I’m excited to tell you that ‘What I Did Not Say’ is now published as an ebook and will appear in paperback later in the year. It’s been the focus of my attention for more than a year and has undergone some drastic changes in that time, including a complete re-write of the trial in Part Two and numerous revisions of the final chapters. I try to avoid sentimentality, dislike clichéd endings, but recognise the importance of leaving my readers satisfied. I hope I have achieved this – we shall see.
The characters are as real as I can make them. I like them to be flawed, as readers of my books will know. Sometimes the people in my books make bad decisions. Sometimes they are selfish or dishonest. Of course, real people are full of contradictions – it’s part of what makes humanity so interesting. To define a person on any level is to miss the point, isn’t it? We all have a million personas – some public, some private.
‘What I Did Not Say’ is essentially a love story, but not the hearts and flowers romantic kind.
Jessica Morley is devoted to Jack Banford. She thinks she knows him. They have been friends since junior school. She is ready to do anything for the boy who lives on Clees Hill, whose mother is dying, and whose life is about to change in ways that are unbearable to him. While Jack deals with the reality of his predicament, Jess dreams of what she and Jack will do when they are free to be together. When he comes up with a plan, she will not hesitate to play her part. But how could she have predicted what would happen on the afternoon of 28th November?
Here are the opening pages, in which we meet Jess and get an impression of the friend she loses:
What I Did Not Say
Jack was more than my best friend. Funny, I don’t think I ever told him that. It was understood I suppose. Taken for granted, like daylight or clean clothes in my wardrobe.
When I think of the unspoken bond between us it is inseparable from the places we inhabited together: the riverbank, the path we took to and from school, his bedroom. Thinking of Jack brings back the smell of apple soap, the pale softness of his skin, and the way the colours in his eyes moved like oil on water. I sometimes catch sounds, too – the truncated passage of cars on the bridge, the rush of the river flowing under us. These memories taunt me, showing me fragments of a life gone forever into a past that I can never revisit. Sitting here, it makes my stomach lurch with that kind of painful joy you have when you think about someone whom you used to know so well: Painful because they no longer exist in the form you remember, yet joyful because memories can be collected, embroidered, and kept like secrets.
I think about Jack often, turning him over in my mind, noticing the smallest detail. Jack. My Jack.
He was a small, bony-skulled boy, sharp in body and in mind. He didn’t like football or computer games, he read detective books and collected stamps. We were close, but there was always something about him that eluded me, a hidden layer that never quite materialised, like sunshine through light cloud. The feeling I got, and still get now, is that he showed me only a part of himself. That he held something back. Something essential. I picture him, this time crouching birdlike on the muddy bank of the wide river, his blond hair lank with sweat, his face busy-lit by a million different schemes. He was sudden and dynamic, like a firework, full of unspent energy just waiting to go off.
I look about me and sigh.
The journey to Devon will take some time, and before I arrive I must be ready. There were things I should have said at the trial, things I kept back. But I was not there for myself, then. I was there for Jack. It all came back to Jack.
Jack Banford, aged eleven and a half, lived half way up Clees Hill on a new estate. New estates had been built in the sixties and these differed greatly from the current executive homes that sit decoratively on their pinched patches of land, no good for anything but small, neat lawns and miniature garden sheds.
Clees Hill was a rough estate – at least that was what everyone said – but I never saw anything happen there that was not either expected, or just plain banal. It was true that the houses were uninspiring. Solid lines of brick-built boxes with large double-glazed windows fitted with nets or blinds. Gardens scattered with broken kiddies’ toys, clapped-out vehicles, or else cared-for, with neat rows of flowers and precisely edged lawns. The wooden gates were generally broken or left open, as were the front doors. People came in and out of the estate and, indeed, of the houses, as though the outside were joined to the inside. To me, there was no recognisable etiquette, no propriety to life on the estate. Anything went. I loved it.
“Comin’ back to ours?” Jack would say, after school.
This meant I was invited to ‘play’ and perhaps ‘have tea’. It was never specified and I didn’t care anyway. There was nothing for me to do at my house. There would be no one there until six o’clock. Until then I was a free agent.
We used to get funny looks, remarks from the other children at school, but it didn’t bother us; we just shut them out, judging them in our separate ways to be fashion victims and idiots.
There was a back way to Jack’s house, across the playing fields at the rear of the school and through a small wood. We didn’t have to mix with our classmates much if we went out the back way. The trees were sparse and spindly. The ground smelled of rotting vegetation and was littered with dog excrement, the occasional discarded bottle or can, the rarer wrinkled condom. The wood ended abruptly and, under a bigger sky, we crossed a busy main road then laboured up a steep, grassy rise. When we got to the top, there was the river below us, wide, grey and alien; seeming to be, in that first deep breath we took, grinning at each other like maniacs, alive and barely captive. The river drew us with its promise of danger, adventure.
The rules my mother had told me a thousand times would make no sense at times like these. This was our world. Jack’s and mine. Neither of us was afraid here.
We rarely met another living soul until we got to the bridge, then there was traffic, noisy and fast. In winter, there were lights: the lights on the face of the clock tower and the neon-lit café opposite, the yellow headlights of the cars and the molten gold streetlights above, all conspiring to make a strange wonderland for us to meander through, detached and replete, harbouring our private dreams.
We would stop in the middle of the bridge, always at the same place, and look away from the town to where, in the winter months, the darkness swallowed up the places we knew were there and yet could no longer perceive. As I paused next to Jack, my mind floating as freely as the river below, it was impossible to believe that there was any meaning to the time I spent away from him. School, my family home, existed as punctuation only: Parentheses that contained the hours to be used up before I would be released to return to my real life. Our worlds were finite and predictable, but we didn’t know it then. I let myself imagine the simple pleasures to come. I tingled in the night air, laughing for no reason. Easy, in the company of my friend.
I rarely told Jack what I was thinking. He didn’t like to talk much, and never about the things that went round and round inside our heads. Jack told me that it was no good thinking about stuff, that it was better to just do what you felt like doing. That was what he always said, and in his eyes there was a power that made me believe him. I supposed he was cleverer than me. He was a person who looked outside at the world around him, whereas I was more of a head-dweller. I liked to ponder. I still do, although now my thoughts seem dull compared to the magic and potential of that time.
We had our routines. Over the bridge, next to the café, there was a shop that sold sweets and comics. There was other stuff too, but we weren’t interested in anything else. We made a purchase from time to time, but even when we had no money we liked to look inside. There were strip lights buzzing on the low ceiling, a high, hidden counter crowded with sweets, an ornate cash register and a large pile of evening newspapers.
I would step through the low, wide door from the street, onto the worn step and down into a cavern-like, sugar-laced cornucopia of colour and perfumes. The traffic fumes that made my breaths shallow gave way to delicious lung-filling aromas.
I had my own idea of Mr. Gordon, with his face like an orange, pitted and greasy-looking. He presided over his business like a money machine, calculating. Sometimes I pictured him lighting up and spewing out a jackpot. He knew nothing of Jack’s and my friendship, our plans, our animal eyes, coveting his merchandise. And we imagined what it would be like if he were not there, had slipped out for a moment, trusting us to graze with our eyes and not to stuff our pockets.
He greeted us cheerfully, even though we would not make him rich, and asked us questions about our parents or school as we browsed the comic section, our bellies rumbling. The questions were mostly for me. Jack didn’t like to talk. Mr. Gordon never took offence.
“How’s your mother, Jess?”
“She’s very well, thank you, Mr. Gordon.”
“And your father?”
“Still trying to sell that old camper van?”
“I think so, Mr. Gordon.”
When Jack became bored he said, “Comin’?” giving me a look. He didn’t care that Mr. Gordon and I were in the middle of a conversation.
“Goodbye and thank you,” I’d say. Just to be polite. Mr. Gordon’s smile was condescending. I think I knew this, even though I’d never been introduced to the word. Its meaning hit me right between the eyes. He was criticising my choice of companion. I should choose more carefully. I could do better.
Outside, Jack would be cross with me for ‘showing him up’, he said. I could always tell when he was cross because his face would change colour by gradations, blooming like camouflage in a rare sea creature, until it became a dangerous purple. The best way to deal with this was to say nothing and let him brood.
If he provoked me specifically, I would protest. I couldn’t bear it if I didn’t manage to convince him that he was mistaken, as I believed that I would be diminished in his eyes. I was a sensitive child. It didn’t cross my mind that my conversation with Mr. Gordon about my parents might have upset him. That it was difficult for him to listen to such niceties.
Jack was timid amongst strangers. My mother always said that he was a bit of a drip. My father told me to make sure he didn’t lead me into bad ways. Jack said he didn’t care what people said about him, but I knew that he did.
We would go up Langley Street and across another busy road, up Clees Hill, panting a little and laughing at some joke or other, taking the first sharp turning onto the estate. Invariably, a rush of electricity raced through my veins. The estate. Anything could happen there.
If I had become an artist, I would take on the crystal-edged memories I held of damaged picket fences, jagged potholes and straggling weeds growing out of lumpy tarmac, the fat oil stains or the twisted guttering.
It was all so real that I could feel it wrapping itself around me like a cocoon as soon as I turned the corner and continued climbing towards number 13 Edgewood Road, where I would exist effortlessly until it was time to go home.
The estate was a place where the rules of the town below were broken. People like my parents mistook a lack of basic property maintenance and a certain freedom of spirit for a lack of pride, or worse, a shirking of responsibility. There had been many a time when I’d wanted to intervene in one of my parents’ damning indictments. To put the case of the estate-dwellers. To defend a lifestyle that had advantages my parents had not considered. Luckily, I had the sense to keep my mouth shut. The threat that I would be forbidden to see Jack was always close. I could see it in the tightness of my mother’s lips or the hardness in her eyes. Occasionally, I could sense that she had come to a conclusion, and was hovering between holding it in and spitting it out. At times like these, my heart skipped a beat, as I willed her not to say something so crisp and inflexible that it could not be taken back. If my father were there, I would change the subject, before he caught the scent and felt the need, as master of the house, to regulate my comings and goings. It was his job to set limits. I knew that much. My mother, God bless her, appreciated the fact that Jack, for all his faults, was my best friend.
So, my parents hated the estate. I loved it. People seemed to matter more. Not houses or gardens. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps that was the difference, and the reason why things turned out so badly for Terry Pickup.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I am not yet ready to set out his part in Jack’s story.