I was eight years old when Uncle Vincent killed my dad.
People are always saying things like, "it wasn't like this when I was a lad", "at least in my day you had respect", "we used to have summers then, not like now with nothing but bloody rain..." Back in 1964 when I had just turned eight, the sky was a deep cloudless blue and dust motes hung in the still air of North London; it seemed that the summer would last forever. I was laying across the kerb, half in the road and half on the pavement, engrossed in my game of marbles with Stephen. Stephen Walker lived across the road from me at number seventeen. He was three years older than me and therefore a big boy who was usually swaggering around with the gang of even bigger boys - their leader was nearly fourteen and they ruled the street as well as a few more close by. When his gang wasn't around, Stephen would allow himself to play with me. Sometimes he would catch sight of them sauntering along the pavement and when he did he would do something mean to me that would make me cry, and then run off to join them. It didn't really matter to me how much he did that because I knew that he would always be back in a day or two. My mum worked in the day, in a shop up the High Street but the front door key was tied to a string that I could reach through the letter box. If I was around then Mrs Wallace next door would make me a sandwich at lunchtime, but most days I was never near home. Dad was in today and so the front door stayed open.
Stephen was always well dressed, smart Lee Cooper jeans that I envied, American style basketball boots with round rubber bulges on the ankles that were all the rage, and always a spotless T shirt. I was wearing the same as usual - a pair of ragged short grey trousers deemed too scruffy for school, black plimsolls that had a hole in one toe, and a shirt that mum had made from one of dad's old ones - it was still far too big despite mum's best efforts and the tail hung out over my shorts. We were playing the game we always played - marbles. Stephen knew all the games and all the rules and I was in awe of him - that he was so wise. The latest game we were playing involved us each tossing a glass marble at the garden wall, allowing it to bounce back. "The idea", said Stephen " is to get your marble to land as close to the wall as you can - without breaking any of The Rules."
"What are The Rules Stephen ?" There were always lots of rules.
"Oh you don't need to worry about them. I know them and I will tell you. Now, you have to go first."
"Because of The Rules. The younger player always goes first. Go on."
I tossed my marble. It hit the wall and rolled almost all the way back to me. Stephen tossed his, it bounced back and landed a few inches from the wall and he snatched up the two marbles. "Your turn again then".
The game went on. Once or twice I won and sometimes when I won Stephen would cite a new rule, and I lost instead. The games always ended the same - Stephen would have most of the marbles and I would have three or four left. I would have to save up the shilling that I was given every Saturday until I had enough to buy some more marbles so that Stephen would come over and play with me again. I had five marbles left and we were engrossed in our game when we heard the sound of a car engine. There were only three or four families in the whole street who actually owned their own car - it was quite a status symbol, although there was a scattering of old vans and one or two big lorries that came and went. The sound of a car was not a common one and we both looked down the road to see what kind it was, and that was when Stephen spotted his gang coming around the corner. I groaned as he jumped to his feet, scooped up the last of my precious marbles and stood up too. Suddenly Stephen turned and drove is knee into my thigh, dead-legging me. I yelped with pain as he ran off to join the gang. "Oi Stevie! We were just coming to call for you!" yelled one of them down the street, as the car passed them. "Well here I am then!" Stephen shouted back, "where are we off to then, eh ?"
"Going to the old house", the boy replied. The old house was two streets away. There were three shorter streets in all that ran off one side of my street and one that ran right across the top. They were all named 'Streets' and each ran into a Road, a Way, or an Avenue, but not a Street. To be strictly correct, the old house was one street and one road away.
I was forbidden to go there, although I often did. It was an old building that was almost falling down. Some of the boys said it was a bombsite left over from the war, but I didn't think it could be because the war had ended a very long time ago. All the windows were long gone and there were gaping holes in the roof. Inside it was a total wreck, a lot of due to the fun we all had kicking in the plaster walls and generally trying to see just how much of it we could destroy. The bigger boys always had cigarettes with them and I had tried them once or twice but they made me cough, and once to my everlasting shame I was sick. At that time, smoking did not appeal to me.
I sat on the low wall; at the front of my house as the car - it was a big black Jaguar, pulled up in front of me. When I had first seen the car I had gazed at it in wonder, then walked around and around it inspecting it from every angle. I had pressed my face against the glass to see inside, leaving greasy marks on the pristine surfaces, but today I had little interest in the now familiar car. Four men got out, but I only recognized one of them, who had been sitting in the back smoking his usual smelly fat cigar. "Hello Uncle Vincent!" I called out with a grin - he sometimes brought a bag of sweets with him, a mixture of broken sweets and misshapes that he got from the sweet factory that he passed on the way to my house, he told me. Uncle Vincent had been coming around to my house for two years now. I was always told to "make myself scarce you little bleeder" when he did and that meant sometimes staying out until it was dark and his car had gone. Dad was never in when he called but Mum always was and sometimes when I went back inside I could see that she had been crying, although she never let on, and once I came in before Uncle Vincent had left and he was just doing up his trousers, which I thought was funny because I could see that he wore long underpants like Mister Pastry did in the funny films I sometimes saw in the Cinema around the corner at the top of the street, when Dad took me as a special treat. Uncle Vincent boxed my ears and told me to "bugger off out of it". He walked over to me and then reached out, grabbing my ear and twisting it so hard that I thought he was going to tear it off. "Listen good sonny Jim", he said with a scowl on his face, speaking so close to my face that I could smell his horrible cigar on his breath, "I want you to sod off up the Park now and don't come back until it gets locked up. You got that ?"
"Yyyyes Uncle Vincent. Ow! Please let go of my ear. You're hurting me."
"I'll give you bloody hurting you snivelling brat. Now get this really good - I was never here. Not me or any of my - my business acquaintances here", he said with a gesture at the other three men, "none of us was here at all." He twisted my ear even harder and I yelled," and if you ever, ever say a single word that we was, I'll come and get you one dark night and put you in a children's home and no-one will ever know. You got that ?", he hissed in my ear.
All I could do was nod, and that was hard because if the awful grip that he had on my ear. "I said, have you got that ? We was never here. You saw nothing."
"You was up the Rec", Vincent repeated with a half smile playing on his lips," smart, kid". At last he let go of my ear and I began to rub it to make the pain go away. "Go on then", said Vincent," skiddadle", and he didn't have to tell me twice.
I had an older brother - he was twelve years older than me but I never saw much of him. Danny was always away somewhere or other, sometimes at a place that Mum called 'Borstal' but when I asked my teacher to show me on a map where Borstal was she just looked at me strangely and told me to go out and play. Mum said that Danny wouldn't be home for a long time now and that he was working down in Devon. I could find Devon on a map myself so at least I knew where my big brother was. Once mum had taken me to my Auntie Flo for the day, very early in the morning it was, and she said she was going to visit Danny. I begged her to let me come but she said no, and collected me very late at night, that same day.
Dad was always coming and going. I didn't really know what he did when he went off to work. Most of my friends knew what their dads did, but all my dad would say was that he did 'business', and to mind my P's and Qs and not ask stupid questions. One day he came home and did something very strange indeed. It was a cold winter night and Mum had made up a fire onto which she shovelled coal from time to time. Dad came in, crossed to the fireplace and then took something out of his pocket. I only caught a glimpse of it as he pushed his hand up the chimney, while the fire burned below. My eyes were wide open - I was sure that he could catch fire and burn but it was no more than a few seconds and he drew back a sooty arm before going into the kitchen to wash it clean. When he came back I said, "what was that Dad ?"
"That ?", he smiled. "It's Christmas in a few months ain't it son ?"
"Well that there was a special note for Santa Claus about your present, and I put it up there to make sure he finds it. He has to know early so he has time to get things ready."
"Thanks Dad!", I exclaimed to the perfectly reasonable explanation."And another thing", said Dad "see what I have here." He reached into his pocket again and brought out a closed fist. When he opened it he revealed four of the most amazing marbles I had ever seen. Ordinary marbles were one thing but these were the highly prized big marbles, three times the usual size. They each had incredible colours that swirled inside, one was all shades of blue, another green and another red but the most amazing one of all had gold swirls that seemed to glitter when the fire flames hit it. I was spellbound. "Oh dad", was all I could say, "oh thanks dad. Is this a sparkler ?" I asked, holding up the golden marble. Dad's face changed in the blink of an eye. His smile vanished.
"Where did you hear that ?" he almost snapped at me.
"Hear what Dad ?" I had no idea what I had said that was wrong.
"You said it to Mum once, when you gave her a necklace on her birthday. You said that one day they would be real sparklers. That's what you said. Is it a bad word Dad ?"
His smile was back in a flash, "no, it's not a bad word, but it's maybe one you should not use too much eh ? Let's keep your Mum's necklace a secret between you and me, eh?"
He did not really answer, just put his finger over his mouth and said, "Shhh. Mum's the word now. Our Secret." Then he looked back at the marbles in my hand.
"So how many is that now ? You must have a fair few. Mother says you save up your pocket money just to spend on them marbles", he said with a grin and ruffling my hair.
"How's that then son? You must have hundreds of the things."
"Well..." I began uncertainly " I play with Stephen and..."
"Yes. He's my best friend." I said eagerly.
"Lots of rules but that's okay because Stephen knows them all, so it's fair."
"Fair is it, yeah, I'll bet it is", said Dad to nobody in particular, "so what's the game you are playing at the moment. Show us how it goes son."
"It's like this", I said taking two marbles and very carefully placing them three feet away, just by the hearth.
Like every other house in the street we had a linoleum floor that Mum would polish on her hands and knees with a big tin of orange coloured wax. We were lucky that we had a big square rug that covered the middle part so that she only needed to polish around the edges, but she didn't, she always rolled the rug up and took it out into the tiny patch of round we called our back garden. She would drape it over the clothes line which then sagged low under the weight. Sometimes, especially if she was very busy, she would leave it out there and I would pull the sides out and tether them with bits of string I foraged from Dad's shed. That would make me a tent that I could hide under until Mum came back for it. When she did she would be carrying a fearsome looking thing like an over-large tennis racket and she would walk up and down each side of the rug, beating and beating as the dust rose from it in clouds. I always remembered the dull sort of 'thwack' it made, every time she swung her arm. I had placed the marbles on the shiny lino. Very solemnly I gave Dad a marble - not one of the big ones he had just given me, but one of the few I had left that week. I noticed it was a chipped black one that I had actually won from Stephen.
"I don't know all The Rules Dad, but when we play, the loser always goes first and has to put down the two marbles."He smiled at me, Dad always had a smile. No matter how bad things were, he always found the bright side of things. "We'll have to pretend then. So what do we do now ? Shall I have first go ?"
"Oh no. I have to go first anyway because I am the youngest. I have to roll my marble to knock yours out of the way, but my marble has to stay as close as it can to where your one was. I think."
"Sounds like Snooker to me son. Okay then. Go on, have your go."
I tried so very hard. I really wanted to beat my Dad and make him proud of me and I rolled my marble as carefully as I could. It was agony as I watched it go, along the carpet then over the edge to hit Dad's marble with a clinking sound. Dad's marble scooted off towards the hearth, rebounded and knocked my marble away. When they both came to a stop Dad's marble was a few inches further away from the hearth and mine had scooted sideways across the lino, coming to a rest by the coal scuttle. I was devastated., but Dad had never played before so I still had a chance. I watched him throw. It was a funny sort of throw I thought. His hand came down as it should but his marble fairly flew from his hand and I knew instantly that he had thrown much too hard, and I had won. Sense took over though, "Dad! You have to play properly - you're letting me win..."but the words died on my mouth as Dad's marble hammered into the one in front, sending it flying, not forwards but sideways and marvel of marvel, the one he had rolled came to a dead stop where the other one had been. Dad had won. I looked at him and said, "you lucky bugger" without thinking. He cuffed my ear and said, "oi son! Mind your language. So what now, I win the marble ?"
"So you have to lay out three marbles every go but young Stephen only has to risk one ?"
I hesitated because I had never looked at it that way before. "Well...yes, I suppose so, but that's how the game is played and it's in The Rules."
"Ah yes, The Rules. I was forgetting those, and Stephen knows all the rules, doesn't he? Okay son, since you won't really lose any now, set it out again and we'll have another go."
I did and we had three more goes after that and every time Dad did the same until I was exasperated. "It's no good Dad, I can't win with you either." He looked at me with his usual smile and said, "listen son. You just learned an important lesson."
"Whenever you set out to do something in life you should always make sure that you have an edge."
"An edge means that you know something that the other fellah doesn't, something that means the odds are tilted your way a bit. You know what I mean by odds ?"
"Yes Dad. Odds is like the chance that you're going to win. The odds with Stephen aren't very good are they ?"
"Stephen is my pal. He says that if I keep practicing then one day I will be as good as he is, and I like the game. I just wish I could win more than I do."
"Lesson number two Son. Sometimes your friends may not be the friends you think they are."
I had to think about that for a minute. "So how did you keep winning Dad ?What was it you said, you had a hedge ?"
"An edge, edge not hedge" he laughed, "and yes. I have one. Here, I'll show you and then you will have one too. Put down a few marbles first."
I lined up a row in front of the hearth and Dad flicked a marble at one of them. The result was the same as before. "Now watch very carefully." Dad picked up another marble and showed me his hand. He was not holding the marble with his forefinger and thumb - which was the usual way, but instead it rested on his fore and middle fingers and his thumb was tucked in right behind the marble. When he rolled it out of his hand he sort of flicked his thumb and as I followed the ball - it was so fast that it was quite difficult to follow - I could see that the ball seemed to be sort of spinning. When it hit the next one in the roll, it knocked it aside and stopped dead. Again. "That's the edge in this game although your crafty mate as a few more still. Now you have a go son, just like I did."
I rolled and it was not much better. Dad set my fingers and I tried again, this time much better and my marble only rolled a few inches further. "A bit harder this time son. You're getting the hang of it now."
"Harder ? Won't that make my one go even further away when it hits ?"
"Same as last time. Set your fingers the same and harder. Go on."
"Wow!" I exclaimed as my marble came to a dead stop, "I did it!"
I rolled. Another one bounced away leaving mine on its spot before my disbelieving eyes.
"That's your edge son. It's called bottom spin. When I go down the club to play snooker - I'll take you there when you're a bit older - we use that shot a lot. To tell you the truth it's a lot easier to do on a snooker table, but the principle is the same."
"Ah, that. Well for one he makes all the rules so how do you know what they are if he only tells you when you break one. He can make one up when he feels like it. For another, he makes you go first and you always have to risk three marbles to his one. They're his edges, but now you have one too."
I practiced the move over and over and the next day Stephen and I set up a game. To my glee I thrashed him totally and he looked at me really funny; I had never seen him look at me like that before and for a moment I thought he was going to punch me, but he didn't.Stephen picked up the last six marbles he had left from the thirty or more he had started with, said "see yah tomorrow", and went back indoors. We never played that game again.
It was beginning to get dark and I had no coat on. The sun had gone in and I was beginning to feel cold as I sat on the green wooden roundabout, frightened to go home in case Uncle Vincent was there and would take me away and put me in a children's home. The Park Keeper - the Parky - came along one of the paths towards me. Normally there would be a gang of us and we would call him names and run off over his carefully tended flower beds.
" I know you!", he would shout after us, " I know you little buggers! I know your names too! I'll be round you house tonight, you see if I don't", but he never came. I didn't run this time and when the Parky reached me he looked at me for a moment, surprised to find one very young looking boy just sitting there, looking miserable.
"Hello young man" he said nicely. That surprised me because I had never spoken to the Parky before, just heard him shout angrily after us. Mum said I must never speak to strangers and I never did, but this was the Parky. "Hello mister", I answered.
"Does your mum know that you're here ?" heasked kindly.
"Does she indeed ? Well I have to lock the gates now so you had better be off home for your tea. Where do you live ? Is it far? Do you know the way ?"
"Well off you go then lad. I'll walk with you to the gate. You be careful now and go straight home."
I was still frightened of Uncle Vincent as I walked home, walking as slowly as I could, trying to make the journey last. Eventually I reached the grey metal railway bridge that crossed the tracks running at the back of the streets, and when I climbed the steps I stopped at the top, gazing up the track that disappeared into the distance, hoping to see a train, but there was none and I set off reluctantly for the final part of the walk, kicking my heels. As soon as I turned into my street I knew something was up. There were lots of people standing out on the pavement, all looking up towards the top of the street which was now bathed in an eerieorange glow as the streetlights began to come on. There was a buzz of conversation; the neighbours talking excitedly to each other and I seemed to be getting lots of odd looks as I passed by. The corner houses were highly prized because they had quite long gardensand crossing the last of the side streets I passed the Dunham's house. Never, EVER must I speak to the Dunhams, I had been told - they were a very bad lot, the father his four sons and the daughter that my mum called "a little Tart". It seemed that at one time one son was always away, 'at her majesty's pleasure' my mum said but I did not know what it meant. "Your brother Danny would have been alright if he had not got himself in with that lot" she told me once and that made me wonder if Danny was 'at her majesty's pleasure', but I never asked. There was no doubt at all that it as the Dunhams who really ruled the five streets, and more besides. Even the Dunhams were outside their house that stood out from its neighbours by its neglected and dilapidated appearance. Like everybody else they were gazing up to the top of the street. As I passed them I heard one of them mutter, "poor little bleeder".
I could see what it was they were all looking at although it puzzled me for a moment. As I drew nearer I saw the flashing lights that had drawn everybody's attention and no doubt word had gone mouth to mouth, over back garden fences and whispers across doorsteps. Outside my house, I was sure that it was my house, I could see not one but two Police Cars, and an ambulance too. There were rough wooden barriers across the road and behind them a crowd of people who had been even more curious and had made their way to my house. I could see Stephen Walker and his dad at the front on one barrier, and old Mrs Wallace from next door behind another. They saw me approaching and beckoned me over. I did not know what to do, torn between what had happened, dread at what had brought the Police so in a kind of a daze I walked over to Stephen.
"What's happened" I said to Mister Walker, "why are all those Policemen at my house and why is there an ambulance ? Is it my mum ? Is she alright ?" As I started the questions began to tumble out, one after the other and I grew more and more afraid.
"Easy now boy" said Mister Walker, putting and meaty hand on my shoulder. All in good time. Best you stay with us for the time being" and then he shouted over to a uniformed Constable," Oi, Officer !"
The Constable turned around, recognizing the voice, "I thought I heard you Arthur Walker. Well, what is it ?" he replied irritably.
The Policeman's face turned suddenly grave ,"is he now, is he indeed. Hello little fellow" he said walking across the road to the barrier then speaking to Mister Walker again, "can you keep an eye on him for a while, Arthur ?"
"Yeah. He'll be no trouble. Him and my Stephen are good mates."
"What's going on ? Why can't I go indoors ?" I asked.
"Later boy, later" was all that Mister Walker would say and so like everybody-else, I just stood and waited.
Mum had arrived back home from work at her usual time; half past five. She was puzzled and then a little cross to see that the front door was open, but that I was nowhere to be seen.
"How many times have I told that boy to make sure that he shuts the front door before he goes off getting up to mischief", she grumbled, then muttered "not that anyone would want to pinch anything of ours. Come to think of it, nobody ever gets burgled around here but all the same, Ishould still like to see the door shut - I mean, any Tom Dick or Harry could come waltzing in just as they felt like. I shall have to have words with that young man when he comes in, and come to think of it, it is rather late for him to be out. I wonder what he is getting up to now ?" she said as she pushed the door open. She saw Peter's coat hanging from the hook he had fixed on the wall but immediately something felt wrong; she just did not know what but called out anyway, "Peter! Peter love! I'm home". She got no reply," I'll bet he's in that old shed of his. Lord knows what he does in there; spends more time in there than he does in here with me", and she opened the door that led off the narrow passage into their half of the house. Like most of the houses in the street they were built in two halves with a shared front door and passageway - two up and two down, meaning the number of rooms although it was daft really because there were three small bedrooms upstairs and downstairs a parlour, sitting room and a small scullery/kitchen. As soon as she entered the room she felt her heart drop to the floor and she swayed from the sensation, dizzy with horror. There was blood, a great deal of blood that ran across her neat carpet and was spattered up the walls. The room was completely wrecked, the two armchairs slashed open and the horse hair stuffing seeping out like the disembowelled organs of an animal. The modest sideboard was smashed to match wood and the handful of LP records that she owned together with the old 78's that her mother had owned and that she could not bear to part with, lay shattered on the floor. A blood covered hammer lay on the floor, small bits of flesh stuck to the end. But there was another smell as her eyes tracked across the smouldering carpet and the gas poker that lay there, an ugly black burn beneath it. It wasn't the smell of the burning carpet or the coppery smell of blood that she sensed but another aroma above that, burning meat, no, it smelled more like that time she had burned herself badly on the cranky old gas fired water Ascot that hung from a wall in the scullery. It had been a very bad burn when the Ascot had blown back on her and that was what she could smell now - burning flesh, but where was Peter ?Suddenly she gagged and rushed to the back door - none of the houses had a lavatory inside. The outside toilet was freezing cold in the winter and sometimes the ice had to be broken before it could be used. In the Summer the heat brought with it the smell. She flung open the door and there she found Peter. She did not go in but was sick all down the front of her coat and the puke formed a lumpy puddle at her feet. Peter was sitting on the toilet. Bizarrely, a large onion had been forced into his mouthand he had bitten almost right through it as it had stifled his screams. She could see that one eye had been burned out (by the poker?), and that he had taken an horrific beating. The fingers of one hand were shapeless pieces of meat that hung from his palm, the hammer having failed to extract the information that it sought. His head was a bloody pulp and for good measure the lavatory chain had been fastened tightly around his neck. It was a pointless action given the gaping slit that ran across his neck from ear to ear, but he was already dead when that atrocity was committed. That was when she began to scream and she kept on screaming until Mrs Wallace, who could bear no more and thought that Peter must be trying to kill her but Lord knows why, as far as she knew he never so much as laid a finger on her in anger, came to the front door, walked in and was equally shocked by what she saw, then found mum still screaming outside the toilet.
Mrs Wallace managed to persuade Mum to go into her house where she made a pot of strong sweet tea. Hardly anyone had a telephone but she needed to call the Police while at the same time knew that she could not leave mum alone. The problem was solved when she heard some boys shouting outside - it was that nasty gang that young Stephen from across the road mixed with but she opened her door and called to them in any case.
"Stephen ? Stephen. Could you run an errand for me please, a very important errand." He looked uncertainly at the gang. Stephen often ran errands for Mrs Wallace and sometimes she gave him a little treat, sometimes not. He was quite happy to do so but didn't want to look like a 'goody goody' in front of his friends. "What ?" he replied as boldly as he dared. Too much cheek and she would tell his Dad and then he'd be for it.
"What ? Now don't you be cheeking me young Stephen Walker. This is very important. Look, I have two shillings here for you" she said holding up a silver coin.
"Two bob!", a fortune he thought, "Yes okay Mrs Wallace. What do you want me to do ?" Already the older boys in the gang were planning to spend the money on another packet of cigarettes. A good job Stevie is doing it.
"Come here. I don't want to shout all over the street." A minute later Stephen was running up the street as fast as he could, heading for the small parade of shops where the Post Office was so that they could call the Police. Mrs Wallace had not said why they were needed but, young as he was, Stephen could see how troubled she was. Something was up, something was very, very wrong.
Then something happened at my front door. It opened and a Policewoman came out holding my mum's hand. She had been allowed in to collect a few things. Mum looked very shaky and as she looked up she saw me. "Over there. Over there!" she shouted to the Policewoman, that's my boy by the barrier ! Oh please look after him, see he's okay."
"Everything is in hand, no calm down. Mister Walker will look after him for the time being. We'll have to ask him a few questions too, but not now, not tonight."
Mum got into the Ambulance and then two men carrying a stretcher came out. Somebody was laying on the stretcher but whoever it was, was completely covered by a big red blanket. I didn't think that it was Uncle Vincent.
The Ambulance did not ring its bells or flash its lights, it just drove away with my mum inside, and that other person who even then, deep down, I knew with certain dread was my Dad. After that the crowd began to break up, eager to swap snippets they had heard or theories as to what had happened in there, in my house. I noticed with no real surprise that the Dunhams had walked up to the barrier too. One of the Policemen scowled at them and they held his stare defiantly before they too turned away and went back home. It was suddenly very still and quiet, broken only by an occasional burst of static from the Police car radios.