It’s taken me twenty years to find the courage to knock on Nigel Crothers’ door, and he lives two streets away from my family home.
Heading there now I’m dreading every step, counting each familiar streetlight and paving stone, carrying with me the rusty evidence of my crime in a supermarket plastic bag and hoping for forgiveness.
Nigel had a younger brother called Simon. When Billy Logan tied Simon to a tree I thought it was only another rough game at first. Billy never did like Simon. But I always felt there was more to it than that. Now, with life experience, I can see how it really was. I think Billy did like Simon — far too much — and didn’t like the way that made him feel.
Before I moved away I used to see Nigel now and again, you could hardly help it in a place like this. Most times I found a reason not to speak, crossed the street on some important errand, or, if I couldn’t avoid talking, just said “Hi,” and scurried on. He seemed well enough — considering. Never did leave his mum’s house though. Sort of quiet and studious is how he turned out. He wasn’t like that at school before it happened, always playing stupid tricks on mates and teachers and he spent more hours in detention than most of us did, I reckon.
It didn’t happen the way they said at the inquest: “…misadventure… boys will be boys… a bit of rough horseplay that went wrong.” No, that day Billy Logan had a plan. “We’re going to get Simon Crothers,” he said as we crossed the playground heading home. At least we should have been heading home. In fact, we took a back way through the allotments off Burner Street and picked up some stuff that Billy had stashed there behind a shed. And then we went on the hunt. That really was how it felt. Sometimes Billy had this strange look in his eyes, like an angry dog, wide, staring — without feeling. When he was like that you didn’t argue unless you wanted him to turn on you. I made that mistake once. Never again.
There’s the alley where Billy had me catch Simon and tell him Nigel was waiting for him in Blackstone Park, near to the canal.
When I took Simon’s hand he asked me should he go and tell his mum but, God forgive me, I told him that she already knew. I gave Simon my most friendly smile before leading him away. Halfway there he hesitated and started to pull back. I panicked knowing Billy would take it out on me if I failed, so I told him that his brother had an ice cream for him and the little fellow almost pulled me there.
How could I have known what Billy would do? I thought tying the boy up was a joke, until Simon started screaming and Billy stuffed a filthy handkerchief into his mouth. Like I told the court, as soon as I saw that look in Simon’s eyes and his face turning blue, I ran straight home to get my Scout knife and cut him down, but I fell and hit my head and didn’t remember anything for hours.
Nigel’s mother looked at me across the courtroom. She knew. Her look has stayed with me to this day. Wherever I’ve travelled, whether I’ve slept in doss-houses or in satin sheets, her eyes were always there and her wizened suicidal finger pointing to the bushes where I hid my knife rather than confront Billy Logan.
I can’t bring Simon back but I can tell Nigel how it really was. I owe him that much. Besides, my life’s a load of shit and has been ever since that day.
This is Nigel’s door. And this is the start of a new me because, underneath the fear, I’m beginning to imagine how it must feel to be at peace.
Published in print and online, Oscar Windsor-Smith craves sufficient writing income to match the grandiose name he hides behind. He was born in Cheshire, UK, but now infests rural Hertfordshire sustained by one charitable wife and tolerated by four semi-feral cats.