When he died, the owl man, in his own time, came again and let the birds fly across the willow coffin at the end of the service: quite the most moving thing I’ve ever seen.  Howard was buried on the side of hill near Settle in an environmentally sound place where buzzards fly freely…

Mary soldiered on for another two years.  She loved music – I lent her my digital radio so she could listen to classic FM.  But soon, her hearing began to fail.  And that was when the curtain began to slowly close on her soul.  She took ill on the second anniversary of Howard’s death, and died days later.  Mary was buried beside her son, exactly two years to the day of his burial.

Who by Fire?

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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.