The Fishermen’s Quay

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Alison Thorne, a struggling writer in her 50s, recalls an affair with her English teacher when she was 14. They ran away together, but were traced to Ostend by the press.

The Fishermen’s Quay

I went to call my agent this morning. Only I couldn’t get through. That pompous, schoolma’amy voice cut in to tell me ‘sorreh’, but my telephone could no longer make outgoing calls.

Just to drive the point home, there was a fat package waiting in the hall when I went upstairs, the address on it taunting me with the familiar curlicued A for Alison. I took it downstairs and hurled it against the wall. Then I put the pot on the hotplate for more coffee, flung myself on the bed, and sobbed.

It wasn’t working. Though I make every effort to sit down every day and write my thousand words, come what may, there are always days when it just isn’t worth making the effort. Sometimes the only thing to do is to let myself deliquesce into a morass of tearful self-pity, and from that chaos perhaps some kind of ordered sanity would begin to assert itself.

The order that came now, like summer sunshine bursting through purple storm-clouds, was a vision of Andrew, alive after all maybe, and out there somewhere. And a voice that niggled in an insistent whisper, ‘Find him!’ I sat up, blinking. The sun was slanting through the bars on the windows as if bearing hope to the dungeon. The library – that’s where I found my mother, that’s where to begin to find Andrew.

This library is not the imposing blue-grey monument to the philanthropy of a Victorian industrialist, glowering with stern Victorian authority over the hovels of the workers, where I found Marie Grace Lewis. This is a modern library, sitting almost apologetically on a corner as if to say ‘sorry, I have to be provided by statute but I’ll keep as quiet as I can’. The old newspaper library that used to fill the basement was gone, perhaps because the history of real people stood in the way of progress and economic expedience, but what I wanted was still there in an unobtrusive corner of the second floor.

It was the spring, I’m sure of that. Early May, probably. I can remember the leaves of the lime trees unfurling into new life, and the sticky-buds on the horse chestnuts, and the early-morning sun with real warmth in it, so full of the promise of another lazy day, dancing and sparkling between the fishing boats along the harbour.

I was feeling frightened and at the same time safe. I remember that. Safe because we’d put the English Channel behind us. Frightened because I felt cut off from my life, because I’d never been outside England before, and because the smells were strange and the buildings foreign and the voices and the street signs in an alien language – Groentenmarkt and St Paulusstraat and Visserskaai, which Andrew told me was the Fishermen’s Quay. I don’t think he knew much more than I did; he spoke when he had to in slow deliberate English and was answered by the locals in clear, full-speed English as far as I could make out. People looked curiously at me but they lost interest, I suppose, at my blushes as I drew myself closer to Andrew for protection. He had found a room, up two flights of steep, dark stairs over a side-street bar from which loud voices and music spilled at night but left us alone, in the shadow of the grand church that thrust twin spikes high into the night.

In the dark I drew up my knees and pressed myself as hard as I could against the the wall, my eyes stinging with frightened tears while his protective arm snaked around me for comfort, his face warm against the back of my neck. We weren’t rejoicing any more in illicit love, we were fugitives now. As soon as the first rays of the sun crept into the dingy room we crept out of it, tiptoeing about, sweating in case the clatter of the archaic plumbing told the whole neighbourhood that we were out and about.

Out in the street we wandered hand in surreptitious hand along the Fishermen’s Quay, inspecting the flayed wind-dried fish on the quayside stalls, the trays of shrimps and mussels and the steaming witches’ cauldrons of wollekjes, hot whelks, that misted the brisk morning air. We walked slowly on and debated the merits of the delicacies on offer, out to the beach and the sea and back again, drinking in the sharp scents of salt and seaweed, and engine oil from the throbbing boats that matched our heartbeats. Then when we’d had enough and had an appetite, I pointed to a dish of shrimps on a stall and Andrew asked for a bowl of wollekjes for himself, and we sat laughing on a bench with the warmth of the new sun and the chill of the North Sea breeze massaging my skin. That’s the moment I remember best. Nothing stood in our way. If it were in my power to freeze time for ever, that would have been the moment I would have chosen.

I think the more lurid newspapers gave more coverage, but The Times was what the library had. Cabinets full of reels of microfiche. It was hard to be precise about the date, or even the day of the week, but I took the reel for May 1969. It was a few weeks after Easter and it was before Whitsun, and that left a lot of tiny print to pore over, not the easiest way to read, like a photographic negative in letters of light against the blackness. Still, I was stubborn and determined and I found the small piece in The Times for Monday, 12 May 1969.

Missing Cheshire schoolgirl Alison Thorne, 14, was found safe and well yesterday.

Police acting on a tip-off traced her to Ostend, Belgium.

A man is in custody in connection with her abduction. He has not been named but is believed to be Andrew Baxter, 31, a teacher at Alison’s school. He disappeared at the same time.
And that’s all.

It made it seem so neat. A happy ending. God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world. Even in the quiet of the library, even with the gulf of years, I wanted to cry out, no, it wasn’t like that at all.
The streets of Ostend were still coming awake. From the Visserskaai we walked to the station where Andrew bought tickets for Brussels, and then we walked back to the little room to collect our bags.

In the street outside a few people were standing around, idly gossiping and smoking cigarettes. There was a car with English plates. Somehow that lodged in my mind and stayed there without seeming significant. It was a cherry-red Austin Cambridge, I can see it perfectly. And I sensed something in the air, something that wasn’t the chilly sea-breeze but which made me shiver nonetheless.

And then there was a hand on my shoulder, and I was being pushed, no, pulled, away from Andrew, and something like a blanket or a coat was being flung over my shoulders, and somewhere in the distance I thought I heard a voice, tinny and cold and mechanical, saying ‘Andrew Christopher Baxter.’ Then I was being pushed and bent double, hustled into the back seat of the Austin while another voice, a woman’s, clucked away behind my ear, saying it was all right, it was all right, it was all over and I’d soon be home.

And there were the blinding blue flashes, too, like a summer thunderstorm. I screwed my eyes against them and opened my mouth and screamed and screamed and screamed until everything turned black and silent.

It was dark when we got back to the Wirral. Nearly midnight I think, or perhaps it was after. I was exhausted physically and empty of all emotion, drained by screaming and crying, all I could do was stare with eyes that saw nothing but dancing shapes. They took me on a morning ferry to Dover. Three of them, keeping me very close, every breath monitored, every step watched. They bought me doughnuts and Coca-Cola and I wouldn’t touch them. I wouldn’t speak to them. At Dover they hustled me through customs and passport controls, I think they must have cleared the way in advance, and then they bundled me into the back of another car. I didn’t see much. Part of the time I had something over my head, it wasn’t a hood, probably just a coat, mostly at the times we didn’t seem to be moving very much. The rest of the time I just switched off my mind. I couldn’t move, I was wedged into the middle of the back seat with a uniformed policewoman on one side and another woman in a tweed skirt and jumper who smelled of lavender on the other.

Maybe I fell asleep in the end because suddenly I was only aware of darkness and the drone of the car’s engine, a sullen, unwavering note, and stillness. My minders mumbled to each other now and then but their words felt like cotton wool in the thick air. Somewhere there was a change in the pitch of the engine and my ears were ringing and we were in a motorway service area somewhere, and I followed blindly where I was led, to sit at a greasy table with a glass of orange squash letting the buzz of talk and the clatter of trays and plates and cutlery swish about in a vulgar miasma of sound and headache and light.

In the fug people were asking me questions and a voice that wasn’t mine was using my mouth to answer them. Me, I had no idea what I was saying because I’d pulled out of this completely. I was away somewhere under the cold light of the stars, on one of those trains with the clatter of the wheels echoing in the darkness. With his warm body pressed close to mine, with his arm enfolding me and his warm breath caressing my face.

My heart cried out for him, longing for him to be there with me now.

The sterile prose of The Times makes it all seem so banal, so clean. This innocent young girl – ravished, cruelly abused, her childhood stolen from her. I think it was talking about me, but I can’t recognise the Alison Thorne of the reports. And the man, the wicked, immoral seducer who abused his position and betrayed the trust placed in him. The heinous monster, Andrew Baxter. Who is he? I don’t know him.

It wasn’t like that at all.

What I find so strange when I recollect that long shivery night is that although I was cold and miserable I didn’t want it to end. This was my limbo. They may have torn me from my Andrew’s arms and I may have hated them for that but I knew even then that the real torments were still to come and | trembled with dread of the moment when the car rolled to a stop to disgorge me into the stodgy world of Geoffrey and Margaret, of piano lessons and Jenny Collier.

As we came ever closer, when the steady whine of tyres on motorway tarmac gave way to the gear changes and the stops and starts, then a new chill pinched at my flesh, an overweening desire to stop the clocks there and then, so that we would keep on rolling out our journey through the darkness for all eternity and never reach the end.

And then everything was still, and the night crackled under the stars, and my guts were trying to squeeze themselves out of my body. I was as limp as my old cloth doll as Margaret pulled my face into her crimplene pillow of bosom, unlovely and smelling of fabulous pink Camay, and Geoffrey was saying something in his stern yet oh-so-prim tones, something banal like ‘let’s get you home to bed young lady.’

The hand on my shoulder was gentle and concerned. ‘Are you all right?’ said the voice. I became aware of wet trails down both of my cheeks. My eyes were stinging and I knew the skin around them would be red and puffy. Something sharp was lodged in my throat. I pulled back my lips into a grim parody of a smile and tried to speak, but the words just clung to the walls of my throat. So I settled for a nod.

‘The library’s about to close,’ said the librarian.

I swallowed hard. Somehow I managed to pull myself together enough not to dissolve into sobs, and found the words to thank her. I hadn’t made much progress, but it was a start and there would be other days. I couldn’t afford it but I felt I’d earned myself a very large Bushmills in the Saddlers. I’d taken the first steps on a long journey into a mire, and I needed to send myself off in style.