At the centre of this town is a story.
This is the reason you’re here. In this heatwave the streets hum with magic. Drive down a main street lined with big, purpose-built bars and restaurants, traditional hotel pubs, upmarket hairdressers, high street banks, small pavilions of families eating and drinking, the scamper of uniformed waiters, roped-off sections of chewed road and ticking machinery, there’s money here, and a sense of mean abandon that can’t be completely explained by the recent unbroken sunshine or the place’s recent tragedy. And then you reach the suburbs. Good schools and golf courses. Rows of detached houses in shining terracotta, glistening tarmac, late-model family saloons in gorgeous cherry shades. Two children kick a ball on a drive with some precision. Over terraced rooftops you can glimpse the Three Peaks, dairy sheds, tractors, cattle. And the Nidderdale reservoir.
‘They were together as kids. She were fifteen and he were nineteen.’ The contact is a woman of thirty or so with a handsome face and clipped dark hair. ‘Place like this, lot of people get together as kids. She were fifteen, but… no one was bothered about this back then. Liam was a decent lad. He were a catch. He was in the Army for two year and had only come back because his disc slipped on a training exercise in Kenya and he got med exed. His dad owned the Gomersall auto dealership on Bruce Road. The Gomersalls have been here for generations. Liam had the car. Lovely blue Mazda. A lot of girls used to stand at the gate and watch for that car.’
Like many pubs round here this is an oak-lined barn with interiors of odd slants and angles, so although you can’t see anyone else in your immediate line of vision you hear voices and the clash of cutlery. The floors are tiled stone and shafts of light and shadow wink across them.
The contact’s phone goes off. She opens it. ‘Yeah. He’s here now. I’m talking to him.’ Pause. ‘Well if he wants to go to boxing you have to run him down.’
‘He’s already got football and thletics, why’s he want to go to boxing? He’s eight year old.’
‘Look, call me back. Call me back.’ Snap. ‘Where was I?’
‘I can only really give you an hour today,’ the contact says. ‘Saturday is like my busiest day. I mean you know what it’s like yourself.’
You don’t. You don’t have kids. But you don’t say so.
‘In a way you could see where Riley was coming from. I shouldn’t say that. It’s an horrible thing to say.
‘They got married on the treehouse at Boroughbridge. That were lovely. I went up with the girls from school, got dressed up, it was like prom night all over again. She looked gorgeous. All brides do, they say. They had a four course meal with lobster thermidor and rump steak. Drove off in Liam’s Mazda with JUST MARRIED on the back and the rest of us chucking confetti and laughing. Of course his family paid it all. Liam was a big Peter Kay fan and his dad approached Peter Kay apparently to do a set. Sixteen grand he quoted. Sixteen grand! They get like that, some of them. Mind you, my cousin ran into that Katie Price when they were over in the Dominican Republic. She were sat on the beach with her kids and people were coming up to her and saying hi and she were fine with it. No airs and graces.
‘This wedding went okay. His dad were a lech – you had to watch your bra straps when Dave Gomersall was around, specially if he’d had a drink, my mam said he were the exact same when they was young. Vicki Lyall got off with Ross Brodie, Liam’s brother battered Glenn Dixon cause he poured a glass of whisky over the DJ decks, we got hold of the nan’s motor scooter and zoomed around the treehouse and the rope bridges on it, I remember Sonny Ryall and Demi-Leigh had to carry me back in a shopping trolley, I was so drunk. You’re only young once.’
It’s a curiosity of this line of work, you speak to hundreds of people, who you have never met before and with whom you have nothing in common, and a few minutes in they start telling you their life stories. ‘There is a point when you’re young, maybe sixteen or seventeen, there’s a moment of what you’d call… clarity. I remember the night of the prom me and Riley and Vicki and a bunch of us were stood on the front porch of Vicki’s dad’s house ont the Fishergate hill. We were proper tarted up and Riley had taxed a bottle of port off her mum and she’d poured it into a flask and doled it out to us, in little sips.
‘The sky was blue, and it were so hot, it was like living in LA or Barca. I remember, you know when you’re sort of tipping over into being pissed, and you feel it more, when you’re young. And I saw the limousines come over the hill, knowing that Ross Brodie would be in the back of that, Ste Bulmer too, probably already half-cut himself on bottles of Tiger beer he’d lifted from the bar at the Fauconberg. I felt… good, like really good to be alive, but also afraid and a bit low, because I knew that I would marry Ste Bulmer and have kids and get a job at the glassworks or the local authority and I would never have anything like the time to feel like this again. You don’t go to college or really leave the town. You meet someone and fall pregnant. But I think it’s hard on everyone when you fall. Riley Monk fell harder than most.’
Whatever else this place is – it’s not depressing. The view from the back beer garden is a marvellous vista of fields and townships. The sun is still out and there are more people out here. The contact asks for a light. You light her cigarette, and one for yourself.
‘I hardly saw Riley after this. They had moved into the flat above the dealership, had it to themselves – Liam’s people had an house up in Bishop Monkton. Now thing about Riley was she were always just really fit, one of the fittest girls int school.’ The contact traces an hourglass. ‘Not so much up top but dead lovely wavy black hair, long legs, kind of darkish skin with freckles – people thought she was Spanish but she wasn’t. Used to wear these skirts up to the thigh, which you got bollocked for in them days –‘
You smile. It was the exact same at your school.
‘– but Riley never did, maybe cause the teachers sensed she wasn’t wearing them for attention. She was just – ‘ The contact fumbles for the word.
‘That’s it. She wor unconscious in everything she did. Lads would be fiddling themselves off to her under the desk and she just had no idea.
‘I ran into her a couple of years after the wedding. I were in the Morrisons and proper stressed trying to get the weekly shop done on a Friday after work – telling myself I could come back the next morning, but knowing I’d be too hungover and tired. I ran into her in the frozen aisle. I know obviously she was pregnant with Ava, but she just looked so ill and run on. She was about eight month gone, and she had kind of puffy features, like my aunt when she started taking the Crohn’s meds. She gave us a smile – she was the same sweet kid – and it was only that smile, coming out of that fat pale face, that made me realise who I was talking to.’ She pronounces it toh. ‘We had a hug and we chatted for a bit, not long, we said we was going to meet up soon, but we didn’t do it until much later. I mean you don’t have time. Do you have kids?’
You say no. You’re in a relationship with a good man but no kids. The contact registers this and continues her story.
‘Six year went by. Riley had three kids, two girls and a boy. The kids all seemed really nice, lively, well behaved, and healthy – and that’s something in a world where it seems every second or third child’s born with autism or club foot or some mad genetic disease that no one understands. Plus all that AHDH and opposition disorder, it’s horrible what some people go through.
‘She turned up at the school gates on a morning for months after Ava was born, and we’d chat and have a fag after the kids had gone in – just having that slice of free time before you had to head for work. I never knew when I was sixteen that I’d be fighting and scrambling for time. She also used to come on the odd night out, to the Fauconberg or into York on the minibus – and then like months went by when we didn’t see her, and it was allus her sister dropping the kids off at the gate, and her sister never spoke to us cause we used to pick on her at the school – there’s some types never forget that.’
The contact says that several years had gone by before she saw Riley again. It had been because Riley’s fella, Liam Gomersall, had been the subject of rumours in the town – that he was sleeping with every other woman in its small radius. Liam was only a few years older than Riley, and apparently felt he still had a lot of sexual experience to get in, and in addition to the reliable rumour that reached the contact’s attention she had also personally seen him, in the Fauconberg, sharing a passionate kiss – ‘with Tiny Redmonds from the other half year. They were in a booth. I was in there to pick up the meat from the raffle – I glanced across and I didn’t know where to put my face, I swear. I mean I know this town. It’s funny because you’d think it’s so dull and maybe it is but people just screw around. There ain’t a month go by when someone puts it for a divorce, not a Saturday night you don’t get woken up by some couple down the road screaming at each other in the street. I suppose it’s the same where you live?’
You don’t know. You live in a peaceful Sheffield suburb and you have no idea who your neighbours are.
The contact is saying that of course I’m no angel, everyone knows I messed around with Harry Longbottom’s cousin, but we’ve known each other since we were five and he’s a good man but you know Ste holds that over my head every time he wants to take the high road like he’s not been shagging that Shelbi Price slut from the small breeds farm for years. I fucking know! ‘But it just felt like Liam wor taking the piss, snogging like teenagers in full view of half the town. I kept thinking about it and I chatted to the girls about it and we decided what the fuck, we’d go and see her.’
They were still living above the dealership?
The contact says yeah. It was me Demi-Leigh and Vicky Ryall and I knocked and I got this awful feeling – I didn’t want her to open up. I didn’t want anyone to open. I wished that door not to open. And we waited and no one came and I was thinking thank fuck, they’re not answering, we can go, I can forget all this – and then there were footsteps on the stairs and Liam opened up.
‘He was wearing a new shirt and hair slicked back and aftershave on, like he was just off out. Dead friendly, asking us how things were like nothing was wrong. You got into the flat through a little side door, up a flight of stairs, and then – the first thing I noticed was the smell.
‘They had this little open plan flat, TV on, loads of toys and games and clutter about the place – they had three kids by then so you’d expect a mess, like my house, loads of houses, only it wasn’t, somehow. There was the smell. It wasn’t like shit or piss, it was just really thick and ground in and old and it penetrated everything. When I was twelve my granddad had a stroke. I was sent round to bring his paper and as soon as I opened the door I knew he was dead. Because of this smell of old rotten vegetables and packed dirt.’
The contact said that Liam was chatting away about nights, schools, jobs, pacing about the place, glancing on occasion into a mirror (or maybe the TV – The One Show was on) the kids were crawling and running about the place as kids do, and Riley just slumped on the floor, leant against an armchair. Riley’s lovely hair hadn’t been washed in a while and there were stains on her clothes and she was smoking.
‘And one of her kids – I think it was little Jess – she stumbled on something and fell over. Hit her head on a table leg – not hard enough to do any damage, but still, if my youngest falls or trip my heart just stops. Plus the kid just starts bawling. Riley was looking that way but just didn’t register it. It was mad. It were silent – Liam had gone into the bathroom, to powder his fucking nose or something – and Demi-Leigh says, Aww, that’s a nasty fall! I think just for something to say. And Riley goes, Yeah! and just points at her kid, as if at a comedy show. Are you cold? Do you want to go in? I’m cold.’
Post-natal depression or what you call it. The contact didn’t think that Riley would come out of it but she did. Liam stopped seeing other women or at least practised a little discretion. Riley’s dad went to Mark Gomersall’s place and then they went to see Liam and maybe words were had.
‘It weren’t an uncommon thing. I’ve been on citalopram since Amelia was born. Riley had meds and also Liam’s dad paid for her to get CBT on private. She really took to it. Started turning up at the school gate on a morning, learned to drive, she ran the after school club and the netball five a sides, she came out with the girls on nights, and even got a job – she studied for like a medical coding course and got a job at the Royal. Was earning more than Liam at one point.
But in a way it’s easier when you’re depressed. You don’t think at all. You just float in the darkness. When you’re out of the darkness and with energy to burn that’s when you can feel really heartbroken and unfulfilled and aggravated. Riley wanted to see something of life. ‘And she got it.’
People think the countryside is peaceful and it is. But the country has the same problems as the city – it’s just they’re better hidden. The contact can tell you the pubs where you can buy cocaine and heroin, quite easily; can take you to farmsteads where there are, carefully concealed in agricultural warehouses, illegal distilleries and methamphetamine plants and hundreds of cannabis leaves ripening under the wattage of sophisticated hydroponic lamps. The contact knows the places on Yorkshire’s ragged coastline where small boats can dock and fields where it is safe to land a small plane. The contact knows men and women who by day are successful estate agents or ag supply purchasers and by night fire back lines and pills at sybaritic lockins, she grew up with men who are now in prison for smuggling, others dead from ODs. It can get boring up here. Stretches of miles where there are no buses or pubs or amenities. It can get dull. And there are plenty ready to run great risk to make the town more interesting.
‘Riley fell in with the party crowd – Richie Morrison who owns the Indian place on high street, Blake Perry at the second hand bookshop, those lesbians from London, nothing against them like, who bought old Sankey’s place. She was out all the time, sometimes in Leeds or York but most often around here, pubs and houseparties, sometimes special parties, if you get my drift – proper organised orgies, on the internet. There was a little club of them. And when the pubs were closed and there was no free house she would just wander the hills. It sounds mad, unreal, but I ran into her once. I were roped in as a supervisor at Declan’s school when they climbed Malham Cove. Have you been up Malham Cove? High, rocky cliff, you have to climb up this pathway that’s like set into the rock, all you can see is rock, you feel like you’re in that bloody Game of Thrones. Beautiful place, but it’s somewhere you go for a family picnic, not tryna crowd control a bunch of fourteen year olds – I tell you, I was glad to get a pint after that trip.
‘I climbed up to the top, knackered, and there she was – just sunning herself on the top, wearing this clingy top and her French style scarf, listening to that crazy electronic music she liked and not a care in the world. I were worried at first, cause her pupils were that dilated, and I couldn’t see that she had a map or any water – I mean, people still get lost and die in the Dales. She laughed me off. ‘It’s cool, honey! I just wanted to watch the dawn!’ Eventually I managed to persuade her to come down with the group. I remember how the sunlight caught her hair.’
She were out of the danger zone. The early years are the hardest and once the kids are off at school that’s it – if you want to go out and about you can, long as there’s someone to mind the kids, your nan or whatever, and Riley could afford proper childminders, she had money. But after years of roving about the town Liam didn’t take this at all well. He didn’t want to be a stay at home dad while his wife were gallivanting around with the cool crowd but with so many eyes on him he couldn’t not. She was always taking his Mazda and driving it off places, running the fuel down and leaving litter and shit in the car and that’s what got to him most of all – when I think about it now I think that Liam Gomersall was nothing without that car.
And Riley hated him on some level. I don’t mean she wanted to hurt him the way it looked but I do believe that on a level she hated him. Terrible arguments. Shouts. Screams. Threats. Police callouts. Ste’s brother attended one time and Riley had a black eye and Liam had so many fingernail gashes on his face it looked like she had gone at him with a cheesegrater. And the rest you know.
‘I know what you’re going to say,’ the contact tells you. ‘You’re going to ask whether she loved her children.’
You weren’t. You really weren’t.
‘What the fuck kind of question is that? Of course she loved her children!’
You drive for the way back to the city. Everything’s on a gradient and you take a glimpse of the reservoir. They seem to be building something. The sun hits the water and you put the top mirror down to avoid the glare. For a moment the sky appears bright white and pressing on the land and it seems painful.