He first met Roger Goodwin when he was fourteen, on that awkward evening when his mother insisted on him wearing his good shirt for tea as there was a visitor coming over. Things were uncomfortable between them right from the start. Roger had no interest in trains or collecting things or any of the interests close to Roy's heart. Neither of them were bothered by this; it was only when Roger started coming around to see Sylvia more often that their lack of common ground became a problem. He did try a little; he hung around railway stations and goods yards with Roy in freezing weather and even sat and watched dull documentaries with him but to no avail.
Roy felt sorry for him at first. He knew Roger's parents and older sister had been killed in the Blitz while he was an evacuee in North Wales and that an aunt and uncle had taken him in for a few years until he was able to support himself. He knew his mother wanted desperately for the two of them to get along but he had no social skills to help him cross the enormous chasm that lay between them. In any case, after a while he began to realise that behind the charming, amiable exterior hid a bitter, cynical man who, nonetheless, knew exactly how to flatter himself into Sylvia's affections. And that was exactly what he did, culminating in that day a year later when Roger called him down into the living room while he was trying to read a very interesting library book about the bats of the United Kingdom. Roy stood there quietly as Roger put his arm around Sylvia and told him that "this lovely mother of yours" had just agreed to become his wife.
The wedding was one of the worst days of Roy's life. All those people patting him on the shoulder, telling him how lucky he was to have a new father. He could not avoid people that day, either in the registry office or at the pub afterwards, but he did try to smile and answer their questions as briefly and as politely as possible before sneaking off to read a book in a quiet corner. Thankfully, once the photographs were over and done with his mother was too preoccupied to bother about him.
The one good thing about it all was that he was able to stay with his Auntie Jean while the newlyweds spent their honeymoon in Llandudno, somewhere his mother had always wanted to visit (as she told nearly everyone she met for the next few weeks). His aunt did not force him to talk to people or watch stupid programmes on the television and it was a welcome reprieve that sadly did not last very long. His stepfather was determined to assert his authority over his new household and Sylvia, who was more than relieved not to be the deserted wife any more, was glad to allow him.
Roy had left school by this point, not having the option of going to university but his hobbies continued to be a much needed source of comfort, particularly when Roger used the back of his hand or even his fists to maintain his dominance. One of his favourite pastimes was to head off on his bicycle to railway stations further afield to find out about the various trains that pulled in there. It was on one of those expeditions to the other side of Manchester when he was passing by a pub called the Golden Rooster when spotted Roger going in the door with a red haired woman who was definitely not his mother. He nearly crashed into the kerb as he saw his stepfather put his arm around her shoulder. Still shaken and a little bewildered he managed to make his way home, ignoring his mother's greeting and running up to his room as fast as he could.
Eventually he plucked up the courage to ask Roger about it one evening while his mother was at a WI meeting. They were in the living room together for a change, with Roy pretending to read a book while planning the words in his head. Finally, he took a deep breath, simply stated the facts about what he had seen while keeping his head down the entire time. His stepfather put down his newspaper and turned down the volume on the radio.
"What business is it of yours? She's a friend of mine, going back years, and there's nothing going on. And if there was, it's none of your business."
"Y-yes, I think-"
"What? Why are you always mumbling?"
Roy kept his gaze on the carpet, the pattern becoming embedded into his mind. He fumbled with his collar with sweaty fingers.
"I said, yes, it is… It is my business. You're married to my mother. You shouldn't be seeing other women. It's…It's n-not right…"
"Not right, is it? Who are you, the Archbishop of Canterbury? What would you know anyway? None of the girls around here would be seen dead with you, and now you're going to lecture me about women?"
"Does my mother know about her?"
"What do you think?"
"I-I'm not sure…" Roy stammered, unable to detect his stepfather's sarcasm.
"Oh for God's sake… Look, it's just a bit of fun, nothing else, I'm still married to your mother and I'm still going to go out tomorrow and work my fingers to the bone for you and her, although God knows why, you never seem grateful for it."
"It's not appropriate. You shouldn't see her again," Roy managed to blurt out. He instantly regretted it for in that moment Roger got up, came over to where he was sitting and gave him a resounding slap across his face for his trouble. He cowered against the back of the armchair, rubbing his stinging cheek.
"Now you listen, you little creep. I know what you're like, always skulking in that room of yours, thinking you're some kind of professor or something. Your mother wanted you to have a father and here I am so you'd better start to show some gratitude. Not many other men would take on someone else's creepy son, you know."
Roy sat there, trying to be brave but a tear soon ran down his cheek.
"Stupid soft kid. Don't know why I bother. Get out of my sight and go and hide in your room. And don't ever make comments about my private life again. If you tell your mother she's only going to think you're trying to stir up trouble. And if I find out you told her, I'll take my belt off to you, and don't you forget it."
Roy ran off to his room, determined to get away from this odious man. As he lay on his bed he knew his time here was coming to an end. He didn't get paid very well at the bookshop but he could always find a second job, enough to get somewhere basic to live. And his Auntie Jean might take him in for a while. She sometimes stood up for him, especially if she could annoy her sister in the process and she was always telling him that he was welcome in her house. Slowly he made plans.
He always remembered that his mother was not looking directly at him when she heard the news that he was leaving but rather watched him curiously through the mirror on her dressing table, her back turned the entire time. She did, however, almost drop her pot of face cream on to the carpet in surprise. That made her turn around at last.
"Leaving? But where will you go?"
"Auntie Jean, I think. She says I can sleep in the spare room. Also, there are rooms for rent on-"
"You can't leave!" she gasped, "You won't know how to… I mean, you... you'll have to live..." Slowly she got up and walked over to him. Roy hung his head as ever, unable to look at her.
"It's Roger, isn't it? You know, you could try and get along with him-"
"No. I can't. He doesn't want to get along with me. I need to leave."
"I see," she whispered, her head cocked to one side as she surveyed him. "He's a good man, you know. He hasn't had a good life so far, what with his family being killed and all that."
"I know. But I still can't stay. He…hits me, you know, and says terrible things to me."
"He's been good to us," she insisted, "At least we don't have people gossiping about us any more. And I was able to give up working in the café at last, spend a bit more time at home. Doesn't that mean anything to you? Don't you want me to be happy after putting up with your father for so long?"
"I'm sorry…" he mumbled, before retreating back to his room.
It's likely she thought he would never actually go through with his plan. She may have thought he would realise how silly he was being and would stay at home, in familiar territory. Up to the last moment, she probably thought she could talk him out of it or that he would not have the nerve to step out into the world. Whatever the reason, she watched silently as he packed his bag and handed him a freshly ironed shirt "to keep for best", the last chore she did for him for a very long time.
Downstairs, Roger was waiting in the hall, his arms folded. Roy tried to walk past him but he blocked his way.
"P-please, can you… I can't get past you."
"You'll be back, you know. It'll be too much for you, out there, with no-one to do your laundry and run around after you."
"I… I need to leave. Please-"
"You think you're so much better than everyone else, don't you, with your books and your big words and your stupid trains. Well, let me tell you, you're no different to anyone else around here- Actually, no that's not true either, is it? You're a freak, a complete and utter freak and it's no wonder you've no friends. You never will either, because you're too stupid and stuck up to have normal conversations with anyone and the kids around here think you're creepy and weird."
Roy held his head high, determined to maintain eye contact with this detestable man, although his entire body shook. And all the time he wondered "Why doesn't my mother come down and help me?"
"Look at you, just standing there, staring at me. Can't even stand up for yourself, can you? Why the heck can't I have a normal stepson, one who isn't an idiot?"
Roy squared his shoulders, his face set into a determined, stoical mask of indifference. He blinked back the tears that threatened to spill over. He would never, ever let this man see him cry ever again.
"Say something, damn you, don't just stand there!"
But Roy did just stand there. Taking deep breaths, he repressed all his tears and anger deep inside him where it would remain for a very long time. Don't react he kept telling himself. Show him no emotions. Show him nothing.
"Yes, well, if this is what you're like at sixteen God only knows what you'll be like in thirty years time. You'll probably be that weirdo that no-one wants to sit next to on the bus. Are you listening, you idiot? Are you?"
Swallowing, Roy looked him straight in the eye.
"Yes," he replied, his voice unwavering, "but I will never listen to you again."
With that he picked up his suitcase as Roger finally moved out of his way, staring at him in astonishment and with all the dignity he could muster he walked out of the house, never to return. He looked back as he walked down the street, his face still expressionless. He paused briefly when he thought he saw the curtain of an upstairs window flicker and a glimpse of his mother's curly hair, but she never appeared. He would have plenty of time over the years to wonder how different his life would have been if she had come after him, but right then he never wanted to see that house again.
And that was the beginning of his life in the shadows, as he retreated ever further into himself.