Lost Innocence


Read the first chapter of Lost Innocence now. 


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LOST INNOCENCE

PROLOGUE


Jeff Ryland and the group of boys he hung out with dispersed, all keen to get home for their tea after the adventure they had just been on. After leaving school and dumping his schoolbag, he’d joined up with them, like usual, for a couple of hours. His parents, just like most parents, were eager to get the boys out from under their feet, so any homework they had would be completed in between having their evening meal and bedtime.

The small woodland close to the estate where he lived was an absolute treasure, full of secret nooks. Some of them, the boys had only recently discovered, adding to the group’s excitement.

Jeff hung around with five other lads his age. Most of the time, they behaved and avoided getting into trouble by keeping themselves adequately occupied. They were often classed as a mischievous crowd rather than a troublesome one.

On a Thursday in May nineteen eighty-five, after saying farewell to the rest of the group, Jeff was busy kicking at stones and generally dawdling on his way back home. His mum would be late—she always was on Thursdays because she cared for her ill father in the afternoon, giving the regular carer some much-needed time off. His father worked long shifts at a factory and wasn’t around much during the week, while his older brothers did their own thing after school, which always excluded him.

Up ahead, an older group of kids hung out on the street corner. Jeff’s pace stalled, and he considered crossing the road to avoid walking past them, but his mother’s warning about crossing High Common Road when it was busy prevented him. He swallowed hard, placed his hands in his pockets, dropped his head and marched ahead.

He could feel the group staring at him. He’d caught a few words they were saying before they fell silent as he got closer. It sounded as though they intended to rob one of the local shops.

Shit! I need to keep my head down and ignore them.

A smaller lad with ginger hair put paid to that plan when he in­tentionally stood in Jeff’s path.

Jeff mumbled an apology when he bumped into him.

The boy shoved him hard in the chest. “Oi! What do you think you’re doing? Didn’t you see me?”

Jeff gulped loudly. His chin on his chest, he said, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t looking where I was going. I’m going to be late for my tea. Sorry.” He tried to manoeuvre around the boy, but the lad obstructed him.

The rest of the gang roared with laughter—all except one boy who Jeff knew really well. He glanced sideways and issued a silent plea to the other boy, who turned away and refused to come to Jeff’s assistance.

The ginger-haired lad prodded Jeff’s chest—harsh jabs that intensified with each touch. “I want to hear you apologise, squirt.”

Jeff sighed and let out a juddering breath. His words caught in his throat and he apologised under his breath again.

The ginger lad punched Jeff’s upper arm and leaned in close. “I can’t hear you, dipshit.”

Jeff closed his eyes, forcing the tears back. He feared his heart was about to jump out of his chest. The beat had become erratic, and breathing was difficult. He was prone to having panic attacks, so he knew that if he didn’t slow his breathing down, an attack would be imminent. With the lout goading him and the rest of the gang egging him on, Jeff didn’t see how he could. Again, he glanced sideways at the boy he knew. The other boy’s head dropped, and he shuffled his feet, obviously feeling embarrassed by the situation.

“I said I’m sorry. Please let me pass. I need to get home.”

“Aww…did you hear what the petrified mouse said? He needs to get home. Probably wants to cry in his mummy’s apron. Is that right, pipsqueak?”

“No. My mother isn’t at home…” His voice trailed off when he realised what he’d just said.

Numbskull, why don’t I learn to keep my mouth shut?

“Is that right? Well, maybe you want to hang out with us for a little while, eh? That’d be fun, right?”

“I can’t. I’m sorry, not tonight. I’d love to another day. Just not tonight.” He raised his head a little, enough to see the ginger boy’s anger flare up in his ruddy cheeks.

“Refusing to hang out with us—do you really think that’s an option, squirt?”

Jeff’s breathing notched up a little. His small chest expanded and deflated rhythmically. “Please, I have to go. I don’t want to be late.”

“Late for what? You’ve already told us that your mummy isn’t at home. Who else is there waiting for you?” The ginger lad’s question was accompanied by a flat-handed jab to Jeff’s midriff.

He doubled over in pain, tears pricking his eyes. He was at a loss for what to do next. If he ran, they would give chase and catch up with him before he got a few feet, so that wasn’t an option. Running out of ideas, he again glanced sideways at the boy he knew. He avoided eye contact altogether, though. Jeff’s heart sank from his chest.

Help me, please!

The other boys laughed, mocking Jeff and calling him vile names.

“Let’s use him,” the gang leader said.

Jeff knew the leader only by his nickname, which was Fletch, after Fletcher from the TV show Porridge. Jeff swivelled his head to look at Fletch. He turned away quickly at the boy’s scowl. It was too late—Jeff’s actions had obviously angered Fletch.

A moment later, Fletch was standing beside Jeff, only inches away. He had little control over his body and felt the panic rising up from the pit of his stomach, constricting his heart, and venturing into his throat. He tried to speak, but the words failed to form. He was in danger of passing out and his breath failed to find its normal course through his nose.

“You up for a little job, squirt?”

Fletch’s hot breath brushed the side of his face, and Jeff closed his eyes. He was petrified, getting more and more scared with each passing second. “Please, I just want to go home. I have homework. I need to do it before I go to school tomorrow.”

The gang laughed. All except one. Jeff glanced his way again, silently sending out a plea for help.

The boy did nothing. He just stood there, watching those around him as if he was too afraid to admit to the gang that he knew Jeff.

Not wanting the situation to become worse than it already was, Jeff decided not to dob the boy in. He had a feeling the boy would come to his rescue if Jeff really needed his help.

Or is that just wishful thinking?

Fletch took another step forward and placed an arm around Jeff’s shoulders, squeezing him so hard that any breath he had in his tiny body was immediately forced out. He tried to replace the breath, but his fear got in the way. With no oxygen left in his lungs, his focus blurred. Confused, he had no idea how to breathe for himself any longer. Fletch’s grip tightened even more. The panic overwhelmed him before Fletch could give him instructions what to do next. Jeff’s legs gave way. The group laughed again when he ended up on the ground at Fletch’s size-eight feet.

Finally, the boy he knew stepped forward and tried to help. “Leave the lad alone, Fletch. We’re wasting time on him. We’ve got a job to do, remember?”

“You’re right.” Fletcher turned to the ginger lad and said, “Ging, get rid of him. Take him in the alley and knock seven bells of shit out of him and send him on his way.”

The ginger lad grabbed Jeff by the scruff, forcing him to his feet.

“Please, I don’t want any trouble. Let me go. I promise I won’t tell anyone,” Jeff pleaded.

Fletcher reached out and placed a hand around Jeff’s throat, cutting off his breath. Jeff clawed at Fletch’s hands, trying to pry his fingers loose. “You better not, boy. Take your punishment like a man. Now go, get out of my sight.” He cast Jeff aside forcefully.

Jeff staggered as Ginger pushed him. His shoe fell off, and he scrabbled to pick it up before Ginger grasped his arm and continued to shove him along the road and into the alley a few feet away.

“The boy done bad talking to Fletch like that. No one—you hear me?—no one talks back to Fletch. That’s disrespectful, squirt. And disrespect warrants a slap. Now be a good boy and take what’s coming to you, and I’ll let you go in a second or two. If you fight me or try to run away, you’ll only make things worse for yourself, got that?”

Jeff sniffled, tears streaming down his face at the thought of what lay ahead of him.

The blows came thick and fast. It wasn’t long before his body re­fused to take any more. His legs buckled, and he dropped to the ground. Once Jeff was down, Ginger used his foot. Not gentle taps but large, heavy swings of the legs, aimed at Jeff’s stomach, chest and head. Jeff’s breathless pleas went unheard. It wasn’t long before every­thing became dazed. He could feel himself slipping into unconsciousness.

Before everything went totally black, a familiar voice shouted, “Jesus, what have you done, you fucking moron? What have you done? Jeff? Jeff, are you all right?”
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