Toby could… and Toby would. ‘Enjoy yourself as you rot, old man. And you’re not my dad – you never were.’ Southern England, September 1957. When thirteen-year-old Toby Mitcher’s mum collapses, never to wake up, Toby’s alcoholic stepfather becomes his legal guardian. He thought life couldn’t get much worse, but was he wrong. Time passes, and an orderly direction comes into his life. That is until problems start and the disappearances begin. No more being put upon or allowing bad situations to happen. From now on, Toby is in control. Or is he?
The summer holidays were over for what good they had been, and Toby had hated every minute. The last six weeks had left his body with multiple bruises from where his stepfather had struck him. Whenever a task had not been completed the way his stepfather had wanted it, which was more often than not, Toby had born the results of his brutality. His stepfather’s belt stinging him, his fists pummelling his body, and all because he was told he was useless at everything he did. It had been six weeks of hell, and he realised it would never end.
Living on the outskirts of the village of Collinston, a few miles from Portsmouth in Hampshire, Toby felt older than his thirteen years and wished school was over and done with.
Pulling on a colour-faded shirt, Toby winced at the bruise under his armpit. It was changing to a blackish-purple in colour, besides another on his upper arm and cursed his stepfather for the umpteenth time. Stood there in his ill-fitting clothes, Toby wondered what the rest of 1957 had in store for him.
Slouching to the open sash window, Toby looked out over the tree-lined fields leading towards the village of Collinston. Wearily, he looked down at his old bike still in bits leaning haphazardly against the collapsing garden shed, rusting away like most things around the place. Everything in the house was either damaged or broken and needed renewing. Even his bed had a broken leg that was now wedged with different blocks of wood. His stepfather had told him to fix it, but he thought sod it – why should he? He loathed this suffocating life but, as always, it was his stepfather that was causing him all his problems.
Slipping his finger down the dirty windowpane, Toby let his imagination wander before being distracted by his mum as she moved towards the clothesline at the back of the house, struggling with a basket full of wet washing. Suddenly, she looked up and waved, beckoning him to come down. Pushing away from the window, he sat heavily on his bed, wishing he’d stayed there, and realised another chore was coming his way.
Retrieving his socks and plimsolls from under the bed, Toby pulled them on and resentfully left the room. On the landing, he listened to his stepfather curse as a glass smashed and stood still a moment, before making his way steadily and silently downstairs. Stopping just before he got to the bottom two steps, Toby hesitated before carrying on, when his stepfather’s aggressive voice bellowed.
‘That you, Toby?’
Toby wondered if he was coming out to bawl at him as he usually did, and listened to his stepfather curse again as he rattled through some more glasses in the sideboard. The kitchen clock on the wall showed ten past nine. Christ, he’s started early he thought as he carried on warily, ignoring another bellowing call. Pulling open the back door, Toby moved out of the house, making his way along the path, wondering what his mum wanted. Turning the corner, he was greeted by his mother kneeling on the ground with wet washing all around her, clutching at her chest, gasping for breath.
‘Get William – hurry, Toby.’ Her eyes reflected the fear her body felt.
The door banged open against the water-filled sink as Toby ran into the kitchen, heading towards the living room and slammed into his demanding stepfather.
Bang! His stepfather’s calloused hand caught him powerfully across the side of his head, throwing him violently against the tiled fireplace. Toby wiped a trickle of blood from his mouth and tried to speak through a split lip as his stepfather’s legs settled around him.
‘It’s mum; she’s in the garden, she—’
A brutal hand grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, bringing him face to face with bad breath and a scowling intoxicated figure.
‘The next time I speak to you, you answer me. You hear me, boy?’ He shook Toby, throwing him back across the floor. ‘I’ve had enough of your moody ways of late.’
Climbing to his knees, Toby spoke again, ‘It’s Mum, she’s—’
Another clout caught him, landing on the other side of his face as he tried to clear the pain throbbing through his head. This time, Toby shouted at his stepfather as he attempted to make himself heard. ‘Mum’s collapsed in the garden!’
Slowly the stockily built figure took in what was being said. Kicking Toby to the floor, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and headed out of the room, taking his drink with him.
Toby stood up and held onto his face as tears welled, and wiped the blood seeping from his lip as his stepfather ambled unsteadily through the kitchen and out of the house.
Toby spoke as soon as he left. ‘You bastard!’ He never understood why his mum married him, he had told her he was a drunkard, but she insisted he loved her and that they needed a man around the place. And that’s when everything had begun to go wrong in their lives.
Within a few moments, Toby’s stepfather came in and shouted at him from the kitchen.
‘Boy, get out here. Now!’
Holding his face, Toby walked into the kitchen and watched his usually harsh, ill-tempered stepfather wipe perspiration away from his reddened face with the loose material of his vest. He was agitated and shaken.