The Four Musketeers: The Complete Story

This is all 26 parts of my recent fiction serial, compiled into one complete story. It is a long read, at 21,471 words.

We had all read the novel at school. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas. But there were four of us, so we called ourselves the four musketeers. Childhood friendships don’t necessarily last a lifetime, but in our case they lasted until we became adults. Living in the same district, going to the same junior school. Always in each other’s houses, swapping toys and books, lending each other comics.

Despite the different living conditions, we formed a bond that endured.

If one of us had money for sweets, we all got sweets to eat. Our parents tolerated having all of us around in some kind of informal rota. We shared bottles of lemonade, went to see the kid’s films together, and played out in the local park, or rode around the streets on our bikes. Our four sets of initials were carved in the bark of the biggest tree at the park, and older boys left us alone, knowing we would defend each other, win or lose.

Each of our mums was like another mum to the rest. Cleaning up scraped knees and small cuts, giving us dinner if we were in the house at dinnertime. It was like each of them had another three unofficial sons.

So, who were we?

Me of course, Danny Wellman. Average height and build, sandy hair, and blue eyes. Not good looking like an actor or a film star, but attractive enough to some.
Keith Rainsford. A bit serious, lanky, skinny, and had to wear glasses from childhood.
Terry Wright. Always slightly overweight, a mop of brown hair, and the comedian of the group.
Then there was Johnny Simpson. He was the coolest one. Always wore the right clothes, even when he was 10. His dark hair was thick and cropped, and he had an easy confidence well beyond his years. Despite his very English name, he looked like an Italian, and was the popular one.

Unlike most groups of boys at the time, we didn’t have a natural leader. None of us were into fighting, and we couldn’t be bothered about being good at sport. There were occasional arguments of course, but we always worked things out. Keith and Terry spent the most time together outside of school. Keith thought Terry was hilarious, and even laughed at his worst jokes. And they lived on the same street, four doors apart.

When the four us us were not together, rare ocasions during the school holidays, I was usually at Johnny’s house. Truth be told, I liked to be around him, and hoped that some of his confidence and wide appeal would rub off on me. I watched him, and I learned from him. I might even have had a bit of a crush on him, if I am being honest. Keith and Terry were lost causes by the time we hit our teens, but we never let them down. They were always welcome in our company, even though they didn’t seem to understand that we had to grow up.

Looking back now, it was girls that changed everything. That is no surprise of course, but it was at the time. By the time we were fourteen, Johnny already had a girlfriend. Janice was sixteen, and seemed so much older. She had already left school, and Johnny took advantage of being told that she fancied him. So he had snogged a girl and felt her up, while the rest of us were still looking at some girlie mags we had bought under the counter from the man in the corner shop.

Was I jealous? You bet I was. The others didn’t seem to care. They were both afraid of girls anyway, and Terry put them off with a combination of his chubbiness, and his constant bad jokes. As for Keith, he looked like he would drop dead with fright if a girl even spoke to him. I asked Johnny if Janice had a friend who I could go out with. He was brutally honest, grinning at me as he replied.

“You will have to get better clothes, look older, and have more about you, Danny. All of her friends are sixteen or older, and they don’t want to be seen out with someone who looks like a schoolkid”.

That’s when I started to hate him.

But I didn’t let on. Not then. I would bide my time.

Keith was undoubtedly the brainiest of the group. He found school-work easy, and once we were in Secondary School it was obvious he would outclass the rest of us. He helped us with our home-work, and though he tried to show us how to work things out for ourselves, we ususally ended up copying his answers without really understanding them. His parents were a bit older than mine, and his older sister Susan still lived at home. Susan was the main reason I used to like hanging around at his house. Seventeen years old and great to look at, the fact that she thought of us as kids was a real bonus.

That meant we got to be around her when she was completely relaxed. Sprawled on the sofa watching telly, completely unaware that I was looking up her skirt, or sitting close to smell her perfume. Susan was choosy too. Despite being asked out by almost every older boy who lived nearby, she never wanted to have a boyfriend. Keith said she was waiting for the right man. Someone to take her away to the suburbs, and get her out of her boring job in the typing pool at the local jam factory.

I remember the day Keith said he was going to go to university. We laughed at first, then realised he was serious. Kids from our area never went to university. You took the basic exams, and then got out of school to get a job. It was expected of you, and you were prepared for that at a young age.

Johnny was going to work with his dad on the street markets. Georgie Simpson had three stalls selling leather goods, and Johnny had been helping out on them during the holidays and at weekends since he was old enough to count money. My future was similarly cast in stone. Mum was obsessed with me having a ‘clean job’, working in an office. She had asked around some family friends, and one had promised to give me a start where he worked, in a big insurance company. I could get a bus there easily, and as long as I passed in Maths and English, it was guaranteed.

As for Terry, his dad was a plumber. So Terry would help him once he left school, and study for his trade qualification at night school. Terry’s dad was likeable, but always said the same things. Things like, “People always need toilets, son. Learn to fix them and you will always be in work”. Because Terry had a much younger brother, his mum Alice didn’t work. She stayed at home to look after little Tony, and seemed to love being a housewife.

A natural choice for a market trader, Johnny was full of chat, had the gift of the gab, and acted much older than he was. The customers on the stalls loved his cheeky banter, and he could sell a handbag by telling some dowdy lady that it made her look beautiful just holding it. Though he had an older brother, nobody ever talked much about Graham. Johnny said that Graham didn’t get on with his dad.

He had wanted to be a painter, a real one, like portraits and landscapes. So had left to go to Art School when we were much younger, and now lived in Brighton, on the coast. According to Johnny, he shared a flat there with another bloke who had been his best friend at college.

We didn’t know what that meant back then, but I found out later.

Not talking about an older brother was something I was also used to. My older brother was only a vague memory. Someone I shared a room with when I was too young to really work out who he was. A tall young man lifting me up until my head touched the lampshade. My last memory of him was when he came home on leave wearing his army uniform. He was being posted to Germany, I found out later. Not that there was a war then of course, just a barracks at a place called Paderborn.

My mum cried for two days after the men came to tell her that Kevin had been killed in an accident. His army lorry had turned over in icy weather. I had to go to the funeral when they brought him home. Mum bought me a suit for the occasion, and everyone was crying. Later on, they put a big framed photo of him over the mantlepiece, smiling in his uniform and beret. After that, we never talked about him at all.

But I was always aware that I lived in his shadow.

One afternoon, I was outside the corner shop chatting to a couple of girls I knew. We were close to turning fifteen, and the girls appreciated being chatted up at that age. But when there were two of them, it was tricky.

Which one do you try for? Pam was the cute one, and her friend Caron was chubby. But Caron was definitely the more interested of the two. Anyone knows that girls who are close friends are almost impossible to split up, especially at that age.

Luckily for me, Terry showed up. He was heading for the shop to buy some sweets, and the four of us got chatting. I didn’t really care which girl I ended up with, so suggested a walk to the local park. Okay, nothing life-changing was going to happen, but we might have got a snog, maybe even a feel. I lived in hope.

Terry dished out the sweets, and the girls agreed to see what was happening at the park. But we hadn’t gone a hundred yards before Terry bent down, grabbed his legs, and let out an enormous fart.

He thought it was funny. He actually thought he was entertaining those girls.

Pam pulled a face. “Come on, Caron. These boys need to grow up”. With that, they turned around and walked off. I shook my head at the grinning idiot. Terry was oblivious to the reason for my disgust. “What? It was only a fart. Don’t blame me if they haven’t got any sense of humour”. I crossed the road, waving my hand at him in a dismissive gesture. He was so thick, he shouted over, “We’re not going to the park then, Danny?”

I resolved to get him back for that, and the opportunity arose the following year.

It was the last summer school holidays before I started work. Keith was studying hard, Johnny was working on the market stalls by then, so I popped round to Terry’s house to see what he was doing. His mum let me in. “Sorry, Danny. He’s out working with his dad. He won’t be home until after six. Come in and have a cold drink, I could do with the company. Go through to the front room”.

By then, I was calling her Alice. Only Keith’s parents still wanted to be called Mr or Mrs Rainsford by his friends.

She seemed to me to be a bit upset, and when I heard little Tony bawling from another room, she put her head in her hands. “He never stops crying, Danny. I have been to the doctor’s with him, but they said there’s nothing wrong. I am up half the night with him, and I can’t get much done during the day. They say it is just teething, but he has almost all of his teeth through. I’m at my wit’s end, I really am.” She went next door to calm him down, and it was ages before she came back.

When she sat down next to me on the sofa, she looked worn out. Red-eyed, and at the end of her tether. She picked up the glass of Tizer she had poured for herself, and put it down again. “Don’t say anything to Terry please, Danny, but I just can’t cope. Terry was such a happy and easy baby, but little Tony has got me to the stage where I am starting to hate him, I really am”. I felt this conversation was both out of my league, and none of my business. I was regretting staying for the Tizer, but felt I had to do something. So I put my arm around her, and she put her head on my shoulder.

What happened next was both totally unexpected, and beyond my wildest dreams.

Ten seconds after her head rested on my shoulder, she started kissing me. My first real snog, serious stuff. Tongues and everything. Before I had time to react, she was undoing my trousers, and pulling off her underwear. I had uttered just one word, “Alice”, and she was astride me, and I knew exactly what was happening. My only regret was that it hadn’t lasted longer. Nothing was said during those few minutes, and I could feel the heat coming from her neck and face. It had all been over a long time for me before she stopped, and I was completely amazed that this woman I had known all my life was half-naked on my lap, panting.

The enormity of it all must have dawned on her. She grabbed her clothes and turned her back to me. “Sorry Danny, I don’t know what came over me. You had better go, and I beg you not to say anything to Terry. Please, I beg you”. I walked out of the house in a daze, but I felt ten feet tall.

By the time Terry spoke to me about his mum, I had started my job at the Insurance company. I bumped into him coming out of the shop, and he beckoned me over to speak quietly.

“My mum’s only gone and got herself pregnant. Dad’s furious, and he won’t speak to her. It’s bloody awful at home at the moment, I can tell you”.

I grinned all the way home.

Work at the insurance company was easy enough. I received claim forms for all sorts of things, wrote them up properly on company documents, checked the policy was valid for what they were claiming, then stamped a box at the bottom of the form before putting it in a tray for the manager to countersign. I worked in a large building right in the centre of the city, in a divided office with five others. I was the youngest by a mile, but the girl who typed up our letters was only twenty.

She was engaged, and never stopped talking about her boyfriend. No chance.

Hours were nine-to five, no weekends of course. Most days I could get away by just after four-thirty, as long as the day’s pile of claim forms had all been checked and stamped. We had an hour for lunch, and I was given one ’til two. That suited me, as it made the afternoon fly by. And we had a staff restaurant that served good meals at subsidised prices. The salary was average, but considering my age, it was enough for what I needed. My mum and dad said I had to give them housekeeping, but when I got my first month’s salary, mum said not to bother until next month.

Now I had my own money, I spent it on clothes and records. The old portable record-player in my bedroom had never seen so much action, and my suits were on trend with fashion. The typist told me she thought I looked nineteen, when I still wasn’t seventeen for a couple of months.

The Four Musketeers were not the same though. Johnny was insufferably cocky, and working one stall on his own seven days a week. I saw Terry now and again, but stopped going to his house because of Alice. If she saw me on the street she used to turn bright red, and cross the road. I had a soft spot for her, as she would always be my first. She was also going to be the mother of my child.

It felt strange to think of that, so I didn’t.

Keith was busy, planning to take three A-levels and study PPE at University College London when he was eighteen. He had to tell me what PPE was. Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. That sounded a lot for one qualification, too much for me. It wasn’t that I lacked intelligence. I just lacked motivation and application. At least he wouldn’t have to leave home to attend university. One bus and a ten-minute walk would get him there.

With Terry plumbing twelve hours a day, and his mum a no-go, and Johnny on the markets all weekend, I started to spend more time at Keith’s when I wasn’t working. He wasn’t that interested in going to the pub or the cinema, so it was a bit boring sitting in his living room with his mum and dad while they all trapped on about how well he was going to do at university. Then again, my house was like a mortuary most of the time, with mum and dad staring into space, and my brother Kevin smiling down from his photo above the mantlepiece.

There was a bonus at Keith’s too. Susan. Almost five years older than me, she still looked great. But Susan had missed the boat, so it seemed. All those years of being choosy had come home to roost. Most of her friends had boyfriends, and some were already married. One of them even had two kids. She was still at the jam factory, and still living at home. Then after my seventeenth birthday, she noticed me. Really noticed me.

One Saturday afternoon, she answered the door. “Keith’s out. He’s visiting my nan with mum and dad. He shouldn’t be long though, you can come in and wait if you want”.

I did want.

Sitting in the front room listening to music, she gave me a funny look. “You’re quite the young man now, Danny. Very grown up. How come you don’t have a girlfriend yet?” I shrugged, and replied that I hadn’t seen anyone I fancied. She leapt on that. “Well you always fancied me, no point denying that. Don’t think I have forgotten you looking up my skirt all the time, or sitting too close to me on the setee. You might as well have been holding up a sign”. She was full of herself, but undeniably right.

So she had known all along. I let the conversation hang in the air for a while, waiting to see what happened. I didn’t have to wait long.

“Your job at the insurance company sounds good. You will get promotion if you stick at it, and a decent pension later too. You have quite a lot to offer someone. How come you have never asked me out?” She didn’t wait for a reply. “If it’s the age difference, that doesn’t matter to me. It won’t seem so much when we are older”. She patted the seat next to her. “You can kiss me if you like, I don’t mind”. I moved over to sit next to her.

Twenty minutes later, Susan was my first girlfriend.

When the rest of the family got back, Susan didn’t hesitate to announce that I was now her boyfriend. I was suitably quiet, and not a little embarrassed. Although she had stopped short of doing the deed, she had definitely confirmed her serious intentions when we had been alone together, much to my delight. I was also left wondering how a young woman who had supposedly never had a boyfriend had developed such talents.

Keith’s mum and dad looked less than impressed, but his mum did agree with Susan that my prospects were very good, and that I came from a respectable local family. Her dad went out the back to do something in the garden shed, and Keith looked very happy. He shook my hand. Very formal, and not something The Four Musketeers had ever done.

He was getting rather posh.

Back at my house, I arrived with Susan, much to my mum’s surprise. She had come back with me to tell my parents that we were now officially a couple. Mum decided that she should offer Susan a drop of Port to celebrate the occasion, then sat chatting to her about Keith going to university. When I walked her home, Susan kissed me passionately on the doorstep, like some actress in a film. It was blatant, for anyone to see. And she hoped everyone did see. Then she told me to pick her up on Friday evening, to take her to the cinema.

If Susan thought she was calling the shots, then she was right. But only for now.

In just over a year, I had suddenly become attractive to women. Even ones I thought I had no chance with, like Susan. I soon realised that gave me the power that I had often envied about Johnny. It also came with some new responsibilities of course.

But I decided not to worry about those.

My new-found confidence knew no bounds. Back at work the next week, I started to flirt with the office typist, Helen. I half-expected her to fob me off with more guff about her wonderful boyfriend, but her reaction was the opposite. She sat with me at lunchtime, and asked me where I lived. Then she pulled a face when I told her. “South of the river? That’s miles away from me. I live with my mum in Islington”. North London was unfamiliar territory for me, especially as I wasn’t driving, and didn’t have a car. But it wasn’t impossible, using a couple of buses.

So I brazened it out, asking her out for a drink on Friday night after work. She smiled a lot, and took her time to reply. “Well my Trev always goes to the pub with his mates on Fridays, then usually football at Arsenal on Saturday afternoons when they are playing at home. So we could have a drink, just as long as you know I am spoken for, and don’t tell anyone at work”. Before we had finished lunch, it was agreed.

I knew I was supposed to be taking Susan to the pictures on Friday, but I would just tell her I had to work late, and change it to Saturday instead. She had already made her big announcement that we were together, and I very much doubted she was going to go back on that in less than a week.

A couple of days later, I decided to pop round and tell Johnny I was now Susan’s boyfriend. We hadn’t seen that much of each other for a while, and I wanted to remind him about our previous plans to have party when we all turned eighteen. They had been made many years earlier, and although things had changed since, I saw no reason not to go ahead with it.

Johnny’s mum and dad were watching telly, so we went up to his room. He was worse than ever, turning into a real Flash Harry. Boasting about how him and Georgie were selling knocked off leather coats and shoes, and making a small fortune in ready cash. Then he showed me his provisional driving licence. “I’m starting lessons next month, and after I pass, dad’s buying me my own van. I dunno what you earn in that office job, but I reckon I could buy and sell you, no problem”.

When I told him about Susan, he whistled. “Wow, she’s a right sort. You done well there, Danny. How did someone like you ever manage that? Have you knocked her off yet?” I tapped the side of my nose and winked. Let him draw his own conclusions. I asked how things were with Janice.

“She’s just Janice, you know what I mean? She reckons we are gonna get married, have kids, all that. She won’t go all the way until I put a ring on her finger. She don’t want me to get a van, neither. Says I should get a proper car. I mean, how stupid is that? I told her I need a van for work, to earn money, if she wants that diamond ring on her finger. Between me and you mate, I’m pretty fed up with her”.

That gave me an idea. And I didn’t mention the eighteenth party.

As expected, Susan agreed to change the day of our date. I didn’t go with working late, as she knew that never happened. I told her that some old bloke was retiring, and I was expected to go to his leaving drink.

There were now three women to consider. Helen, the typist at work, Susan being my actual girlfriend, and Janice. I can be honest now, and say that I never really fancied Janice. Before she started seeing Johnny, she had been around a bit, and it showed. I wouldn’t say she was known to be ‘easy’, but some of the much older boys in the area had definitely sampled her charms.

My anger at Johnny’s attitude to me might seem misplaced, in current thinking. But you have to remember that I was still young, and such things held an importance to me far beyond what they actually represented. We had been the Four Musketeers, and he had considered himself to be the best of us.

And he still did.

Even though he worked a market stall, and his girlfriend had a dubious background. The fact that she wouldn’t go all the way until they got engaged spoke volumes to me. I wonder how many others had promised to do just that, then dumped her when they got what they wanted.

All of this was happening in a very different era. Most kids of that age these days would still be at school, and not really thinking about having a regular girlfriend or boyfriend. They would be playing video games, chatting on mobile phones, thinking about where to go on gap years, and be determined not to get involved with anyone too soon.

For us back then, we were expected to act like adults. Get a job, bring in the money. Settle down with someone, have kids, and repeat the cycle we had observed in our families. And let’s face it, we were keen to do that. Being thought of as immature was one of the worst things that could happen to us. The faster we grew up the better.

Friendships mattered to me too. I had stuck with all of them, only to find that Terry was a clown, Johnny was a big-head, and Keith wanted to be posh. So I reasoned that if that was how it was going to be, then I would get one up on all of them. Hopefully without any of them ever realising. Then I would revel in my secret satisfaction that none of them were better than me, whatever they might have thought.

It was going to be a long process, but I thought it was worth the wait.

Helen was an impulse. She didn’t owe me friendhip, or anything else to be honest. But she had simply irritated me by going on about the wonderful Trev. He was a football fan who had qualified as a lift engineer. He spent his days driving a van around North London fixing or installing lifts. He went out with Irene because he had known her a long time, and because he thought he should have a girlfriend. He would sooner be out drinking beer with his mates, or watching football at Arsenal.

But like the rest of us, he was a product of his background.

Not that I meant him any harm, I didn’t even know him. But if I got my way with Irene, then Trev would have the wake-up call he so badly needed. And Irene would discover that there might be more to life than a lift engineer who lived in the same postal area.

Janice came first, purely by chance. I jumped off a slow-moving bus on my way home from work that Wednesday, and almost knocked her over as she walked along the pavement. Whe she saw it was me, she softened. “I was just about to have a right go at you. Just as well it was you, Danny”. I walked along with her, even though it was the wrong direction. I asked her how Johnny was, casually conversational.

“I hardly see him these days, Danny. Once a week if I’m lucky. If he’s not on his stall, he’s out with his dad buying stock. I’m starting to think he takes me for granted, I really am”. It was like taking candy from a baby. I suggested we go and have something to eat at the Wimpy Bar, then a drink after. Her eyes lit up.

“Yeah, why not? That would be lovely”.

Things didn’t work out as I had expected with Janice. She was happy to eat a Wimpy cheeseburger and chips, then drink two vodka and limes in the pub after. But when I said I would walk her home, she was prepared with her answer. “That’s okay, Danny. Thanks for the dinner and drinks, but you live in the opposite direction. I’m only a couple of minutes from home, and it’s not that late. I’ll be alright. We should do this again sometime though, it was nice”. Then she kissed me on the cheek and walked away without looking back.

Unconvinced, I still felt sure she was interested. But lots of people we knew might have seen us in the Wimpy or the pub, so she was probably worried about someone telling Johnny before she had a chance to concoct a story. Janice could wait.

My Friday night date with Helen didn’t go that well either. She seemed keen enough in the pub, and expected me to see her home all the way to Islington. But when we got close to where she lived, she pulled me into an alleyway between two houses. “Better not come all the way. My mum loves Trev, and is friends with his mum. She wouldn’t be pleased if she saw me with you. It’s been nice though. Maybe we could do this again when she goes to my aunt’s caravan? I’ll be in the house alone then”. She sealed the offer with some snogging that took my breath away.

It was a long haul home after that, but I was happy with the promise of more to come once her mum had her holiday.

When I went out with Susan on the Saturday, I had to have a story ready about the leaving drink. Naturally, I told her I was bored to tears. Everyone had been at least forty, and of course I would much rather have been out with her. She seemed to accept the lie, as when we were in the cinema we only saw about ten minutes of the film, with her snogging me like a maniac in the back row. Back at her place later, her mum had stayed up late to make sure there was no hanky-panky. She made me a ham sandwich and gave me a cup of tea, but there was no chance she was going to leave us alone together.

On Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on my bed reading when my mum came to tell me that Johnny was downstairs. I hadn’t even heard the knock on the door. I said to tell him to come up, but when he walked in the bedroom, he had a face like thunder. I knew immediately that someone had told him about me and Janice. What I didn’t know until later was that it was Janice who had told him. He couldn’t shout, but his soft voice was very threatening.

“Honestly Danny, I could slap you. What are you doing up the pub with my bird? I mean to say, we are The Four Musketeers, we don’t mess around with each other’s birds, do we?” I knew better than to deny it, so just shrugged. I said how I had bumped into her getting off the bus. I was on my way to the Wimpy Bar, and it seemed to be the decent thing to ask her to join me. He shook his head. “That’s not how she tells it. She reckons you followed her along the street asking her to go to the pub. She said no, but you kept on. So she agreed to go to the Wimpy, then you pestered her to go on to The Anchor. That’s how she tells it”.

The advantage on my side was that Johhny was well aware of Janice’s past. Even as he raged at me, I knew instinctively that he didn’t believe her. So I told him that she was trying to make him jealous. It was just a burger and two drinks with my mate’s girlfriend. I didn’t touch her, didn’t even walk her home. He knew he had overdone it, but his pride kept him going. “Well I have to take her side, you know that. But what you say sounds fair too. Let’s leave it at that, but don’t try it on with her again, or there will be trouble”.

After he had gone, I went back to my book.

But I was going to have to have a word with Janice.

What followed was something of a quiet period, in my recollection. Helen didn’t mention her mum going on holiday, though she was much friendlier at work, and occasionally touchy-feely when nobody was looking. I presumed she had decided to throw all of her eggs into Trev’s basket, and trust to luck.

But there was still time.

The next time I spotted Janice, she went red-faced and tried to pretend she hadn’t seen me. But I crossed the road to tell her that she had made the wrong choice. I said I knew for sure that Johnny would dump her in due course, as he would never get past her background, whether that was gossip or not. She looked sad when I said that, almost teary-eyed. As she walked away, she turned and said “Sorry”. She said it very quietly, and that was the last time we ever spoke to each other.

So I was left with Susan, though she wasn’t a bad option to be left with.

Susan was as keen as mustard, and happy to keep me on side with some delightful feminine wiles that I enjoyed immensely. She was also teaching me things that would keep me in good stead when I was older. The icing on the cake was that she looked amazing, and everyone who found out we were a couple thought I was punching above my weight.

Big time.

Of course, she didn’t stop talking about us getting married, but she was also very sensible. Her idea was to save the deposit on a house somewhere, have a cheap Registry Office wedding, and no expensive honeymoon. The more time I spent in her company, the more I liked her. And the five years age difference didn’t matter to me at all.

We had to use precautions of course. No point her getting pregnant and ending up with a shotgun wedding. Especially with her brother riding high. She was on The Pill, and Keith had exceeded all expectations by being offered a place at Oxford. Bye bye, London University. Keith was going up in the world. He was getting a scholarship to study with the toffs and rich kids. At the time, I was really pleased for him. When I told him that, he hugged me.

I told him to calm down. The Four Musketeers were not huggers.

Even Johnny was delighted for Keith. We had a drink to celebrate his acceptance to Oxford, meeting up at The Anchor.

That’s when Terry stole Keith’s thunder. He announced he was getting married. We were all eighteen, and Terry had jumped the gun on all of us. He had met a girl on a plumbing job down in Sydenham, the daughter of the house. She was nineteen, and chubby would have been a compliment. But she adored Terry’s awful jokes, and they were both besotted.

It was a match made in heaven, as the saying goes.

Maria was from a family with a Spanish background, and they had welcomed Terry into the fold like you would not believe. The black-haired fat girl adored our idiot of a friend, but her welcome had been a bit too warm for our inexperienced Musketeer, and she was three months gone.

When we were supposed to be celebrating Keith’s rise in English society, Terry was asking Johnny to be the Best Man at his wedding. We bought another round, and toasted Terry and Maria. Keith looked a bit put out, but joined in. As for me, I was thinking about Terry’s mum, Alice. I often wondered if his dad had worked out she must have gone over the side to get pregnant. I doubted her and Georgie were up to much bed action back then.

Still, it was a rare night at the pub for the original Four Musketeers. Even Susan was okay with it. “Keith has done so well, he needs a celebration with his mates, Danny”. Naturally, where her younger brother was concerned, she was happy for us to all be out on a Friday night. And for my part, I was happy to be reunited with Johnny, and no mention of Janice. He hinted that he was going to finish with her soon, as the business was exceeding all expectations.

“To be honest, Danny. I have more money than I know what to do with. Janice is no more than a habit that I can do without. The stolen gear is coming in vanloads. Me and dad are minted, and I don’t see why a slag like Janice should benefit. I’m setting my sights higher than her, I tell ya.”

Well, as you might suspect, he should never had told me that.

Then again, he had drunk seven pints of beer.

After that night at The Anchor, life took a mundane turn for a couple of years. Keith met a girl in his first year at Oxford, so we saw nothing of him. Susan told me that he spent all of his holidays staying at her parents’ house. They had some huge country pile somewhere near Maidenhead, and were obviously minted. Keith had told her on the phone that the house had a river frontage, and the dad took them out on a speedboat.

Terry’s wedding to Maria was so low key that two of us didn’t get an invitiation. Johnny did the Best Man thing, but they had a meal in a restaurant after, so no party. He had moved into the family home with his pregnant wife, and was running a plumbing business from there. We heard when the baby was born. It was a girl, and they called her Sophia. With Johnny hardly ever around, I at least had Susan for company.

And she was good company.

She was also still planning. The quiet wedding she hoped for was to be after my twenty-first birthday, by which time she would be twenty-six. That was mainly because I had to be that age to apply for a mortgage with her. I had been promoted at work, and was now checking claims instead of writing them up. It was only a modest promotion, but came with a salary increase of one third, all of which went into the house deposit fund.

Although we never talked about love, I was in love wth her. At least as far as my understanding of love extended at the time. I missed her when she wasn’t around, worried about her when she was ill, and never once stopped fancying her sexually. The prospect of a life together appealed to me, and I had stopped chasing other girls. To me, that all added up to love.

Helen was out of the game anyway. She had left the insurance company for a better-paid job at the head office of the firm where Trevor worked. I suspected that was also so she could keep an eye on him. She was destined to be a weekend football widow, and spend every Friday night on her own while he got pissed-up with his mates. She couldn’t see it, or maybe she could, and didn’t care.

Not that I wasn’t tempted.

The replacement for Helen was a perky girl called Nancy. She was only eighteen, and very lively. On day one, I could tell I was in with a chance. One of the benefits of working somewhere where eveyone was at least ten years older than me, most much older than that. Strangely, I didn’t make a move. I was actually fond enough of Susan by then to not want to cheat on her. Or perhaps I was just growing up at long last.

Then Johnny upset me. Really upset me.

We were in the Anchor one night, Susan and I. We had been to see a film, then popped into the pub for a couple of drinks before closing time. Johnny was at the bar with his dad, and looking the worse for drink. He left his dad spinning some tales with a few old blokes at the bar, and wandered over to where we were sitting.

“Janice is history. I told her that no girl of mine goes out drinking with someone else, oh no!” I knew about him splitting up with Janice over a year earlier, and wondered why he was telling me all over again. Could it be that he was going to grass me up in front of Susan? He sat down heavily on a spare chair, and leaned forward, grinning at Susan.

“So you reckon you and Danny here are gonna tie the knot, Susie?” She hated being called anything except Susan, and he knew it.

“Well, Susie girl, you should think again. I mean, you’re years older than us, ain’t ya? Do you wanna end up with a younger husband when you have lost yer looks and stuck at home with kids? You should see sense now, before it’s too late”. Susan shot me a look. So I asked Johnny to calm down, and to stop being rude. He stood up, scraping the chair noisily. People at the bar turned round as he shouted.

“Calm down? I still owe you a good hiding. You want it now? I’ll give you a slap in front of your bird, or we can go outside if you’re man enough”.

Before I could answer, Georgie had come over and grabbed his son, before the pub landlord could consider throwing Johnny out. We left then, and as we walked home, Susan started to cry. “Why was he so horrible to me? I have never done anything to him. And you are supposed to be his best mate. Why is he saying he wants to beat you up?” I told her he had too many drinks, and I would have a word with him next week.

But it was the police I had a word with. An anonymous tip-off, using a phone box near work.

They took Johnny from his home at six in the morning. It had been a long time coming, as the police took their time building a case by watching Johnny and his dad for close to three months, accumulating evidence on them and the men delivering the stolen goods.

Georgie was arrested at dawn too, but he was in the bed of Big Viv, another market stall holder. Viv deserved her name, with breasts that arrived a few minutes before the rest of her, and a huge mop of home-dyed auburn hair. She must have been getting on a bit, but Georgie had obviously fallen for her charms, and was tracked down to her flat by the cops. She was arrested too, but released for lack of evidence.

With Johnny and Georgie getting bail, and determined to plead not guilty at their trial, everyone in the district was speculating about who could have grassed them up. Receiving stolen goods and tax evasion didn’t add up to a long stretch, but it would mean the end of their careers as market traders, as their licences would be withdrawn. They also had to worry about the actual robbers who were implicated, as four of them had also been arrested.

Safe to say I was not even considered as a suspect for grassing them. Where we came from, you didn’t grass, so it was simply presumed that someone from outside the borough had done it, probably to get a lesser sentence for whatever he had been charged with. Not grassing also applied to Johnny and his dad. No chance they were going to name names to get any charges dropped or reduced. Their lives wouldn’t have been worth living if they had done that. The local criminals had a long reach, even from behind bars.

For a few weeks, everyone was talking about it. I did the decent thing, and went to see Johnny at home. Him and his dad looked scared, and his mum couldn’t stop crying. They had phoned his brother in Brighton, but Graham was not coming up for the trial. He was getting his own back on Georgie for how he had been treated in the past. Johnny told me that Terry had driven over to offer his condolences, but hadn’t stayed long before rushing back to his wife and baby.

Keith probably didn’t know what had happened. He was totally immersed in his life in Oxford. He wouldn’t have cared even if he did know.

When I told Susan, she was unimpressed. “Serves him right. He was getting really flash, and above himself. Reckoned he was some sort of gangster if you ask me. A bit of time inside won’t hurt him, and might teach him a lesson”. She had never forgiven him for his outburst at The Anchor. And neither had I of course.

Neither Johnny nor his dad had any preious convictions, but electing for a trial by jury must have upset the powers that be. They were found guilty by that jury, and the judge was in a bad mood when sentencing arrived. Georgie got eighteen months, and Johnny twelve months. They were also heavily fined, fifteen hundred each. That was a considerable sum back then, and wiped out their savings.

Johnny’s mum didn’t take it well. Not only were her husband and son going inside, there was the extra bad news that Georgie had been found in bed with Big Viv. Susan felt sorry for her, and I said I would pop round occasionally, and see if she was alright. Jean Simpson liked to be called Jeannie, and she was alright for her age. Alright enough to make you wonder why her husband was over the side with Big Viv, a woman who could easily take on a regiment of soldiers if she was in the mood.

I kept my promise, and checked on Jeannie at the first opportunity. The experience had definitely hardened her. “I won’t be taking Georgie back when he gets out, Danny. He can go and live at his sister’s place in Charlton, for all I care”. I was very sympathetic. Sympathetic enough that on my third visit, Jeannie suggested going upstairs to the bedroom, and I willingly followed her.

When it was over, she lit a cigarette and cuddled up to me. “If it’s good enough for Georgie, then it’s good enough for me. Will you come and see me again next week, Danny?” I said I would.

Well it was the least I could do, wasn’t it?

While Johnny was away in jail, I learned to drive. Susan did it at the same time, and we used the same instructor. We both passed our tests one wekk apart, and because Susan passed first, she never let me forget that. My dad was in the process of part exchanging his old Ford Escort Estate for a new Cortina, so I offered him cash for it instead. The car was cheap, but the insurance for me and Susan to drive it was very expensive.

We left the car parked outside my parents’ house, and started to get out and about in it at the weekends. Most of our trips were house-hunting, checking out affordable areas where we could buy a house once we were married. As we already lived in Deptford, south London was our first choice. We didn’t want to venture too far from what we knew, and we would need to be near a train station to get into work. Susan was still at the factory, but hoping to change jobs. There was a rumour the factory was closing down and moving far away from London, and she was keen to get out before that happened.

Johnny got out too late for our wedding. As planned, it was a small affair at the Registry Office, followed by a buffet and drinks in the upstairs function room of The Anchor. There were some cousins on both sides we hadn’t seen for years, an elderly great aunt of Susan, and some friends. Terry and Maria showed up, but they left little Sophia at home with Maria’s parents. Keith came, and he brought his girlfriend too.

Madeleine was introduced as Maddy. She was very tall, taller than any of us, and stick-thin. Her accent was so posh, I had trouble understanding some of what she said. And I had to smile at how Keith had adopted a very similar accent, making him sound completely ridiculous to the rest of us. Maddy spent the evening sticking close to Mr and Mrs Rainsford, and declined to eat most of the buffet food on offer. I saw her nibbling a bridge roll containing gammon ham and gherkins, then wrapping it in a paper napkin and leaving it behind a chair.

Keith had his degree, and there was talk of him going to work as an assistant to an M.P. We had never really discussed politics, but my dad told me the M.P. in question was a Conservative. Dad didn’t approve of that party. Keith’s parents were suitably chuffed, as their son would now be working in an office inside the Houses of Parliament. They spent the wedding party telling that to anyone who would listen

The house we had decided on was an old two-bed terrace in Brockley. Not far from from the cemetery, and an easy walk to the station. It would have been three beds at one time, before the smallest one had been converted into an inside bathroom. Parking was on the street, and the small garden was just big enough for sitting outside in the summer. With no honeymoon arranged, we were going to spend our wedding night in that house, then we would both be back at work on the Monday.

The previous owners had done a good job of making the house nice, and all we had to do was get our furniture in before the wedding. We had bought everything from the same department store, and taken their credit option over three years of easy payments. My mum and dad had been over to see it, and were so proud that their son had his own house, and would not be renting from the council like them. Susan’s parents said they would come for tea once we were settled in. I told them there was no rush.

With Johnny back at home and out of work, my visits to Jeannie had to stop. Besides, it wouldn’t have been so easy once we were in Brockley. We had managed an enjoyable few months though, and Susan had never found out about what happened on my visits to console Jeannie.

The next time I saw Johhny I was visiting my parents and he was standing outside the corner shop. I stopped the car and spoke to him through the window. He looked ill. He had lost a lot of weight, and all of his confidence. Prison had taught him a lesson, right enough. He congratulated me on the wedding, wished me all the best, then walked across the street without looking back.

Maybe I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t.

Married life suited me well enough. Susan took to it like a fish to water, and became a real housewife. She cooked nice meals every evening, and at weekends we usually went back to see my parents, and hers. Her mum and dad had never come over for that tea, but she couldn’t be bothered to argue with them about them not seeing the house. She thought she knew why they had never visited.

“They’re just jealous, Danny. They could have bought a house years ago, but chose to stay renting off the Council. Now they are embarrassed because Keith has an upper-class girlfriend, and they are ashamed of Deptford”.

She found out that Graham Simpson had an art exhibition in Brighton, and one Saturday,we drove down to see it. Because she was that few years older, she had known him briefly back in Deptford. I hardly remembered him, but we got on well. He introduced his friend to us, but the bloke was a shade too effeminate for my liking. He made me feel uncomfortable, talking like a woman, and his long hair perfectly styled.

As for the art on display, well that was a matter of taste, and it wasn’t my taste. It looked like a little kid had got paint on its feet, then run around the canvas. But I kept my opinion to myself, and when Susan whispered that one of them had been sold for two thousand quid, I was suitably impressed. We even had our photo taken with him, and he told us it was going to be printed in the local paper.

Before we left to drive home, I had a chat with Graham about his brother and his dad. He seemed to be fully aware of what had happened, and it was soon obvious that he was in regular contact with his mum.

“Yes, I hear that Johnny is not doing well. He is working part-time in a warehouse in the railway arches, and spending a lot of time alone in his room. By the way, I wanted to thank you for being so kind to my mum when all that happened. She speaks so well of you Danny”. Then he hugged me, and I let him. He didn’t know that musketeers don’t hug.

In work on the Monday, Nancy came and sat on my desk. She didn’t care that I could see right up her skirt, even opened her knees a bit to make sure I could. “Tell me you are coming to the Christmas party this year, Danny. I’m organising it, and there’s going to be a nice meal followed by a club night. I doubt most of the old geezers here will show up at the club, so I am counting on you. Can you give me a tenner deposit to confirm?”

Handing over the tenner, I grinned at her. How could I resist?

Three weeks later, Susan had an interview for a new job, and she was offered it there and then. It was in a new Estate Agents that had just opened up in Brockley, and she would be doing the typing and some secretarial work. The pay wasn’t much more than she got at the factory, but she could walk to work in five minutes, and save on the train fares. We went out to celebrate when she handed her notice in. I took her to an Indian place in Lewisham, and we got a taxi both ways so we could both have a drink.

After a couple of months in her new job, she started to talk about kids.

“With me working so close, it would be easy to find a nursery. You don’t need the car during the week, so I could manage to still go shopping and everything else would get done. If I come off the pill now, we might get lucky next year. Is that okay with you, love?” I said it was. I didn’t want to upset her by saying no.

I thought about Terry, still living with his in-laws. Keith, trying to act posh for his new bird and his job with the M.P. Johnny, stuck in the house scared of his own shadow as people thought he might have grassed up the real criminals. Alice, bringing up a kid her and her husband both knew was someone else’s. Georgie, released from prison but living in his siter’s spare room in a Charlton flat.

Then there was me. With a nice wife, our own house, decent jobs, a car, and a future.

No doubt I had come off best. As far as I was concerned, anyway.

Susan proved to be remarkably fertile. Within four months of coming off the pill, she was expecting. My parents were beyond excited, and even her mum and dad seemed to be genuinely pleased. She was starting on names the day after the positive pregnancy test. She wanted Joanna for a girl, and Stephen for a boy. I didn’t mind what name she chose, if it made her happy.

I would be a father at the age of twenty-two. Not counting Alice’s baby of course.

Not only did I have to grow up fast, I had to think about the responsibilities of being a parent. Susan had already found a child-minder willing to take the baby, a local lady with an excellent reputation. She resolved to get back to work at the earliest opportunity, but I also had an idea.

Despite the fairly recent promotion at work, I had a feeling I could do better. I looked around and found a different insurance company advertising for staff. They were branching out into every area of insurance available, and were looking for someone to take over a new car and commercial vehicle department. At the time, someone of my age was never going to get a job like that. But I applied anyway, and really worked hard on my interview preparation.

They gave me a grilling on the day, and I was left undecided whether or not I had a chance at getting the job. It took over a week until the letter arrived, and I was overjoyed to be offered it. It was twice my previous salary, and only two streets away from where I was already working. Susan was very happy for me, and I told her she didn’t need to work after the baby. So she agreed to wait until the child was of school age, and then get a part-time job locally.

When I handed in my notice, the only one who was visibly upset was Nancy. I knew I would have ended up having it off with her, and felt quite relieved to remove myself from temptation.

Even Keith was pleased to hear the news, and said he was looking forward to having a niece or nephew. When I phoned Terry, he made the right noises, but didn’t seem that excited. I suspected that things were not great for him and Maria, and suggested he should think about getting their own place. “I would love that, Danny. But Maria is stcuk like glue to her parents. It’s her mum who is really bringing up little Sophia, and Maria acts more like her older sister than her mum”.

The problems of dealing with a different culture.

It seemed only right I should tell Johnny. Jeannie looked awkward when she answered the door. “He’s upstairs, Danny. Go on up, love”.

Johnny’s bedroom smelled bad, and he looked shabby. But he also seemed pleased to see me, and genuinely happy about my news. “Tell you what, Danny, everyone’s moving on. Sorry about that night at The Anchor, by the way. I was out of order. But I was thinking. What with you married and living in Brockley, Keith tied up with that Maddy and his new job, and Terry under the thumb in west London, how about a boy’s weekend? Just the four of us, the original musketeers?”

Before I could say anything, he carried on.

“My mum’s older sister has a caravan near Eastbourne. Sunnyside Site, not far from Beachy Head. We could go down on a Friday night, come back Sunday afternoon. Take a load of beers, eat fish and chips, and kinda make it our last time all together. What d’you reckon?” I told him I was up for it, if he could arrange it with the other two. That really brightened him up.

“Yeah, leave it to me. It will give me something to do. Spring time might be good. Not too busy down there, and the weather should be okay”.

Even though she would be well-pregnant by then, Susan thought it was a great idea. “You four really need to get together again. Settle all your old differences, and remember what things were like before they all changed. Well done to Johnny, he came up with a good plan. I can even forgive him for being horrible to me that time”.

Sleep didn’t come easy that night. To be honest, I was wondering what we would all talk about for a whole weekend.

Susan surprised me by having a very difficult pregnancy. Her morning sickness was terrible, and long-lasting. She also had some spotting that caused frequent scares, and trips to King’s College hospital. Her back ached constantly, and she sometimes took to her bed for most of the day. She went into work so rarely, her boss had to get a Temp in to cover, and he eventually suggested she leave the job until she was fit enough to come back after the baby was born.

Her mum was useless, offering little sympathy, and no advice. By contrast, my mum was great. She spent most of the week at our house, even doing the cleaning in between caring for Susan. Then again, my mum was obsessed with having a grandchild, and determined to do whatever it took to guarantee a safe delivery.

I had my new job by then. It was much more pressure, as most of our business was telesales, something relatively new then. I had targets to meet, call-to-sale ratios to explain, and I was expected to keep hounding my Motors team to get results. As you might imagine, that made me about as popular as Hitler. But I did it, and it worked. When the whole team got a huge bonus, everyone decided they liked working for me after all.

There were at least four women at work who were seriously showing out to me, but I kept my distance. Life was beginning to get quite complicated, and I didn’t need any distractions at the time.

Johnny finally came up with a date in May. Terry and Keith could make it, so it was up to me to get a Friday off, or at least finish early. As I was flavour of the month at the time, my line manager allowed me the whole day off, as long as I was back in control on the Monday.

That was only going to be a couple of weeks before the baby was due during the first week in June. Possibly earlier than that, given Susan’s constant complications. But when Johnny phoned me, I confirmed. Best get it over and done with, even though I had seriously gone off the idea.

My mum agreed to spend the weekend at our house to look after Susan. By then, I was getting a bit fed up with the drama of it all, and a weekend away might be just the ticket. Okay, I had expected Susan to breeze through the pregnancy, and pop out the baby like she was shelling peas. But it hadn’t worked out like that, so I had to deal with what was happening.

There was no point Terry driving, as he only had a van with three seats in the front. Johnny didn’t have a car, and Keith hadn’t learnt to drive yet. It was down to me, and the elderly Escort Estate. They all came to my house on the Friday. Keith and Johhny by bus, Terry in his van, which he left parked outside. We didn’t get away until after three, which meant we arrived at the caravan around five-thirty.

There was a social club on the site, so we agreed to have a drink there later, and the chicken in a basket that they served up. Johnny had brought a pack of beers, and so had Terry. But Keith kept insisting he wasn’t going to drink, so had turned up with nothing. I had sprung for two boxes of lager, as well as a few family packets of crisps. On the way to Sussex, conversation was strained, to say the least. I kept asking them pointless questions, as I couldn’t stand the silence as I drove along.

The caravan was quite modern, but had one double bedroom and two single beds made up from the cushions in the seating area. We bought some milk, bread, butter, sugar, and tea from the site shop, and were told we would have to book a table in the social club to get food. So we did.

Terry was happy to share the double bed with Johnny, and me and Keith took the two singles.

By the time we were in the club eating chicken and chips, we had run out of things to say. Just as I had feared we would.

So we had too much to drink, to compensate for the silence.

Despite saying he was not going to drink that weekend, Keith had a few whiskies at the social club. They gave him some alcoholic bravado, and also showed the rest of us that his tastes had changed since he started hanging around with Maddy’s family, and various bigwigs in parliament.

On our way back to the caravan, Johnny was walking like a sailor, and Terry kept saying he wanted to go to bed. But more beers were opened, and it wasn’t long before Johnny wanted to pick on someone. He started with Keith.

“You really reckon yerself now, don’t ya. Posh bird with her minted family, and your Tory mates at work. I bet they wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire, Keith mate. You forgetting where you come from, or what?” Keith chose to ignore him, but Johnny was not to be ignored.

“Next thing we know you’ll be standing for election, joining those Tory bastards that keep us ordinary people down”. He had obviously hit a nerve, as Keith turned bright red. I jumped in and asked Keith if he had joined the party in the hope of becoming selected to be an M.P. in the future. I stared him out until he replied.

“And why not? Why shouldn’t I try to better myself. It may not happen for a few years of course, but I see no reason why someone with my background should not be a member of parliament”. Johnny slapped him round the back of his head. Not that hard, but enough to show he meant it. Then he really launched into him.

“Why not, you ponce? Because. Because yer mum and dad rent a council house. Because yer sister used to work in a jam factory. Because yer supposed to be one of us, not one of them. I’m telling yer, it won’t end well. You fink that bird’s family are interested in you? Nah. They just want to get you into parliament to use you. Make you talk about their business, maybe wangle a few planning changes or government grants for them. You need to open your eyes, you really do”.

Despite his drunkenness, and seriously slurring his words, Johnny was talking some truth there, and Keith got redder and redder as his anger replaced the embarrassment.

Terry suddenly stood up and lurched into the tiny bathroom at the end of the caravan. We could hear him chucking up his chicken and chips, along with more than a few pints of beer. Not long after, he reappeared, white-faced. “I’m gonna go to bed. What a shit idea this was. Danny, can you drop me at a train station in the morning? I’m going home”.

He had no sooner closed the bedroom door when Keith suddenly launched himself at Johnny. Fists flailing and completely silent, he surprised us both, and pummelled Johnny once he was on the floor. I managed to pull him off and had to wrap my arms around him until he calmed down. Johnny sat up slowly. His lip was cut, his nose was bleeding, but he was laughing. “Well, well, well. Keith the swot has finally become a man. Who would ha’ thought it?”.

Standing up to his full height, Johnny spat out a tooth into his hand, and threw it at Keith. Then he delivered a strong kick straight into his crotch. I was still hanging onto Keith, but had to let go as his legs buckled with the pain. When he was on his knees, Johnny stepped back to kick him again. But I ran forward and grabbed Johnny, both of us falling onto the small kitchen worktop next to the sink.

The commotion had brought Terry out of the bedroom, and as I walked back to see how Keith was, I heard him say something behind me.

“What’s going on? Johnny’s not moving”.

We couldn’t rouse him. Terry tried slapping his face like they do in the films, then got some water from the tap on the sink and splashed it on his face. Kneeling down next to Johnny, Terry looked up at me, his skin still pale.

“I don’t think he’s breathing, Danny”

I went over and had a closer look at Johnny. Other than the cut lip and swollen nose, there seemed to be no injuries. But he had fallen hard against the worktop, with his back to it. His head was floppy when I lifted his shoulders, and I could tell Terry was right.

He definitely wasn’t breathing.

Terry was the first one to panic.

“We have to ring for an ambulance. There’s a phone box near the social club. I’ll get dressed and go now”. I was still holding on to Johnny, but Keith walked over and stopped Terry. “What are you going to tell them? That Johnny died in a fight with his mates? That’s still manslaughter you know, even if Johnny started it. Ten years at least, maybe more. And you think they will believe you weren’t invlolved? We were all here, so all responsible in the eyes of the law”.

Keith had dropped his posh accent, and succeeded in making his point. Terry flopped down onto a seat at the side, and put his head in his hands. “What we gonna do then?” Keith had worked out his response incredibly quickly.

“What we aren’t going to do is to panic. Everyone knows Johnny hasn’t been the same since he got out of jail, and his dad had to leave home after that thing with Big Viv. Sitting in his room, not washing, failing to show up for his crappy part-time job. That’s depression, that is, the classic signs. Withdrawn, not seeing his friends, not going out of the house. His mum will back that up, one hundred percent. So he arranges a farewell night with his best friends in the world. Goes out and gets pissed, then when we are all asleep, he walks down to Beachy Head and jumps off a cliff”.

I had to give it to Keith. He thought on his feet, and that was a great plan. Terry was less convinced.

“Nobody’s gonna believe he would top himself, not Johnny. He wouldn’t do anything like that. He started the fight, you two were only defending yourselves. A jury would see that”. Shaking his head, Keith continued to block the door, just in case Terry ran out to the phone box in his underpants. “You want to chance that, Terry? Really? Working-class kid from a dump of a London borough, and you reckon you can get justice in a Crown Court? Think again, old friend.”

It was time for me to speak up, so I told Terry to leave it to us. We would sort it, all he had to do was to stick to the story we would concoct later.

Outnumbered, he finally gave in, and nodded slowly. Keith was already in action. He found the tooth Johnny had thrown at him. and placed it carefully in Johnny’s mouth, under his tongue. Then he got a bottle of bleach from the bathroom, put some on a cloth, and cleaned up the few drops of blood and spit that were dotted around on the floor.

This was a very different Keith to the one I had grown up with. Absolutely cold, and quite heartless.

“Right. Me and Danny are going to take Johnny in the car to Beachy Head car park. At this time of night there shouldn’t be anyone around. Then we will have to carry him to the edge of the cliff, and throw him over. If you call anyone while we are away, I promise we will chuck you over the cliff next, okay?” Terry nodded again, his face glum. Keith carried on. “Then we do nothing until tomorrow morning. About nine should be early enough”.

He was so relaxed, it gave me the chills..

“We go to the site office and ask if they have seen Johnny. Say he must have gone out during the night. He was very drunk, and acting depressed. They won’t have seen him, so the next stage is to ring the police, and report him missing. We don’t contact anyone until after they find his body”.

Cool, calm, and collected. I was sincerely impressed. He was going to make a first-rate member of parliament one day, being able to come up with lies so fast.

He turned to me. “Right, get the car started. Don’t rev it up or anything, we don’t want to wake up any nosy neighbours. I found this crappy torch under the sink, it will have to do”. He held up an ancient rubber-covered Ever Ready, clicking it on so I could see it worked. With one of us holding him up either side, we carried Johnny out to my car and put him in the boot area. I had dropped one of the seat backs so we could lie him flat. Whoever was in the adjacent caravan had the lights out, and was probably asleep. Maybe it wasn’t even occupied. That would be a touch.

Driving slowly so as not to attract attention, I headed the car in the direction of Beachy Head. Keith turned to me just before we got to the deserted car park.

“Sure you’re up for this?”

I nodded.

As expected, the car park was empty at that time of night. Keith put Johnny over his shoulder, like a fireman’s lift, and I held the torch in the almost complete darkness. We had to be careful as we got close to the edge, so Keith put him down a good foot or more away from the drop.

The waves could be heard a long way below, but I had no idea if the tide was in or out. The old torch wasn’t powerful enough to illuminate the view down there, and only just about gave us enough light to see where we were walking.

Keith was ready with his instructions.

“You take his arms, and I’ll get the legs. We need to give him a good swing before we let go, make sure he is clear of the cliff. Put the torch down over there, so we can see what we’re doing. Then I will say one, two, three, and we let him go on three”

With the torch propped up on the grass, it cast an eerie light over the top of Johnny’s head. I held his wrists carefully, watching as Keith grabbed his ankles. When he was sure we both had a firm grip, he muttered “Ready?”

Without waiting for a reply he swung Johnny backwards, and I went with the swing. I heard Keith counting. “One, two”, but before he said three, I glanced down at Johnny’s face.

His eyes were open.

But it was too late. Before I could say anything, Keith said three, and we both let go automatically on the forward swing.

I imagined there would be a noise when Johnny landed at the bottom. But it was a long way down, the sea was loud, and we heard nothing. Both standing by the edge, I decided to tell Keith that Johnny’s eyes had opened before we let go. He just shrugged.

“Too late now. He won’t survive that fall. That’s why so many depressives choose this place to commit suicide. They know they won’t just be injured. Anyway, it was you and Terry who both said he wasn’t breathing. So if he was just unconscious, that’s down to you two. Come on, pick up the torch and let’s get back”.

That short journey back to the caravan site seemed to take forever. I couldn’t get the look on Johnny’s face out of my mind, and me and Keith both agreed that there was no way we were going to mention that to Terry. Keith was still so calm, you would never have imagined what he had juts been a party to. “We don’t want Terry to get any funny ideas. As far as he knows, Johnny died in the caravan. That way, Terry was there, and is implicated. As long as he worries about that, he will keep his stupid mouth shut”.

When we got back, Terry was fully dressed, and had his stuff packed. He didn’t ask us what had happened on Beachy Head, but he seemed intense. “I want you to know that I have to go home as soon as the trains start. If you won’t take me to the station, I’ll get a taxi”. Keith was ruthless. “You will do no such thing. You will stick with us, see it through. You act worried about Johnny, you give the agreed story to the police, and we will get you home as and when it is convenient. Don’t give us any trouble now, Terry”.

Although far from happy, Terry knew it was two against one, and he sat down again.

That meant me and Keith had to go to the shop the next morning. Terry could not be relied upon to stand firm out in public, so we wandered over casually just after nine. Both very tired, we looked suitably shabby and hung-over when we spoke to the site manager. He said he hadn’t seen anyone fitting Johnnny’s description. Then suggested Johnny might have hooked up with a girl, and could be in another caravan. He wasn’t that helpful, and didn’t seem to think it was out of the ordinary.

So Keith went into the phone box and rang the police. At first, they just told him that he had to wait for twenty-four hours to report a missing person. But when Keith mentioned that Johnny had suggested the trip to Beachy Head, and had been acting very low and depressed for months, they said they would send someone to talk to us. They asked us not to leave the site, and they would be there within the hour.

We sat in the caravan in silence, waiting.

A patrol car finally showed up after two hours. There was the classic cop combination, a weary old-timer who had seen it all, and an excited female copper who was probably brand new. The old-timer handed it over to her, as he wandered around the caravan looking completely disinterested.

Keith did most of the talking, even managing to get in a reference to his job with the influential member of parliament. The girl was impressed, the old-timer just grinned. Halfway through taking her notes, the girl’s radio went off, calling her number. She went outside to speak. When she came back in she was white-faced, and spoke directly to her partner.

“A dog walker has found a body on the beach at the bottom of the cliffs. They want us to go to Beachy Head to secure the scene for the helicopter”. Old timer looked at us. “You lads stay right here, we will be back”. I suspected that Johnny was going to be that young woman’s first dead body.

We heard the helicopter fifteen minutes later, but we couldn’t see it. Probably air-sea rescue coming in from the other side.

Feeling really tired, I suggested some breakfast. Terry shook his head, and so did Keith. So I made do with a family packet of crisps that we hadn’t eaten the night before, and Keith made us all a strong cup of tea. It was another two hours before the cops returned, and by then I was almost asleep on my feet. This time, the man did the talking.

“The young man seems to fit your description. They are taking the body to the mortary in Eastbourne. You three will have to come with us and make statements at the police station, and the police in London will contact his parents to come down and make a formal identification. I reckon it is going to be a long day, lads”.

He was right about that. Most of the day went by in a blur, and I was having trouble staying awake. Unlike Keith, who apparently gave a word-perfect version of the depression and possible suicide story, and Terry who said he had drunk too much and only realised Johnny wasn’t there when he woke up. I mumbled something about Johnny being very depressed in London, but I was adamant I had not expected him to commit suicide.

It wouldn’t have done for us all to say the same thing.

Johnny’s dad drove Jeannie down from London. Even though they had split up, the possible death of their son reinstated their bond, albeit temporarily. We didn’t see either of them that day. We heard later that they identified the body as Johnny, both agreed that he had been depressed, then told the cops what great friends we all were. There was going to be a Coroner’s Inquest at some stage, following a mandatory post-mortem.

Old-timer drove us back to the caravan site, had a word with the manager to confirm that we had asked about Johnny, then said we could go home if we wanted to. They might need us back for the Coroner’s Court at some stage, and if so, we would get letters in the post.

Driving home in the car that evening, Keith was talking non-stop. He was saying how we would never be suspected of anything, and we should all go and see Johnny’s mum and dad next week, to offer our condolences. Terry didn’t speak for the whole journey, not even after I dropped Keith off in Central London. Back at my house, Terry wouldn’t even come in and see Susan. He just got in his van and drove off without looking back.

Susan didn’t cry when I told her. She just shook her head. “So sad, love. Johnny has never been the same since he went into prison. I reckon Keith is right. He set up the boy’s weekend like some final farewell. He knew he was going to kill himself, and he must have walked to that cliff intending to jump. He had been to his auntie’s caravan a lot over the years, and knew Beachy Head really well. No wonder he chose that spot for your weekend break.”

She made me something to eat, and sat with me at the table while I was eating. “What do you think, love? I reckon he knew exactly what he was doing, don’t you?”

I told her I thought she was right.

So now there were three musketeers. Only two really, as Terry was a loose cannon.

He didn’t even come to the funeral, though Keith did, and brought Maddy too. He hinted at a possible engagement later that year, and I said they were made for each other.

Not sure he got the irony.

Baby Stephen Kevin Wellman was born by Caesarean Section in King’s College Hospital. He was four days over his due date, and Susan elected for surgery. He had my fair hair and blue eyes, but like most new-born babies, he mainly looked like a cross between a mole rat, and Winston Churchill.

Just as she had taken to being a wife, Susan was a natural mother. Brushing off the pain of the surgery, breast-feeding from the start, and totally in love with her screwed-up face bundle. Giving him Kevin as a second name after my dead brother was a delight for my parents, and as Stephen had been the name of Susan’s paternal grandfather, her parents were also on board.

Keith showed up once Susan came home, and brought inappropriately large toys for a baby. He suggested we go and speak to Jeannie Simpson. She hadn’t let Georgie back into her life, and was living alone in the family home. I said I would go round on my own that Saturday, so he left early to go and pay his respects. Outside, he mentioned about Terry.

“I heard they are moving further west, as his wife wanted a bigger house, and to have more children. I ring his mum occasionally, just to keep tabs on him”. I said nothing, just waved as he left in a taxi. It made me think about Alice though, so I put that from my mind as I went back inside.

My mum was great. She got two buses each way to come round on a couple of days a week and help out with the baby. Susan made a quick recovery, and liked to go out shopping in the car. Mum looking after little Stephen for a few hours made all the difference. And we almost always still went to their house for Sunday dinner. Though her parents never once invited us to their house, Susan kept them updated on the phone, and her mum even got a cab to visit us one time. Her first sight of our house. She only talked about Keith though, and his bride-to-be, Maddy. I didn’t know how Susan kept her temper.

Unfortunately, Susan’s natural aptitude for motherhood put ideas into her head.

“Why don’t we have another one, while Stephen is still young? He could have a lille brother or sister to grow up with, and they wouldn’t be too far apart in age. Of course, we would need a bigger house, and it might be an idea to change the car. But you are doing well at work, and money isn’t a problem”. I thought she was jumping the gun, and made sure to use protection once we started to have sex again.

But I had to agree she was right about a bigger house, and that I was doing well at work. Performance bonuses had increased my salary by thirty percent, and house prices in England had never been higher, especially in London. Small houses like ours were selling for over twice what we had paid for it such a short time ago. People were buying their council houses, including Susan’s mum and dad, but not mine. Houses closer to the centre of London were changing hands at prices that would have seemed incredible just five years earlier.

Eventually, I went round to see Jeannie Simpson. Not on that Saturday as promised to Keith, but some time later. She wrapped herself around me after closing the door, and sobbed uncontrollably. She had held it together at the funeral, but on our own, she broke down. Later, she told me that she had been in touch with Graham a lot, but he hadn’t come to the funeral because of Georgie. Years earlier, Graham had told his dad he liked men, and Georgie had beaten him so badly, he had left home the next morning.

We had a couple of cups of tea, and I sensed that a visit upstairs to the bedroom was inevitable. When she whispered that suggestion in my ear, I took her hand and led her up there. Cuddling me later, she seemed very sensible. “I don’t expect anything, Danny. But any time you get the chance to come and see me, I will be very grateful. I do love our short sessions”.

You had to give it to her. She understood the situation.

We sold our house to the third person who looked at it. No haggling, no hassle, full asking price. We had only viewed one house, and Susan had fallen in love with it. A nineteen- thirties semi on the good side of Honour Oak, close to Dulwich Village. It was close enough that we had to pay a premium, and that extended us on the mortgage.

Then she pestered me to change the car, so I bought a nice clean Volvo Estate, only twelve months old. With Susan not working, my salary was more or less accounted for, so she gave up the idea of another child for the time being.

Moving less than three miles was not much cheaper than moving twenty. But the house was nice. Two large reception rooms, and a small extension at the back to make a bigger kitchen. The three bedrooms would be handy if we had more kids later, and there was an attached garage. It wasn’t big enough for the Volvo, but provided great storage, and an off-road driveway. The garden was a decent size, and gave some scope for little Stephen once he had started playing and walking.

Keith kept in touch, though he didn’t visit for a long time. He had announced his engagement to Maddy, with a wedding to follow the next year, in Maidenhead. I half-expected him to ask me to be the Best Man, but of course he didn’t. He told me that Terry had moved to West Ealing, still running a plumbing business. As Terry was no longer talking to either of us, I had to presume Keith found that out from talking to his parents.

It was a busy time for me. A longer walk to the station, lots going on at work, and Susan consumed with the new house and Stephen. To be fair to her, I never wanted for anything. She still did all the housework, cooked me a nice meal every evening, and seemed to really love me.

For a long time, I was very content.

The wedding in Maidenhead was a posh affair. A local church, followed by a lavish reception at a hotel on the river. Keith’s choice of Best Man turned out to be some upper-class twit that Maddy knew. He gave a shit speech, and only Keith’s parents thought he was funny. As Susan was family, we were on table one, next to the top table, but there were no other guests from Deptford. Terry hadn’t even been invited, as I found out later.

I had declined to stay in a hotel, because we took Stephen. So we left before the last dance, and I drove home.

Things carried on as normal. We settled into our new life close to Dulwich Village, and my mum still came round a lot. I worked hard, determined to get a promotion, and Susan proved to be a wonderful wife and mother. So good in fact, that I never went back to see Jeannie, or anyone else.

Truth be told, I had almost forgotten about Johnny, and the incident near Beachy Head, when the phone rand one evening not long after dinner. Susan was upstairs with baby Stephen when I answered. It was Keith.

“Danny, I have to talk to you about Terry. I recently heard that he is acting strangely. His wife is really worried. It seems that he isn’t working regularly, and has gone into arrears with his bills. Alice tells me that he doesn’t seem to be interested in little Sophia, and his wife is on the phone to her, crying. Seems to me that he isn’t coping well with what happened, if you get my drift. I think we need to get over to Ealing next weekend, and have a serious talk with him. Maybe take him out for a drink, and tell his fortune. Are you with me?”

Of course I was with him, in as much as I knew what he was suggesting. We had to put the frighteners on Terry, in case he cracked up and spilled the beans.

By then, Keith and Maddy were living in a trendy flat in Pimlico. It was close to work for him, and Maddy had some notion of becoming a celebrity photographer. Sounded to me like Keith was paying all the bills for his new wife. But he was right about Terry, we had to have a talk with him. I told Keith I would pick him up on Sunday morning. We would turn up and surprise Terry, take him to a local pub for lunch. Keith chuckled when I told him that.

It wasn’t a good chuckle, and made me feel cold in my stomach.

It dawned on me that Terry didn’t seem surprised to see us when we turned up at his end-of-terrace in West Ealing. He answered the door, didn’t invite us in, and said he would come out with us but we had to wait in the car. Then he directed us to a boring little pub five minutes away, where only bar snacks were available because we hadn’t booked in advance.

Once we had bought a drink and sat waiting for the uninspiring snacks, he spoke up.

“So, you two have come to check on me, I suppose? To find out if I’m going to grass you up, or if I have told anyone? You both seem to be doing alright, and I don’t s’pose you ever think about Johnny. Well I do. I can’t get that night out of my head. I find it hard to sleep, then I’m too tired to work regularly, and if I ain’t careful, I’m gonna lose the house. We are already four months in arrears on the mortgage, and I get my ear bent by my missus morning, noon, and night. Well she don’t know, does she? I ain’t told her what happened. Reckon she would leave me if I did”.

His flow was stopped short by the arrival of three very sad-looking Ploughman’s Lunches, plopped down onto the table by a mature waitress who winked at me as she did so, then flashed me a knowing look as she walked away. I decided I definitely would, but it would have to be another time, if ever. West Ealing was too far from where I lived.

Keith took over.

“Actually, Terry, I have come to offer you something. As you know, I have the ear of a member of parliament, and many of his colleagues in the house. I happen to know that a friend of a friend is looking for a plumbing company to service his portfolio of rental properties in the West London area. Naturally, I have suggested that I know someone. You would have to employ some people, as it is a big contract. But I have every confidence you could cope. It could change your life”.

Not only was I surprised by Keith’s offer, I remained completely surprised by the way he talked by then. Being maried to Maddy had honed his skills at speaking posh, and he sounded completely convincing. Terry didn’t seem remotely excited, but he thought about it for a long time before replying.

“Course, I would love to build up the business. Show my in-laws I’m not a waster, and provide some sort of future for little Sophia. But I don’t trust you, Keith. How do I know it’s not just a way to stitch me up? Get me involved in something that you end up controlling?” Keith managed to look very offended.

“Why the hell would I do that? I have my own career to think about, and it doesn’t include plumbing, believe me. I got Danny to bring me all this way to make you a genuine offer that even includes a few grand up front, so you can get another van and more stock. But if you think I’m not to be trusted, then forget it”.

Terry looked at me. “What about you, Danny. You think it’s a good idea?” I told him I had no opinion. He was the businessman, and could work things out with Keith. He knew about plumbing, and a contract servicing rented places seemed like a good regular income to me. I didn’t say it was the first I had heard of it. Terry got up to get three more beers. None of us had so much as touched the unappetising cheese and bread.

The waitress reappeared, nodding at the untouched food. “Anything wrong, lads?” I told her that there was nothing wrong with her, only the food. Her smile went up to her ears. Well, I couldn’t resist it, especially as I might never see her again.

Whe Terry got back with the drinks, he had made a decision. “Okay, let’s say I go for it. How soon does this all happen? Keith produced an envelope from his inside pocket, and slid it across the table. “This is enough for another van, and more spare parts. Once you have taken on a second plumber, I will get the company to send you the contract and the jobs by post”. Terry took the envelope, and seemed pleased.

As for me, I knew it wasn’t Kosher.

The next years pased peacefully. Little Stephen coped well at school, and Susan was happy to go back to work part time, working in the office of the same primary school. It was her ideal job, and during the times she had to work during the school holidays, my mum came over to watch him. I got the promotion at work, and we moved offices to a new development close to the construction of Canary Wharf. A longer journey for me, but twice the salary.

Enough to buy a second car, even though we only needed two cars occasionally. I left Susan using the Volvo, and treated myself to a Golf GTI. They were all the rage then, real boy racer cars. Susan didn’t like to go in it when I was driving. “You drive too fast, love. Slow down”.

John Major won the election that year, and I had my thirty-second birthday. Susan was already thirty-seven, and had never again spoken about a second child. We didn’t need to move, as we had already installed a modern kitchen, and there was plenty of space for the three of us. Life was good, we had plenty of money, and even took two holidays a year.

But I still had Keith to consider.

He had made good with his dodgy contract to Terry. The last I had heard, Terry employed five staff and ran four plumber’s vans. Keith had stood for the Conservatives in the election, but they had put him up in a safe Labour seat that he wasn’t expected to win. Meanwhile, he had got elected to Westminster Council, and was making a name for himself. Next election, they would find him a safe seat for sure. I couldn’t get the problem with Terry out of my mind. I didn’t trust Keith not to eventually ruin him, or worse, kill him in some way.

It would probably look like an accident. Or maybe a burglary gone wrong. Suicide wasn’t an option, because that was too close to how Johnny was supposed to have died. The deeper Keith became involved in politics, the more I became convinced that he wouldn’t risk Terry buckling in the future, and causing some fuss about Johnny. If he did that, Keith would undoubtedly silence him.

And I was not going to let that happen.

Not that we saw much of him. Susan kept in touch by phone, and we all had one of those new mobiles that were all the rage. Him and Maddy hadn’t had kids, and her photography business hadn’t worked out. She was now working as a party arranger. When I asked Susan what all that was about, she told me Maddy got paid for arranging functions for companies and rich people. I remarked that it was a good way to earn a living, basically going to parties.

My dad had to go into hospital late in the year. Mum made light of it, but they put something into his heart to improve his breathing. She didn’t say what, but I thought it must be a new valve. We went to visit him before he was discharged, and he was as upbeat as ever. He wasn’t one to complain. After that, he couldn’t work for a long time, so I slipped mum a few quid on the side to help them out.

Keith rang one evening. He suggested a night out with Terry closer to Christmas. “Let’s get together again, the old musketeers. What do you say, Danny? We could get Terry up to the West End one night, I can get into some pretty exclusive clubs you know.” I didn’t like the sound of it, so put him off by saying I was too busy at work. He didn’t give up. “Let’s make if for the new year then. We are all getting older now, and all three of us are doing okay. High time we rekindled that friendship, Danny mate”.

Far too jolly for my liking.

Leaving it that we would be in touch at some time over the Christmas period, I said goodbye. Susan asked me what her brother had wanted, so I told her. She shook her head. “It’s up to you of course, but I can never forget what happened the last time you all met up. I hear Johnny’s mum is not doing well. She gave up the house and moved into a one-bed flat in Kidbrooke. The last I heard she was drinking too much, and Georgie had washed his hands of her. He told my dad she had all kinds of men in there, and he thought she was doing more than boozing, if you get my meaning”.

I got her meaning. Jeannie was using sex, drink, and drugs to ease her grief. And at her age, that wasn’t good. But where was Graham? he should have been helping his mum.

So I decided to try and contact him.

When I finally got a phone number for Graham that he actually answered, he told me he knew that his mum was on a downward spiral. He had travelled up from Brighton to see her in her small flat, and she had been more or less out of it. He even offered to take her to live with him and his friend on the south coast, but she had pushed him out of the flat, and told him to leave her alone. He thanked me for thinking of her, but was adamant at the end of the call.

“She has to get herself straight, or she can’t be helped, Danny. She has never recovered from Johnny’s suicide, and my dad is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. He went to see her once, and found her in bed with two men. Since then, he has washed his hands of her”.

The new year came and went without me contacting Keith. He didn’t try again, as he had other fish to fry. A long-serving member of parliament in a very safe Conservative constituency had died, and they had put Keith up for the by-election. Not only did he win, he increased the majority. He was portrayed in the media as a young, go-ahead politician with a right-wing agenda. If he made a name for himself, who knew how far he could go?

But the opposition had a new leader, Tony Blair. In the run-up to the next election, he increased the popularity of his party by adopting a middle-of the road, moderate stance. By then we had the computer age of course, and the world-wide web. The world was changing, and my job changed with it. They sent me on courses, started an online option to do away with the paperwork, and my company became the leader in the field of insurance. I had bonuses, share options, and enough money to trade up from the Golf to an Audi. I even got Susan the new model of the Volvo estate.

By the time Blair won the next election, we were considering moving from our house to a better one actually in Dulwich Village, near the park. Although his party lost, Keith retained his safe seat, and got a job as an opposition minister on the front benches. He and Maddy moved from the Pimlico flat to a house in Notting Hill, which was super-trendy at the time. They invited us to a house-warming party. I didn’t want to go, but he was Susan’s brother, so she couldn’t say no. My mum took Stephen for the day, and as always was delighted to have him.

He was soon to start in his first year of Secondary School, and showing great potential. Enough to be considered for a scholarship place at Dulwich College.

The party was one of those wandering-around eating canapes kind of occasions, and Maddy had of course arranged it. There were waiters and waitresses walking around with tray of drinks and nibbles, and most of the other guests seemed to be chinless wonders. Public-School posh boys born with silver spoons in their mouths. I tried to avoid them, after the first few “And what do you do?” questions.

Keith cornered me at the end of the courtyard garden, not long after it had got dark.

“So, mate. What are we going to do about Terry? He is drinking, gambling, and not keeping up his end of things with the plumbing contract. Two of his staff have already left, and I am geting earache from the contact who gave him the job. You would think after all this time he could forget what happened near Beachy Head. But it seems he is determined to self-destruct. He will take us down with him, mark my words”.

When Keith called me ‘mate’, it sounded wrong now. Too much water under too many bridges for him to use that word, even though I was married to his older sister. His parents were there too, but all they could do for me was to manage a cursory nod to acknowledge my existence.

It had been a nightmare trying to park near the new house. Everywhere was ‘Resident Only’ parking, and we had walked over fifteen minutes after finding a space. I wasn’t in the best of moods when I replied. I told him to leave Terry alone. If he made a mess of things, then cancel the contract, and let our musketeer sink or swim on his own. Keith looked a good ten years older than he was, when he put his hand on my shoulder and whispered out of earshot of the other guests.

“No can do, I’m afraid. I simply cannot allow that fool to ruin my life”.

After the conversation with Keith at his new house, I was getting very worried about Terry. There were so many ways that Keith could affect his life, I started to imagine what he might do. Perhaps invent some corruption around the plumbing contract, or maybe grass him up to the income tax people. I didn’t expect that Terry’s tax situation was in very good order. But what would be achieved by ruining him?

If Terry had no future left, he was far more likely to break down and tell someone what had happened to Johnny on that fateful night in the caravan.

Then life got in the way of my worries. A boom time for me at work, the swish house close to Dulwich Park had become a reality, and Stephen was doing so well at Dulwich College, he seemed to have a great future ahead of him. Susan became rather snobbish following the house move, but remained a great wife to me, a wonderful mum to Stephen, and a real home-maker. We had dragged ourselves up from the back streets of Deptford, and were now decidedly upper-middle-class in one of the best districts south of the Thames.

Terry slipped my mind for a while, and Keith was still being touted as a potential leader of the Conservatives. We had less and less to do with him and Maddy. Though we had elevated our social status, my brother-in-law’s right wing views didn’t sit well with either of us. He seemed determined to push his party further to the extremes of its policies, and loved to appear on political talk shows causing controversy with his openly racist and classist comments.

In the middle of all that, we got a double shock in the same week. My mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was facing drastic surgery to attempt to cure her. On the Friday of that same week, my dad dropped dead of a heart attack just after eating his breakfast. For a long time, Terry was the last thing on my mind.

The new house had four big bedrooms, so Susan suggested moving my mum in with us. Mum didn’t want to give up the Deptford house, but agreed to stay with us to recuperate from her surgery. Susan was marvellous. Driving mum back and forth for radiotherapy, and sitting up at night with her when she was sick from the Chemo. When mum’s hair fell out, Susan bought her an expensive wig from a place in the West End, and helped her style it.

I was feeling very grown up and responsible by then, and the old days of The Four Musketeers were becoming a distant memory.

Then following a speaking engagement at Oxford University, Keith was attacked by a group of left-wing agitators. He ended up in hospital and made a publicity event out of it. I was left wondering if he hadn’t engineered the whole thing, as nobody was ever arrested for the assault on him. When I mentioned that to Susan, she said she had thought exactly the same thing.

Mum went into remission, and insisted on returning to her old house. Susan helped where she could, but mum was stubborn, and sure she could cope. The doctors said that if she remained cancer-free for five years, they would consider her cured. So she became fixated on making those five years, and the first year went by without incident.

Another promotion followed for me, and that meant I had to move to a new call centre that I was to manage. It was outside Central London, close to Croydon, so I was now commuting by car. And that car was now a company car, a Mercedes. Susan loved to travel in that silver Merc, feeling like we had really arrived. With the new job came longer hours, and much more pay. We talked about moving to a bigger house, but I was reluctant to do that. The house we had was certainly big enough, and the area was such a great place to live.

So we stayed in Dulwich Village.

One thing we did splash out on was a new television, a top-of-the-range Sony. The day it was delivered, I was expected to set it up when I got home from work. Susan hated to mess around with anything technical. By the time I had it tuned in, she was in the kitchen preparing dinner, and I waited until we had eaten to sit and watch something. I chose the nine o’clock news.

Halfway down the day’s news, there was a report from Harlesden. There had been a gas explosion at a house undergoing renovation. The house had been more or less demolished by the blast, and two men had been killed. It was believed that they were plumbers installing a new central heating system, but their names were not given. As the camera panned around the scene away from the news reporter, I caught my breath.

The van parked in the street outside was Terry’s.

As soon as I saw the news report, I immediately knew that Keith had been involved somehow. I said as much to Susan, but she didn’t agree. “Danny, he is not the nicest person, but I don’t think he would ever do anything like that. You are taking things too far now”.

Of course, Susan had no idea what had happened at Beachy Head that night, and she was not going to want to think that her brother could kill someone, even if he only arranged it.

That now left me as the only person who could ever implicate Keith. Not that I had any intention of doing so, as I would also be an accessory. Keith should have known that, but I was sure he didn’t trust me. I resolved to meet him somewhere, and talk it through.

We were not invited to the funeral, but it was reported on the news that the Health and Safety Executive had investigated the incident, and concluded that it had been carelessness on the part of the plumbers, as a blow-torch had been found close to an unsecured gas pipe. I didn’t believe it was negligence for a second. No plumber would be using a blow-torch in such a situation, or leave a disconnected gas pipe uncapped.

It took some months before I could get a private meeting with Keith. I had to go and see him at his constituency office, on a Friday evening. He was cagey. “So to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, old musketeer?” I didn’t mince my words, and told him that I was sure he had arranged the explosion that had killed Terry and one of his employees. He could have blustered, could have acted outraged at my suggestion. But he didn’t.

He just smiled.

“You should know that I was almost one hundred miles away at the time, attending a meeting in Peterborough for the selection of a new candidate. Besides, how could I have possibly caused a gas explosion without endangering myself? And not forgetting that I know absolutley nothing about plumbing, central heating, or gas pipes. You must be delusional, Danny, you really must”. From the expression on his face, I knew I was right. He had arranged it somehow.

I made it clear to him that I didn’t believe him, and thought that what he had done was completely outrageous and unacceptable. But he had a cast-iron alibi, with many witnesses, and he probably hadn’t been within miles of Harlesden in his entire life. Knowing was one thing, proving it was another. There were people waiting to see him, so I was more or less dismissed.

“If there is nothing else, I am very busy. You and Susan should come for dinner one night. Bring young Stephen, I understand he is doing well at school? Maddy would love to see you, I’m sure. Meanwhile, try to rein in your paranoia. It won’t help our relationship, and it is far too late to do anything to help Terry now”.

Naturally, I didn’t tell Susan about the meeting, and certainly didn’t mention his dinner invitation. I decided that even if he was my brother-in-law, the less we saw of him the better.

Events took my mind off Keith. After less than two years in remission, my mum was diagnosed with secondary tumours. This time they were in her vital organs, and her prognosis was bad. So bad in fact, that she didn’t see the summer. I didn’t invite Keith and Maddy to the funeral, though Susan’s parents attended to pay their respects. I doubted Keith would come anyway, as he was still very busy trying to become the leader of the Conservatives. He sent a card with a printed message. No doubt one of his admin assistants sorted that out for him.

Stephen was now playing in various sports teams for Dulwich College. Susan drove him to training, and to matches when no transport had been arranged. One Saturday morning, she asked me for my car keys, as she was taking him to Crystal Palace Sports centre, and my car was behind hers. “I might as well take the Merc, if you are going to be at home”. I nodded, and handed her the keys. She was on the insurance for my company car, something I had arranged and paid for.

They left just after nine that morning, and I did some admin work on my laptop while they were out. When the house phone rang at just after midday, I was surprised to hear a serious voice at the other end. “Mister Wellman? This is Sergeant Jones from the traffic division. I am sorry to tell you that your wife has been involved in a serious accident, and is currently at the Mayday Hospital. They are just being checked over, but I think you will need to go and collect her and your son.”

I found her keys for the Volvo, and drove to the hospital. I had an inkling it was bad.

Susan and Stephen were very shaken up, but the car had saved them from any injury. A nice piece of solid engineering. It had been taken away for examination by the police, and Susan had been cautioned that she might be charged with causing death by dangerous driving.

After leaving the sports centre, she had driven down the hill, seen a red traffic light ahead, and braked. But according to her, the brakes had failed completely, and she had struck a motorcyclist sitting at the red light. The car had run over him, and he had died from his injuries. I was allowed to take them home, as the police had said they would notify her if a prosecution was to go ahead.

As I drove them home slowly in the Volvo, I knew for sure that Keith had been involved. After all, it was my car, not hers, and he would have been expecting me to drive it. How they managed to tamper with the brakes when the car was parked outside the house, I would never know. But they surely had, and not set off the car alarm in the process.

Keith had gone too far now. My wife and son might have been killed, and at the very least she now had the death of an innocent person on her conscience. Stephen sat in the back, and was very quiet. I was wondering how much being in this accident might affect him in the future.

After making various phone calls, I managed to get a replacement car delivered by the firm my company used. Almost identical, but black instead of silver. The next morning, I said I had some things to do, and drove straight to Keith’s house in Notting Hill. I didn’t want to phone him first, and was hoping to catch him unawares. But he wasn’t home. Maddy was surpised to see me, so I told her about the accident involving Susan and Stephen.

She looked suitably shocked, enough to convince me that she had no part in whatever Keith got up to. When I got home, Susan’s parents were there, as she had let them know. Her dad made some stupid comments about foreign cars, and once he realised that there was going to be no dinner cooked, he left with his wife.

Later that night, Keith phoned and spoke to Susan. He didn’t mention my visit to his house, telling her the lie that his parents had told him what had happened. He was out of London, campaigning in a by-election in the West Country. He told her he would visit when he got back.

Another alibi, and more witnesses.

He never did come and see her. Some time later, the police called to say that Susan would not face any charges. She had been driving at the speed limit, and an engineer’s inspection had discovered a badly-corroded brake pipe that had allowed all the fluid to leak from the braking system. That seemed unlikely in such a new car, but the blame was laid at the door of Mercedes, and the company insurance dealt with the claim from the family of the man who had been killed. I kept the black car, and we never saw the silver one again.

No longer feeling confident to drive, Susan started to use taxis to run Stephen around. There seemed to be little point in keeping the Volvo, so I sold it back to the main dealer where we had bought it. Things changed after that accident. Stephen became withdrawn, and did not progress so well at school the following term. Susan was scared of being in a car, and seemed to blame me because it had been my car she was using. I saw no point in telling her my suspicions that Keith was trying to kill me. That would have involved having to tell her the full story about what had happened to Johnny.

What really annoyed me was that I had the most to lose if the Johnny story had come out. I had been the one who had grabbed him and struck him against the kitchen in the caravan. I had been the one who had seen his eyes open and had still thrown him over the cliff. Yet Keith seemed intent on removing any witness to the event.

First Terry, then me.

It wasn’t as if I could just go out and kill Keith. I would surely be found out, and I didn’t have his network of contacts provided by his high-powered political situation.

I would have to think of something, as I was sure he would try again.

There were times when I started to question my own sanity. After all, Keith had solid alibis for both of the incidents that I had attributed to him, and would he really have the clout to get some kind of black-ops organisation to carry out such things on his behalf? Had my paranoia clouded my judgement? Overruled my common sense? But I couldn’t shake the feeling. I was unable to get the look on his face out of my mind when I met him. And I couldn’t forget the tone of his voice that evening he spoke to me at his housewarming party.

If I was on the right track, his plan to kill me in the car had backfired, and that could only mean one thing. He would try again.

But I had other fish to fry. A shaken-up wife and a withdrawn son, both exhibiting major changes in their personalities. The best I could come up with was a holiday. Somewhere exotic, and warm and sunny. A carefree trip with no mention of what had happened in Crystal Palace, and definitely no talking about Keith. Susan was unimpressed.

“It’s up to you. I’m not bothered, but if you want to go away, then you pick somewhere. The ladies in the village often talk about The Maldives, that seems to be a real destination these days”. So I did my research, and booked a two-week holiday to The Maldives. An idyllic hotel that offered luxury cabins on stilts actually in the ocean, with five-star service. There was snorkelling, boat trips, and an international menu of fine food. It cost an arm and a leg for the three of us, but off we went.

It was all it promised, but as far as Susan and Stephen were concerned, we might just as well have spent two weeks in a caravan in Clacton. She sat reading all day, and went to bed not long after dinner. Stephen wasn’t interested in my plans for snorkelling or any water activities, complained about the exotic food on offer, and spent most days griping about the poor wi-fi signal for his laptop. All in all, it was an expensive flop, and I was actually looking forward to the flight home.

We checked in for the flight back to Heathrow, and Susan had her book ready to read on the long flight. As we taxied into position for take off, there was a huge bang that made everyone on the aircraft gasp. Moments later, there was a broadcast on the intercom to inform us that there had been a problem with one of the main engines, and we were returning to the terminal to await a replacement aircraft.

As we sat inside waiting for the second flight, I couldn’t stop myself thinking. Keith had known we were going. Susan had told him on the phone, and her parents knew too. Could Keith’s reach extend this far? Was it at all possible that he had hoped to crash our plane after we had taken off, but something had happened too early?

By the time we arrived back in London, I had managed to convince myself that was fact.

Before I went back to work, I sat in the spare room I used as a study, and wrote down everything that had happened, right back to the start when we were kids. I was in there so long that Susan came in and asked me what I was doing. I gave her a lame story about writing a report on how to completely revolutionise the call-centre system for insurance companies. She stood in the doorway and smiled. “Well I hope they give you another promotion once they read it. Dinner’s ready in ten minutes”.

On the Monday, I left work early. In my pocket was a memory stick with the whole story written on it. If anything happened to me, Keith’s ambitions would come to nothing. There might be no proof of anything, but mud sticks, and sticky mud destroys political careers. I had an appointment with the solicitor who had arranged our house sale. I told him I wanted to make a will, ensuring security for Susan and Stephen if anything unusual should happen to me.

He wrote it up just as I asked. Susan would get everything. The house, life insurance, savings, all personal possessions. When I died, she would be set for life, and she could pass it all down to Stephen eventually.

Once everything was prepared and printed off, I signed on various dotted lines, witnessed by a member of staff and the solicitor, neither of whom were beneficiaries. Before I left, I handed over the memory stick, telling him that it should be stored securely with the will, and in the event of my untimely death it should be emailed to every major national newspaper and television station. Unknown to him, this also included everything right up to that meeting.

So if you are reading this now, you will know that my suspicions were correct.

The End.

21 thoughts on “The Four Musketeers: The Complete Story

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