9.30 pm Thursday 31 March 1988
When they came for her, she fought.
She kicked, scratched, screamed and spat at the men, grabbing at their balaclava masks… trying to find a way out.
But there were five of them. And there was no way out.
She shouted too, of course. And tried to scream. But the hand that covered her mouth and the forearm that cradled her neck were both strong and practised.
The leader - she instinctively knew he was in charge - put his covered face next to hers. He put a finger up against the wool of his mask, where she imagined his mouth was.
‘Shhhh now,’ was his advice.
She nodded. A moment of silence.
‘It’s time,’ he stated.
The grip on her mouth loosened.
She said something in a language the men didn’t understand. ‘English!’ another man screamed. He poked her hard in the face once with the flat, handle end of the baseball bat he was carrying. Then he hit her again after every subsequent word: ‘This. Is. England. Speak. Fucking. English.’
As they took her, bare toes dragging on the carpet, she dared speak one more time: ‘Where are we going?’
The leader replied: ‘Swimming.’
‘Manchester Radio News at six - this is Beth Hall. Police are investigating a series of apparent race hate attacks in Oldham last night. White paint was splashed on houses, restaurants and a mosque in the town centre as Robert Crane reports…’
“Police were initially called in the early hours after the owner of a restaurant in the Glodwick area said his premises had been targeted during the night.
White gloss paint had been thrown at the restaurant’s windows. The front door, walls and even the pavement outside had been daubed with swastikas and what appeared to be paintings of a wolf’s head.
Several homes in the area were also targeted, and white paint was also thrown at a mosque in Coldhurst. One local man whose home was vandalised - but who didn’t want to be named - says the police aren’t interested in attacks on the South Asian community:’
“We are on our own. They don’t care about our homes, our businesses or our kids. If it happens around here, the police don’t want to know. It’s scary right now, I mean it. These are frightening times and the authorities don’t seem to be on our side.”
‘Police believe the incidents are linked but say they’re keeping an open mind as to whether they were racially motivated. They’re urging anyone who saw anything suspicious in the area at the time to come forward. Robert Crane, Manchester Radio News in Oldham.’
9.45 pm Thursday 31 March 1988
Looking closely at the little girl’s swollen and bloodied lip, Detective Inspector John Smithdown sighed, rubbed a hand across his unshaven chin and shook his head. ‘It’s nasty,’ he conceded. 'I’m not saying it isn’t, because it is. It’s definitely nasty. But it’s not nasty enough, that’s the problem.’
He looked again, his tired, grey face just inches from hers. Nearly everything about Smithdown seemed tinged with grey - grey hair, grey bog-brush moustache, grey suit, even blue/grey eyes. There were some tonal differences in his appearance - light grey to dark grey - but it was all pretty much grey.
As he continued to look at her lip, she stopped crying - largely because she was so puzzled as to what the policeman was up to. She lay still on the examination table.
The girl’s lip was slightly split, just to the right of the bow. Again, Smithdown looked hard at the cut. ‘Fuck,’ he muttered, after much deliberation. Then he remembered the girl was just ten years old. ‘Sorry, love,’ he said by way of an apology. ‘But, honestly. It’s just not fucking nasty enough.’
‘I don’t follow, Mr Smithdown,’ the young photographer said, looking at the girl’s face and then at the detective. ‘Sorry. Am I being thick? I was just told to take some snaps of her injuries. That’s all I know. I have to say, it looks pretty nasty from where I’m standing.’
Smithdown motioned for the photographer to come with him to the rear of the examination room, one of several at Oldham’s brown, pebble-dashed police station. The detective looked at him. Twenty-two. Twenty-three, tops. Straight out of Manchester Polytechnic. Streaked-blonde hair and wearing jeans and his dad’s old suit jacket. Fucking Nora.
The detective placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder, then subtly moved it so he cupped the nape of his slim neck. Smithdown then pulled the photographer ever-so-slightly towards him. ‘So, you’re the new staff snapper… What’s your name, lad?’
‘Paul, Mr Smithdown. Paul Rees. I’m new. Yes. I only started this week.’
‘Look, Paul,’ the DI said in a whisper, turning his head away from the girl. ‘It’s like this. The doctor will be here any minute. He’ll take one look at that kid’s lip, see straight away it doesn’t need stitches, wipe her face, give her a lolly and send her home. Straight back into the hands of the twat that did that to her in the first place. The same twat that probably did it to her last month. And the month before that. And that is unacceptable in my view. Un-acc-ept-able, Paul. Let me give you an alternative scenario. Instead of that happening, we could get her into the Royal Oldham Hospital for the night. Then - are you following all this, Paul? Then, social services can work a bit of their hippy bollocks magic, get her made a ward of court and then get her out of that shit pile she calls her home - and away from that shithead she calls her mum’s boyfriend. Me and you. We could do that, Paul. We could make that happen. So - are you with me, or against me?’
‘I’m very much with you, Mr Smithdown,’ the photographer replied after a few moments. ‘I think.’
DI Smithdown gave the young man a hearty double slap on the back of the neck. ‘Absolutely top notch. Now, put your camera down, Paul, face the wall and shut the fuck up.’
‘The wall?’ the photographer asked.
‘The wall,’ DI Smithdown confirmed. ‘It’s the big pile of bricks over there.’
Paul lifted the strap of his Hasselblad camera over his head and carefully laid it onto the table in the corner of the room. Then he turned to face the examination room’s yellowy-white wall.
‘Cracking,’ said the detective. He checked the paperwork connected to the case then walked over to the young girl. He popped a mint into his mouth, aware that the two pints he’d had earlier in The Old Bill bar next to the police station were probably still wafting about on his breath - it was the favoured drinking spot for Oldham detectives and hard to resist of an evening shift. Smithdown bent down so that his eyes were at the same level as hers and spoke quietly to her, his hands deep into the pockets of his grey suit trousers. ‘Hi, Rebecca.’
‘It’s Becky,’ she said in the quietest of voices.
‘Sorry… Becky. Hello there. Can I ask you something?’
She nodded. Her hair was greasily dark. There was dirt underneath her fingernails and her eyes were underscored by dark semicircles. She was wearing a Mel and Kim t-shirt, jeans that were too small for her and scuffed, pink plastic sandals. Smithdown recognised them. He saw a lot of kids wearing them in his line of work. Woolworths’ sandals. Bless her. She’s wearing plastic sandals from Woolies. Never a good sign. The cheapest shoes in town and probably second-hand. Poor, poor little Becky.
‘Right then,’ the detective said. ‘Do you want to go back home tonight? Back to your mam’s?’
‘And back to her boyfriend? Or would you rather stay the night somewhere else? Maybe with some nice nurses at the hospital? They could look after you while we get this all sorted out.’
The girl looked at him – her dark brown eyes were locked onto Smithdown’s - but she said nothing.
‘Home? Or somewhere else?’ he reiterated.
There was silence as Becky continued to think. She seemed slightly embarrassed to give the DI a reply and looked away for a minute. But eventually she answered: ‘Somewhere else,’ she said. Then she looked directly at the policeman and added: ‘Please.’
Detective Inspector John Smithdown nodded. He turned to check that Paul the photographer was still looking at the wall. He was. ‘Right then,’ the DI sighed. ‘Sorry, love.’
With one quick move he slid a finger into the girl’s mouth, yanked his hand back and split the child’s lip a third of the way up to her nose. A thin squirt of blood jetted onto his overcoat. Shitting hell, it’ll have to get its annual clean a little earlier this year.
‘You can take your photo now,’ Smithdown said to the photographer. But the girl was screaming so loudly, the young man couldn’t quite make out what the detective had said. Paul made as if to turn around several times but was clearly nervous about seeing anything that he wasn’t supposed to see.
‘I said you can take your photos now lad!’ Smithdown said loudly as he crossed the room and leant against the far wall. He folded his arms and watched as the photographer took a reading with his light meter and bent over, looking into the camera’s reverse image viewfinder. He held the electronic flash over his head - his hand was still shaking - and took four pictures of the girl’s face. He turned to look at DI Smithdown. ’Okay?’
‘Perfect, Paul,’ the detective replied, just as the on-duty doctor came into the room. He was a slight man in his late fifties, his hair scraped across his head in an inelegant combover. He looked at the blood on Smithdown’s coat. ‘Christ Almighty, John. I can remember the days when you at least tried to be a bit subtle about these things.’
‘I can remember the days when I didn’t have to do such things at all, Clive. I’ll ring the hippies and get her booked in. Then I can start rattling a few bins to find the twat that did it to her. Pint later?’
‘Absolutely, John. I’ll just clean up your fucking mess and I’ll see you for last orders.’
11.45 am Friday 1 April 1988
Smithdown stood on the steps of the children’s care home and thought for a moment. What’s the best way to play it? Doesn’t really matter, Brenda will give me a gob full either way.
The large, red brick house on the semi-rural estate of Alt on the south eastern outskirts of Oldham would have looked out of place and lopsided to anyone looking at it from the road. It was actually two, semi-detached houses that had been knocked into one large property. Three separate strains of dance music could be heard coming from the open windows of the upstairs rooms. The detective recognised at least one of the songs as something his daughter listened to, but they all sounded the same to Smithdown. Car alarm music. Wah-Wah-WahWah. I bloody hate it.
He popped open the glove compartment and rummaged through the cassettes that filled it: Kilburn and the High Roads… Brinsley Schwarz… Dr Feelgood. Meat and two veg pub rock - that was Smithdown’s kind of music. He’d lost interest after the mid-70s. You’ll never improve on ‘Surrender to the Rhythm’ by the Brinsley’s, so what’s the point?
He opted for Dr Feelgood’s Down By The Jetty and shoved the tape into the car’s player in readiness for his return. I’ll need a bit of Lee Brilleaux after the bollocking I’m about to get.
Smithdown locked his dusty, dark blue Ford Escort then checked it was secure by pulling up the door handle. Can’t be too careful around here. The detective liked to use his own car; he hated the pool vehicles that were provided for detectives at Greater Manchester Police – beige Morris Marinas, mainly. There was never enough of them to go around and on one occasion Smithdown had to resort to catching the bus to get to an incident. Never again.
Using his own car also meant he wasn’t at the beck and call of the ‘GK’ radio fitted as standard in the police pool cars. And that suited him just fine. Especially when he accidentally forgot to take a portable PF1 Pocketphone unit with him too. He was always doing that.
Smithdown walked towards the front door of the care home; it opened before he could ring the bell and a woman in her 40s wearing a baggy, brightly coloured jumper put her finger close to the detective’s face, held it there and began shouting. ‘You absolute fucking lunatic, John Smithdown!’ Brenda Graham shouted, a twist of south west Ireland in her accent. ‘The state of that girl’s face when she arrived this morning. Like she’d been mauled by an animal. Which she fucking had been, by the way… You! I said give her lip a squeeze, not tear it in half, you useless fucker. Anyway, how are you? Come in.’
Head down, Smithdown walked through the hallway into the large, open-plan kitchen which acted as the central hub of the care home. Although it was nearly lunchtime, the kitchen was humming with chatter as a dozen youngsters ate cereal, made toast, chatted, laughed, bickered and smoked. Smithdown noticed how the older kids – aged about 15 – helped the younger ones without any fuss or complaint. ‘Too noisy in here,’ Brenda shouted to the detective. ‘Outside.’
The detective nodded, followed Brenda through the house and stepped outside into the warm, late-Spring breeze that eased across the large, overgrown garden. There were so many bikes, scooters and outdoor toys scattered about the lawn that they seemed to be growing out of the long grass. Brenda sat on the back step as Smithdown offered her a John Player Special cigarette from a battered, black pack pulled from the inside pocket of his grey suit jacket. He’d dropped off his overcoat at the cleaners on the way.
She took the cigarette, tucked it behind her ear and then rolled one of her own from a pouch attached to the belt of her red, corduroy trousers. She lit it with a Micky Mouse Zippo lighter - offered the flame to Smithdown - then flicked it shut with a loud clack. ‘Anyway,’ she sighed; her voice was much quieter now. ’Thank God you got that girl out of that house. I don’t care for the way you did it, mind, but you got it done. Fair play. You’re still a fucking animal, though.’
‘I had to make sure that Dr Clive would definitely sign her away,’ Smithdown explained. ‘He’s half-pissed most of the time. It had to be a dead cert. Black and white.’
‘Black and blue, more like,’ Brenda pointed, her voice going up a few notches again. ‘The state of her this morning after she’d come back from the Royal.’ She shook her head slowly from side to side to make sure that the detective was in no doubt about how annoyed she was.
‘It could have been a lot worse if she’d gone back to her mum’s bastard boyfriend,’ Smithdown offered quietly. ‘Dread to think what he would have done to the poor little mite.’
‘Becky,’ Brenda stated. ‘Her name is Becky.’
‘Right. Becky. Yes. Is she okay? Apart from the whole lip thing, obviously.’
‘She’s okay. Just about. It’s her mam I’m more worried about.’
‘I see. So, there’s more to you asking me here than just the mere pleasure of bollocking me, then?’
‘The bollocking is just a bonus, to be honest, John. Her mam’s not been seen for at least 24 hours.’
‘Right,’ said Smithdown, searching for his notebook. ‘That’s… what day is it today?’
‘Friday, John. It’s Friday. Good Friday, to be precise.’
‘Okay. Of course.’
‘Little Becky says there was trouble at the house yesterday teatime - and that’s all she’ll say. The neighbours rang social services because they were worried about her, but your lads ended up getting there first because of all the screaming and shouting.’
‘Her mum’s Naomi Wells, right?’ the detective asked rubbing the side of his nose with the end of a betting shop pen. ’I know her. Christ. She’s not had the greatest life so far, but she’s more sinned against than a sinner, I’d say.’
‘She’s a good person, John. And a good mam to Becky.’
‘Have you seen her boyfriend about?’ the detective asked, the ash from the cigarette dangling from his lips landed on his notepad as he wrote. ‘Jimmy Todd isn’t it?’
‘That’s him. Thankfully, I haven’t seen him, no. He’s a piece of dirt. Describes himself as a DJ but he’s basically a drug dealer with a big record collection. He’s only been with Naomi for about a year. She’s been known to do a bit of sex work on the side, as you know, and I think he encourages it. Probably got his eye on little Becky too, the shit bag.’
‘Don’t suppose you have a photo of mum, do you?’ Smithdown asked.
‘I don’t,’ said Brenda, squeezing off the end of her roll-up and popping the tiny dimp down the backyard drain. ‘But little Becky has one. It’s in her room by her bed. Perhaps you could pop upstairs and ask her for a lend of it? Seeing you is sure to bring a smile to her face. Oh no. She can’t smile just now, can she? I forgot.’
‘Kinnell,’ sighed Smithdown, jabbing his JPS out against the back wall, causing a small tumble of sparks to fall into the grid. ‘Okay. Lead on.’
The detective felt the angry stares of at least a dozen pairs of young eyes as he followed Brenda and walked back through the kitchen and then up the stairs. They passed several doors – all with customised variations of KEEP OUT signs on them - before stopping outside the last door on the first-floor landing. Brenda knocked. Nothing. She tried again, louder this time. ‘Becky. It’s Brenda. I’ve got a policeman with me. I’m afraid it’s the same one you met last night. He wants to talk with you. You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to. But he wants to try to find your mum. That picture of yours will definitely help.’
‘It’s up to you Becky,’ Brenda continued. ‘I’d completely understand if you don’t want to see him.’ She looked at Smithdown and shook her head in disapproval. ‘I wouldn’t blame you in the slightest, I really wouldn’t.’
Silence again. Brenda was about to try one more time when the door opened. A little. Becky Wells’ bruised face could be seen through the small gap. There were stitches in her lip. Her hair looked clean and shiny. She was wearing what looked like a new, plain white t-shirt and clean but clearly second-hand jeans. Smithdown looked at her feet through the opening. Woolies’ sandals.
Becky passed a photo to Brenda through the gap, caught John Smithdown’s eye for the briefest of moments, then closed the door. Music started from the room: Mel and Kim’s ‘Respectable’. Brenda motioned for the detective to follow her back down the stairs. When they got to the hallway Brenda stopped, took a look at the photo and handed it to the DI. It showed a woman in her late 20s punching the air and laughing in what looked like a nightclub. She was wearing a black vest top and army-style grey and white camouflage trousers. The red date stamp on the bottom right-hand corner of the photo showed that it had been taken just two months previously: 11.2.88.
‘Yep, that’s Naomi. Quite the party girl,’ offered Smithdown.
‘You can be a good parent and have a good time as well, John. I’m sure your mates down at the Old Bill will agree with that. How’s your daughter doing, by the way?’
‘Point taken, Brenda. Point taken. She’s doing great, thanks. Still at uni. She’s quite the party girl too.’
The pager on Smithdown’s belt buzzed an interruption. It was his one concession to being contactable as he could very easily just ignore it. The display’s message wasn’t the usual instruction to ring a phone number.
<ALEX PARK NOW>
The detective looked at it with a frown. He didn’t like carrying a pager at the best of times, but he liked it even less when the messages sounded like he was being shouted at. He re-attached the pager to his belt and placed a hand on Brenda’s upper arm, giving it what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. ‘Right, I’ll get this circulated and do some digging. My presence is required at Alexandra Park, apparently.’
‘Thank you, John,’ she said, placing her hand on his and returning the squeeze. ‘You’re still a massive fucking arsehole, but I’m glad you’re on our side.’
‘Beautifully put, Brenda. I’ll be in touch.’
Smithdown walked back to his car then paused. He took another look at the photo - it still had a yellowed curl of Sellotape stuck to the back. He looked at Naomi’s happy face then tucked the photo into his jacket pocket. He got in the car and pushed the Dr Feelgood cassette he’d found earlier into the slot. As he switched on the engine the tape mechanism kicked in and ‘She Does It Right’ wowed into life.
It took him just a few minutes’ drive to get to Alexandra Park; it ran along the south western edge of the town. As he drove past uniform roads tightly packed with corner shops, takeaways and terraces he wondered exactly where in the park his presence might be required. He quickly got an answer; half of Oldham’s police force seemed to be swarming around the park’s boating lake. Smithdown pulled into the car park, nodded to the uniformed constables herding afternoon school kids out of the main gates and headed down the sloping path, past the tennis courts towards the main lake. In between the main boat house and a separate launch building was a slipway that led into the shallow, brown water. There were two police officers already there, talking to a very distressed looking man with a red setter dog. The dog was also extremely agitated, yanking and straining in the direction of a plastic bag by the water’s edge. A man out walking his dog. It’s always a man out walking his dog.
He caught the eye of Detective Constable Bob Donaldson as he approached the lake’s shoreline. Donaldson, in an old blue suit, light blue shirt and a dark blue tie had an unusually cheery face for a police officer. He looked more like a friendly butcher than a detective. But his face was currently set to ‘very stern indeed.’ By pursing his lips, exhaling and shaking his head, Donaldson managed to tell Smithdown a great deal about what was going on as he approached the scene. Essentially, it was along the lines of: ‘This is grim and you’re not going to like it one little bit’.
The red setter was barking loudly now. Smithdown spoke to one of the PCs who was trying to calm down both the man and his dog.
‘Could you get this pair away from here for the time being, please?’ he told one of them. ‘Tell him to take the dog up behind the boathouse, to wait there and to say nowt to anyone. Wait with him until we’re done here. And tell him to shut that fucking dog up - I can’t hear myself piss here with all that racket.’
He turned to Detective Constable Donaldson. ‘Bob. On a scale of one to ten, how badly are the contents of that placcy bag going to put me off my tea?’
‘What are you planning on having for your tea,’ the DC said. ‘If you don’t mind me asking, boss?’
DC Donaldson was in the habit of being overly curious about things that most people wouldn’t ordinarily bother with. A good trait for a policeman to have, some might say – but an annoying one, nonetheless. Smithdown knew it was quicker to indulge him. ‘Chippy tea, Bob’, he replied. ‘Steak pudding, chips, peas and gravy. And a can of dandelion and burdock.’
‘No fish? Not like you. It’s Friday…’
Smithdown took a look across the lake and back down to the bag. There was a puddle around it where the lake water had seeped from the bag’s holes. The water was speckled with what looked like soot. ‘I’m off fish today, Bob, if I’m honest.’
‘In that case,’ Donaldson offered, ‘I’d say a good strong nine.’
‘Cracking...’ Smithdown said. ‘Absolutely cracking.’
Smithdown pulled a pen from the inside pocket of his jacket, squatted down and eased apart the handles of the bag with the pen’s tip. Inside, somewhat puffy and wrinkled from the lake water it appeared to have absorbed, was a human hand. The detective did what he always did in these circumstances and followed the advice he’d been given by a senior detective he’d worked with in the late 70s: think with your eyes open and your gob shut.
DI John Smithdown looked long and hard at the contents of the bag. And kept his gob shut.
It was a left hand. The cut at the wrist was neat. The fingers were slender. The nails had chipped traces of dayglo nail varnish on - the colours alternated between orange and lime green on each fingernail. Smithdown didn’t feel that he was jumping to a conclusion by considering it to be a young woman’s hand. But he was, as ever, prepared to be convinced otherwise. While the main, fleshy part of the hand was blanched white - not unlike tripe from Oldham market - the tips of the fingers were blackened. Smithdown, again not unreasonably, felt they could well have been badly scorched, as if a harsh flame had been held to them. Three of the fingertips had been burned so badly the skin and flesh had flaked away. The thumb and forefinger got his attention - they seemed to have had less time in the flames.
‘Fucking Nora,’ Smithdown sighed, sensing that his chippy tea was now looking increasingly unlikely.
‘I know,’ offered DC Donaldson. ‘Not nice. Not nice at all. Any missing-from-homes that might fit the bill? Or indeed, fit the wrist.’
‘Brilliant Bob. You’ve been waiting half the afternoon to use that line, haven’t you?’ said Smithdown. ‘Let’s see if we can get some dabs off those fingers that haven’t been totally barbecued and take it from there, shall we? We’re not in the business of jumping to conclusions.’
‘I reckon you know whose mitt that might be, don’t you, boss?’
‘Potentially. Get them to do a check against a Naomi Wells. Age 26. One of our regular clients. I hope I’m wrong, but it might save time. In the meantime, go and take a statement from the bloke that found it and tell that twat if he breathes a word of this to anyone, I’ll drown him and that noisy fucking dog of his in the lake myself. Okay?’
‘I’ll tell him that word for word, boss.’