On the return journey to Brian’s house, a lady driver stopped, quite suddenly, at a pedestrian crossing. Freddie hit the brakes, but being ineffective, like every aspect of the old van, which Freddie had purchased with our money, but without our knowledge, from a local scrap yard, we shunted the lady’s car, pushing it onto the pedestrian crossing and striking an unfortunate pedestrian on the shins.
* * * *
The van was completely unroadworthy. The accelerator pedal, along with the accelerator pedal linkage, were both missing, having been robbed from the van to repair an equally unroadworthy vehicle. Luckily the engine sat between the front seats, and as the engine cover was also a missing item, it was a simple matter for the co-driver, who was essential to the process of driving the van, to accelerate, on the driver’s instruction, by pulling on a lever attached to the carburettor.
I’d also discovered a worrying excavation in the cargo area. The hole must have been situated directly above the fuel tank, as the smell of petrol fumes was overpowering. I speculated that the van might explode if people continued to smoke, although no one appeared to share my pessimistic view. To make matters worse the roof panel had become detached above the windscreen, where the spot welds had failed, and when on the move it flapped like the sole of a hobo’s boot.
* * * *
The damage caused by the shunt was indiscernible on the battered old van, but far more obvious on the lady’s shiny new car, as we crowded around the point of the collision making unhelpful observations.
“Who’s going to pay for the damage to my car,” asked the lady? Who appeared to be distressed beyond what might reasonably be expected when faced with a dented bumper and a broken tail light.
“Don’t you worry missus, I saw everyting, so I did,” volunteered the pedestrian. But that was before he recognised our driver. “Be Jaysus, is tat yourself Freddie?” he asked, instantly forgetting his role as witness for the prosecution.
Freddie worked on a construction site as a carpenter, and by coincidence the pedestrian, an Irishman by the name of Seamus O’Malley, worked on the same building site driving mechanical diggers and dumpers. His neck was as thick as the top of my leg and covered with tattoos. They climbed from beneath his T-shirt, reached the underside of his chin and the back of his ears, while covering his huge arms and terminating at his wrists. LOVE was tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand, while HATE was tattooed on his left, in capital letters, with flying bluebirds situated at the base of each thumb. Although he’d shaved his head to disguise the fact that he was balding prematurely, the difference between his shiny dome, where hair follicles no longer survived, and the shaved area, was easily discernible.
“How are you coping Freddie Cope?” asked Seamus, while laughing at his own pun, the accident forgotten and the lady driver ignored, as she attempted to remove the damage from her car by rubbing it with a wet finger.
“Why are you driving tis battered old van?” Seamus asked. “You could have feckin killed me.”
“We’ve formed a band, and this van is our temporary transport,” Freddie answered. “We’ve just arranged our first commercial booking at the Manxman.”
“Fair play to you Freddie me boy. “Will you still speak to old Seamus when you’re rich and famous?” He laughed again at his poetical brilliance, as he realised his sentence rhymed. “I’m a poet and I didn’t know it,” he quipped, and we all laughed at his remark out of politeness rather than genuine amusement.
“Never mind the chit-chat,” said the lady driver. “You promised to be a witness to the accident.”
“Oh shut te feck up missus,” said Seamus. “You backed into tese boys, so you did.”
Seamus was in his early-thirties with an English wife and two small children. He’d crossed the Irish Sea looking for work, and had never more returned to the island of his birth. He loved his mother, and kept in touch by letter, and by the odd telephone call, but she’d re-married after his father died suddenly, and while Seamus was little more than a boy. He'd missed his father, and refused to accept his stepfather, who having little interest in children in general, and in Seamus in particular, ignored him except to physically punish him for the slightest of misdemeanours. Seamus spent an unhappy couple of years after his mother re-married, and couldn’t grow up fast enough to leave Ireland, and his abusive stepfather, behind.
“Can we give you a lift?” Freddie asked out of guilt, as Seamus hobbled around theatrically rubbing his damaged shin and making grimacing faces.
Seamus didn’t need to be asked twice, and climbed into the front seat of the van without answering, while Freddie exchanged insurance details with the lady motorist and the rest of us climbed into the back.
On arrival at his home, Seamus opened five bottles of Guinness using his teeth, as a bottle opener appearing to be an unnecessary accoutrement in the O’Malley household. Drinking glasses also appeared to be an irrelevance, as we were expected to drink directly from the neck of the bottles, even though Seamus had inserted each and every one of them into his mouth to remove the bottle tops.
Seamus rolled up his trouser leg to reveal a purple bruise, which had rapidly developed on his swollen shin.
“Just look at tat feckin ting,” he complained, while we all laughed, unsympathetically, at his misfortune.
Mrs Seamus joined the conversation after hanging out her washing in the cobbled rear yard.
“You know the druggies who live in the squat down the street?” she asked her husband, eager to impart her latest snippet of doorstep gossip.
Seamus grunted, while displaying a distinct lack of interest in his wife’s commentary, but she continued regardless of his apathetic response.
“I was talking to her next door, and the rumour is that their baby might be dead. That baby is filthy and neglected, it’s a crying shame; you can hear it screaming when you walk past the squat, while the parents are out of their heads on drugs, but no one has heard it crying lately.”
“Tere’s only one feckin way to find out,” called out Seamus, jumping to his feet and accepting the mantle of investigator without nomination.
Seamus lived in a row of stone built terraced houses built on a severe slope. Although re-surfacing of the roads had taken place in the locality a decade earlier, the cobbles on this particular street remained purposely untouched. This gave the delivery horses, which were fast disappearing from Lancashire’s industrial landscape, a better grip as they pulled milk floats, coal wagons, and rag and bone carts up the steep incline.
Families at the top of the street were waiting to be re-housed, while at the bottom of the hill all the families had gone, and the houses were in the process of demolition to make way for a brave new world of concrete and steel multi-storey flats.
Seamus hurried down the hill towards the squat, despite his damaged leg, with the rest of us following in his wake. Once outside of the squat, he began shouting obscenities through the letterbox, and when no-one answered his challenge he used his shoulder in an attempt to force an entry.
Seamus was a powerfully built man, and the door was old and in a poor state of preservation, but despite this apparent mismatch the door stubbornly refused to give way to his brutal methods of persuasion.
“Come out you druggie bastards,” he called through the letterbox, but the occupants, if indeed there were any occupants, had little intention of opening the door to a stocky foul mouthed Irishman with a shaved head, and covered from head to toe with tattoos.
“Go around te back and see if you can get in tere Freddie,” Seamus ordered.
Freddie did his bidding, and I accompanied him to offer either moral or physical support, whichever might be needed. The back door was also locked, and Freddie had no more success in breaking down the back door than had Seamus at the front of the house. First he ran at the door using his shoulder and backed away gasping in pain. Then he tried kicking it in and jarred his knee so badly that he was left hobbling.
“You have a go,” Freddie suggested.
I’d seen doors broken to matchwood on television, by the use of a shoulder, or by kicking it open in a single attempt with the sole of a boot, but the reality of breaking and entering using physical force appeared to be a very different proposition.
“After watching you bust your shoulder and then your knee, you must be joking,” I told him.
When we returned to the front of the house, having failed to gain entry, Seamus headed towards the construction site, without a single word as to his intentions. People had gathered in the street on hearing the ruckus; many of them watching the proceedings from the safety of their front doorsteps, while others joined the growing number of dissidents gathered outside the squat.
“What’s gooin on?” asked a scruffy individual wearing a grubby waistcoat, a collarless shirt with rolled up shirtsleeves, a trouser belt far in excess of what was required to support his trousers, worn in conjunction with braces for good measure, and a filthy flat cap perched on the top of his head.
“Seamus is trying to break intut squat,” answered his neighbour.
“What the ell for?”
“Somebody towd him that yon druggies av kilt their babby.”
“Bloody ell!” the enquirer replied.
The crowd turned in unison in the direction of a rumbling sound approaching from the direction of the construction site. A bright yellow digger, which had been left unattended over the weekend, by no other than Seamus himself, was travelling towards the squat.
The digger had the appearance of a modified tractor, which boasted a large hydraulic bucket at the front, used for pushing soil into piles and loading trucks, and a long articulated arm supporting a smaller bucket at the rear, for use when digging.
When the digger reached the squat it stopped abruptly. Everyone in the vicinity stepped back in anticipation, as Seamus raised the bucket on its long extending arm. The downstairs windows had been bricked up to deter children from entering the derelict buildings. Seamus could easily have demolished one of the bricked in windows with the slightest touch from the digger. Instead, he decided to enter the building via the second floor.
The upper floors were open to the elements, as unruly youngsters found it great sport to throw missiles through the upstairs windows, making upper floor occupation impossible. Crashing through an already broken window pane, Seamus dropped the digger’s arm. The bucket hit the stone windowsill with a jolt, and as the digger moved backwards bricks and glass crashed onto the street below. Seamus moved forward again, turned off the digger’s engine, and then to everyone’s amazement he exited the cab and began climbing the hydraulic arm until he reached the bucket.
The roof had already begun to collapse, and Seamus entered the building through a dangerously unstable opening. The upstairs rooms appeared to be unused, as expected, and he descended to the floor below by way of a creaky wooden staircase. On his downward journey he extracted a turned wooden spindle from the banister rail, to use as a weapon should he need one, and he brandished it menacingly in anticipation of an attack.
Reaching the ground floor unmolested, he had a clear view down the hall and into the kitchen. He noticed that the back door of the house had been left ajar, as if someone had left the property in a hurry, which must have been the case, as it had been locked when Freddie and I had tried to get in a short time before. At the bottom of the staircase was the front door, and Seamus slid back the bar bolts and turned the key in the lock to let us in.
Randy and I were instructed by Seamus, who'd nominated himself to be our leader and was consequently delivering orders, to search the front room for any signs of a baby, while Seamus investigated the kitchen, yard, and outbuildings, and the other two searched the back room. A lighted candle stood on a wooden orange crate in the centre of the room, glued into position by a mountain of wax, which had solidified over time around the base. Dirty mattresses, scavenged from other abandoned houses, lay on the floor, as if multiple occupants had been using the squat. The floor was littered with abandoned needles, and to my disgust human excrement, but no signs of a baby.
After our fruitless search we met in the hall. “Nothing in there except for used needles and piles of shit,” I told Seamus.
Freddie and Brian reported a similar scenario, and Seamus suggested that we search upstairs.
“Is the staircase safe?” asked Randy, eyeing it with suspicion.
“I came down the feckin ting didn’t I,” answered Seamus tetchily.
We climbed the rickety staircase to search the bedrooms, and Seamus opened a wardrobe to discover a stout cardboard box advertising a popular brand of washing powder. We could tell from the smell that it didn’t contain washing powder, as Seamus carefully placed the box on the floor, and opened it up to reveal its contents.
Inside was the emaciated body of baby girl swaddled in a filthy blanket, and resembling an Egyptian mummy. Almost a year old, she was malnourished, and so small that she could have passed for a child of half her age. Her pallor was of a waxy yellow, more like a waxwork dummy and not like a real child at all, and her lips and eye rims were tinged with purple. Seamus removed the blanket which bound her, and we discovered that cigarette burns, and bruises, covering the whole of her tiny body. I felt a lump rise in my throat, and I struggled to fight back the tears as we stared at the tiny creature in amazement. This was a scene I had never envisaged, and will never forget for as long as I live.
Seamus collapsed in a heap on the filthy bedroom floor, and despite his rough exterior he cried like a baby.