The trolley creaked and moaned under a mound of books, CDs and Audiobooks as I wheeled it down the echoing corridor. I halted beside an imposing metal door and thumped a hardback against its shiny surface. A plate slid back and a wizened face peered out at me.
“You’re not the regular chap,” said the high-security prisoner. “Where’s old Sniffer?”
“He’s bin promoted,” I said, playing Mr Cool, despite my heart crashing against my ribs. “Yeah; he’s landed himself a job in the gardens.”
The prisoner seemed satisfied and unbolted the door. I rattled in, breath spurting out in gulps and hands fumbling as I closed the heavy door behind me.
I’d made it.
All those months of planning, of sucking up to the guards, of keeping my nose clean, of volunteering for every shit job going, had paid off. I was about to confront the one man in the world I wanted dead.
He was a small, shrivelled man of about seventy, his face the same colour as his grey uniform. When he saw the weighty tome in my hand, his eyes lit up and the lines on his face faded as if an etch-a-sketch had been wiped.
“I ordered Crime and Punishment, very appropriate, don’t you think?”
“I couldn’t get you that.” I gave him a meaningful look as I thrust the book into his hands. “I got you Trial and Retribution instead.”
Realization hit him like an Aussie scrum, his shoulders slumped, the book slid to the floor and he mumbled, “I’ve known that somebody would get to me eventually. W-what are you going to d-do?”
I’d spent so long working towards this moment, I hadn’t decided what form my revenge would take. As he flopped on to his bunk, I thought about the events that had brought me here.
On the day of my mother’s funeral, I was sorting through some of her papers. I was making good progress, but the memories surfaced.
I knew I’d once been a happy child, mother bearing the brunt of father’s anger while protecting me. But, at some point, dad had become Mr Hyde and beaten her so badly she’d spent three months in hospital. As a consequence, I’d been farmed off to foster parents in Hucknall. I couldn’t remember any of my time there.
“You don’t laugh any more, do you?” said, Andy Smith, my ex-best friend. I’d returned to school to find everyone had moved on and I was behind in all the subjects. Andy had palled up with somebody else and worst of all they sat me next to Dwayne Watts, the class dunce. The headmaster, Mr Healey, had some other favourite to read to him in his study. I felt worthless. Three months earlier, I was one of the in-crowd, and now I was an outcast, spending my time with Dwayne.
Wedged within a large bundle of electricity bills was a small brown envelope, containing my first wage packet. I hadn’t realized mother was such a hoarder. As soon as I left school, dad found me a job in the factory around the corner, saying, “I’ve sorted you a job at Jackson’s Engineering. You’ll be doing all the dirty jobs to start with. About all you’re fit for. But at least you’ll be bringing some money in.”
I hated it at first; they gave me all the menial jobs and I was bullied by my peers and by the managers, but I was determined to stick it out. I could handle the bullying; I was used to it. I couldn’t let mother down; I had to prove my worth to her. I would sneak in, while dad was out and slip my wage into mother’s shaking hand.
“I hear they’ve got you sweeping up. I bet they don’t know which is you and which is the bloody broom, you skinny bugger.”
I didn’t stay skinny for long, working hard and doing all the heavy jobs. As my confidence grew so did my physique. Soon, I was promoted on to the machines and by eighteen was earning top money.
Two weeks after my eighteenth birthday, I marched into the house, proud barrel chest bursting out of my confining shirt, and handed over my first man’s wage. Mother took the money without a smile and as I looked into her face, I saw the apprehension she was failing to disguise.
“All right, where is he?”
“He’s down the pub getting rat-arsed. He’s blown his wages on the horses,” she blinked back the tears. “And he’s taken my housekeeping to drown his sorrows. I don’t think I can take any more. I’m not as young as I once was.”
“That’s it,” I said, punching my fist into my palm. “I’ve had enough. When he comes back throwing his weight about and swinging his fists, I’m throwing the bugger out. C’mon, let’s pack his suitcase.”
We sat in silence, awaiting his arrival. Mother twitching and tapping her foot; me as still as a Buddha. I’d taught myself to switch my mind off. A defence mechanism from when dad went on one of his rampages and the lads in the factory wanted to big themselves up at my expense.
It was about eleven when he fell through the door, bawling, “Where’s me fucking dinner? If it’s not on the table in five… two minutes, you know what you’ll get.”
Despite my rage, I remained calm, grabbed his left arm from behind, and forced his right arm up his back. I man-handled him over to the front door, picking up the suitcase, as I went, pushed him out on to the street and marched him to the main road. I dropped his case on to the pavement and told him straight: “We don’t wanna see you again, all right?”
He turned to argue, but on seeing the resolve in my eyes he knew, this once, not to push his luck. His shoulders slumped, his back arched and he sloped away. I’ve not seen him since and didn’t expect to see him at the funeral. When back home, I said, “I’ll take care of you, mum, from now on.”
The bin was nearly full of papers and it was past noon. I shrugged away the clawing past, struggled to my feet and went to prepare for the funeral. Another fit of torment seared through my body, so I tried to distract myself by predicting the clichés I’d be bombarded with later that day. People needed to express their feelings of sympathy and a glib phrase was better than awkward silence. I understood this but knew which I preferred.
I survived the funeral, using grief as a barrier. At the Royal Oak, I’d climbed on to a bar stool and sluiced a gallon of anaesthetizing beer through my system. A couple of my dad’s drinking companions had the cheek to say, “Aye, he’s a character, your dad,” “Always stood his round too,” “We miss him around here.”
I ignored them, knowing from experience, blokes who were ‘characters’ made poor fathers.
Brenda, the barmaid, said, “What are your plans now, love?”
“I don’t know. I’ve always had this feeling that something happened to me when I was a kid.” I rocked on the stool. “Something so terrible I buried it deep in my subconscious.”
“Well, I hope not, for your sake,” she said, leaning towards me and allowing me a view of her ample breasts. “Minds are funny things.”
She was right. I had to discover why I blanked out periods of my childhood. I hoped to find closure. After that, the future was all about me. “Yeah well, I’ll probably do some digging.”
I didn’t know where to start. I needed a treasure map.
Once out of bed, I automatically mashed a pot of tea for two, using the tea leaves mother had travelled miles to find. Refreshed, I returned to clear the remainder of the papers. Soon, there were two neat piles and an overflowing bin. There was one sheet of official looking paper left untouched, saved until last. It bore the coat of arms of the city council and was headed ‘Social Services Department’. I unfolded it with trembling fingers. Written in black ballpoint in father’s stubby handwriting was a name and address:
Mr & Mrs Peter Denton, 27 Sandon Street, Hucknall.
As I stared at the fragile sheet of paper, I knew I wouldn’t be able to move on until I’d discovered what had turned me from a normal, happy child into one who no longer laughed. A good place to start was at the Denton’s, where I’d been fostered.
The autumn drizzle splattered against a house that looked smaller and dingier than in the memories that came flooding back to me. Came with such a rush, they pushed me from the doorstep. I regained my balance, hopped from foot to foot, clenched my fists and rapped at the dilapidated door.
An unshaven man opened the door and said, “Yeah, what d’ya want?”
Peter Denton was only a shadow of the strict disciplinarian who had instructed me in the finer points of cricket and rounders and taught me respect for others.
The overwhelming cascade of pictures from my past, plus the difficulty of my errand, caused me to blurt out, “I’m Brian Talbot, remember me?” He gave me a blank stare. “I was here in the mid-90s.”
He continued looking up at me like a zombie. I wanted to smash my fist into his gormless mush.
I raised my arms and shouted, “I reckon you did something to me, ya bastard, while I was here. Summat bad. What’ve you got to say?”
This returned him to the living. He scowled, picked up a cricket bat, by the door, and said, “Not another one. I don’t believe it. Look, I was strict, but I was always fair. I never hit a kid who didn’t warrant it.”
I lowered my fists and turned to leave, feeling confused, realizing I’d made a mistake. This poor excuse for a man was telling the truth. He’d assumed I was accusing him of physical abuse. I’d been used to that, that wasn’t the cause. Now what was I to do? My one clue had been as much use as a beach holiday for a vampire.
Two months later, I appeared in court charged with GBH. I’d got into a fight with a big mouth in a pub. The six months suspended sentence I was about to receive was amended to a nine-month custodial sentence, after I verbally abused the pompous ass of a magistrate.
I didn’t mind prison. It was better than the empty house that was waiting for me. I’d been lucky; they’d put me in a cell with an old lag who showed me the ropes for a share of my weekly cigarette allowance.
I’d been there about three months, when there was a rumpus in the high-security wing.
“What’s going on?” I asked my cellmate.
“Sounds like someone’s got in and given one of the pervs a pasting.”
“I thought it was murderers and the like up that end.”
“Nah, we’ve got all the sick bastards in here: some right celebrities.”
“Oh yeah, such as?”
“Well, there’s Ken the Caretaker, Mike the Mortician, Phil the Fiddler and whoa yeah, that one from up your way…Eddy the Headmaster…Edward Healey. That’s him.”
I didn’t hear anything else after that. My knees gave way, my head started spinning and the mental wall came tumbling down, to reveal the image of a young boy, short trousers, long socks, sitting on his headmaster’s knee, nervously reading out loud.
Once the initial shock wore off, I had a purpose and a timetable; six months to find a way into the security wing. If I was successful, I expected to spend the rest of my life in prison.
And now here I was.
I snapped off the corner of the trolley, an ideal weapon of torture, and moved towards him. He dropped to his knees. I thought, if he begs for his life, I’ll bleed him like the pig he is.
He didn’t. He said: “I’m so sorry. Do you not think a day does not pass without me wishing I’d lived my life differently? Wishing I had not abus… taken advantage of my position?”
“Yeah, yeah, there must be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young men with a sponge in their brain, soaking up their childhood memories to protect them from the awful truth. Because of you. You…”
I was about to decorate the cell with his blood when I saw what he was: a pathetic old man begging for forgiveness.
The anger subsided, and I knew I didn’t want to let him ruin the rest of my life. He’d already taken half of it from me. As a gesture, I slapped him across the face with one of Linda La Plante’s gritty, over-rated pieces of nonsense and returned to my cell.
© Peter Pitman