Game Over - Lesley Mace
The feel of the skateboard rumbles up through the bones of his feet. He is enclosed within the sound of wheels. He concentrates on contracting muscles, on making his body into the correct shape to fly over the top of the concrete arch; he calculates the measure of push he needs to spin the board forward, so it’ll be exactly aligned when he lands.
He is only dimly aware of the crowd of onlookers but he knows Casey is among them. Carving through space he feels the rush as he propels the board up, into the curve of the concrete arch, and twists his upper body, looping mid-air and dropping onto the board, precision-perfect.
Of course no one clapped. Who wants applause, Benno thinks. He’ll take the awed muttering of swear words any day. He flips his board, catching it and walking away without looking back. Casey trails after him.
Neither boy was aware that Steph had seen or that seven months later she would describe the scene to Detective Inspector Padfield.
‘That’s how it was,’ she said. ‘Where Benno went Casey followed. They were mates.’ She reached out for her mug but the coffee was as cold as the interview room and she pushed it away from her.
The woman officer moved forward but Padfield waved her back.
‘“Mates” is not quite what the other children say, Miss Riley.’
The quiet sound of spooling tape echoed off white tiled walls. Steph found it intrusive. She wondered how many other people had been dumped out of everyday lives into this room to record terrible histories.
Padfield didn’t understand about Benno and Casey.
‘Everything’s different in a children’s home, Inspector. I’ve been a House-mother for more than ten years and things’re the same in Grosvenor House as all the others I’ve worked in.’
‘Presumably you weren’t suspended from any of the others, though?’ His voice was sarcastic, challenging.
She should feel indignant but she just felt tired and sad. She sat straighter, refusing to slump.
‘Explain then. Tell me why all this has happened.’
His eyes were the colour of stonewashed denim; the lines around them proved he smiled often, even laughed sometimes, but Steph doubted she would ever see him do either. He showed no more emotion than the tape-machine.
She pulled at the edges of her cardigan and wrapped herself into it wondering where to start.
‘When they first come to Grosvenor House children are emotionally exhausted. We’re the last stop at the end of an appalling journey.’
Childish ghosts crowded her memory; dull-eyed arrivals, some almost catatonic at first, some boisterous, bullying. Most in shock.
‘We do our best but it’s never home, always a Home, with a capital ‘H’, an institution. They come from abusive situations or are discarded when their parents divorce, or remarry. Then there are some whose own behaviour has contributed to what the kids call being dumped.’
‘Did that apply to either Casey or Benno?’
‘No.’ She hesitated, ‘Or at any rate, not at first. Benno was thirteen when he came to us. His mum had committed suicide and his dad disappeared; he’d been living on his own till the landlord contacted the Social. He was a loner here for nearly a year before Casey arrived. Benno was bright, did well at school, read a lot. You’ve seen his room, all the books. The other kids said he was weird. Sometimes children are ostracised for reasons we don’t get.
‘Casey’s parents were killed in a car wreck and because none of his family wanted a fourteen-year-old boy he was sent to us.’
She needed Padfield to see how Benno’s friendlessness and Casey’s grief created a hothouse where tendrils of attachment had grown fast and strong.
‘Casey was quiet and withdrawn. Until Benno started to show him the ropes. Then one Sunday, after lunch, they came to me in the garden.’
She’d been busy, trying to work out if there was room for a kitchen plot. The governors said it would help with costs and children might enjoy raising vegetables or herbs, to use in the kitchen.
‘Steph, can we have the chicken bones?’ Casey put out a hand and touched her arm.
‘Mum used to put them in the tree, at home, for the birds to peck at.’ His mouth puckered and she hoped he wasn’t going to cry again.
Benno waited in the background watching to see what she’d say.
They were as alike as two sparrows: bright brown eyes, tanned skin, freckled faces. Even their hopeful expressions were the same.
‘Please Steph.’ Casey smiled at her but his eyes were anxious. ‘We might get a crow to come or even a magpie. Dad used to get them to copy noises like wolf-whistles and door-bells.’
‘OK. Speak to Mrs Newett in the kitchen and tell her I said it was all right. But make sure you put them high enough or they’ll attract the foxes.’
Casey’s joyful grin was directed at Benno but Steph still felt warmed by it.
Somewhere the boys got money to buy feeders and seed and the horse chestnut came alive with birds queuing for food. Benno built a makeshift hide from a tatty old blanket and they spent hours with an ancient bird-book identifying and making lists of visitors to the garden.
Her description of the boys’ companionship stuttered to a close.
She couldn’t be blamed for allowing the pair to fade into her peripheral vision. She had twenty children to look after and the Home to run. There was always a minor crisis of some kind and she couldn’t be everywhere.
‘So what went wrong?’
‘I don’t know.’ She squeezed her eyes shut but opened them again when she heard him move. His chair scraped against tiles.
‘Miss Riley, you were in charge.’
His question came from behind her, his voice stronger, louder, more insistent, ‘Isn’t it your job to know?’
‘Yes.’ She refused to twist around and look up at him; she clutched at hanks of cardigan.
‘According to you everything in the garden was rosy…’
‘I don’t understand how…’
He talked over her interruption, ‘Two lads finding friendship after hardship?’
‘Excuse my disbelief, Miss Riley, but one of these fluffily-happy boys has disappeared. And one of them killed himself.’
He was in her face now and each word stabbed the air between them, slicing away her composure. ‘Casey climbed that tree with a rope, tied one end to a branch, the other around his neck and jumped.’
Steph couldn’t speak. Sobs closed her throat. The brutal shape of a hanging body was etched forever into her soul.
D I Padfield pushed himself away from her and sat down.
The tape whirred.
Steph wiped away tears with her hands.
‘So,’ he gestured and the other officer brought a box of tissues, ‘how did it happen? Where did it all start to go wrong?’
Steph cleaned her face with a wodge of tissues and dropped the box onto the table. Tranquillised by her fit of weeping she spoke calmly, although her speech was punctuated with after-sobs. Padfield faded into the background, his occasional questions prompting more memories.
‘Casey got an offer of adoption.’
Mr and Mrs Carter had come to her office and she talked to them for a long time. They were a couple who finished each other’s sentences and sat close, their shoulders almost touching. They lived in a tied cottage on a farm near Lichfield; she kept bees and he worked for the farmer, they were warm, loving people.
‘They wanted to get to know him gradually so they started to visit two or three times a week.’
‘He didn’t like them? Didn’t want to leave Grosvenor House?’
‘He did, though. He loved the idea of living on a farm and he was fascinated about the bees. He got books out of the library.’
She’d watched from an upstairs window. Casey and the Carters were hiding behind the blanket watching his birds. They’d been laughing together.
‘Accepted the situation. But there was another problem. Each child at Grosvenor House has a locker. One morning the cleaner found all the doors broken open. Nothing valuable was taken but it was highly upsetting because it was things like letters and personal things from their families – prized possessions.’ She kneaded the tissues into a ball on her lap. ‘We found everything, though. In Casey’s bedroom.’
‘Was he punished?’
‘Not really. When I spoke to him he denied it. Said anyone could have got into his bedroom and left the things there. Funny thing is I believed him. He was a good child, from a good home – it’s why I chose him for the Carters.’
‘That was your decision?’
‘My suggestion. They liked Casey. Everything was going fine until the empty lockers. After that it was as if his character changed. First he was caught stealing food from the kitchen and then he began to wet his bed. It’s not unusual in the Home but he’s old for it, and he’d never done it before. No one gets into trouble for that but he kept denying it. I found him smuggling sheets out of the linen room.’
Steph remembered opening the door on his white, startled face and the contrast as the blush flooded it. He’d led her along the landing and shown her his bed-sheets tangled in the bath where he’d tried to wash them.
It was true his character changed. He lost his smile and answered anyone who spoke to him in sulky monosyllables. The only person he talked to properly was Benno. They whispered together in corners.
They didn’t watch birds any longer though and the feeders hung empty. Steph had missed the little finches and blue tits.
‘We had to tell the Carters what was going on. Especially after the last incident.’
‘And what was that, Miss Riley?’
As the door opened D I Padfield’s mouth tightened and his answer was terse, ‘What is it, Anders?’
‘We’ve a reported sighting. In the High Street, sir. The boy, Benno Stephens.’
Steph relaxed against the warm metal of her car turning her face up to the sun. Busy shoppers bustled past but she felt disconnected. Benno had not been found.
The Inspector had let her go, after warning she’d have to go in again. Steph sighed; she’d been at the station so long she had a parking ticket. She reached out to peel it off and a letter fell onto the bonnet; she recognised Benno’s vigorous writing.
‘Just thought I’d drop you a note as we’re never likely to speak again. Maybe.
‘Are they blaming you for this cock-up? ’Spect so. Bet you’re still thinking I’ve gone because of what Casey did. You’re right – in a way. From up here – in his bedroom – the stump looks like the crappy amoeba drawings we did in biology.’
The governors had sent a tree surgeon. Steph’s mind filled with the remembered sound of the chainsaw. As it bit into the flesh of the tree it made a noise like screaming that penetrated every room.
‘I want you to know I planned it – all of it. Too easy. Both stuck here at Grotsville and both in the same shitty class at school. Casey sorted my French then I sliced and diced his frog when the smell of its guts turned him up. Could say we swapped – froggy lingo for froggy pongo!
‘Got on my bloody tits the way he smiled and bloody smiled at everyone. Did as he was told and laid himself down to be walked all over. Showed he was fucking weak – just like my Mum.
‘I’d started to work on him before you interfered. Your fault I had to speed things up. Didn’t want him sodding off to the country where I couldn’t reach him.
‘Why’d you choose him anyway? We look like twins. I look in the mirror and wonder – why’d she pick him for the Carters and not me?
‘After all that stolen stuff turned up in his room he didn’t sleep well. Then after you had him up in the office he got nightmares. Cos he knew he was innocent, see?
‘Do you get it? He didn’t do any of it. Not the filthy rhymes on the bog walls, not the bed wetting, not the dump smeared into the middle of his bedroom carpet – none of it.
‘Not sleeping got to him. But worse was everyone believing he did those things and no one liking him any more. Then there was me – whispering into his ear how filthy life was, how sodding nasty people are, how they turn. I knew how to work it – I watched Dad with Mum.
‘But what finally tipped him over the edge was the birds.
‘I worked it easy, see? Rat pellets + seed = little birdy bodies all over the lawn – under the tree that’s now a stump. That’s what broke him.
‘And all the time I stuck by him – didn’t I? Hardly let him out of my sight. Maybe I even watched him do it, stood on the other branch, promised to jump at the same time. You’ll never know.’
Steph opened the passenger door and slumped into the car. She thought about taking the letter to the police but she knew they’d make sure she never worked with children again. Hands trembling she ripped and ripped at it until it was no more than a heap of tiny feathers.
An approaching train sends rumbles up through the platform into the bones of his feet. In his pocket is a birth certificate in the name of Casey Hartley. A dead boy won’t miss his identity. Game over.
He takes out the certificate and looks at it. He remembers the uproar when the lockers were found emptied. He’d used the moment to squeeze silently into the office find Casey’s file, remove what he needed and slip back among the others. All part of the plan – easy.
The station is awash with people; they eddy around him and spill down the stairs. But no one here understands how clever he is. He isn’t anyone and nobody knows him.
Benno hadn’t banked on feeling like a ghost.