"You're not from the village, are you?"
He had stepped out of the shadows at the rear of The Old Bear and stood, solidly, between me and my car. I'd noticed him watching me in the bar.
"No, I'm not, not exactly."
"What does that mean, 'not exactly'?" His menacing tone had dropped, he seemed more curious than threatening.
"It's a long story and I've had a tiring day. I just want to get my head down now, if it's all the same to you, Mr...?"
"Bradwell, Jim Bradwell."
I knew his name perfectly well, I wasn't likely to forget it. He didn't recognise me, but then why would he? He hadn't changed, still the overbearing bully I remembered.
"It's a bit late to be driving on, isn't it?"
"Don't worry, I've not got far to go, but I wonder if you would be interested in helping me with something? You would, of course be rewarded as you deserve."
"Well, that depends, don't it."
I thought that I could rely on his greed. "I'm researching for a book about village life in the 1960's, were you about then?"
"Oh yeah, born and bred here, that's me. Never felt the need to leave neither."
"I'll tell you what, meet me on the London road, up by the old Gibbet, tomorrow at 9, and keep it under your hat, ok? We don't want everyone trying to get in on the act, now do we?"
"No problem, I'm not one for idle chatter, you can trust me."
I started the car and pulled out into the High street. Letting out the breath I'd been holding I glanced into the mirror to check that he wasn't following then drove towards my aunt's cottage, the ostensible reason for my return. I'd said that I wanted to spend one last night there before it went on the market now that Aunt Marge had died in the care home.
The old sign on the gate, time faded but legible, was almost hidden by the cascade of sweet scented honeysuckle. Meadowbrook, the house where I had been so happy. Before it all changed, forever.
"Robert. ROBERT! Come back and listen to me."
"Yes Aunt Marge.".
"Don't go getting into mischief, and don't you dare go round with that Mickey Marchment, he's a bad lot just like his father was and he'll end up in the same place."
"No, Aunt, I won't."
I ran out of the gate and down the lane before she could call me back. Of course I had every intention of seeing Mickey. Having lived in London for the first 12 years of my life and then been sent to this godforsaken backwater to live with my aunt I needed all the excitement I could get. And Mickey provided it. He was two years older than me and the cleverest boy I knew. He showed me the best place for swimming in the river, something else my aunt forbade, the best orchard for scrumping and, most excitingly, where we could hide and watch the Norris girls dress and undress. Aged almost 13, I didn't know why that excited me, only that it did.
That's how our days were spent that summer; it must have rained sometimes and I must have spent days sitting in the big bay window staring out wishing it would stop, but memory, that unreliable servant, assures me that every day was glorious and that I was out from daybreak to sundown.
"Oi! Bob, you twerp!"
I looked around.
"Up here." He was laying along a branch of the conker tree on the corner of the green and gestured me to go around the other side where I found a knotted rope hanging from one of the branches. I shinned up and joined him at a fork in the trunk and we sat astride the branch out of sight of any passers by. Mickey held his finger to his lips and pointed to where Aunt Marge was crossing the green with her friend Mrs. Tooke on their way to catch the bus into town. She'd be gone until late afternoon and would have left me a cold lunch, usually ham salad, in the larder.
Looking back I am amazed at the amount of autonomy we had as children compared to the monitored lives today’s youngsters lead.
Once the women were out of earshot we set about discussing the day's plans. I was all for going to the swimming hole; I had a secret wish that, just this once, Julie Norris would be there. She never had been, but I lived in hope. I suppose you could say that I was sweet on her but, at 16, she was so far out of my league I could only dream. Perhaps if I hadn't been so lovestruck, but one cannot rewrite the past and what happened can't be changed. If we had gone swimming perhaps Mickey would still....but no, I can't go thinking about that.
"No," said Mickey "I know what we'll do. Let's see if we can pinch some sweets then go and make a den in Norris's barn."
I wasn't the sort of boy who stole, I just wasn't brought up that way, but, while I wasn't in thrall to Mickey exactly, he was just exciting and a bit dangerous to be around and what boy could resist that? I was just about to swing round the tree and drop down when Mickey grabbed my shoulder and pointed at a tall, muscular looking young man striding across the grass. Mickey didn't relax until he was well out of sight.
"That's Jim Bradwell, you keep well away from him, he's a nasty bugger and he's always got it in for me."
Mickey had a plan. Because I was known as a good boy I went up to the counter and asked about a paper round, we knew there wasn't one going because they got snapped up pretty quick by the older lads, while I talked to Mr. Evans, Mickey slipped a couple of Jamboree bags into his pockets. I thanked Mr Evans and off we went.
We were soon hidden in the wood behind Norris's Farm seeing if the coast was clear. After 10 minutes or so we hadn't seen any movement so we dashed across the open ground and through the barn's open door. Tucking ourselves tight into the shadow we caught our breath and peered out to see if we had been seen, no one appeared so we headed to the back and climbed the ladder to the hayloft, pulled some of the bales around to make a den and settled down to enjoy our ill gotten gains.
The sweets were polished off in no time and we turned our attention to the toy that came with them, this month it was a small catapult with an elastic band and a pad big enough to hold a couple of pieces of gravel, ideal for a fight with another gang.
We were practicing firing grains of wheat at each other from behind the bales when we heard the someone coming towards the barn so we ducked out of sight. It was Jim Bradwell and he had Julie with him. He was almost pulling her along, she wasn't fighting exactly but she seemed reluctant. He led her into the barn and shut the big double doors behind him, grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her fiercely, she struggled but he held her tight and said "Oh no missy, you've been teasing me quite long enough, it's about time I taught you how to treat a bloke."
He dragged her under the hayloft out of our sight, we kept still, too scared to move or speak.
Julie said "No Jim, please not like this, don't."
Beneath us we heard a slap and Bradwell said "You keep still now and just do as you're told."
Eventually the noises stopped and all we could hear was Julie quietly crying. I looked at Mickey, there were tears streaming down his face and I realised then that, while I had a crush on Julie, he was in love with her.
Mickey suddenly stood up and hurled himself down the ladder screaming "You bastard, you leave her alone!"
Scared, I peered down, Jim Bradwell had Mickey by the throat and was pinning him against the barn wall. What could I do? I was a 13 year old child, he was 20 and twice my size.
I could hear Mr. Norris shouting "What's going on? Who's that in my barn?"
Bradwell turned to Julie and said "Don't you dare say a word or I'll tell everyone that you've been with every bloke in the village! Just you follow my lead." He lifted Mickey up and dragged his shorts down then called out "It's me Mr. Norris, Jim Bradwell, I just caught this little rat trying to interfere with your Julie, lucky for her I was passing and heard her shouting 'No!' so I ran in and grabbed the little bugger."
Mr. Norris came puffing into the barn and stopped dead at the sight of his Julie, clothes in disarray and her face all tear streaked. "Did he, has he, I mean have you been....?"
"No Mr. Norris" Bradwell answered "I got here just in time to stop him."
"I'd better call the police then" Mr. Norris said "get the little devil locked up."
"No Daddy, please, they'll want to examine me and I'll have to go to court and then everyone will know and they'll all talk, you know they will."
"I know what to do about him, Mr. Norris, you take Julie back to the house and I'll deal with this little swine."
Mr. Norris put his arm around Julie's shoulders and led her out of the barn.
Bradwell walked behind them and shut the door. While his back was turned Mickey frantically signalled for me to stay put and keep quiet. As Bradwell turned back to him Mickey tried to make a run for it but Bradwell was too quick for him, grabbing Mickey by the arm he dragged him back and, using a harness, tied him to a post.
Mickey shouted "I'll tell, I'll tell everyone what you done!"
"Who'll believe you, Billy Marchment's boy? They all think that you're going the same way he did, if I tell them you tried to rape Julie your life won't be worth living my lad."
I couldn't watch, I buried my head in my arms, but I could still hear the sound of his belt. Eventually it stopped and Bradwell left. I climbed down and found Mickey still tied to the post his whole body shaking. I untied him and we walked back to his house, slowly. As he got to the back door he turned and said
"Not a word, alright, not one bloody word to anyone!"
That was the last time I saw Mickey Marchment. A few of the older fellows cornered him and gave him another beating. He could barely walk and didn't leave his house for a week. When he appeared he was shunned, word had spread after all. I know I should have spoken up, but who would have believed me? I'd promised Mickey and I was too much of a coward, then it was too late, he'd gone: one of the gamekeepers on the big estate found him in the woods, hanging from an oak and had been there for some days. Aunt Marge wouldn't let me go to the funeral, I think only his mum was there.
I returned to London that week, it was decided that it would be for the best, to 'put it behind me' Aunt Marge said. I found out later that Julie married Bradwell and had a baby surprisingly soon after.
A good thing about being a writer is that, apart from a few glory seekers, no one has any idea what we look like so I could go anywhere pretty well anonymously, even back to the village. I'd had that incident like a shadow all my life, it was time to put it right.
The next morning I got to the Gibbet cross roads early and waited in the shelter of a large tree until Bradwell came into sight. I stepped out and produced the automatic from inside my jacket. I gestured for him to precede me into the trees to where I had prepared the spot.
The same tree that Mickey had used.
Bradwell tried to run but I cold cocked him with the butt of the gun. When he came round the noose was tight around his neck. I pulled him upright and placed a log under his feet.
"What the hell's going on? Let me down!" he screamed.
"You don't recognise me, do you Jim?"
" No I bloody don't! Now untie me or you'll be for it."
"I was there you know, in the barn."
"What barn? I don't know what you're talking about."
"When you raped Julie Norris, I was in the hayloft and I saw it all. You thought it was all forgotten, didn't you? Well think again you bullying bastard. This is for Mickey Marchment!"
I kicked away the log he was balanced on and walked out of the wood. Then I got into my car and drove away from the village.
Meadowbrook was sold soon after and I was free to forget the village and what they did. But I would never forget the truth about Mickey Marchment.