This story is paired with my story "The Climbing Tree!" For the greater part of the text they are the same story, however the two tales have different outcomes. For the convenience of the reader I have marked clearly the divergence point, where the individual stories go their separate ways. If the reader has recently read "The Climbing Tree!" then they may prefer to scroll to down to it and only read the latter part of the text.
My sincere thanks go to Grisbuff and Davnel for their assistance in preparing these two little yarns for posting. It is not a particularly simple task for native speakers of American English to cope with my strictly colloquial British interpretation of the language.
Some clarifications that might assist the reader:
-Trick-cyclist; a psychiatrist.
Oppo; (plural oppos) a colleague or friend.
The Kray twins (Ronnie and Reggie (RIP)) were the foremost perpetrators of organised crime in London's East End during the 1950s and 60s.
Costa del Crime; an area of southern Spain where some British criminals are reputed to run-off to, when things get a little "too hot" for them in the UK
Along with Sally and maybe a couple of hundred other people, I stood the instant the first bars of the wedding march thundered out of the church's organ. For reasons of my own, I tried not to, but I could not stop myself turning my head and trying to snatch my first glimpse of the bride as she paraded down the aisle on her stepfather's arm.
Actually that's not exactly true, it's a misnomer; I wonder just why people say aisle? In fact Alice had been escorted by her stepfather down the nave of the church, as most other brides are.
Whatever, I did kind-of get a glimpse or two of her between the other guests' heads. Not that I could make out Alice's face, because it was shrouded by the traditional veil. But I did note that Alice's head nodded just slightly a few times; evidently as she acknowledged several different people in the congregation. But I somehow doubted that any of those little nods were directed at me.
Being that we were somewhere near the back of the church, in a matter of seconds Alice's entourage had passed. I kind-a wondered who had organized the seating plan in the church. At first it struck me as a little odd that Alice would have her old friend Sally sitting so near the back. But on second thought if Alice had been aware in advance that I was going to be accompanying Sally ... Well that would have kind-a made sense, in a way. Thoughts briefly passed through my mind about what the seating plan at the reception was going to look like ... And I also began to wonder if my presence would bring any unfortunate repercussions to the receiving line at that venue.
While these thoughts were passing through my head I was watching from behind as Alice's stepfather led her down the nave and handed her over to the beaming Roger Vine, awaiting her before the alter.
Then there was the usual short hiatus in the proceedings during which the vicar and those who are to actually participate in the service exchanged a few hushed words. That was the instant that I realized that it really had not been a good idea for me to come that day, and that I really should not have agreed to accompany Sally. But for some reason I wasn't blaming Sally; I found myself cursing the invention of the telephone.
It had started at some unearthly hour the previous Sunday morning. I was comfortably tucked up in bed when the damned telephone's insistent ringing roused me...
Forcing myself to half-consciousness, I struggled to focus on my bedside alarm and saw that it was three o'clock in the morning.
Scrabbling around I grabbed the ruddy phone and with more than a little difficulty located the answer button; then -- after pushing the thing -- I demanded, "Yes!" into the mouthpiece.
"Hi handsome, did I wake you? Sorry, please don't sound grumpy at me?"
Very suddenly I was wide-awake, very wide-awake. The voice was that of Sally Parsons, a long time friend whom had, not a year before, lost her young husband (and my good friend) while he was on active service for HMG. He was one of the many who ... well where and why he died is really of little importance here. What is important is the fact that following his demise I'd promised Sally that I'd "be there" for her, wherever and whenever she needed me.
"What's up kiddo, are you alright?" I asked as gently as I could manage.
"Yeah, sorry Jeff, I'm fine. Just a little tipsy that's all."
"You're not drunk are you Sally? Where are you?"
"No Jeff, just a little tipsy. Alice had her Hen Night this evening, and I went along..."
"Sally, I thought we'd agreed that you were going to give Alice's nuptials a miss!"
"We did Jeff ... but..."
"But what, Sally?"
"Alice ... well she's my friend ... and your friend too..."
"At one time, Sally; when we were kids. But Alice is a big girl now, and she forgot all about you and me a very long time ago. Anyway, we discussed this the other week, and we both agreed that you attending her wedding, wasn't a good idea under the circumstances. Christ Sally, even your mum agreed with me on that one, and that's a first ... one for the record books!"
"But Alice asked me to go along this evening ... and I just couldn't find it in my heart to refuse. You know that we were best mates when we were at school together. How could I refuse to go with her on her Hen Night? It was good fun actually, I didn't find it upsetting at all."
"Well, providing that it's only her Hen Night, Sally."
Ah well ... you see, Jeff ... Um, that's why I'm calling you so late really. We had a great time this evening and I ... er sort-of agreed to..."
"Jesus Sal, you haven't said you'd be her maid of honour, have you? I thought we'd agreed on that at least."
"No, no, Jeff I'm not that dumb. I really think standing that close to that alter would ... well, the memories..."
"Well that's alright then; but I still think you'd have been better served, not to go at all."
"I know, I know; you made that pretty plain the other week when you were up here. But Jeff, I need to ask a big favour of you..."
"My answer is no, Sally; before you even ask."
"Oh come on, please, Jeff, I need you there! And you did promise that you'd be here for me whenever I needed you. Well, I really do think I'm going to need you here next weekend."
"Sally, you know..."
"Yes, I know, Jeff, and I do understand. I know I'm asking a really big favour of you, but I need someone ... you, beside me at the ceremony next weekend."
"Dammit Sally, you're asking too much really! But I did promise you at Bill's graveside. So ... under protest and against my better judgement ... I'll be there. But you must realize that I have my own crosses to bear. I doubt that I'll be the happiest person in the world."
"Jeff Turner, you are the best friend a girl could have in the whole wide world, I could kiss you."
"Promises, promises, Sal. I'll call you when I get up to town on Friday evening, but God alone knows what time that will be. But hold on a minute, I haven't got an invite; you know that I'm the last person in the world that the George Arnold would invite to his stepdaughter's wedding."
"No worries there, Jeff. My invite says Sally Parsons and companion."
"A little ... careless of him, wasn't it?"
"Possibly, but his Royal Highness knows that you sold your parent's house and that you didn't come back here to live after Uni. I suspect he's forgotten you ever existed. There's no way that he or Alice's mother knows that you've been such a rock for me. Besides I should imagine that Alice sent the invites anyway. Call me when you get in on Friday evening, goodnight Jeff."
"Good morning more like, Sally. How much did you have to drink toni ... last night, anyway?
"We're still at it Jeff. Well, some of us are. Alice, kind-a keeled-over about an hour or so ago, so we dropped her off at the Vicarage. Then some of the girls came on over here and we're attacking my mum's cocktail cabinet, what there is left of it. Since then, I've been trying to work up the courage to call you."
"Sally, you know I think that you're are being very silly about this. And somewhat stubborn; but that's no surprise."
"Jeff, you know I think the poor girl was trying to drown her sorrows this evening."
"Alice of course: I'd have thought that was obvious."
"As obvious as it is that you've drunk far more this evening than you should have, young lady. Alice is getting married next weekend; I'll bet she's like a cat with two tails. And you are going to wake-up with one hell of a hangover tomorrow, by the sound of it."
"Not as bad as the one Alice is going to wake-up with, Jeff; of that I'm bloody sure. Anyway I'd better go. Night, night lover."
"In my dreams gorgeous; in my dreams!" I replied just before the line went dead.
A little background would probably help the reader at this point.
Sally was ... well, a year my junior, we'd grown up together; Sally had been my neighbour from across the street as far back as I could ever remember. As had her deceased husband Bill Parsons. But Bill didn't live across the street; he lived in the house next door to mine, on the north side of my parents place. Bill and I had been best buddies -- as some folks call it – since the year dot.
As we had all grown-up together, it had become patently obvious, remarkably early on, that Sally and Bill were one day going to end up man and wife. As they eventually did when Sally was only seventeen years old. Bill, like myself, was just one year older. They'd got married just a few months after Bill joined the army.
I had never been able to understand why; but Bill appeared only ever to have had two goals in his life. Firstly to marry Sally! And the secondly, to follow his father into the army. In his short life Bill did manage to achieve both those goals though.
But Bill -- I'm sure -- had always believed that he'd return wearing his gallantry medals; unlike his father, whose medals were displayed on a little shrine in the family home.
Alice came into the picture when Bill and I were about ten years old. His Royal Highness George Arnold had always lived at the vicarage, -- the house on the south side of my parents house – well, the Arnolds had lived there as long as I could remember anyway.
No, he wasn't a vicar; the gigantic Victorian pile had been sold-off by the church many years before, because the up-keep on the place was so expensive; or so I've been led to believe.
Somewhere along the line George Arnold and his first wife had bought it, and spent a load of dough on the place bringing it into the twentieth century.
The first Mrs Arnold -- unlike her husband – was a very nice person. I can just about recall her, along with Sally's, Bill's and my own mother, taking all of us tykes to the park together when we were small. She did have two children of her own, Reginald (who was roughly a year older than Bill and I) and Susan (who was our age). But for some reason those two never quite gelled (or fitted in well) with the likes of Bill, Sally and me, when we all played together. As tots we never realized it; but as we grew older we kind-a got the idea that the two Arnold children thought we were beneath them socially.
But then -- when Bill and I were about nine or ten years old -- the first Mrs. Arnold suddenly vanished into thin air, and a short while after Alice's mother replaced her in the Arnold household, bringing Alice and her younger sister Emma along with her.
Exactly what happened in that household back then, and why; has always been shrouded in mystery. Well, no one much talked about it while us kids were around it anyway. Not that us kids were even worried really, I don't think. People just appeared and disappeared as far as we were concerned back then.
Although we probably missed the ice-cream and sweets that the first Mrs. Arnold used to buy us all the time. Er, us kids had liked the First Mrs. Arnold, as you might guess.
But amongst the adults locally -- who only discussed such things when they thought that children weren't listening, couldn't hear them or wouldn't understand anyway – the consensus of opinion appeared to be, that the first Mrs. Arnold had discovered that said George Arnold had been making whoopee with his secretary. The inference being that certain locals at least, had been well aware of, or at least suspected, that the illicit liaison had been going on for sometime.
Those same rumours purported that at approximately the same time as the first Mrs. Arnold heard rumours of the affair, said secretary's husband also discovered that an illicit liaison had been taking place. Thinking about it now, one most probably led to the other, if you get my drift.
It was further rumoured that a certain trip aboard -- that one George Arnold had taken around that same time -- had in fact been a short stay in hospital while he recovered from a little contretemps he'd had with said secretary's husband.
Shortly after that, the first Mrs. Arnold vanished, and Alice and Emma's mother, moved into the vicarage, eventually to become The Second Mrs. Arnold. It was inferred or rumoured in certain circles, that Alice and Emma's mother had been the notorious secretary referred to earlier.
Yeah well, the adults were trying to ensure that us youngsters did not know the facts. But we youngsters kind-a put it all together between us, from little bits and pieces that each of us overheard at different times.
We also gathered that rumour claimed that in the ensuing court cases, George Arnold's somewhat excessive wealth (or ill-gotten gains as my mother always referred to them) had helped to ensure that he and Alice's mother had carried the day and they had been awarded custody of all of the children.
However that last bit of scandal mongering turned out to be wrong, at least in part.
As youngsters, we didn't understand anything about child custody battles, or the court cases that usually accompanied them. All we knew was that when parents did separate, the children usually lived with one or the other parent; most often -- in our experience -- the parent who did not leave the marital home in the first place. Who decreed which parent the children lived with, or why, we had no inkling; and as it didn't concern us directly, we probably didn't care.
Anyway Alice and Emily (almost universally known as Emma) turned out to be a whole different ballgame from Reggie and Susan Arnold; and their own mother, come to that!
Alice's mother proved to be more than a little like George Arnold; from the start she had delusions of grandeur, living in that big house. Adult rumour once again, but the consensus was that the pair of them thought that George's money made them something special. Instinctively it seemed, most of the adults around our way had come to refer to George Arnold as HRH behind his back. That same title had very quickly been bestowed upon the Second Mrs. Arnold.
They were both obviously unaware that their ... um, well, that many of the locals were not impressed by their lack of respect for the marriage vows they'd both surely taken some years before. You get where I'm going here, I'm sure. Most folks around our way were a little on the conservative side; well, they claimed to be.
Even my old-man – god rest his soul – who was a card carrying atheist, termed George Arnold "A cheating bas ... louse!" – and Alice's mother a "Stuck-up little tart!" A somewhat confusing description for a youngster to understand, the woman was unusually tall, compared to most of the other mothers I was familiar with. Not that I can claim that I ever was familiar with the Second Mrs. Arnold, by the way. I do not believe that she ever once said two words to me personally.
Whatever, the Arnold's had delusions of grandeur and as the years went by, we youngsters discovered that Reggie and Sue had been cut from the same bolt of cloth.
But like I said, Alice and Emma were not cut from that bolt. They were very quick to join in and play with Sally, Bill, myself and all the other children who lived locally. They couldn't very well play with Reggie and Susan very much because ... well because George Arnold's children weren't best pleased that two more youngsters had joined their household. Or so I sort-of realized as I got older. Mind you, that realisation probably once again stemmed from overhearing my parents talking.
To be completely honest with you, Reg and Sue could be really mean to their new half-siblings when they felt like it. On several occasions I'm aware that they reduced both the girls to tears ... and if not for circumstance, things might possibly have been even worse.
However, cunning pair of little shits they were, I don't think Reg and Susan ever behaved as badly towards Alice and Emma when either parent was about.
Don't get me wrong Reggie and Susan were not overtly hostile towards Alice and Emma, well not all of the time, anyway. I suppose the best way describe what I mean is to tell you about the first time Sally, Bill and myself ever met the two girls.
It was at the latter end of that summer's school holidays. Along with a few other friends, Bill, Sally and I were playing on the swings in the park down the road. When suddenly -- over in the little copse -- we heard a young child crying out in anguish. On hearing her screams, Bill and I immediately set off at a run to investigate, followed by Sally and the better part of the other children.
As Bill and I arrived at the edge of the copse, we met Reggie and Susan leaving it.
"What's going on?" Bill demanded.
I'll be honest, there never had been any love lost between Bill and Reg Arnold ... or Reg and myself, come to that!
"The silly little bitch is stuck up the tree!" Reggie replied, "She got herself up there, she can get herself down again!"
Then the two of them walked off towards the swings in the child play area.
Bill and I looked at each for a second and then -- because the anguished wailing was still emanating from the centre of the copse – we dashed on in.
In amongst the trees we found Alice precariously perched some way up the climbing tree, hanging onto a branch with one arm, and the seven or eight-year-old -- wailing -- Emma with her other.
Bill and I had no idea who the two girls were; none of us ever clapped eyes on them before. However there was no way that we could leave them in the predicament they were in, that was for sure.
Bill and I didn't even stop to think or discuss it. Both of us knew that climbing tree off by heart. We shimmied up it in a couple of seconds, and then with the aid of later arrivals passed the still traumatized and weeping Emma hand to hand down to the ground.
Although we helped Alice clime down the tree, I'm pretty sure -- from seeing her later antics up the same tree – that she hadn't required any assistance herself.
Very quickly we learnt who Alice and Emma were and that Susan and Reggie had brought their new half-siblings to the park to show them around. Then Reg and Susan had climbed the tree themselves before enticing the new arrivals to join them.
However, when little Emma had become stuck and then frightened, Reg and Susan had climbed down and left Alice holding the baby, so to speak.
"That was a pretty shitty thing to do!" Bill had ranted at Reggie when we discovered him and his sister innocently playing on the swings.
"She's only a little kid, she could have fallen and got hurt!" I added, probably to show that I was pretty disgusted with their behaviour as well.
"Silly little bitch, shouldn't have got up there if she couldn't climb down again!" Susan had retorted.
"Reggie's old enough to know better!" I quickly dragged out of my mother's arsenal. Then for some reason I added. "You need your arse-kicked for you, mate!" to Reggie.
In an instant, Reg was off the swing and in my face.
"Oh yeah, and who's going to kick it for me ... you?" He demanded holding his clenched fist under my nose.
Bigger than me he might be, but Reggie had made a big mistake! My dad had always told me that, "When push comes to shove..." especially with someone bigger than you, as Reggie was by several inches and at least a year... "You make sure that you do the pushing lad!" i.e. get in first and make the bugger count!
Reggie ran home with a bloody nose that day, and never again did he call me out. His brat of a sister went with him.
Alice and Emma stayed with us in the park for a while. Emma recovering her composure and Alice getting to know all the local children, before they thought it prudent to return to the Vicarage themselves.
Theoretically that should have been the end of the incident, but of course it wasn't. That day was the beginning of a strange war that was to rage between my own family and the Arnolds, until my parents passed away. That is George Arnold, his two children and the Second Mrs. Arnold – oh, did my mum have fun referring to her by that name whenever and wherever she needed to; even to her face!
Anyway George Arnold was round our house as soon as he got home from work that day, demanding that I be punished for bloodying his son's nose.
Having already heard the story of little Emma being stuck up the climbing tree and that Reggie and Susan had walked off and left her there; my father enquired of me whether Reggie had raised his hand in anger to me first. Bill, Sally and a couple of the other local children present, assured my dad that he had. So my old man turned around and informed George Arnold that his son, "Was a little shit! Who had only received what he asked for!"
From that day forth I was persona non grata with the Arnold's, even if I wasn't with Emma and Alice. To the two girls, I was ... well both Bill and I were I think, tantamount to Knights in shining armour.
Of course Alice and Emma were forbidden to play, or even associate with Bill and I. But that wasn't really a very practical ruling, because whenever they went to the park and latterly to school ... well, Bill and I were around.
Reggie and Susan though did steer well clear of Bill and me whenever they could manage it. Again they found it impossible in school and that was to lead to a few verbal confrontations between Reggie and I, over the years. However for some inexplicable reason, those ... contretemps ... always occurred when there were plenty of teachers around who could ensure that those shouting matches didn't escalate – or degenerate -- into fisticuffs.
At the junior school Alice very soon teamed up with Sally. Bill and I had moved to the secondary school by then, where we ran into Reggie and Susan quite often.
To be perfectly honest I didn't see too much of Alice all that first winter, but as I've just said during that time -- at the junior school -- Alice became firm friends with Sally.
It was in the early spring of the following year that Alice and I became firm friends, when she fell into the river from the footbridge in the park.
To be honest with you, it wasn't really a river, it was a fairly large lake that had had a stone bridge constructed over it part of it, to simulate a bridge over a river. Possibly some ornamental landscaping left over from the large mansion that had once stood nearby somewhere.
To this day I do not know how Alice came to fall into the water, or if Reg (or Susan) had anything to do with it. But the pair of them, were on the bank that day; I saw them.
Once again it was young Emma's screams that attracted Bill and my attention. However, this time it was all down to me, because at that time Bill could not swim. And, I might add, it was obvious that neither could Alice.
By the way, Bill had something wrong with his ears, as a young child and he couldn't swim because his physicians forbade him to ever risk getting his head under water. Bill had a series of operations during his teenage years and only then did he learn to swim.
Kicking off my shoes, I dove straight into the river and swam out to the middle where Alice was floundering about. Dodging the panicking Alice's flailing hands as best I could, I grabbed hold of her by the plaits and towed her – arms still flailing -- to the shallows, where Sally and Bill -- up to their waists in the cold water -- took her from me.
A police officer who had appeared out of nowhere, then hauled all three of us up onto the bank. We were then shipped off to the hospital post-haste where we were treated for hypothermia. Not that I really think anyone, but Alice, was really that cold.
The Arnolds never did thank me. George Arnold didn't even acknowledge that I'd saved his stepdaughters life when the local newspaper interviewed him about the incident. All he did do, was complain that the footbridge's parapet was not high enough. However no one else has ever fallen from that bridge to my knowledge, and the council did not raise the parapet.
I was of course fêted in the local weekly rag, which printed a picture of me, and declared that I was a local hero; it must have been a lean news week.
Whatever the notoriety that came from that, had fall-out at my school where I was publicly praised in a school assembly by the headmaster. And it also probably lead to my being selected as a prefect a couple of years later. I was never really one of the goody-two-shoes type who were usually on the receiving end of that sort of dubious honour, if you understand me.
On the Saturday morning of the weekend following the river incident, there was a knock at my parents' front door, and shortly after my mother showed Alice and Emma into our dining room where I was doing my homework.
Alice thanked me for saving her life and then sat there staring at me. Emma just sat there hanging onto her big sisters hand.
To be honest I was embarrassed, I weren't no hero! I'd just done what I thought I had to do. There was a pretty awkward silence for a while there, until my mother came in and served up ice cream all round. Once that had been consumed the two girls sat there in silence and watched while I completed my homework; somewhat to my embarrassment.
Look, I was eleven years old, I had no idea what hero worship even was; let alone how to handle it. But for the next few years I could do no wrong in either Alice or Emma's eyes. To me they were just a couple of the other local kids; to Alice and Emma it appeared that I had suddenly become guardian angel number one. But I really didn't understand that on that Saturday morning.
"What are you going to do now?" Alice had asked when I finally put my schoolbooks away.
"Go find Bill and Sal!" I'd replied.
"Can we come?"
Yeah well that was it, after that -- nearly every weekend -- Bill and my little gang had grown by at least one member, Alice. Often two, because if Emma was wasn't playing with friends her own age from school, then she'd tag along with her big sister. Never, so I think, did she ever hang around with Reg and Susan.
I say nearly every weekend, because – since just after Alice and Emma had joined the Arnold household -- every forth Saturday or so, a car would drive in and out of the Vicarage's drive very early in the morning and Alice and Emma would vanish for the day. Sometimes that car would not return them until late on the Sunday evening.
It didn't take a genius to work out that their father was picking two girls up for the weekend when that car did show-up. Shortly after its first appearance, that car had become another clandestine (as far as us children were concerned) subject of discussion amongst our parents. Something else us children were not supposed to know about.
But for some reason, it was something that was not discussed amongst us children as well. Not even Alice and Emma would intentionally mention their father in normal conversation. Although, sometimes young Emma would refer to him in passing.
Anyway about a month after the river incident, one Saturday Bill, Sally, a couple of other children and myself were sitting in the climbing tree. I have no idea what we were doing up there that day or even what we were talking about. Sitting in the top of that tree just because we could get up there, was one of the things we did back then. Alice and Emma weren't with us that day because the car had paid a visit to the Vicarage that morning. By the way Emily had become quite a little tree monkey since Bill and I had shown her all the right, safe hand and footholds that would fit a child of her size.
Whatever Bill and Sally -- who were on the highest perch, from where they could see the river -- suddenly announced that Alice and Emma were "On the bridge with a man!"
I shimmied up to join them in double time; I suppose because I wanted to get a glimpse of the girls' father.
Sure enough Alice and the man who I now know for sure is her father were on the bridge. Young Emma was standing just on our side of the bridge, looking right back at me.
Then I saw her point to the tree, while turning and saying something to her father and Alice. Their father stared at me -- or the tree anyway -- for a while and then all three of them set off in our direction.