Andy and Matt stared at Justin across the dining table.‘Damien said his best friend was called Gussie?’ exclaimed Andy.
‘Not just that, but I went back to the file Mike Mason gave me, and there it was.The so-called eighteen-year-old who interrupted the bastard beating up me son was Daniel Hackness.Daniel and Gussie.Damien and his mum were living in the same smelly hovel as our two. Not only that, I’m pretty sure the kid called “Steve” who tipped off Mike was our Danny, from the description.Those boys!I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.’
Matt looked troubled. ‘The question is, what do we do now?The two boys are here in Walbrough, and they’ll probably still be at that house.We’re duty-bound to tell their parents.’
‘Why, Dad?’Justin was anything but agreeable to that idea.‘I owe those boys a lot.There is no way I’ll shop them to their obnoxious parents.Danny saved me kid’s life, and he had the generosity to make sure I knew where Damien was.There’s not enough money to reward that sort of goodness.’
Matt gave a tired sigh.‘You’re right, Danny has been a hero, and we should be grateful to him for saving Damien. Unfortunately, that’s a separate issue from his and Gus’s running away.We can’t keep their whereabouts from their parents. It would just not be fair.’
‘Fuck fairness!’ snarled Justin. ‘Those kids deserve what happiness they can get.You two should know that more than anyone.’
Andy broke in at that point. ‘Their parents have rights too. You might think about their feelings, now you have a child of your own.They may be going about managing things the wrong way, but they are worried sick about Gus and Danny.It’s not fair to leave them in such a state.’
Justin growled something inarticulate, which to Matt and Andy indicated that he recognised, but did not agree with, the force of their arguments.
Terry strolled in to the middle of their discussion, and was properly amazed to discover that Danny and Gus had been instrumental in saving Damien and uniting him with his father.‘So, when you gonna tell their folks?’
‘I think Andy and I will do something about it tonight. What do you think?’
‘I think you’d best leave it till tomorrow, give the poor kids one last night together. It’s probably only right, though, to give the Hacknesses and the Underwoods a heads-up. You got their numbers?’
Terry moved on quickly. ‘How’d it go with yer kid, Justy?’
The two boys were contemplating yet another culinary disaster on their tea table.Gussie looked sceptically at his plate. ‘I think those black flecks add something to the taste, I really do.’
Danny was not about to try defending the indefensible.‘There is a sort of tang to it, that’s true, but omelettes should definitely not be crunchy.’
Danny’s mobile went off just then.It was Terry.‘Sweet babes, get packed.You been sussed by Justy, and he’s told Matt and Andy.They’re gonna ring your parents tomorrow, early.You need to be on the road tonight, unless you want to go back home.’
‘Oh jeez, no!’Danny broke the news to Gus.‘Have you got any ideas, Terry?’
‘As it happens, I do.I want you to take the train to Leeds, get a bus out to the airport and be there around nine this evening if you can.’
‘You’ll find out when you get there. You both got your passports, haven’t you?’
‘See you at nine, babes.’
As Danny was hefting his pack and wondering what to do with the house keys, the doorbell went downstairs.He caught Gus’s eyes.
Gus shrugged. ‘They can’t have got to our parents yet.Perhaps it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses.’
A dark male figure was on the other side of the frosted glass of the front door.When Danny opened it, he discovered Justin grinning at him.Before he knew it, he was enveloped in a strong hug, and his mouth was being invaded by a serious kiss.
Justin broke off, licking his lips. ‘Mmm, sixteen-year-olds taste so good.Where’s Gus?’
‘Here!’ Gus had come downstairs behind Danny, and now he too was being hugged and kissed by a grateful Justin.
‘Glad I found you two babes.I just had to come and give you a proper thank-you.Bless you both, you saved me little boy’s life and gave him to me.What can I say?’
Pragmatic as ever, Gus promptly replied, ‘You could say that you don’t want the £3,000 reward back, Justin.’
Justin laughed. ‘It’s the very least I could do for you two angels.But seriously, babes, as well as coming to say thank-you, I’m here with a warning.Matt and Andy know where you are, and they’re gonna tell your parents too.Iss time you moved on.’
Danny answered. ‘We’d guessed we’d been sussed.It was the newspaper report wasn’t it?’
‘Yup.So where’re you going?’
‘We’ll send you a postcard when we get there, Justy, if that’s alright.’
‘Okay, be cautious.Just doan forget, you two, that I owes you big time.If you ever need me, I’ll be there for you.You hear?’
‘Yeah, thanks Justy.We won’t forget.’
Gus added, ‘And say goodbye to little Damien for me.Tell him I’ll see him again when I can.Oh, and would you take these books back to the library for me?I don’t want to chalk up fines I can’t pay.’
Justin laughed and agreed.They all three hugged and Justin headed back to the hotel, carrying a bag of Gus’s books.Not long afterwards, the boys said goodbye with mixed feelings to the first home they had lived in together.Danny put the keys in an envelope and posted them to Mr Heslerton, along with a note that they wouldn’t be collecting the deposit back from him, so not to bother about it.He also posted off a brief resignation note to CostFayre.It troubled him that he could not work his notice, Daniel was that sort of man.
They were at the station in time for the Leeds train, and were soon clipping along through the Yorkshire countryside, golden in a fine midsummer evening.Danny had his shades on to block the rays of the lowering sun from his eyes.
It was still quite light when they reached the city and headed out to find the airport bus.They had a long wait before it turned up, so it wasn’t until a quarter past nine when they reached the terminal building of the curious hilltop airport.The sky was darkening into dusk, and the runway lights were coming on.A Ryanair flight roared into the air above the control tower as they looked around.
‘What now?’ asked Gus.
‘Let’s go and get a drink.’
The boys found a sandwich bar and got cokes.Danny rang Terry’s number, but there was no answer.To kill time, they sat at a small table and watched the world of package tourists and businessmen move past, trundling cases behind them.Finally, an announcement requested Mr Underwood and Mr Hackness to come to the information desk on the concourse.
Terry was there, smiling broadly.‘Now, sweet babes, I have been ringing friends and I’ve found you a refuge where no one will think of looking for you.How’s your French?’
‘Er … Gussie’s is brilliant and mine is mediocre.Why?’
‘Cos you are going to France, my babes, to an old friend who’ll take care of you and who knows all about you.She’ll give you room and board and odd jobs to keep you busy.Her name is Madame Cirier, and she runs the Domaine Peacher at Courçon near La Rochelle.She’s used to refugees.Ready to go?’
‘How do we get there?’
‘Your transport awaits.Take this package for me. It’s got English breakfast tea for Madame and a stack of Euros for you.Now come this way.’
Terry escorted them through a doorway and past an immigration officer who checked their passports and bags.Then they were outside on a windy tarmac apron.The sky was darkening to deep blue and stars were beginning to appear.A big, long-distance helicopter sat waiting for them, its rotors already turning slowly and its powerful navigation lights blinking.
‘You can’t be serious,’ gasped Danny.
‘I certainly can.We owe you two boys for what you did for Damien, so this is a thank-you from me and from Justy.It will take you to the airfield at Niort, refuel and then after dawn drop you at Courçon.Now, babes, hugs.’
So they hugged and kissed Terry. He told them he would be in touch when any news broke that they should be aware of.As he moved back towards the terminal, the boys got on board.The crewmen belted them in and the pilot received the all-clear from the tower.The roar of the rotors was loud in the cabin and abruptly the floor lifted while their stomachs sank.They were rising rapidly, heading south across England to the Channel and France beyond.Danny was suddenly possessed by a feeling of adventure so powerful he became light-headed.This was escape!
Justin, Matt and Andy pulled into the big perimeter mall.It was very hot and the air was shimmering above the tarmac of the car park where Andy left his Mercedes.They hurried to gain the welcome relief of the air-conditioned interior, looking for the Gap outlet.
‘So this is a first,’ smiled Matt, ‘shopping for clothes for my grandkid, and me only just thirty.’
‘Think of me, Dad,’ muttered Justin. ‘I never bought kid’s clothes in me life.I dunno what to do or what to get.’
‘Let’s be logical.’ Andy had adopted the tone he used when he wanted it understood that he had more of a clue than anyone else.‘The nurses took his measurements and gave me his approximate kid’s sizes.We’ll work from the top down.Now, hats?Does he need a hat?’
‘Without a hat you get sunstroke apparently, so my mum told me when I was a kid,’ mused Matt.
‘Did you wear a hat?’
Matt shook his head.
‘Did you ever get sunstroke?’
‘No, I can’t remember that I did.’
‘Then let’s forget the hat.Underwear.Do kids wear vests?I can remember them in winter.I’ll get a pack.OK.Now underpants.What’s in nowadays, boxers or briefs?’
Justin shrugged. ‘I like boxers, but I think iss briefs these days.What about this lot with dinosaurs and King Kong?They look the sort of thing a violent and alienated six-year-old would appreciate.Thass me boy!’
Andy gave a quirky look. ‘Three packs then.Socks are pretty standard, throw those in, six multi-coloured packets are bound to be enough.Now the hard stuff …’
The three men were loaded with bags of jeans, shorts, trousers, sweaters, tees, tops, jackets, pyjamas and coats when they left.
Andy headed for a Starbucks and told everyone to sit down.They looked at the small continent of plastic bags they had piled up.‘Can a kid that small need all this?’
‘We have yet to do shoes,’ Matt observed.
Shoes followed after their skinny lattés, and it was a hard grind.In the end Andy groaned, ‘Just go for quantity, some of them have got to fit.My God, aren’t they tiny little things?I can’t believe I was ever this small.’
Matt laughed. ‘I’m sure you were even smaller.’
Justin suddenly looked nervous. ‘I hope he likes them.’
They drove back direct to the hospital.When Damien was introduced to his grandparents, he exclaimed, ‘But you’re blokes too!’
‘Sure are,’ Matt agreed with a grin.
‘Fookin’ ‘ellfire.Aren’t there no women in our family?’
‘We have mums.You’ll get to meet them,’ offered Andy.
‘Okay, our kid, it’s time you got dressed.What about this clobber?’ Justin asked.
‘S’alright,’ Damien sniffed.He squirmed out of bed, then looked pointedly at Matt and Andy.‘You gonna watch?’
‘No, we’ll wait in reception. Your dad can take care of you.’
Father and son selected clothes to suit the boy, and Damien fought hard and unsuccessfully to mask his pleasure.Finding shoes to fit was the big problem.Damien was quickly bored with the putting on and taking off and the walking around to check comfort.Only three of the twelve pairs suited his exacting standards.He got furious when his father commented that he should have learned to tie his laces by now.
‘Why weren’t you fookin there to teach me then, yer …’
‘Enough of the “fuckings” too.’
‘So … why?’
‘It’s very rude’
‘You says it all the fookin time.’
‘Iss different for grown-ups.’
Oh for God’s sake, thought Justin.This is some sort of cosmic revenge.The Animal of Seven Sisters has to domesticate the wild child he spawned.Strangling his frustrated anger, he thought back to how the cleverer sort of primary-school teacher had dealt with him.‘You know that bastard Julio?’
Damien looked hard at his father and gave a scowl that Justin recognised all too well, as it was his own.‘Why you bringing that fooker up now?’
‘When he shouted at your mam, what was the word he used all the time?’
‘You want to be like that cunt?’
‘Fookin no way.’
‘Then don’t use the word “fookin”’
Damien pondered. Justin had him.‘Okay, I won’t.’
‘But “cunt” is okay, then?’
‘Oh for crying out loud …’
Matt and Andy smiled broadly when Justin and Damien walked into the hospital reception hand-in-hand. Justin was hefting a big shoulder bag stuffed with the rest of the boy’s clothes, and carrying another in the hand that wasn’t holding Damien.
‘You look great, Damien,’ Andy complimented him.
‘You really do.I could get you modelling work,’ laughed Matt.
‘Does it pay money?’Damien looked up at him consideringly.
‘It made my fortune.’
‘I’ll think about it then.’
Matt went on, ‘Andy and I are going back down to London now, Damien, so this is goodbye for a bit, but only a little bit.You really are our grandson – weird though that seems to us – and we won’t forget it.We’ll be over at Andy’s house, which is near your dad’s cottage, pretty soon, just to see how you’re getting on.’Matt held out his hand, and Damien took it gingerly and a little suspiciously.Then with a bit more confidence he shook Andy’s hand.But he didn’t smile or say goodbye, though Justin hugged both his parents.
‘This your car?’ Damien wanted to know the instant he saw the blue Jaguar XK convertible.
‘One of them.Like it?’
‘Iss okay, I s’pose.’
After Justin put the bag of clothes in the boot, he wondered where to put Damien.He ought to have a child seat, he realized.Since he couldn’t go purchase one immediately, he decided to use the smaller of his son’s bags instead.
‘Up front then, kid.’Once belted in on top of the bag, Damien looked absurdly small.The doctors had told Justin the boy was underweight and under his proper height.His teeth also were a mess, riddled with decay, nearly melted from his diet of soft drinks, crisps and chocolate mitigated only by an intermittent brushing.
‘Now, little one, we’re going home.’
‘Iss in Suffolk, which is a long way away, at a place called Haddesley Cottage.You remember Gus?’
‘Yeah, I remembers him.He’s me friend.’
‘He comes from Haddesley too.’
‘Will I see him?’
‘No.He’s living somewhere else right now, but he might turn up eventually.I live in Haddesley Cottage wiv me boyfriend, Nathan.He’ll be like your second dad.’
‘No he fookin won’t.Not sure if I likes you yet.’
Justin scowled to himself.The kid, so adult on one level, was totally wilful on another.But he strangled the irritation with a great effort and drove out of the hospital car park.
‘We there yet?’ The question first came twenty-five miles out of Walbrough, and was repeated regularly every ten miles thereafter.
Half-demented, Justin pulled in at the first McDonald’s he came to on the A1.‘Let’s have a drink, and you need a pee by now probably.’
‘I want two large fries and an ice cream,’ was Damien’s order.‘The food in that hospital was fookin crap.’
‘Less of the fookin.Iss not lunch yet.’
‘Lunch?I want me fookin dinner.’
‘Lunch is what you have midday, and it’s only eleven.I’ll get you one large fries and a box of juice.You can’t drink pop all the time.It’s melted your teeth.’
‘You’re fookin tight, you are!’
‘I’m also your dad, so watch your mouth.’
‘Or fookin what?You gonna fookin beat me up too?’
Justin was furious by now, and red-faced.He mastered himself with an effort that was recorded by angels in gold letters in a big book.‘I won’t hit you ever, Damien.Dads don’t do that to their kids … at least not good dads.I want to be a good dad.’
‘Then get me the fookin fries and ice cream.’
‘Ice cream is a treat, not something you can have every time you like.’
‘Fook you then.’The boy stomped off back through the services.Justin had no choice but to pursue, till the boy stopped back at the car, furious.
Grimly, Justin asked, ‘Don’t want anything at all?’
‘Back in and belt up, then.’
They drove on southwards.At least Damien was so furious that he forgot to ask whether they were yet at Haddesley.Justin drove silently.By one o’clock Damien was casting wistful eyes at every Little Chef he saw.Finally, as they passed an American-style diner, Justin asked brightly, ‘Fancy lunch?’
‘Yuh. OK.But it’s dinner, not lunch.’
So half an hour later they were sitting over one child’s and one adult’s cheeseburgers and fries, eyeing each other up.
‘Damien,’ Justin finally said, ‘see that green gunk on your plate?You eat a mouthful of that or it’s no ice cream.’
‘Fook off.Thass for rabbits.’
‘Iss also for little boys who hope to survive their dads.’
‘Wha ..?Oh, funny.’
‘Seriously.The doctors told me you were eating so badly with your mum that you have real health problems.Ever heard of malnutrition?’
‘Nuh.Wass it mean?’
‘It means your body’s sick cos you eat all the wrong stuff.You have malnutrition.I gotta get you to our dentist as soon as we’re home cos of the mess your teeth are in.Kid, you have to change the way you eat.I did too when I went to live wiv Nathan, and now I’m healthy and fit.He won’t take crap and he’s a big bloke.’
‘So wass he gonna do … beat the shit out of me if I don’t eat what he wants?’
‘No, he’ll sneer at you cos you’re a little wimp who’ll never be strong enough to wrestle him.We gotta get you fit, so you can do stuff in school like soccer and PE without people laughing at you.’
For the first time, Damien looked alarmed.‘School?’
‘Yeah, school.Nathan’s already seen Mrs Chancellor, the headteacher of Castringham Church of England School, to make sure you get a place.You start in year 1 in September.You been to school, haven’t you?’
‘Well … sorta.’
‘What’s that mean?’
‘Well, I never went in Pudsey cos mam was too stoned to get me there.Then we came to Walbrough and the Women’s Shelter ladies took me, but they put me in the hall cos of me language, and I kept bein’ picked on by the other kids, the cunts.When we got the flat, I wouldn’t go and mam was too busy wiv Sunni May, so I stayed and helped.’
‘That’s gonna change, Son.School is important.You gotta go.’
‘Did they make you go?’
‘Oh yeah, I was really keen on school.Never missed a day.Happiest days of me life.’ Justin’s fingers were crossed under the table.He had last attended a school with any regularity at the age of thirteen.He tried to look virtuous, which was not an expression natural to his face.
They drove on quietly through the English countryside to Damien’s new home, each full of his own thoughts.