Alan Cuthbertson

Author

 

Excerpt from

Clover House

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Clover House was built in 1770 by the famous mill owner Benjamin Gott as a wedding gift for his son William. This large, imposing edifice, situated on the outskirts of Leeds had been vacant for nearly 30 years. That was until the Local Council purchased it and converted it into a Home used by the Social Services back in the 1990s. The ‘residents’ as they are referred to, come from all walks of life but all have one thing in common, they either have no family or none that can cope with their behavioural problems.

The person responsible for the day-to-day running of the Home is Mark Jacobs; he has held the position since it’s opening. Alas his hopes and aspirations for Clover House, as being the flag ship of Leeds City Council’s Social Services Department, receded over the years along with his hair line. The budget cuts and pressures from on high have taken their toll, both on his enthusiasm and the building itself. He now finds himself struggling to keep his head above water, as rarely are any of the twelve beds vacant and rarely are all the staff positions full.

Inside the building not much of the infrastructure has changed. Of course it had been rewired, plumbed and decorated, but that was some years ago now and the age of the building is beginning to rear its ugly head here and there. Damp was a problem and the radiators rumbled during the night. There must also be a problem with the electrics to the hall light as the bulb needs changing every two weeks. Jacobs continued to fill in request forms, but replies referring to hard times and budget cuts were the inevitable reply.

The majority of the 8 bedrooms were designed for sharing, fortunately the size of each allowed for this, but the rule was never more than two to a room and strictly no sharing by the opposite sex. Mark Jacobs and the rest of the staff knew that some ‘bed hopping’ was inevitable but as there were only two members of staff on the premises during the night, other than sleeping on the landing or locking all the doors, there was little they could do about it. For entertainment there was a TV room and two computers. These were often the cause of many of the Home’s arguments as the ‘residents’, especially the males, would literally fight over the consuls and remote controls.

Most of the people housed at the Home considered their time there as a sentence, and like most prisoners needed something to stop the boredom. One such ‘resident’, Leo French, was about to get just that.

 

Leo was of West African descent. He was skinny and about 5 feet 8 inches tall. He had a limp but nobody really knew why or even bothered to ask how it had come about, they weren’t even sure if Leo knew. He tended to keep himself to himself. He had learnt that if you made friends with anybody they either left the Home or just ‘shit on you in another way’. He was happy with his own company. He’d been at Clover House longer than any of the other ‘residents’, in fact he doesn’t even remember much of his early life. He vaguely remembers being told that his mother could no longer handle his behaviour, though all he can recall about her is the smell of cigarettes and whisky. With regards his father he remembers nothing. He left home with another woman while he was still in his mother’s stomach and hadn’t been mentioned since.

He wandered through into the lounge and found that the television still hadn’t been replaced. Last week Tommy Bishop had kicked it over when he got a question wrong whilst watching a Game Show. Mr Jacobs went ballistic, but in fairness it must have been fifteen years old and due for renewal.

He changed direction and headed towards the computers. Johnny Fish was playing on one so he positioned the seat next to him. As if by magic, as he lowered himself into the chair it disappeared. As he lay there on the floor looking up Tommy Bishop towered over him, his chair in his right hand.

“My chair I believe, hahaha” said Bishop with globules of spit flying out of his mouth as he laughed. Leo rolled away, stood up and rubbed his behind. What Bishop didn’t see was as Leo rolled away he pulled the plug from the wall for the computer he was about to use. As he left the room he smiled, looking over his shoulder he found Bishop thumping the keyboard and smacking the side of the display screen. His curses would make a Liverpool Docker blush.

It was a Saturday so most of the residents were in today, milling around doing their chores. Leo wasn’t sure it was legal to make the residents actually do work in the Home but to be honest he didn’t mind helping here and there. Setting the table was one of his jobs and as it was coming up to lunch time he thought he might as well make a start. The cook was called Marge. A chesty woman with a foreign accent and a nasty habit of picking her nose when she thought no one was looking. She was pleasant enough and always ended her greetings to Leo with “...and how is your day?” A question he never knew how to answer, especially when setting the breakfast table, as it hadn’t started yet.

He wasn’t sure where she was from and thought it maybe impolite to ask, so in his over active imagination he pictured her as a refugee from some war struck country, checking the post every day for news of her husband who’s fighting some unwinnable war on some miserable Continent. The sad thing is, the way the world is today that could well be the truth.

“What’s for lunch today, Marge? He said knowing the answer.

“Bangers and mash” she said pointing a long knife at him. “And vell you know, seeing as ve have had it every Saturday since I have been vorking here... and that must be ten years.”

“You’ve been working here since you were fourteen?” asked Leo with a mischievous grin. Marge shook her head side to side. “That silver tongue vill get you in trouble one of these days. Now go and tell the others it is almost ready.”

 

All the seats around the long oak table were full, except that is the one next to Leo’s. The vacancy was due to his best friend Si (short for Simon) leaving the Home two days earlier. There had been no explanation. He just wasn’t there one morning. The dining room was alive with chatter and Leo was on his feet helping to serve lunch. As usual everybody either complained about the amount they were given or the quality of the food.

Suddenly the dining room door slid open and in walked Mark Jacobs with what they all presumed was Si’s replacement. As always when a new resident arrives, people stop what they are doing and eye the newcomer with a combination of curiosity and suspicion. In such a small environment new additions were kept at arm’s length until they had earned their place, trust was a rare commodity at Clover House.

“This is Julie Sykes,” Jacobs announced. “She’s going to be staying with us and I’m sure you’ll all give her the Clover House welcome.” Begrudgingly they put down their knives and forks and began to applaud. Unfortunately instead of a the warm welcome, as it was intended to be when the tradition was introduced, it turned in to a slow hand clap that made the room feel more intimidating. This continued for about thirty seconds before an annoyed Mark Jacobs raised his hands to stop the noise. “Just put your case in the corner over there Julie. Have something to eat and you will be shown your room later. Leo will you show Julie around after lunch, introduce her to people, show her what’s what, etc?”

“Sure Mister Jacobs,” said Leo and nodded for her to take the empty seat next to his. He hated this job. Just because he’d been here the longest he was always given the task of showing newcomers around. The problem was that once he’d finished he inevitably couldn’t get rid of them. They would follow him around like a wounded dog.

 

The meal finished without any other distractions and everybody sloped off leaving Marge and Leo to clear the table and load the dishwasher.

“I’ll finish this Leo. You go and entertain your new friend.” Marge said this with a whisper and a sly wink. Leo tutted and left the room knowing that his new companion would follow automatically.

In the lounge he sat purposely on one of the large comfy chairs. If he’d sat on the sofa there was every chance she would have sat very close to him and he didn’t want people getting the wrong idea. Instead she stood right in front of him waiting like a dog for his next order, or his master to throw something to be retrieved. Leo eyed her up and down as if seeing her for the first time. Her hair was cut quite short and had the faintest hint of blue dye masking its true colour. Her earrings didn’t match. One was a stud the other a single hanging pearl. Her T-shirt advertised the band ‘Living Zombies’, whoever they were. Her skirt was a little too short (in his opinion) and her trainers looked like they needed replacing. All things considered she gave off the ‘vibe’ of a walking anarchist or someone who seriously needed to buy a mirror.

“I didn’t ask to be put with you,” she stated putting one hand on a hip that was slightly thrust out. “I can find my own way around.” Her top lip was raised slightly on the left, the face all teenage girls seem to pull when wanting to look defiant.

Leo smirked. “Well that makes us even, cos I didn’t ask for you either.” Julie pivoted on one foot and started for the door. “Just a minute,” shouted Leo. A new comer with attitude, this was a first he thought. He nodded to the vacant seat opposite him. “Sit down; I’ll give you the low down on this place.” Julie turned and thought for a second. Eventually she sidled across the room and sat down, legs crossed and arms folded.

“Okay firstly, who’s who.” Leo turned his head 180 degrees one way and then the other. In a whisper and leaning forward so Julie could hear, he said, “the big fat guy on the computer, that’s Tommy. Keep out of his way. He’s a bully and a nutter. The smaller guy sat next to him on the other computer, that’s Fish or Johnny Fish to you. He’s okay but doesn’t talk much. He shares a bedroom with Tommy.” On the floor near their feet someone sat building Lego bricks, getting frustrated when they fell over. “This is Wee Willy.” Leo pointed with his foot.

“He’s called, Wee Willy? Is he Scottish?” asked Julie, smiling at the little frustrated builder.

Leo let out a chuckle.

“No. We call him that cos he doesn’t always make it to the toilet. He’s not expected to be here long, just while his mother is in hospital, a few weeks or so.”

“Who’s she?” asked Julie pointing discretely at a portly female munching on a packet of crisps.

“That’s Fat Mary.” Leo replied.

Julie was taken back. “That’s not very nice,” she said disapprovingly.

“Get used to it. In here people tend to call it as they see it. Wait till they give you your name,” Leo said smiling and looking her up and down again, trying to imagine what unkind label she will inherit.

“The two over there,” Julie turned to see two identical twins playing cards with each other. Not only were they identical in every way but they were both wearing the same clothes. If you had put a sheet of glass between them you would have thought that it was a mirror. Leo continued, “They’re called Christopher and Stewart. Don’t bother remembering the names because they only ever talk to each other.” Then Leo corrected himself, “Actually you can talk to them but they won’t reply.”

“There are another couple of males, I use that term loosely, and you’ll know why when you see them. James and Dave, but they are out at the moment.”

A tall, lean man about 30 years old walked in to the room. He nodded in Leo’s direction and said, “How’s it going Leo?” Leo sat to attention then changed his mind. He stood up to address the man who was wearing overalls and a Leeds United cap.

“Fine, Mister Green. Any idea when the new TV is coming?”

“It should be here this afternoon, Leo. But don’t go expecting one of those new fancy ‘smart’ things.” Leo smiled back. He’d been here long enough to keep his expectations low when it came to things happening at Clover House.

“Looking forward to the trip tomorrow Leo?” asked Mr Green.

“Can’t wait,” replied Leo with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“That’s Mister Green,” Leo said to Julie as he sat back down again.

“I gathered that.” She was wearing that teenage face again. “What trip is he talking about?”

“We are all going to the Urban Farm. He’s okay is Mr Green, he’s like the handyman around here as well as helping out in general, especially when it kicks-off.” Leo added this last bit nonchalantly.

Julie frowned, looked about her then asked, “What do you mean ‘kicks-off’?”

Leo struggled for the right words but decided not to flower it. “Sometimes it gets a little heated around here and it...‘kicks-off’.”

“You mean violence?” Julie’s expression turned to one of deep concern.

“Not often. You have to realise some people are in here because they can’t control their temper. If you see a situation, and you will get to recognise them, a situation that looks like it’s getting out of control or turning nasty, just go to your room.”

Julie’s eyes flicked side to side like a ventriloquist dummy. “Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t happen often. I just thought you had better be aware that it can.” Leo realised he’d scared the newcomer and felt a little guilty. He tried to lighten the situation, “Fancy coming down to the arcade?” He punctuated this with a smile.

Julie considered her options then said, “Okay but I have to take my bag to my room first, I don’t want anything being nicked if this place is as bad as you say. Leo rose slowly from the chair. His bad leg was giving him a few twinges today, probably made worse by Tommy pulling away his chair earlier.

“I’ll ask Mister Jacobs what room you’re in.”

“Bedroom 2, he told me when I first arrived,” Julie said as she made her way towards her waiting bag in the corner of the dining room.

“You are in bedroom 2? But that’s a single. Nobody gets a room to themselves when they first arrive. What’s so special about you that you haven’t told me Julie Sykes?”

Julie looked a little embarrassed by the question. She picked up her bag and scurried towards the staircase without offering a reply. Leo watched her climb the stairs and decided to await her return in the TV lounge.

Julie returned to find Leo in deep conversation with a tall slim woman wearing a white uniform, similar to that worn by a nurse or maybe someone who works in a nail parlour. She waited by the door not wanting to interrupt. Eventually Leo noticed her and said something that brought the exchange to a close. Julie’s name must have been mentioned because the woman looked in her direction then back to Leo. She smiled, stroked the side of Leo’s arm, winked at him and walked away.

Leo approached Julie, “Ready to go?”

“Who was that?” she asked watching the woman start a new conversation with Mr Green.

“That’s Miss Stevenson,” he replied as if the answer was obvious. “She’s...,” he paused looking for the right words. “...she’s a kind of nurse. She calls in everyday making sure everyone is okay and handing out medication to those that need it.”

“She stroked your arm and winked at you.” Leo wasn’t sure if this was a question, a statement or an observation.

“What can I say? You either have it or you don’t.” A cheeky grin spread across his face.

Julie looked confused. “Not only is it inappropriate, there must be at least twenty years difference between you.”

“Like I said, what can I say? Come on are we going to the arcade or not, I need to get out of here.” Leo walked to the front door and picked out his trainers from the long line of assorted footwear against the wall. He slid them on without undoing the laces, opened the door and stepped outside. Julie followed him and closed the large heavy door behind her.

Outside on the wall next to the door was a brass plaque that said CLOVER HOUSE. “Why did they call it Clover House?” asked Julie sliding her forefinger over the letters.

“If you ask any of the staff they won’t be able to answer that.” Leo said this with a knowing, cocky expression.

“But you can?” asked Julie with raised eyebrows. “Pray tell.”

Leo smiled and without breaking eye contact he said “checkout the lawn.” Julie looked over his shoulder at the small lawn that grew either side of the gravel path.

She wasn’t really sure what she was looking at.

“What?” she asked.

“Look closer,” said Leo stepping out of the way so she could walk on to the grass. Julie took a couple of steps bent her head slightly and looked closer.

“How imaginative, naming a house after a few weeds you can’t get rid of.”

Leo smiled. “Look closer.” She looked back at the clover scattered about the lawn. To get a closer look she knelt down, regretting it immediately as the grass was still damp from the previous days rain.

She looked back at Leo. “What the hell am I supposed to be seeing?”

Leo smiled. “Pick one.” Julie looked back at the clover, picked one and looked back at Leo suspecting she was the victim of some kind of joke. “Now look closer,” he added.

“Oh my God,” said Julie staring at the four perfectly formed leaves. “It has four leaves; these are supposed to be rare.”

Leo just stood watching her. He’d never shared his discovery with anyone else. “Pick another one.” Julie selected another at random and held it up to the light.

“Another four leave clover!” she said.

“They all have four leaves,” Leo said as he walked past her towards the gate.

Julie stared at the two sets of four leafed clovers she’d picked. “Just one is supposed to be lucky, can you imagine what luck hundreds will bring.”

Leo didn’t even look back. He held the gate open waiting for her to catch up. He muttered to himself under his breath. “Yes. The house is full of life’s luckiest people, lottery winners one and all.”

 

It took about twenty five minutes to walk to the arcade. Julie must have been out of condition because she was getting slower and slower as they walked. The name above the blacked out window read, ‘The arcade’ in truth it was a converted shop that housed several slot machines and a number of arcade computer games. Many of the machines were out of order, and the man who sat in the glass booth who handed out the change had no personality and little interest in what was going on.

As they walked in a couple of lads on a machine that involved shooting moving targets shouted ‘Hello’ to Leo. “This is my favourite,” Leo said walking over to a large screen that had a kind of bucket seat positioned in front of it along with an array of dials, levers and buttons. “I hold all the records on this little beauty.” The two other boys that had welcomed them came across to watch Leo as he took up position and adjusted the seat to his height.

Julie watched on as the screen facing Leo filled with the view of the sky. Along the bottom she could see mountains and lakes. It was so realistic she felt she could have been on a flight deck of a fast moving jet. “Here we go,” shouted Leo as explosions appeared to fill the false sky. He pushed forward on the control lever with his left hand, now it was the lake below that filled the screen. At the last moment he pulled back and the pretend aircraft was once again climbing, only this time another aircraft was directly ahead. Julie had to hold on to the back of his chair, she was starting to feel a little dizzy. Leo pushed the red button on the end of the lever and a line of dots began to travel towards the aircraft ahead. BANG!!!! The plane crossing their path exploded in a sea of colours, once again the other boys cheered. From nowhere came another jet and again the dog fight began.

Eventually Julie got bored and started wondering around looking at the other machines. Finding a coin in the tray beneath the one-armed bandit she took it out and fed it into the slot. The red numbers showed she had four credits. The dials spun each time she pushed the start button but it wasn’t until the fourth go that it started flashing to show she’d won something. She looked over towards Leo and thought about sharing the fact that she’d won, but he was too engaged with his flight simulator to take any notice. She played that machine for another fifteen minutes before her winnings had all been put back in and all the credits had been used.

Julie never noticed the man leave his glass booth, the first thing she was aware of was his breath on the back of her neck. “I can get you free goes if you like.”

She spun around to find him sneering at her through gaps in his teeth. Slightly panicked she rushed back to Leo and said, “I want to go now.” He totally ignored her, all his concentration was on the Aerial Joust. “I said I want to go now,” she repeated.

“Well go then. We aren’t tied together.” The two boys cheered as another of his adversaries spiralled out of control. Leo punched the air, “record score as well,” he high-fived the onlookers. When the game finished he climbed out of the pilot’s seat and looked around for Julie. She was gone.

Leaving the arcade he looked up and down the street to see which direction she’d taken, he could see her in the distance. He walked a bit faster than normal and that was all it took to catch up to his new companion. He could tell she was sulking. “You’re used to getting your own way aren’t you?” he asked.

“No. I’m just not used to being ignored,” she said petulantly.

“I didn’t ignore you, I was busy,” Leo said walking crab like alongside her. There was something about her that he liked. He couldn’t put his finger on it but in some way she was different. He would never have taken anyone else from the Home to his precious arcade, especially a female. “So what’s your story, everyone has one.”

Julie stopped in her tracks. “Maybe I have one but don’t want to share it.”

Leo felt a little hurt. “Fair enough, your choice,” he said not knowing what else to say.

Julie sighed. “Last year my father died and since then my mother, who isn’t very well, has struggled to look after me. So I end up at Clover House without anybody asking my opinion.” Leo had heard this story a thousand times from other residents. The one thing in common with everybody’s story is that things seem to happen without you having any say in it.

“Don’t you have any other family?” Leo asked showing genuine interest.

“I don’t think so. Not that would be willing to take me on anyway,” she replied. Leo thought this a curious thing to say. She seemed quite amiable, a little temperamental at times but not difficult.

“What about you, what’s your story?” she asked. In a way she seemed to be trying to change the subject.

“It’s similar to yours,” he said with a shrug of the shoulders, “a one parent family that can’t cope, or doesn’t care enough to want to. I came to Clover a long time ago, or so it seems.” He continued walking but facing straight ahead now. His expression was that of someone who was a little lost or struggling to remember the past. He snapped back to the present. “When’s your birthday?” Julie thought this a curious question and right out of the blue.

“July the seventh,” she said humouring him.

Leo paused for a moment then said “That’s in a couple weeks. That makes you a Cancer.”

Julie froze.

“What do you mean you bastard?” This caught Leo completely off guard. He repeated his last comment to himself in his head and wondered why she had taken offence.

He continued.

“Your birth sign is Cancer. That means you’re emotional. Which we’ve proved... and your lucky number is...number 5?”

“Oh. I see. No it’s number 3. How come you know about these things I thought it was supposed to be girls that knew about things like that?” she released a glimmer of a smile that diffused the outburst.

He smiled back. “I know a little bit about everything,” then added. “I watch a lot of TV.”

Julie started walking again.

She turned to Leo and asked, “When is your birthday then?”

“Ah, well. Nobody has any excuse for forgetting my birthday,” he said proudly. “You see my birthday is on.... get this, Remembrance Day. I was born on the 11th of November. So once you see everybody wearing the bright red poppies, you know it’s time to go out and buy Leo French his birthday present.”

“French? Your last name is French?” Julie repeated, extending the ‘F’ in the word to make it last twice as long as it should.

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Leo appearing to take offence, “and before you ask. No I’m not.”

“Nothing is wrong with it. I’ve just never heard anybody with that as a second name before. I think it’s quite nice really.” She quickly realised this sounded a little too eager so tried to redeem herself, “I’ll call you Froggy.”

“You’ll call me Leo like everyone else or you don’t speak to me.” Leo smirked and walked off ahead pretending to be annoyed. Julie ran to catch up, once alongside she matched him pace for pace. Leo was thinking of questions to keep the conversation going. “What’s your favourite colour?” he asked.

Julie thought for a moment. “Black,” she said.

“Black isn’t a colour, it’s a contrast of light,” Leo replied with authority.

“Don’t tell me, you picked up that little morsel from the TV as well,” Julie said. “Anyway, it’s my favourite colour. What’s yours?” she added.

Leo looked puzzled. He had just realised nobody had ever asked him this before. After contemplating the question for what seemed more than necessary he blurted out, “I don’t have one. I like them all.”

“Everybody has a favourite colour,” Julie said thinking he was just being awkward.

“Not me,” replied Leo. He appeared quite proud of his answer and inside he had filed that reply away to be used if ever the question was asked again.

“Favourite food?” he then asked her.

“Chips,” this reply came without any thought and brought a big smile to Julie’s face. “What’s yours?” she countered.

Another puzzled look swept over Leo’s face. He had entered new territory with this conversation. Never before could he remember anyone taking an interest in what he preferred, let alone asked the question out loud. “I think it’s ice cream.”

Julie stared at him. “You think it’s ice cream?” She didn’t know if he was just being difficult on purpose.

“No. Now I think about it, I know it is ice cream.