Julie answered after the second ring. She greeted him warmly as she pulled on her coat and fastened the buttons. ‘Hi, Stephen. I won’t be a second.’ Kathleen and Julie exchanged farewells. ‘I’ll be home by ten o’clock,’ Julie called out as she closed the door.
She slipped her arm into his and pulled him close to her. As they strolled in the dark towards the bus stop, the swell of her breast pressed against his arm, soft and tantalizing, yet prompting guilt at the same time. After they had walked in silence for a few minutes, she said, ‘Are you going to tell me what’s been upsetting you?’ She hesitated before adding, ‘Is it me?’
‘God, no,’ said Stephen. ‘Please don’t think that. You’re the best thing that’s happened to me since I can’t remember when.’ He stopped walking and held her by the shoulders. He looked into her eyes and lost himself there, before pulling her against him.
She nuzzled his neck and murmured, ‘I’m glad it’s not me. I thought you’d gone off me when you didn’t call. But it’s obvious you’re worried about something. Can’t you tell me what it’s about?’
The words tumbled out, tripping over themselves. It was a quest for the impossible, he knew. An honest answer that wouldn’t diminish her affection for him. ‘You know I like you a lot, Julie. I’ve never felt like this about any other girl.’ His heart was pounding. He hadn’t realized this would hurt so much.
She smiled, looking up at him from beneath her lashes. ‘I think I fell for you the moment I saw you looking lost and lonely on the dance floor. But if this is something to do with me not making a commitment…’
Stephen was taken aback. ‘No, no, it’s not about that.’
‘Because if we’re going to go steady, then we have to trust one another, and be willing to share our problems.’
‘You know I want us to be more than friends, but...’ He let go of her, searching her eyes. ‘I’m afraid it’ll ruin everything if I tell you. You might not want to see me anymore.’
‘Stephen, now you’re scaring me. Is it so bad?’
Roughly, he brushed away a tear. What sort of an idiot was he to jeopardize what he had with Julie for a quickie with Trish Stewart? What the hell had he been thinking? Maybe D was right. He would have to be thick as a brick to risk her leaving him by telling her the truth.
An anguished laugh escaped his lips and he shook his head. ‘I’m sorry Julie. Sometimes I take myself far too seriously. There’s nothing for you to be bothered about. I stuffed up that’s all, but I’ll sort it out. I wish I hadn’t said anything. I didn’t mean to worry you.’
She looked at him doubtfully but walked on in silence until they reached the bus stop. Then she spoke. ‘You’re not the first person to ever have done something silly, Stephen, but it’s not usually the end of the world, is it?’ She smiled.
Stephen said nothing, his melancholy keeping him mute.
So she plunged on. ‘Take my brother, for instance. I love Daniel, of course, but he’s always been a maverick, and life hasn’t been easy for him. He’s made more mistakes in his first twenty years than most people do in a lifetime.’
Stephen glanced sideways at her. ‘Mistakes?’
She nodded. ‘When he was fourteen, he became mixed up with one of the local gangs. He seemed to resent Mum trying to teach him what was right and what was wrong. I suppose it was the result of not having a father around. At least, that’s what Mum says.’
‘Losing your father must have been tough. I can’t imagine how you coped.’
‘It wasn’t easy for any of us, least of all Mum. When Daniel was twelve, he was a pretty wild kid. He hung around with a bunch of hooligans who roamed the streets at night looking for trouble. One of their favorite tricks was setting clothing alight when it had been hung out to dry. They would wait until they were found out, then run away.’ She shrugged. ‘Daniel told me the thrill wasn’t in lighting the fire, it was in the chase.’
It started to drizzle, and Julie opened her umbrella and huddled closer to Stephen. ‘One time, some of the boys tied a firecracker to the tail of a cat and lit it for fun. My brother wasn’t so happy about that. The poor creature must have been terrified, and Daniel tried to rescue it, but, of course, the cat wouldn’t let anyone near. It ran in front of a bus and was killed. Daniel was devastated. He brought it home and buried it in the back garden, then went looking for the boys responsible. Daniel was angry a lot in those days, and he would often come home looking the worse for wear. It seemed like my brother was always spoiling for a fight.’
To Stephen, this story sounded typical of many he’d heard about the local gangs, except that deliberate animal cruelty was uncommon amongst their usual neighborhood pranks. The bus approached and drew up beside them. Julie paused in her story while Stephen paid the fares, and they went upstairs to sit on the back seat. Stephen put his arm around her and she nestled her head comfortably against his.
‘I think boys can be crueler than girls,’ said Stephen. ‘When I was young, my pal and I used to try to catch seagulls on the street outside our house. We would make a noose from a piece of string and place it on the road with some bread crumbs in the middle. One day, we caught one. The bird almost pulled its leg off trying to get away.’
‘That’s awful. What happened?’
‘A neighbor from across the road saw us do it and came running out to chase us away. Then he gave us a terrible scolding when he caught up with us. The seagull flew away with the bread as well as the string.’
Julie smiled. ‘I bet you didn’t do it again though, did you? With Daniel, getting into trouble became a habit. After a few visits from the neighbors, and finally the police, Mum became frantic and decided we needed to do something about it. She talked to Uncle Kevin, my dad’s eldest brother, and he arranged for Daniel to be admitted to a boys’ boarding school in Edinburgh. They both thought he would benefit from getting away from here, and they hoped the discipline of a private school would help straighten him out. I’m sure Mum felt she couldn’t cope, and it was a relief to have someone else take responsibility.’
‘That must have been a difficult change for Daniel,’ said Stephen. It was hard for him to think of Julie’s brother as a troublemaker, since Julie and her mum were such genuine people.
‘I guess so, but at first everything went well. He’d been there three years and came home at the end of every term. He seemed to be enjoying himself and he was over the moon when he was selected for the school soccer team. His class reports were showing progress in most of his subjects, too. Then one day, out of the blue, Mum received a phone call from the principal. Daniel had bashed up a student and was going to be expelled. Mum and Uncle Kevin went there to plead for him, but there were witnesses who swore Daniel had kicked the boy until he was senseless. Daniel said it was self-defense. According to him, the older boy had tried to bully him and if Daniel hadn’t protected himself, he would have ended up his Nancy boy.’ Julie’s face colored. ‘Then he alleged the student had tried to force him into having sex. You can imagine the uproar. The boy’s parents were furious. They said Daniel was blackening their son’s reputation to escape punishment. They wanted to charge Daniel with assault, but the principal persuaded them not to do it. In the end, I don’t think anybody wanted the publicity. Mum was the only one who believed Daniel. But just the same, he was sent home straight away.’
Stephen’s brow knitted. ‘It’s like something out of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays.’ I didn’t realize things like that went on in real life. Do you think Daniel was telling the truth?’
Julie nodded her head slowly. ‘It’s hard to believe, I know, but Uncle Kevin found out later that the older boy left school the following year. No reason was put forward, but Daniel said he’d been up to his old tricks. I prefer to believe Daniel was telling the truth, but I couldn’t swear to it, not after what happened later.
‘For a while, my brother kept pretty much to himself and spent a lot of time in his own room, reading. He found regular employment in Glasgow, and he worked hard at his job there. He’s pretty bright at some things, and eventually his boss took an interest in him. By the time he was eighteen, he had saved enough money to put a deposit on a flat. We barely saw him after that, except at weekends.’
Julie paused, staring out the window at the rain belting down. She sighed again. ‘I don’t know whether it was because he missed his school friends, became bored or what, but he started hanging around with his old pals. This time, it wasn’t misdemeanors. They graduated to petty theft, burglary, and then about twelve months ago, Daniel was convicted of assault.’
‘Wow, that’s a big step up. What did he do to get arrested?’
‘He became involved in a fight in a pub with a boy called John Ross. According to Daniel, Ross punched his girlfriend in the face for talking with another boy, and my idiot brother leapt to her defense. There was a brawl, glasses went flying, and the police were called. Somehow, during the fight, Ross suffered serious facial injuries and was taken to hospital.’
Stephen took a moment to absorb what Julie was telling him. ‘Did he admit to the charges? It sounds like he might have been coming to the girl’s rescue, although…’
‘I know, but his history was against him. He admitted to the charges because he believed that he didn’t have much choice. A lot of people saw him fighting with Ross. The girlfriend corroborated Daniel’s story, but the judge was appalled at the nature of the injuries inflicted on Ross. He handed down a lighter sentence because it was Daniel’s first conviction and because he showed remorse. Daniel’s spent the last nine months in Barlinnie Prison. He’s due to be released in a couple of weeks.’
Stephen struggled to take it all in. ‘I don’t know what to say, Julie. I would never have guessed any of this.’
‘Mum and I visit him every five or six weeks. It’s been hard for her, especially at the start. I don’t think we’ll know how it’s affected Daniel until he gets out. Or how it will impact us as a family, either,’ she added.
Stephen saw the look of worry in her eyes and hoped for her sake Daniel would settle down.
Julie shook her head. ‘Whatever you’ve done, Stephen, it couldn’t be as bad as what Daniel did. And let me tell you from experience, you don’t stop loving your family because they’ve messed up, and you don’t give up on your friends, either.’
They arrived at the town center and stepped off the bus at the top of New Street. The rain had stopped and they walked the short distance down the hill towards Cardosi’s Restaurant. Passing the Bull Inn, Julie pointed upwards. ‘That’s where Daniel lived, the flat with the blue windows. Mum and I painted them for him when he moved in.’
Stephen blinked. ‘Is it still his place?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Mum leased it out for him, and she’s been paying off the mortgage from the rent. The tenants moved out a couple of weeks ago, and Mum and I already tidied it up to get ready for when he comes home.’
* * *
From the shadows behind the curtains, Daniel looked down at them. He had just managed to dart out of sight when they looked up, but in retrospect, it wasn’t unusual for Julie to pass by his flat on her way into town. New Street was a popular thoroughfare. He was more startled that his sister’s suitor was the same young man he had seen with Archie the other day. The last thing he wanted was for Julie to become entangled in the web Stewart was weaving, and it worried him that Stephen was on his radar. He was going to have to do something about that.
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