It was the late 1970s, specifically winter. Back then we had proper winters, where your single glazed windows were prettily decorated with hoarfrost in a morning, and the very thought of going out without Weetabix with warmed milk was, frankly, unthinkable. Snow was almost always in attendance, and if it wasn’t you could guarantee it would still be pretty icy and fun out there. If you were nine, that is.
My school was just a short half mile walk from my house, and essentially a straight line. The only disadvantage from the safety point of view none of us ever considered back then was that much of the half mile was a main road through town, much of it a forty mile-per-hour speed limit until you neared our imposing Victorian school on the other side. But once you got there, you knew you were safe. Because that’s where the Lollipop Man ruled the world.
I remember my first day at that school. I’d only just moved to the area on Bonfire Night, with absolutely no time to make friends: a short and skinny nine year old with parents who thought that a briefcase donated by my retired grandfather would create the right impression on my first day. It did not create the impression they might have imagined.
“Whatcha got that for?” a kid I guessed to be one of the older ones had asked me, his expression one of scorn, accompanied by a chorus of giggles from the other kids he was with.
“Uh, I dunno,” I admitted in all honesty. “My grampa gave it me.”
“Oooh, ‘grampa’!” a burly looking kid with deep-set eyes chirped. “Don’t you mean Granddad”, New Kid?”
I’d been identified already. I was still five minutes from my new school, and already I was New Kid. Not for the first time, with a father with a borderline itinerant attitude to work, I had found myself on the receiving end of the immediate pre-bullying ethic of a group of established local kids. Not an easy situation to have had to handle since the age of five. This was already my fourth school, and it was so hard not to feel lonely as a consequence.
I chanced my arm and looked at the kid who had spoken first. “My name’s Mike Jones, and my parents think a briefcase makes me look smart.”
To my regret, they all laughed. To my relief, they hadn’t encircled me to a standstill, as had happened once before. We walked on, with the two kids who had spoken in front of me, looking back, giving me that calculated, inquisitive examination that only the young can truly manage. Behind me I sensed soon there would be a shove, and a shove on command from in front.
“Well, Mike-Jones-Skin-and-Bones, it makes you look like a fart, not smart.” The bigger boy gave a barely perceptible nod as the raucous laughter ensued. I was ready. I quickly knelt as though I needed to tie a shoelace.
A kid about my size flew over the top of me, arms that had been extended to push flailing, kneeing me in the back but toppling face first onto the packed icy snow of the pavement.
The laughter surprised me. I stood up expressing my completely sincere apologies to the kid who was now actually crying, in pain and embarrassment. I’d put down my briefcase though…
One kick, and it was into the road.
I was about to launch myself at the kid with deep-set eyes, the memory of what happened the last time I lost my temper and did this to a bigger kid fresh in my mind, and etched as a slim scar on my brow-line. I didn’t need the launch though. The traffic had stopped.
“What’s going on here, now then?”
I looked up. The man was huge. And very old. He was a lollipop man, but not like any I’d seen at other schools I’d been to. He loomed over us, the big brightly coloured school crossing sign extended into the road with a single hand like some kind of battleaxe. His yellow coat seemed to be stretched over his massive belly, chest and arms, but it was his face that was most remarkable. I’d initially identified him as a pair of nostrils with a cap peak above them, but as he leant over us I was met with a face so round and ruddy that he may have been Santa Claus’s shaven identical twin brother. I’d never seen a man look so jolly in a situation as one other adults would have identified as “a bunch of naughty kids”. But his voice was not jolly. It had the timbre and tone of a Sergeant-Major you’d find tearing a strip off new recruits in a war film.
We all just stopped. I don’t even remember him scooping the hated briefcase to the kerb and to my feet, but there it was. Every kid there; myself, my attempted bullies, the other kids from our direction, and kids from the other direction just stood in silence as his voice boomed the enquiry.
“Nothing.” The voice was the older kid who had initially taunted me. His pose was defiant, but his voice had an uncertain edge.
“Well, Jonathan Roberts, it doesn’t look much like nothing to me. And you’re keeping all these people on their way to work waiting.”
I looked to the road. He was, technically, right. The massive arm had extended back into the path of the traffic, and a growing queue of traffic sat there with expressions ranging from quizzical, through frustrated, to annoyed. No one seemed angry at the delay.
“Sorry.” Said Jonathan Roberts, his eyes on his shoes as the boy who’d tripped over me sniffled into silence. “It won’t happen again.”
The sign rose like a level crossing barrier, and the cars moved on. We, a group of maybe twenty kids, just stood in silence. Not one kid looked at another. After what seemed like minutes, the Lollipop Man lifted his sign, and traffic eased to a halt on the slushy road surface once again. On his command, the crossing began. Not for me, though. A large hand laid heavy on my shoulder.
“You’re new, boy.” He said, with no hint of a question. “Don’t you be minding those Roberts boys. There’s not a child in this school they haven’t tried to start a fight with. What you did there was silly, and it will probably cost you a black eye in the playground.”
I felt a frog in my throat at that observation. I fought back the urge to cry, trying to find something to say. The loneliness I had felt when last I’d been in this situation with no ally, on new turf, washed over me.
“Fisherman’s Friend?” A small light brown bag of the horribly medicinal menthol sweet was thrust in front of me as another group of kids gathered and we prepared to cross. It didn’t even occur to me that The Brothers Roberts weren’t hanging around on the other side of the road. I refused the offer of the potent herbal sweet with a vigorous shake of the head and a muffled “No thank you.”
I never did get the black eye that day. It turned out Jonathan Roberts was two years older than me, that the boy with deep-set eyes was his best friend (and oldest kid in my year) Mark Powell, and that the boy who had fallen over me was Jonathan’s brother, Jason. I also learnt that the Roberts brothers had been a feature of the school for the last five years, and would be for another three at least, due to there being a total of seven brothers of this generation.
However, I was clearly marked by what I learned was the Manor Farm Gang. I didn’t even know what Manor Farm was. I presumed some council estate, but after getting the chance to talk to a kid I found was also a recent addition to the school (although the year above me) I discovered Manor Farm was indeed a farm, and that the Roberts clan owned and worked it. They presented the image of an impoverished, gypsy-like existence, while the mother and father drove around in a brand new Range Rover and a vintage Jag, respectively.
I also discovered that, for some unnamed reason, turning down a Fisherman’s Friend from the Lollipop man was considered to be something of a faux pas if you were new to the school. I couldn’t understand it. If you’ve never tried one, they’ve got eucalyptus and some sort of hot pepper extract in them. As a five year old I’d been given one as a joke by an elderly uncle, and ended up in tears at just how horrible the flavour was. However, a couple of years later my Dad had reintroduced them to me as a method of clearing out your sinuses when you’ve got a cold, and it’s a remedy I use to this day.
I set off for school earlier the next day, having spent the previous afternoon begging and pleading with my Dad not to make me go to school with the horrible black briefcase. In fact, I said I’d not even mind if it was okay to just take my old, torn and battered plastic rucksack I’d had when I first started school. I would rather have endured the mockery of owning a scruff’s bag than a posh kid’s bag.
The early start paid off, particularly as it was snowing quite hard. I had my scarf pulled up over my nose, my parka hood as a full snorkel so that the absolute minimum of me was exposed to the world, and the Roberts’.
Of course, I didn’t think back then that what identified me most easily was the briefcase. It identified me to the Lollipop Man immediately.
“Hello, young man,” he said in that same booming voice he’d spoken with the day before. “Out early to avoid Jonathan and his cronies, are we?”
I wondered if it was that obvious. Meekly, I mumbled in the affirmative.
“Look up at me, I can’t see yer face in that cave of a coat,” he said quite sternly, and I did so. He popped the sweet straight in, and I accepted it without hesitation. “Don’t you be be worrying about them, they’ll not trouble you after today.”
A minute later my eyes streamed, but I’d done what the lore said I should do, so I felt quite reassured. And I never saw a Roberts anywhere near me that whole day until afternoon playtime when Jonathan pushed me to the ground, his gang kicked snow all over me, and they used my briefcase as a sort of sledge until one of the teachers saw them and they were forced to give it back to me.
I’d thought it to be some proper grown-up leather product, but the damage it sustained on the ice encrusted rough tarmac playground revealed it to be cheap plastic which tore and punctured easily, and the handle had not survived being used as a grip for sledging purposes. I had to carry it home like I was carrying a box. After what the Lollipop man had said about the Roberts’ leaving me alone I didn’t even look at him when I crossed over, despite him asking me what had happened to it. He was a trustable grown-up, and he had lied to me, and been wrong about the Manor Farm Gang.
It was all around school the next morning: five of the Roberts brothers, their parents, and their grandmother died in the fire that tore through Manor Farm in the small hours of that morning. By the time we went into assembly, the rumour mill was thick with horror stories and childish guesswork. We were all hushed so we would know what the grown-ups (who of course knew everything) were going to tell us was undeniable and completely informative fact. Whatever you thought of the Roberts family, no one liked the idea of being killed in a massive house fire.
We didn’t get told anything. I remember “terrible accident” being used, and “thoughts go out to the extended family and friends” and that was about it. I even remember looking around to see if Mark Powell was there. If I’m honest, at that very moment in time I hoped he wasn’t, that he may have been killed in the fire himself. That my new tormentors had all gone away in one quick, burning, horrific moment in time appealed to me. It was only years later, when Mark was a genuine yet quiet friend of mine, that I realised how horrible a thought this to be.
What did stick with me that day was the matter of the Lollipop Man. I had nearly wet myself when I first thought about what had happened, during a playground conversation that had been overheard and censored by a dinner lady. I had been sitting with Older New Kid (I really can’t remember his name) and a couple of people from my class, when I suddenly recalled how annoyed I was with the Lollipop Man the day before. He had told me…
“They’ll not trouble you after today.”
I had been so cross. They had troubled me that day. Troubled me to the point where I had been pushed to the ground and soaked, then humiliated in front of every other kid in the school, and then severely reprimanded by my father for “letting this happen and not standing up for myself”. I had laid the blame at the Lollipop Man’s door, for being just another adult who lied to me. Just another adult who had said things would be fine, but had added to the loneliness.
Yet he hadn’t.
“They’ll not trouble you after today.”
The thought struck me that he knew that horrible family would trouble us no longer. Not just me. It had become clear over the little time I had been at the school that Roberts was a local name that stood for trouble, and a gangland style beacon of undeserved respect and unrepentant malice.
Was it possible our jolly Lollipop Man had torched Manor Farm?
What made it worse was he wasn’t there on the way to, or the way home from school. In fact we didn’t see him until we went back to school after Christmas, and that was just him walking along the main shopping street. To all intents and purposes it may as well have been a totally different man.
I remember I made eye contact with him. I immediately felt his look said only one thing: “They died because of what they did to you.” I had never been so frightened in my life.
Who could I tell? I knew. I couldn’t tell.
School was weird after that. As kids, we dealt with what happened in the way you would imagine. There was the morbid humour, the broad recollections of friendship and remembered bullying and unsubtle peril. There was the sadness and reflected friendship and joviality. There was the newly instated Roberts Cup, in memory of the boys who had died, given to the house that had shown the most improvement in the last school year. There was the lack of the Lollipop Man, whose retirement was announced in March, as I turned ten.
In the Easter break of that year, playing up at Jack Renshaw’s house, I found out where the Lollipop man lived, quite by chance. Jack lived in a terrace house just off the town centre where traffic was a nightmare and the Pelican crossing was essential. I’d been stood with Jack and his mum, waiting to cross, when a movement in one of the houses had caught my eye.
There was no doubt about it, the man standing up to turn the telly over in the dimly lit front room was our Lollipop man. I watched as he hauled his large frame up out of the armchair, looked out of the window with barely a glance, and pressed the button to put something else on. The big red face was the same; there seemed to be less of the actual man.
A few times I walked past after that, always looking in, always knowing what he had done. He would be just sat there, his face blank. Each time I walked past there seemed to be less of him, and each time I was sure I knew why. He knew. He knew what he had done. Not one time I walked past did he look out at me, and I knew it was because of what he had done, and presumably he had done it because of me, and kids like me: kids who had endured the cruelty of the Roberts family.
I was unsurprised when Spring rolled around and my Mum announced that Dad had landed a new job, and we would be moving to the south coast. It seemed perfect timing. Well, typical timing. I had settled in. Jack was my best friend. I counted Mark Powell as a friend, and there were a good five or six other boys who had either been to tea at mine, or I’d been to theirs. I was in cub scouts. I played for the school footy team for our year.
We were leaving, and in my ten-year-old mind there was one last thing I had to do before we left. The day before the removals lorry turned up on our drive, I took a can of red spray-paint from the shed that had been there before we moved in, and told my folks I was walking up to Jack’s to say goodbye. It was only a 10-minute walk, and even though it was dusk my parents were too preoccupied with packing to worry about me in a small quiet town where nothing ever happened.
I sprayed MURDRER on the Lollipop Man’s alleyway wall. In big, bold capitals. It didn’t matter to me, or occur to me, that the spelling was wrong, or that the man may not use that alleyway between the rows of terraces. I just knew it would be there, and if he became aware of it I would know he would know someone knew what he had done.
Two days later I was on the south coast, feeling vindicated, with a Six-Million Dollar Man bag to start my new school, and the cold sadness of not being with the few friends I’d just made the only thing that played on my mind as I hit a new playground running, making friends immediately with a good bunch of lads who found it much more entertaining to make it a hard life for a kid who’d just moved to the school who was in the year below me.
This became a theme of my life until I turned fourteen and my Mum left my Dad. I didn’t know what it was all about at the time, and felt curiously detached from the whole situation. My father had been, for the most part of my life, someone who was only really around when we were loading a van to move to a new place, or unpacking the furniture and so on, at the new place. The rest of the time he was just someone who occasionally appeared with rubbish presents from various parts of Britain and Europe.
To cut a long story short, I discovered what “settled” meant. We ended up moving to where Mum was from, near my maternal grandmother. At nineteen I was off to college…
…Where I met up, to my amazement, with Mark Powell. We were both doing the same computer science degree.
I grew up a fair bit the day I reacquainted myself with Mark. Despite not having seen each other for ten years, it seemed we hadn’t really grown apart in many subtle ways, defined by our generation. We both liked a beer, we both liked a toke, we both liked the rave scene, and we both remembered our brief time together at school relatively fondly. And we both remembered the Manor Farm fire, of course. But recalling that was the growing up part. I remember the conversation…
We were sat in the Uni bar, and we’d not really drunk much. Exclusively we’d been with people where smoking weed had been a factor, but we were both in that nice, warm, giggly state when we met up. We plonked ourselves down in a quiet corner and cheerfully filled in a decade gap. Until the fire came up. It was sombre, and I found it hard not to regress to my last day in the town.
“Whatever happened to the Lollipop Man?” I asked, hoping the question would come across as a typically marijuana-fuelled tenuous link.
Mark looked up from the ashtray he’d been gazing gloomily at.
“Their granddad? Oh man… He never got over it. It was horrible what happened there.”
My heart dropped like a stone into the bottomless pit of my stomach. All manner of insobriety dropped with it, and I just turned to Mark and sharply said “What?”
He didn’t look up from what little there was of his pint. He just took a drag on his cigarette, stubbed it out, breathed out and went on, in a dull monotone that seemed to me to be coming from a lifetime away.
“Yeah, he was their granddad. Their mum’s dad. It hit him really hard. I mean, it would, wouldn’t it? Losing your only daughter and so many grandkids just like that. I mean, I remember the rumours when we were kids, that he was somehow involved in it because he’d fallen out with their dad. And then there was the whole thing with him never going back to the school. You know what kids are like. Someone even wrote ‘murderer’ on the wall of his house. But all that did was make things worse. For all they were a bunch of little buggers, he loved them kids. It broke his heart losing them, and it killed him knowing people thought it was him what did it.”
I stared across the void of 20 feet of smoky bar-room. “It killed him?”
Automatically, Mark lit another cigarette and offered me one. I declined.
“Not literally, like. He just sort of, I dunno, faded away. He left what was wrote on his wall, and the council come cleaned it off. Eventually. But people knew. People knew what he done. Only he didn’t, like. It was the electrics. Old house. Loads of wood. The fire burned through before anyone could get out. But that’s small town thinking. Family feud, so someone must’ve started it. Shocking, really. He lived a couple years more. Think he died in his sleep. They say he died of a broken heart. Shocking.”
“Yes,” was all I could manage.
Small town thinking. It really was. Because that’s all a town had ever been to me. I’d never been in a position where the community around me had ever become something I could think of as large. I didn’t know what a large community entailed any more than I knew what it was like to be part of a large family, and certainly not one where there was a dispute that might involve people not talking to each other and the grandchildren being put in a position where they didn’t know where they stood, and so stood silently as their estranged grandfather admonished them for their treatment of a new kid at their school.
It was horrible how clear it became, as I sat there, more than ten years after the fact. It was horrible, knowing that I, a mere child in the community for barely more than six months, had reduced a towering, stocky, giant-voiced patriarch to little more than a husk with my badly spelt, poorly aimed solitary word. But it was so. Whatever the spark of the fire that actually took his family from him, I was the catalyst that truly made the man alone.
I will never forgive myself, for I know I have never been alone.