31st April 2020
As Dave pushed the wheelchair down the corridor, Leslie Blackwell vented steam. He complained vehemently about his leg injury, apparently sustained one evening in the park. Dave listened intently.
‘I’ll find out who it was who did it; they knew what they were doing alright!’
The best thing about wearing a mask was that it rendered Dave unrecognisable. In fact, it was just about the only advantage of the whole COVID-19 situation that he could think of. Blackwell couldn’t see how much Dave was grinning behind his mask. Had this been a few months ago, there was every possibility that Blackwell would have recognised him. Dave pretended to listen sympathetically to his tale of woe.
‘They say I’ll never walk properly again. They got me in me good leg! Didn’t even rob me or nothing! Almost like they did it on purpose!’
Never walk properly again? What a terrible shame! How would he be able to go about his wretched business now? Doing his best to try and compose himself, Dave began to ask about the dreadful details of the deliberate attack on Lesley Blackwell’s left shin.
‘So how long was it ‘til you were found then, mate?’
‘Nearly two bloody hours! Left me just lying there!’
Dave felt the grin spread across his face again. Fearing that if he replied too soon he would laugh out loud, he took a deep breath.
‘That’s dire that, mate. How long have you had to stay in for now, then?’
‘Two months! Nearly two months, for heaven’s sake! It wouldn’t heal, then I got an infection. My other legs dodgy an’ all!’
Dave shoved his head into his shoulder to stifle the laughter, pausing again before he replied.
‘Aw, you’re joking. What happened to it?’
Blackwell was silent for a few seconds.
‘Got hit in it with a metal bar, years ago, by a flamin’ kid.’
Dave’s laugh broke this time and he sniggered. He tried to cover it up with a cough. Even better, Blackwell began to squirm in the chair below him.
‘Ere, you haven’t got that bloody virus, have you?’
Dave left his head tucked into his shoulder for a few seconds longer just to ensure that the laugh remained contained.
‘Na, na… hay fever, mate, get it every year.’
Dave hadn’t had this much fun in weeks. He knew that he should shut up now, but he just couldn’t help himself.
‘So where did you used to work then, mate?’
‘In a kids’ home.’
‘So do you still work there now?’
‘What is this? The bloody Spanish inquisition?’
‘Na, mate, just, well, making conversation seeing as you seem so keen to tell me all about what happened,’ Dave managed to say, as politely as he possibly could, all the time resisting the urge to laugh.
Leslie Blackwell was evidently reticent when it came to talking about his past and Dave knew exactly why. He looked down at the man’s greasy, slimy hair and wondered when he’d washed it last. He had been disgusting back then, and he was equally as disgusting now! As they neared the ward, evil thoughts began to flow through Dave’s mind as he contemplated how much pain he could cause Blackwell just using the aids lying around and about in the hospital. The cast on his left leg was poking out to the side of the wheelchair. There was a large fire extinguisher situated by the door. Oh dear, he had accidentally swerved to the left …
‘Pull your leg in, mate.’ Unfortunately it would appear that Dave had suggested this too late.
‘Aaargh!’ Blackwell screamed in agony as his leg got caught between the door and the fire extinguisher.
It had been cold all day. Ice had formed on the inside of the single-glazed bedroom window. Dave hadn’t been able to get warm since he’d come home from school. The tatty grey coat that he’d had since he was four years old had been lost. It was the coat that the other kids in school laughed at because now, two years later, the sleeves crept half way up his arms. He hadn’t seen it since they’d moved to the new estate. Initially Dave had been glad that his coat had been lost. But now, as he sat and shuddered, he wished he could find it again. He didn’t have many other clothes. Even though they’d moved over a month ago, his mum still hadn’t unpacked most of his things.
Dave missed the old house where he had lived before with his nan. It was an old red-brick terrace in the middle of town. It had a no central heating, just a real fire in the front room. But it was always warm. It felt nice there and he knew where all his things were. He felt safe when he stayed there. His nan always washed the bedding on the double bed that he and his brother Ken shared in her spare room and it smelled lovely; not like this tatty, stained thing with no cover. Dave hadn’t seen his nan for a while. His mum was supposed to have collected his things for him, but she hadn’t. Every time his mum and his nan saw each other, they started arguing. His mum had told his nan not to come round anymore. Dave felt sad – he missed her and wished that he still lived with her.
At first, when his mum told them that they were moving to the new estate, they’d been excited. She said that the new house would be modern and warm. But when they arrived, he didn’t like it; it was the same as the next house, and the one after that, and the one after that, as far as the eye could see for miles around. Boring realms of identical, grey, cardboard-coloured houses, with flats that towered high above. There were no nice gardens, flowers, character, familiarity; Dave didn’t know anybody who lived there. Instead of the coal fires that they were used to, there were radiators on the walls to make them warm. Dave once asked his mum if she could put them on. He felt a short, sharp clip around his ear.
‘Shut up about moaning about being cold; blame your dad – he’s the one that walked out on us,’ she replied as she swigged her glass of wine.
After that, Dave hadn’t dared to complain about the fact that she hadn’t made him any tea and that he was hungry. His mum was a very frightening person when she was mad. He wondered how it was that she could afford to buy wine but she didn’t have any money for the radiators and the cupboards were bare of food.
He hadn’t seen his dad for a long time. When he asked his mum where he had gone, she told him to shut up. Strangely enough, today his dad had turned up at the house, acting as if he had never been away. Dave and Ken had been happy to see him. Their mum hadn’t been. Even though it was still early, they had been sent to bed. Raised voices emanated through the thin floors and walls from downstairs. Dave snuggled onto the mattress on the floor that he shared with Ken and put his hands over his ears. They pulled the thin, stained and tattered duvet over their heads. Still cold, he felt safe next to his big brother.
Dave was frightened. Something bad always happened after his mum and dad argued. Tonight, his tummy hurt. His mum had only made them a slice of jam on toast for tea; she said she didn’t have any more food. In the school canteen, he had got into trouble for taking an extra bread roll. He knew that he shouldn’t have done it, but he was so hungry that he couldn’t help it. The dinner lady had seen him and he had been sent to see the headmaster. When he told him that he was hungry because he hadn’t had any breakfast that morning, or tea the night before, the headmaster stopped shouting and brought him some more bread rolls from the canteen with jam and butter. He had written a letter for Dave to give to his mum when he got home. But when he gave it to her, she got really angry.
‘What the hell are you doing, telling people what goes on at home? It’s private, understand?’
‘But Mum, you said we had to tell the truth?’
She had grabbed him by the hair and smacked him with ‘the belt’ across his backside. The pain made his eyes fill up as she dragged him across her bony lap. Through tears, he did what he frequently did when she got the belt out – focussed on the patterns on the utilitarian floor tiles, counting how many specks of dirt there were, and which ones were broken. The dust and cigarette ash was inches from his nose, her breath reeked of cleaning products, except nothing in this house was clean.
Dave braced himself as he heard the swish of the belt hurtling towards his back. The cracking noise echoed through the air as it made the impact with his skin. Tears dripped onto the floor. Why was she so angry? It was true, he hadn’t had any tea the night before, or any breakfast in the morning! His throat choked up as he reflected on it all, how was he naughty for telling the truth? At that moment, his dad had walked back into the house.
‘Now get to bed!’ she’d screamed. Dave and Ken were more than happy to oblige.
Dave tried to understand why she had just hit him with the belt but he couldn’t. She always told him not to lie, so he hadn’t, and now that he had he was in trouble. Dave and Ken could hear raised voices.
‘Think you can just turn up here, fresh out of the nick, and think everything’s OK?’
‘Shut up, you stupid cow. Look at the state of you. They said you’d sunk low; have you bin knocking off other blokes behind my back?’
‘What if I have, you useless sod? How else do you think I pay the rent?’
‘Well, you’ve got enough to buy booze with...’
‘Yeah? You wouldn’t know, doing time in the nick…’
‘And why was that? Because you were spending everything on booze then; why do you think I had to rob the garage?’
‘Robbed the garage? You couldn’t rob fresh air! You said that was meant to set us up for life!’
‘Why, you ungrateful…’
Dave pulled the damp threadbare duvet that smelled of mildew over his head. Maybe he wouldn’t hear anything, maybe it would all just stop and go away. But suddenly, a piercing scream rang through the house, followed by the thud of the front door. He heard Ken gasp and felt his body go rigid. Dave began to whimper, dread curdling in his stomach. Neither boy dared move for some time, their limbs growing stiff in the cold. Eventually Ken dared to poke his head out. It was all very strange. There had been a lot of noise, now it had just stopped and everything was deathly silent.
‘Shall we go downstairs?’ whispered Dave.
‘Dunno! Do you remember what happened last time? When we heard a man here and I went downstairs she thumped my head so hard I got a black eye.’
‘Which man? She always has men here.’
‘The one last week that was really old.’
‘Oh yeah, I remember now, that one!’
They waited a bit longer.
‘Maybe she’s just gone to sleep? Like she does when she drinks wine?’
‘Dunno, she sounded like she was really hurt,’ said Ken. He got out of the bed and crept downstairs. Dave dared not move. What if she got the belt out again? He was still in pain from the beating that he’d had this evening.
‘No, Ken, don’t go.’
‘I’ll be OK, I’ll be quiet, don’t worry!’ he whispered.
Dave stopped breathing while he listened for the creaking of the stairs, fearing that if his mum heard Ken she would shoot up in a fearsome rage. But Ken didn’t come back. Dave began to worry; where was he? What if his mum had seen Ken? What if he had got into serious trouble? What if she had taken him outside or somewhere to give him a hiding? Dave remained silent. Slowly, shattered, he drifted off into sleep.
He hadn’t been asleep for long when he was woken up by a friendly policeman, who wrapped him in a big warm blanket and carried him into a car. Dave smiled to himself as the warmth enveloped his body. The policeman took him and Ken to the station and gave them some toast and a big drink of milk. They devoured the food and the policeman watched them with a strange look of contented sympathy.
‘Where’s my mum?’ asked Dave. ‘Why have we come here?’
Ken started crying and buried his head in his hands.
‘Ken, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?’
‘Just shut up, Dave.’ Ken looked angry and upset. The tears continued to roll down his face. Dave didn’t understand what was going on, or why Ken was so mad at him for asking; he just wanted to know where his mum was.
‘Hey, come on, lads,’ said the friendly policeman. ‘You had enough toast? What about some biscuits? I think I might have some digestives in the cupboard.’
After that, they were sent to a house to live with a nice lady and man. They had lots of nice food, and Dave had a nice warm bed, showers and nice clothes. They bought him a nice warm grey parka coat with a furry hood that fitted him. When Dave asked Ken where his mum and dad were, he told him to shut up. Ken pretended otherwise, but he always looked as if he was going to cry. Dave couldn’t make head nor tail of what was going on, but he felt happy living somewhere without his mum. He didn’t’ want to go back and live with her.
‘Ken, do you think we’ll have to go back to live at Mums?’
‘No,’ said Ken, sharply.
Ken was right, they never saw their mum again.
A few weeks later, life got even better. Dave and Ken were sent to live back at their nan’s house. It was lovely, warm and clean, with the aroma of coal fires and rolled up tobacco. Nan was firm but fair. The eight years that Dave spent living with his nan were the happiest of his childhood. It always felt nice to be with her. He stopped worrying about what he was saying or doing and forgot how scared he was of being himself. She made toast with homemade jam and lots of butter with scones and lovely big roast dinners. She took them to football and scouts. Every year they went on holiday to Rhyl in a caravan. Never scolding them unless absolutely necessary, she taught them manners and respect.
But one day when Dave returned from school there was an ambulance parked outside. His nan was being carried outside on a stretcher. Her lips were blue. Her wispy, fluffy, grey hair was drenched in sweat that made it stick to her forehead. Her usually rosy cheeks with the lines like soft crepe paper were grey, just like the rest of her face.
‘Nan!’ he shouted, running up to her.
She turned her head slowly to the side.
‘I’m not well, love,’ she whispered
‘Nan, I love you, Nan, where are you going? Please, Nan, don’t you leave us as well!’
‘Promise me something, you’ll be a good lad? You’ll stay out of trouble? And away from crime? And drugs? For me. I love you so much!’ she said as she grabbed Dave’s hand tightly and kissed it. ‘I’d never leave you, Dave, I love you, I’ll be here,’ she pointed to his heart, ‘always.’
‘Sorry, son, we’ll have to take her now,’ said the ambulance man as he pulled the stretcher into the back of the ambulance. ‘She’s really not well! She’s been having chest pain that won’t stop with her spray.’
Ken appeared round the corner.
‘Nan!’ he shouted as he ran to the back of the ambulance. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘She’s not well, son,’ said the ambulance man. ‘We need to take her to hospital quickly. Go home, lads.’
‘But this is our home. We live with our nan,’ said Dave.
‘Where’s your mum and dad? Have you got a phone number for them or anything?’
Dave and Ken looked at each other.
‘Er, no,’ said Ken.
‘Aw, don’t they have a phone?’ asked the ambulance man.
There was silence for some time, until Ken spoke.
‘No. Our mum’s dead, and my dad’s in prison for killing her.’
So matter-of-fact. Dave stared up at him in shock; Ken raised his eyebrows knowingly. Nobody had ever told Dave what had happened to his mum, or where his dad had gone. Every time he asked his nan, she didn’t reply. Ken wouldn’t talk about it. Now it all made sense! The ambulance man stared at them with sadness and pity.
‘Jump in and say goodbye to her quick, then we’ll have to take her.’
Dave and Ken climbed into the back of the ambulance and hugged their nan.
‘Nan, please get better, please don’t leave us like everyone else does.’
‘I love you, Nan, you’re not just our nan, you’re our mum.’
They both began to sob. She gripped them with her pudgy hands. They were usually warm, and comfortable, and soft. Now they were cold, but, strangely, sweaty.
‘Be good lads for me, I love you both,’ she whispered. Her words