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Young, Gifted & Skinned by Dante O'Donnell

© Dante O'Donnell

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“Go on, boy, go on!”

Fists clenched, veins bulging. Knees pivoting with every divot he skips over, toes twinkling with every tackle he avoids. I’m kicking every ball, heading every cross—bang, back of the net-GOAL!

Except I’m not kitted out in polyester shivering in the drizzle—no, I’m in my Sunday best suit and polished shoes, huddling in my Mac against the chill—watching, watching, watching.

Then the chubby kid clatters Billy from behind.

“’Sake, ref!” And I’m over the white line, snarling, cursing.

But he’s just shaken—nothing broken, nothing twisted. Blessed relief followed by anger that turns my ire on the pot bellied bruiser who brought him down. “’Mon, that’s a booking, ref, no?”

My boy, my Billy, the best damn player on the park by a country mile, is sat on his backside rubbing his Achilles gingerly.
“Get yerself up, boy. ’Mon, focus!”

For these 90 minutes I’m a driven dad. I’m concentrated on every flick, zoomed in on every zig-zag as he cuts across the turf with the ball tied to his laces.

Billy looks back at me sheepishly— feigning injury like a pussy.

I clench my fist— come on, boy, be durable, be flinty. Don’t be a wallflower, son. Get yourself up!
Billy flounces to his feet— defeated, body language slope shoulders.

Weakling—that’s his Ma’s influence, by the way. Always a cuddle instead of a kick up the backside, always a good boy pat and a lollipop when he grazed himself on the gravel. I give him my best Indian face—he looks away ashamed, but he’s getting up and getting on with it at least.

Now, there’s the free ki-

“Can’t do it for them, can you?” A voice like shaved ice says—hairs pinpricked on my neck.

“Sorry?”

“That your laddie, is it?” He points out to the far wing—a solid gold Rolex against the white cuff of his shirt. Scottish lilting brogue—educated, money.

“Yeah.” I don’t look at him.

“Good feet—always got his head up.” He says, and steps forward. It’s windy and drizzling but he looks like he’s just stepped out of Burton’s window. Not a hair out of place. Perfect knot in his tie.

“Thanks.”

“No,no—thank you. He sprung from your loins, right?”

He smiles with a mouthful (so many) of capped teeth.

I grin. “Least that’s what his Ma says, no?”

Mr Handsome laughs—those teeth flash.

Billy picks up the ball, centre circle, swivels past a donkey in midfield and sprints toward goal. The crowd, the old blokes, the kids, they’re all on their toes. Billy cracks a shot from thirty yards, arcing toward the top corner, it grazes the outside of the post and goes wide.

There’s a collective Oooo from the spectators.

Hands tucked into his cashmere overcoat, Mr Handsome next to me bends his knees and sucks in some air as the ball whistles wide of the goal.

“Gets you on your feet when they’re capable of that kind of running, doesn’t it?”

“Told him to keep his knee over the ball.” I chide and I hear my dad’s voice. Never good enough. Always the salt for the steak, you son.

“Takes you back, does it?”

Me—Billy’s age—a scruffy scrapper in the midfield. Bags of tenacity, too little real potential. My dad the bolshy docker, old school tough, no nonsense. His boon to me: you’ll never be half the man I was, boy.

Fourteen. Apprentice contract at Rangers up for grabs—a bright future ninety minutes ahead. Trial match in scorching August sunshine—lungs about to burst. Then the gaffer’s booze addled face, “Kills me to tell you this, son.” Rejection. Dejection. Hot tears spilling down my cheeks onto my sweat soaked shirt. Really crying for the first time since I was a baby.

“ A bit, aye.”

“Oh, I know, Tom.” That voice dripped empathy. This guy fucking knew the score.

I pull up out of reverie. Billy’s lost the ball in a fifty-fifty tackle. I cajole, I give him the fist pump.

“Do I know you, pal?”

Mr Handsome shrugs. “I’ve just got one of those faces.”

“I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere. You famous?”

“Infamous, maybe.” That laugh’s got no real humour in it. Smile like he could eat a tomato through a tennis racket.

I smile back. “Which one’s yours?”

“None.”

“None?”

“Let me tell you a secret.” Mr Handsome winks. “I’m a spy.”

“Really?” Nutter alert.

“I’m scouting.”

Now that gets my attention. He looks the part, does Dapper Dan. Here’s the epiphany, the big break tumbling straight into my lap. For once it’s right place, right time at last for good old Tommy.

“What—what’re you looking for?”

“The right combination, I suppose.” He strokes his designer stubble a few times. “That special level of desperation—someone really ready for it.”

“I’m ready.” I say.

“You?”

“Well,” I flush, “Billy. Billy’s ready. Born ready.”

“Wonderful.” He reaches deftly into his coat, “Here’s my card, Tom.”

He hands it to me—perfect manicure. Thick card, good quality paper. Embossed on it: OLIVER SCRATCH. Beneath that in smaller black script REPRESENTATION.

“Scratch?”

“Yes,” He says and folds my hand in both of his in a politician’s double hander. “You know. Like scritch-scratch.”

Scritch-scratch.

“Nice to meet you, Mr Scratch.” I’m beaming.

“Pleasure’s all mine.” He says.

All those perfect, beaming white teeth keep grinning at me

*
“I need a signature here, here, and here, please.”

We’re in a massive big fancy Sports bar in the West End of town—all glassine glitter and chrome. Billy’s in his track suit, wide eyed and awed. TVs flash with live sport. I’m in my one good suit trying to look like I know what the hell I’m doing.

Mr Handsome hands me a gold plated fountain pen. I’m hovering over the dotted line.

Golden ticket--

“You should see someone else—a lawyer.” In bed with Billy’s Ma—arguing as usual.

“You don’t understand, love.”

“Just to be sure, Tommy, yeah?”

“I am sure.”

She shifts her weight (plenty of it, too) “It’s his future, that’s why I want to be sure.”

“No,no,love,” I wave a dismissive hand. “Our future.”

“As long as he’s happy, like.”

“’Sake! Happy, what’s happy got to do with it, no?” I’m sitting upright now—fuming.

“He’s just a wee boy, Tommy.”

“When I was his age—”

“Aye, I’ve heard that record.”

“I was working—”

“Work shy now though, eh?”

“Is it my fault I got laid off, no?” I can hear my voice getting louder, rising to the same old bait.

“Eejit--you’ll wake the bairns, Tommy!”

“Golden ticket, love, that’s what he is.”

Golden ticket--

1,2,3...we're back in the room.

“What’s the hold up, Tom?” All those white smiling teeth right next to my ear.

“Nothing, I…”

“Not got cold feet, have you?”

Cold sweat—“No, I…”

Long fingers flicking a speck of dandruff off my shoulder, “Second thoughts are fine, Tom. Wouldn’t be a responsible adult if you didn’t. I know what you’re thinking, though.”

“You-you do?”

“Oh yeah,” The smell of eucalyptus from his breath, “You’re thinking why me? What did I do to deserve all this good fortune. The mortgage paid off, the flash car, sunshine holiday, the new house—what price all that?”

I’m nodding, we’re in accord.

“What can I say, Tom. The boy’s got a talent, a great skill-- a gift. And who did he get that gift from? From the missus? You’ve seen her, right?”

I snigger-hardly.

“He got it from YOU, Tom. Your blood, sweat and toil, all those desperate hours when he was a wee boy and weak he couldn’t kick a ball straight. So you’re entitled to this. It’s your time, Tom. You deserve what’s coming to you, don’t you?”

I do, I do.

“So why the delay?”

Scritch-scratch.

I don’t know. Something’s dreadfully wrong. Very wr--

“Ah, it’s not you. It’s HIM. He’s the ingrate, he’s the snotnose weakling. He doesn’t deserve this chance, does he?”

That’s not true, not true at all. He’s my boy. My flesh and blood.

“But you need it, right?”

I DO.

“That little bastard’s got the extra yard of pace in his locker, the extra couple of inches in his legs—by some cosmic accident, some fluke he’s got all the things you should’ve had, Tommy.”

Stupid, ungrateful wee bastard has it all and doesn’t even know it.

“But here’s the thing, Tom.” Those long fingers drumming lightly on my shoulder. “You CAN have it. You for him, Tom.”

ME for HIM. Is that even possible?

Ch-Ch-Changes—my face for his face.

“I can?”

“Open the box.”

And there is a box. An expensive looking oblong box, ornate and waxed shiny with gleaming bright brass hinges. It’s right in front of me, although I swear it wasn’t on the table a second ago.

“Go on. Open it."

The catch has a man’s face on it, oiled and greased to open smoothly without fuss. The expression on the face is odd—disconcerting. A face in pain—my face changes to Billy’s as it catches the light. I click it open and lift the lid. How odd.

Ch-Ch-Changes.

A wicked curved blade, an ox blood red pearl handle.

“Pick it up, Tom. It’s got a nice heft to it.”

Why would I want a knife?

“You know what to do.”

MY soul in his BODY. Oh, yes, it's very possible.

No ordinary knife, a blade like this is for something special. For a rite, for a sacrifice.

Cut the little bastard’s heart out.

Eat it whole.

Ch-Ch-Changes.

“These people, they don’t care, Tom. They want you to do it.”

And they do, they really do, they’re not watching the screens anymore. The glass teat has no appeal when this kind of thing goes down. I’m reaching forward and they’re smiling, clapping, going wild and cheering. The men screaming, slavering through clenched teeth, the girls on their shoulders in tight t-shirts emblazoned with my face punching the air, all of them galvanising me with their roar.

Tom/Tom/Tom/Tom/TOM!

There’s only one Tommy Dylan!

Go on, my son!

My finger so close to touching the razor edge blade of that curved knife.

“Use it, Tom. Use those awful, bitter tears, use the hate. It’s you, Tom, you and not him. You. Use the need, use the knife…”

And there’s only the noise, the rising cacophony.

Tommy. Tommy. TOMMY.

And those small, liquid brown pig eyes just like his Ma’s.

Don’t it make your brown eyes blue, son.

And that wicked, wicked blade.

My pock scarred face changing to his smooth, hairless complexion.

My body morphing from plump middle age to taut teen.

And all those long, white teeth smiling at me.

And I'm cutting and eating, eating and cutting--changing, transforming.

All you can eat buffet.
*

Legs pumping, tubes around me, I’m a conduit for pain on this treadmill.

My reflection gone—I’m Billy in the mirror on the outside.

My lungs are burning, my legs are cramping, the oxygen mask has tight straps irritating my ears.

“Keep it going, Billy.” The fitness coach says.

The gaffer watches, arms folded. A medical before I sign the pro forms. A headline in a national newspaper: WONDERKID FOR RANGERS. Beneath it a picture of me smiling- so goddamn glad to be in Billy’s skin.

I’m thinking: my whole life in front of me, on the cusp of it all-- the fame, the money, the women. A thousand geeks outside chanting my name before I’ve kicked a ball in anger. All wishing they could see me, touch me, be me.

The running machine slows to a dead stop.

I take the oxygen mask off, dripping with sweat.

I see the doctors and the gaffer in a huddle.

They beckon me over.

The fitness coach wraps a towel around my (Billy’s) neck.

“What’s up?” I say in Billy’s small voice.

“Bit of a glitch.” Says a doctor.

“No, it’ll be okay.” The gaffer says with a smile that says it won’t.

“What’s up?” I say, and I hope my voice isn’t too hysterical. “Is there something wrong with my fitness?”

“Fitness? No, you’re strong as an ox.” The doctor says. And I feel the relief surge through me. “It’s your bloods.”

“Bloods?”

“Yes, there’s something in your blood.”

My blood or Billy’s? All that fucking blood, eh?

“What? What’s in my blood?”

The doctor puts his arm on my shoulder, “You’ve got traces of something called Angiomatosis, it’s a—”

“What?”

“It’s a disease that—”

“Disease?”

“Yes, it won’t be fatal or anything.” The doctor says biting his lip.

“How did I catch it?”

"Well," The doctor shrugs, “You didn’t.”

“What do you mean I DIDN’T?” Billy’s (my) voice is beginning to crack.

“You always had it. It’s genetic.”

“Genetic?”

“Yes, from your mum or-”

DAD.

“What will it…” I cannot say anything more.

The doctor has found a theme now. “The symptoms are wide ranging, problems with balance, walking, even potential blindness. The good news is it won’t kill you, Billy.”

“Blindness?” I say, but no-one in the room hears me.

And I stumble (blindly) knocking my knee, losing my balance. I shut my eyes, braced for a fall.

But someone’s got me.

Same someone’s holding my hand.

Scritch-scratch.

“Not to worry,” That voice like shaved ice says, “ You can always be a referee.”

And then they’re all laughing.

Guffawing like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard.

The medical room is ringing with the laughter.

All of them smiling at me with their great, big white teeth.

END.






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