I capture happiness for a living. Well, that’s how I like to think of it. When anything happens in Whatley Bridge, be it a birth, a red squirrel sighting or a pancake tossing world record attempt, I’ll be there, snapping.
I’d heard through the gossip brigade that a new ‘artisan’ cheese shop was open on the high street. Big news in the village. Naturally, off I went to get some photos. I was already composing them mentally. The treasure trove of Edams, Red Leicesters and Yorkshire Blues lined up like museum exhibits, the proprietor standing behind, a glint of pride in his eyes. I snapped a couple of exterior shots while the afternoon light was just so, then headed in, my Olympus E-P3 and Rolleiflex clacking around my neck. My heart near-ruptured when I clocked the lad behind the counter. He must’ve noticed my face crease into disbelief. I’d gone to school with this boy, forty years ago. It was him, clear as day. Ted. His emerald green eyes, muddy hair and elongated limbs.
“Er…ehm.” Well, at this point, full sentences had eluded me.
“You alright mister?” the lad said. It was an odd relief to hear that his voice definitely wasn’t Ted’s. It was bouncy, Southern. Foreign sounding round here.
“Oh yes. Sorry lad. It’s just. For a second I could’ve sworn…” The boy cocked his head slightly and nodded at me.
“You know Ted don’t you?” Hang on, I thought, how did he? “Grandaaaad,” he shouted like a circus ringmaster. “Another one of your old mates is heeere.”
“You what son?” came a bodiless voice from out back.
I was still befuddled when a tall fellow in a white coat lolloped through, wiping his hands on his green apron. A child would see him as Father Christmas. A jolly, pink face surrounded by bristly white. Those green eyes were unmistakeably Ted’s.
“B-blimey. Willie Naylor!” He said with the same stutter that had developed seemingly overnight all those years back.
“One and the same. How do Ted?”
We stood, wordless, for a few seconds, settling into the strangeness of the moment.
“By, when did I last see you? Must’ve been s-secondary school.”
The word school spiked in my gut. Momentarily hazy, I steadied myself on the glass counter, leaving a clammy hand-print. Ted squinted at me for a split second, then shifted to a new topic.
“S-so, snapper are you?” He said, nodding at my cameras.
We stood there like the two old codgers we now were, sharing snapshots, the details we were happy to air, the major milestones. He had to crack on, but promised me he’d let me take some candid portraits later on. A date was set for that evening at the Tap and Spile.
I left the shop feeling…out of sorts. The village square looked the same, yet unfamiliar. Everything too close, too loud. I was suddenly at my front door, with no solid memory of the walk home. I stumbled towards the sink and vomited, hands trembling as I searched for the nearest sturdy thing to grab. Pictures. More pictures. They flashed and changed. Young Ted skidding towards me playing cop to my robber, then hiding under the leafy strands of the willow tree. Then playgrounds, blackboards, that long wooden ruler, a hand with nails bitten to the quick.
I came to on the kitchen floor, my bag of bags having broken my fall. I blinked up at my Leeds Rhinos clock. Five thirty. Ted. He was expecting me at six. I held my forehead in my hand. I had no number to call and cancel last minute. The thought of my old friend, drumming his fingers on the table, watching the door, made me feel queasier still. I couldn’t just not show. I couldn’t.
I hoisted myself to a standing position and flexed creaky limbs to check for damage. Nothing to report. I breathed in as hard and deep as I could…and again…and again. I was still wearing my coat so I simply slung my camera over my shoulder and walked ten steps to the door. I locked it and just kept walking.
I arrived first. The fusty smell of the pub was a strange antidote, like familiar slippers. Safe. Yorkshire voices overlapped, the slot machine tinkled electronically and the fire sputtered in the corner. Jack, the broad-shouldered landlord who I’d known since he was a scruffy blonde-haired mite lifted his eyebrows in my direction.
“Pint of pale?” he said as a statement and a question.
I fretted that I looked as peaky as I felt, so I straightened my back and tried to make my eyes smile. I had sight of the door, a warm waft from the fire and all the antique teapots I could imagine to occupy my thoughts. I sipped, relieved when the ale stroked its way down, soothing my clenching stomach. Then, there was Ted, limping over sloshing the head of his pint onto his hand. It seemed natural to hug, the years disappearing like kindling in the fire.
“Come on. Let’s get a few snaps before we get merry,” I said, pointing the lens in his face before he could protest. I captured him, mid-chortle, then some more of his humble glance to the side. I’d caught him well. My best pictures were always taken before people had a chance to register the camera. “That’ll do nicely. Are you on that Facebook? I’ll upload them to the Whatley Bridge page. Let everyone know you’re back.”
“Oi! You’d b-better let me check ‘em first. You blighter.”
We supped our pints.
“So,” Ted started. “S-still in Whatley then fella? Sometimes wish I’d never left, like. G-god’s own country, eh?”
“Oh aye. I couldn’t leave. Never did find a missus, me. So I tell people I’m married to this place, like. Anyroad. Let’s hear what you’ve been up to for forty years, then.”
For someone with a speech impediment, Ted didn’t half like to talk. I was glad. I still felt drained. His hands flailed, he laughed from the pit of his stomach. He’d had a colourful life. A sad one too.
A pause opened up in his storytelling. He stared into his pint. “So, St. Mark’s eh? Seems like another lifetime. Still in t-touch with any of the old gang?” The air changed. I picked at a dent in the wooden table.
“There’s still a few about. No-one from our class I don’t think. Des passed. Did you hear? Heart attack…” Ted nodded. “And Peter Sanders? He sold up his barber’s shop not long back. Packed off to Spain or summat. Oh and Tony. Did you know him? He lives with Joan, up top.” Ted nodded again and made a few humming sounds. It went quiet. I picked at the varnish and avoided Ted’s eyes. A creeping feeling suggested we were headed somewhere.
“Any of the t-teachers still going? Or are they all…?” He tried to smile when he said it but a crease in his brow gave him away. “By…I’m glad that corporal punishment lark is a thing of the past now. To think of my Grandkid…” his voice trailed off. I looked up, then, straight into his face and saw a look of torment I’d seen in my own mirror many times. We held eye contact for long enough to confirm the issue we’d been steering around.
“Mr Richards?” I whispered. “You and all?”
Ted breathed in for an inordinate amount of time. Then finally exhaled. “Aye.” He shuffled his stool and walked to the bar. A few seconds for us each to compose ourselves.
“Have..d-did you…ever, tell anyone?” Ted leant closer to me, clearing his throat. I kept picking, feeling the flecks of varnish stick under my nail. I shook my head.
“Yeah. Well. J-just my Sylv. B-before she passed. No one else, like. She were always adamant I should report him. Didn’t see the p-point. Didn’t think anyone would believe a word. No way to prove ‘owt.”
The same mental ground I’d trodden thousands of times. I toyed with a thought. Wondered whether to say it.
“You know…he’s still alive. In a home up Otley way, last I heard.” Ted went visibly pale. He rubbed his face with his hands.
“Another?” he said, standing up.
“Yeah. Go on. Pale.”
I didn’t notice it getting dark out, the punters thinning out. “Sometimes, I’ll realise a few whole weeks have gone by, where I haven’t had nightmares or swear I’ve walked past him on’t street. I’ll feel like any other chap. But then, summat small will trigger. Some scratchy fabric or someone with bitten nails. Then…” These thoughts. Out loud. It felt so alien, yet safe to articulate them to my old friend. They were finally outside of my head. And he believed me.
“Aye,” Ted said. “I know what you mean. I’ve managed to b-bury it somewhere to be honest. Like it was someone else. But I never really…”
The last orders bell pierced into our private world. The two of us jumped in unison. The two of us gathered our bits, stood and patted each other’s backs. The two of us were connected, now.
The BBC Panorama theme tune flooded my front room. I’d barely blinked or breathed for half an hour. A full, tepid brew was still on the footstool next to me. I walked straight to the phone in the hallway which started to ring before I got there.
“You s-see it?” Ted’s voice said before so much as a hello left my lips.
“Yeah. I did.”
“They b-believed them, Willie.”
“I know….Reckon, reckon there might be more, like?”
“There must b-be, kid. Just to think. He’s g-got away with it. All this time. Reckon it’s ab-bout time to…you know?”
“You know what, Ted? I do.” There was a long pause.
“Right. Right. Tomorrow, then?”
I swallowed, staring at the old school photo I’d dug out which was slotted into the corner of my cork board.
“Tomorrow then. Together. I’ll call you in’t morning.”
I placed the phone into its caddy. The word tomorrow echoing in the hallway.
JANELLE HARDACRE lives in Manchester and writes short fiction when she’s not working in communications or singing. Her work is published in Spelk, Dear Damsels, Ellipsis Zine, Pygmy Giant, Paragraph Planet, FlashFlood Journal and Reflex Fiction. Her story Late appears in William Faulkner’s Typewriter, an anthology by students from Comma Press’ short story course. She blogs at janellehardacre.co.uk and tweets @jhardacre1.