Beginnings

fingersmith@hotmail.co.uk

Disclaimer

Here I am again … some people would say I’m addicted … So. Here we go:

The characters do resemble a couple of ladies from a very well known TV show, BUT they are all mine … eventually. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those fantastic writers out there who have filled my head with images, stories and fantastic plots for so long. I just hope you get a millionth of the joy I have received from them from reading my story. I would also like to thank all of the people who have supported me with their kind words of encouragement.

Thank you to my beta readers who were fantastic at spotting my many mistakes. Dec and Heike … you are stars.

Language: English! Definitely in the broadest sense! Be prepared for some good old-fashioned ‘effing’ and ‘jeffing’. My characters are the ones to blame … they should have their mouths rinsed out with soap and water.

Violence: A little … that sometimes can get uncomfortable. Especially for the people involved … tee hee hee.

Sex: Erm … cough … yes. It can get a little steamy at times, so if you are under the legal age to read such ‘filth’, or live in a place where this is illegal … I’m sorry (honestly … look at my face – I’m wracked with sorrow). All you have to do is wait until you are a little older. You could even move. Or both, if the mood takes you.

This story is set in Manchester and Norwich … not at the same time though. If you find any spelling mistakes please put it down to one of three things. Firstly, I’m English. Secondly, I can’t spell. Thirdly, I’m just too lazy. And for crying out loud, don’t check my grammar!

Please let me know what you think about this story … try not to be too harsh, as I am really sensitive and will probably cry for weeks … months … are we talking years here?

Acknowledgements:I have quoted from various texts, especially poetry, and songs throughout this piece. All music quoted has been used without the permission of the artist. This is not an attempt at plagiarism: just a tribute to their great words.

 

Part One

I could tell you what has happened. But for you to understand, I need to take you back … right back. To 1974.

When people talk about the 70s, they will fill your head with free love, drugs and rock and roll. Actually, that sounds pretty good, especially the free love part.

But what I’m going to tell you is initially from the eyes of a six year old – me, funnily enough. I know you want to put this down, but bear with me. We all like to peek into someone else’s life – however boring it may be.

So. Let’s find our setting.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin …

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Chapter One

1974

Summer – 1974. Hot, sticky and filled with promise. Days filled with nothing but what my imagination could conjure up – and that could be pretty frightening. Streets were packed with children on school holidays, playing ‘tiggy-it’ and kerby, and avoiding cars as they raced to retrieve an errant ball. Space hoppers were the new black.

I was six years old. It was Levenshulme. Once an affluent part of Manchester, but now filled with students and ethnic minorities. Old radios blasted ‘Shang a Lang’ and ‘Puppy Love’ into the street. Mothers bawled at kids climbing the fence to the railway tracks where they would flatten pennies, completely unaware that they could be flattened too.

I loved my childhood. Loved it in a fucked up way. We were poor – dirt poor. I came from a family of five brothers and two sisters, all older than me, and all avoided me like the plague. Except Jo of course. She was sixteen months older than me, and my idol. Her role on this earth was to be my surrogate mother, and to this day she still holds that place. We were like Siamese twins, but without the shared organs. Even our farts smelt the same. Uncanny or what? But Jo still brags that hers don’t smell (they always did, but I tried to ignore it and closed my mouth sharpish). We looked completely different, but relatives still confused us, and my mother had to resort to colour coding to differentiate. Of course we mixed and matched outfits just to be little bleeders, and Jo hid her pink-rimmed National Health glasses at family gatherings as the final straw.

Kids. Gotta love ‘em.

Well … I have told you this much, I might as well introduce the other spawns in my family. Five brothers … urgh! Every girl’s nightmare, and if you met them you would understand why. Patrick, aka Sniffer (which characterises his approach to the opposite sex), is the eldest son. Simon, who is fondly known as Ebenezer (need I say more?), is the second eldest. Brian was the third, and in the words of my mum, ‘is such a bloody liar’. He was the one where the doctors after the birth, advised my mother to use birth control in the future.

No such luck. Aiden popped out, much to the disdain of my mother, who initially disowned him. Pity she didn’t stick to her guns. But then came the crowning glory. Queen Angie, Queenie, Dammer, Screamer. ‘Who is this bundle of fun?’ I hear you ask. My big sister, sometimes wonderful … sometimes a psycho – which I found out the hard way. She was a git to all of us when playing chief babysitter and tyrant, when my mum worked at the nightclub. Over the years our relationship has grown stronger though – probably because now I can protect myself.

The last brother finally came … what a prize! Alan. Our Adge. Skid mark. Yup … Skid mark, on account of the very fancy designs in his underpants. David Hockney watch out – abstract (f)art.

Then it was Jo’s turn (short for Joanne) – the last but one. She had a myriad of names … but Bulber and Mazda were the main two. Reason being – her head was uncannily shaped like a light bulb, and it looked like her body was constantly having brilliant ideas.

Now me, I had a fine selection of nicknames. So many in fact I had trouble remembering my real name, which didn’t add to my appearance of intelligence. Primarily I was known as Bergans (left outside the butchers of the same name for five hours, and not missed until tea was being dished out) and Chunky (generic name with the rest of the family). I introduced myself as Chunky. Other names sneaked in - Henry the Eighth – no – I wasn’t a fat polygamist with syphilis … or a beard. It was just the way I used to eat, you know, like it was the first morsel that had passed my lips in ages.

But wait. I think I need to go back just a little bit further – you know, complete the picture of the darling child I was. I’ll totally understand if you don’t want to read anymore, but please believe me – it does get better!

I was born (very David Copperfield-ish - not the magician - the sponging whining fucker Dickens wrote of), in the year of our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and Sixty Eight. To say I was a beautiful baby … would be a lie. I was very long, very ugly, with a bald head, and eyes like a Lemur. Of course I developed into a fat toddler but still with very large eyes, which, fortunately, enabled me to see in the dark when the Electricity Company cut us off.

I was the last of the bunch. One look at me and my mother finally cried ‘No more!’ Years later, she admitted that if the umbilical cord had not been attached, she would have sworn I wasn’t hers. Angie loves to recall the day that they brought me home from the hospital. Her job was chief guard, standing at the front door like a bouncer, barring entrance to the neighbours: ‘As not to frighten the womenfolk and kids.’ This tale is told at every opportunity, usually between hysterical laughter and finger pointing (in my direction – where I would sit … glowing). She loves to retell it, like the Ancient Mariner, as she feels ‘cursed’ to regale it over and over again. She even takes on the features of the decrepit old seaman –dribbling accompanying the overexcitement and spitting.

My mother used to bounce me and Jo down the road in a dilapidated pram, (Jo, who was cuddly, beautiful and always had a ready smile), trying to avoid well-wishers in her path. Jo, of course, removed people’s attention from my owl-like eyes, but on the occasions she wasn’t present, the focus of the admiration went on the pram. I didn’t care as long as they left me alone to chew through the plastic mattress at the base. It was bliss on raw gums … cool, yet satisfying.

I wasn’t the bravest of children. I was even scared of a rabbit once. Yes. You read that right - a rabbit. You may think that rabbits can’t hurt you, but they can, as I will prove.

There was a woman who lived up the road from us. Weird bugger. Smelt of bleach and cigarettes. Well … she was a creative soul and a bit of an animal lover – and I mean ‘bit’. In her back garden she had erected a majestic centrepiece consisting of soil, broken bricks and bottles. It was beautiful … in a soily, brokeny bottle and brick kind of way – almost modern art .. and very underrated by the rest of the community

The hutch itself sat pride of place, resembling an Anderson shelter sawn in half and decorated lovingly with chicken wire. I can remember it as if it was yesterday … it was class. My sister led me up to the monument that proved women should never be given free reign with a drill. (This was the 70s and I can be Politically Incorrect – just this once). All it took was the aid of climbing gear and (in the words of a Blue Peter presenter), ‘a responsible adult’.

The ascent began.

Never in my young life had I been so scared. Thoughts flitted through my mind of what terrible monster would be imprisoned in a fortress like that. So, being an idiot, I started to back off, caught my heel in a broken Dandelion and Burdock bottle, fell backwards onto an artistically smashed house brick that was coyly peeping from the middle of the mound … and gashed my head open.

Of course , the wailing started. Many of the elderly residents thought the Germans were invading, as they had been secretly and quietly preparing for years. Have you ever noticed that children initially cry with no sound? Their mouths stretched to capacity, eyes dry, but not a sound to be heard. Then suddenly a low whine is discernible, culminating into the loudest, most annoying howl audible to mankind (heaven knows how dogs cope), and the waterworks go into overdrive.

I raced away, vowing silently I would never trust another Blue Peter presenter again, with my hands rising in slow motion up to the cut on my head, needing my mum like I’d never needed her before. All this amidst the initial laughter of the neighbours. Bastards. Concern came later, especially when my family came round to sort out the ‘caged monster’ and the smelly weird fucker who would allow a child to climb her monument unarmed.

As I said before, Levenshulme was very multicultural – especially of Asian descent. There was an Indian kid who lived down the road, who Jo and I were friends with. One day, his father gave us an onion bahji. We had never seen one of these strange things before. So … Jo and I played catch with it for a while and then bounced it home. How were we to know that this was a special offering from one culture to another? Just think how offended we would have been if we had given them a Holland’s Steak and Kidney pudding and they had played cricket with it. But we were kids … how were we to know?

Anyway. Jo’s best friend, Tina Brace, lived in the road opposite ours. Tina’s nickname was the ‘Rooter’, as most of her playing time was spent rooting through my mum’s drawers and the kitchen cupboards. We used to slag her off, but she did come in handy. If we couldn’t find anything, Tina always knew where it was and would direct us to it. ‘Oh, I noticed that when I was going to the toilet. It’s in the Lads’ bedroom … in the cupboard in the far left corner … second drawer down, right up the back’. She was to be one of many strange friends who would come and go over the years.

I was unfortunate in that I had to share a bedroom with Angie, Jo and the whole Osmond family (especially Donny). This should have mentally scarred me, but it just made me stronger … and thankfully, when Jo’s Cliff Richard obsession kicked in … I was prepared.

Donny Osmond was Angie’s idol. Whatever pop tune rattled forth from between that enormous set of teeth, was like the National anthem for my sister. The whole family had to stand to attention (in absolute silence) for the King of the teenybopper world. When I woke up frightened in the night and couldn’t sleep (being a ‘whinging little get’ as Angie called me), she would try to calm me down with the words ‘Donny’s laughing at you.’

Right enough he was. Wherever I looked … he grinned back. Even when I opened the drawers he was flirting with me through the mound of my underwear. God, I hated him … smarmy bugger - and the rest of his family! I hated Puppy Love and bloody Paper Roses. I hoped he would get distemper, and someone would pour petrol over Marie’s roses … ending with a delicate kiss with a lighted match.

Before I go on to tell you what happened to me when I was six, I need to tell you how I became the distrustful person I am today. Nothing spectacular – but let’s just say a lesson learned, okay? You can be the judge.

Would you be tempted with a free glass of lemonade? Especially if all you usually got was Corporation pop (water), or when your mum was flush … Vimto? I was. Very.

It was an ordinary evening. Quiet … for some unexplainable reason. And it all boiled down to my sister … Jo. She asked me if I would like a drink of the aforementioned lemonade. Of course I did! What sugar-craving child wouldn’t? The lemonade, as free gifts usually do, came with a catch. I had to carry her on my back, on all fours like a donkey, for half an hour. I should have guessed that Jo did not have any lemonade … she did not have any money to buy lemonade … but I trusted her. She was my surrogate mum after all.

On the floor I went, not even four years old and scrabbling around on all fours building up my thirst. I asked intermittently when I was going to receive my well-earned refreshment, only to be told ‘Soon. Soon.’ Now, looking back, the crooning tone of her voice should have told me something was not right. The innocence of youth, eh?

Eventually, through sheer exhaustion, I rebelled and demanded that I should be paid in full for my services. Jo paid in full … by the God, she paid in full. The payment of lemonade came in the shape of pee – donated by her – over my back. I can still hear the laughter in her voice as she shrilled ‘Enjoy your lemonade, you deserve it!’ All I can say is it’s a good job that she never promised me chocolate. To this day, she still can’t tell me why she did it, just mumbles something about being possessed.

The story doesn’t end there I’m afraid. My brother Patrick’s latest victim, sorry girlfriend, was staying with us at the time, and every time a police car went past she wanted to play ‘Let’s Hide Under the Bed’. Once again – children are so gullible. Nowadays I would be at the bedroom window screaming ‘She’s here … in here … under the bed!’ Unfortunately, she had to share the room with me, Jo, Angie, and the Osmonds (all of us in a dilapidated double bed), but when she walked into a puddle of pee, I thought the shit was going to hit the fan. Obviously it was my fault … and she classed me as a disgusting degenerate (my face said ‘uh?’), and promptly stormed off to sleep with my brother. Many years later I realised this was her golden opportunity to get between the sheets with Sniffer, and I wasn’t really a freak of nature – still not sure about Jo though.

I know … I’m going off the point.

Oh … all right then …

Summer – 1974. Hot, sticky and filled with promise. Days filled with nothing but what my imagination could conjure up – and that could be pretty frightening. Streets were packed with children on school holidays, playing tiggy-it and kerby, and avoiding cars as they raced to retrieve an errant ball. Space hoppers were the new black.

I was six years old. It was Levenshulme. And that’s where I first spotted Ashley Richards … or Ash, as she liked to be called …

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Chapter Two

Ashley Richards. Even today, when I say her name my whole body smiles.

I can still remember it vividly … the day she fell into my arms … fell into my life.

Yes.

Fell.

In our front garden we had a huge tree in the corner … huge. I used to love climbing up as high as I could to get away from the brood, and even at six years old I could get pretty high. My mum, to this day, doesn’t know I used to climb it. I used to sit above her when she would be bellowing out into the streets the litany of names of my siblings, all in rank order, announcing that ‘Your bloody tea’s on the table!’

Amazing what power you can possess by being just a little higher than everyone else. I felt on top of the world.

Every teatime it was the same. Until one Sunday that is …

I had climbed one branch higher than usual and was perched there, gloating. Mum had been and gone and I had watched my brothers and sisters trundle in the front door one by one, ready for tea. I had just climbed down when I heard a distinct rustling of leaves coming from overhead.

It was, or so it seemed, a split second later when something landed on me. It was big. It was heavy. It was wriggling like crazy on top of my battered and bruised body.

It was Ash (as I later found out).

Blue eyes wide with shock and panic – and pain …. if my aching backside and stomach was any gauge. Instinctively, my arms wrapped around her, and both our squirming bodies meshed into each other. Black hair tumbled forward and part of it went inside my mouth, an obvious distraction when I was trying to scream.

The more we tried to separate, the more entangled we became. A voice from above me hollered ‘Stop!’ and like the good girl I was – I did. I lay there completely rigid as the blue-eyed girl systematically pulled herself free, allowing my scrawny arms to flop lifelessly to my sides.

‘Are you okay?’ Concern was evident. The tears I had felt welling up in my throat – you know the ones we try to swallow but become like footballs - miraculously disappeared. Silently I nodded my head, looking at the now towering girl looming above me. I wasn’t okay, but damned if I was going to admit it to her.

She held her hand down towards me to help me up, and for a split second I considered the idea of refusing, but the pains shooting up the cheeks of my arse told me to stop being a martyr and accept.

So I did.

Her hands were cool in comparison to my clammy, dirty ones, and with one deft movement I was on my feet … I don’t think I even had the chance of bending my legs. I staggered forward only to be captured by her once again, my head hitting her in the chest. Jesus … she was so tall. The feeling I had whilst lying on the ground came back – she still towered above me!

‘Sorry about that …’ her eyes flicked to the tree, ‘I kind of lost my footing somewhere along the line.’ I just stared at her, gob-smacked. I wanted to demand why she had been there in the first place, but nothing would come out. I must have appeared simple … and I think for those few minutes I was. ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ A quick nod was all I could muster. Her face took on a concerned look … and my arse was still throbbing to the tune of the birds singing.

After about a minute of staring at me, she stuck her hand in my direction. ‘Ashley Richards. Erm … or Ash. I just moved down the Avenue about two weeks ago.’

I was just about to answer - my mouth had formed around a word and was ready to let it slip through my gormless lips when ‘Bloody hell, Lou. Your tea’s on the table. In!’ Mum. And she was pissed off. Big style.

I turned back to Ashley and flashed her a smile, ‘Got to go. See ya around, yeah?’ Her face broke out into an enormous grin and she nodded, her hand still outstretched. Impulsively, I grabbed her hand and pumped up and down like I had seen my mum doing to people she had just met. Those cool fingers clutched at mine for a brief moment before my mum’s increasing ire got in the way.

‘Inside now, lady. You can speak to your friend tomorrow.’

Another smile lit up my face. A friend. Yup. I liked the sound of that.

Before I had a chance to say anything else, she was gone. And I turned back and wobbled indoors, the cheeks of my arse screaming, but the smile on my face said ‘Stuff it. I have a new friend.’

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Sunday night was always nit inspection night. My mum was like a woman possessed when it came to our six legged friends who liked to party in her kids’ hair. So Sunday night was known as ‘TheTreatment’ night.

Every Sunday was the same. Bath. Clean pyjamas. And a thorough grooming, ready for school the next day. Just because we had broken up for school holidays didn’t stop the de-lousing regime. Unfortunately. And let me tell you, if you have never had the ‘pleasure’ of Derbac … well … you’ve been lucky. At least it didn’t set in your hair like Suleo.

Anyway, mum would line us up in order of age and douse the louse with the most fouling smelling lotion ever invented. Even today I prefer dog farts. It wasn’t just the lotion – it was the combing. I think the person who invented the comb must have done so with the help of a microscope and evil intention. My hair tangled easily, and having something so fine scraped through was agony. The effect was tearstained cheeks, red rimmed eyes and Christopher Lee hair – the lot of us were like a band of extras in a Hammer House Production.

Over time this regime dwindled down to just Alan, Jo and me, as the others had grown and adamantly refused. And they used to sit … smugly … in the front room, when the ‘infested trio’ would have to stay in the dining room and were only allowed to go in the best room if we stayed away from everyone – especially out of line of draughts from the windows, which would waft the smell around the room. God help us if we sat on the furniture. We could have been hired out on Safaris – elephants would have been stunned at twenty paces.

This Sunday was no different. The agony … the screaming … the pleading for mercy. And that was just my brother. He was such a boy sometimes. It was funny … in retrospect, obviously. Especially watching my mum crack the little critters between her nails when she had caught them in the comb. Word of warning – never struggle with your mother when she is de-lousing you – there is only ever one winner, and it sure isn’t you. And … and this is a biggie … always be ready to run in case her cig sets your head on fire. No. That’s a lie. She always made sure it never went near enough to actually catch alight, properly balancing it on top of the gas fire.

But Alan …Alan was a mard-arse – always was, and most certainly still is.

It still makes me smile to remember him in the throws of a rain dance, wailing to the gods, informing everyone and everything he hated them … with all his heart. He was always the main attraction on Sundays … we could have charged admittance, but we were used to it. Every week the same.

Then the doorknocker went. The insurance man had dropped by for mum’s contribution … and we didn’t even have time to hide behind the furniture. Not that we could have got away with it, as Alan was in the midst of his jungle fever. Only now I realise my mum was embarrassed by the smell and the noise. No one else actually paid any attention to what was going on – in a household our size it was very unusual to have quiet time.

All the time the insurance man was there, Alan danced. Every question the man asked my mum had to ask to be repeated because of Alan’s rantings. Jo and I just sat on the floor, quietly doing Christopher Lee impressions, but inside laughing our asses off. Alan was a knob head – still is.

I still believe this episode scarred my brother. Mainly because he had the lotion on longer than the thirty minutes – I don’t know. All that medication soaking through his scalp, breathing in all those fumes whilst screaming must have taken its toll. Definitely the reason why he has never intellectually advanced – or maybe it’s because he was always a wanker. Who knows?

After the insurance man had gone, and Alan had been thoroughly dealt with, Jo and I were sent to bed to meet Donny et al. Fucking Osmonds.

It was only after mum had gone back down to give Alan another pasting to stop his crying (go figure) that Jo asked me where I had got my bruises from. Her eyes held concern … and I knew she must have been worrying about this since bath time, as the bruise started at the base of my spine and curved itself around one cheek. There is no way she wouldn’t have noticed it … although Angie hadn’t. She was too busy trying to get us sorted so she could get up the park with her mates.

Donny was smiling at me as I turned to Jo, ‘I was standing under the tree ...’

‘What have I told you about climbing that tree? I’ll tell mum if you go up it again.’

‘I didn’t fall out of it. Ash did.’

‘How on earth can ash cause a bruise like that?’ And I started laughing. ‘It’s not funny, Lou. You’ll end up killing yourself or worse.’ Nope. I didn’t get it either … killing yourself or worse? Never mind.

‘Not ash! Ash!’ She looked at me like I was an idiot, ‘Ashley … Ashley Richards from down the Avenue?’ Still a vacant look. ‘Moved in a couple of weeks ago.’ Realisation broke out and I could see it take over the blank expression from earlier.

It was short lived.

‘What do you mean Ash fell out of the tree?’

I loved my sister, but sometimes she was too overprotective. It was a full twenty minutes later before she was satisfied I had not been ambushed.

As I snuggled into bed, the big dilapidated double I shared with both Jo an Angie, I smiled to myself.

‘I’ve got a friend.’ Then silently wished Donny goodnight.

And I couldn’t wait to see what the next day would bring.

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Chapter Three

It wasn’t long before we were firm friends, although Ash was Jo’s age. As for Jo … well … she wasn’t too pleased my affections for her had been split. But being her, she took it on the chin and allowed me some semblance of freedom.

Days were spent in childish adventure. Ash was so much fun, although she barely said a word to anybody else. Mum nicknamed her my ‘shadow’, as she was always standing quietly behind me whenever she was in the company of any of my family.

Now, my family were friendly, don’t get me wrong. They were just … big. There were loads of us. The only person Ash hadn’t met was my dad. And come to think of it, I hadn’t seen him myself for quite a while. He was a long distance lorry driver and spent a lot of time on the road; the time not on the road was spent in the pub.

I remember when I was about four, my mum had got me up in the middle of the night, or so it seemed, to introduce me to him. Years later I realised they had been in the middle of an argument. To put it mildly, my father was a tosser. He didn’t give two shits about his family. All he cared about was himself and the pub. I can still remember him sat there in the front room, sunglasses on (at night time) listening to Dean Martin’s Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime, and singing really badly.

Mum had ushered both Jo and me into the room and it was like the rabbit incident all over again. Who was this man sat in the chair singing whilst wearing sunglasses? Even to this day I read people’s eyes – I don’t trust people if I can’t see their eyes. I learned that the hard way.

It was only because Jo seemed to know him that I let down my guard.

I wish I hadn’t bothered.

Enough about him for now … you’ll hear more about that tosser later.

Ash. I wanted to skip every time I thought of her. She was a lot taller than me even though she was nearly eight (well … seven and three quarters– eight in October) – but she appeared bigger. Black hair cascaded down her back; her face was slightly tanned through all the outdoor activities we shared. But the most striking thing about her was her eyes. Blue, a light blue, a twinkling blue that captured the sun’s rays and made them dance.

It wasn’t long before she became the centre of my world. Everything I did I wanted her to be a part of it. Everything I saw I wanted her to see.

We were inseparable. It was fantastic.

Jo backed off from me and spent more time with Tina, telling me I was always welcome to hang about with her anytime. I don’t know why, but she didn’t really take to Ash … but at the time I didn’t give it much thought.

Summer days were spent in play … in adventure. Things I had done a thousand times on my own seemed to take on a different meaning when I did them with Ash.

She even showed me how to climb that damned tree properly, although I still had the memory of her plunging down from quite a height.

I trusted her.

Completely.

I fit quite nicely into her family too. She had two brothers, Stephen and Anthony, one older, one younger. Her dad used to torment her, saying it was an Ashley sandwich. I could tell she was their pride and joy.

It was strange to watch her family together. Her parents were so interested in what they all were doing, taking time to chat to them, ask how their day had been. Her mother was a full time mum, always there for them. Her father was a policeman, and he made my brothers nervous – especially Sniffer’s girlfriend.

It made me reflect, in my childish way, about my own parents. I loved my mum so much … she tried as hard as she could to provide for us, considering my dad was AWOL most of the time. Now I’m an adult I fully realise what she had to go through. Eight children and barely two pennies to rub together. No wonder she had to work at a night club to earn enough to clothe and feed us. A man can’t support both the pub and his family, and my father preferred to support the local brewery.

Ash’s family semi-adopted me. I spent most of my free time there, reading her books – especially loving it when she read to me. This treat sometimes followed us up the tree where we would sit, hidden from view and she would read to me. I had to be careful I didn’t relax too much and fall backwards … again.

Ash, her two brothers and me used to perform Abba’s Waterloo in her bedroom. I don’t think Stephen and Anthony really wanted to be Benny and Bjorn – but they didn’t really have a say in the matter. Ash could be quite forceful when the mood took her.

We practised for days trying to get the moves right, turning our heads at just the right moment. I still haven’t got the hang of coordination, but that’s beside the point.

When we thought we had perfected it, we put the single on the small box record player and performed our masterpiece to her parents. I followed her every move … like usual … and shrilled out ‘My my … At Wa-ter-loo Na-po-le-on did sur-render …yeh yeh …’ The applause from her parents was deafening … nearly as bad as our singing.

I felt on top of the world.

Again.

I should have sung the Carpenters.

One of my favourite memories was the day we went to Concroft Park. It was the day I realised Ash was everything I would ever want or need in my life.

It was quite a walk from our house, and we were toting carrier bags full of sandwiches and pop to eat on our day out. Inside the bags were also two books, Ash’s jumper, an old blanket and a ball. It was going to be a good day.

And it was.

The very first thing we did was feed the ducks. We stood there, side by side, looking for all the world like a pair of ragamuffins, not speaking in our task but fully content just … to just … be. I think we gave them nearly all our sandwiches but we didn’t care.

Swings, slides, roundabouts and reading. In that order. Then, we did it all again, but this time we had a game of catch before we lay back on the grass and just read.

I didn’t know how long I had been asleep, I suddenly felt the splodge of rain hit my skin like an ice cube. And again … and again … until it was constant. I felt Ash looming above me, her shadow blocking my view, her body sheltering me from the downpour.

‘Lou … come on, Lou. We need to go.’ Her voice seemed echoey, distant. The chill from the rain made me shiver. I had only a t-shirt and shorts on and I was freezing. I could see Ash shaking with cold too. Her hand was trembling as it reached down to me, rivulets of water running down the bare flesh.

‘We need to get back.’ I grabbed her hand and with one deft movement she pulled me to my feet. ‘Here.’ A jumper was shoved in my direction. My eyes looked into blue, which were clouded with worry. ‘Put it on … you’ll catch your death …’

‘But …’

‘But nothing. Put it on … no arguments.’ I watched her as I pulled the jumper over my head, missing the sight of her as the thick red material fell over my eyes. The jumper was barely on my skin before she grabbed my hand and began to pull me along.

Rain lashed against us as we struggled against the downpour. There was no point looking for shelter, as the rain looked as if it would be with us for quite a while.

Ash had the blanket and books (the ball long forgotten) shoved under her arm, her other arm occupied with pulling me along, my short legs struggling to keep up.

We had gone a little way before she pulled me under the bus shelter just outside the park. ‘We can’t get the bus, Ash, we haven’t any money.’

‘Shhuuusssshh. We’re not getting the bus … here … hold these.’ She thrust the books into my hands and started fluffing out the blanket. Her face was filled with concentration as she struggled with the chequered cloth, her black hair sticking to the side of her face. I was freezing, and by the looks of her shaking body, so was Ash.

‘Come here.’ Her voice was quiet, barely a whisper. But I went without question. ‘I’m going to try a stop us getting completely soaked.’ I looked up at her, forever in awe of my older friend. She made me feel so protected. I knew she would take care of me whatever happened. ‘I’m going to hold the blanket over us. Here … put your arm round my waist and hold on.’

As soon as I slipped my arm around her, which was quite an effort because of our height difference; we were off, the slick and slippery pavement almost a blur.

Ash was determined we wouldn’t get any more wet than we already were. The books I held were becoming soggy and heavy, and my grip tightened about them with grim determination. I wanted to keep my part of the bargain.

It seemed like forever. The rain really held us back, but I didn’t feel frightened or worried. The presence of Ash calmed me. The feeling of her guiding me both with her body and the top of her arm made me feel secure … and, strangely enough, happy.

When we got outside her house I fully expected her to dash in and send me on my way, but no, she insisted she saw me to my front door, with a mumbled ‘That’s what friends are for.’ Secretly, I was pleased.

The front door loomed ahead of us, and I could feel her slowing down. It wasn’t until we reached the gate that she stopped. ‘Go on … you get in.’ Impulsively, I threw my arms around her neck and planted a kiss on her cheek. I think I surprised her because she dropped the blanket to her shoulders and looked me squarely in the face. ‘What was that for?’ Her voice was quiet, but I heard every word as if it has been shouted.

‘For taking care of me.’

‘Don’t be daft.’ But I could see she felt pleased with my words. ‘Go on … get gone.’ And she planted a little kiss on my forehead, before she gave me a gentle shove.

I raced towards the door and hammered the knocker, turning to face Ash whilst I waited for someone to let me in.

The image of her standing there will forever be etched into my mind. Rain pummelled down on her, but she just stood there, staring right back at me. Her hair was a tangled mess of wetness, clinging to the side of her face, her fringe dripping water into her eyes. The pale cream t-shirt was like a second skin, transparent and heavy. Rivulets of water raced down her legs and collected at the tops of her ankle socks. Splodges of dirt coated her calves and knees, but they were beginning to become washed away.

‘Bloody hell, Lou! You’re pissed wet through!’ Mum’s voice broke through my thoughts, and I turned to face her. ‘Get in and get those clothes off before you catch your death.’

Ash’s jumper! I still had it on. I turned to speak to her but she was on her way out the gate, the blanket covering her shoulders. ‘Ash!’ She stopped, and turned towards me, a question in her eyes. ‘Your jumper!’

‘Keep it … I’ll get it later.’ Her face broke out into a dazzling smile and I forgot about the rain, forgot about the jumper, forgot how cold I was. That smile lit up everything and made me feel warm inside.

‘Come on, Lou … in!’

‘Laters, Ash.’

‘Laters.’ And she was gone. Racing through puddles, water splashing up her legs, the blanket billowing out as only soaked blankets could do.

But there wasn’t going to be any ‘Laters’. ‘Laters’ had to wait for another ten years.

My father made sure of that.

Bastard.

                        *****************************************************

Chapter Four

After a hot bath, shared with Jo of course, it was tea and an early night. I felt so happy going to sleep, but the happiness didn’t last long.

Voices woke me. Not gentle voices … by any stretch of the imagination. These voices were raised in argument, words spewing forth that no child should ever hear.

It was my parents.

Funny thing is, even though my mum and dad didn’t get along as well as other parents, they rarely argued. So, this was a surprise to say the least.

Honestly speaking though, surprise was the last emotion I was feeling at the time.

Fear was top of the list.

‘You all right, Lou?’ Jo’s voice filtered through the darkness, a small hand came and landed on the top of my arm, stroking up and down.

The shouting was getting closer, the anger more evident. I could feel the tears welling up and slipping from my eyes. I began to shake – couldn’t stop it – I was scared and confused. I could hear Jo trying to comfort me, but I could hear the fear in her voice also. This must be bad if she was scared.

Raised voices were right outside our door now, the words clear to everyone.

We were leaving. Tonight. Mum had obviously found out about all the affairs my father had been having, and the child his girlfriend from Scotland was carrying.

Only later did I understand the full concept of these revelations. Only later did I overhear my mum telling one of her sisters of a letter she had found, addressed to her, in his work bag. A letter from a seventeen year old girl who was three and a half months pregnant. Only later did I fully understand this man was a total wanker, although I’d always had my suspicions.

Even Donny didn’t seem to be laughing now.

Light blinded me as the door flew back and my mum came into the room with a roll of black bags.

‘Come on girls. Get yourselves up. We’re going on a trip.’ She tried to keep her voice cheerful, but we knew this trip wasn’t to Butlins. ‘Here…’ She passed us a couple of bags she had torn off, ‘pack as many clothes as you can into these … Angie’s too.’

‘Over my dead body!’ My father bellowed.

‘It can be arranged.’ Her voice was a growl, and even my father slunk back, knowing that she would rip his head off if he as much as made a move in our direction.

Not that he would have put himself on the line like that. He was neither brave, nor did he give a damn. His kids and family meant nothing to him. He had proved that with his inability to give two shits about anyone but himself.

My body was shaking. My small hands were grabbing everything and anything, randomly shoving clothes haphazardly. Jo was crouched next to me, tears trickling down her face as she slowly placed each item carefully into the sack.

My world was falling apart … falling apart … falling apart. Each refrain mimicked the action of my hands, as they silently packed the few belongings we owned into shiny black plastic. Every muscle seemed to vibrate through me … panic and fear vying for dominance …

Until it struck me …

Ash.

When could I see Ash?

Could I say goodbye to her?

I didn’t want to say goodbye … a noise danced in my throat … a wail waiting to be released into the silent room. I didn’t want to leave Ash … she was my friend … I didn’t want to leave.

Tremors shook through me, the wail winning out, the tears flowing freely now. I brought my hand to my face to smear the tears across my cheeks, my nose bunging up, breathing becoming difficult.

‘Come on sweetheart. It’ll be all right.’ Mum was crouching next to me, trying to get me to calm down, her loving hands on my shoulders, quickly rubbing the knotted muscles. ‘We’ll still be together …’

Instead of calming me, this thought just made me cry even harder. Loving hands slipped underneath my armpits and I felt myself being lifted into the familiar scent of my mum. ‘Shush there, sweetheart … I’ve got you.’

It was ages before she let me go. She rocked me back and forth, stroking up and down my spine. Jo stood silently next to us both, her hand tangling through my hair.

That’s just like my sister. She must have been feeling just as scared as me, but she still rose above it and worried about me first. That is why I love her as much as I do.

An hour later saw us in the back of a black cab. Mum, Angie, Alan, Jo and me … five bin bags and not much else. We looked a sorry sight. The rest of the lads decided to stay with their father – their father, as he was no longer mine … and I doubt he ever was – although biologically I could never escape that fact.

I can still remember the taxi driver reversing into Ash’s road, and my eyes staring up to the dark window of her room. I wanted to wake her up … tell her that whatever happened she was still my friend and I loved her.

But as the taxi pulled away, I felt a part of me stay there in Levenshulme. I just hoped that Ash would find it and know I didn’t want to go … didn’t want to leave her.

I had to take some comfort from the knowledge that no matter how long it took … I would find her again.

That was a promise.

                        ***************************************************************

Chapter Five

1984 – Ten years later …

Loads of things had happened in those ten years. Too many to go into any detail, but the main thing was, I never had the opportunity to see Ash again. Never had the chance to say goodbye.

Every time it rained I thought about her. I know … weird. Even to this day, as soon as it rains heavily, I still have the image of her standing there, drenched to the skin, hair and body soaking wet, smiling at me, even though she was freezing cold.

I still have those books from that day. They still look like concertinas, all bevelled and ruined. The pages barely separate and they look tired and old. I keep them wrapped up in a bright red jumper. Her bright red jumper. They were the only things I had of hers and there was no way I would part with them.

Ever.

After my mum left my dad, I found out she had actually been seeing someone else. It was funny in a way, because I had met him on more than one occasion. He worked with my mum at the nightclub – he was the head chef, so I had never thought it was weird when my mum had taken me and Jo around to his flat to meet him.

To tell the truth, I thought he was wonderful. He always had time to chat, always took an interest in what we were doing, and in retrospect I realised he thought the absolute world of my mum. It was good for the soul to see her so happy. Years had been wasted with a man who had told her nobody else would ever give her a second look, but now she was with a man who thought the sun rose and fell because she was on the earth.

Those ten years were not easy, by any stretch of the imagination. My dad had great joy divorcing my mum on the grounds of adultery. All his philandering meant nothing to him, and he glorified in his statement that he would never forgive her for leaving him … ‘for another man at that.’ He failed to recognise his own shortcomings – the affairs, the lies, the fact he got a girl who was a year older than his daughter pregnant, believing it was his right to do all these things.

My brothers were on his side, following steadily in his footsteps as womanisers and drunks. All except Alan, and as soon as he was old enough he was off to join the gang. I told you he was an idiot didn’t I?

Angie had married a man who looked like Brains from Thunderbirds, although most of the time he reminded me more of Joe 90. Four of my brothers got married and then three of them got divorced. They were definitely like their father. Actually Aiden was remarried … and wifey number two was getting sick and tired of his absences … and I don’t mean the times he spent in nick either. I doubt they will ever learn.

At sixteen I left school and started college to do my A levels.

And that is when I saw her again.

Ash.

My Ash. In the flesh. Bigger, taller, darker, and absolutely positively the most gorgeous creature on the planet.

I hadn’t been enrolled very long, and was still trying to find my way around Stockport College, when I saw her. Don’t get me wrong here. I didn’t look at her and say to myself ‘Oh look! That’s Ash.’ It was more embarrassing than that.

A lot more.

Being a ‘newbie’ we were constantly the butt of everybody’s jokes. When we asked for directions we were sent the opposite way; we were told stories about teachers to make us wary of the staff. They took the piss out of us constantly, but that was to be expected. All in all, it worked out fine.

Until the incident.

I still cringe about it to this day, but realise if it hadn’t happened I would never had met Ash again.

I had been at college for two weeks, and had made a few friends who insisted I went along to the karaoke night at the student union. As you well know, I couldn’t hold a note (still can’t), but I’d agreed, on the understanding I would not be getting up there and making a fool of myself.

Big mistake.

I should have stayed home and washed my hair … watched telly … read a book. Even studied.

But no. Karaoke night it was.

My friends were there, all cramped around a table with some older students, laughing and fitting in well. I bought a coke from the bar and joined them. They seemed like a nice bunch, although slightly pissed already and it was only eight o’clock.

As the night wore on, more people were getting up the nerve to sing. Not me. I just sat there and sipped my drink, laughed in all the right places, and chatted mainly with Mandy, a girl who was in my A level Sociology course, and at who’s house I would be staying over at that night.

I felt quite relaxed, and I think it had something to do with what Ray, an older Art student, kept slipping in my drink. He thought he was being sly about it, but he was too pissed to realise he was being obvious.

Then came the joints. I had never even smoked a cigarette, never mind a joint, but hey – it was college, and everyone else was doing it.

Another … big … mistake.

I swear, I only had a couple of drags … honestly your honour … just the two. But it felt like I had smoked ten. And that’s how I found myself on the stage, in the student’s union, singing ‘Waterloo’. Fuck.

And then …

Double fuck.

The lights in the place were blinding. The smoke in the air was making my throat dry up even more than it was already, but for some strange reason I didn’t care. I was waving my arm above my head and croaking out the jumbled words to Abba’s winning song. I was killing it … slaughtering the poor song … hanging it up and slitting its metaphorical throat.

About a third of the way through, I felt someone come behind me on the stage and begin to sing with me. I was overjoyed, and not a little zealous, to thank this person for becoming part of my act. I turned and stumbled into something warm and tall. I knew it was female because my face was pressed into some very impressive breasts. A laugh escaped as I stumbled back and looked up into …pale … blue … eyes.

I froze.

The eyes had me.

The rabbit incident happened all over again. I don’t know why I stepped away, maybe it was to focus my attention on the whole package, and not just those blue eyes gazing intently into my own.

Now this was the biggest mistake of them all. I know … drinking alcohol as a minor, smoking pot, murdering an Abba song – they were mistakes, kind of … but stepping back … stepping backwards on a tiny stage and not paying attention …

That’s the show stealer.

I landed squarely on top of a table full of empty glasses, surrounded by amorous young men, ready for a woman to drop into their lives. Plastic glasses flew in all directions, my arse hitting the edge with enough velocity to tip the table forward and enable me to slide gracefully to the ground.

The music stopped. The room was silent for what seemed like an age. And then the laughter began. Raucous laughter that ricocheted off the walls and pounded in my befuddled ears. The room began to spin – not a good sign, especially because my stomach began to spin with it.

A concerned face hovered in front of me, and I struggled to control my wandering eyeballs, which decided to move on their own volition about the sockets.

They landed on blue eyes, twinkling blue eyes that captured me in a tractor beam gaze. I was transfixed. My body ceased to squirm, my eyeballs decided to behave and focus on this vision in front of me.

‘Lou?’ That voice. So familiar, yet so different. ‘It is you, isn’t it?’ I couldn’t answer … I was struck mute by the situation, the alcohol, the pot, and her eyes. ‘Louise Turner? It’s you, isn’t it?’ Her hand came out and stroked my cheek, my eyes fluttering closed.

‘Ash.’ The word parted my lips in a gesture of hope. I couldn’t believe it was her … couldn’t believe after all these years she would just pop into my world again.

‘Yup … in the flesh.’ I opened one eye to focus on her, taking in her classic beauty again. My reaction to this vision was one I bet many of you have experienced at one time or another.

I threw up.

All over her.

In a bar full of people.

And then I threw up again.

I told you it was embarrassing, didn’t I?

                        *********************************************************

part 2

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