Ma Fields watches as the girl in the hoodie and tatty faded jeans hovers at Mr Netherton’s front door.
“Very suspicious,” she mutters to her husband, without turning her head from the window or letting the net curtain fall from her grip.
“Always pokin’ yer nose in where’s not wanted,” comes the reply from behind the pages of the Racing Post.
But Ma’s not listening. The girl is doing something. Fiddling. Though Ma can’t quite make out with what. Angular elbows poke out from the girl’s sides. It’s difficult for Ma to see the detail across the road these days. And the girl’s got her back to her. Then Ma makes out the dark gasp of Mr Netherton’s hallway as the girl pushes the door open.
“She’s going in!”
Her husband sighs, impatient.
“Who’s goin’ in where?”
“She is!” cries Ma Fields. “Bev Tupcoat’s lass. Always knew she were a rum ‘un.”
She watches as Mr Netherton’s door closes and the street returns to its sleepy, nothing-ever-happens façade. Then she turns on her husband.
“Shouldn’t you be doing something about it? She might be robbin’ him.”
She marches across the room and snatches the paper from her husband’s hands, an ugly tearing sound accompanying his cries of protest. She gives his shoulder a shove.
“Go on! Go and see if owt’s happening.”
“Course sommat’s happenin’. Things always happen, Ma. Even you can’t stop t’ world from turnin’.”
“She might be attacking him as we speak.”
Ma Fields’ voice has raised in pitch, to what her husband describes to his mates down the pub as her spin cycle. He sighs again, resigned this time. Heaves out of the chair and goes for his jacket.
“Goin’ for a wee first,” he says.
“No you won’t,” says Ma. “Mr Netherton might be dead by then!”
“Aye, and so might I,” he mutters as he passes the bathroom door and heads straight out across the street to Mr Netherton’s.
He taps the door, but just as he does so, it’s opening, and there’s the culprit with a grin on her face.
“Oh hello, Mr Fields.”
“Hello, Lizzie. How yer doin` ?”
“Fine, ta. Mr Netherton’s having an afternoon cuppa. If you’re quick, there might be a drop left in `pot for you an` all.”
When Lizzie Tupcoat arrives home, Bev greets her with her a scowl.
“Ma Fields has been on t’ phone.”
Lizzie’s unzipping her hoodie and casts it on a chair as she walks by.
“That’s no way to talk about a neighbour!”
“She is though. Even you think so, Mother. I can tell by the grump on your face.”
“Aye, but it’s not her I’m grumping about, our Lizzie. What have you been up to? Ma says you’ve been acting suspicious, like.”
“Breaking and entering Mr Netherton’s property.”
Lizzie’s features crack into a smile.
“Oh, I always break into Mr Netherton’s. He’s used to it. Told me to do, in fact.”
Her mother looks incredulous. Lizzie stares up into her face, defiant. Already she’s almost as tall as Bev.
“Didn’t Mr Fields tell you – since bush telegraph seems so handy? I called in to make Mr Netherton’s afternoon tea. He likes me to do it. Mr Netherton says `carers always come far too late.”
“Ma didn’t seem to believe you, said you’d come up with some cock and bull story, said Mr Fields was fool enough to swallow it because you’re young and pretty.”
Lizzie blushes. She doesn’t like the idea of someone old enough to be her grandfather to pass comment about whether she’s pretty or not. She goes over to the old piano and begins to play from the sheet that curls disobediently from the stand.
“So, how d’you do it?” Her mother, persistent, standing over the piano like a bad tune.
“What?” says Lizzie. She’s already wrapped in Hungarian Dance, a piece that Mr Netherton had said he liked and had lent her the sheet music for.
“Break into Mr Netherton’s, of course.”
Lizzie wishes that her mother would lighten up. She lifts her slender fingers from the keys and lays her hands gently in her lap. But she doesn’t look up. She knows her mother won’t be comfortable with what she’s about to say.
Then she tells Bev about the key that’s tied to a long piece of string and hangs from a screw on the back of the door, and how if you slide your hand carefully through the letterbox you can catch the string with your finger and pull the key through and use it to let yourself in.
“You never told me before,” says her mother irritably.
“Mr Netherton swore me to secrecy. He’s afraid someone might rob him.” Lizzie pauses. “Of course, `carers know.”
“Some secret!” her mother scoffs. “I’m surprised `whole of Waldstow doesn’t know.”
Bev walks back to the pile of ironing she had previously interrupted to greet her daughter. She doesn’t iron much these days, but school shirts… she can’t bear to send the children to school in a crumple. Suddenly she softens.
“Sorry, love. You’re a good girl stopping by to make his tea. I know he always loved to see you when he was teaching ` piano. Such a shame about `stroke…”
The words drop wistfully between them. Bev slides the iron’s shiny point towards a cuff.
“Still,” she says firmly, “I would like you to knock and wait for Mr Netherton to let you in. No more fishing for keys, young lady.”
Lizzie groans, begins to play loudly. She hates to wait at Mr Netherton’s door. He takes an age to open it, and she has to stand there while nosy parkers like Ma Fields watch her from behind those grubby nylon curtains. I’ll do what I like, she thinks. I’m thirteen, and it’s a free country…
The day Matthew Spinnaker invites Lizzie up to the old lodge pond to show her the most amazing strings of toad-spawn which she can photograph on her phone and take to biology class, is the day she’s promised Mr Netherton she’ll stay for tea. It’s his birthday, and she’s planned to take him a cake. But now she’s in a dilemma. For she’s fancied Matthew for a while now and it’s just too good an opportunity. Her friend Alison Heppell says that Matthew fancies her back. The thought that he might try to kiss her sends shivers down Lizzie’s spine.
“S’allright, I’ll deliver th’ cake,” says Alison.
She even offers to make the old man a cup of tea, so as not to disappoint him. Lizzie can come later… The idea couldn’t suit Lizzie better! Especially as she realises she needs an alibi in Alison….because her mother has warned her of the dangers of going to the lodge pond. Particularly alone with a boy. So, better not to tell. Better to have Alison ready to confirm that Lizzie has spent the entire Saturday afternoon at Mr Netherton’s.
Lizzie explains about the key on the string inside the letterbox, swearing Alison to secrecy, because he’s vulnerable now he’s had the stroke…he could be rich pickings. She leans forward. Whispers…
“He keeps a big envelope of banknotes on his desk. `Says he doesn’t trust banks anymore. `Says these days it’s better not to put all your eggs in one basket. Mum says he’s an eejit.” Then she adds, “You will make sure nobody follows you or sees what you’re doing, won’t you, Ali?”
“Shouldn’t I be saying that to you?” replies her friend, giggling.
Then Alison offers to swap her new Hudson and Rose hoodie for Lizzie’s old one with the frayed cuffs, so that Lizzie looks extra nice. With the advantage that, if that nosy cow Ma Fields is watching, she won’t be able to tell that the person in the tatty hoodie isn’t Lizzie. Of similar height and build, the friends both have long wispy hair. They could be sisters, even. Ma Fields is bound to phone Lizzie’s mother to relay exactly when “Lizzie” enters Mr Netherton’s house.
What Lizzie doesn’t realise is that Alison has picked up with Darrell Baker. This, Lizzie would not have expected in a month of Sundays. Even with the imagination her mother describes as fertile enough to plant up paradise, it’s certainly not on Lizzie’s radar that Alison might go accompanied to Mr Netherton’s house.
Darrell slides his skinny, lithesome fingers through the letterbox, and Alison and he let themselves in with Mr Netherton’s key, while across the road Ma Fields picks up the phone, despite her husband’s protestations that Lizzie is doing a good turn and how the old fella sings her praises.
Bev Tupcoat asks Ma Fields if she’s quite sure that it’s Lizzie letting herself into Mr Netherton’s house, because Lizzie has promised she’ll always knock and wait politely for Mr Netherton to open the door and invite her in, and Bev had thought she could trust her daughter to keep her promises.
Of course Ma’s sure! She’d recognise those old rags anywhere. Shouldn’t Mrs Tupcoat have a bit of pride when she clothes her daughter? At which Bev replies, not that it’s any of Mrs Fields’ business, but it’s job enough to pay for school uniforms and feed three children, let alone splash out on fashion items every five minutes. Besides, better not to allow her daughter to wear her best clothes for tearing around `common at `back of `houses.
“Just like a regular tomboy,” sneers Ma Fields.
“Isn’t that better,” Bev retorts, “than spending all day Saturday sitting in front of `Play Station?”
Just as daylight is slipping away, Lizzie arrives back at Mr Netherton’s. She’s feeling a bit grouchy. She’d waited all afternoon up at the lodge pond, practically freezing to death, with no sign whatsoever of Matthew. Not even a text. The idiot. Well, she’ll be sure to cut him dead when she sees him next. As she turns up the path, she notices an agitation of Ma Fields’ curtains.
“Nosy cow,” she mutters as she raises a hand to knock at the door.
She frowns. The door’s already open a chink. She pushes it wider, makes her way along the corridor, calls cheerfully. But there’s no reply. A creepy silence spreads its wings over her. She hesitates, suddenly nauseous with apprehension. Then, the groan. She steps into the sitting room. The old man lies face-down on the floor, papers everywhere fluttering in the draught, papers that are usually arranged in neat piles on the desk in the corner…
Heart in mouth, Lizzie kneels down beside Mr Netherton. With horror she realises that he’s scarcely conscious. Blood flows from a wound on his head. She casts around for something to staunch it, catches sight of the discarded baseball bat. And that’s the moment the carers arrive. Lizzie’s guilty expression tells them everything they want to know.
From then on, Lizzie’s caught in a whirlwind. Urgent voices speaking into phones, her mother in the room, sirens, a bustle of black uniforms and green-overalled ambulance men. And muscling in behind them, neighbours being told politely to return to their houses… Ma Fields… doe-eyed Mr Fields…
Mr Netherton is lifted on to a stretcher. He’s moaning. Muttering. Repeating himself haphazardly. “Didn’t see…just didn’t see…came from behind…”
And all Lizzie can think is that after Alison had left she hadn’t closed the door properly behind her, that some rogue had seen an opportunity. But at least Alison will be Lizzie’s alibi. She’ll be the one to deny Lizzie was there when Mr Netherton was clubbed across the back of the head and robbed. Lizzie will have to admit she spent the afternoon up at the lodge pond. Rather that, than be accused…
And all the while Ma Fields’ high-pitched voice whirrs on while a policewoman tries to persuade her to go home.
“I saw the culprits,” she says, refusing to budge and staring hard at Lizzie. “I saw this girl with a fella.” And she points at the Hudson and Rose hoodie Lizzie is wearing. “Look, she’s even been out to buy herself a new jacket. `Nerve of it! And foolish enough to think she could come back to help herself to more!”
Lizzie groans as a policeman makes notes. Alison will speak up for her though. ‘Course she will.
Adrienne Silcock asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work