WEDNESDAY: Bye Combe Vale

BY TONY BILLINGHURST

Copyright is held by the author.

BYE COMBE Vale was a quiet but isolated English suburb. The older residents said nothing ever happened there, but that wasn’t true.

A row of elegant Edwardian houses stood on the higher side of the Bye Combe Road. Peter didn’t live in one of those, he lived opposite in one of the newly built council houses. The occupants of the Edwardian houses looked down on the council houses, literally and figuratively and from the start, resented their presence. The Edwardian house owners were mainly professionals; their houses had names, wood gates, mature gardens, garages, phones and some had cars. Most had ‘daily helps.’ The council houses were in numbered plots divided by a wire and the gardens were as the builders had left them.

The older Bye Combe resident usually kept themselves to themselves, but one thing united them, they were dammed sure their children weren’t going to mix with the council house kids, which didn’t give the kids a problem, they just played together anyway. Those were disturbed by the kids called them a gang. The gang leader was John “Streaky” Stedman who lived in an Edwardian house. He was tall for his age and although he didn’t have siblings, being the oldest by far, he acted as the gang’s big brother.

Bye Combe hill was covered with trees and the derelict remains of a small farm. Lanes looped and meandered all over the place, their original purpose lost to memory. They were dark, menacing places used during the day by dog walkers and at night, for no good purpose at all. The older residents were convinced that burglars hid in them, but burglaries were rare. Everyone else thought that ‘men’ loitered in them.

The gang’s favourite activity was playing dare. Streaky would take them to the end of one of the lanes and then in turns, they ran as far up as they dared, the winner being the one who could run the furthest. Kenny, who was somewhat in awe of Streaky, claimed that Streaky had gone all the way around the Combe, in the dark and stopped for a fag at the style into the bargain.

“It was a Gauloise an’ all, ‘e got it off their French au pair.”

On the whole, the gang accepted their neighbours at face value, but there were some of whom they were wary. Old Dafty lived in a council house. Something traumatic had happened to him during the war and he’d never recovered. He’d wander about aimlessly, wearing his hat and raincoat in both winter and summer and get lost. He had a high pitched voice and would close one eye when he spoke, a habit the gang mimicked endlessly. Old Dafty was often rescued, standing by the main road, unable to move and crying, he could neither cross, nor return home. Besides which, he had ‘funny turns’ which got worse after his wife died. Not only would he shout and swear, he’d get violent as well. Once he attacked the coal man.

Although Old Dafty was a source of entertainment for the gang, that wasn’t the case with their main adversary, Sparrow Legs; a widow of substantial means who lived in one of the larger Edwardian houses. Sparrow Legs was ancient. She was five foot nothing, wore expensive hats, expensive fur coats, expensive perfume, expensive jewellery, expensive make-up and had the thinnest legs ever issued to a human. Since the council houses were built, she spent her days demanding that the council children stay on their side of the road and if they didn’t, she would complain to their fathers, which she did, frequently.

Despite houses being built all over the area, Bye Combe Vale still showed its rural past and retained a timelessness found in few other suburbs. Besides the lanes and styles, there were old cottages dotted around with gardens of black soil and gnarled fruit trees. Like many before him, Peter lay in bed on summer mornings listening to the milkman clinking his way down the road and the echoing Angelus bell from the convent on the hill; it’s clanging, three by three, occasionally accompanied by a cuckoo. Life in The Combe seemed dependable, endless and secure, none of which was the case.

Streaky, being the oldest inevitably had the most pocket money, but one month he seemed to have a great deal more than usual and with it he built a go cart. Soon, the others followed. The carts were made from scrounged wood and pram wheels bought from Eddie’s scrap yard.

It wasn’t long before go cart races started. Being the youngest and unable to afford the pram wheels, Peter was ignored until a benevolent Uncle slipped him the necessary to build his own go cart. As soon as he had the money, Peter went to Eddie’s to find that unusually, he was out of wheels. Peter was despondent and told Streaky.

“Don’t worry, kid — cheer up — Eddie’ll soon have more, trust me, an’ good uns too, you’ll see, I’m never wrong, am I?”

A few days later, Mrs Cochran left her baby in the pram outside the Post Office and within minutes, both pram and baby were gone. The baby was the usual sort, but the pram was a Silver Cross; Mrs Cochran was frantic. Word spread and in no time, the mothers formed a self-help posse. Their first move was to interrogate Old Dafty. Despite being confronted by a lynch mob, he calmly denied knowing anything about the baby, so the posse split up and searched the area. Later that morning, they found the baby in the Scout’s field, asleep and in need of a nappy change, but the pram was missing. Luckily, the gang were in school, or they would have been blamed. Rumours were rife and at one time the rag and bone man was suspected, but he was quickly eliminated and eventually the fuss died down. Strangely, when Peter visited Eddie’s again, he had a set of pram wheels, nice ones, Silver Cross, which he bought and with help, built his go cart. When it was finished, he showed it to Streaky.

“There you go kid, I told you Eddie’d soon have some wheels, didn’t I, I’m never wrong, me.”

As soon as Streaky said that, Peter felt uneasy, but his misgivings soon evaporated when his go cart started to win race after race and in no time, he became addicted to being in the limelight.

A while later, the Police made a rare visit to the Combe. Someone had syphoned petrol from cars and amongst others, they interviewed Streaky. Peter now had two problems, Streaky’s pram wheel prophesy and his sudden wealth, but he couldn’t snitch on a friend, especially one bigger than him, nor did he want to risk losing his go cart. After a couple of sleepless nights, he decided what to do. Peter played with his go cart near Streaky’s house until he met Streaky’s mum on her way to the shops

“Hello Mrs Stedman, seen my new go cart? It’s the fastest in the area.”

“That’s nice Peter.”

“Yea, I expect it’s the fastest ‘cause it’s got Silver Cross wheels. I got them from Eddie’s scrap yard. Strea . . . John said Eddie’d soon have some wheels, he was right, wasn’t he?” Mrs Stedman gave Peter a strange look, then walked off.

The go cart building stopped after then. The cause wasn’t the crashes, nor the complaints from terrified motorists who were greeted by hordes of brakeless go carts hurtling down the hills towards them, it was Eddie’s scrap yard being closed when he was jailed for receiving stolen goods. Besides that, another change occurred. Men really were seen loitering in the lanes and Old Dafty went through a particularly bad patch and was seen endlessly wandering about in the dark.

To make matters worse, Kenny was assaulted by a man in the lane leading to the bus route. Whatever happened and for whatever reason, Kenny was seriously frightened. The Police were called again. Kenny’s description of his assailant, although vague, was of a tall man wearing a raincoat and a hat. The Police not only interviewed Streaky, but also Old Dafty who freaked out at more interrogation and then had ‘one of his turns, ‘attacking a Police man with a kitchen knife which resulted in him being put in a straight jacket and taken away in a police van, never to return.

Two days later, Streaky disappeared — he didn’t say good bye, he just vanished. Mrs Stedman said that Streaky had won a scholarship to a prestigious school and uncharacteristically, wouldn’t say more. Despite the Police visits, there was a feeling of relief. The older residents said it was safer with Old Dafty out of the way and the council tenants said the same about Streaky’s departure, but safer or not, things were never the same again. Without exception, the Combe mothers insisted their children were not, under any circumstances, to talk to strangers.

A week later, one evening, Peter met Dereck; one of the gang, who was sucking a luminous green lolly.

“Give us a lick,” he asked.

“No, get your own.”

“Where’d you get it from?”

“Off a tall bloke up the lanes. Don’t you go tellin’ though — our Ma’ll kick up ‘ell, she don’t like us eatin’ between meals.”

 

 

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