“Take your shoes off please, Peter, dear. We don’t want to tramp sand over Mrs. Johnson’s carpet, do we?”
Peter smiled and eased off his stained white trainers with the toes of his opposite feet, kicking them into a corner.
Mrs. Johnson bent down to retrieve them, recoiling slightly and holding them at arm’s length as she gingerly placed them onto a polished mahogany shoe rack. She stood up, brushing down her beige Aran-wool cardigan over her large, lumpy breasts. She spoke in a deep, throaty voice. “Do come through to the lounge. I’ve heard so much about you, Peter.”
“Oh, yeah, right, thanks.”
“My husband’s still at the church. He’ll be along presently. When he’s finished the service.”
We proceeded along a deep-carpeted corridor. Photographs of smiling family members hung on the walls and a tall grandfather clock ticked ponderously, attempting to keep the silence at bay.
Peter sat on a red-leather sofa with his back to a bay window, overlooking a neat garden which receded into the distance. He wore blue jeans; a black leather jacket and his long hair was washed and in a neat pony tail. “This room’s very nice Mrs. Johnson.”
“Oh, thank you, yes, there are many family heirlooms, as you can see. She gestured around at glass cabinets. All under lock and key!” She blushed furiously. “Oh, er, I mean ….”
“Of course, Mrs. Johnson.” Peter gave a charming smile. “You can’t be too careful around here.”
I’d met Peter at the drug rehabilitation clinic where I work. People imagined living by the coast in a quiet seaside town to be idyllic, but the reality was rather different. Little work, a lot of young and not-so-young people with nothing to do, save drink, take drugs, and steal things to buy them.
They’d found Peter at the bottom of a fifteen-foot dyke one night, out of his head on alcohol and heroin. Quite by chance, a dog walker wandering late at night had heard muffled shouts and investigated. Someone had been lowered on a rope and hauled Peter out, dazed and unaware of what was happening, cursing and shouting abuse at his rescuer. The nights were cold and he’d only been wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He could easily have died from hypothermia.
So, he’d come to us for methadone treatment and gradually turned his life around. He’d cut down on alcohol, quit living on the beach in a ramshackle caravan and been given a council mobile-home. He’d even got a job at the small resort down the coast, taking fares for the rides at the fairground there. Chatting to customers gave meaning to his life, he would say, and “I don’t want no stuffy office job!”
Now the vicar had asked Peter to consider giving a talk to young people about the dangers of drugs. It had to be said that they didn’t seem like addicts in the making, but around here, you just couldn’t tell. Peter, himself, had once been an angelic choirboy by all accounts.
“Would you like some tea, Peter, dear?” asked Mrs. Johnson.
“Yeah, thanks, that’d be nice. D’you want a hand?” He made to get up.
“No, no, that’s fine. Just stay here with Mildred, I won’t be two ticks.” She disappeared down the corridor.
After she’d gone Peter got up and walked over to a glass case housing porcelain figurines, peering into it through small leaded panes. I knew at least two of them were from the reign of George the Third and the collection had been willed down to Sue in the testaments of her forebears.
He turned towards me. “So, any idea how many kids I’ll be talking to?”
“Oh, I think it’s mainly the older children from local churches, maybe fifty to a hundred. Are you nervous?” I laughed.
His face took on a serious demeanour. “No. I just want to get the message across. I don’t want to see any of ‘em wasting twenty years of their lives on junk, like I did.”
I glowed with pride. My faith in him had proved justified.
“Could I use the loo, Mildred?”
“Yes, of course, go down the corridor, it’s the door next to the clock.”
He left and I followed shortly, joining Mrs. Johnson – Sue – in the kitchen. She was bustling around, preparing ham and tomato sandwiches, and putting dainty fairy cakes on a cake stand. A large brown earthenware teapot stood on a wooden tray, exuding warmth and the fragrant smell of tea. We chatted about the forthcoming jumble sale. Just then Sue’s husband, the vicar, appeared at the kitchen door. “Hello, darling.” He kissed Sue’s cheek. “Hello, Mildred, lovely to see you. Is … he here?”
“Yes, he’s waiting in the lounge. He seems a nice young man,” said Sue.
He sounded worried. “Look, has some fellow just been here, trying to sell something?”
“What? What on Earth makes you say that?”
“Well, I almost bumped into a man carrying a suitcase just now, it looked like he’d come out of our drive, I wasn’t sure. He went the other way, towards the main road.”
“What did he look like?” she asked.
“Oh, about thirty-five, jeans, black leather jacket, I think he had a what d’you call them … a pony tail.”
My heart sank to my knees. I felt a pain in my gut, I couldn’t breathe. Like the time my ten-year-old brother had punched me in the solar plexus at the age of eight ‘for practice.’ I’d gone down like a ninepin, wheezing and gasping in agony for breath. Mind you, dad had strapped his backside until it was red and raw. He could scarcely sit down for a week. Happy days!
“There was a suitcase in the lounge, woollens and shoes for the jumble sale,” exclaimed Sue.
We raced down the corridor to the lounge. The cabinet that had held the porcelain figurines was empty. The wooden doors hung open, splintered where they’d been jimmied.
I knew those pieces were of great sentimental value as well as being worth thousands. With tears of shame flooding my eyes, I realised that Peter had taken us all for a ride. He wouldn’t be taking any more fares at the fairground, that was for sure.
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