‘See nowt, hear nowt, say nowt’. So went the counsel of wisdom on the eastern fringes of Manchester. Unseen, unheard, unsaid, and unexamined it nevertheless hung like an inn sign over every sinful heart in Newton Heath, where I was raised. It was a code, an amoral dictum that I understood and accepted long before I appreciated how ubiquitous and timeless it is. In truth, we saw many things as we weaved our way through evenings’ shadows, and we heard too, indistinctly and partially, muttered confidences where youths gathered: but we said nothing, at least to strangers. Of those who would rail against acceptance of such a maxim, who reproach us for protecting the guilty to the cost of the innocent, I ask where they believe it not to apply. During a life of varied experiences I have yet to discover such a place. Certainly the Church sees it as the eleventh commandment, and my son, a sergeant of police, could tell, if he chose, of deeds not prescribed in any manual. It is a condition of humanity, neither good nor evil, simply there: one might as well denounce the oceans’ tides.
Those who grow up where momentary inattention to the rule can be costly develop a second sense, an involuntary safety mechanism that manages the reflexes: brows do not lift in surprise, eyes do not betray fear or recognition. This process was well ingrained by the time I was introduced to Belinda’s father. Ah, Belinda! Where are you out there? Somewhere comfortable, no doubt, some better class of neighbourhood, chic and secure, which you grace with your elegance. Or has the elegance abandoned you now, leaving you a little bent, with rheumatic movement? Would it lift your spirits to know that in the head of this long forgotten admirer you are still twenty-two, your heels clicking with youthful rhythm, your smile shining with undiminished luminosity? Forty years have passed, yet I need only to close my eyes to have you step into my cerebrum, occupying it as of right, clearing out the trappings of two marriages and three kids, haunting it instead with your own image: the smell, the sight, the sounds of your younger self. Would it have been different had your father not feared me?
I had been gone from Newton Heath for about three years when we met, and was living in Davyhulme, an altogether different Manchester on the other side of the city, with fields and gardened houses. The only terraced cottages were quaint structures, picturesque mementos of a less hurried age: quite unlike the brick rows of Newton Heath, built to house the fodder of labour hungry mills. We moved there, into a council house, as a result of my mother forming a relationship with someone at the town-hall. Little was said about the nature of the contract. Mother never talked about it, nor did I ask, but it led to the two of us occupying a three bed-roomed house, with a bath and several other comforts not experienced previously. I soon tired of evening visits to my old habitat across the city, a one hour journey by bus, and began exploring what was on offer closer to my new home. That is when I met Belinda, in a local dance-hall.
Had I been more athletic, I would that night have somersaulted my way home and entered the house via the upstairs bedroom window, reaching it with a single spring. But I was not athletic. Instead, I floated the two-mile walk, turning unseen corners, crossing anonymous roads. She had agreed to see me again – SHE had agreed, laughing at my cockiness, she had AGREED. What was her name? Linda? Brenda? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that a soft-spoken angel, a gentle, graceful goddess had moved into my raucous world and not been repelled by its gaucheness, its clumsy, boastful shell. She was unlike any girl I had known, in voice, movement, in every way, and I was wildly, stupidly in love.
Belinda lived in Sale, a rather up-market district a few miles from where I lived. We would meet in Stretford, about half-way between our homes, where our bus routes converged, but the inconvenience of this arrangement soon became apparent. So, I bought a car, an old Austin A40 that had seen better days, but it served its purpose. I was able to drive across to Sale to collect her, take her into Manchester, and deliver her safely home afterwards. For a whole year I courted her thus, ever surprised that she retained interest in me. At the end of the evening we would park outside her home, a large, detached pile set in an azalea covered half-acre, and sit in the old banger, necking, or just talking about our world. I should say ‘worlds’, because those conversations emphasised the plurality of our backgrounds. In the earlier days of our relationship I was quite voluble, but as time passed and Belinda’s world began to take shape in my awareness I talked less and listened more, lapsing eventually into virtual silence. Once home I would go to bed to lie fully awake in the darkness, immersed in loneliness, my self-assuredness on the wane.
How can one build a bridge across an ever widening gulf? Whatever the topic, my unsuspecting goddess placed herself further beyond reach at each meeting. My efforts to narrow the gap seem trivial now, but involved significant sacrifice at the time. Whereas the pub had been my habitual source of entertainment it was superseded by Belinda’s preferences; theatre, live concerts and dancing. My adoration of Manchester United yielded to tennis, a game that I had considered unmanly. Such matters were, at least, open to correction, but others were historical fact. When education was mentioned Belinda’s shining at Grammar school contrasted with my habitual truancy from a secondary modern, and in conversation about holidays she spoke of times spent in places known to me only through the pages of brochures. ‘Abroad’ to me was the Isle of Man, while she had relaxed on two continents. So, I listened, nodded knowingly, and lied.
One subject though played a greater part than any other in heightening my awareness of the gap between us: our parentage. Belinda’s mother was a secretary in a solicitor’s office: mine was a cleaner in a factory canteen. Her father was a businessman in the entertainment industry, and a musician, while my vaguely remembered dad was a bus driver who had done a runner some years before. We pretend today in England that such things do not matter, and Belinda claimed so at the time, but I believed otherwise, and now know otherwise. So it was with feelings of intense panic that I heard her invitation to dinner, to meet mummy and daddy. Thankfully, my involuntary safety mechanism kicked in, allowing me to accept with apparent equanimity. Only later, in the privacy of my bedroom, did I let panic have free rein.
When the dreaded day arrived, after a week of rehearsed greetings and abandoned excuses for cancelling the appointment, I washed the car thoroughly in a futile effort to make mutton look like lamb, and drove across to Sale. There, parking well short of the house I crunched my way up the drive and pressed the illuminated bell-push. Somewhere in the depths of the pile cathedral chimes announced my arrival. ‘You must be Harry’. I couldn’t deny it, though I felt much like doing so. Belinda’s mother was a forty-something version of her daughter, slim, fair, and elegant. The perfume that revealed itself as I stepped past her was subtle, quite unrelated to the nostril invading stuff my mother splashed down her bra before heading out. The hand that took my offered bouquet was as gentle as the smile that invited me indoors. She was Belinda twenty years hence.
The hall that I entered almost on tiptoe, as if my great feet would damage the tiled floor, was the size of my bedroom, with three heavily panelled doors off, and a broad, wooden staircase curling upwards. My fragrant hostess opened one of the doors and led me into a sitting-room filled with wood and leather. No cheap, fitted carpeting here, but a sea of glowing parquet on which floated richly coloured rugs. ‘Take a seat Harry. I’m off to the kitchen, but Belinda will be down any moment. Can I get you a drink?’ My stay-sober resolution – ‘for God’s sake don’t get drunk tonight’ – dictated the polite refusal, and I seated myself gingerly on the edge of a leather covered settee that would have looked ridiculously ostentatious in my own home, but fitted in here. I remained thus, leaning forward, elbows on knees, gawping at the picture festooned walls, until Belinda put in an appearance. I jumped to my feet, and for want of something better to say, blurted out the question that had just come to mind ‘Hello love, where’s the ‘telly?’ She giggled, and opened what I had presumed to be a drinks cabinet.
‘Ah, here’s daddy’. The door from the hall had swung open to administer the greatest surprise I ever experienced, before or since. As ‘Daddy’ approached I stared incredulously at the monkey-like features; black button eyes, vestigial nose, and thin lips that stretched in imitation of a smile. The simian impression was heightened by his stoop, and awkward, swinging gait across the room due to what was commonly called a ‘club foot’, his left, which wore a surgical boot with a six-inch thick sole. For once, my Newton Heath street-training almost failed me, but not quite. The laughter that bubbled within showed as no more than a smile to be interpreted as a courtesy. ‘Hello Harry, I’m pleased to meet the young man who has set my daughter’s tongue wagging so much.’ ‘Pleased to meet you Mr; Payne.’ The thin lips stretched further. ‘Please call me Stanley, I feel that we know each other already.’ How true! How true mate! Or rather, I knew him, but not as Stanley, or Mr Payne. To me, he was known as Gordon, and I knew well his music, and his business. My face betrayed not a flicker of the relief I felt. All the nervousness of the last few days vanished and I suddenly felt my old, cocky self.
Much of the evening was devoted to the predictable interrogation, most charmingly conducted by Stella, my beloved’s mother, while Stanley’s high-pitched, hoarse voice was heard rarely. The pall of self-doubt having been lifted by recognition of ‘Gordon’, I can only think of him by that name, although I managed to avoid using it on the occasion, I actually enjoyed the cross-examination and found myself falling ever so slowly in love with Stella. Her husband appeared to be slightly bored by the proceedings, until, that is, it emerged that I had lived until recent years in Newton Heath. At the mention of my old stomping ground his distracted eyes flared into new light and focussed on my face. ‘Where about did you live there Harry?’ The ‘smile’ was more forced than ever. ‘Just off Culcheth Lane, near All Saints’ church’. ‘Ah, so you’ll know Church Street well then’. Any denial would have been such an obvious lie as to give the game away on the spot. I nodded, and gave my attention to a piece of beef. He was silent for the rest of the meal, and I knew that he knew that I knew.
That was the last time I saw Belinda. A couple of letters went unanswered, and the only benefit from a telephone call was the opportunity to hear Stella’s mellow voice. After a few weeks I switched into my ‘not caring’ mode: I’m very good at not caring. A brief affair with Cathy, who worked at the local dry-cleaners, led to her first pregnancy, our marriage, and eventual parting of the ways. That was followed by life with Janet, two more offspring, divorce, and memories for company. Of those memories, the most intense reach back to Belinda, and her father. It is they who rob me of sleep, causing me to ponder unanswerable questions. Did Belinda know, or was her father fearful that she would learn? Was the break at his instigation, or had she simply tired of my unpolished manner? If the former, he need not have worried: my code would have protected him from revelation. Though Belinda avoided me, I did see her father once more, but from some distance.
Curiosity drove me back to Church Street, Newton Heath about a year after that dinner. On a bright, spring afternoon I parked outside the Magnet cinema, wound down the window, and sat back to enjoy the music. The same old tunes drifted across from the steps of the Co-op Emporium: exactly as I remembered from my childhood and teens. Cheerful tunes to lift the spirits of the passers by, the housewives of Newton Heath scurrying from butcher to fishmonger to baker or chemist. Some had children with them, some of whom did what I had done when a small boy accompanying his mother to the shops. A sudden wave of sadness made me wish to leave this scene of my youth. I started the car and pulled out from the kerb, just as another child dropped a coin into the open bag of ‘Gordon, Gordon the accordion man’, whose monkey head nodded thanks while his fingers continued to flick over the keys. Someone had once said that he was the richest man in Newton Heath, but I knew that he lived in Sale.
Pursed lips and screwed up eyes turned the face into a caricature of aggression, projecting emotions which probably simmered just below the surface at all times. Knuckles white with strain, he held the hammer at shoulder height, poised to strike. Around his feet were scattered the nuts and bolts, bits of wire, washers, and assorted oddments which dwelt in the workbench drawer. The drawer too lay at his feet, where he had dropped it when Ted Brandwood entered the garage. Behind him stood the 1954 Morris Minor which Ted was rebuilding.
Though he held no doubt that the boy would hit out if approached, the man felt more amusement than alarm. In his sixties Ted might be, but a life of hard graft had built a figure which many grown men hesitated to confront. The idea of this little tyke taking him on made Ted smile inwardly. The lad’s stance was ridiculous, and noble. Faced with overwhelming enemy odds, he would go down fighting. Four feet of scrawn, twelve years old, and at war with the rest of the planet.
Ted did not need to ask who the boy was or where he lived. He knew both the intruder and his mother well by sight. The only question in mind was ‘What to do with the lad?’ Calling the police suggested itself, but the kid hadn’t stolen anything, nor harmed the Morris, so far as could be seen. No, this was not a job for the law. Doubtless, the diminutive desperado was well acquainted with the police station and Ted could not see another visit changing his ways. A clip round the ear perhaps? The illegality of that would not deter most people on the estate, but Ted rejected that idea too. The old man guessed that the boy had experienced more than his fair share of clouting already, without much positive effect.
‘What had worked for the young Brandwood ?’ he asked himself. Fifty years ago, he could well have been in this lad’s shoes. Like this boy, young Brandwood had been at war. Like him too, Ted had a mother who attracted a series of ‘uncles’, some of whom took it upon themselves to ‘teach him a lesson he wouldn’t forget’. In truth, he always forgot the lesson, but never the one who administered it. Did this kid’s mother stand by, he wondered, tearfully asking what she had done to deserve such an ungrateful brat, while her current steady made free play with his belt. Looking into the face of the boy the old man knew the answer. The belt, the fist, even the coal shovel, hadn not benefited young Brandwood, nor was it likely to sort this fellow out.
Telling the lad’s mother would be easy enough. She could be found on any Saturday evening in the Wheatsheaf, her latest conquest in tow. Pretty, in a flashy sort of way, she would flirt with the barmen and one or two of the male regulars, or sit with a couple of other women of about her age. At closing time she would be escorted into the night, a slightly swaying Madonna. Was the kid in when she arrived home? Did she care if he wasn’t? Ted wanted to ask him, ‘Does your mum drool over you in her cups? Do you lie awake later, listening to the bedsprings, or to the screams and breaking of crockery?’ But there are certain things you don’t ask a twelve year old hard-case. Ted decided that reporting back to mum would be futile, earning him an earful of abuse and the boy another clattering.
Punishment alone had not worked for young Brandwood, so why should it for this lad? Then Ted remembered the bloke who had turned him round, using craftiness to disarm. Persistent truancy had taken Ted through numerous encounters with his mother’s anger, each having a similarly violent conclusion, until finally he found himself before the magistrates. The Bench decided on probation, laying down the condition that young Ted should attend school regularly for the rest of the year, until he was fifteen. Given his attendance record hitherto there seemed to be little chance of that happening. The slippery slope beckoned.
Fortunately, someone had seen the danger. As mother and probationer left the courthouse, they were approached by the very man who had brought Ted to court, the ‘School Board’ as he was generally called. He was a big chap, as stern as toothache, and his steely gaze pinned the boy to the spot with not a little fear. Had it not been so uncharacteristic of their relationship, Ted would have reached for his mother’s hand. “See him?”, the big man said, nodding towards Ted’s head teacher who was crossing the foyer, “He stuck his neck out for you today. He gave his word that you’d keep your side of the bargain. Without him swearing that you can be trusted, you’d have got worse than probation.” Then, nodding to the lad’s mother, he strode away without another word. Whether he told the truth or not, Ted was unsure, but he honoured the teacher’s promise. That ‘School Board’ might have been a severe old so-and-so, but he understood young boys.
That was it then, take the softly-softly approach. Ted stepped aside, making space for the intruder to leave . Warily, the lad edged his way towards freedom. About half-way through the manoeuvre he seemed to realise that a sprint for safety was unnecessary, as well as undignified. Straightening to his full height, he swaggered in the direction of the open door: dropping the hammer. Neither man nor boy had spoken throughout the whole encounter, a seemingly interminable two minutes, but as the lad stepped into the sunlight Ted asked as nonchalantly as he could manage, “How would you fancy helping out with rebuilding the car, son? I need someone who’s a bit handy.” ‘Son’ froze for a moment, then turned quickly. “You payin’ ?” The eyes, no longer screwed tight, targeted the man’s face. Ted tried not to show surprise, or the embarrassment he felt at being caught flat footed. What a prat! All his life in this area, man and boy with kids like this, and he had not anticipated the obvious question. “Well, er.... I can’t afford a lot, but we could come to some arrangement, I suppose. How about a couple of quid a week?”
The boy’s expression said that he was unimpressed with the offer, but he re-entered the garage, his eyes on the Morris. “Can I have a go in it when it’s done?” A nodded assurance clinched the deal. The pair shook hands a little ostentatiously, and the youngster left the garage with a promise to report for duty the next day, right after school.
Lee was as good as his word, not simply the next day, but every weekday for a fortnight he presented himself for work at just turned four ‘o’ clock. At the weekend Ted found him hanging round the garage in the morning, waiting for it to be opened. Whether or not young Lee’s labours gave value for money is questionable, but he was keen, and surprisingly careful. At the end of each week the man gave him his couple of quid ‘wages’, plus a 50p bonus.
Given the age gap, Ted thought that they were getting along fine, and was surprised when, on the Monday of the third week, his apprentice failed to show up. Tuesday and Wednesday passed without the lad clocking in. By Thursday, Ted began to worry. Had the kid had an accident, or got into some kind of trouble? Preoccupation with such questions, and with sanding the bonnet of the Morris, was interrupted at about four-thirty, when the garage door swung open. Two uniformed police officers, a man and a woman, stood silhouetted against the sunlight. “Excuse me sir, are you Mr. Brandwood?” Ted cursed under his breath. The little tyke was in trouble. He straightened, his face a benign mask. “Er, yes. How can I help?”
They had come about Lee. Having established that he knew the boy, the officers seemed in no hurry to explain what mischief the youngster had been up to. The woman wandered idly round the garage, apparently uninterested in her colleague’s questions or Ted’s answers. ‘How long had he known the boy?’ ‘Did they spend all evening in the garage?’ ‘How much did Ted pay him?’ The officer’s manner was polite, but too formal to encourage questions about what Lee had done.
Returning from her tour of inspection, the policewoman changed the line of questioning, becoming much more personal. She asked about Ted’s family; his dead wife, their daughter, his grandchildren. ‘Did he see much of the kids?’ ‘How long had he been widowed?’ Her colleague had fallen silent, watching Ted closely. The old man’s apprehension mounted. Suddenly, the garage felt stuffy.
The pair seemed satisfied at last and made their way to the door, still not offering an explanation.. As he stepped into the open the man turned to look back. “I don’t believe we’ll be taking any formal action this time Sir, but I shall have to consult with my colleagues and with Social Services. We may wish to see you at the station. May I advise you not to encourage the boy into your garage in the meantime, or any other children for that matter? These things can be so easily misunderstood. Good day Sir.” His politeness was like ice. He closed the door, shutting out the sunlight.
Ted stood for long moments, his eyes resting on the car, but with all enthusiasm for its restoration gone. Questions tumbled through his mind. Had he touched the boy? Well, yes, when he was showing how best to rub down the filler. And at other times perhaps, he may have placed a hand on Lee’s shoulder, but nothing else. God forbid, nothing else! Ted suddenly missed his wife with an intensity which he had not experienced during the three years since her death. Barely a day passed without him thinking of her, without some pang of guilt, or some warm memory, but this was different. He needed Meg. With a rising sense of panic, he threw back his head and groaned in the semi-darkness, mouthing her name. He longed for her calm, common sense, her unfailing ability to restore perspective.
Without stopping to wash his hands or remove his overalls, Ted hurried from the garage in a stumbling run, heading towards Mandella House where he lived. On reaching the flats he careered onward, lurching for another mile until he came to the familiar ‘Garden of Rest’. A dishevelled, gasping figure he swayed before the marble hexagon on which the names of the dead were listed, among them that of ‘Megan Brandwood’, with the date of her passing. Calming a little, Ted flopped onto one of the benches surrounding the memorial, his eyes never leaving her name.
Oblivious to his appearance, time, or any other concrete reality, he remained in his seat until the sun had set. People occasionally passed, but the sight of an old man muttering to himself did not merit attention in that part of the world. He told Megan of the events leading to his visit, of the boy, and the police. He tried to explain his actions, and his motives for taking Lee in. Meg would understand. She knew the details of her husband’s childhood, had met his mother indeed. The latter had long been past her ‘best’ when they met, but her pride in physical appearance was undiminished, and lent credibility to the tales that Meg heard from Ted over the years. Calming slowly as he felt Meg reaching out to him Ted eventually became aware of time, and took leave of his wife. With more measured steps, he made his way back to Mandella House, and the flat which they had shared.
He remained there for three days without venturing beyond the landing. Three sleepless nights, filled with imagined conversations with Meg. Ted thought briefly of ringing his daughter, but changed his mind at the moment of dialling. That relationship had never been close, a fact for which Ted blamed himself. Eager to protect his child from the kind of deprivation he had known, he devoted all his energies to earning enough to provide material well being. Even when he found time to spend with the girl, he had experienced difficulty in showing the affection which he felt. So, unshaved and unwashed, he drew in on himself, as he had always done when faced with conflict. Meg had suffered many times the silences, the switching off of emotion, the wall of studied indifference with which her husband could surround himself. How could she fight with someone who would not fight back, who retreated into some inner depth where he could not be reached? They had often discussed it, she expressing her frustration, and he apologising or explaining. Now, with Meg gone, the old mechanism reasserted itself. For three days, Ted erected the wall, letting it harden to impenetrability.
On the fourth day he emerged, ready to work on the Morris. With all trace of concern erased, he sauntered along Rochdale Road towards the garage. His demeanour entirely normal he nodded to familiar faces on route, even exchanging his usual jaunty greeting with some. By the time he turned into the small square housing the garages Ted appeared to be positively cheerful. He noticed at once that the door to number seven was slightly ajar. Damn! He must have left it open when he rushed out in panic. Then, he saw the writing. Someone had spray-painted on the door the word ‘PERVERT’ in yellow letters about eight inches high. Suddenly fearful, Ted ran the last few yards.
Three years labour of love had been reduced to a mass of broken glass and bent metal. Not a square inch of body-work had escaped attention, leaving the Morris beyond restoration. The garage walls too were covered with spray-painted obscenities.
A few days earlier, Ted Brandwood might have bellowed angry threats towards the blocks of flats around the square, promising dire retribution to those who had done this. Now, his wall newly erected, he showed not a flicker of emotion. Methodically, he tidied the garage, putting back in their racks those tools which had not been stolen, sweeping the broken glass into a corner, and rendering any jagged edges of metal less dangerous to passing limbs. An hour passed before he left, carefully locking the door before making his way towards Mandella House. They found him four days later lying in chilled bathwater: and blood. On the floor lay an empty whisky bottle, an old razor blade, and a collection of family photographs.