Authors: Alison Taylor
‘Stop being so bloody negative, and shut up! Someone’s coming.’
The door opened, and a tiny Yorkshire terrier trotted into the room, shadowed by a stout woman, her body grimly corseted beneath a long pleated skirt and a jumper gaudy with metallic threads, her mouth gaudier still with bright red lipstick. ‘How can I help you?’ She stared at the men, then picked up the dog, fiddling with the red ribbon tied between its ears.
‘This is Mrs Hogg, sir,’ Dewi said.
McKenna coughed, throat rough with cold and thirst. ‘I’d like to see Mr Hogg.’
‘He’s not on duty ’til tomorrow.’
‘Where is he?’
‘You’ve already told us that,’ McKenna said testily. ‘Perhaps you’d care to tell him we’re here?’
‘He’s not well.’
‘He was all right this morning,’ Dewi said.
‘He’s not now.’ She sounded wearied. ‘He’s had a terrible shock over that stupid boy getting himself killed.’
McKenna sat on one of the hard upright chairs, tired of waiting to be asked, tired of standing out of politeness. ‘And what’s your job here, Mrs Hogg?’
‘Senior care officer.’
‘Is there a deputy?’
‘Then in Mr Hogg’s absence, you must be in charge.’
‘I can’t talk to you.’ Her face and body tensed. ‘I can’t tell you anything.’
‘We’ll see, shall we?’ McKenna countered. ‘Why don’t you sit down? I’ve no intention of leaving for quite a while.’
Ignoring a muttered comment from the girl who escorted him to the children’s sleeping-quarters, Dewi shut the door of the room which had been Arwel’s billet. Created by partitioning a much larger room, of which the ornate ceiling cornice still showed on three sides, this room, Dewi thought, was like a cell, but one mocked-up for a film set to let cameras be mounted in the ceiling. Perspectives wrong, the floor area too small for the height, he began to feel as if the walls were closing in.
Arwel’s bed, narrow and short, draped with a thin quilt, lay against one wall, a decrepit chipboard cabinet at its side. On the opposite wall, with barely room to move between the two, stood a wardrobe and drawer unit in the same chipboard, and a dirty washbasin below a small mirror. The window looked out to scrubby grass, the bulk of the hill rising oppressively close, and Dewi thought of meanness of spirit, of spite, of misery and wilful neglect. He lifted the quilt, exposing a crumpled greying sheet, then hefted the mattress, exposing only thin wooden slats and the little balls of dusty fluff his mother called ‘slut’s wool’, drifting about the linoleum tiles. Replacing the bedding, absently smoothing sheet and quilt as his mother had taught him, he opened the door of the bedside cabinet, to find dog-eared comics, a school exercise book, a Mars Bar wrapper, and a ball of dirty socks. He pushed the exercise book in his pocket, and turned to the wardrobe unit, then moved back to the bed, dragging it away from the wall, searching for secrets taped to the back of the headboard, wincing at the screech of bed-legs on lino, staring ruefully at black greasy tracks on the floor. He found nothing save the legend ‘Llewellyn ap Kilroy woz ’ere’, scored and inked on the cheap wood, nothing on the bedside cabinet, nothing secreted behind the wardrobe or underneath drawers. Putting the contents of drawers and wardrobe on the bed, he thought it a pitiful collection, of shrunken shapeless T-shirts, unpressed trousers, grubby underclothes, cheap socks with holes in toe and heel, a tattered plastic sponge-bag holding a worn toothbrush and a noxious flannel; only the meanest and barest of necessities. On hangers in the wardrobe, he found a bright red shirt, colour run to orange in places, and a bright red jumper, both bearing the name ‘Blodwel’ in large yellow letters and, like the bus in the photograph, a stigma to mark out the children from their peers. He was struck by the absence of graffiti, except for the hidden legend, and decided Ronald Hogg made his own marks upon the place and its accoutrements too powerfully for the children to dare their own.
Pushing aside the heap of clothes, he sat on the bed. The mattress sank, and the metal bedframe bit deep into his thighs. Distant voices were suddenly raised in anger, words unintelligible, and he realized that until now, he had heard only the creaking of frost-brittle branches outside and the muffled blare of a television somewhere in the building. He wondered how almost a dozen children could be kept so quiet,
or why anyone should feel the need to do so, and, gazing round the miserable cell, its walls bare of posters or pictures, where he, had he been incarcerated like Arwel, would hide his precious secrets. Screwed to the wall beside the wardrobe was a rail, draped with a raggy white hand towel. Pulling the towel aside, he lifted the thick plastic rail from its cups, and held it end on to the light. An object fell out, hitting his cheek before hitting the floor with a sharp crack.
Sitting again on the bed to look at his trophies, Dewi eased out the tight roll of paper from the guts of the rail. Unfurled, the paper tube became two glossy enlarged photographs. In one, eyes screwed up against the sun, Arwel sat astride a slender bay horse, looking down to the camera, a smile to his angelic face. He wore long black boots, fawn breeches, a quartered jersey and silk cap. Dewi turned the print over, to find the verso blank. In the other photograph, a man sat astride a silvery-grey horse, against a backdrop of cloud-swagged silvery-grey sky. He too wore long black boots and fawn breeches, a checked hacking jacket, and a black velvet hat, its peak shadowing his features. Dewi stared at the man and whistled to himself, before putting both photographs in his pocket. The other trophy, a black leather key-fob depicting a Harrier aeroplane, he too put in his pocket, before switching off the light, and opening the door to find the girl waiting for him, leaning against the far wall with her arms folded.
‘Find anything?’ she asked.
‘A keyring with a Harrier jumpjet on it.’
‘Oh, that. He got it from RAF Valley Airshow.’ She nudged Dewi towards the end of the corridor, anxious to be rid of him and the disturbance to routine he represented. ‘Surprised he didn’t take it with him,’ she added. ‘He was always bragging about it. Made the other kids jealous, though I can’t think why.’
‘He didn’t have much you might call personal. What about his sportsbag?’
‘Didn’t go to school, did he?’ She sounded bored, Arwel already consigned to the past, his means of passage an irritant to be tolerated with ill-grace.
‘Surely he went out? He can’t have stayed in all the time.’
‘Well, he was allowed out sometimes.’
‘On his own?’
‘Are you kidding?’
‘Was he or wasn’t he?’
‘The kids aren’t supposed to go out without staff.’ She held
open the door to the administration corridor. ‘And you’ve no idea the trouble that causes.’
Dewi laid two plates of fish and chips on McKenna’s kitchen-table, the cat squirming around his ankles. ‘Shall I cut up yours, sir?’
‘No thanks, Dewi. Take the end off my fish for the cat, please.’
‘She’s got a good thick coat for the winter.’ Putting the plate of fish on the floor, he watched her eat. ‘I like cats. They’re good company.’
‘They can,’ McKenna said, chopping his food into mouthfuls, ‘be very trying. Seen that chair in the parlour?’
‘You should’ve seen Arwel’s bedroom.’ Dewi poured the tea. ‘Furniture in there the gipsies’d throw on a council skip.’
‘Social Services are broke. Massive budget overspend.’ McKenna forked chips into his mouth, his right shoulder and elbow locking with each movement.
‘From what I’ve heard, Hogg reckons kids like that aren’t worth spending on,’ Dewi said, ‘partly ’cos they’ve no respect for anything, and partly ’cos most of ’em come from slummy council houses and wouldn’t know the difference anyway. And,’ he added, spearing a chip, ‘Mr Hogg thinks he shouldn’t give the kids ideas above their station by letting them have a nice place to live in.’
McKenna put down his fork and picked up a mug of tea. ‘I’m not sure if what you say is decent hearsay, or your own interpretation of odds and ends of gossip.’
‘Same difference. There’s plenty of gossip around about Hogg and his missis and Blodwel, and none of it good.’
‘But nobody wants to listen, do they?’ Dewi ate the last piece of fish, crunching the tail of batter. ‘What did Doris have to say about the doctor who thought Arwel was at risk?’
‘She said: “Stupid man!”, and tutted. Social workers apparently spend half their time fending off over-reactive doctors. Everything’s gone to blazes since Cleveland.’
Dishes washed and dried, a fresh pot of tea warming on the hearth, Dewi and McKenna sat at the parlour table. Dewi smoothed out the two photographs, and placed the exercise book and keyring neatly to the side.
‘Not much to go on, sir. Fancy Arwel being able to ride a
horse like that, eh? Maybe he was just allowed to sit on it.’
‘They’re both splattered with mud. Been for a good gallop by the looks of it.’
Dewi grinned. ‘More than you’ll be wanting to do for a while, isn’t it?’
McKenna picked up the other photograph. ‘And how come he knew Elias ab Elis well enough to ride his horse and have a photo of the man?’
‘Dunno, sir. We’ll have to ask.’ Dewi opened the exercise book. ‘There was nothing else personal in Arwel’s room. According to the wardress, he didn’t have a bag either.’
‘Mr Hogg obviously likes to keep to the Christian ethic of coming into the world with nothing and going out the same way.’
‘Most kids have all sorts of junk. What about his room at home?’
‘Janet says it’s stripped bare, as if he never existed.’
‘Will she be driving you again tomorrow, sir?’
‘Anything in the exercise book?’ McKenna asked.
‘A few crosswords and doodles. The extent of his Blodwel education, probably.’
‘You’d better go home. Come for me about half-eight, will you?’
The first crossword, a simple grid of unevenly drawn squares quickly resolved itself. ‘Green’, ‘vehicles’, ‘bard’, McKenna wrote, filling in the blanks and learning from the last that Hogg was a bastard. The second, its clues more complex, defeated him. Yawning, he put the book aside, and went for a bath, lying sleepily neck deep in warm water. The upper half of his trunk, left shoulder and upper arm were daubed with livid reddish-blue and purple bruises. Drying himself with difficulty and not a little extra pain, he went downstairs to make a drink and swallow more analgesics. Waiting for the kettle to boil, he debated with himself if he was as lacking in sense as Jack believed. But, he thought, mixing hot chocolate in a beaker, Jack would never know the thrill of clinging to half a ton of horse-flesh plunging over tussocks and hills at thirty miles an hour, with only his own skill and God’s fresh air between himself and disaster. Arwel had known, but not the skill to avert disaster.
The telephone rang as he searched the bookshelves for a
government report on the management of children’s homes, a volume generated by a deluge of nationwide scandals. He waited for the answering machine to take the call, standing with the thin blue book in his good hand. Denise wanted to know if he was well, if he wanted for anything, if he would like her to cook dinner tomorrow, if he minded that she called so late. He watched the red light blink on and off as the call registered, then took hot drink and book up to bed.
He scanned the next few pages, then dropped the book to the floor, knowing no nuggets of gold nestled amid the dross of the patently obvious. Drifting into sleep, the cat heavy against his legs, he thought again of the photographs and keyring, and wondered if Arwel had so carelessly abandoned his treasures because they ceased to be such.
Turning the corner into McKenna’s street, at 8.25 on a freezing November morning, Janet Evans, dressed in brown suede boots, olive cord trousers, a waxed jacket and high-necked olive sweater, almost bumped into Dewi Prys, making his way to McKenna’s door.