Author: Alan Gibbons
This novel is a work of fiction. The attack on Rosie is based on a real attack, but otherwise the characters spring from my imagination. Their words and actions are mine. Their life stories are mine. Hate crime sadly is all too
real. It hurts. It kills.
I came to write my story after meeting Sylvia Lancaster at a teacher's conference a few years ago. Sylvia spoke before me. I didn't know what was coming. I listened with an increasing sense of horror as she told the audience how her daughter, Sophie, had died on 24 August 2007 after a savage attack on Sophie and her partner Rob in Stubbylee Park, Bacup, Lancashire.
It was an unprovoked assault. Rob and Sophie dressed alternatively. The attackers called them 'moshers' and 'freaks'. The young couple didn't die because of something they had done or said. They died because of the way they dressed. Hate crime comes in many forms: racism, sexism, prejudice against the disabled and the form it takes in this book, homophobia.
That night I went home to my own wife and kids. Rarely have I appreciated the preciousness of human life and the ease with which it can be snuffed out.
Simon Armitage wrote a marvellous play called Black Roses. The play employs Sylvia's own words and the words Simon imagines Sophie's ghost would have used to stunning effect. I didn't want my novel to tread the same ground so I invented the character of Anthony and from there reimagined the aftermath of the attack Sophie suffered through the eyes of a number of invented characters. Hate is the result. I hope it does Sophie justice and honours all victims of bigotry and prejudice.
Saturday, 10 August 2013
The last time I saw Rosie, she was getting on the bus with Paul. It was August and the air was thick with dust and petrol fumes on the Manchester road. Off to our left, on the far side of the housing estate, sun and shadow were playing tag on the hills. Some of the people at the stop noticed the young couple next to them. Rosie and Paul didn’t seem to notice. They were used to the attention. I found myself smiling. Rosie never minded. Jewels glitter. It is in their nature. That’s what they do. They shine while other people, like me, live their lives unseen.
Then Rosie did something out of character. She called to me across the road as I walked away. She was beautiful, so tiny and perfect, but she made her statement by the way she dressed. She was quiet;, happy in the skin she had made for herself. So when she called my name it was unexpected.
‘Eve,’ she cried. ‘Teenage Kicks.’
Mum had been playing it just before we left. She had looked up from her assignment. She used YouTube as a distraction when she needed a break. It was the way our family was, I suppose. We communicated through music, recommended the songs we listened to and enjoyed together.
‘Do you want to hear perfection?’
I remember Rosie wrinkling her nose, teasing. She loved it really. She adored music, any kind of music, not just the doomy stuff I heard coming through the wall, but Sugababes, Abba, anything at all. The Undertones played to the end,
then I said I would walk with her to the stop. Paul strode along beside us while we talked.
‘Eve. Teenage Kicks.’
And she started to dance, her long, black skirt swaying, her slender arms and small hands weaving patterns. It was as if she was drawing a portrait of her soul in the air. I danced too, copying her every move. The memory of the music played in my head and we laughed with each new twist and turn. Her hair swung and
the hot sun was bright on her face. That’s how I remember her, laughing and glowing in the bright play of the light. Then Paul tapped her on the shoulder and the bus came between us. I watched them settling into their seats and waved. One last time Rosie’s arms fluttered. One last time I copied her. Then she was gone.
Monday, 24 February 2014
I had that image of Rosie in my head when Jess’s elbow jabbed my ribs, calling me back to Monday registration, the scraped chairs, the fitful yawns, the general air of boredom. In the corridor, a door slammed.
‘Hey, look what the wind blew in.’
The newcomer had collar-length, blond hair and fine features. He was tall, lean and athletic-looking, but there was an awkwardness about him that diminished him somehow, and made him seem smaller than he was. I watched him with growing curiosity. He was backing against the wall, as if trying to melt into it. I recognised something of myself in the guarded way he sidled into the classroom. Some people announce themselves to the world. Others dip beneath its scrutiny. I waited for Mrs Rawmarsh to introduce him. When she said his name my heart slammed.
‘This is Anthony Broad.’
She pronounced it Anthony with the accent on the ‘th’ as in thump. I glimpsed Jess’s lips repeating the three syllables silently. She could be so predictable. She’s great, but the moment she falls for some boy it’s as if she becomes him, adopting his rhythms of speech, his attitudes, his ideas, no matter how stupid they sound. Only when the first rush of attraction is over does she become herself again. I
love her for her loyalty and fun, but sometimes the wild enthusiasms drive me crazy.
‘You don’t fancy him?’
We’d been here a few times now. Jess likes boys and they like her. She gets their attention with the way she walks, the way she talks, the intent way she listens, the infectious way she laughs. She makes everyone in her company feel special.
‘What’s not to fancy? He’s fit. Oh, come on, Eve, lighten up.’
I had a different reason to dwell on his name. It walked into my mind and stood in a darkened corner like an uninvited guest at a wedding. That name . . . Broad. Anthony Broad.
Registration over, we shouldered our bags and stepped into the corridor. I felt
the press of Jess’s fingers on my forearm.
‘Eve, pretend to say something to me. He’s coming over.’
Why all the excitement? I refused to play Jess’s games and stayed completely silent.
She was like one of those little terriers that rolls on its back and invites you to tickle its tummy. She was happy and bright-eyed, sending out signals without an iota of self-consciousness. What if it really was him? I rummaged in my bag for some imaginary object so I didn’t have to make eye contact. I left that to Jess. She had all the eye contact of a peacock’s tail. She was so, so eager to impress, and I was drowning.
‘Do you think you could help me?’ he mumbled. ‘Everything is kind of confusing. How do I get to L29?’
‘L is for Languages,’ Jess explained. ‘All the Arts and Humanities are down there. It goes English, Geography, History, Languages. It’s alphabetical. Pastoral Care and RE are off to the right. Maths and Science are down the other end of the school. Zoology’s at the end.’
‘There’s a Zoology department?’
‘No. That was a joke.’
Jess looked perturbed.
‘Obviously not a very good joke,’ she said.
Her wide eyes and pouting lips didn’t seem to be working their usual magic. Anthony’s mind was elsewhere. He didn’t seem to have listened to a word she’d said.
The second word dropped away, apologetic. His uncertain gaze followed the way she was pointing.
Jess giggled. She was dog whistle high and invitingly cute. Some boys like that. This best friend didn’t.
‘You don’t get it at all, do you?’
I glanced his way and saw his uncertainty evolve into a thin smile. “‘Not really.’
The crowds hurrying between classes buffeted us. Girls dissolved into laughter, boys leapt on their mates’ backs, teachers weaved wearily through the tumult, casting the odd, disapproving eye. Everybody had a purpose but, at the centre of the crush, Anthony didn’t. For that moment he was the eye of the storm.
‘Come with us. We’re going to L29 too. Spanish, yeah?’
I was willing Jess to stop. Why did she have to adopt him as if he was a stray dog? Surely he could find L29 by himself? Kids start new schools all the time. Why did she have to roll out the red carpet for this one? He could see where we were going. All he had to do was follow us. But Jess just chattered away.
‘How come you moved school? People usually stay put in Year 11, GCSEs and all that.’
Anthony looked uncomfortable. I could see the thoughts turning over in his
mind. His face betrayed him as he considered first one answer then another. Jess came at it another way.
‘Where was your last school?’
I heard the way he said it, as a kind of confession. Brierley. That’s where it happened. In Cartmel Park. Oh God, my first instincts were right.
‘Why did you move?’
There was that same moment of discomfort.
‘Family stuff. You know.’
We reached L29. Anthony made a beeline for the back row and sat in the corner, by the window, staring out across the moors. I knew that distant look. I knew that aching detachment. But he was no kindred spirit. He was my opposite. Anthony Broad. One of the names of Mum’s list. It was him. It had to be. Jess frowned a question. What was I thinking? I smiled and shrugged. That seemed to reassure her.
Miss Munoz swept into the room, stopped, briefly registering Anthony’s presence then fumbled for the small, grey remote to start the whiteboard projector. It purred into life. The failing bulb cast a gloomy light on the screen. Dust motes swirled. Miss Munoz started the lesson the way she always did, with the date and the weather. Then she asked us all what we did over the weekend. Some made an effort. Some grunted. Others grinned and said something stupid to wind her up. Most of us just fidgeted and hoped she would pass us by.
It was Monday, 24 February, less than six months after it happened, after whathey did to Rosie.
At first, it looked like we were sharing all our classes with Anthony. He was there in Spanish, English and History. He wasn’t there for Maths. Jess was
disappointed. We were on our way out of the gates when she turned to me.
‘You’re very quiet.’
‘I’m always quiet.’
‘Yes, but not like this. You’ve hardly said a word all day. Are you sure you’re OK? Have I done something wrong?’
I shook my head.
‘Jess, it’s not you. Forget it, OK?’
Jess was still working out how to probe further when something distracted her. Anthony was standing at the bus stop. He took time to register our presence.
‘This is a coincidence,’ Jess said, placing herself next to him. ‘Fancy you getting the 25, same as us. Where do you live?’
Anthony described the parade of shops less than a mile from my house. There was a newsagent, a Chinese chippy, an Indian takeaway, a charity shop and two empty ones covered with posters. Jess went into gush mode.
‘How amazing! We basically live either side of you. That’s like, well, coincidence
of the century.’
Hardly. Our little town of Shackleton wasn’t New York or Nairobi.
‘Did you hear that Eve?’
I heard it. At the mention of my name Anthony turned. I looked away immediately, my cheeks burning. What was so amazing? He had to live somewhere. I only wish it wasn’t close to me. The streets rushed by. Anthony crouched so he could recognise the parade, a sure sign he was new to the area.
‘This is my stop,’ he said and shoved his way to the doors.
I watched him go. Something in the way he held himself told me he knew. It was obvious that he had his ghosts, just as I had mine.
The door to the flat opened. The cramped rooms creaked a reluctant welcome. The walls were bare. There were no covers on the cushions, no photos on the mantelpiece. It was a work in progress. A carrier bag gaped open in a corner. There was a sheet of bubble wrap, some brown parcel tape, a torn label, the sure signs of a recent move. Anthony closed the door.
‘Is that you, Anthony?’
This time it was Anthony with a ‘t’, not a ‘th’.
‘Of course it’s me. Who else were you expecting, Superman?’
‘No need to be sarky.’
His mum made her way in from the kitchen. Gemma Broad was in her early forties, but she looked five years younger. She was slim and attractive, but like her son, she had a guardedness that dulled the glow of life.
‘How was school?’
Anthony tried to disguise his momentary hesitation. He heard the catch in his mum’s voice as she slapped the cloth on the coffee table.
‘Been cleaning up?’ he said hurriedly, hoping to gloss over his delay answering. She ignored his attempt at diversion.
‘Nice try, Anthony,’ she said. ‘Something’s wrong. It’s there in your voice. Let’s hear it.’
It took a few moments for him to answer.
‘There’s this girl at school. I think she knows who I am.’ Something akin to panic washed over his mum’s features.
‘How? How is that possible?’
He was aware of the lorries rumbling down the road under the window, the roar of tyres. The panes shuddered slightly.
‘She kept staring at me.’
His mum relaxed a little, recovering her composure.
‘People stare for all kinds of reasons. It doesn’t mean she knows.’ Anthony refused to be shifted from his conviction.
‘She does. I’m sure of it. You should have seen the way she looked at me.’
‘Anthony, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. You’re paranoid.’
She left him alone with his thoughts. He could hear her in the kitchen, rinsing out the cloth, washing her hands, making a start on his tea.
‘Sausage and beans?’
His reply was unenthusiastic. It had nothing to do with the food. He was still thinking about his first day at Shackleton Brow High School. He had been hoping for a new start. Was that too much to ask?
Leaning back on the sofa, he let his eyes close. He was back in Cartmel Park amid
the brooding trees. Several pairs of scuffed trainers crunched on the winding paths. There was a spray-canned stone arch, a fenced-off boating lake where they used to have pedalos and rowing boats, a boarded-up café and somewhere, in the hot, scented, summer’s night a couple was approaching, a tall, rangy twenty-two- year-old man and his girlfriend two years younger. She was beautiful and quiet. She was the girl who died.
Oli was already in when Jess walked through the door. He always beat her home these days. He loved his scooter. It was only 100cc, but it gave him the freedom
he craved. His parents wondered whether they had done the right thing buying it for him. Oli didn’t only use it to commute to school. He would zip off in the evenings for hours on end without giving any clue where he was going.
‘You the only one in?’
Oli dangled a leg over the arm of the chair and yawned.
‘Dad won’t be in until after seven. He’s driving from Leicester.’
Oli shoved her on the hip with his stockinged foot.
‘Giving Nan moral support at the hospital. She told you this morning, oh bear of little brain.’
‘The detached retina. I forgot. Any news?’
‘Mum texted. She’s got to have an operation.’
Oli scrambled to his feet.
‘I think it’s pretty routine. There’s nothing to worry about. They do it while you’re still awake.’
‘Gross! I can’t stand anything to do with eyes.’
‘Come and see what I’ve done for tea.’ He laughed. ‘Sheep’s eye risotto.’
Jess kicked her shoes into a corner and padded after him. A rich, spicy-sweet aroma filled the house.
‘What is it?’
‘Oli Hampshire’s Chicken and Chorizo Hotpot.’
Jess knew it was somebody else’s recipe. Oli would memorise the page of the cookbook, hide it then prepare his food with gusto, pretending he had invented every step himself. He slipped his hands into the oven gloves, thumped the heavy casserole dish onto the hob and lifted the lid. He dipped a wooden spoon into the dish and offered it to her.
‘Mm. That’s . . . gorgeous.’
And it was, eye-flicker delicious. Oli chuckled.
He took two plates from the cupboard. ‘Mum said we should eat. She might stay with Nan for a bit.’
Jess watched him ladling out the hotpot. She cut some bread and opened the fridge.
‘Only that fancy marge.’
‘Oh, we’re not going healthy again!’
Jess was about to reply when her phone went. It was Eve. Oli could only hear one side of the conversation.
‘Don’t be silly, Eve. No, I don’t think you’ve been acting weird.’
She glanced at Oli. He was pulling faces. She pulled faces back.
‘Honestly, I hardly noticed. No, of course I’m not angry with you. Yes, see you tomorrow. Bye.’
She hung up.
‘What’s with Eve?’ Oli asked.
‘She’s acting weird.’ He laughed.
‘You just said . . . !’
‘I lied. You can’t tell your best friend she’s acting weird, even when she is.’
‘I always thought Eve was a nice kid, really level-headed.’
That made Jess smile. Kid! Oli wasn’t much older than she was.
‘She is. It’s got something to do with Anthony, I know it.’ Oli questioned her with a look then a one-word question.
‘He’s new. He only started today.’
‘So what’s Eve got against him? Antennae? Webbed feet and a frog’s head? Oh my
God, don’t tell me, he’s . . . a Southerner?’
‘I only wish I knew.’
She gave it some thought. Why was Eve so touchy? She mulled it over for a while, but was none the wiser. Eve had always been quite shy with boys, but she had never been like this. It was as if she knew something about Anthony, but how could she? Neither of them had set eyes on him before that day.
‘You don’t think she’s jealous, do you? I’ve talked to him a couple of times. Do you
think that’s it?’
Oli pushed back his chair and considered her for a moment.
‘I’m afraid I left my mind-reading kit in my room, but it doesn’t sound like Eve. She’s a generous spirit, especially where you’re concerned. She’ll tell you when she’s good and ready.’
Jess smiled. Oli always seemed older than he was. He was the wisest person she knew, and that included her mother. He cleared his throat.
‘I’ve got some news,’ he said. ‘I’m going to tell them.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Sure as I can be.’
Jess’s face was a study of conflicting emotions.
‘Are you going to do it tonight?’
‘No, over the weekend. There will be more time to talk.’
His words had an immediate impact. Jess laid her palms on the table, fingers spread, and blew out her cheeks.
‘There are going to be fireworks. They make out they’re pretty liberal and all, but something like this. Who knows?’
‘They’ve got to know sometime. It’s better this year, when I’m in Year 12, than next when I’m in the middle of my A levels. You know Mum and Dad. They’re bound to freak.’
‘Don’t you think you’re being unfair?’
‘You were the one who said there would be fireworks.’
She moved round the table, dropped her arms over his shoulders and leaned her forehead on the back of his head.
‘I love you, Oli.’ He laughed.
‘Back at you.’
‘No, I mean it, you idiot.’
He managed serious for at least a minute.
‘Don’t go sentimental on me, Jess. I’m going to need your support.’
‘You’ve got it always. You know that.’ He squeezed her hands.
‘Yes, I know.’
The house was empty when I got home. Six months on, I still hadn’t got used to the silence. Once it was full of questions and answers, squabbles, jokes, stories, laughter, all the things that go on in a family home. There were squeals of frustration when a shoe went missing, frantic searches for car keys when somebody was late for work, the tossing of cushions when the remote was nowhere to be found. Such a short time ago there had been four people in this house. Now there were two. Somehow four divided by two wasn’t two. It was nothing.
I tugged the key from the lock, pulled out my phone and texted Mum. A message pinged back instantly. She was picking up some shopping. She wouldn’t be long. I pocketed the phone and stood for a moment at the bottom of the stairs, gazing at Rosie’s portrait. It was Paul who’d painted the block print. It faced you as you entered the house, examined you as you climbed the stairs. I contemplated the impish grin, the small, bright features, the nose stud, the frame of lovingly braided hair. I saw the image every morning as I left the house, every afternoon as I returned. It was the first thing the house told you when you entered. Rosie used to live here. Once, not so very long ago, it rang to the beat of her rhythms, hummed with her earnestness and humour, but not any more. She would never rush out to college. She would never call out that she was home. The portrait told anyone who cared to know that her presence had illuminated this place, but her laughter would never be heard here again. She was gone and we who remained felt her absence like a gnawing pain.
I climbed the stairs, dropping my eyes as I passed Rosie’s picture. I crossed the
carpeted floor and sat on the window seat opposite the door. It was one of the features that had persuaded my parents to buy the stone cottage overlooking the
moors. All the bedrooms had broad, wooden window seats. Mum in particular loved the idea of gazing out at the changing seasons on the unspoiled hills. She had grown up in a terrace where the only views had been of a tiny yard and a neighbour’s wall. The views answered a lifelong yearning. If you strained your eyes you might make out the white blades of a distant wind turbine. Otherwise the landscape was much as it had been for centuries. The door went.
‘Hi, Mum. You OK?’
She set the shopping down on the floor. Our cats, Jem and Scout, scurried over to investigate, rubbed legs, mewed a greeting and vanished.
‘I’m fine. How was school?’
She sensed the hesitation as I jogged downstairs and followed her into the kitchen.
‘Eve? Something wrong?’
‘No, of course not.’
I grabbed a couple of bags and started putting things away. I could feel Mum’s eyes on my back. She wasn’t stupid. She knew that haste meant anxiety, but she didn’t press me. She knew I would open up in my own good time. That’s how it was with us. With Rosie and Dad gone, we had had to create a whole new set of rules. Slowly, tentatively, we were learning to live differently.
As we unpacked, Mum put a few things to one side: a packet of chicken, garlic, a
tin of plum tomatoes, some dried oregano, a packet of fusilli, some chicken stock. She didn’t have to say what we were having. We had seven or eight regular meals. I got a couple of bay leaves out of the cupboard, which earned a smile.
Mum cut the chicken with a pair of bright turquoise scissors, trimming the white fat. I peeled the garlic and sliced it finely.
Soon the pasta was boiling, steam rising into the hood above the cooker. The garlic sweated in olive oil. Finally, Mum added music to the mix. It was the White Stripes. Fell in Love with a Girl. I watched the sauce simmering away and felt a pang. Everybody used to fall in love with Rosie. Then somebody decided to hate her. I stopped, planted my hands on the counter and took a deep breath. It was time to talk.
‘There’s a new boy in school. I think he is on the list.’
Mum stopped stirring, stiffened and turned in my direction.
‘Say that again.’
‘There was a new boy this morning. His name is Anthony Broad.’
There was no need to check his name. She knew every detail of the case inside out. She did it anyway. She went into the small, adjoining room she used as an office. She dropped into her chair and moved the mouse round the pad to wake the computer. She clicked on mail and scrolled through her messages. When she found what she was looking for, she leaned forward. She had received a stream of these emails last August and September, straight after the attack. They’d been sent anonymously from people appalled by what had happened. Most of them fingered the same five boys and a few others who hadn’t taken part, but had done nothing to stop them. Mum scanned the list of names. First the attackers. Then she started on the list of onlookers.
‘He’s there. Anthony Broad.’
Tears spilled down my face.
‘I knew it.’
stood and watched while they beat Rosie and Paul to the ground. He’d done nothing to help them. He was one of the ones who’d watched.
The night Rosie died.