It was Shirley Watkins’ fault. Not that anybody ever knew it; she’d scarpered well before the drama unfolded, along with the other three lasses.
My mam couldn’t understand why I wanted a bike. Bikes were for lads, she said, hinting in veiled words at the life-long consequences that they could have on a girl’s reputation if she managed to slip off the saddle at an awkward angle.
It had been on my mind ever since the school announced that they would be doing the Cycling Proficiency course and some of the other lasses were getting new bikes for Christmas especially for the job. My mam didn’t do Christmas, but I still asked.
“No, you’re not ‘avin’ one, our lass. If we’d been intended to move around on wheels we’d have been given ’em.”
“But mam, Lesley and Carol are both getting one.”
“Aye, well, they can do what they like. Lesley’s mam’s got purple ‘air and you won’t find me ‘aving that either, so you can stop your mithering. Mark my words, they’ll come to no good careerin’ round on them contraptions.”
“But mam, our Andy’s got one.”
“That’s different. He’s a lad. He needs one.”
My brother had a bright red Chopper with a faux sheepskin cover on the sticky up bit at the back, a black leather saddle cover, a prop stand, a pendant flag and a silver bell. He also got first dibs on the spoke reflectors in the cornflakes and if I’m honest that’s what riled me most. What were Yogi Bear pictures that moved when you twisted them in your fingers or flat spinning tops that had to have a sharpened matchstick pushed through the middle compared to those bright red and yellow cockerels that had a real purpose and meaning in life when they were fastened to the spokes of a genuine bike wheel?
I knew that Shirley was on the warpath. She was dangerous to know and it was best not to fall out with her. Everybody said that her dad lived with Her Majesty and that’s why he wasn’t at home with her and her mam, so I knew that I’d messed with somebody important.
It’s not often that I get a monk on, but on that day at the playground something just blew. I’d walked miles to help pay for those swings. I’d sifted through jumble that smelled of California Poppy and bodily emissions just so that that roundabout could revolve. I’d even spent a full Saturday morning scraping dog turds off a man’s garden path for a measly half a crown to contribute towards goal posts that I wasn’t likely to use. It had been a real community effort for over three years, clearing away the old Anderson shelter, tearing out the weeds and flattening the ground. We’d all drawn pictures of what we wanted it to look like and I was chuffed that mine wasn’t too far off the finished product. So, despite the fact that I was now almost too old to use the facilities, I felt somehow proprietorial about it all and wanted it to stay nice. That Wednesday, I’d taken our lass to play on the swings and I couldn’t believe the destruction. The slide was bent out of shape, one section ripped off and thrown into a water-logged and soiled sandpit, the swings had been cut through and faeces spread on the plastic seats, the wooden boards on the roundabout were torn away and the goal posts were broken. Obscene graffiti covered everything. Two older girls and a boy that I didn’t recognise charged out of the gate, running down the street, laughing. Shirley sat on the broken roundabout watching my reaction, grinning.
“We thought we’d brighten the place up a bit.”
I should have taken my crying sister’s hand, turned quietly away and reported the matter. I should’ve remembered that I’d never fought a person in my life and that the person most not to fight for the first – and only – time with was Shirley Watkins. But I didn’t do what I should.
I don’t recall any day before or since when I was so angry. As I stood quietly taking in the scene the emotion stretched and rose inside me like dough proving; expanding until it completely burst out of the container of my body with a strength and ferocity that I never contemplated that I was capable of. It shames me still to think of it. Little, quiet Lizzie, who stoically got on with life without any fuss, doing old ladies’ shopping and donkey stoning her mam’s doorstep, became a seething volcano that day, spewing forth years of suppressed fury. I flew across the distance between us, jumped her and forced her into the mud, pummelling her with my fists. She was so surprised that she just lay there and took it. I bloodied her face and pulled out chunks of her hair, all the time venting my verbal rage at what she and her friends had done to our beautiful playground. Every hour that we had worked, every penny that we had raised, every sixpence filled Smartie tube, every nettle cut down, every sponsorship letter that we had written was tattooed onto her body. My sister had run off to get help and if two of the neighbourhood men hadn’t forcibly pulled me away, I swear that I would have killed Shirley Watkins that day. I couldn’t stop shaking as one of them held me and I heaved my grief, appalled at my own behaviour, until this hitherto unfathomed molten wrath slowly began to settle into something more manageable. When I opened a fist that had been clenched for well over an hour, a clod of Shirley’s bloodied hair roots had to be scraped off my sweating palm.
There was a code in place. Shirley never spoke of her injuries and how she got them. She bided her time quietly, planning her revenge with her friends. Her silence and the awareness of her gang’s constant surveillance were more frightening than any return braying could have been and she knew it.
The day I visited Mr Best’s shop she’d got me trapped.
Andy needed new brake blocks fitting on his bike and as I was walking into town he asked me to drop it off. I didn’t need asking twice. I adored my middle brother and would have climbed to the moon without oxygen if he’d asked. He was the hero who sat on the bed I shared with one of my sisters, reading us stories from the old copies of Beano and Dandy that Mr Brown the newsagent gave him along with his paper round money, he was the one who walked me safely past the gate with the big dog that I was sure wanted to eat me and he was the one who guessed that another asked me to keep secrets that I knew were wrong. He was my protector; my knight whose armour shone so brightly that the sunlight danced on it and sent shafts of light into the darkest corners of my life. The knight on the Chopper bike.
Mr Best’s little shop with its greasy black counter and oily smells fascinated me. It had frames and wheels hanging from the roof beams and row upon row of boxes containing puncture repair kits, Starlite dynamos, handlebar grips, inner tubes, mud guard clips, tartan saddle bags and valve caps; things that were a mystery to a non-bike owner, but tantalisingly held out a promise of Famous Five adventures and long, winding summer expeditions. Even the manufacturer’s names – Raleigh, Falcon, Hercules and Viking – suggested heroic monomyths, luring those who dared, or whose mams would let them, to venture beyond the ordinary world in challenging escapades of derring-do.
To get there I had to wheel the bike down Brant Hill. ‘Brant’ means ‘steep’ in Yorkshire speak and Brant Hill was the daddy of them all. It was split into two sections. One half was a sheer quarter mile drop between the two street levels, the other half had steps cut into the gradient to make the climb easier for those who lived in the tiny cottages set into the hillside. I strolled out of Hawthorn Lane and rounded the corner by Mr Butler’s sweet shop, steering Andy’s bike carefully so that the pedals didn’t catch my ankles. Straddled across the top of Brant Hill were Shirley and the three girls that nearly always accompanied her.
I turned to run but the bike hindered me from moving fast and I was quickly surrounded. They grabbed Andy’s beloved Chopper from me and one of the girls mounted it performing a triumphant wheeled war dance, cycling in a circle around me as the others held me fast, Shirley blowing sticky, pink bubble-gum insults into my face and hair. She mocked, “Whoops, I’ve made a mess of your hair; let me sort it out for you…” wrapped her fingers around the waist length plait and yanked me to the top of the hill, the others kicking and punching me. I was terrified, numbed into silence. The one on the bike got off and threw Andy’s prize possession – bought with money he worked hard for, fitting two paper rounds and a milk delivery around his school work – hard on to the road. The broken yellow pendant flag skimmed across the tarmac.
Shirley forced my arm up behind my back and kicked the back of my knees buckling them and sending me to the floor on top of the bike. By the time they stopped kicking me, my mouth was filled with blood and I couldn’t see because my eyes were so swollen. I couldn’t lift my limbs, despite their angry requests and couldn’t speak to shout for help. I could do no more than allow them to pull me roughly to my feet and to drag each floppy body part into position on the now raised bike. My hands clenching the handlebars, I wet myself as the push came, launching the bike over the edge. It travelled a couple of feet through mid-air and then, having no momentum to keep it going, lolloped, descended quickly, half rolled and, veering at an angle, glanced one of the steps, before I blacked out.
I was in hospital for three weeks. Andy brought me a colouring book and told me not to worry about the bike, joking that I’d saved him the cost of the brake blocks, but after the first week, he didn’t come to visit. I sobbed into the pillows thinking that he was angry with me and blaming myself for the fight that had unrolled this carpet of destruction. When I asked where he was they told me that he’d gone to live with another family.
That was a year that everything changed.
Shirley developed a cruel fascination for Brant Hill; later that summer she pushed a child in a pram down, releasing it from the same place as she had seen me fall, watching as the uncontrolled wheels got faster and faster, the carriage tipped and a life was lost. They told me that she had gone to a home for bad girls and I blamed myself for wielding the first punch. I mourned the child and the evil that I had let loose.
But I mourned Andy most of all. I would sit in the old barn looking at what remained of the red Chopper bike willing its owner to walk through the door, sobbing that my wonderful brother was gone and believing it to be my fault. The taciturn nature of those around me gave me no cause to think otherwise. It was several years later that I came to know that Andy’s fostering was something already planned, precipitated by things that I wasn’t told about and its collision with the events of Brant Hill was simply caused by wheels of a different kind being set in motion.
I saw Andy in 2012. Jowly, bearded and grey, he didn’t look like the hero that I’d held in my head. We walked side by side behind mam’s coffin, drank tea in the Parish Hall and each poured a handful of soil into the grave plot. We passed pleasantries, awkward and uncomfortable, and I watched him drive out of sight in a rather splendid car. He glanced at the house as he passed, but didn’t stop.
(Readers will be pleased to know that names have been changed!)