Short Story of the Month
'The Purging' by Drew Martyn
Our new Short Story of the Month is 'The Purging' by Drew Martyn.
'One cloud and a couple of vapour trails lazed against a heat-paled blue sky and a warm afternoon slid slowly into evening; I was aware of none of it. I was seventeen and cool, she was sixteen and hot: that's all you can see at that age.'
In the lazy days of summer, two teenagers are forced to grow up quickly as they are thrown into the real world by events beyond their control.
Drew and his family live in Wales where he enjoys writing, football, music and real ales. He's had dark fiction published in a number of print anthologies including Horror Library volume 5 and Fortune: Lost and Found as well as online and in magazines including Isotropic Fiction and Dark Tales. In Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (May 2017) he toyed with sword and sorcery prose-poetry. In the past he's also contributed articles and conducted interviews for a UK soccer website. If asked about inspiration, he'd witter on forever about Ray Bradbury, William Trevor and especially Georges Perec, so probably best not to...
One cloud and a couple of vapour trails lazed against a heat-paled blue sky and a warm afternoon slid slowly into evening; I was aware of none of it. I was seventeen and cool, she was sixteen and hot: that's all you can see at that age.
Her name was Alison. She had a body to turn heads and a face to turn hearts, and I swallowed hard and said something inane at the first smile she gave me. It was summer holidays, no school, time for fun. Time for growing up into the real world - and I had a lot of growing up to do and not much time to do it in.
She took me home to meet her family.
I'd heard a few things about them, mostly from Alison. That was ok: listen to her stories and her family were okay. But I heard rumours too. And then someone told someone else who told someone who told me... and those rumours I didn't like one bit.
But, anyway, we were here, walking onto her estate. The people we passed looked surprisingly ok. Normal. They didn't have two heads, or bite the heads off kittens or carry machetes or grenades. They didn't snarl or even growl as we walked past. Most of them didn't even frown.
It was a typical housing estate: a warren of streets, narrow alleys and short cuts, cars half-off half-on the pavement, some tidy front gardens, a few of them anyway, some just rubbish tips for the couldn't care less brigade.
"My house is just up here," Alison said as we turned a corner. I slowed the pace.
"It's ok," she reassured me, laughing. "Honest."
We passed a few bedraggled houses, the ubiquitous mattress in one of the front gardens, a rusty pram in another. And then, for no apparent reason, the houses suddenly looked cleaner, more looked-after. It took me a few yards to realise it was because they didn't have flaking paint on the doors and windows. And the cars were parked properly. And the lawns were mowed. Lawns? I realised these houses here had the first grass and flowers in front of them that I'd seen on the estate.
"Mine," said Alison, opening a wrought iron gate. It squeaked a bit as we walked through. I suppose it had to give some sort of nod to the neighbourhood. Or a warning to those inside the house.
That thought both scared me and made me realise I was being a snob. Ew no; one didn't tolerate unoiled hinges where I came from, certainly not.
I can be a prat sometimes, I reminded myself.
On the other hand this house even had coaching lamps, shiny and polished, each side of the front door. Nice. Bit over the top, common maybe, but nice.
I can be judgemental, too. Goes with being a prat.
Shit, she was opening the front door! I hung back but she grabbed my hand and pulled me along like some toy dog. A waft of soap and Brut hit me as we walked in. I was about to meet the family.
This is what I knew of them:
Da had a reputation that could scratch diamonds, and fists to match. This town was his town.
Ma loved her own. For everyone else there were razors and bullets, mostly wielded by her tongue. Mostly (apparently).
Big brother Paul took one look at me and said: "Get her pregnant and you marry her, or you'll never see her again." This wasn't a threat, this was a vision.
I didn't listen. I didn't care. After all, I reasoned, what's sight worth, when love itself is blind? Oh yeah, I'm a romantic. Bit of a poet, me.
In other words, an all round total prat.
Inside, her house gave no indication of being anything special. It looked sort of nice. Tidy, like. No dead bodies. No suitcases full of money. And definitely no guns.
"Hi Da," said Alison.
Da stood in front of a large sideboard mirror shaving with a cutthroat razor, a bowl of soap suds in front of him, his white vest splashed grey with soapy water, his braces hanging to his knees. A radio in an upstairs room spoke loudly of last year's moon landing and something about The Beatles disbanding.
As soon as I appeared, Da turned into a statue, the razor blade slicing my reflection, only his eyes moving, following me.
Even if I wasn't, I'd have had to say "Yessir" to that voice.
"Don't call me 'Sir'. Don't call nobody 'Sir'. When you're with my girl, other people call you 'Sir'. Understand?"
I almost said "Yessir." Instead, I said "So they should."
It was the right thing to say. He chuckled and carried on shaving.
"Thanks Daddy!" Alison said, grinning.
Mam called out "Alison" and Alison led me into the kitchen. Mam wiped her hands on a tea-towel and threw it onto the sink before turning around to face us.
She looked at me for a second, then "Why don't you sit down, love?" in a way that said, quietly and gently, "Sit down or I'll rip your throat out."
So I sat down.
She looked me up and down. Like Alison, she had big blue eyes, but Mam's were a mother's eyes, an assessor's eyes, looking for weapons and chinks in armour.
I looked at Alison.
Mam leaned forward. That meant "Stop looking at her. Look at me, good boy!"
She said "Still in school, love?"
I nearly lied, saying I had a job, maybe that would go down better. Mothers liked that sort of thing: mature young man and all that.
What came out was "Yes, I am."
Mam's eyes smiled then and she nodded. "It's good you didn't lie to me," she whispered. I felt like she could see into my soul, and I blushed. Not cool.
Turns out, Mam was lovely. Da, too. In his own way. Didn't go out of his way to say much but was always ok. Big Brother Paul hardly spoke to me either, but I soon realised that wasn't because he didn't like me or anything like that: he never spoke much to anyone. Just spoke when he had something to say, that's all.
I got used to being here. There were no pretensions here: they loved each other and were open about it. Didn't care who knew it. They looked after their own and expected the same from everyone else. I loved being with Alison, she made me laugh and I felt good with her. She seemed to like being with me, and I felt sort of settled here. Almost part of the family.
It wasn't like my family were unloving or uncaring or un-anything. They were great. They just didn't show much emotion, stiff upper lip and what'll-the-neighbours-say sort of behaviour. Which was fine, I'm not criticising. I love my mum and dad, and they love me I reckon. No, this wasn't better. This was just different.
See, I'm not judgemental all the time. Though to be honest, those thoughts surprised me a bit. Maybe it's because Ali was rubbing off on me. Who knows?
I got used to not asking questions, too. Like not asking questions when Da and Paul had to sort out a bit of business. Not asking anything about the men who came to the back door. Not asking anyone why Da and Paul were the people to see if you had a "problem".
They just were. I accepted it.
It was obvious from the start both Da and Paul could handle themselves. And from what I heard, Mam too. Seemed that most people were scared of them. I could see why, and also I couldn't see why. But mostly, I could see why... oh, see, I found it hard to describe them. Hard to get my head around how they'd help old Mrs Wilson from three streets away by buying her week's shopping for her, but somehow that Big Reggie Davies bloke, a moneylender by all accounts had to spend time in hospital because he'd not paid his dues and because Davies had threatened Alice from four doors down, because she couldn't pay her dues. (Disrespectful, Da called it, Bullying and disrespectful.)
It hadn't taken me long to realise that I'd walked into the home of the hardest family on the hardest estate within two hundred miles and I felt at home. It wasn't that I was hard as nails myself. Far from it, I couldn't even pretend to be a fighter, just didn't have it in me.
But here I sat. Here, a world away from my respectable semi-detached and double garage. Here, on a delinquent housing estate bordering miles of moorland: that image said it all - in a silence only mountains and close-knit communities understood.
Here were no pretensions. They called a spade a spade and sometimes used one to get rid of something. Or someone.
Whatever, I was here. And it felt good.
No, I wasn't a fighter. I just adored Alison.
I wasn't really used to pubs, but we walked into The Vulcan anyway. The bar matched the face of the landlord: peeling walls, cracked lino floor, knife-scarred bar and tables.
The place hushed. Alison grabbed a table. "Two pints of Bow, please," I said unconvincingly, and somehow got served.
A man behind me stood up. "Fuck off out kids, you're too young."
I ignored him, more out of surprise that I'd been served. I might have been seventeen but I looked all of fifteen.
"Oi, ya lilfucker!" he bellowed at me.
The landlord was out from behind the bar in a flash, and he grabbed the man's arm, pulling him away. "Shut it, Mal," he said. He nodded at Alison, her head down, rummaging in a carrier bag. She looked up and smiled.
"You know who that is?" the barman hissed. "That's Roy Callow's girl."
The man paled, then half-smiled through non-existent teeth.
"Come on," Alison laughed, "Let's get pissed."
Roy Callow gave me a knife. I didn't want it.
"You won't need him. But it's good you got him. In case."
It had a dirty five inch blade, grubby handle, and a leather sheath with slashes for a belt.
"A blade'll soak up the character of its owner. Magic, right? Keep him good and looked after, and some of his sharpness will get into you and some of you will get into the blade. If you're suited for 'round here, the knife'll know. It'll sharpen all by itself."
I spent days sharpening and cleaning that knife. Gleaming it was, gleaming.
We were watching telly in her front room, Alison and me, when someone loudly knocked the front door.
The thing is, you don't loudly knock doors around here. Ever. You either know people well enough to give a quiet tap and walk in or - you stay away.
He knocked again and I ran to open it.
"Mr Callow's in."
His said it like a statement of fact, not a question.
His thin lips hardly moved, but the words escaped anyway, tumbling down his vast chest. A big man, he looked strangely uncomfortable in his skin. Like his shoulders, his face sagged and his dull eyes were grey, almost washed out. He gave the impression of a mountain in misty rain.
I hardly had time to say anything before Mr Callow appeared beside me. "You and Alison out of the front room. I got business."
The men shook hands, the stranger a good head taller and a good foot wider than Roy Callow, then without another word they disappeared into the front room. The door closed emphatically behind them.
We hung around outside the door, fishing for an odd sentence or a meaningful word from out of the muffled depths of conversation that pooled in that room. But my bait was invisible and we were caught fishing without a licence when Mam suddenly appeared.
"Sod off, you two! Alison, take him out somewhere!"
"Who's in there?" Alison asked.
"Never you mind, girl!"
"Haven't seen him 'round here before!"
I chanced it:
"Is he the police?"
Mam made a sound, something akin to laughter. "If it's your business, boy, you'll know soon enough!" she whispered urgently.
And soon enough, I did.
"Now, out, both of you. Da's busy and so am I. Give us an hour, Al."
Summer was magical. With no school, I spent day after day with Alison.
I almost kept up with Alison drinking Bow.
We made love.
And yes, stars exploded, Cupids fired arrows and choirs sang. And that was just at the first kiss.
We spent more and more time walking on the moors, less and less time admiring its wild beauty.
Also, I won my first ever proper fight. In The Miners Arms someone told Alison "Your lucky day, gorgeous, I'd fuck you." I surprised myself by taking him down with two quick punches. I surprised myself even more by walking to the bar and buying him a pint "for later" before walking out.
Feeling for all the world like John Fucking Wayne.
Roy Callow kept conversations clean and tidy when Alison and I were around. A couple of times we'd walk into something - God knows what! - between him and Paul, but silence would fall like a guillotine every time we appeared. Then, in its place, talk of the weather, of Town FC, or Dai Dowlais' latest harebrained scheme.
But not tonight.
We barged noisily into the house, bursting with laughter until we saw Da and Paul's faces. Then we deflated. In silence.
"Sit down, you two," Callow directed. They were sat around a table, him and Paul, and we sat down quietly.
Paul stood up and positioned himself behind my chair.
Alison looked worried.
I guess she'd seen this sort of thing before.
"Get your Mother, boy," Callow instructed.
"Daddy?" Alison repeated, more uncertainly this time.
Paul didn't move, just shouted "Ma-aam!" It was the sort of shout that carried like a blast at the local quarry, shaking doors and making window panes rattle. If you timed it right, you could kill someone in the shade of that blast.
She arrived and sat down in front of me. Her eyes traced every contour of my face.
Roy Callow turned his chair slightly, the better to face me.
Mam's eyes narrowed. They seemed to glow green, like a tiger's preparing to spring.
"What do you know about drugs, boy?"
It wasn't what he said, it was how he said it that scared me half to death.
Each word was forced on me individually, slowly and deliberately, delivered like separate parcels wrapped up tightly in a voice as sheer and unforgiving as exposed rock.
One by one, word by word, he and Mam watched as I grasped the meaning of each word. They stared intently as I fitted them together, one jigsaw piece at a time, and they measured my reaction when I'd built the whole picture.
And any reply I gave them? I knew they'd see right through it to its timid heart.
If I was anywhere else, with anyone else, my make-myself-look-so-cool reply would probably have been: “Yeah, done acid a few times. A bit of Black, too. Prefer Leb Red personally. Heroin? Expensive shit. See the faces of some of ‘em who’ve been on it a while? Imploded. Like they once harboured a soul but it’s been sucked out of 'em. But acid and dope, they're cool.”
A cool reply. Cool, maybe, but a lie. Drugs fascinated me: Doors Of Perception, awareness, inner realms, all that stuff. But this was Here. This was Now.
And this was Serious.
I answered honestly.
“Nothing,” I said, my voice shaking, "Nothing at all."
I wanted to ask why, but nothing came out of my mouth.
Callow leaned forward.
“You done drugs, boy?”
My throat tightened like a noose. I shook my head.
“Who’ve you sold drugs to?”
I shook my head again.
Behind me Paul hammered his fist on the table. I left the chair for a second.
“I never even seen proper drugs,” I managed to force out.
“Shutup girl! Lie to me, boy.”
I must have looked surprised because the corner of Mam’s mouth twitched upwards.
“Lie. To me." His face came between Mam's and mine. His breath was hot, his eyes were cold and his words sliced me. "Now!”
“Um... London is in France?”
Callow snorted icily. His eyes studied mine for a thousand years, then slowly like a receding glacier he sat back on his chair.
The room fell quiet, the only sound the hammering of my heart, looking for a way out. I was convinced everyone could hear the sweat squeezing out of my pores.
I wiped some from my face with visibly shaking hands.
No one's hurt me, not even threatened me, but my fear is as real as their intention, as real as the table I'm trembling against. It's solid and hard but for all the support it gives me, it's still just an unyielding piece of wood. Like a bat. Or a cudgel. Or anything else nearby capable of splintering bone.
"Well?" Paul asked, gripping both my shoulders. The contact made me jump and I had to focus on not shitting myself.
Callow, unsmiling, nodded.
"Mike," Mam touched my hand. "Why don't you two go watch telly now."
I'm cuddled in Alison's arms, my head on her breast, my eyes dry again, when Roy Callow entered and sat down.
He doesn't know, but I'd lasted all of two minutes acting hard and pretending it hadn't bothered me at all. Then I lost it, felt like I was six years old and abandoned, and cried like a child. The only reason I managed to control myself was I thought Alison would soon push me away and tell me to grow up. But she didn't. She held me tight and said softly "You'll be ok babe, I'm with you."
"I got something to explain to you kids," Callow said to me, pretending not to notice my eyes or the wet patch on my sleeve.
I sat up, all polite and ready to listen. Alison reached out to hold my hand.
Turns out the man who'd visited Roy Callow was one Eddie Morgan. Now Mr Morgan was from Cardiff, and he'd come to see Mr Callow because his son married a local girl and moved here. And Morgan needed some local nous.
Eddie Morgan had a big reputation - even I'd heard of Eddie Morgan, though I had no idea it was him who'd knocked Callow's door. Eddie Morgan was A Name.
And when Mr Morgan left yesterday evening, there was a mutual respect and solid understanding between the two men. The handshake was strong and genuine, despite there being no smiles.
He had fingers in pies, did Eddie Morgan: some sweet, some unsavoury, and given the size of his hands, they'd be bloody big pies. But it wasn't pie business Eddie Morgan had come about that night.
His son was in hospital. On tubes. Heroin overdose. Beaten up then injected with the stuff: bad shit, bought local. That concentration, they probably reckoned his heart would explode. Dead men don't testify.
Callow knew a dealer had appeared on the estate around the time I did, and for Alison's sake he needed to make sure that two and two didn't equal me.
Mam walked in then, carrying two glasses of lemonade.
"See," she said "we've got to find out who did this thing. Can't have it happening, not on the estate."
She handed me a glass, then one to Alison.
"It all depends on your point of view," she explained while Da just stood and watched, arms folded, saying nothing.
"It all depends on where you're coming from, see.
"If you're a fly, shit's fine and a spider's web means horror. A spider's web means being trapped, unhurt but unable to move; and worst of all, knowing that you will experience agony before eventually dying.
"And if you're not a fly? Well! Shit aint fine." She laughed. "Have you seen a spider's web shimmering at dawn? Seen how beautiful it is? How it catches the light, how dew looks like jewels in its fragile beauty, its symmetry?
"Fragility and beauty, and death. That's life," said Mam.
I sort of understood what she was saying.
"We'll find out who it was," Roy Callow said and left the room.
The spider was busy, spinning. Word got around. Soon, people came to see Callow. The web grew.
Eddie Morgan's boy Rhys was popular on the estate. He had a job, which gave him a degree of respectability, but the main thing was he helped run the youth club and under-10s football team. Kids loved him, their parents - well, most couldn't give a shit, but enough of them thought he was great for their kids so they wanted to help Roy Callow find the culprit.
Which explained why a certain name kept cropping up in conversation.
Dean Morris. Deemo to his friends, of which there was one. An ape called Ben. Deemo's dangerous, some people said. Bad blood, some said. I saw him, someone said, he buys gear in Cardiff and Swansea to sell around here.
Callow's spider did some simple arithmetic: 2+2=4
I'd come across Dean Morris and Ben once before, though I didn't realise I'd met him until later.
I'd known Alison about a week or so when it happened, it was on our first proper date. We'd spent an afternoon wandering around the shops, a couple of kids having a laugh. (She said I was cute. I didn't much like cute. I wanted to be cool, hard and sexy. But cute was ok for now, it would have to do.)
"Let's go back to my house. Bus?" she queried.
"Nah, let's walk." I said because I didn't want the afternoon to end and I wanted her full attention.
So we started walking.
They approached us in a car park.
"Hands out of your pockets!" hissed Alison.
"What?" I may as well have stood there with a neon sign above my head, flashing VICTIM.
Dean Morris pushed his face into mine: "Whatcha got on ya, pal?"
He pushed me backwards.
"You owe me," he hissed, his face closing on mine.
I didn't know what to say.
"For fucksake, money, ya little shit!"
"Hey sexy," said Alison, and as he turned to look her over she kicked him hard between the legs.
He stood for hours - so it seemed to me - before crumpling forward and vomiting over his shoes. By which time Alison was twenty yards away.
"Fucking run, Mike!" she yelled. "Run!"
Fuck, I ran.
Yep, Dean Morris was a man everyone hated. The sort of guy who'd rob his own grandmother if he'd only known who his mother was. His father bought him up, after a fashion, though eventually even he gave up. Deemo's achievements were many and varied. Among the highlights:
At eight he'd pushed his friend in front of a car.
And set fire to his school.
At thirteen he'd chucked a brick through a lorry windscreen. From a bridge, while it was doing sixty.
At nineteen he'd somehow escaped a custodial for rape.
More recently he'd set fire to a block of flats.
And during all this, his friend Ben followed like some podgy lapdog.
A talking lapdog.
The coppers didn't know where Morris's weak point was. Even Morris didn't know where Morris's weak point was. But Roy Callow found it.
To Roy Callow, Ben didn't so much squeal, as chat affably.
That Rhys Edwards, Roy Callow had said, he's a bit of a twat, isn't he? Fair play to the bloke who did him up.
He's a real goody goody, isn't he, Roy Callow had said. Thinks he's better than the rest of us.
Deemo don't like him. Me neither, Ben had said.
He's not local, see, Roy Callow pulled his net tighter. Cardiff boy, I reckon. Posh like. Not like us, is he Ben?
Interferin' bastard, that's what Deemo says.
Aye, coming here, telling us what to do. Posh git, thinks we're nothing he does, thinks we're bloody nothing!
Roy Callow paused. Then:
He said you were too fat to play football, that you probably had no skill anyway.
The net closed.
Fuckin' outsider, Roy Callow said shaking his head, insulting us like that.
And Ben shook his head too and felt that Roy Callow had an idea how he, Ben, had been feeling all his life.
Then Callow pressed the button.
Deserves everything he gets, that boy. Roy Callow laughed. Can't mess with us, eh Ben?
And Ben laughed too, and then the words came.
He told how Deemo had been trying to push heroin outside the youth club and Rhys had threatened to call the police. He told him how next evening Rhys had thumped Deemo a couple of times when he saw a kid buying Valium and Nardil off him.
And he told Roy Callow how they'd both "giggled after getting him back, beat shit outa that Rhys Morgan, see, then Deemo fucked him up good and proper with some proper bad H."
Roy Callow knew Alison detested Dean Morris.
She'd just turned thirteen when she'd come across some woman raped and battered under an alley's blinded streetlamp. Broken cheeks, a broken jaw and a knife-slashed arm. She sat on the tarmac, half-naked, struggling to get her skirt back on.
When Alison tried to help, Deemo emerged from out of the shadow and pressed Alison against the wall, hands everywhere.
Unaware that Alison was there, unaware even of Deemo's continued presence, the woman began to scream. She screamed and screamed and couldn't stop. Deemo ran off.
Alison answered police questions, reliving the horror over and over in every nightmarish detail. There'd been enough evidence to prosecute, but not enough to convict. Somehow Morris got off.
And that's one of the reasons why Alison and I, Eddie Morgan and Roy Callow will ride together in the same car. And Dean Morris follow one car behind.
"You have to go with them," Mam said. When Alison protested, she shut her up with a look.
"I know how you feel Alison," Mam spoke softly. "But believe me it'll be better this way."
She sat down on the arm of Alison's chair, put her arm around her and pulled her in close.
Mam said sometimes you see things you shouldn't. When you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's just unlucky. Sometimes bad things, things that shouldn't happen, well, they happen: that's life, deal with it.
But there are times when you need to see something you shouldn't.
When not seeing it will let a wound fester and spread until it destroys you. When not seeing it will gnaw away at you until eventually the only thing you can do is to turn your fear and hatred in on yourself and slash and burn and cut until there's nothing left of yourself worth valuing. So you need to see it.
That's why Mam made young Alison and me ride with Mr Callow and Mr Morgan.
"Exorcism," she said. "Purging, cleansing, exorcism."
"Are you ok?" Paul asked a little later. He'd just come in to find me sitting by myself in the front room. Alison was upstairs, changing.
I looked up, startled. It was unusual for him to say much, especially to me.
"She'll really, really need you this week," he said.
I nodded, uncomprehending.
"Just know: if you let her down now I'll break your legs. Then... I'll burn your face."
He nodded. Smiled:
"You're ok," he said, "Just make sure you don't let her down. Not now."
Then he threw me a packet of condoms.
The day before, Mam had given Alison condoms.
If you're going to act grown up, you have to behave grown up, she'd said. I'd thought it was our secret. Does everyone around here know we are sleeping together?
Two cars drove to Old Man Morris's house. He said nothing as Da and Paul, together with two blokes I'd seen before but didn't know the names of, took Dean Morris and deposited him in the back seat of one of the cars.
I watched Old Man Morris's face as we left: there was sadness around his mouth - but if eyes really do mirror the soul, then his soul was heaving a sorrowful sigh of relief.
He nodded. Said nothing; just nodded. And in that gesture, Old Man Morris, like Pilate, washed his hands of his guilt.
Dean Morris sat between Paul and another man in the back seat. Sweating, Morris shouted obscenities while neither of the men tried to quieten him.
Two cars drove onto the moors.
The second car was painfully noisy: crammed with one voice, shouting.
The first was almost silent.
Roy Callow drove. Mr Eddie Morgan sat in the front, unblinking, bereaved of all emotion. Two days earlier his son had been released from hospital, and Morgan had hardly spoken since watching his wife hug him.
In the back, Alison clung desperately onto me. She was deathly white. She whimpered and shook like a kitten shitting broken glass, and there was nothing I could do to help her. Nothing but hold her. Nothing but go along with this. And hope that it all worked out right.
We drove past hidden histories, stories and events softly silenced, out here on the moors.
Here, behind the estate's arthritic houses; here, where the longlipped wind whistles;
here, where grassy tussocks curl over like sleeping babies cotted under watchful, mothering skies.
We drive further.
Here, preachers once raged where bulrushes now cluster, fat-stemmed and tall: they spire skyward, erect as pulpits, bent as chapel congregations, flexible as ministers.
And here: Chartist’s caves remember noisier times.
And here: where the scattered sunken stones of walls long fallen direct sheep paths.
And here, especially here, where air shafts plummet down into disused mines. Once, miners knelt and phlegmed beneath this endless, echo-black shaft, whose mouth now steals rainwater to quench the spirits of those whose crushed and crumpled bodies couldn't carry them home.
This shaft isn't fussy, it'll swallow anything: unwary foxes, old sheep, blind mares.
Men bought here by force, men who have transgressed some unwritten law once too often. Such men stand friendless on the mouth's expectant lip.
And should their body ever be found, well, no mark is left by a gentle push.
And cause of death, if cause of death is required, is recorded in some distant smoky office by some uninterested hand, as “accidental”.
I looked down onto the distant lights of the Town. It is rough, much rougher than where I came from. Outside of needy, forsaken areas of big cities, this was the most outside place you'd ever need to forsake.
By day, the town behaves itself; more or less. But it's always better if you aren't there once the shops shut. Faces change, become more questioning, they challenge more. The police tread in threes. Buses stop running and sensible people stay home.
After the shops shut, even the light leaves.
Only the friendless wind hangs around alone. Though when it does, it carries a cutting edge with it, just to be safe.
Two cars pulled off the roadway, switched off their headlights and bumped onto the grass.
Roy and Eddie Morgan got out and waited silently for Alison and I.
She turned and sat with her legs out of the car but when she tried to get up, her legs buckled and she fell back onto the seat. When I walked around to her, she stretched two shaking hands out to me.
The sun had already set and thin clouds stretched luminous, scarring a fat horizoned moon. Somewhere a curlew or a snipe called a late cry for help.
I took her hands. Behind her, a shadowed, shouting Dean Morris was led away deeper into the night.
Callow whispered to Eddie Morgan, who nodded and they followed the other three men.
"Look after her, boy," Callow shouted back at us as he and Eddie Morgan left.
"Oh fu- " Alison retched, heaved, then threw up on the grass.
If only for this moment, if just for making Alison feel like this, I would have personally slit the throat of that vile bastard.
She stood up, toppled against me and began to cry.
"Come on, Ali, let's get back in the car," I whispered. "They'll cope better without worrying about us."
We crawled into the back seat and I held her until she had no more tears left to cry.
No one said anything. Car doors clicked quietly closed then we drove slowly over the grass back onto the road. Paul's car drove home; ours slowly drove ten minutes in the opposite direction, turned, and only then headed unhurriedly back.
In the mirror I spotted Eddie Morgan rubbing red-rimmed eyes. He caught me watching. I looked down, embarrassed.
"The boy," he gestured. "Where'd you say he's from, Mr Callow?"
Roy Callow told him.
I felt part of their world, a man alongside Mr Morgan and Mr Callow. There was a respect there I responded to. I had responsibility. My arm around Alison, her head on my shoulder, she was mine to look after.
The rest of the journey passed in silence. It meant a lot, being thought of as respectful by Roy Callow and Eddie Morgan.
Inside the house Roy Callow said "Here, sip it slowly" and handed us half-full whisky glasses. Mam hugged us, saying "Get some milk and cake as well. You can go watch telly," which translated as "Out. Us adults have things to talk about."
The grown-ups sat around the kitchen table and waited until we'd left to begin talking.
Later, Mam whispered "I've told Alison. Tonight: it's ok by Roy and me." I looked at her, confused. I could be a bit thick at times.
Later still, Eddie Morgan left. He and his wife were staying at his son's home.
I usually slept on the sofa. "Not tonight," Alison said. "Tonight, I need you in my bed. Don't worry. Daddy's said its ok." We wrapped our arms around each other on the sofa, and kissed, urgent and needy...
...and the next thing we knew was Mam waking us next morning, looking very surprised.
"Oh my God, you really did fall asleep down here? Still got your clothes on, hmm?" she laughed. "Well, well..."
Alison blushed. Nothing had happened but I blushed too.
"What do you want for breakfast?" Mam asked.
I looked at Alison, she at me. And we giggled like naughty schoolkids.
Summer lingered: for a whole year summer lingered, but seasons pass.
We were inseparable for a year, but then slowly, imperceptibly, things changed between us. Never a cross word, but fewer and fewer meaningful ones.
Paul asked me if I had another girlfriend at home. I didn't. Not really, anyway.
Mam didn't ask.
Alison said: "Sometimes, people come along that you need at the time. Sort of like streams, you know? they pass through, they merge; and passed through, they separate. It's life."
She sounded just like her Mam. "Never look back," she said as she kissed me goodbye.
She's right. Though sometimes it does you good to do just that.