One sunny morning, Pete Adcock and his seven year old son Nicky came out of the side door to their house and climbed in to Pete’s old Ford Popular. It was a rare sight to see – a car on a council estate – but if you wanted to split hairs you might point out that Pete’s house wasn’t actually on the estate, it was right next door to it and Pete owned his house – unlike many of his neighbours.
Reversing out on to the road, Pete accelerated off. But as he rounded the first corner the passenger door of the old car flew open hurling Nicky out onto the kerb. Pete stopped the car and ran to where his son lay in a mucky heap. He could see that Nicky had a large and livid graze running from chin to hairline and from ear to nose.
‘Is he alright, poor mite?’ Mrs Bott, from number 32, had been emptying her bin when she’d seen Nicky’s sudden and violent exit from the car.
‘He’s fine,’ Pete said, both hands clapped to his forehead.
‘Here. Let me see.’ Mrs Crank from two doors over pushed past Pete, muttering something about useless men.
‘Her niece works for the Red Cross,’ Mrs Grabbon said appearing out of nowhere and nodding in Mrs Crank’s direction.
‘He’s not fine, poor little bleeder,’ said another neighbour. This one, crossing the road; arms folded, fag trailing smoke from a lipsticked mouth.
‘I’ll fetch a cold compress,’ someone shouted.
More people came, each one baring their own pearl of wisdom.
‘Sit him up.’
‘Lay him down.’
‘Make him sick!’
‘Kick his arse!’
‘Rub his back.’
‘Don’t rub. Thump!’
‘He’s putting it on!’
‘Look out, he’s having a fit!’
‘Kick his arse.’
‘Mind he doesn’t choke on his tongue.’
‘I had a cousin what choked on her tongue. She’s dead now.’
‘Send for the ambulance!’
‘Mind his saliva. It could be contagious. Our Beryl nearly-almost got rabies that way.’
‘Fetch Mrs Crank’s niece!’
‘Kick his arse!’
‘The boy needs a doctor!’
‘What the boy needs is his mother!’
Pete, bewildered Pete, on hearing the last suggestion, spoke out.
‘Not his mother!’ He pushed aside the women who had formed a thick and fleshy barrier between his son and the outside world. ‘He’s my son. I’ll deal with it.’
But Mrs Crank’s unforgiving maternal instincts weren’t about to give up this child without a fight. She held on tight to Nicky who was only now beginning to realise what had happened to him.
‘Where is his mother?’ Mrs Crank demanded.
‘He doesn’t need his mother,’ Pete snapped. ‘I’m his father, I’ll take care of him.’ And he made to lift Nicky away from Mrs Crank. But Mrs Crank tightened her grip and Pete saw the fear in his son’s eyes and so he stepped back and not knowing what to do, placed his hands on his head again.
‘Where’s his mother?’ another angry mother wanted to know.
‘Yes, Mr Adcock, where is his mother?’ Mrs Bott asked.
And then the entire crowd was on him, demanding to know where the boy’s mother was. Pete reeled away, desperate to free himself from the accusing eyes of his neighbours.
‘She’s gone!’ he roared. ‘She’s gone!’
There was a pregnant pause then:
‘When you say “gone” …’
‘Do you mean DEAD?’
Nicky, nonplussed, watched with silent tears rolling down his face as his father started to fall apart before him.
‘No.’ Pete said. ‘Left. She’s left us.’
The crowd looked on in disbelief. Left? How could that be?
‘That can’t be right,’ Missis Nextdoor said.
More people came from neighbouring streets – Warren Drive, Dunstan Avenue, Allen Avenue. Even as far afield as Chilham Avenue.
‘He’s lying!’ someone shouted.
‘He’s done her in,’ someone added.
‘Now you mention it, look how close together his eyes are.’ Old Mother Hunt, a Wheelchair-bound woman older than time itself, pointed an accusing finger at Pete.
‘Hang him from a lamppost.’ A WWII veteran shouted, his green-beret set at an aggressive angle, his medals burning on his chest.
Just then an imposing figure, a middle-aged man wearing a grey, double-breasted suit, forced his way to the front of the crowd.
‘Enough of this nonsense. We don’t hang people from lampposts here. This is Westgate on Sea, not Northern Italy!’
‘Who are you to tell us who we can and cannot hang?’ The veteran demanded.
The officious man stood firm. His chest rose and his blue eyes fixed firmly on the angry mob. ‘I am the assistant treasurer to the treasurer of the Westgate-on-Sea branch of the Chamber of Commerce. And by the powers vested in me…’
‘Look out, he’s got powers…’ a wag muttered.
‘I command you to move away from this place. Return to your homes. Go about your business and attend to your own affairs.’
The crowd, intimidated by such an authoritative figure as the assistant treasurer to the treasurer of the Westgate-on-Sea branch of the Chamber of Commerce, dispersed until all that remained was Nicky, Mrs Crank, and Pete.
A short while later and with Mrs Crank’s expert help (gleaned from teatime conversations with her Red Cross trained niece) Nicky’s wounds were bathed and dressed.
Pete’s wife never did come back. The gossip on the estate was that she had run away to Birmingham and took up with a black man; a sailor from Trinidad who had beguiled and bewitched her so much that she completely forgot she ever had a son and that his name was Nicky.
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