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by Andrew Lee-Hart




It is as if I am in the middle of the war; houses reduced to bricks, old people wandering the streets looking lost and frightened; the Castle Estate, once one of Sheffield’s most thriving communities, is now a bombsite. My church, St Nicholas’s, squats on a roundabout, looking grey and unloved although a few people still trudge in every Sunday to pray to a God who allows their homes to be destroyed and their children to be taken.


This was once a proud area, steel workers, shop owners and clerks lived here, the Castle Estate was the heart of Sheffield as much as anywhere; there were shops, a post office, a library and regular buses into the city centre, but only the buses remain, and they are less frequent than formerly. It is like a ghost town with its population shipped out all over the city, to make way for new houses for the rich. Like most atrocities it is in the name of progress, and those who oppose it are crushed by bulldozers and the power of money.


“I lay in the hills one night and watched Sheffield burn, whilst above my head the German aeroplanes dropped more and more bombs into the pit of destruction below; how could anybody survive such carnage? My city destroyed before my eyes, the smoke rose up and I almost choked on the smell of it. My dad cried when he saw it, walking into Sheffield the next morning, fires still burning, the factories in ruins. And yet we carried on, we are tough us Yorkshire folk, we had spirit and the Germans could not destroy that, although they tried. But now the city is being destroyed once more, not by German bombs but by our own council, by men in suits and clipboards who have no sense of history and who just don’t care.”


“She is the fifth child to disappear. I heard that the “Pakis” did it, they take them and sell them for sex slaves. I never did trust them.  There is probably a cover-up, it is not politically correct to say so, but we know who are doing it.  The bastards.”

“What has become of our city? Children being stolen, our communities being knocked down. It wasn’t like this during the war. Then we all stuck together, now everything is a mess.”

“She is called Marie and is only four, apparently her mother only turned her back for a minute, and then she was gone, well that is what she says; they were at the park, she was probably gossiping with other mums, but you wouldn’t wish that on anybody. They were going to get her mother to appear on the television, ask for information, but she was too drunk, so they had to get her uncle to do it, but he looked a bit shifty, wouldn’t be surprised if it was him, stands to reason that she wouldn’t just go with anyone.”

“What is happening, can’t we trust anybody? I never let my children out now; I could never forgive myself if they were stolen from me. I drive them home from school and then I lock the front door and draw the curtains so that nobody can get at them.”


“My poor lass, where have they taken you? I miss you so much; your voice, your laughter, the smell of you, even your tantrums.  My soul has gone and I feel empty and dead.  My husband won’t speak to me, and my neighbours look at me with pity and blame; relieved that it isn’t them who have suffered.  I want to die.  If only we had not gone to the park that day, if only I had not been chatting to Julie.  If only there were not evil people who haunt playgrounds looking for their prey.  If only….”


“Community, it is all gone. Nobody cares. Mines closed, steel works. I collect litter from the park, did you know that? I am fifty-four, and that is what I do, walk around the park picking up rubbish with a stick, wearing a stupid jacket. Once I was doing it, me and a couple of others, and suddenly these kids were laughing at us, throwing rubbish. And there was our Jackie, my grandson, mocking his grandad.  He knew it was me, but he laughed with the rest of his friends, and they threw rubbish at us.  I didn’t dare tell his mum, and I didn’t blame him, any lad wants to be proud of his grandad, not see him as a pathetic old tramp, a figure to be mocked.”

“I am sorry.”

“It is okay. My world has gone; pubs closed, can’t even afford to see the Wednesday play, not with the prices they charge now. Just progress I suppose, and you can’t stop progress.”


I sit in the front room Mahler playing quietly. Every day a different symphony, if I am having a quiet day I will play the same one five or six times without pause. I look outside at a couple of children walking down the street, do I dare invite a couple? Offer them juice and biscuits and talk with them? Become their friend?


I know I will hate myself afterwards. Even as I do it, put my hands round their necks and start to squeeze, I know the pain that I am causing; the pleading in the child’s eyes, the whimpering and the smell of the urine, but I feel overwhelmed by it and by the power in my hands. I know that I will go to Hell, that one day I will pay, and pay most awfully and that is right, I can expect no mercy and nor should I.  Now that the music has stopped the house is deathly quiet. And then, as if compelled by a force outside of me, I grab my coat, shut the door behind me and get into my car.


“I can’t see.  Every bit of my body aches so much that I cannot move.”


“Castle Lodge Middle School hit by arson. For the third time this year Castle Lodge Middle School has suffered an arson attack. Fire engines were called at around midnight as flames took hold. Three classrooms have received extensive damage and temporary accommodation is being arranged whilst they are repaired. Head teacher Mr Weatherall told me.

“We are all devastated; this is children’s education that is being destroyed. We will carry on, as we always do, but I don’t understand who would do such a thing.  Children’s work has been destroyed and equipment, we are struggling anyway, and this just makes things worse.””


There are no children at church now; when I started there was about half a dozen regulars and we used to have a class during the sermon and sometimes they would sing songs for the congregation, but one by one they and their parents stopped going and the only time we have children here now is for baptisms or weddings. Sophie, my wife used to take the children’s group, she had a real knack with them, but now even on the few occasions that children turn up, they prefer to sit with their parents, uneasy in this alien place. A church needs children, something to hope for, something to suggest that the elderly are not the last generation of churchgoers, that there is some kind of future, but deep down I know that the church is doomed.


It feels as if we are all waiting; the congregation, me, Sophie, for something to happen. I wonder if I should move on, but perhaps they need me here in this place that is falling apart, a man of God to comfort and offer support, but I feel so inadequate, it is not what I expected; nothing prepared me for this at theological college or my curacy in Hertfordshire. I knew that a church in an inner city would be hard; the poverty and unemployment, the apathy, but I had plans; I imagined turning the church into some kind of shelter for the homeless and letting various groups use our premises, but actually all they need is prayer; a lonely vicar kneeling at the altar offering prayers up to a God who seems oblivious.


“Missing child found dead in Derbyshire. Police searching for five missing children in various parts of Sheffield have found a body.”


“They found her in bushes, in Derbyshire, strangled. Bound to be sexual, they always are. Nothing like this when I was young, we could play out until all hours and nothing ever happened. Oh, the innocence we used to have. At least the parents know, I suppose, but what about the other four? Will they be found the same?”

“Oh I was so glad it was not Helen, but at least her parents have her body and can mourn. All we can do is keep on hoping, but deep down I know Helen is dead and the rest of the missing too, it is just a case of waiting for the body to turn up. Part of me died when I heard it on the radio and when the policewoman called my heart was in my mouth. But oh the poor parents.”

“I knew it was the Islams; they have their way with them and then kill them. Nothing like this when I was young; everything changes and changes for the worst.”

“Oh my poor lass, my poor, poor lass.”


“I saw the body, I was walking to my mum’s through the common when I saw a shoe in a bush, and there was this tiny doll, abandoned. I knew she was dead, but I touched her forehead and it was cold like snow and then I looked into the dead girl’s eyes, and it was as if she were still alive, her eyes capturing forever the horror of her last moments, she looked as if she had died of fright; and there was the smell, indescribable. I rang the police and just sat beside her, talking to her as if she was still alive; I couldn’t bear for her to be alone any longer.  And then the police came and then an ambulance and they covered the poor mite up.  No wonder that policeman was sick, the old one who looked close to retirement, whilst the young one just got on with radioing people and closing off the area”.


“Could be my granddaughter” said the policeman after he was sick, but I did not want to hear about his granddaughter, I just wanted to go home and go to bed. This is a lovely town, I am so lucky to live here but this dead child has spoiled it. From Sheffield they say, that blur of smoke in the distance has come out to us with its pollution and murders. I rang my husband at work, told him what I had found, and he came home and we lay together in bed for the rest of the day.

“I don’t want any children” I told him, “not ever”. And he held me tight and kissed me.”


There is sleet everywhere, and coming through it are people young and old, men and women, of all colours, they are here to protest outside the Town Hall, they hold banners with “Where are our children?” and photographs of the missing with their names, heart breaking. I stand arm in arm with Sophie, she didn’t want to come, “those poor children” she told me, “I cannot bear it”, but when I was ready to set off there she was standing by the door in a thick black coat the one that she was wearing when we first met at college, and in the city square she stood close to me, warming me in the cold.


The crowd smelt of wool, ice and perfume; and they packed together for comfort and to protect themselves. The Square in front of the Town Hall were crowded and more were joining the throngs from all corners of the city and from outside. There was a microphone and a young, ambitious, M.P. stood up and made a short speech, but he did not say anything to the point and nobody listened, his voice was too quiet and it was not him that they had come to hear, the people just stood in silence, determined, and when he had finished nobody said or did anything, just stood sad-faced and cold, and the M.P. looking embarrassed and annoyed, stepped down and disappeared into the Town Hall.


Then a man in a police uniform stepped forward and started to speak.

“Thank you for coming” he began, as if we were here at his invitation, “I share your sorrow and my men are working all the hours there are to find your children”, his voice was distorted in the cold wind, and soon the heckles started, like cold hard snowballs, thrown viciously and with hate.

“Where are they then?”

“Why aren’t you out there?”

“You don’t care.”

Eventually he retreated, his platitudes drowned out by the noise of the bereaved, and the Bishop of Sheffield took his place, head bowed and looking sorrowful, and he said a short prayer after which the crowd dispersed muttering.


“I was in the library, not the one on the Castle Estate, that closed a couple of years ago, but there is another one, just a short bus ride away, where I go now, it is full of unemployed people wiling away their day, but it has newspapers and sometimes I borrow a novel and there is a young lass who works there who is happy to chat. This morning I was photocopying the crossword from The Times when I heard a voice.

“Didn’t you used to teach at Castle Lodge Middle School?”

It was a young man, in jeans, looking nervous and angry, and smelling of cheap aftershave.

“Aye lad I did.”

And then, without a warning, he punched me in the face, hard, I grabbed onto the photocopier to stop me falling, and then he came at me again and I slid to the floor. For a few moments I thought this was how I was going to die, beaten to death in a public library, but then a wimpy looking librarian appeared and tried to get between us and the young man fled, and for a moment I must have fainted.


I staggered home, refusing the librarian’s offer of a cup of tea, a sit down, an ambulance or the police, I just wanted to leave and never come back. I taught at Castle Middle School for most of my working life, I thought I was a popular teacher certainly many parents seemed glad when they realised that I was teaching their children just as I had taught them.

“Ah Mr Shepherd, I know my lad will be in safe hands with you.”

And we would talk about when they had been in my care, and they laughed, and I remembered them, young boys and girls who I had helped to shape and make it into better people. Perhaps I was firm and a little harsh, but they knew that I wanted what was best for them, that I was part of their community; Sheffield born and bred.


Where has the respect gone? When I used to bump into my former pupils I would have a chat and they would shake my hand; some went to University or to work in London, and I am happy to take some credit for that. Now they attack me, as if I am somehow responsible for their empty lives and lack of prospects, and nobody bats an eye, just another old person beaten up. After the incident in the library I sit at home, I haven’t gone out for days on end, scared and pathetic, my daughter drops off food and I can see how shocked she is at what I have become, a defeated, pathetic old man.”


I spoke to the workmen, they were standing round drinking coffee; half of Miranda Street had gone, and they were getting ready to demolish the rest of the street. There were bricks scattered everywhere, and shards of glass, which crunched as I trod on them.

“My Nan used to live on this street” one told me, a slight looking man wearing large glasses, “and I grew up on Beatrice Street which we are coming to next.”

“Do you feel bad about knocking them down.”

He shrugged and tipped the rest of his coffee on the cold ground where it fizzed briefly.

“Yes, it is a shame to see the old community go, but this is my first job in months, and at least we care, we show respect because we know what these houses mean. But yes, I keep thinking that I see my grandma walking towards me, her shopping bag in her hand, I am glad that she died before this happened, and to think that her grandson was involved.”

He stood there and shook his head before joining his colleagues planning their next bout of destruction.


I left them to it and walked away past the other onlookers who watched with sadness, “afternoon vicar” said a young man, who I vaguely recognised, perhaps I married him or buried one of his parents, and we shake hands, his eyes never leaving the workmen who are now going house to house, readying them for demolition, perhaps it is his childhood home, or that of a friend, he looked determined and cross and I wish that there was something I could do.


And then, as the young man walks past me, there is a shout, a scream really, and people are running, and moments later there is the sound of sirens, and workman I talked to earlier is being sick down an alley, his workmates ignore him as if he has some kind of contagion. Much later a stretcher is brought out of one of the houses with a small figure, covered in a blanket, on top and reverently the dead child is put into an ambulance and whilst I pray, there is a howl of anguish which echoes all around.


When they find them I know then that it is real, not just my imagination. How many have I killed now? Some of them are not even reported, as if they were unimportant or nobody had noticed that they had gone.  Why do I do it? Boredom? The sense of power? A psychologist would say I was brought up by a domineering father and bullied by my brother and later at school. But what do psychologists know? I wish it would all end, but I am helpless against the strength of it, at times I cannot imagine that it is me, I almost laugh, but then during the long days when I sit at home, then I know it is real. I remember the feel of their skin on my hands, their smell and their cries for mercy.


Yesterday when my husband was out I drove out of the city to a small town in Nottinghamshire I had visited many years ago as a young teenager. I parked the car and walked to a train line, I remembered when I was here before checking the line was clear and hurriedly crossing it, hand in hand with my brother, to get to the nature reserve beyond. But this time I lay down on it, my head on the railway track but it was uncomfortable, so I used my jacket as a pillow, thick and warm.  I lay there, gazing up at the sky, pale blue with only the lightest clouds, the Spring is here and it is warmer now. And then I curled up hoping that it would be quick and I dozed and I thought that when I awoke I would be dead, that a train would have ended it all.  But then I heard the sound of children close by, and so I stood up and walked away, feeling their gaze upon my back.


He will be our last vicar; a pleasant lad with a presentable wife although she is a quiet lass, always looking sad. He came from a parish down South, he is a clever man, he had been a lecturer at a University before becoming a clergyman, but he is not one of these academic snobs, he is always ready to chat to anyone and everyone. No matter how much decency and kindness you have you cannot stop the bulldozers and officialdom. I came here twenty years ago, a lovely community, but even then you could tell it was in decline; shops closing, houses empty, eventually Ethel and I had to leave our house last year, got a pleasant enough flat but we don’t know anyone, probably that is why we still go to St. Philip’s, just to see a few familiar faces, but there are less and less each week and it makes me feel sad to see how The Castle has declined.


It is sad but I think the church will close soon, not worth keeping it open for the handful who attend and there has only been one marriage this year and the occasional burial. There is the Methodist Church down the road and St. Saviour’s isn’t far, but I doubt the regulars will go elsewhere, just sit and watch “Songs of Praise” on the television and mourn the passing of yet another institution. I remember the first time Ethel and I came, a Sunday in November; walking through the crisp snow, the church wasn’t full but there was a good number, sixty and not just old people, children and young couples, and there was the warmth and smell of humanity. The vicar then, Reverend Charles Freeman, he had been there since the nineteen sixties; he was a kind, decent man, died shortly after he retired, his life’s work complete. Soon it will be just be me and a few others keeping it going, and then once we die what will happen to it? An old building on a roundabout maybe turned into a café and only a scattering of locals will remember what the original building was for and after we are gone just a few local historians with their notebooks and old photographs trying to recapture the past.


“It is cold; there is water and mud and hands around my throat, tighter and tighter. I want my mum.”


There were only five at church this morning, it was raining hard, which didn’t help but this is a new low. Bert and Ethel, Jeannie and Ruth and of course my wife. In recent weeks a young couple had started to attend, they were so full of life and enthusiasm, but they weren’t here today, I am sad but cannot say that I blame them. Hopefully they will find somewhere else to go to with people their age, rather than just give up on Christianity altogether. I did hope that this church would attract people like that; but the few young people in the congregation who were there when I came here have gone, or just pop in for the occasional service. I can’t help feeling that I have let them all down, I had so many plans for the future and I have failed utterly and have no new ideas to offer to the people of this area. I am done.


I was sitting in a park, other side of Sheffield, I had not gone there with any conscious attempt to do anything, I told myself that I was just going for a walk. Everything is collapsing and St Nicholas is set for closure, my husband is looking for another church, in fact he was up in Durham today to see a possible Living. He did ask if I wanted to go with him, but I told him I was busy and he just let it go.  We rarely talk nowadays and I dreaded the journey up there, just him and me not knowing what to say, and him so depressed and inconsolable.


It is the hottest day of the year so far and there was many children running about, some of the playground where I sat, others outside running and kicking a ball about. There was a young boy, about six, crying, I noticed him and he glanced at me through tear-stained eyes, as if he knew. He had dark hair, swarthy skin, perhaps a little taller than the others. I don’t know what had happened to make him cry, perhaps he had fallen off the climbing frame, but he left the playground overwhelmed with his sorrow. I picked up my bag and followed him, just a step behind.


“Are you okay?” I asked him, we were not far from the car park where my mini waited.

“I fell” he cried and shuddered slightly.

“I have got plasters in my car” I told him “and chocolate roll.”

Nobody had seen him go and he put his hand in mine. It was not usually this easy, there were quite a few people about, but he clearly trusted me, and any onlookers would think I was his mum. We got to my rather battered car, the spare one we can’t really afford. I opened the front.

“Sit in there” I told him “and I will get the plasters”.

“Where are the cakes?” he asked.

“Sit in there, I will get them.”

But he refused and he started to cry again, more loudly, in a false, pathetic sort of way, so that I wanted to hit him, hard.


Suddenly there was a middle-aged man standing next to us, looking at me suspiciously, “are you okay Luke?” he asked, he was tall and concerned. “Who is this?” he added.

“I don’t know” said Luke, “she said she would get me some cake.”

I tried to push my way past him and into my car.

“Not so fast”, he murmured, and grabbed me, “phone the police” he shouted to a young woman with three children who was close by, “something is going on. This isn’t Luke’s mum and he seems frightened.”

I tried once again to make a break for it, to get in my car and drive away, but he was holding me tight, his arm unyielding around my chest.


For most people vicars are objects of mockery; when I am out I hear the sniggers behind my back, especially from the young, and on television they are usually a figure of fun, but sometimes the dog collar brings you respect. The policeman at the station was certainly very polite and ushered me into a room where Sophie sat in tears with a policewoman comforting her.

“It was just a mistake,” the policewoman told me, “a boy had had a fall and your wife was trying to help him, but a teacher recognised the boy and got the wrong impression.”

I looked hard at Sophie, who looked red and ashamed.

“It is quite understandable” I said, “especially at the moment, you can’t be too careful.”

“Are you okay love?” the policewoman said to my wife, who nodded, and slowly we walked to the car.


“I am sorry” she said.

I said nothing, just drove and drove, until she asked me where we were going, but I looked ahead and stayed silence, knowing that I had something to do, and that I needed all my courage not to turn back. Beside me my wife stopped crying and looked ahead fearlessly, braver than me.





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