|A Case of Wild Justice? by
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Hannah could have killed her grandson. This time he had gone too far. The images flooded her mind every time she closed her eyes; the crowd of jeering boys stamping on Jessie's flowers; the sight of her sister cowering in the darkened room with her little brown mongrel, Smudge, huddled at her feet.
She would never forget the look of fear she saw in Jessie's eyes that day, a look which hardened into anger - or was it contempt? - when she saw Hannah. Smudge growled a warning. He was normally a docile little dog who slept all day, but now he was trembling violently and his big brown eyes looked distraught.
"What's the matter Jessie? What's happened?
"Billy," said Jessie in a hoarse voice. "I'll kill him, I tell you. I'll kill him if I ever get hold of him." She was plucking nervously at the cuff of her blouse as she spoke.
Not if I get to him first! Hannah thought. "What's he done, Jessie? Tell me what happened."
"I saw him," whispered Jessie. "I saw Billy." She was tugging frantically at her sleeve now, almost as if she were trying to rip it from her arm. She reached out for her sewing basket which was on the table beside her but, in her agitation, she knocked it over, sending its contents flying across the room. Then, to Hannah's alarm, she slid off her chair onto the floor.
"Jessie..!" cried Hannah, thinking her sister had collapsed. But Jessie had not collapsed. She was crawling around the floor, saying, "I've lost a blue button. I've lost a blue button..." over and over again,
"Here, let me help," said Hannah and she, too, got down on her hands and knees, although rather more slowly than Jessie - she was not as supple as her sister - to help retrieve the packets of needles and pins, and spools of thread that had rolled under the furniture. When she could find no more, she stood up stiffly, saying, "I'm sorry, Jessie, but I can't see your blue button anywhere."
Jessie did not get up, but continued scrabbling around the room saying, "Where's my blue button? I've lost my blue button." She was weeping openly now and her face was covered in grime.
Smudge whimpered at the back door and Hannah opened it to let him out. It was only then, when she saw the state of Jessie's back garden, that she realised what had happened. She realised, too, that this was the last straw. Billy would have to be stopped. Wrecking his great-aunt's garden might not be the worst of his misdeeds - that was probably the attack on his sister Helen - but it was an act of such pointless malice that Hannah was finally convinced the boy was past curing. He was irredeemably bad. He could not bear the sight of anybody else's happiness, and would destroy it wherever he found it. He would have to be stopped before he blighted any more lives and, if the police could not do it, then his grandmother would have to. Wasn't he her responsibility, after all?
Thankfully, Billy was out of circulation at the moment. He was being held in 'secure accommodation' as his mother insisted on calling it. Bridget avoided saying he was 'locked-up' although that was what it amounted to, as far as Hannah could see. But what did it matter what you called it? At least the boy was out of harm's way - for the time being.
Billy's arrest had nothing to do with the attack on Jessie. It was drug-peddling he was suspected of. Whatever the reason, Hannah hoped the police would find enough evidence to keep him inside for a long time. However that seemed unlikely. Instead, he had an army of social workers trying to understand and protect him, whereas Jessie, who had never hurt anyone in her life, had no help at all.
The sound of children's voices floated in through Hannah's bedroom window. Two little girls were giggling and jumping up and down outside her front gate. One of them was Betty Carter, a thin dark-haired child who lived in Number Nine, a three-storey house that stood opposite Hannah's cottage. The other was a fair-haired friend of Betty's who wore a fat pigtail tied with a floppy checked bow that kept falling undone while she was playing, so she had to keep stopping to tie it up again. Little Sam Carter, Betty's younger brother, was playing outside too, but not with the girls. He was running a fleet of toy cars along the edge of the pavement. It was a blessing that Haydon's Lane was a cul-de-sac and did not get through traffic, Hannah thought, as she watched him.
Across the road Luke Dunstan was painting over some graffiti that had been sprayed on his garden wall. In a paint-spattered old coat and ancient boots he was working his way patiently from left to right along the low wall and, as he worked, he chatted to little Sam who was lining up his toy cars to form a massive traffic jam. Every now and then Sam would pick up a little car and run to show it to Luke who would put down his paintbrush and solemnly examine it before handing it back to the toddler with an encouraging smile. Sam was a talkative child, unlike Billy at the same age who had never been inclined to share his thoughts. He had usually been too absorbed in some solitary game to notice anyone else.
How peaceful the lane looked today. Nobody would guess that it was a neighbourhood living under siege. Visitors often remarked on what a nice quiet place it must be to live in, but they did not see what went on. The truth was that its elderly residents were being intimidated by a gang of out-of-control teenagers who delighted in spreading fear and distress, just for the hell of it, knowing their victims were too frail to fight back. They specialised in acts of pointless harassment or, as Helen, put it, 'random acts of cruelty and pain' such as urinating on doorsteps and overturning rubbish bins and pushing disgusting things through letter boxes. Lately they had been waiting until dark and then letting off fireworks deliberately to frighten people's cats and dogs.
The police seemed powerless to stop them, although they must know who the culprits were. Everybody else did. Helen could even reel off their nicknames: There was Ozzie Wright and Fatboy and Rocko McGuirk and Ginger, whose real name was Jeremy Cox but who was never called anything but Ginger according to Helen - or rather, Gingerpubes to be exact - because of his red hair, and the twins Darius and Saul. Darius and Saul? How strange these modern parents were, to name their children after ancient kings and then let them run wild and become a menace to their neighbours. But then, maybe that was exactly what the ancient kings were too, a menace to their neighbours. Not that the twins were the worst of the vandals. They struck Hannah as a dim-witted pair who only followed the crowd.
And then there was Billy Bean.
All the neighbours agreed that the worst thing was the uncertainty, not knowing when the gang would strike next. Jasmine Walters at Number Six could not sleep at night for imagining that every little noise she heard was an intruder, even though her home was fitted with enough locks and chains to secure the Bank of England, according to Len Birtwhistle who ran the hardware shop in the High Street, and he should know since he was the one who had supplied them. Poor old Jasmine, she should stop listening to the news. It only put ideas in her head. Luke Dunstan somehow managed to ignore the hooligans. He was a retired school caretaker and the self-appointed custodian of Haydon's Lane. He aimed to make it the smartest cul-de-sac in the area, an ambition which kept him constantly at work with his paintbrush.
Hannah noticed that Declan Carter was looking down from his attic window opposite. Was he keeping an eye on Sam and Betty while their Mum was at work - Polly worked in a florist's shop - or was he simply waiting for Veronica to come home from her music class?
Veronica was Helen and Billy's older sister and, according to Helen, Declan was crazy about her and was making a sculpture of her in his bedroom. "Only don't tell anyone I told you," Helen added. "He doesn't like people to know."
"And what does Veronica think of Declan?" asked Hannah.
Helen shrugged. "Dunno. Maybe she thinks she's too old for him."
Hannah suppressed a smile at the thought of the soft-skinned Veronica with her baby blue eyes being 'too old' at seventeen. But maybe Helen had a point. There was something distinctly un-youthful about Veronica. She had an air of cool reserve that set her apart from other girls of her age. Perhaps that was part of her attraction. She also had a very careful way of moving, as if she were a porcelain doll and was afraid she might break if she fell down.
"And how old is Declan?" Hannah asked. He was a thin boy with deep-set eyes and a shock of untidy brown hair that was always falling into his eyes - none of these modern crew cuts for him obviously.
"Two months younger than Vi," said Helen.
Was that all? But then, a couple of months mattered a lot when you were young.
Suddenly the peace was shattered by the roar of motorbikes as a convoy of black clad riders came racing down the lane. There was a scream from the children as one bike separated from the others, mounted the pavement and sped towards Sam and Luke. For a ghastly second Hannah thought it was going to hit them, but the rider whizzed skilfully between the old man and the little boy, before rejoining the other bikers who by now had roared around the cul-de-sac, whooping and laughing, and were heading back the way they had come, leaving Betty crying with fright and little Sam clutching the remains of a toy car that had been crushed under the motorbike. 'Biwi ga! Biwi ga!' he was shouting, as Polly came running out of the house. She snatched Sam up and called to Betty and her friend to come indoors.
Hannah turned shakily away from the window. She was filled with a sense of helpless rage, mixed with relief that nothing worse had happened, at least not this time. She could still hear the roar of the motorbikes. It was coming from behind the houses now. They must have gone down Bodger's Way. That was an old path that led to the last of the allotments left in the neighbourhood. It also gave access to a row of old tumbledown garages. Luke Dunstan had organised a petition to the Council asking them to restore the garages and turn Bodger's Way into a proper road - that was after Helen and her friend were attacked - but the other residents opposed this idea on the grounds that the path was a gift to burglars and troublemakers. They wanted it blocked off permanently with a lockable gate. It was like a rabbit warren in there, they said, it had so many places to hide.
The next time Hannah looked out of her window she saw no sign of the children, but Luke was still there, painting his wall with slow steady strokes, apparently undeterred by the interruption. She had to admire his persistence. Nothing could discourage the steadfast Luke from doing what he regarded as his civic duty - come hail, rain, shine or even mindless violence. But Luke was the exception among Hannah's elderly neighbours. Most of them felt so anxious and demoralised, by the roaming teenagers, that they had virtually stopped going out and lived nervously behind their locked doors waiting for the next onslaught.
Old Harry, who lived on the corner, refused to open his front door at all, which made life difficult for the Social Services and the milkman, not to mention all the deliveries he kept ordering on the internet. Hannah had hardly seen his face for months. She only knew he was still alive because she sometimes saw his daughter Pam's car parked outside. He had abandoned his front garden, to judge by its weedy state. Maybe he had become a computer nerd instead. His daughter had given him a computer for Christmas and he had taken to the new technology with enthusiasm, by all accounts.
Sometimes Hannah felt she was the only older person left in the lane who still tried to lead a normal life - apart from Luke of course who was a fixture around the place. She was certainly the only one who still went out walking regularly. She was determined not to give in to the bullies. They were only a bunch of ignorant kids after all.
© Yvonne Jerrold 2008
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