As things turned out, only a couple of days went by before Ray came around again. That same, happy grin made it seem as if the incident with the football had never happened. To be fair, in many ways what did it matter. A silly little thing, to be honest. No one had been hurt, so why should a friendship suffer simply because Craig hadn’t been able to throw a ball over a garden wall? Well, for Ray at least, none of it seemed open for discussion, being far more concerned with showing off his new Action Man.
Both of them had these toys and would spend most of their spare time brewing up different scenarios for their Action Men. These often entailed any number of barbarous acts, such as being hanged, submerged in water, buried alive or dropped from great heights. They balked at actually setting the models on fire; an irreversible process, ruining any plans for future carnage.
On this particular day, having driven a metal rod through one of the model’s foreheads, they tied a noose around his neck and suspended him from the ceiling light and left him to dangle, miserably, in front of the window, swinging slightly to and fro. The reason for this was simple – today was window-cleaning day.
They heard the arrival of the cleaners and hastily drew together the bedroom curtains, leaving enough gap for the hanging model to be seen when the window cleaner came up on his ladder. They waited with an expectant hush, and the two of them giggled madly as the man appeared and began to wipe the glass with his cloth. He stopped for a moment as the Action Man came into view, no doubt contemplating the terrible plight of the poor little figure, helplessly swinging from the noose. A laugh, followed by renewed cleaning, but no cries of anguish or alarm. The moment had gone, leaving the boys deflated.
“We’ll have to think of something much better for next week,” muttered Craig as he untied the doll from its gibbet.
“I’m going home,” said Ray as he packed away his things. “Mum’s organised a special lunch with grandma. She visits every week, you see, so we’re all expected to be there. I’ll call sometime tomorrow.”
Craig saw him out and stood in the doorway. He raised a hand as his friend got to the corner, but Ray didn’t return the farewell and Craig let his head hang down. A few brief moments of fun and laughter, nothing more. So, heavy feet dragging on the hallway carpet, he went to the kitchen, poured himself a glass of milk and decided he would go for a short bike ride down to the seafront. He’d watch the fisherman chancing their arm in the choppy Irish Sea.
He went out to the backyard shed. Whilst he busied himself extracting the bike from the various pieces of wood and debris that Dad had left behind, he looked up to see one of the window cleaners, face over a steaming bucket of water, wringing out his cloths. Craig hadn’t noticed him at first, and he wondered if the man would say anything about the Action Man. He appeared too preoccupied, so Craig gave a heave and pulled out the bike with a powerful yank, dislodging it from the last few pieces of broken timber. A plank fell down and glanced off his hand. He swore, rammed his knuckles in his mouth to stem the blood.
“You all right?”
Craig gave a nod and grunted as he pushed the shed door closed. He stared at the wound, which filled up nicely with more blood.
The man came up beside him. “You-er-lost your dad, didn’t you?”
Craig stopped and forced a smile, not wanting to appear in any way weak. He studied the cleaner closely, who had the air of aging rock-star about him. Long, lank hair, tattoos, ripped t-shirt and jeans. A face deeply etched with lines; not wrinkles, but creases of laughter…or, perhaps, pain? Gnarled, hard hands conveyed a dangerous quality, a nonchalant strength giving warning that here was someone not be messed around with.
“How did you know that?” Craig asked, unable to keep the slight tremble from his voice. The man made him nervous, and he wasn’t sure what reaction his question might bring.
“Common knowledge really. I’m Sorry. Sorry about your dad, I mean.”
“Thanks.” Craig watched as the man went back to the bucket to squeeze the very last drop of water from the cloth. A sudden thought came to him. “Did you know him? My Dad?”
The cleaner threw the cloth over his shoulder and straightened up. “Oh yeah, everyone knew him. Bit of a lad, your old pa.”
Craig had not heard this expression before. He frowned. “A bit of a lad? What does that mean?”
The man shrugged. “You know, handy like.”
“Yeah. In a scrap.” The man frowned, shook his head. “In a fight is what I’m saying. Your Dad was hard, if you know what I mean.”
Stunned, Craig took time for the revelation to filter through. “Are you sure? I mean, my Dad?”
A broad grin. “Oh yeah, absolutely. Didn’t you know?” Craig shook his head. “Used to box a bit, your dad, same as me. He was good. Bloody good. Dumped me on my behind a few times, I can tell yeh.”
Craig couldn’t quite believe what he’d heard and mulled it over in his mind. Mum had never mentioned this aspect of Dad’s past. In fact, she hardly ever spoke about him at all. Too much pain probably. The accident, so unexpected, so dramatic, stunned everyone, especially Mum. She continued to grieve, still in shock despite it being well over a year since it happened.
He stopped. No, that wasn’t right. Eighteen months, to be more accurate. Where had the time gone? The window-cleaner’s words had brought back images of Dad, images which Craig had tried to subdue for so long. And now this, a new detail to add to the memories. It pained him to admit he knew so little about his father’s early life. Anything gleaned had been picked up through half-listened to conversations, or comments not unlike those of the window cleaner.
“Still,” the man continued absently, lifting the steel bucket with care to prevent any water slopping over the rim, “just shows you, doesn’t it. You never know what’s round the next corner. Life. Who’d believe it, a thing like that?” He gave a thin smile. “Like I said, I’m sorry.”
Craig followed him into the alleyway, leaned his bike against the wall and closed the back door behind him. “Can I ask you something?”
The man stopped, raised an eyebrow, “Dodgy is it?”
“Dodgy? No, of course not. I just…” He didn’t know if he should continue. The man seemed friendly enough, but every now and then something passed across his eyes; anger, threat, Craig didn’t know which. He wanted to trust him, so he took a breath. “When you were my age, did you fit in? With your mates and stuff?”
The man frowned, chewed his lip. “Yeah, suppose so. The ones that mattered.”
“Mattered? I don’t understand – which ones mattered?”
“The real ones, the ones who were there when things went wrong. The ones you didn’t have to try too hard with.”
“Yes, yes I understand, so…Things went wrong with you, did they?”
A sudden flash of something in those eyes and, for a moment, Craig thought he had asked one question too many. The window cleaner studied him, then smiled. “Lots of times. Mainly in the early days.” He settled the bucket on the ground. “I didn’t do anything at school, except bunking off. Spent time in lots of different foster homes, got into loads of trouble. I didn’t have anyone, you see. No mum or dad. I felt cheated, cheated by life. So, I was always angry, and I couldn’t control it, and school…Well…” His eyes glazed over. “Wasted my life really. But,” he paused, as if not really sure how to pursue this heavily edited version of his life story. A long sigh. “I always had good mates, mates who stood by me. Who still stand by me. With no parents, it was they that got me through it, every time. The thing is, mates, real mates, that’s what really matters in life.”
“Not a wife, or a girlfriend?”
He grinned. “Well, a girl can be mate too, you know.”
Craig nodded. An uncalled picture of Samantha Lloyd came into his head. He coughed, pretended to scrape something off the saddle of his bike. “So, things worked out for you, in the end?”
“Well, all depends what you mean by ‘worked out’. I don’t own my own place, I don’t drive a car, I have to scrimp and save every penny I make out of this,” he kicked the bucket gently with the toe of his boot. Another brief moment of reflection. “Listen, if you’re looking for advice, then stay at school and do the best you can. It’s tough, but getting educated is the only way. Trust me,” he picked up the bucket, “it’s the only way.” He turned and began to saunter down the alleyway.
Craig grabbed his bike, and quickly caught up with the cleaner. “Wait.” The man raised an eyebrow. “You said yourself, friends are the most important thing of all. More important than school, is that right? Is that what you meant?”
“Friends are important, for sure. In a personal way. They help you get through the bad times, but they won’t put money in your pocket. Only a good job will do that. I came out of school with nothing and I’ve still got nothing. Never likely to, either. Probably the only thing I’ve got to look forward to is Saturday night when we all go down to the pub and get drunk. Still, I suppose that’s more than a lot of people have got.” He patted his pockets and found a crumpled pack of cigarettes. “You having trouble with your mates are you?”
Craig told him of the incident with the ball, how he’d let everyone down, ruined their game, made himself look like an idiot.
He lit his cigarette. “Well, that wasn’t that bad. They’ll get over it. No one ever lost their lives playing a game of football. Where did you say you were playing?”
“Down Station Road, far end. In one of my mate’s streets. The old guy in the house was really…mean. Some bloke called Baxter.”
The man’s face grew a hard. “Billy Baxter?” He blew out a stream of smoke. “Did he have a dog?”
“Yeah. Little brown thing, dead vicious.”
The man nodded. “Yeah, that’s him. Billy Baxter.”
“D’you know him?”
“I know of him. Grumpy old fart he is.”
Craig laughed. He liked the window cleaner. He wasn’t a bit like he’d imagined him to be. Not mean or nasty at all, quite open and friendly. “Well, I didn’t see him, just heard him. That was enough.”
“Well, he’s well known around here. Always in a nark. He’s lived here for years and years, ever since I can remember. You’re lucky to have got that ball back, he normally keeps ‘em. You be careful next time you’re round there.”
They stood at the end of the alleyway. Craig prepared to ride off. “Thanks for the advice.”
“Ah, you’re welcome. Just try and follow it, yeah?”
“Yeah, I will.”
He winked and walked away.
Craig had a sudden urge to call after him, remembering he hadn’t asked the man his name. Already by the sweet shop, the chance lost, the cleaner went out of sight. For a few moments, Craig chewed over what they’d spoken about. Baxter, old man Billy Baxter, with his nasty temper and little dog.
He wondered if Baxter might have been the same man he’d seen at the Pit the other day, the one Crossland and Samantha had tormented. He could have been, he was angry enough. As Craig pushed himself out into the street, he wondered what made the old man so angry. A right nark the window-cleaner had called him. What had happened to make him so bitter towards everyone? Could it be that he too had lost his parents, had become resentful towards everyone, blaming the whole world for his loss, just as the cleaner had? Or was there something else, something a lot more complicated? He shook his head. No point in wondering about any of it as they were all questions that he would never find the answers to.
How wrong that assumption soon proved to be.
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