The Bull Singer
He had cut his hair!
That was it! The stupid boy had tried to make himself look like Billy, the same long side fringe almost covering his right eye. For Heaven's sake, why? But that couldn't be; Billy's hair was straight, and Joey's was wavy. I was shaking so much I could not get my head together, and charges of child abuse rang out loud and clear. How could I face the boy again, how could I face Aunt Mabel? Dad would understand I had made a mistake but no one else would. I saw my life in ruins just because of one stupid mistake. There was no other way out; I had to leave. Pack up and go back to Flixton, and throw myself at the mercy of Daley and the band and let them heal me. But if I did, who would be here for Joey? Already there were signs that Dad's harsh words to Ms Street had come to nothing. Those new bruises were proof enough. Who would stand by him? At least, I had to get out of the house; get back to the cottage. I rose to my feet, moved to my bed and sprawled on it, my mind in a hopeless whirl. I roused to someone stroking my hair and calling my name in a soft voice. I rolled over and found those dark eyes gazing down at me. I jerked away from his touch." Don't, Joey; you can't be in here. Go downstairs. Let me be."
Joey shook his head. "It's okay Mags. I think I understand; Billy was your boyfriend wasn't he? And I look like him. I'm sorry if I upset you; I didn't do it on purpose, honest. This is how I normally have my hair. It only goes wavy when it needs cutting, and I usually cut it myself. I suppose you want me to go home now. If I had my shoes I would."
"You don't have to go anywhere." I sat up and buried my face in my hands. "It's up to me to go."
Joey turned away from me and lowered his head. "If you think I'm going to tell anyone what you did, I promise I won't; I liked it. I know you kissed me last night but I was too tired to do anything about it, and when you kissed me in the bathroom, and put your arms round me, I thought, wow! No one has ever held me like you did. For the first time in my life I felt someone liked me; I guess I was wrong."
"You're not wrong, Joey. I do like you, and that's the problem. Billy was sixteen when I first met him; you're only fifteen."
"I won't tell."
"It's not that simple."
"Nothing is." Joey got to his feet and I suddenly realised he was wearing clothes of mine that Aunt Mabel had put away when I grew out of them; but no shoes. I used to wear my shoes till they were all holes and only fit for the bin. "I liked what you did, and I'd like you to do it again."
He made to leave the room but I grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him close. "Just tell me what happened, Joey. You didn't get those bruises by falling, and you didn't lock yourself out of the house. If you want to tell porkies and get away with it, you need to learn how."
Joey wrenched his hand free and stood glaring at his feet. "If you must know, she's gone away and locked me out."
"In this weather?"
"So, what's new?"
I stood up and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I think it's time we had a word with my Dad."
Two hours later, after making a pair of furious aunts promise not to raise the roof with Social Services till we got back, I drove my BMW north towards Rochdale with Dad in the front passenger seat. Joey sat in the back, dressed once more in the shabby clothes he had been wearing when he fell into the farmhouse hall. Dad was right; Mr Chambers needed to be shown exactly how his daughter was treating his grandson. The man needed to see the bruises. Five miles north of Rochdale, Marble House sat in its own grounds complete with a state of the art security system plus five bouncers on duty at all times. If I had been on my own I would have turned round at the gate and gone home but Dad was just as determined to see Mr Chambers as Joey was to meet his grandfather. We were stopped at the gate and made to state our business. We were stopped again at the main door set in a huge portico affair of white marble, and eventually allowed into the foyer beyond. We were made to wait there for another ten minutes and would have been there a lot longer if Benjamin Roach hadn't chanced to come down the curving marble stairs. Was everything made out of marble in this place?
As soon as Joey saw Benjamin, he hurried to him and was immediately engulfed in a bear hug. Benjamin raised his eyes to look at us. "I take it there is a problem, Mr Alton. Come with me."
He turned to lead us to a double door at the back of the foyer, but a bouncer stepped in his way. "I'm sorry, Mr Roach, the boss said no visitors."
"Mr Chambers will see these people, Charlie. I will vouch for them."
"Who are they?"
"The boy is his grandson, Joseph Street, and this gentleman is Edward Alton, an old friend of Mr Chambers."
"And who's the other one?"
Dad said, "He's my son, as if it's any business of yours. You might not remember me but I remember you, Charlie Breakwell. I pulled you out of the gutter and set you on your feet when you were a snivelling little cow-pat begging for someone to give you their leavings. Now let us past before I recall that debt with interest."
I just stood there and gaped at Dad spouting all this tough talk, but when I looked at Charlie he was gaping like a guppy in a fish tank. How could a frail old man like my dad have such an effect on a huge bouncer?
Charlie's face broke into a silly grin. "Uncle Ted! How are you?"
"Very well, Charlie. I see you're doing well. Well talk later."
"This way, if you please." Benjamin pushed open the doors and we walked into an all white lounge with a huge picture window facing onto a glass-enclosed patio and pool such as I had only seen on the French Riviera. A man in a white suit sat in a wheelchair by the window. He was old with a shock of white hair, and his clothes hung on him in folds, and I guessed this was Elias Chambers. His body might have been in decline but his voice was like a loud hailer when he roared without looking at us, "Damn you Charlie, I said no visitors. Get them out of here, now."
Dad indicated that Joey and I should stay back when he shuffled forward with the aid of his stick. As he neared the man, the chair spun round and Chambers got ready to blast him, but Dad said, "Before you have us thrown out, Ly, I suggest you listen to what I have to say."
Chambers leaned forward and squinted at Dad. "Edward?"
"That's right. Edward Alton."
"What the hell are you doing here? I told you I never wanted to see you ever again. Get out of my house."
"I will after I show you something." Dad beckoned to Joey. The boy walked forward to stand by his side. "Do you know who this boy is, Ly?"
"Probably another of your gutter urchins by the look of him; you always were fond of offering crumbs to the down and outs."
"Well you ought to know, most of them work for you now." Dad pushed Joey closer. "Look at him man. Look at his face. Who do you see?"
As soon as Joey was close enough for Chambers to reach out and grab his arm, he pulled him close so he could peer into his face. "No. It can't be. And yet he…"
"He's Angela's boy, Ly."
"Yes, Ly, and look what your daughter has done to him, look how she treats him. Take off your shirt, Joey and show him your back." The boy slowly removed his shirt and turned round.
Elias drew his breath in suddenly as he surveyed the damage. Reaching out, he yanked at the waistband of Joey's pants and drew them down till his bum was almost in sight. "Not my daughter. She wouldn't do this."
"Wake up, Ly. He wears rags and walks round shoeless. Show him your feet, Joey." Joey hitched his pants back up and Elias leaned forward as Joey raised his right foot and balanced on his left. "Everything he has, she breaks. My son has seen the evidence. I'll bet Mr Roach has too."
Elias shook his head. "No, no, no. Not Angela. She wouldn't do that."
Dad went on, "Last night she threw him out of the house without a coat or shoes, and went away with her friends. There was a storm down our way last night, and he almost died of Hypothermia. He came to me for help. I don't know who beats him but I've talked to Angela myself and I've I told her that if I saw one more bruise on him I would inform the authorities and have them investigate her for neglect and child abuse. If you don't want that to happen, I suggest you do something about the situation yourself. I honoured my debt to you, Ly. I gave your daughter and the boy a refuge. Now it's up to you to stop burying your head in the sand and pretending they don't exist."
Elias just sat there, in his chair, as if carved of the same stone as the house he lived in. At last, my dad sighed and turned to walk away. "Come on, boy, we're done here."
I watched Joey walk away from Elias, his shoulders slumped, his face full of hurt at being rejected. As he passed me to follow Dad out of the room, I turned to walk with him, and heard the roar behind me. "Wait! Come here, boy!" We both stopped, and Joey turned to face Elias. The man snapped at us, "All of you, get out, I'll speak to the boy alone. You too, Ben."
Benjamin ushered us out of the room and Charlie closed the door.
I stared at Elias Chambers and wondered if I would ever stop hating him. He said, "Well? Do you have anything to say?"
"Yeah," I snapped, "I have plenty to say, and the first is I fucking hate you. You never once came to see me."
"I had my reasons."
"Oh yeah? All I know is what that bitch who calls herself a mother told me. And until someone tells me different, I'll go on hating you." I could feel the rage boiling up inside me, and was prepared to let him feel the results of it. "For the last twelve years I've lived with hate in my heart for people who didn't want me. My mother wished I'd never been born; she dragged me from town to town, living in bed-sits with no heating and no food, while the bitch went out every night, leaving me alone in the cold. Then she'd come home with some guy and they would lock me out of the bedroom. In the mornings I had to hide from her temper. If anything went wrong, she took it out on me; she still does. I got used to covering up the bruises at a very young age. What was worse, she wouldn't tell me who my dad was. My birth certificate says 'Father not known' and when I ask her she laughs and says, 'what do you need to know for? He's a nobody and you're a nobody; get used to it.' Then something happened and things changed. All of a sudden she had money to spend, and clothes to wear. We moved into a better apartment and men started calling on her, but they weren't after sex. They shut me in the bedroom while they drank and smoked and talked for hours. But one thing didn't change; I was left on my own at night. As I got older I learned there were people who stood up for kids like me, but she said if I said anything she'd make me pay. So I learned to fend for myself. She used me as her skivvy, I cleaned the apartment, I washed clothes, and I cooked as best I could. I learned to stretch what little money she gave me so I had at least one meal a day." By this time my eyes were full of angry tears but I was determined to make him hear me out. "Wherever we lived, she enrolled me in school, not because she cared but because she didn't want the school inspectors snooping around all the time and I was out of her hair during the day. I loved it; at least I was away from that bitch. The only times I was away from school was when I hurt too much, sometimes from her boyfriends as punishment, or from the bitch herself. In the end I came to hate you because you refused to acknowledge us. And now I'm standing here in front of you and wishing I had a knife I could plunge into your heart." At last I let the tears flow and I turned away from him, trying to control myself.
From the look of the place he lived in, and the lackeys he had about the place, Elias had money to burn while I had nothing but dirt on my feet and rags on my back. But if this was so, if he truly was a monster, why did he send Uncle Benji to find us every time we moved? The first time I saw Uncle Benji I was five and I screamed the place down, he was so ugly, but slowly he won me over and I discovered he was just a soft teddy bear of a man with lots of hugs and cuddles to give, something I never had off the bitch; and I often wished he was my dad. For me, the visits were too few, and only happened when we suddenly moved, mostly in the dead of night, to a new place, but no matter where we went, Uncle Benji would find us. He tried to tell me that my grandfather was not the bad man the bitch said he was, and often left me money from him, which the bitch would take off me after beating me senseless. As these memories came back with the force of a tornado, I thought I heard someone calling my name. I looked up through a cataract of tears and saw Benji standing there, his arms opening. I fell into his embrace and began to cry like a baby. He held me for a long time before he picked me up and carried me into another room. When I surfaced from my grief, I found I was lying on someone's lap with my head buried on his shoulder. The coat under my cheek was white.
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