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A Bunch of Fives - Stories by James Roderick Burns (23)
EVERY TIME FRED propped up his rugby ball with a chip of stone from the drystone wall it would topple over and roll away across the tarmac. Ten steps back in a straight line, Ernie’d said, and one to the left, so’s you could scoop it up right between the posts, and here he couldn’t even get the stupid thing to stand up on end for half a minute! Fred had been practising since the start of break. He tried again, chocking the ball with a fat chip of cement from the loose fill around the gate, but it wobbled and fell over before he even got a run up to boot it.
It was his birthday in a few weeks, and he’d ask for a real leather ball. He would be ten, so surely his mother couldn’t refuse. Looking down he felt a brief twinge of guilt – Ernie had lent him this battered old plastic thing so he could practice – but the feeling soon flitted away. A real ball, long and solid and tapering like a bleached banana; one he could belt out of a divot in the lawn, up and over the thorn bushes, right onto the moor! He could almost smell the leather, feel those chunky stitches joining the panels close beneath his fingers. Once he got a real ball he’d be alright. Then the big lads would have to let him practice on the rugby field, instead of out in the schoolyard.
Fred walked over to the ball and grinding his teeth, picked it up again. As he was wedging a new stone under the ball’s skinny point, he heard the rugby team come into the yard. Today was the match with another team down the valley, and there wasn’t long till the bell rang and they got to skive off the rest of the day, travelling with their faces plastered to glass down the winding lanes and out towards the sea, charging and fighting and scrabbling through sticky mud, sucking oranges at half-time, and piling exhausted back into the bus. Fred watched them stroll round the perimeter of the yard. They were already kitted up, cloddy boots hanging over their shoulders, and wore a none-too-subtle look of triumph on their mealy faces. Ernie brought up the rear, bulging kit-bag under one arm, a pudgy hand scratching at his stomach as he made his way over to the bus.
While Ernie pulled on the door handle – a large rounded rectangle that whooshed perpetually out of its frame with a rubbery sigh – the team lounged extravagantly on the wall, clacking their boots and hooting like baby owls let out in twilight. Fred was standing with the rugby ball in his hands, trying to watch the parade without attracting too much attention. He saw one of the larger lads catch his eye, and while Ernie encouraged the rest up onto the bus, drop his shorts and moon at the little kid in the corner of the playground. That fat bloody Smith! Fred hated the sight of him. He’d show the lot of them.
He began to sprint across the yard, plastic ball gripped in his fingers. He got halfway across and tensed his thigh in readiness for the kick. What a punt it would be, right up off the tarmac and over the full length of the bus to the other side! Fred felt the moment wind up inside his stomach, that little twist of the hip, the leaden plunge of his leg down toward the dropped ball. He could see it – the high arc of the perfect kick – and feel the big shits’ sniggers die in their throats. The ball connected with the flat of his instep and he felt it almost go free. But at the last minute there was a rolling underneath his feet. Gravel, a rock or something, and there he was going arse over tit, tumbling down towards the ground, the ball snicking off his foot and racing out of his vision. As he hit the ground his palms and heels bit into the tarmac. He yelped, spiky tears pricking his eyes. A grand cheer went up from the bus, hot and bellied out with mirth. He saw Smith’s mouth move above his retreating trousers, but couldn’t catch what he was saying.
They were all on board now, pointing from behind the glass. The door wheezed shut, trapping the jeering, and Ernie eased the bus into gear. Its fat tyres crept away from the kerb. Fred sat there and cried. His hands hurt and he’d twisted his ankle. His cheeks were red and hot, mouth rough as sandstone. As the bus passed the yard, blowing out a gale of smoke, he caught sight of Ernie glancing back towards the school. Behind the silent glass his round face was crumpled with concern.
After a minute Fred got up and wiped his eyes, then dusted himself off, palms stinging from the cuts. He realised the yard was empty and everyone else had gone inside. For a moment his mind skipped from his present sorrows to the trouble he’d be in for being late, and he ran gingerly through the arch back to the schoolroom. He just had time to wash off his hands before lessons began.
When he got home it was almost three thirty. He’d almost forgotten his embarrassment and was looking forward to the rest of the day. His mother was still out at work, and after getting the key from Mrs Denning next door and letting himself in, he had the house to himself.
Mrs Denning offered him some tea and fruitcake, but he politely declined. She lived with her son, who seemed to Fred almost as old as she was, and they took tea at four thirty and were in bed by eight. Even he went to bed later than that. His mother would stop in and see them sometimes with Fred in tow, and he had a longstanding memory of peeking out from behind her at this curious old lady, bent forward on her walking stick, curled into an armchair as though it had grown up around her, or she grown into it. She didn’t seem to change much, and he thought he’d never get used to the bristles on her chin or the funny smell of their house, like old cheese and biscuits mingled with coal dust. Still, she was nice enough; he just didn’t want any tea. Her fruitcake was chock-a-block with orange peel.
At the kitchen table Fred propped his book on the fruit bowl and poured a glass of milk. He had to read it for school – The Terrible Ones, by Vincent Sandell – and didn’t think much of it so far. Some girl pestering an older lad for money, or something, and cars and swimming pools and another lad about his age who inexplicably longed to hang around with them. He wished these book writers would at least try to write something he’d be interested in. About half way through the glass of milk, when its chilly interest had worn off and stopped compensating for the book, he shut it with a humph.
Outside there didn’t seem to be much happening – a few blackbirds pecking at the lawn, the flat white sky hanging behind trees – so he got up and went over to the fridge. Nothing much there, either. He closed the heavy white door with a sigh. Sometimes he’d find butter toffees secreted in the egg trays, where his mother thought he wouldn’t find them, but not today. Just veggies and eggs, stuff stacked in Tupperware containers beaded with water. On the fridge door was a calendar pinned to the metal by a heavy magnet. His mother had circled a few dates here and there – his birthday the following month, a shopping trip, Christmas – but nothing particularly exciting tomorrow. He already knew about their upcoming visit to the cinema, and checking the time, noticed another circle a day later: Church Trip, Scarborough. Underneath, underlined in a forceful hand, Twelve o'clock.
Fred groaned. All day by himself with those old biddies, and nothing to look forward to afterwards but a sick-making trip back down the coast! Then church again the next day. How he wished those events came the other way round, then at least he could endure the day at the sands with something to keep him going. He’d seen a few films, but they were baby stuff, really, Bambi and that one with the kids who get stuck inside a whale; this was his first real show, and it thrilled him just to think about it: Dragonmangler! Even the title conjured up images of blood and glory, knights in shiny armour wielding pointy swords and spearing enormous fire-belching dragons. Somewhat cheered, Fred settled for a peanut butter sandwich, and with a fresh glass of milk, wandered into the living room.
On Friday evening his mother made him brush his teeth and comb his hair before they left for the cinema. With his hair ordered and shiny, the tingle of toothpaste on his tongue, he ran out of the door and into the car. It was an hour’s journey across the darkened moors. He sat with his chin propped between the headrests as his mother drove, looking out for the woolly missiles of sheep barrelling into their headlights, watching for the first stars. After a while they entered the outskirts of town, turning off the main road and making their way down several side streets to the run-down shopping district where the cinema stood.
From the outside it didn’t look like much, the paint peeling and missing altogether in places, several of its fluorescent letters buzzing and clicking in and out of life, but inside it was just how he remembered it: a palace of sumptuous purple, lined with gilded posters and ornate hanging frames, the tickets dispensed by an old lady in a pillbox hat tucked into a bulletproof glass booth. He hopped around from foot to foot as his mother bought the tickets, then pulled at her sleeve till she got Sunkist and Cornettos, too.
Upstairs, the lights were going down as they shuffled into their balcony seats. Fred propped his drink on the railing and started on his ice cream, but soon it was dripping down his wrist, forgotten. The film had started and he was caught like an insect in the flickering silver beams.
It wasn’t like last time at all. Then he’d sensed the difference between himself and the little sticks and dollies up on the screen, Bambi's mother gamely falling to one knee, the children walking down the whale’s tongue. But here was flesh and blood, living in front of his eyes. He saw three knights stride from a ravaged village, eyes shining brightly as their armour, one tugging his beard in outrage, the others striking their chests, all mounted on tall white horses magnificently caparisoned in scarlet silk. He watched as the adventure unfolded, and they tracked the dragon back to a high mountain through the burning remnants of his night’s work, past rocky crags and over deep crevasses till they mounted the windswept summit and the great beast strode from its lair, swishing a mighty tail.
When the dragon first came into view Fred felt his breath catch and his eyes start open – how wide he was, how tall, and what a belly he had! Long and sleek like polished leather, all ringed and segmented with stripes of brown against the shiny yellow skin. And his arching, roaring head, furled with ragged flaps and snarls of hair. And those teeth! Surely they couldn’t beat this handsome creature.
But steadily they backed him into a corner, taunting him with their cruel spears, till the music swelled and the camera swooped up to catch his rolling eyes as the final sword pierced his flesh and he began to tumble. Oh, what a sight! Fred felt his eyes prickle, tears spilling onto his flushed cheeks. They’d killed him! He watched, forlorn, as that magnificent undercarriage fell from the sky, the shiny, invincible leather now slashed into strips, the mad whites of the dragon’s eyes rolling in agony. When they finished his body was wide and white, yellow and scarlet, the long torso stretched out flat, all the life and the sleek fat gone from it.
With a boom and a brief, harsh darkness, the music surged and the credits began to roll. Fred was sitting slumped against the rail, ice cream little more than a soggy wrapper, crying his eyes out. His mother tried to move him but he wouldn’t budge, so she had to lift him up and carry him out to the car. All the while Fred snuffled into her cardigan, remembering the crash and fall of that lovely creature as he plummeted down to death. His mother put him on the back seat, checking to see if he was still sniffling, but as she lifted her hands from under his back she saw he was fast asleep.
The following day she woke him early, then scuttled off to get herself ready. She had plenty of friends at church, but he really didn’t know anyone except a couple of scrawny little kids half his age. He didn’t think they'd be much fun, and besides, he was almost ten. At that age he shouldn’t have to go anywhere if he didn’t want to. He brooded over the trip as he brushed his teeth. There wasn’t really anything he would usually have been doing – and then there was the free plate of fish and chips, maybe even mushy peas, his mother had been dangling in front of him all week – but he still managed to feel aggrieved, robbed somehow of a perfectly good October Saturday. He gargled and spat with added venom, watching the foamy curds spiral down the drain with a sinking feeling. A few minutes later his mother called him for breakfast, and then they were out in the car and the day had begun.
Outside the church, Ernie hustled everyone onto the bus.
‘Looking a bit black over there,’ he said to no one in particular, casting a worried glance back and up at the late morning sky. There were a few grey clouds speckling the horizon. ‘Wun’t be surprised if it comes on inclement.’
Fred hung around near the back of the bus, waiting till his mother and her cronies had fitted themselves into the back few rows and the biddies fleshed out the middle section, tartan blankets and knitting needles already in evidence. He waited till Ernie had fired up the engine, and was taking a last look for stragglers round the corner of the bus.
‘Come on lad,’ he said, ‘are you daft? On yer get.’ But he smiled as he said it, and ruffled Fred’s hair, bundling him up the steps and onto the front seat. Then the door closed behind him and they were off.
For the first few miles Ernie concentrated on his driving. As the bus laboured up the long hill to the moor top, he dipped the clutch in and out, changing down to get a grip on the slope and then back up when it was a bit more level. Fred watched him while he drove. He was a big man, nearing middle-age, with round rosy cheeks and shiny patches on the elbows and back side of his suit. He wore his hair slicked down with brilliantine, and Fred could smell a slight whiff of it mingling with the wind and the diesel fumes. His hands moved the wheel with admirable certainty, notching it back a fraction or two to compensate for the corners, otherwise clamping it firmly between his chubby fingers. He seemed quite happy, in control and doing what he wanted in the world. Eventually they nosed up onto the moors and Ernie leant back with great satisfaction.
‘Well that’s it now, lad, down hill all the way from here!’ Fred smiled. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a bad day. He liked Ernie. Perhaps he might let him tag along so he wouldn’t have to stay with the others. He wanted to ask outright, but thought that seemed a bit familiar. He shuffled over to the edge of his seat instead.
‘Do you like driving, then, Mr Ramsbottom?’
‘You can call me Ernie, lad. Everyone else does.’
‘Do you like driving, er – Ernie?’
‘Aye, that I do. Wouldn’t you, though? You’re out here in God's great country, all by yourself, and there’s nothing to fetch you up but the brakes and your destination. It’s great, lad – wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t.’
‘But don’t you get bored, or lonely or anything?’
‘Well, sometimes, but that’s just part of life. I don’t mind. I’d rather be up here on the moors, a lot of times, than down there in the valleys, if you see what I mean. It’s sort of clarifying.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘Just clears you up, you know, cleans everything out. Like you the other day, with the ball and what have you. Remember how after a while it didn’t seem all that bad, and then later on you almost forgot it, and later again you were having so much fun it didn’t seem to matter at all? Like that, see. Clears it all up summat grand.’
‘Does that fat Smith have to be on the team?’ This popped out of Fred’s mouth before he could stop it. It hung for a moment, raw as an unmissable fart in the noon air.
‘Well, I can see you’ve a bit of a problem with him, haven’t you? You’ve got to learn, though, that things’ll come your way when it’s your time for them. You’re a good little player, but you’re a bit small just now, that’s all. And you almost made that kick!’ Ernie’s voice lifted for a second above the clamour of the engine, and Fred could see again the high arc of his perfect lost kick sailing over the bus.
He didn’t say anything, but sat staring at his palms. The scabs from the playground were quite thick now, and he began to pick at the edge of one. Ernie watched him in the rear-view mirror. He turned away from the road for a second.
‘Fred, lad?’ Then a second question, to get his attention. ‘You’ll make it to the team, you know, don’t fret about that. When you’ve put on a bit more weight and are connecting with more of those punts, you’ll be on the team for sure.’ Then he turned back to his driving, clicking on the radio as he did so.
Fred shoogled back over to the window. He felt alright, he supposed, and the longer he sat, the better he felt. Smith and his big stupid friends could bugger off for all he cared; he was going to get on the team one day. Then it’d be his turn. He looked up gratefully at Ernie, but Ernie was staring through the windscreen and nodding his head to a Petula Clark number. So he just watched the landscape roll by, and picked idly at his scabs. As they were pulling into Scarborough he peeled one off completely with a pinch, like a crab had nipped him. He wiped the blood off on the seat as they climbed out to stand on the promenade.
Ernie closed up the bus and paused for a moment, pulling down the corners of his waistcoat. Then he looked up at everyone and gave out directions.
‘Periwinkle’s Pies, four thirty,’ he said. ‘It’s just down the high street, towards the monument end, if you don’t know it. We’ll meet upstairs at four thirty sharp. Pie and peas or fish and chips, whichever you like, so don’t eat much else before tea time! Alright then, I’ll see you later.’
When he finished, Ernie turned and purposefully strode away down the promenade. Fred watched him go sorrowfully. Ernie pulled out a damp cigar and flicked his lighter a few times to get it started. By the time the coal was glowing he’d made it to the opposite pavement, and with one brief look over his shoulder was heading down in the direction of The Swan. Fred’s hands dropped to his sides. He started to look for his mother. She saw him from a few feet away and assuming he was with the little kids behind him, who were heading in a bunch for the swing boats and rides beside the beach, waved him a quick farewell, throwing an endearment over her shoulder as she walked away arm in arm with a friend.
Fred felt cold and stumped. Everyone else seemed to have something to do, and was busy making tracks to do it. He watched the little kids for a bit. One of them, Timmy he thought his name was, had got into a swing boat with a little pigtailed girl; he was cranking away on the rope, sending the boat’s end up into the cloudless grey sky. Fred turned away. He thought he’d better find something to do, and began to trudge down the promenade towards the arcades and the few sweet shops still open at the tail end of the season.
After half a mile or so he came upon a big building all scrubbed clean and bulging out over the pavement: Flanagan's Pool Parlour & Luxury Amusement Arcade, the sign said, and the place certainly seemed to live up to its reputation. The sculpted arch framing the smoked-glass doors was painted an inviting pink, and there were gilded looping door handles that seemed to reach out for the customer’s hands. Fred could see a throng of teenagers through the glass. Some were leaning against a long marble counter, swigging coke and waving cigarettes around, while others gripped the sides of video games and ornate pinball machines. He pulled on one of the golden loops and slipped inside.
Walking across the plush carpet he found himself feeling better. He didn’t have much money – about a pound, he thought, mostly in 10ps – but there were plenty of lights and bells and buzzers in here, and it was crowded, so he felt a bit more at ease. Lots of the players were in their mid-teens, looking impossibly grown-up and sophisticated, but a few were nearer his own age, mostly young lads crouched over the fruit machines, spinning and nudging and lighting up banks of diodes for all they were worth. He stood behind one kid feeding 10ps into a machine like he was making an offering: coin after coin, each granting his small red marker one grudging place further up the spiral, till he ran out of coins and nudged his last with all he could manage. Fred winced as the machine beeped and gargled, seeming to taunt him before it swallowed all his money and span the growing spiral backwards at dizzying speed, till it curled back into the centre and the screen went blank. The boy screamed and swore, then whacking the machine with his fist, walked off across the room, head hanging in defeat.
Fred wandered over to the far side of the room, where a knot of girls was poring over a large silver machine full of 10p coins. They slid back and forth on several precarious tiers, each sliding smoothly under the last, with a bird’s nest of balanced coins feathering the edges. The girls popped more coins into the slot, hoping for the one that would force itself into the back of the pile and dislodge an avalanche of treasure. He watched them for a while, then when they had withdrawn, disappointed and complaining, he took out the coins he had in his pocket and fed them in rapid succession into different slots. The coins fell behind the shifting mass of silver, and with the sweeping back and forth motion of the machine, were wedged up stickily into the back of the pile. Not a single tremor rippled through the overhang. Fred stuck his nose against the glass, willing them to fall. But they remained as they were, surging back and forth like the endless shifting of the tide. He gave up, disillusioned but not really surprised, and went out of the arcade. He’d never really understood pool – that seemed a grownup’s game – and there wasn’t much else in the place to interest him.
Outside, Fred wandered aimlessly for a while, before deciding on the beach. It looked rather cold and distant out there, but that seemed to suit his mood. He sat down on a chipped kerb and removed his shoes, then walked down to the squelchy hard-packed sand beside the sea and dug in his toes. As he walked along, the people on the beach thinned out, children with frisbees and mad, overexcited dogs receding till he found himself alone beyond the curve of the bay. He watched the slow motion of the waves, not calmed by them but dulled, somehow, eyes too slow to pick out the details, feelings dented and withdrawn. Fred fished in his pocket for his penknife, then began to look for a log or a stick worn smooth by the sea. One had been washed up ten feet beyond the hard sand, and he bent to pick it up, walked over to a small mound of sand raised up near the sea-wall.
He wasn’t much given to thinking about things; quickness of temper and preference for action were his main characteristics, at least so far. But as he sat and picked at the wood, notching holes like a panpipe into the smooth whorly surface, it didn’t seem very fair to him, all of this. The film had been good, yes, and he’d enjoyed practising for the rugby team even though he wasn’t on it yet, but people always seemed to be ganging up on him, playing on a different side, stifling his chances of getting anywhere. Even his mother seemed a bit that way. Though there were just the two of them, she’d been rather distant lately, taking off with her church friends or sitting at the window ignoring him when he needed something. Fred couldn’t grasp why they wouldn’t include him. He didn’t know what was wrong, if anything at all. Perhaps this was just the way things were and he’d have to get used to it. Still, he thought, glancing at the blank sky, at least I’ve got stuff to look forward to.
When he had finished whittling the pipe he stuck it in the sand. As he stood up, a seagull flew low over his head, screeching for food, then wheeled around and headed out to sea. He could see the black tips of its wings darting in the breeze. He called out his name as loud as he could, sending it after the bird, but it didn’t respond so he turned and walked quickly towards town.
Periwinkle’s at four thirty, Ernie’d said. Fred wondered as he walked where Ernie had gone. The pub, perhaps, or the cinema, or maybe just back to the bus. He wasn’t sure what Ernie did when he wasn’t on duty. He looked for him as he pushed open the door to the chip shop, climbing up the wooden back stairs, but he was nowhere to be seen. Inside, the church friends were already eating, some from great plates of mushy peas and soggy pies, others from mounds of chips and fat slabs of battered haddock soused in vinegar. The children were squealing and running around. Fred saw his mother at the other end of the room. She waved, and he smiled back limply, slipping onto the end of a crowded table. He helped himself to a piece of fish and a few chips from a plate.
He ate quickly, unsure of his appetite, feeling hot and unhappy in the crowded room. He finished in a few minutes and stood up to go outside. On the back steps it was cool at least, and most of the noise was blocked by the door. He sat with his arms around his knees, looking out across the car park. The door creaked behind him and he looked up. His mother had come out, napkin in hand.
‘Fred, love, are you alright? You look a bit peaky. You didn’t stay long in there.’
He smiled at her. ‘I’m okay, mum. I’m just tired out. I went for a walk on the beach. I'll be okay.’
‘Are you sure?’ He could hear the relief in her voice, a desire to return creeping right back in behind it. ‘I’ll just be in here if you need me, okay?’ Fred nodded. As she reached the door she turned back to him. ‘If you’re bored, you might go and talk to Ernie. He’s back out at the bus, in the seafront car park. Why don’t you go and talk to him about the rugby?’
He walked down the rest of the stairs and stuck his hands in his pockets. The seafront was ten minutes away, and he’d nothing better to do. After all, Ernie hadn’t really been bad, had he? Not like he’d actually offered or anything, then backed away. A little flame of hope jumped up in the back of his mind. Maybe he could find out how long it might be till he’d be on the team.
Fred picked up his pace. When he got to the car park Ernie was parked in the far corner, his feet propped up on a headrest, the door of the bus open to waft away his cigar smoke.
‘Hello, lad,’ he said, spotting Fred at the foot of the steps. ‘Come in.’
‘Hi Mr Ramsbottom.’ Fred sat down on a seat, his nose wrinkling slightly at the odour of tobacco. Ernie noticed, and turned in his seat.
‘Like a puff? No?’ Laughing, his great belly shaking under his waistcoat, he gently blew smoke above the boy’s head. ‘You know, lad, there are a great many things you’ve got to get used to. There’s time, for one thing, and waiting, and patience. You’ll find that –’ But something cut short this speech. A spasm suddenly twitched his chest. The cigar dropped onto the upholstery. Ernie grabbed at his stomach, raking for breath and slamming back into the driver’s seat. ‘Quick lad,’ he managed, before another bolt hit him and his hand gripped the back of the seat.
Fred stood up and backed away, wide-eyed. He got his feet on the top step, then the next one down, and wanted to cry or shout out or do something, anything. He looked at Ernie’s face. It was red round the edges, but was acquiring a funny blue cast in the cheeks and mouth. He didn’t know what to do. Stumbling out of the bus he turned and ran as fast as he could back to the chip shop. He tripped up the pavement trying to get in, and banged his shins as he mounted the wooden stairs. Then at the door he suddenly stopped.
A feeling of isolation returned to him with all the force it had possessed beside the bus. A choking kind of emptiness, a nothing and a deep, sharp hopelessness that scrubbed out everything else. He couldn’t think around it, or force the image out of his mind. Ernie was probably slumped down the steps by now, going blue, with tiny little breaths whispering in and out of his chest.
Fred sat down heavily on the top step. Twice he got up and gripped the doorknob, but both times sank back down, palms wet and cold. He wrapped his arms around his shins and rocked back and forth. A few minutes passed.
When his mother came out she rushed over and lifted his head.
‘What’s wrong, Fred love, why are you upset? Why are you crying? Didn't you go to see Ernie?’
‘Ernie’s in the bus, mum. He’s in the bus.’
‘Did you see him? Where is he? Are you alright?’
‘He’s in the bus. He’s in the bus down by the sea.’
First published in The Yorkshire Journal (Summer 2003)
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