October 1977. I’m eight years old. Dad’s at work. I’m sitting at home hunched over a chessboard waiting for him. White and black plastic. Pawns and pieces on a foldout board fraying at the edges and along the central crease. Knights in profile facing the King and Queen. I’ve been teaching him to play.
A radio on in the kitchen. Mum’s getting ready to go out. She has a part-time job at the Imperial pub on Bewsey Road, a five-minute walk away, serving pints of mixed and pints of tan and black to wire-factory workers: No-Danger Joe, who has his own chair by the door. Nodding Kenny, who’ll agree with anything his boss says. Varley, the pisshead with eyes the color of verdigris, trying it on with the barmaids. She serves them all until they’re too drunk to speak, at which point the manager, a gruff Belfastard, points to the door.
Dad works at the police station in Chester. Top floor. I’ve been to the canteen there. You can look out at the river Dee and the Roman wall while you eat your pie and mash and tea (two sugars). This was in the days before healthy eating. Healthy anything. This was smoker’s cough with your cake and a pall of undigested whisky fumes at breakfast. Bring the lad in to work for the morning. Nice treat while Mum’s in hospital. The receptionist — Brenda or Beryl or Olive — asks if I want a Quality Street sweet while I hide behind Dad’s legs. He’s all smiles and muttonchop whiskers. The clatter of typewriters vibrates through the building. I can smell carbon paper and Quink ink and wet dog and leather. Hoops of sweat under armpits, rings of grime on loosened collars. Brylcreemed hair and Hamlet cigars in top pockets. The world is filled with villains and slags and bastards. Some of them work here.
That radio. Chat and comment and opinion. All buzz. All background. Dad comes in. Winter’s breath full of bonfires and petrol fumes. Kiss, kiss. Dinner’s in the oven, cold lips. Mum goes out into crystallizing darkness. Dad and his brown, steaming hot pot, slashed through with red cabbage. I can’t look at his plate. Newspapers. Can of beer. I wait. I listen.
Newsflash. This just in. The body, as yet unidentified, was found on wastelands behind Manchester’s southern cemetery…
Dad puts his fork down. On the phone. He’s here then, he says. He’s come over to Manchester.
I know he’s talking about the Ripper. It’s all you hear about in the school playgrounds. Brian Trent got into trouble with the headmistress for starting a game called Dead, where he pretended to be Jack, felling girls, and how many could he get on the floor before the coppers stopped him? Manchester is twenty miles from here. If the Ripper can leave his hunting grounds of Bradford and Leeds to travel across the Pennines, then he can nip along the M62 to Warrington. Mum will walk home alone this night.
This is where much of it started for me, this business of horror and crime. Siamese genres that share the same diabolical heart. A faceless killer with a northern accent. Pictures of policemen on their knees in allotments and alleyways combing the area for clues. Everything black and cold and filthy. Desperate women torn apart on cobblestones. Doorstep horror. A wraith evading capture and grinning at the plods in their abject failure.
My parents were both in the police force. Mum left when she became pregnant with me. Good was instilled in me as intractably as the marrow in my greenstick bones. I behaved. I was shy to the point of becoming wallpaper. Spock hair. National Health Service glasses. If it weren’t for the blue serge and silver pips in my family I’d have been bully fodder. As it was, I was overlooked. I witnessed casual violence in the playground, observed the rhythms and reactions. I learned about preemptive strikes, grudges, breaking points. Some of these kids would go on to be ugly criminals. There was a rapist among them, it turned out. There was a murderer and a victim. It was a rough old school.
I lived in a pub, too. Once Dad had finished his twenty-five-year stint and picked up his carriage clock and index-linked pension, he did the usual where bobbies were concerned and took over management of the Wheatsheaf Hotel on Orford Lane. What might a quiet boy deep into solitude see here? Time, gentlemen, please. Gentlemen. Oh, really? I’ve seen drunk men threaten each other with the bare fangs of broken beer glasses. Hiked skirts, dirty thumbs hooking into knicker elastic against back alley garbage hoppers. Dad with a black eye and a split lip thanks to a “gentleman” who took umbrage at a request to drink up now, please.
I found echoes of all of this in the black novels of Derek Raymond and waded into the filth after the unnamed Detective Sergeant to the dank, stinking hellholes where bad men met their ends. I fell for the grand guignol of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and the existential tension in James Sallis’s Death Will Have Your Eyes. Later, David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, which was punishing but magnificent, offering up great swathes of my own childhood panic in its red, steaming fists.
All of this has directed where I go in everything I write, but most of it comes from the lonely places from which I viewed the world, and those that I disappeared to inside myself.
Eight years old and I wanted to make sure Mum would be all right walking across Lovely Lane at closing time. Imagining her wrapped in her coat, chilled by that Warrington winter, while fear, and maybe something else, hastened her heels. It still frightens me now. More so than the endless scrutiny of faces as men poured out of the factories at quitting time : Is it him? Is it him? Is it him? More than the “I’m Jack” tape. More than the conjecture about what the Ripper did to his victims in the blanket secrecy — details jealously kept by the police — that followed his attacks.
People ask me why I’ve made the transition from horror to crime and I think: “Transition? Seriously? What the hell are you talking about?”
Conrad Williams is the author of Blonde on a Stick (Max Crime).