Diary

Stephen Smith

The evening paper was leading with the police calling in a ‘Cracker-style’ forensic psychologist to help them solve the case. There was a poster with the same headline for the newsstands, which was a banker of a shot for us. But the vendor we approached wouldn’t bark his wares for the camera. He was probably on the dole, according to a passing policeman. That was all this affair needed, I thought. As if the story of a slashed corpse in a seaside resort wasn’t already like something out of Brighton Rock, here was a nervous newsman to set alongside Hale of the Messenger, with his ‘inky fingers and his bitten nails’.

It was a week into the police inquiry. The corpse had been found naked and decapitated. It had been cut in two and left in a Puma sports bag in a rubbish bin at the rear of the New Central Hotel in Blackpool. The police identified the body as that of 17-year-old Christopher Hartley. A minute or two went by before you began to wonder how they’d managed it. Presumably from fingerprints: police sources indicated that Christopher had a criminal record, though they didn’t want to make too much of it out of sympathy for the dead boy’s family. He had had a mum and dad living in Burnley and a brother and sister in Blackpool itself. He had rung home on Christmas Day and the police were told he was intending to see in the New Year with his parents. He hadn’t been a missing person in the ordinary sense of the term; he hadn’t been a runaway.

‘It had seemed quite easy to Hale to be lost in Brighton.’ Christopher Hartley hadn’t gone missing so much as got lost. A man who had employed him talked about him falling in with the wrong crowd; traces of heroin were found in his body. In effect, two investigations were running side by side: as well as the search for anyone who knew anything about Christopher’s death, there was a kind of posthumous manhunt for Christopher himself. Who was he? How had he wound up like this? A man of 20 has been charged with his murder and remanded in custody, having agreed to be extradited from the Irish Republic. I was interested in the second investigation, the dragnet for the late Christopher Hartley.

When I first heard about his death, I thought that he might have been a rent boy. Something about his age, something about Blackpool, which has probably the largest gay scene in the North outside Manchester. Christopher’s final circumstances made me think of the abject life of teenage prostitutes – the passivity, the victimhood. I thought I would talk to people in Blackpool’s gay community. On Talbot Road in the town centre, there was a black door like a smoke-damaged fire exit, and beyond it a staircase descending to a bar, itself done out in a black motif. It was lunchtime and there were perhaps a dozen men in the bar, paired off companionably over pints of lager. There was an empty dancefloor with a metal surface, bordered by exposed girders. It looked like the helipad of an oil-rig. ‘Terrible business,’ said the barman. No, he hadn’t known Christopher. ‘Not that it’s as small a town as they say, but you get to know the regular faces.’ So where were the other gay bars? ‘They’re mostly around here: Basil’s, The Flying Handbag, Funny Girls ...’ I broke in on a young couple at one end of the bar and asked them if they’d ever met Christopher, was there a rent-boy scene? One of them told me that I looked like a detective. ‘Yes, you can tell us that’s your card, but how do we know you didn’t just get it from somewhere?’ They didn’t know anything, they said. Behind the bar was a mirror on which the lunchtime menu had been written up, a declension of chippy fare: Burger & Chips, Chicken Nuggets & Chips, Basket of Chips. I thought of Ida Arnold, the pub-going tart with a heart, ‘cocking her hat at a better angle in a mirror which advertised White Horse’.

All this was probably a complete waste of time. The Guardian had talked of Christopher having a girl, and said the police wanted to contact her. ‘They have still not spoken to a girlfriend he was believed to have had in Blackpool.’ On the other hand, this might have been another kindly blind for his parents. We found a young woman who had befriended Christopher after he had arrived in Blackpool at the end of last spring. She said she had known gay men to be attracted to him. ‘He was in the wrong scene.’ The woman had spoken to the police but didn’t want to be named and would only be interviewed in silhouette. At a private house near the seafront, she said Christopher had been very bright. ‘He used to ask too many questions.’ He had dabbled in heroin. ‘But he definitely wasn’t an addict – I’m an addict, or ex-addict.’ The woman did a little part-time modelling, she told us, for photographs and videos. She had been abused as a child, raped while in care. She wondered whether a van might have been involved in Christopher’s death (there is no suggestion of this). She herself had once been dragged into a van and sexually assaulted and the attack had, she claimed, been videotaped. It was impossible to tell by looking at her how old she was.

Another friend told us that she had been on holiday when Christopher’s body was found, and that the penny hadn’t dropped even when she read about it at Manchester airport ‘because I knew him as Chrissy and they didn’t call him that in the paper. He was always scrounging, asking for a fag. He could give you a bit of lip but he was all right. I keep thinking we’re going to see him coming round the corner again.’ The woman, in her late twenties, would only talk to us off-camera. She had no idea what lay behind Christopher’s death but it had made her so frightened she had taken to sleeping with her wardrobe up against the bedroom door.

There is no reason to think that Christopher’s death was anything other than an isolated occurrence. Certainly, that’s how the police presented it at their daily press conferences. It’s astonishing, then, to discover how many unlawful killings there have been in Blackpool: eight since last September, six of them chalked up as murder. ‘One reaction to this case has been “Just another death, just another murder in Blackpool,” ’ said Jonathan Brown, news editor of the Gazette. ‘I’m afraid it’s a very common phenomenon here.’ Young people turn up at the start of the season looking for work, just as Christopher had done, and are left high and dry when the tourist trade ebbs away in midwinter. Brown said hoteliers had lots of empty rooms and were willing to let them at giveaway rates: £7 for bed and breakfast. This was of a piece with the out-of-season deals that slot-machine bosses and managers of attractions were huckstering on the Golden Mile. One place had a sign up saying ‘Tea only 10p inside’. In its own way, this was as shrewd and attention-grabbing as the hoarding outside the aquarium which promised to get you ‘Face to Face with Live Sharks’. Brown agreed that drugs were a big problem. ‘We’ve had a girl of nine who was a heroin addict, the youngest in the country, I believe.’ This was a news editor talking up a scoop – younger addicts had been reported elsewhere, I vaguely recollected – but it was also another superlative claimed by Blackpool: biggest big-dipper, cheapest cuppa, most baby-faced junkie. Who had supplied her with the drugs? I sighed for the days when seaside rackets meant dodgy bets. Pinkie, Greene’s fledgling gangster, knew nothing of drugs.

None of the rides at the Pleasure Beach seemed to be open. Men were putting bulbs into a sign which said ‘Beach Amusements’ and there were waterlogged sandbags left over from the New Year storms around the door of the Teddy Trading Co. The police said that Christopher had worked at the Pleasure Beach but a spokeswoman told the papers that the funfair knew nothing of him. We discovered that he had worked for a time at the Lucky Numbers stall on the Golden Mile. This was an old-fashioned amusement involving ping-pong balls and numbered lanes, a romantic venture in the days of the videogame arcade, especially since only modest prizes – stuffed toys – were on offer. Clark Senior, opening for business on a particularly bleak morning, remembered Christopher as ‘a nice lad, but confused’. He had worked for Senior ‘from the beginning’, but had got into a few difficulties. In the end, they’d had to let him go. He had started disappearing, Senior said.

Christopher had slept on friends’ sofas, or floors. The sometime model told us that he would drop by her place from time to time. He would have a shower and she would give him something to eat. Christopher had been a regular at a centre for the homeless, not stopping there but looking in during the day. The manager had given him a Christmas present. Without work, young people couldn’t even afford the cut-price hotel rates. The Council had central government backing for a homelessness initiative, amounting to the salaries of two workers to advise and refer people who were sleeping rough. ‘Some of these young people remember Blackpool from their childhood holidays, but it’s not like that at all,’ a Salvation Army spokesman told me. ‘Blackpool out of season can be a hard place. They come back here thinking the streets are paved with gold.’ You tried to imagine it: the sandbagged strip of the Golden Mile transmogrified into Dick Whittington’s London. Another pantomime reference struck me when I saw a family rendezvous point on the front called the Lost Children Centre.

Christopher’s sister Michelle is believed to be the last person who saw him alive. He was throwing stones at the window of some lodgings he had found. This was in the early hours of 30 December. At lunchtime the same day, Peter Falkingham was in the carpark at the rear of the New Central Hotel, the sort of place which, not having a clear sight of the sea from the bedrooms, describes itself in its brochure as ‘five minutes’ stroll from the beach’. Falkingham, the manager of the hotel, was jockeying guests’ cars into the small yard, welcoming arrivals. ‘I was moving the bins, making some room,’ he said. A week later, he still looked like a man who had just seen a ghost. It was Twelfth Night but no one had thought to take down the crowns of tinsel from the lobby or put away the cards on the desk. ‘At first I thought it was a dummy from a joke shop,’ Falkingham went on, putting me in mind of the holidays I’d spent out of season at my grandparents’ B&B in New Brighton, down the coast from Blackpool, and of the joke shops which had been the main attraction for my brother and me: the plastic spiders, the ‘electric’ hand-buzzers, the Snappy chewing-gum with the spring-clip concealed in the packet – shocks and frights associated from childhood with the seaside in winter.

I said: ‘You’re closed now?’

‘It’s not like that. We always close for a bit after New Year,’ Falkingham said. The staff had kept the guests distracted while the police searched the carpark and the alley behind the hotel, and then all the rooms. ‘But there was no connection. He’d never stayed here, I’d never seen him before.’

Falkingham’s eyes looked puffy. A woman brought him a cup of tea. I tried to imagine what it would have been like if a body had been found in a bin at my grandparents’ hotel. I said: ‘I suppose it must have been a pretty dreadful New Year?’

Falkingham rallied. ‘That’s the astonishing thing. Don’t ask me why, but it was one of the best New Years we’ve ever had.’