Stretmore, Halloween 1975
The pavements were still slick from the afternoon’s rainfall. Stretmore looked even bleaker and greyer than usual, the grim high-rise flats on the outskirts of the estate looming threateningly against their charcoal backdrop. It would soon be dusk, and the plastic-encased bulb over the doorway of the scruffy grocery shop at the end of Ostleton Road was burning, though the streets were still just light enough. A clumsily carved, grinning pumpkin, a candle already flickering within, had been placed in the grubby window behind the store’s faded posters advertising Ty-Phoo Tea and Lyons Cakes.
Lights had begun to blink on in the windows of some of the tall, terraced houses lining the avenue. It had just turned five o’clock, approaching tea time for many, and the streets were all but empty. A couple of laughing youths, hair dripping, their parkas sodden from the recent downpour, were kicking a ball to one another from opposite sides of the road as they weaved their way down the hill towards the gasworks and the muddy playing field beyond.
The man pulled up alongside the kerb, just a few feet from the shop. He looked from left to right, then switched off the engine and undid his safety belt, settling himself in his seat to wait. Initially, he’d been worried his shiny blue Daimler Sovereign would look conspicuous. If he had been superstitious, he might have thought it unwise to tempt fate on All Hallows’ Eve; even to leave the safety of his house. He wasn’t familiar with this neighbourhood or indeed the area, but it appeared rundown; some of the houses were boarded up and the glass from the phone box he’d just driven past lay smashed to smithereens beside it. The pavements were strewn with litter and discarded chewing gum; the walls bearing the street signs daubed with artless graffiti. There were few cars on the roads and those he had seen looked barely roadworthy. But probably by virtue of the weather, the streets were fairly deserted. There was hardly anyone in evidence to notice him. And what few people there were seemed to pay him little heed.
He sat up sharply as, in his rear-view mirror, he caught sight of the woman, appearing from around the block.
The woman with badly bleached blonde hair, pushing an old-fashioned, coach-built pram.
She was swaying slightly, a cigarette burning between the fingers that gripped the handle of the baby carriage. The man rolled his eyes. Sitting up, he observed her short skirt and teetering movements once more with distaste. He’d watched her earlier, meandering down the street.
He thought she was heading this way. It was obvious she’d been drinking. Hopefully it would have slowed her reflexes.
The woman drew nearer. His pulse quickened as she came to a halt outside the shop just a few feet from the car, slapping on the brake of the pram with her foot. She paused to take a final puff of her roll-up, then ground it out with the toe of her platform shoe on the pavement, just below the shop window. He heard the jangle of the entrance bell as the door closed behind her.
This was even better than he’d anticipated. But time was of the essence.
Quickly, he got out of the car and strode across towards the shop, his heart thudding. The pram was battered, the hood worn with age; a cigarette burn on the cover. His eyes narrowed as he scanned around anxiously, ensuring no one had seen him, then leaned in to inspect the sleeping infant, unhooking the lip of the brown canvas apron. The blanket stretched beneath was blue. He caught his breath. Reaching in with trembling hands, he peeled it back carefully. A blue jacket. He smiled inwardly.
Glancing to left and right once again, he seized his chance. The baby snuffled, drawing up its legs a little, but mercifully didn’t wake as he lifted it with both hands to his chest. Within seconds, the infant was lying on the back seat of the Daimler.
And like a bat out of hell, he was on his way home.