Enjoy an exclusive sample from the explosive new novel from Kimberley Chambers. Out now!
New Year’s Eve 1972
‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld land syne,
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.’
I’m in the middle of the circle holding hands with my sisters Hazel and Linda. My mum, dad and Nanny Noreen are all singing at the top of their voices. My mum looks happy, even though she still has the remainder of a black eye that my dad gave her on Christmas Eve.
‘Open the front door, Tommy,’ orders my dad. He calls New Year’s Eve
Hogmanay after an oatcake.
I do as I’m told. Old Mr Cleaver across the road is banging two dustbin lids together. I feel something brush past my leg and then I scream when I realize what it is. It’s a black cat and it’s obviously been run over. It collapses in the hallway right in front of me.
Nanny Noreen goes ballistic and blames me. She’s very religious and believes in Scottish folklore. ‘You stupid boy,’ she bellows. ‘You know the first to step through the door after midnight affects the fortunes of everyone who lives in the house. I’ve told you that enough times, so what do you invite in, a dying black cat. Now we’re going to have bad luck all year. You wait and see.’
I stare at the cat as it takes its last breath. Little did I know at that point Nanny Noreen was speaking the truth.
In a few days’ time, my life as I’d known it would no longer be. Everything was about to change for the worse.
My name is Tommy Boyle and this is my story. . .
Tommy Boyle pressed his nose against the cold glass of his bedroom window. The weather had taken a turn for the worse this week. It was literally freezing, but Tommy didn’t care about the cold. All he was bothered about was his father coming home from the oil rigs. He was so excited; he’d barely slept last night.
Hearing his sisters squabbling over the record player, Tommy sighed. Three months at a time his father worked away for, and it was difficult being surrounded by females. He missed the simple things: such as watching The Big Match or Match of the Day and discussing the games. Girls knew nothing about football. Nor Cowboys and Indians, or Battleship.
‘Not this rubbish again. Turn it off,’ shouted twelve-year-old Tommy. His younger sister had obviously got her way. Linda was obsessed with little Jimmy Osmond, reckoned she would marry him one day. ‘Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool’ was one of only two songs Linda ever played. Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’ was the other and Tommy hated both. He thought they were silly songs.
‘Breakfast’s ready, kids.’
Tommy ran down the stairs, but slipped, landing in a heap at the bottom.
Valerie Boyle picked her son up. ‘What did you do? You silly sausage. Have you hurt yourself?’
Tommy had hurt himself. His knee was throbbing, but he was determined not to cry. ‘Boys don’t cry,’ his dad had always told him. ‘I’m all right. My pyjamas are too long. I fell over the bottoms of ’em.’
Valerie had only bought her son the fleecy pyjamas the previous day. They were meant to fit a twelve-year-old, but Tommy was small for his age. ‘I’ll get the machine out in a bit, alter them for you. You’ll live, eh?’ Valerie smiled, ruffling her son’s mousy blond hair.
‘Where’s Rex?’ Tommy enquired. Rex was the Alsatian his father had purchased to protect the family in his absence. Tommy loved Rex and the feeling was mutual. He would often take the dog out with him. Rex was too strong on his lead for Tommy, but he would walk happily by his side and never went into the road.
‘Rex is having his breakfast in his kennel, love. You know your dad doesn’t allow Rex indoors while he’s here, and he’ll be home soon, won’t he?’
‘Yeah, but it’s cold. Rex can’t sleep in his kennel this time of year. He’ll freeze.’
‘I’ve put some blankets in there, Tommy. He’ll only be out there for ten days, until your dad goes back to work. Then he can come inside again,’ Valerie replied, wishing her husband wasn’t coming home for Christmas at all. She didn’t love Alexander any more, hadn’t for a long time. But the children did, so she put their happiness first. For all Alexander’s faults, he was a hard worker and good provider. They lived in a nice three-bedroom house: private, not council. Working on those oil rigs paid extremely well.
A deafening scream filled the air, followed by ten-year-old Linda holding two halves of a seven-inch single in her hands. ‘Hazel snapped Jimmy in half,’ she cried.
‘No, I never. It was an accident,’ lied fourteen-year-old Hazel. ‘I wanted to play Alice Cooper and she—’
‘Enough.’ Valerie Boyle held her hands in the air while eyeing her eldest daughter with suspicion. Hazel had a nasty streak at times, just like her father. ‘Go eat your breakfast, now!’
‘I loved that record, Mummy,’ Linda whimpered.
Valerie held her youngest child close to her chest. ‘I
know you did, darling. Don’t worry. Mummy will go to
the record shop after breakfast and buy you another one.’
Tommy Boyle stared out of the front-room window nervously chewing at his fingernails. His father had been due home at lunchtime and it was now teatime.
‘Sausage rolls are ready. Who wants one?’ Valerie yelled, trying to keep her voice sounding jovial. Alexander had promised her faithfully he would come straight home, what with it being Christmas Eve. Him stopping off at a pub for this length of time would only lead to one thing. Arguments. Alexander was a horrible drunk, would always drag up the past.
‘Will Dad bring us presents too? Or is Father Christmas
bringing them all?’ enquired Linda.
Hazel sniggered. ‘Father Christmas doesn’t exist, divvy.’
‘Yes, he does. He eats the mince pies we leave outside
and his reindeers drink the milk.’
‘No, he doesn’t. Rex does.’
‘Stop it, Hazel. Christmas is meant to be a time of joy, not disagreements. And if I catch you breaking your sister’s records again, you’ll get no pocket money for a month,’ warned Valerie.
His stomach churning like it always did when he feared his dad might come home drunk, Tommy continued to stare forlornly out of the window.
It was gone midnight when Tommy was awoken by shouting and what sounded like glass smashing. He immediately started to shake. His mum was only five foot two, his dad a whole foot taller, and he knew who would end up with the cuts and bruises.
Linda appeared in his bedroom, tears streaming down her face. ‘They’re fighting, Tommy.’
‘Get in my bed and put the quilt over your head.’
‘Dad won’t hurt Mum, will he?’ Linda asked fearfully.
‘No. I’ll sort it. You stay here,’ Tommy replied bravely.
Sitting on the top of the stairs rocking to and fro was Hazel. Tommy sat next to his sister and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. The argument was loud, but muffled in parts.
‘You lying whore. I know you’ve been with Terry Fletcher because you were seen in the fucking pub with him,’ bellowed Alexander Boyle.
Tommy winced as he heard something else smash. It sounded like china. ‘I’m gonna make sure Mum is OK.’
‘No, Tommy. Don’t go down there,’ Hazel pleaded, grabbing her brother’s arm. ‘He’ll only hit you again, like he did last time. Don’t get involved.’
Remembering the time he’d got a clump for intervening, Tommy sat down. For as long as he could remember, his parents had argued. His dad was a tall broad-shouldered man with black hair and blue eyes. He was from Glasgow originally and spoke with a deep Scottish accent. So much so, some of Tommy’s friends struggled to understand what he was saying. At forty-five, he was thirteen years older than Tommy’s mum.
‘Who is Terry Fletcher?’ Hazel asked. ‘Is he Billy Fletcher’s dad?’
Tommy shrugged. Billy Fletcher was older than him and in Hazel’s year at school. Tommy thought he was a flash git and steered well clear of him. Whoever this Terry Fletcher was, it was clear he was the cause of the argument. From what he could gather, his dad was accusing his mother of fornicating with Terry while he’d been away.
Tommy didn’t know too much about his parents’ past. They never really spoke about it. The snippets he had learned mostly came via his dad’s mum, Nanny Noreen. She reckoned his father was happily married to a good Catholic girl before he’d been forced to travel to London to find work. According to Nanny Noreen, his mother was working as a barmaid back then and she’d trapped his father by falling pregnant with Hazel.
‘A laughing stock you’ve made me, you no-good slut. Parading around with another man while I’m working my balls off to provide for you. Have you any idea how that makes me feel? You’re a prostitute, same as your mother was,’ bellowed Alexander.
‘Do you think our dead nan really was a prostitute?’
Not realizing Linda had snuck out of his bedroom, Tommy leapt up and held her in his arms. ‘Nah, take no notice. Mum says when Dad is drunk he doesn’t know what he’s saying.’ Tommy had actually heard Nanny Noreen say that his other nan had been a brass and had died while having an illegal abortion, but he liked to protect his sisters from such horrible gossip.
‘Mum has been going out lots of an evening lately and she has been wearing her best frocks and shoes. Do you think Dad could be telling the truth? Perhaps she hasn’t been going to the bingo?’ Hazel suggested.
Once again, Tommy shrugged. The boys at school were all infatuated with his mother. She was short, very pretty and blonde. The boys insisted she was a ringer for the actress Barbara Windsor, but Tommy reckoned that was because of the size of her boobies. She did look a bit like Barbara, he supposed, but to him she was plain old ‘Mum’. He had heard a few rumours though, that she was a ‘Good Time Girl’. Tommy hadn’t really understood what that meant at the time, but he was kind of getting the gist now.
Hearing more shouting, then a loud scream, Tommy decided enough was enough and bolted down the stairs.
‘No, Tommy. No,’ Hazel shrieked, running after her brother. Linda followed suit. As siblings, they often had disagreements. But whenever their parents fought, the three of them stuck together like glue.
‘What you doing? Leave Mum alone,’ Tommy ordered. His mother was lying on the kitchen floor and his father was crouched over her with his hands around her throat.
‘Go back to bed, you,’ Alexander hissed, without even looking around.
‘None of us are going back to bed. Not until you leave Mum alone,’ Hazel bravely defied him.
The sound of his first-born’s voice was enough to jolt Alexander Boyle back to reality. He loosened his grip around his wife’s throat and gingerly stood up. He grinned at Hazel. A stupid, drunken grin. ‘You going to give your dad a hug then?’
Knowing it would be better for her mother if she did, Hazel walked towards him and put her arms around his waist.
‘Daddy’s home. Come on you two. Give your old man a hug.’
Linda was hiding behind her brother’s back, but when Tommy squeezed her hand and led her over to their father, she also guessed playing normal was the right thing to do.
Valerie stood up. Her left eye socket was throbbing where the bastard had given her a right-hander. Alexander had his back towards her, so she brushed herself down and locked eyes with her beloved son. ‘Thank you,’ she mouthed.
Unable to sleep, Tommy thought about his family. They were happy most of the time and all parents argued, he supposed.
His mum was from Poplar originally. She was bubbly and laughed a lot. She had sea-blue eyes and her smile could light up a room. There’d been rows in the past caused by other men chatting to his mum. His father had hit a man at Old Mother Flynn’s daughter’s wedding because he said the man was taking liberties with his mother.
Since his dad had gone to work on the oil rigs things had got better. His last few visits home had been such good fun and there hadn’t been a cross word. Tommy wasn’t sure why Nanny Noreen wasn’t a fan of his mum. Hazel reckoned that was because their mother wasn’t Catholic and she had liked their dad’s first wife. She was very religious, Nanny Noreen, and his mum didn’t believe in religion. His dad did though, especially when it came to football. He was a big Celtic fan and hated Glasgow Rangers with a passion. He called them ‘Protestant scum’ and had been raging when they’d won the UEFA Cup Winners Cup at the Nou Camp earlier this year. His dad’s sorrow had turned to joy when Rangers had got banned from defending the trophy thanks to a pitch invasion from their fans. ‘Serves the Protestant scum right, lad,’ he’d chuckled, doing a jig of unbridled joy.
Unlike most of his friends, Tommy had no cousins. His dad had a brother who lived in Scotland, but they didn’t speak. Tommy had no idea why they’d fallen out because nobody ever wanted to talk about such things. His mum also had a brother, but he had no children and they rarely saw him anyway. Uncle Ian lived in South London and Tommy’s dad said he was a ‘weirdo’. Even his mum didn’t seem to like Uncle Ian very much.
Tommy liked the house he lived in. It was ever so modern with brown and orange patterned wallpaper. Apparently, when he was little they’d lived in a house in Seven Kings. Tommy didn’t remember that, the one they lived in now in Barking was all he could recall. Unlike most of his pals, Tommy had his own bedroom that he’d decorated with posters of his favourite footballers. He was a Celtic fan like his father, but Tottenham Hotspur was his English team. He had decided to become a Spurs fan after watching them win the UEFA Cup Final in May. Martin Chivers and Alan Mullery had scored the goals. Chivers was Tommy’s favourite player.
Hearing Rex howling outside, Tommy prayed that he wouldn’t wake his dad. He had heard his father come up to bed about an hour ago, but not his mum.
Linda stirred as her brother got out of bed. She could never sleep alone if her parents had been fighting. ‘Where you going, Tommy? Has Father Christmas arrived?’
‘No. You go back to sleep. I’m going to check on Rex. I won’t be long.’
Aware his father was snoring like a pig, Tommy tiptoed down the stairs. It wasn’t just Rex he wanted to check on. Sleep would not come unless he was sure his mother was all right.
Valerie Boyle was sitting by the lit-up Christmas tree wrapping the last of the children’s presents. She could barely see out of her left eye now, the socket was so swollen.
Tommy crouched next to her. ‘Are you OK, Mum?’ he asked softly.
Willing herself not to cry, Valerie forced a smile. ‘Of course I am. Tough as old boots, me.’
‘Is Dad still angry?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Who is Terry Fletcher, Mum?’
No way could Valerie tell her son the truth. Not only would it break his heart, she would hate him to think badly of her. She shrugged. ‘I have no idea, Tom. You know what your father is like when he gets a bee in his bonnet, especially if he’s been drinking.’
Satisfied his mother would never lie to him, Tommy nodded. ‘Rex is howling. I think he must be cold. Can I bring him in the kitchen? I will sleep with him and I promise I’ll put him outside before Dad gets up in the morning.’
Valerie reached her arm out and stroked her son’s cheek. Tommy was a good boy with a big heart. ‘Go on then. I’m going to sleep on the sofa tonight anyway, so I’ll hear your dad getting up.’
Valerie finished wrapping the presents, then went to check on Tommy. He was fast asleep on the lino and so was Rex. She covered them both with a blanket, then glanced at her face in the bathroom mirror. She looked a mess and she would have to endure her bastard of a husband’s sanctimonious mother tomorrow. ‘You’re an animal, Alexander Boyle,’ she mumbled. ‘Merry bloody Christmas.’