Chapter 1: Misery and Pain
The Vicar stood upon the old wooden platform, reading from the Bible, looking down onto the highly polished dark wooden coffin which lay across two planks of wood above the hole in the ground. Arrangements had been made for the coffin to remain unsealed, to be sealed by the family at the funeral. Ten people stood round all dressed in black, my father stood to the right of the Vicar. The rest of the family stood with emotionless faces in a line of age descending order, myself, being the eldest son, nearest to the Vicar, the youngest grandchild farthest away. The Vicar read from the Bible but nobody was listening, nobody was crying, there were no flowers, nobody was sorry she was dead.
The Vicar had never seen a funeral like this before. He turned to the ageing man to his right, "Would you like to say a few words?" he asked.
My father raised his head and looked at what remained of his grown family. "No. I don't think so... No!"
The Vicar said a short prayer, then turned towards me, "Maybe you would like to say a few words."
I gave no verbal reply. The Vicar moved aside as I made a move in the direction of the platform. He offered me his Bible but there was no need for a Bible and I had no reason to take it, I was holding a thick wad of paper in my hand.
"Lord God, have mercy on her soul, for here lies the most evil woman who has ever walked the earth. Suffer the little children to come unto me... Amen."
I got down from the platform and approached the coffin, holding the wad of paper. "Lord God, forgive me, for I do not want the life this woman gave me. I wish for her to take it back."
I placed the wad of paper on the ground, ready to place inside the coffin and lifted the lid. I looked inside and overcome by sudden panic, turned and tried to run, "She's still alive. She's still alive!" The coffin was full of dead animals. "She's still alive," I yelled, as I fell face down in the mud.
The woman who lay next to me woke me up. . . "Who's still alive? You've been dreaming, face down in your pillow. You look terrified, look like you've seen a ghost. What were you dreaming about?" the woman asked.
I was trying to put the pieces together in my mind. It all seemed so real. 'Was it a dream or a nightmare?'
I looked across the room to where my manuscript was still sat, waiting to be published. I went downstairs and made some coffee, returning a few seconds later to ask how many sugars, failing to remember the name of the woman I had met the night before.
"Just promise me two things," I said, "Don't judge people by what you read and if it gets too much put it down." My voice made her jump as I silently returned to the room unnoticed, placing her coffee on the dressing table.
She did not raise her head. "OK," she said and continued reading...
My family were never very close. I guess my mother did have a lot to cope with right from the very start of her married life.
She was born in London and lived her childhood days through the devastation of the second world war. Her mother was said to have been an alcoholic, who spent most of her time either drunk or asleep. My mother was the eldest of four children and had to fend for herself and look after her younger sister and two brothers.
She married during her early twenties in August 1958 to an ex-army gunner, who was just a few years older than herself. My father was born and raised in Birmingham. He had seen most of the world with the army and had fought with the British forces during the war. The newly married couple decided to settle in Birmingham.
Michele, their first born, arrived in May 1959. Michele was born with a hole in the heart and it was said by my mother was dropped down a flight of stairs, while only a few months old, by her sister, our aunt Doreen. This fall resulted in Michele having brain damage for the rest of her life.
My parents were under a great deal of stress and tormented by feelings of sorrow and failure. Michele was constantly in and out of hospitals, enduring open heart surgery and neurological surgery. Our anxious parents sometimes had to wait several hours worrying and wondering, while their young daughter was in the operating theatre. Our mother had learned to read the emotionless faces of the surgeons as they left the surgery after completing an operation and had seen the faces of surgeons who had failed to bring their patients through. She had heard the cries of other anxious parents who weren't so lucky, after they had been informed that their child had died under surgery. Our mother, like many others, just went cold as the surgeons left the theatre their child was in.
Next to be born was myself, named Billy, born in March 1961. My mother often said I was a problem at birth and have been ever since. She was probably right.
My father had been employed in a few different trades since leaving the army and started a new job at about the time of my birth. He started working as a factory worker at the Midlands Electrical Manufacturers (MEM.) in Tyseley, Birmingham. He worked long hours to keep a decent wage coming into the house.
A few years past by, the doctors had done all they could do for Michele. She would remain handicapped for the rest of her life. All the operations that could be done had been done, there was nothing more anyone could do.
My younger brother, Laurence, arrived in October 1964. Very little is known about his birth, apparently our mother fell into labour while taking a bath and Laurence was born very soon after her arrival at the hospital. Laurence was born without any problems, that is, he like me, was born 'normal'.
The last to be born was Beverley, who entered the world in June 1967. Beverley was born at home, whereas Michele, Laurence and I were all born in hospitals. A neighbour from across the road helped to deliver my sister.
Mrs Murphy took control and instructed my father, "Fetch me some pans of hot water and tear up a few sheets. They will be needed any time now."
We, that is my brother, elder sister and myself, were trying to enter our parents bedroom. The screaming from our mother had woken everyone.
"You children can go back to bed," Mrs Murphy stated in a calm but firm voice.
She glanced towards my father, "Can you try to calm them down and get them back to sleep?" she asked, referring to us, as we were none too quick to move when requested the first time.
Mrs Murphy stayed with my mother for several hours, even after the baby had been successfully delivered.
This is where the story begins, with the birth of the last child. For most people the birth of a child is a happy time and a joyous occasion, but in this family, what was to unfold was an undiagnosed insanity and a reign of terror beyond belief.
Beverley was born totally blind. At first nobody realized that she was blind but as the first few weeks of her life passed it became obvious to my parents that their daughter could not see.
Beverley was taken to the Birmingham eye hospital where my parents spoke with one of the top surgeons. "I'm very sorry," he said, "Your daughter has cataracts in both eyes. She is completely blind."
"We cannot attempt an operation to remove these cataracts until your daughter is at least fourteen years old," he explained.
"You can't just leave my daughter blind. There must be something you can do," my mother said anxiously.
"I'm sorry, but there is nothing we can do until she is much older," the surgeon replied. And so, my parents believed their daughter would remain blind for this time.
"You must understand, that it will not just be one operation. There may be several operations before your daughter gains any sight. Even then, there is a possibility that she may not gain any sight at all, or even lose any sight that she does gain." The surgeon added, "You must accept the fact your daughter may be blind for the rest of her life." The harsh words devastated my mother.
We all lived in a prewar terraced house in Carlton Road, Small Heath in Birmingham. The house was built of brick and had a slate tiled roof. It had a green entrance door with a single digit number attached. The rear of the property was accessible via the long, dark, arched passageway at the side of the house. The tall wooden gate at the bottom of the entry was always locked from the inside. This was a two or three bedroom house. The spiral staircase lead directly from the front living room to the upper floor. There was no bathroom and the toilet was outside next to the coalshed, where my father had hung a childs wooden swing in the door frame. The old tin bath was used in front of the open coal fire, filled by saucepans of hot water to bath the children.
My mother would boil Beverley's nappies in the old boiler, which stood upon the bare concrete floor in the cold bare brick-walled kitchen. There was no washing machine, no fridge, no luxuries. Food was kept in the stone shelved pantry. Milk was delivered daily and was often kept in buckets of cold water to help stop it from turning rancid. The rock hard blocks of margarine kept cool in the pantry in winter but in the summer months they melted and oozed all over the shelves. The rusty old mangle stood outside and was used to squeeze the water from the washing before it was pegged out to dry. My mother had to stand outside in all weathers turning the huge handle of the heavy mangle, and as she fed the wet washing through the rollers, the water would pour out and soak her slippered feet. The small brick-floored yard, where the mangle stood, lead onto the long, uneven and wildly growing garden, with its single washing line travelling its entire length.
My family were never great believers in God, in fact as children we often wondered if there really was a God at all, I guess nobody really knows for certain one way or the other. When Beverley was only a few months old, my father insisted that the family went to church one day. He insisted on one particular church, the Elim Pentecostal, in Golden Hillock Road in Small Heath. It was a modern church, very smooth and posh looking, standing directly opposite the classical, old style church which looked abandoned in comparison to the modern day counterpart. The congregation all stood in the best suits and ties. My family felt quite out of place but were made to feel very welcome by these people whom we had never seen before.
During the service my mother was called to the front of the church by an elderly looking man, the Pastor Canty. He didn't call her out by name but stood staring directly at her from the front of the church and announced, "Would the mother with the blind baby kindly come to the front of the church?"
She didn't move from her seat but started looking around, not knowing he was referring to her.
Pastor Canty called again, "Would the lady with the blind baby please come to the front of the church?" My mother looked at the man.
"Yes, you madam, please." He outstretched his hand to make the gesture, beckoning her to the front of the church.
Pastor Canty placed his hands on Beverley's head and he prayed for her sight. My father took Michele to the front of the church where she too was prayed for. The family understood this was a faith healing service and yet, I knew that no member of my family had faith in anything.
That same night my father claimed he saw what he described as a ghost and said, "It just seemed to float through the living room, pass through the closed door at the bottom of the stairs and proceed to Beverley's cot. It just seemed to hover over the cot for a few seconds before leaving in the same manner that it had arrived."
Beverley was taken to Birmingham eye hospital where it was confirmed that she had gained some sight. Nobody could explain how or why she could now see and nobody believed my father, except maybe himself. He believed what he saw was real. The hospital found that Beverley could see through one eye but was still blind in the other.
My mother didn't believe that this was a miracle from God. She remarked, "If this is Gods work, then why has he only half done the job? She's still half blind."
My mother was only slightly impressed by the sudden change in her daughters condition. The years of worry and stress had taken its toll on my mother. The feelings of failure had turned to anger and the anger had turned to hatred.
While living in Carlton Road, I attended Marlborough School, in Small Heath. I started running away from home when I was about six years old, shortly after Beverley was born. This was when the nightmare began. I usually ran away after getting a beating from my mother. These were no 'ordinary' beatings, not by any interpretation or understanding of the word. My mother seemed to take great pleasure in her work and that included beating me.
Each day before going to school I had the majority of the housework to do, making all the beds with hospital corners on the sheets and blankets had to be correctly tucked in. Hoovering and cleaning all had to be done. If any of this was not done to my mothers satisfaction I was in for a whipping. She would whip me, without mercy, with curtain wire or electrical wire, she would claw at my face with her finger nails, ripping at the flesh. She would smash me about the head with saucepans or repeatedly smash my head against the brick wall until I could no longer see daylight.
On one occasion my mother sent me out to school early with seven shillings and sixpence for a weeks school dinners. (That's the equivalent of about 37p in modern day British currency and was only shortly before the change to decimalisation.) There had been no trouble on this day and I didn't understand why, it was so unusual.
I tried to explain to my mother, "There is no school today as we broke up on Friday. It's the seven-week holiday now." The long school summer holidays had just started but my mother would not hear of it.
She opened the back door, "School," she ordered, as she assisted me out.
I walked the streets and spent the dinner money on small toys and sweets. Later during the day I walked out of one shop and bumped straight into my father, who was not at all happy about me spending his hard earned money. I tried to explain what had happened to him.
"Just go home," he said angrily, "I'll sort things out when I get back." I went home, my father returned within a few minutes.
"Has Billy said anything to you about this school holiday?" my mother was asked.
"What holiday? He's said nothing to me about any holiday," she replied, with an innocent look about her face.
My father turned round to me, but said nothing. He picked me up and carried me horizontally into the kitchen. I realized what he was about to do and started struggling to get away, crying out in fear, struggling to free myself from his powerful grip. He turned the gas off on the cooker, which had been on all morning, and started pulling my arm towards the cooker. I was kicking out, struggling desperately, screaming at what he was trying to do. He stuck my hand on top of the cooker, pressing it down and I let out an almighty cry in agony as my flesh sizzled with the excruciating pain penetrating through to the bone. I was screaming, struggling frantically to get away. He mercilessly pulled my other hand across and I let out the most horrific cry in agony as he pressed it down onto the red-hot metal sending the sickly smell of my burning flesh into the air.
I stared at my throbbing, burning hands, through tear-filled eyes, 'You Bastard!' I couldn't believe what he had done. I didn't know what to do to make the pain go away, to make the burning stop.
'You Bastard!' My thoughts remained silent, only my sobbing could be heard. The pain and shock were beyond description.
My father left me sobbing in the kitchen while he went to tell my mother about me spending the dinner money. I stood shaking my hands about, blowing on them, trying to cool them down, trying to make the burning stop. My mother came into me and started belting me with the belt. I curled up into a ball on the kitchen floor, with my arms wrapped round my head, trying to protect my face as the belt kept crashing down onto my body. I could do nothing. She just kept belting and belting and wouldn't stop.
My father came into the kitchen, removed the belt from my mother and held out his hand to me. I flinched away from him in fear and looked at his hand. It was four times the size of my own. I was terrified. He put 'Acraflavine' burns cream on my hands and bandaged them up. I just stared at the floor with the tears stinging in my eyes and my hands still burning, throbbing, and the multiple lash marks starting to swell.
Through hate-filled eyes, I slowly glanced across the floor, in my mothers direction, 'You Bastard, you Evil, Lying Bastard.' This was all my mind kept saying.
My father did seem sorry for what he had done but said nothing. I wanted my dad to say he was sorry and to love me, to hug me, but he didn't. My hands were badly burned and blistered and I was unable to use them for several weeks.
My father stayed off work and remained at home for a while. He fed me with a spoon, like a baby, as I was unable to use a knife and fork, I just couldn't pick them up. I couldn't even use a cup. My father changed the dressings on my hands each day and slowly and very painfully helped me to use my hands again, which had blistered in a half-open position, I couldn't open or close them. My father was upset about what had happened and he tried to help me, but still, he said nothing.
I really appreciated my fathers help and felt close to him for the first time in my life. I felt safer with my father at home. My mother was never as bad when my father was at home, she was like a completely different person. As soon as he returned to work, she reverted back to her usual self, whipping me with curtain wire and ripping at my face with her finger nails, often for very little reason and at times for no reason at all.
When I first started running away from home, I was usually only gone for the day. I was often caught by my mother while wandering the streets or on occasions I would return on my own, as I had nowhere else to go.
Once I had run away from home and was still missing when my father returned home from work. As far as my father knew this was the first time I had ever gone missing. My father went out looking for me but did not find me and I walked the streets all night, unaware that my father was searching for me.
The following day I returned home on my own. My mother grabbed me around the throat and held a knife to my face, "Your father has been out all night looking for you, you little bastard," she said through her clenched teeth. "Get out and find your father. Come back without him and I'll kill you!"
With her hand round my throat and a knife being pushed up my nose I found no reason to doubt her words. I went out looking for my father but was too afraid to return home when I could not find him.
I stayed away from home for ten days and nights, miserable and afraid. I stole milk from peoples doorsteps and tins of rice pudding and packets of biscuits from shops. I would eat apples and sticks of raw rhubarb from peoples gardens. At night I would either walk the streets all night or sleep rough in someones coal shed. I was seven years old. I had no money and nowhere to go, with nobody to turn to for help.
Stealing tins of food created a few problems. I knew I could eat cold beans and rice pudding straight from the tins but getting into them was a real problem. I would sit, sometimes for hours, trying to bash my way into a tin of rice pudding with a few stones. It was so irritating, the tins just dented into every possible shape, never allowing me inside to eat the contents, so I had to go hungry. This was something I was going to have to learn the hard way, just like everything else, or I was going to starve. After ten days on the street I was very cold, dirty, tired and hungry and I went home.
My father had taken an overdose of tablets some days earlier and after having his stomach washed out had been taken to Highcroft Psychiatric hospital in Erdington, Birmingham. Obviously my mother thought it was all my fault and at the time, so did I. I felt so guilty and so afraid. My mother was very upset, the whole family were, but we did not fully understand what had happened to our father.
I was starving hungry and so weak I could hardly stand up. There was no time for sitting down to eat and there was no time for my mother to give me a good beating.
"Get washed and change your smelly clothes," she demanded. "You're going to see your father and hurry up about it." She threw a handful of clean clothes at me.
"If your father can see you are all right it might help him to get over his nervous breakdown and you need to see what you have done to your father anyway. He's in a terrible state," she said.
When we arrived at the hospital I saw my father walking around in the hospital grounds, but neither my mother nor I recognised him. He was walking around as if he were on another planet, immune to all around him. He was heavily drugged and did not respond to anything at all. It was as if he were in a different world, without emotion or feelings. He clearly did not recognise my mother or me. I didn't really understand what had happened to my father but I had been told it was my fault he was in this zombie-like state. I just accepted it was all my fault and was very hurt and upset at what I had done to my father.
"I'm sorry dad," I said, "I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to do all this." My words weren't getting through. There was absolutely no response from him, as if he hadn't heard anything I was trying to say, while trying to hold back my own tears and heartache.
My father remained in hospital for several months. My mother took my sisters, my brother and me to see him about once week and visited her husband alone whenever possible. Gradually my father got better and my mother got worse.
While my father was in hospital the beating continued, almost daily. I was going to school very late with a clawed face, in blood soaked clothes and painful whip marks covering my back.
I believed and said to my brother, "It's mother who belongs in the nut house, not dad." But Laurence was too young to understand.
Eventually my father was discharged from hospital and sent on a two-week convalescent holiday, to Llandudno in Wales. My kid brother and I were also sent on holiday, to an old peoples home in Weston Super Mare. Nine year old Michele and baby sister, Beverley, remained at home with my mother.
My brother and I got rather bored on this holiday as we had to spend most of the time in the grounds of the old folks home. We did manage to see the beach once or twice, but generally speaking we just got up to all sorts of mischief. We spent much of our time running up the stairs so we could slide down the stair banisters. We managed to make our own fun and our antics seemed to somehow brighten up the days for some of the old folk. Some of them encouraged us in our silly antics while others cursed and muttered things under their breath. The staff obviously just wished either they, or we, were somewhere else. We managed to turn this peaceful and quiet home into a circus.
Our main outside interest was playing the game of `splits' on the crazy golf course, with a steel spiked flag. We made our own rules up as we went along, one of which was that if either of us were at the 'splitting stage' we could try and stick the spike in the ground between the other persons feet, to bring ourselves back up to the starting position. This did work quite well, providing there was a big enough gap between the other persons feet! On one occasion there obviously wasn't and I accidentally stuck the spike through my brothers foot. This brought the holiday to an abrupt end and we were returned home.
My father returned after his two weeks holiday and seemed much better. He was never told about our holiday. He soon returned back to work and again worked very long hours, the family really saw very little of him.
At times, people at school asked me questions about the marks on my face but they rarely saw the marks on my body. I was simply too afraid, terrified, to tell people the truth.
My mother always had stories planned for anyone who asked questions, usually she would say that I had fallen out of a tree or had been fighting or had been attacked by a dog. I just told those same stories. On occasions I did tell people the truth but in those days nobody believed the word of a child. People would nearly always believe the stories that my mother had made up. I was generally too afraid to tell anyone the truth and when I did it made no difference anyway.
Sometimes when my father was at home, he too would ask what had happened to my face when he saw it clawed, at times, almost beyond recognition.
My mother would tell him the same stories that she told everyone else, "Oh, he's been fighting at school again. He never takes any notice of me. You know what he's like." I had no choice but to go along with these stories.
I lived in constant fear and was absolutely terrified of my mother. I continued running away from home and started to find places to sleep at night. These would usually be in someones coal shed or in an empty garage or a dirty derelict building. I would steal food from shops and milk from peoples doorsteps. I soon stopped returning on my own but was usually still caught by my mother within a few days. My mother knew I didn't usually venture far from home. She didn't know that at times I even slept in the families own coal shed, burying myself in the coal to avoid being seen and in a vain attempt to keep warm.
In August 1969 the family moved house. Everything was packed up very carefully, crockery wrapped in newspapers and packed into tea chests. We moved into one of the newly built maisonettes located in Nevada Way, Chelmsley Wood in Birmingham.
Chelmsley Wood was still being built and much of the area was under development, many of the roads did not exist and footpaths were simply dirt tracks. There were building sites everywhere. We moved into the ground floor of the two-storey building. I started going to the local Coleshill Heath school, which was no more than a five minute walk from the family home. Despite the distance to the school I don't think I ever arrived on time, sometimes I never arrived at all.
My mother had no stairs to throw me down at this house, as she regularly did while living in Carlton Road. She made up for this loss in other ways.
Shortly after moving into this property she found it necessary to punish me. I had already been beaten with the curtain wire which left multiple whip marks across my back. Chunks of flesh had been ripped from my face, leaving deep cuts and scratches that had all scabbed over. She had torn the flesh from the inside of my cheeks, which stung like crazy when I ate or drank. I was a real mess. I ran away from home.
Eventually I was caught by my mother. She locked me in the brick built shed, she then rounded up seven stray cats and locked them in the shed with me. She just left us there for over a week with no food or drink, in almost total darkness. She gave me a piece of dry bread and a cup of water once a day. The cats were given nothing. I cried and begged my mother to let me out, with no response. I hammered on the door until my hands were so sore I just couldn't hit it anymore. I sat in the corner, in the darkness of the shed, with my head bowed down, battered and unwanted, with seven somewhat wild and hungry cats. I couldn't see anything at all. All I could hear was cats, all I could smell was cats, all I could feel was cats. That's all there was, just cats.
In the darkness the cats cried, they fought and they spat, they hissed and snarled and they jumped and they scratched. I was terrified. I sat crying most of the time but eventually the tears all dried up. My continuous pleading with my mother had been ignored, she would not let me out. The stench from the cats was horrendous. They were starving and so was I. The cats fighting and scratching all over me turned the terror into madness.
'I'm going to die, the cats are going to eat me. That's why they're fighting, they're all starving to death.'
As the thought went through my head another cat jumped onto me, hooking its claws into my skin. I grabbed it in sheer terror and squeezed the life out of it and dropped it to the floor, dead. I had no idea how many there were, it seemed as if the shed was full of them. I sat in the corner, head bowed down and grabbed the cats as they jumped on me and I smashed then into the walls of the shed, killing them all. I sat crying, no more cats. I had to escape or I was going to die right were I sat, in the shed. When my mother next opened the shed door to pass me my bread and water, I raced at the door in a desperate attempt to escape from my captivity. I managed to force my way passed her and out of the shed. Looking back into the shed, as stumbled to the ground, I saw the dead animals. I turned my head away, back to the ground and sobbed. I was eight years old.
With very little strength, damp and freezing cold, I was shaking in terror. I grabbed the spade from the shed and started digging a grave for the cats.
Praying was something I had done before but I had little reason to believe in God, "Please God, if you're really up there, forgive me for what I have done..."
My prayer was interrupted. "Get that bloody shed cleaned up, you disgusting little brat," my mother snarled, as she passed a bucket of hot soapy water from the back door and placing it quietly on the path.
"Sorry God, gotta go."
I slowly placed my hands in the bucket and found the warmth of the water so soothing. I frantically tried to wash some of the shit and piss off myself before tackling the shed. The disinfectant stung my open wounds but this was the best I was going to get. Then I had to face the shed. I was very afraid.
'That evil bastard might lock me in again, I bet it's a trap. I bet she's waiting for me to go in there so she can lock me in, ' I thought.
I jammed the handle of the spade in the door trying to secure the door in an open position the best I could. I entered the shed, keeping a watchful eye behind. I gently picked up seven cats and placed them softly on the ground, ready to be buried. The stench was so intense it made my stomach feel sick, my stomach churned over and over but there was nothing in my stomach to vomit up.
My mother came to check that the job had been done properly. "Would you like a cup of tea?" she asked.
'Are you bloody mental or what?' But I already knew the answer to my silent thought.
"Yes please," in a quiet voice was the only answer I dared give.
I very cautiously entered the house, too weak, too thirsty to refuse the drink. My mother knew that I loved animals. I wanted to bury her in the garden. I just felt so weak and helpless, so alone and battered. I returned to bury the cats, but they were not to be buried. I had to put them in the dustbin.
The kids at school usually just took the piss out of me but mostly they just kept away altogether, afraid they were going to catch some scabby decease. Some did ask questions, so did some of the teachers. Fear and terror are very powerful deterrents, which meant telling the same lies my mother told everyone else. Usually I would say that I had fallen from the top of a tree or had been attacked by a dog or sometimes I'd say that I had been fighting with a big gang of lads. I was simply too afraid to tell anyone the truth.
Each day was a constant nightmare from which there was no escape. I continued running away from home, usually climbing out of a window during the night, but still nobody realized what was going on.
Chelmsley Wood was a new area for me and I had to find new hiding places, there were no coal sheds around Chelmsley Wood for me to shelter in.
I often wandered the streets for several days and nights trying to find somewhere to sleep or just hide at night. I often spent several days hiding in the woods itself. My mother soon got wise to this hiding place but had great difficulty trying to catch me running through this thick wood. I got to know the woods quite well and knew which track paths lead to some escape route and which ones lead to a dead end. There was no chance that my mother was going to catch me in the woods without help. At night the woods was quite safe and I learned how to walk through the woods in the dark. Nobody ever entered the woods after dark, except me, but there was little shelter from the weather in the woods.
I pinched a `jackknife' from my fathers coat pocket to open tins of food. I stole tins of rice pudding, beans and tried other tinned foods, in order to see what could be eaten straight from the tin. Packets of biscuits and loose fruit were always favourite as there was no messing with these. I would just eat them without stopping or having to worry about stomach cramps. There were very few apple trees in Chelmsley Wood and I only ever found one garden with rhubarb, which I ate straight from the ground after dipping each stick into a bag of sugar that I had pinched from some shop. Some greengrocers kept fruit outside their shops and I would steal an apple or some other fruit from their displays. I wasn't stealing through greed, I was stealing anything and everything I needed in order to survive.
I still needed to find places to sleep or hide at night or somewhere I could go to shelter from the weather. I was running away in all sorts of weather conditions, often with nothing more than the shirt on my back.
I found one place to hide that nobody would think of looking or even if they did, would not want to look. I spent weeks living in a large drainage pipe on the bank of the river Cole and I returned there time and time again. About fifty yards along this tunnel, which seemed to go for miles underground, there was a sort of `bench' which was directly below the road and a few feet off the ground. Rats lived in this tunnel and I could see them in the darkness scurrying passed on the ground below the bench. I was very frightened of the rats and just tried to avoid meeting them on the ground. I tried to sleep in the tunnel, constantly aware of the rats and other dangers, like being caught by my mother.
As daylight started to appear though the gaps in the manhole cover above my head, I thought, 'Hope it doesn't rain.'
It was essential for me to keep dry. There was no way of getting freezing cold, wet clothes dry and my bones would dither, my teeth would chatter and regardless of where I had found to hide I could feel the cold nibbling away at my bones, biting away at my fingers and my soaking, freezing cold feet felt like they were melting and rotting away. I waited for the sound of the clinking of the bottles of the milk float, travelling on the road above.
'Time to get up, ' I thought. "Could do with a bloody clock down here. Well, at least it's not raining today."
I would cautiously emerge from the shelter. Sometimes, full daylight had not appeared. I would look up towards the sky, sometimes it was too early for me to consider if it was likely to rain.
"Morning Cruel World."
I would listen to the birds chirping merrily. "Morning birds, lucky bastards." But the birds never seemed to chirp very much in the winter months, just the occasional sound was all there was.
'Must be about 5.30am, ' I thought. "Milkman's early," I muttered quietly under my breath.
There never was anyone to hear me talking to myself, cursing, commenting and praying outloud. 'Was God listening to me, was he ever going to help me?' I wondered.
I had heard people say that if you pray for yourself it never gets answered. I often prayed for my sisters and brother and I prayed for my mother to get better. Most of all I prayed the pain would go away and I prayed to die.
Each day I listened for directions of the clinking bottles and continued on my way, observing the doorsteps for my breakfast. I tried to steer clear of the milkfloat itself, while observing it from a safe distance. I thought about the old folk and people who weren't so well off and would only steal milk from the doorstep of a house where several bottles had been delivered, never from a flat. I knew if the person only had one bottle delivered and I pinched it they may have to go thirsty, but if they had four or five bottles delivered they could almost certainly manage on one bottle less.
It was far easier for me to estimate the time of day from outside in the street, as opposed to being in the tunnel. It was an important part of my ability to survive on the streets. The birds provided my morning call which allowed me to catch the milkman. Very often bread was also delivered to 'rich peoples homes'. The delivery vans would appear on the streets at about 11.00am. The vans delivered fresh bread and a selection of cakes, leaving them on people doorsteps, luxuries they could manage without. A cake was not a luxury to me, it was sometimes all I had to eat for several days.
I was living like a wild animal and developing the same instincts for survival. Roaming the streets for days on end, constantly aware of the dangers, constantly on the move and constantly looking for somewhere to hide, somewhere I could feel safe.
Chapter 2: A Greater Fear
© Copyright 2017 Billy Casper. All rights reserved.
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