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It was Marcus’s twelfth birthday. He could hear his Gran setting the table in the kitchen and the smell of bacon frying began to drift along the corridor. He tugged on the cord and the window blind went halfway up, and then stuck as it always did.
Sun and clouds. Low tide. A tanker making its way up the Forth. An Easyjet curving in towards Cramond Island to line up with airport. A hundred feet below Marcus’s window a Number 62 drew up at the stop and half a dozen people boarded.
It was the last day of school before the summer holidays. Better still, last day of PRIMARY school! Gurny Gunn had told the class on Monday that they had to dress smartly for the special assembly. Gran had sponged the goal mouth mud off his school trousers the previous evening, and now they were only a little bit damp. His school top had been washed and ironed earlier in the week and specially set aside. He had told his gran not to bother since he wasn’t getting a prize, but she’d said you’re not going to disgrace the Gibb family by going to school like a scruff.
The living room door was shut. Rita had said she’d get up for his birthday no matter how late she’d come in. Marcus pulled on his clean clothes and went into the kitchen.
“Morning,” said his Gran, “Bacon roll and orange juice since its yer birthday.” She gave him a big hug.“Happy birthday.”
Marcus squirmed away from her and sat down at the small table. There was a small package and three large envelopes beside his plate. His gran plonked down a bacon roll in front of him. “Dinnae open them ‘til your mum comes through. We might hae to wake her. It was half past two when she got hame. And go easy on that tomato sauce. The man on Radio Firth was just saying it’s fu’ o’ sugar.”
“What does he ken aboot it? He jist plays stupid music.”
“Not him. The ither one - that does the health advice. And it’s nae stupid music.” She turned the volume up. “I like this one- ‘ You are the dancing queen, young and sweet and seventeen.’”
Marcus put his hands over his ears. “Dinnae sing , Gran. It’s embarrassing.”
Gran laughed and poured orange juice into his glass and turned away to put two slices of bread in the toaster. Marcus opened his bacon roll and sneaked more sauce into it. He took a huge bite and mumbled, “Are you goin’ to buy a EuroFortune ticket today, Gran? It’s been rolled over again.”
“I didna understand a word ye said. Ye shouldn’t talk with your mouth fu’.”
“I said the Eurofortune prize’s been rolled over again. It’s nearly two hundred million this week.”
Gran reached up for the money jar and transferred three pounds to her purse. “I’ll get one on the way to The Heart and Lung.”
Just at that moment the smoke alarm began screeching. Blue smoke was billowing from the toaster. Marcus’ s gran pulled out the plug.“That bloody toaster. That’s the third time it’s jammed.”
Marcus climbed on a chair and began to flap the air around the alarm with a dish towel. He shouted above the racket, “When ye win the Eurofortune ye could buy a new toaster.” His gran opened the window and put her hands over her ears. After a minute the horrible noise stopped. Marcus jumped down and went back to eating his bacon roll.
“Surely yer mum cannae have slept through that racket,” said Gran as she shook the toast cinders into the bin.
“She didn’t,” said a sleepy voice. His mum came in and sniffed the air. “Toaster playing up again?” She knotted the cord of her dressing gown and took the other chair at the table. “Happy birthday, Marcus.” She took her phone from her dressing gown pocket and flicked through her messages. “My agent said there might be a vacancy on a Paradiso line ship. One of the dancers tore a ligament.” She put her phone away. “No word yet.”
“Bacon roll, Rita?”
“Just orange juice. I’m not hungry. Chef dished out some left overs at two in the morning. I’m definitely going back to bed when you leave.”
Marcus held up the large envelope with the American stamp. “I bet Ah ken what’s in this one.”
“The word is ‘know’, Marcus, not ‘ken’, said Rita with a sigh, “Mum, try to make him speak properly.”
“Footballers dinnae need to speak posh. Anyway I can when I want to.” He grinned at his mum and said. “Pass the tom - a-o sauce please, Gran.
“There’s a ‘t’ in tomato, Marcus.”
“Two ecktually,” said Marcus in his best BBC voice, “Tomaaahto.”
“He’s just teasin’ ye, Rita. See he can talk as posh as you when it comes up his back,” said Gran laughing, “ Open yer presents and dinnae be sae cheeky. That one first.”
Between bites of his bacon roll Marcus unwrapped it. Inside was a phone with a little card that said ‘Love from Gran.’
“It’s no a smartphone but it does hae a camera,” said Gran. “It’s brand new.”
“A smartphone would be good for looking up things for school,” said Marcus, “But this one’s very nice.”
“You don’t need a smartphone, “ said his mum. “Nobody your age does. You can use Gran’s pc for schoolwork.”
“Half my class have smartphones, Rita. Just saying.”
“Well the other half don’t, so thank your Gran and open the other parcel. That’s one’s from me.”
“Thanks, gran.” Marcus stood up and gave her a very quick hug.
Inside was a comic birthday card showing a goalkeeper relaxing in a hammock slung between the posts as a football trickles over the line. Inside the caption said, “Have a very chilled out birthday. “ And written beside it ‘Love from Rita.” There was a typed sheet clipped to it. “That’s your monthly subscription. I set up a payment at the bank.”
“What else have you got?”
Marcus opened the soft packet and pulled out a pair of goalkeeper’s gloves. Marcus pulled them on. “Wow, that’s the best ones you can get. Thank you.”
“The man said he’d change them if the size wasn’t right.”
“They’re fine.” He pulled them on. “Non-slip on the fingers and palms.”
“Tomato sauce as well now,” said his mum. “Take them off and open the last one.”
Marcus took a clean knife and carefully slit the envelope open. He drew out a post card of a enormous white cruise ship, and a folded one hundred dollar bill. He turned over the post card. The reverse side was blank. He held it up. “He never writes anything, Rita.”
His mum shrugged but said nothing.
“And a hundred dollar note.”
“Bill,” said his mum,” Americans call notes bills.”
Marcus said, “I’ll fetch my tin.” He went to his bedroom and took “The World’s Greatest Waterfalls’ from his book shelf.”
His gran and his mum’s conversation stopped rather suddenly when he came back into the kitchen. He put the book on the table and opened it to reveal his money tin fitted into a space cut neatly from the pages.
“You’ve ruined that book,” said his mum.
“It was in the Heart and Lungs shop for months, Rita,” said his Gran, “Ah told him to take it off oor hands.” Marcus had pushed his plate to the side and spread his postcards on the table. “How many have you got now?”
“Twelve ship postcards. One for every birthday. And twelve hundred dollars.”
“I wish you’d put the money in the Post Office, Marcus,” said his gran. “What if there’s a burglary? Some of the flats have been broken into.”
“A burglar would never find it. Besides I like to count it up sometimes.”
“Miser,” said his mum.
“Do you think he wonders why he never gets a thank you letter from me, Rita?”
His gran looked quickly at his mum, frowned, and then picked up her bag. “I’d better be off.”
“I’ll wash up later,” said Marcus’s mum.
“Nae hurry. Get some sleep. ” Marcus ‘s gran put his packed lunch on the table. “Dinnae forget your sandwiches.” And with that Gran left.
Marcus took his plate over to the sink. “I could write to him this weekend, Rita. You could take a photo and put in the letter. He might want to know what I’m like.”
His mum was staring down at her glass of orange juice. After a bit she said, “No, we couldn’t do that.”
His mum took a deep breath then let it all out. “Turn off the radio and I’ll explain. “ Marcus did so and sat down again. His mum said quietly, “We couldn’t because it would upset his family.”
“Because you’re white? Are his parents against white people?”
“No, it’s not his parents. His family, his own family. His wife and children. They don’t know anything about you. You are his secret. Do you really want to know more?”
Marcus wasn’t sure he did, but he nodded.
“He sends money to Gran’s Post Office account every month.” She picked up the post card. “This one tells me which ship he is on. See, the Ocean Emerald, Clipper Lines, Florida. I’ll send a note to him myself and tell him about you.”
“Why can’t I write?”
“It’s what we agreed before you were born. It’s worked for twelve years. Marcus, let’s just leave things as they are.”
Marcus stacked his ship postcards and put them in his tin. “Are you never on the same ship?”
“Only the one time. Obviously.”
Marcus didn’t like to think about that. He closed the lid. “So I have brothers and sisters.”
“Three, two older girls and a boy. Half sisters and a half brother your age.”
“Wow. I always wanted a brother. It’s no fair that I can’t meet him. Maybe we could visit secretly.”
His mum shook her head. “Remember how upset Anka’s mum was when she found out about Anka’s dad having that other woman in Poland. And how Anka was causing trouble at school. You don’t want that to happen to your dad’s family.”
“Suppose not. Still no fair though.” Marcus thought for a moment. “What will you tell him? About me?”
“You are well. You’re starting secondary school. You’ve kept all the ship postcards. I suppose I should say I’ve told you about his family now, and that you’re going to be very sensible about it all. Just a short letter.”
“You could email instead and attach a photo.”
“And what would happen if his wife looked at his phone? No, this is better. Anything else you want to know?”
“Is he the captain of the ship?”
His mum smiled and shook her head. “No, nothing so grand. He’s an electrical engineer.” She looked at the clock on the oven. “ That’s enough for now. Look at the time. Actually there isn’t much more to tell. Pick up your box and go or you’ll be late for school.”
That afternoon Marcus sat with the leavers’ class in the hot stuffy auditorium while Mrs. Gunn called one by one on the school’s high ‘achievers’ . The prize winners trooped on and off the platform to collect their certificates and shake Councillor Gates’ hand.
Marcus wasn’t listening to her though. He was thinking about the amazing information his mum had revealed to him that morning. So he had a half brother and two half sisters. They lived in America with the mysterious father who had been secretly sending him one hundred dollars on every birthday. His father had also been sending money every month to Gran. Of course! That explained why they never had to claim social security like Anka’s mum, even though Gran only worked in a charity shop He shifted uncomfortably in the hard seat and his foot accidentally kicked the chair of the girl in front of him. She turned round and gave him the evil eye.
It really wasn’t fair that Rita was so against visiting his new relations. He wondered if he could persuade her to work out a way that wouldn’t cause any trouble. If it hadn’t been all such a shock to find out he had a half-brother he would have asked his father’s name. When he was a bit older maybe he would go by himself. Gurney Gunn’s voice droned on, and then faded away entirely. He would could hire a car and park it near his house and watch the family like they do in the cop shows. No, a van would be better. A van with a one way window. Then one day , when the mother was away shopping, he would knock at the door to ask if the family needed any gardening work done. And a tall black man in a smart uniform would answer the door. He’d look at him closely and say, “Hey, wait a minute, ain’t you … “
“Marcus Gibb.” Mrs. Gunn had spoken his name! The boy next to him gave him a sharp prod with his elbow. Marcus snapped out of his daydream. “- Marcus Gibb, our goalkeeper, is undoubtedly the player responsible for our unbeaten run in the Edinburgh and District under thirteen football league. Thanks to Marcus only five goals were scored against our team over the season - a remarkable achievement. Councillor Gates, who once played for Hibernian, will now present the district league cup. Please come forward now, Marcus to receive the cup.”
Someone behind Marcus gave him a mighty push on the back. He stumbled to his feet and made his way along the tight packed row. That bampot Pat Herron tried to trip him up as he squeezed past, but Marcus managed to clip him with a neat back heel that made him yelp. Once up on the platform he felt the back of his neck burning as the school cheered and whistled.
“Dinna drop it, son,” said the Councillor grinning as he shook Marcus’s hand.” It wouldnae look good, and ye a goalie an’ all.”
Once he was safely off the platform the deputy head teacher grabbed the cup from his sweaty hands and placed it on a table with the other trophies.
“And now the school choir will perform a selection of Scottish traditional songs,” said Mrs Gunn. The piano started to bang out the introduction but Marcus hardly heard it. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to get back into his daydream or plan out what to say about his moment of fame in the school assembly when he got home.
It wasn’t his choice to walk home with Anka when school broke up for the year a three o’ clock that afternoon. However she was the regular striker for the girls’ team , so when she caught up with him on the Prom and congratulated him on being the player chosen to receive the cup he decided he could probably live with the shame of walking home with a girl just this once.
“Pat Herron said ye aren’t tall enough to be a goalie, but I told him he was just jealous ‘cause he’s not even in the first team.”
“Pat Herron’s big but he’s stupid and slow.”
“I cannae see why anyone would want to be a goalie. Ye don’t get the chance to score. Standing around in the cold with naething to dae. Then all of a sudden have to throw yourself doon in the mud, maybe get kicked in the head. And everyone swearing at you from behind the goal. Plus it’s your fault if you let one in.”
“You dinnae understand, Anka. The goalie is the most important person in the team. Think about this way. When kids are picking teams, how does it go?”
“The best yin gets picked first. And so on.”
“And what happens to the worst player?”
“He or she gets picked last.”
“And some dobber like Herron tells him to go in goal. No, one of your best players should be put in goal.”
Anka looked doubtful. “One of the best players?”
“Aye, but he needs special qualities. No everyone has them. Ye need to be able to concentrate even when naething’s coming your way. For twenty minutes they’re all at the other end and then, bam, a couple of big guys are running at you. Ye need quick reflexes and ye need plenty o’ guts to dive and get the ball doon where its dangerous among the boots.”
“And ye’ve got them special qualities.”
“More than Pat Herron has onyway.”
They were waiting for the lift. After a moment Anka said, “So being tall is no that important?”
“I didna say that. Generally goalies need to be tall. A small goalie is at a disadvantage The crossbar is at eight feet, and then ye’ve got the width to get across too.”
“You’re awfu’ small for your age, Marcus.” Anka stood close to him. “Look, you jist come up to above my shoulder. “Ye could always be a jockey when you grow up though, Marcus. Sorry, I mean when yer older.”
Marcus pushed her away. “Yer jist a giant weed. I’ll get taller soon. Boys grow up quick when they get into their teens. Rita said it’s a known fact.”
Anka shrugged. “Maybe she’s right. Ye’ll have to wait and see. Why do you call her Rita anyway? She’s your mum.”
“She’s pretty small. What if ye take after her? That’s genetics.” The lift doors slid open and they got in. Anka pressed the button for the ninth floor. After a moment the lift lurched and began to move up. “Of course, if yer dad ‘s tall that would probably help. How tall is he?”
For a second Marcus didn’t know how to answer. Then his assembly daydream came to the rescue. “Oh he’s tall, a bit like Barak Obama.”
The floor nine button lit up and the lift stopped. “Well I wouldna worry then. Ye’ll hae his genes as well.”
Nobody was in the flat when he let himself in. He went straight to his bedroom and took off his shoes. In his socks he flattened himself against the wall where a ladder of dated pencil marks charted his growth over the last two years. He laid a pencil flat across his head and made another mark. Stepping back he peered at it closely. Was it any higher than the previous one dated June the fifteenth of June? He didn’t think so. Maybe two weeks growth was two small to be measured by such a crude system. He made up his mind to eat more dairy products for bone growth and construct a super accurate height measuring device.
Making the Super Accurate Measuring Device was proving to be a bit of a challenge. He had based the design on the apparatus he’d seen in the Health Centre - an upright metal scale screwed to the wall with a piece of wood sticking out at right angles. The idea was you stood against the scale and the nurse would slide the wooden part so it rested on top of your head.
Marcus had cleared the long shelf above his bed of all junk he kept on it, unscrewed it from the wall, removed the brackets and had carefully marked it off in centimeters and half centimeters. One of the old brackets would do very well for the part that sits on top of his head, but inventing a way to make it slide up and down the scale was proving to be extremely tricky. Eventually he sighed and shoved it under his bed. He’d figure that out later. There was another problem too. The shelf and brackets had left clear marks on the wall where the paper had faded around them. There would be difficult questions about this, no doubt.
He heard the flat door opening and voices as his mum and gran came in.
He went through to the kitchen. “Jist as well Ah wore ma good clothes today ,” he said, “I had to go on the stage to collect the Under Thirteen Cup. First time I heard old Gurny Gunn say nice things about me.”
His gran was putting groceries in the fridge. She straightened up. “Oh, well done! What did she say?”
“About how I’d saved a lot of shots at goal. Everyone in the team is getting a medal.”
“Ye hear that, Rita? Marcus is getting a medal for football.”
His mum slipped her phone into her bag. “Sorry. That was a text from Kate. She invited me to stay over with her tonight and tomorrow night. I’ll be back late on Sunday What were you saying?”
“Marcus is getting a medal for football. He had to go on stage to receive the cup.”
Rita’s phone played its text tone. “That’s great, Marcus, I wish I’d been there.” She checked her text.
“You couldn’t have gone anyway. There was only room for parents of prizewinners. Anka’s mum was invited but she was too shy to go.”
“What a shame ,” said Gran, “It would dae her good to get out of that flat sometimes.”
Rita was reading a long message on her phone. She punched the air. “Yessss! A vacancy on the Lagoon Princess. Sails from Miami on Wednesday. Season contract to follow. I’ll give my notice at the restaurant tonight.”
“Won’t you hae to give a week’s notice, dear?”
“Zero hours contract. No chance.” Her thumb was flying over the text buttons. She pressed ‘send’. “That’s it. I’ve accepted it.” She gave Marcus a hug. “Will you miss me, Marcus?”
A few years ago he’d been upset for days when his mum had flown out of his life for yet another cruise. Now he shrugged and said, “No really.” It was much better to see her smiling as she was at this moment, rather than moping over her phone and sleeping late into the afternoon on the fold down bed in the living room after late shifts in various restaurants. “Did you get a EuroFortune ticket, Gran?”
“I didna forget. It’s right here - somewhere.” She rummaged in her big leather handbag. “Maybe Ah put it in ma purse.” It wasn’t in her purse. Gran tipped the handbag’s contents on to the table. Hair brush, aspirins, keys supermarket vouchers, coins. She rummaged through the muddle. “What could Ah have done wi’ it?”
Rita picked up the bag and examined it. “Here it is. You put it in the side pocket. Honestly, mum. You need a carer sometimes.”
“Ah was in a bit of a rush, what with one thing and anither. Ah’ll put it with the bills and receipts in the wee drawer until tomorrow night.”
“I’ll keep it for you,” said Rita, “If you put it into that muddle you’ll never find it again.” She slipped the ticket inside her phone case. “It’ll be safer there. “Honestly, I don’t know why you bother with it, mum,” said Rita. “The chef told me the odds against winning the rollover. It’s one in a hundred million.”
“Someone has tae win,” said Gran.
Marcus hadn’t seen his mum so happy for weeks. He knew how important being part of a dance company was to her. He thought now was the perfect time to bring up the subject of his father.
“Rita, how tall is my dad?”
His mum was tapping out another text. After a moment she said,“A bit taller than me.”
“But how much?”
“He’s definitely taller.”
“As tall as Obama?”
“Obama is really tall,” said his Gran. “So is Mrs. Obama.”
“He’s not as tall as Obama,” said his mum pressing ‘send’ and putting her phone down. “Why do you want to know?”
“Because it’s no fair that I don’t know anything about him, not even his name.”
“I explained why we mustn’t upset things with his family. I promised before you were born that him we wouldn’t.” Her smile was gone. She put her head in her hands and leaned on the table. “Oh, I’d never have told you anything at all if I thought you were going to keep harping on about it.”
“Are you having tea with us, Rita? It’s jist to know how many fish fingers to tak out o’ the freezer.”
“I’ll get something light at work.” She got up and did some stretching exercises. “I’ve probably put on weight over the last month or so.”
“Listen, Rita, I was thinking that Gran and I could go to America without you, sort of act like we’re strangers and no say anything. Maybe sit next to them in a cafe or something. They wouldn’t know us, and we wouldn’t say anything, would we, Gran?”
He wasn’t sure his mum was even listening. She was lifting each foot in turn and bending her leg back against her thigh.
“Don’t you think it’s a good idea?”
“It sounds like some kind of comedy film you’ve been watching, Marcus.” And she let go her foot and began rotating her upper body.
Gran squeezed past her daughter. “There’s nae room in here for that, Rita.” She swept her belongings into her bag and laid it aside. “It’s only natural the lad’s curious.”
Marcus began setting out knives and forks, banging them down on the table unnecessarily loudly. His mum rolled her eyes at the ceiling and said, “Marcus, please don’t spoil my last few days at home by going into a sulk.”
“We could use my twelve hundred dollars,” said Marcus, “It could be a holiday for you, Gran.”
“It is a really stupid idea because, number one-” his mum sat down and began ticking off her fingers “-how could you possible stalk the family without them noticing and landing yourself in serious trouble, maybe even with the police? Number two, do you really believe that , even if you did manage to set up a casual conversation, afterwards you’d all say ‘bye’ and happily head off back to Scotland? Do you believe that would be the end of it?”
“I would promise.”
“Number three. Your father spends most of his time on a ship . He probably wouldn’t be at home.”
Marcus slammed the fridge door. Something inside tumbled over. “ But he has to go ashore sometimes. Maybe we could meet just him in some port. That wouldn’t upset the family. They need never know.”
“Marcus we made an agreement. Anyway how far do you think you and Gran would get on twelve hundred dollars? My ticket to Miami this week alone will be over four hundred dollars.”
“If Gran wins the EuroFortune we could go right away. What do you say, Gran?”
Gran was wiping up spilled milk inside the fridge. She didn’t look up. “Dinnae involve me. It’s yer mum’s decision.”
Marcus’s mum heaved a huge sigh. “O.K. If gran wins the EuroFortune she can take you to America.”
“Any prize at all, or the rollover?”
“Oh, it’s got to be the rollover.”
“O.K. I promise. But it’s never going to happen.” She stood up. “Now I’m going to get changed for work, so you can just get out of that mood and apologise to Gran for messing up the fridge. ”
Well it wasn’t much, but as Gran had said earlier, ”Someone has to win.”
Absolutely typical! First day of the school holidays and it was pouring. The Firth was gray and the Fife coast was barely visible. On the pavement below people hurrying to work were dodging the spray splashed up by the buses pulling into bus stop.
Gran was cheerful enough though. She was singing along to the radio.
He put on his joggers and his Hibernian top and went into the kitchen.
“Dinnae look so miserable, Marcus,” said Gran. “We jist had the forecast. Clearing by mid morning followed by sunny periods.”
Marcus poured cereal into a bowl. “Are ye going to the Heart and Lung this morning?”
“I’m there all day. We’ve got donations to sort through. Come and help us until it clears up and then ye can dae whit ye like.”
“Boxes of books. CDs and games. An’ a ton of clothes etc. Here, finish the orange juice.”
“O.K. I’ll come for a while. But I’m no sorting shoes.”
“Someone else will dae the shoes. Take your football kit and go to the park when the rain goes off.”
The rain was just a drizzle by nine o’ clock when they unlocked the Heart and Lung shop. Gran and her assistants were very strict about binning anything they thought was dirty, but somehow the Heart and Lung always had a fusty smell before they opened the windows in the back room. Old books, dry cleaned clothes, a hint of shoe leather all mixed together with something like white spirit or paraffin. The Heart and Lung had been an ironmongers before the superstore opened and stole its customers and Marcus occasionally found interesting nails and screws as he prowled around the back shop. He thought he might have a look some time to see if there was anything that could be used to complete his Super Accurate Height Measuring Device.
Maggie, the other volunteer, came in and shook rain off her umbrella. She shut the door and turned over the “Open Ten until Four, Except Weds’ sign and went into the back shop. Gran was already tipping the contents of refuse bags on to the old wallpaper table they used as a sorting bench. “Usual haul, Maggie. Some good stuff. A lot for textile recycling bags though. Marcus is goin’ to do the first sort through the books.”
Marcus usually enjoyed this job. He had to check there no pages were loose or stuck together. Those were thrown into a paper recycling box. Children’s books went into a separate pile. There were always a lot of cookery and craft books, usually spin offs from last year’s television shows. It was usually easy to identify the grown up fiction for the same few authors turned up every week. There were three Grishams in the first box and two Jeffrey Archers. He checked the bookshelf. No point in putting in duplicates so both Archers and one Grisham went to recycling. Here was a copy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ with the High School stamp. Gran would hand it in, no doubt.
As he worked he glanced up at the skylight from time to time. By ten o’ clock he could see the clouds clearing .
By the time the doorbell began to ding and the first customers came in the sorting and packing was almost complete.
He picked up his bag and headed for the door. “I’m off now, Gran.
“Are ye goin’ to the MUGA, Marcus?”
“I’ll be at, the park. There’s a basketball competition at the MUGA.”
Maggie looked up from pairing shoes. “What’s the MUGA?”
“It’s yon big cage thing the kids play in. Ye must have seen it. Goal posts and basket ball nets.”
“The Multi Use Games Area,” said Marcus, “That’s the proper name. I’ll see ye later, Gran.”
“Have you got your key? There’s a tin of baked beans for your lunch and plenty of brown bread. Dinnae use the toaster. And remember to turn off the gas. I’ll be home just after four.”
Half a dozen boys from primary classes six and seven were already kicking a ball around a flooded goalmouth and more were making their way over the sodden turf. When Marcus joined them there was general agreement that they had sufficient numbers to organise a game.
“Best to play across the pitch,” said a boy called Mohammad. “We’ll only have seven a side anyway and the puddles are ankle deep in the goals.
“Here’s Pat Herron coming,” said Kevin Souter, “Nae doot we’ll be given a lesson in advanced football skills.”
“Don’t go winding him up,” said Mohammad, “He’ll tak the huff and he’s got the best ball.”
“Ah like winding him up,” said Kevin. “It’s aye a good laugh.”
“We need something for goalposts,” said Frank.
“Use my bag for one,” said Marcus, “and yon litter bin.”
They dragged the bin on to the line and Marcus paced out six big strides. “Now put my bag here.”
Kevin had found an old corner flag post so they pounded it into the turf directly opposite. Marcus measured out his six paces and said, “Another jacket.”
Pat Herron had finished putting on his boots. Now he dropped his parka on the spot indicated and laid a two litre coca cola bottle on top of it. “Naebody’s to touch ma coke. Now let’s get going.”
“Pat and Marcus can pick,” said one Mo, and the gang shuffled into line opposite the pickers.
“Let’s dae Stone Paper Scissors, “ said Pat. When Marcus whipped out paper he flashed two fingers. “Scissors. I get first pick.” He scanned the line up, frowning and swithering.
“Herron’s daft enough tae pick himself,” said Kevin. The boys fell about laughing, for the big lad was as well known for his high opinion of himself as his stupidity.
Pat glared at him, “Kevin, do ye want a hidin’?”
There were shouts of “Get on with it!”
More hesitation. Eventually, “I pick Frank.”
Marcus was expecting that. “O.K. I take Mo.” So it went on until all were chosen.
“We’ll shoot towards the church,” said Pat, “Titch, yer in goal,” and he led his team to the other half.
Marcus put on his new gloves and set out his team. “You watch Pat Herron, Mo,” he said. “He’s put himself in defence but ye can be sure when he gets the ball he’s goin’ to try to score himself. He’ll barge up the centre and boot it.”
The game started with the sides fairly evenly balanced. Roughly half the players had changed into boots with studs, but for those without the slippery grass made play difficult. As predicted Pat Herron called for the ball constantly and tried to dribble it forward. On the first two occasions Mo removed the ball with a neat tackle and sent it to one of his forwards. The third time Pat shouldered Mo aside and managed to get in a low shot that Marcus turned round the litter bin with a diving save. An old man who’d taken up position behind the goal said, “Nice save , son.”
The corner that resulted was wasted as Pat, who had insisted on taking it, miscued a fancy curve shot to send the ball harmlessly over the line.
Marcus goal kick was picked up by Kevin who dodged a defender and ran towards the goal. Titch, panicked, unable to decide whether to come out or stay on his line He took three steps forward and then scuttled back. Kevin feinted left, and when Titch skidded and fell in the mud, Kevin tapped it the ball into the undefended goal.
For his efforts the poor goalie got a wet bottom and a storm of abuse from his team.
Titch kicked the ball as far away as he could and said, “I’m no playin’ any mair.”
While another player fetched the ball back Pat Herron strode over to the poor kid, grabbed his collar and shook him. “You’re bloody useless but you’re all we’ve got. Now shut up and get back into that goal.”
Titch shook himself free and slouched back into his position, and sneakily kicked mud on to Pat’s parka as the centre kick was being taken
Anka and two of her friends had arrived by the time the game got going again. They stood on the sideline making critical remarks and laughing loudly when a player mistimed a kick or slipped on the sodden turf.
“Pay nae heed to them,” said Pat, “Concentrate on the game. Ahm going to play further forward. Keep passing to me.”
A few seconds later Frank crossed the ball and it landed three strides ahead of Pat. He lunged forward and booted it. Marcus, his hands on his hips, watched the ball sail over the goal at an altitude of about fifteen feet.
“Goaaal!” yelled Pat. He broke into a little dance, flapping his arms. Then he ran around in a circle arms out stretched like the wings of a banking aeroplane. He finished the performance by sprinting towards the ‘crowd’, dropping to his knees and skidding along the turf. The ‘crowd’ might have been impressed if he had not disappeared into a shower of spray as he entered the huge puddle at the end of his slide.
When the roars of laughter had died down Marcus calmly said. “No goal.”
“What do you mean ‘nae goal’ ?” said Pat, muddy water dripping from his red face.
“It was way over the bar,” said Marcus.
“There ‘s nae bar.”
“There’s an imaginary bar set at eight feet from the ground,” said Mo, “Your shot was at least six feet higher.”
“No it wasnae.”
“Yes it was.”
“Ask yon old guy to decide.” Pat raised his voice, “Hey, mister. Was that a goal?”
“Nae chance,” the old fellow called. “It was way over the bar.”
Pat Herron cursed and threw the ball hard at Marcus who took the goal kick as quickly as he could. Mo collected it, passed across to Kevin who volleyed it between the posts before the defenders had time to organise themselves.
Immediately Kevin began flapping his elbows and aeroplaning around the pitch. He did a complete imitation of Pat’s routine including the knee slide though he was careful to avoid the puddles. Pat’s routine was comical enough, but somehow Kevin added a madness to the daft performance that even had the old fellow behind the other goal cackling with laughter.
Pat forgot about the game and squared up to Kevin. “Ye’re nae allowed to dae that celebration. It’s mine. Ah invented it. See ma name’s Herron so I do my Bird Celebration. Naebody else can copy it.”
Frank said, “Is a Herron a bird? I aye thought it was a fish.”
“Ye numptae, Frank. ‘Course it’s a bird. Kinda like a seagull.”
“It’s no like a seagull,” said Mo. “I seen one in the Water of Leith.”
“Was it doing this?” said Kevin, flapping his elbows against his side.
“No he was just chillin’oot with his shoulders hunched up aroond his lugs. He wasnae like a seagull.”
Pat pushed himself forward. “Anyway if I see any of yese daein’ it Ah’ll batter ye. It’s a personal celebration.”
“Look Anka an’ her pal’s daein’ it said Frank. Sure enough the girls were giggling and flapping their elbows.
In a moment half a dozen boys were running around the pitch doing the Herron celebration while Pat lurched backwards and forwards furiously trying to grab one or another. The crazy fun only came to a halt when Frank shouted, “Pat, Titch is nicking yer coke.”
Pat gave up on his pursuit and raced towards Titch. Terrified the little lad spun around and , with a mighty effort, threw the bottle towards Pat. It spun through the air well wide of its target and caught Marcus on the side of his head .
It was all very strange. Gurny Gunn was bending over him. He turned his head to the side. The grass was soaking through his football top. Why was there grass? The playground was concrete. He said, “I didn’t hear the bell, Miss.” He struggled to sit up.
“Lie still, Marcus. You’re not at school. You were playing football and got a bump on the head. Don’t you remember?”
He managed to get to his feet. Gurny Gunn held his elbow until the playing field stopped spinning round. Mo was there and a couple of other boys. Anka was holding Gurny’s dog’s lead and looking worried. “I think I’ll go home, Miss.”
“Can you walk to my car? It’s just over by the gate.”
“I can walk home, Miss.”
“You’ll do no such thing. I’ll take you in the car. You’ve had a nasty bang on the head. You’ve probably got concussion. Your gran will have to take you to A and E for a check up. Let’s get you home first.”
Anka said, “His gran works at the Heart and Lung.”
“Then that’s where we’ll go,” said Gurny. And nobody ever argued with Gurny Gunn.