The old man with the brush moustache jabbed his grandson in the ribs.
“I’ve told you before,” said Grandpa Joe. “You’ve got to block the punches. Bob and weave. Bob and weave! See? Like this. Like I’m doing now.”
And he ducked his head and twisted his shoulder, never removing his gaze from his grandson’s wondering eyes.
Later they walked in the park, the boy with his ball and the old man with his stick. Unlike the other kids the boy held on to his ball, grasped it tight, didn’t put it on the ground and chase it.
Grandpa Joe wheezed. Stopped and sat on the nearest bench.
’When I was a lad,” he said, casting round reproving eyes. “We used jumpers for goalposts. Now it’s computer games and all that other rubbish.”
But the boy sat down beside him. He didn’t understand. He clutched the ball ever tighter, staring straight ahead. It was April and the buds were bursting through, a thin film of green creeping its way along the branches of winter.
“How old are you now?” asked the old man.
The boy turned his face. His cheeks were flushed in the wind, flushed like the skin of an apple.
“I’m eight,” he said.
“Eight what?” asked the old man, his tone a little sharper.
“Eight, Grandpa,” said the boy.
And the old man ruffled his hair and the boy tried his best not to flinch.
Later that day the boy’s mother came to fetch him. The light was now fading. He was on his own in the garden, his back to the house, the precious ball resting on his knees. The kitchen window was open. His mother’s voice floated through.
“How was he today, Joe?”
The boy strained his ears but he couldn’t hear much. The old man was croaking, his mother was murmuring. He was glad he couldn’t hear. He knew he wouldn’t like it. He knew to be afraid of adult conspiracy. Soon his mother came to find him in the garden.
“Shall we go then?”
The boy turned slowly and picked up his ball. He didn’t run to her like his brother did, didn’t bury his blonde head in the soft cushion of her bosom. No – he came slowly and with hesitation, avoided her eyes, and walked past her to the car, past the house with the old man inside.
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye to Grandpa Joe?” she asked.
“Goodbye,” he called. But it was half-hearted and uncomprehending, like so many childish goodbyes.
The old man stood in the doorway, framed in the lamplight, and waved his stick. He exchanged a look with his grandson, brief but meaningful, and then staggered back inside to the warmth.
It was cold in the car and the boy was shivering. Dark shapes flashed past, hedges, trees and buildings, lit up by the sweeping arc of passing cars. His mother was quiet. In the mirror he watched her sucking in the side of her cheek and chewing hard, clamping her teeth like she always did. She watched him too, watched him small and lonely with that big white ball, and she had to blink back tears and keep her eyes on the road, wrestling with the wheel as she wrestled with her mother’s instincts.
It was late the next day when she sat him down and fed him cake he wouldn’t eat.
“Don’t you like your birthday cake?”
He didn’t exactly explain it this way, but everything he ate turned to ashes in his mouth. It wasn’t just this cake with its blue icing and Styrofoam sponge, but everything he tasted now. He couldn’t even eat McDonalds. He nodded, sad and forlorn, and pushed his fork around the paper plate.
“I do, Mummy. I do.”
That night he lay in his bed, in the room with the books and the toys, and stared up at the ceiling, the ball next to him on the pillow. When his mother came to tuck him in she said,
“Luca darling, we don’t want that ball in the bed. It’s dirty.”
But he became so agitated that she relented, and now the ball was back, whiter and bigger than ever, and as she turned out the lights she wondered not for the first time why her youngest child was so attached to a toy he never used in a conventional sense. He had teddies, he had lots of them, and yet he preferred this ball with its leather stitching and smooth faceless features.
But deep down she knew; deep down she knew all too well. And as she went downstairs to make her dinner the warning bells clanged in her head and the waterways behind her eyes filled with tears, salty and remorseless.
The mother was kind but she was always so busy; so busy with her work, so busy collecting the meagre income that supported two small boys and a fatherless house. At eleven Luca’s brother Tony had started taking the bus to the senior school and little Luca had a choice - walk home alone or find a chaperone. The mother rang around her friends.
“Could you take Luca for two hours after school? I hate to ask but…”
But nobody could. They couldn’t spare the time. Or so they said. And so Luca waited behind in the Victorian school with its gables, hospital corridors and cracked concrete playground with the hopscotch lines all faded. He waited in his classroom, coloured with his crayons, the ball ever tighter in his grasp. When a teacher tried to take it off him he howled the place down. It was muddy, they said. It would mess up his clothes. But he shook his head and held on tighter. They told tales about him in the staffroom. He didn’t know it, but they thought he was damaged. His brother was fine, tall with a pleasant olive face, but Luca was a strange one. He didn’t relate to the other children, didn’t understand the game of life that all of us learn from the beginning of time.
Every day at five-thirty his mother came to fetch him. Arrived breathless in her Ford Fiesta, earthworks of exhaustion dug deep beneath her eyes. She put her arm around her son’s shoulders, caressed his head with her fingers. Her precious pet.
“Shall we go then, sweetheart?”
And he’d nod and clamber into the car, hungry for the fish fingers she would doubtless serve.
His brother got home before him. Came chattering off the bus and threw his rucksack on to the floor.
“You do your homework and then you get your tea,” said his mother.
She said this everyday but it was always a battle. Tony was the family performer; he wanted to talk, not sit behind a desk and practice sums. He sang songs instead, strummed an imaginary guitar and mouthed words to his wondering brother.
“I’m going to be a rock star, Luca,” he sang.
But his brother didn’t understand.
Sometimes Luca made his brother angry. The Latin fire would kindle in Tony and spew out like Vesuvius, a plume of smoke and molten rock. He’d wrestle Luca to the ground, sit on his uncomprehending head and pummel his chest with punches. But Luca couldn’t fight back. He was too weak and too young. And besides, there was no fire in him, no urge to stand up and fight back. He made his brother angry by asking questions, but he didn’t know this, didn’t know it was the questions that caused his brother’s face to redden and his fists to start whirling. His mother would tell him,
“You shouldn’t upset Tony by teasing him about his skin.”
But he didn’t know what teasing was.
Every term at parents’ evening his mother heard the same refrain.
“He’s very bright and very quiet, but he doesn’t interact. He says things to the other kids but doesn’t seem to realise exactly what he’s saying.”
And so she went away and scratched her head, wanted to believe this wasn’t her fault.
“It isn’t your fault,” said her best friend Sally. It was ten o’clock and they were drinking chardonnay in the kitchen.
“It’s all your fault,” said Grandpa Joe. But he was a cruel old man and loved making life miserable for other people.
Only her sister understood, really got it, but Gloria lived far away in London and rarely had time to talk. She was always away watching racing. Her husband Bill was a bookie. Dogs or horses, it didn’t matter. Anywhere there were punters to fleece.
“Luca’s just a little kid,” Gloria said. “He’ll work it out soon enough. They all do in the end.”
And then she was gone, back to her life of fags and late nights, the rasping roar of the crowd and all the inevitable disappointments.
The boy was nine when he first went away to stay with his aunt. It was half term and Gloria came to meet him at the station, hustling him away from his mother and her anxious eyes.
“We’re going to have a right laugh, you and I,” she said, enveloping him in flab and warmth. “Just you wait and see.”
It was there in Shepherd’s Bush, in the Victorian terrace off the Uxbridge Road, with the fags and the booze and the dirt, with the endless racing supplements, that the boy first felt a streak of pleasure, a slither of blue in an otherwise mucky sky of slate. Gloria was no nonsense, an old school Essex dame with a brassy laugh and a heart of gold. She told the boy the truth, debunked the lies of everyday life.
“We can’t have kids, Bill or I,” she said. “No cousins for you, ducky. There’s something wrong with my pipes. Or that’s what the doctors say.”
He didn’t know what pipes were, but he caught her drift. He’d never had the birds and the bees from his mother, but he knew what girls were all right, knew that if he chased them in the playground and pulled down their pants then they looked different from him. There was a girl in his class, a farmer’s daughter, with whom he was fixated. Every day he waited for her to change out of her boots and into her shoes, to watch her cross the playground and shake her golden mane.
Bill was a different sort; bookies always are. He was flash and morose, too thin and too frail. He wore a trilby and a watch chain, a mohair suit on Saturdays and sipped brandy from a hip flask. He was always fidgeting, always on the move. He preferred the jumps to the flat, the horses to the dogs. One Friday they took the boy to Worcester. Dunwoody had just won the National and was a stone cold banker in the third. He was leading at the last and Bill had his eyes shut. Then some old bloke let go of his dog, she bolted on to the course and Dunwoody fell flat on his face. Bill let out a howl of joy, sun shining through the rain.
“You shouldn’t show your emotions,” he told the boy later. “Ever. It’s not what the pros do. But that dog had just saved me five grand.”
They went and got drunk in the Café Royal. Drove all the way back from Worcester with Andy Williams on the radio. Bill spilt whisky on his trousers and Gloria sang along.
“We don’t save the money, darling,” she told the boy. “When we’ve got it we spend it.”
They gave the boy oysters and he was sick. Then they gave him champagne and he was sick again. But puking didn’t make him cry. It was only when he woke the next morning and opened his eyes that he realised that the ball wasn’t in his bed, that he’d slept twelve hours without it and hadn’t missed it for a minute.
When he got home his mother saw the change in him. Her heart leapt, gambolled like a giddy horse. The ball was in his bag, not in his arms.
“I saw horses, Mummy,” he said. “I drank champagne. I was sick.”
But she didn’t wince like other mothers do. Didn’t call her sister and take her to task. Because behind the void there was life and her sister seemed to have found it.
Back at school he went and regressed. Back to the blank stares and incomprehension, back to following the farmer’s daughter around the playground. The other children laughed and jeered.
“You’re a loser,” they said.
But he didn’t understand why.
He never spoke to the golden haired girl. She was friends with other boys but not with him. He only knew her name was Susie. She’d flash her white teeth and shake her blonde tresses, guilty in her innocence, and the other boys would flock, all of them come running, while he sat on his own and watched with his ball. He had a thing for Susie’s ever thereafter. Only had to hear the name and he’d be dreaming of red wellies and hopscotch.
“Your son has an abnormally small jaw,” said the dentist in a pleasant voice.
“A what?” said his mother.
“An abnormally small jaw,” repeated the dentist.
They fitted him for a brace. Train tracks and a plate, the double whammy. The school kids needed no excuse. They taunted and teased. Now he couldn’t even eat his food. He spooned soup through his teeth like water through a drain, the thick lumpy carrot soup that the school called lunch.
“Train tracks!” sniggered the boys.
The girls said nothing but he knew what they were thinking.
Grandpa Joe had won the war. He said so and showed Luca his medals, leant on his stick and pulled at his moustache.
“In nineteen forty-three I landed in Normandy with two hundred men…”
Then the sun appeared from behind a cloud.
“What’s that in your mouth, boy? Is it metal?”
That was the end of the war stories – at least for that day.
It was the question she’d been dreading.
“Why don’t we have a daddy?”
The only surprise was that it had taken so long.
“Well,” she said, smoothing out his duvet, the ball held tight in his arms. “It’s like this, you see.”
And so they stayed up talking until Tony came in, Tony with his olive face and theatrics, Tony with his tears and his temper.
“You don’t have a daddy because ever so long ago your daddy went away on a long journey and never came back.”
“It was time.”
“I don’t know, darling.”
“When’s he coming back?”
Later that night the mother did the one thing she hadn’t done for years. She got out the photo of the young army officer with his cap and stripes and smart green jacket, and she stared at the olive skin and pleasant face for over an hour. She stayed still and didn’t cry, didn’t even feel a twinge. Then she put the photo back in its box and went to bed.
Gloria told him the truth when he was ten. Not about his father – that was still a mystery – but about the man masquerading as Grandpa Joe. She was drinking champagne and feeling forthright.
“He’s not actually your grandfather,” she said.
“Shut your mouth!” said Bill.
“He’s my nephew and he’s got a right to know.”
“You’re opening up a can of worms. Mark my words…”
But once she’d started she couldn’t stop.
“He calls himself Grandpa Joe because his name is Joe. You see - he knew your real grandfather, your father’s father. They were in the army together ever so long ago. He doesn’t have kids of his own so he’s kind of taken to you and Tony.”
But the boy still didn’t understand. He said he did but didn’t.
When he got home he spoke to Tony.
“Auntie Gloria says that Grandpa Joe isn’t actually our grandfather.”
Tony’s mind was elsewhere.
“You’re blocking the screen. Move!”
So the boy went to ask his mother.
“Auntie Gloria says that Grandpa Joe isn’t actually our grandfather.”
She sighed and put down the gas bill. She loved her sister but wished she’d keep her mouth shut.
“Why does he say he is if he isn’t?”
“Well,” she said. “It’s like this, you see.”
The explanation was long and involved. It lasted all the way through Eastenders and out again the other side. She’d tried her hardest to make things simple. But the boy still didn’t understand.
They were out walking in the park when it happened, the boy with his ball, soggy now and a little flat, and Grandpa Joe with his stick.
“Isn’t it time you got a new ball?” asked Grandpa Joe.
Questions about the ball put the boy’s back up. He clutched it even tighter.
“Please don’t take it away, Joe.”
He hadn’t meant to call him Joe; he’d meant to call him Grandpa. But the words just slipped out wrong. His tongue was ahead of his brain. It all then unravelled in seconds. Grandpa Joe turned his head and roared. His face was puce. He raised his stick to strike the boy but grabbed his chest instead, toppling over on to his back, smacking the ground with a thump. The boy stood over him. Grandpa Joe’s mouth was open, all grey gums and broken stubs, his body shuddering and wriggling. The boy kept on staring, his eyes dull and confused. Something seemed bad but he didn’t know what. It was only later when the man in the ambulance asked him,
“How long was he lying there before you called for help?”
And the boy replied,
“I don’t know. An hour or so? Or maybe more.”
That he realised this was not the right answer.
He wore his school uniform to the funeral.
“You murdered him,” whispered Tony. “You murdered Grandpa Joe.”
But the boy didn’t know what murder was.
At eleven he went to the senior school. Sat at the front of the bus with his ball and brown satchel. Tony marched all the way to the back, dropping crisps and making friends. The brothers didn’t talk at school. Tony didn’t want to. Didn’t want to be seen fighting for the rights of a kid in Year Seven.
The boy soon got himself a nickname. They called him ‘Flid’. They hid his ball and stole his satchel. But he didn’t cry, didn’t freak out. Just stood there stolidly and blinked, perturbed but never violent. In the end they gave him back the ball. Tony made them. Could see the look on his mother’s face if Luca came home without it.
“How you doing at school?” asked his mother’s friend Sally.
“How you doing at school?” asked their neighbour Mrs Hawkins.
But Gloria never asked him that. They sat side by side and chose horses from the paper.
“Bill would kill me if he knew,” she said. “But I just go on the names, not by the form.”
One Wednesday the boy chose his first winner - Merry Man in the three forty at Towcester. They watched the race on Gloria’s TV, a blur of shapes and blotchy purple.
“Come on, you bastard!” yelled Gloria, tipping fag ash over her shoulder. “Keep going!”
In the end he won by a length. She wrapped her nephew in a bear hug.
“We’ve won, darling. You did it!”
She was practically in tears.
It was the first anniversary of Grandpa Joe’s death. Tony had forgotten, but the boy hadn’t.
“I’ll be home a little late tonight,” their mother had said. “But I’ll be back in time for your tea.”
She didn’t say why she’d be late, but the boy knew why. After school he walked off through the gates and down the road, abandoning the bus to the brutal tongues of others. He trudged round and round the aisles of Sainsbury’s, killing time before his mother finished work and came to find the place he knew she’d visit. The cemetery was on the edge of town, a drab field of weeds and broken stones. There in the distance he saw her. She was kneeling at a gravestone, head bowed, a bunch of flowers at her side. She put the flowers in a vase, arranged the buds and stalks in pretty patterns. Then she stood and brushed her knees, made the sign of the cross and gave the grave one last dutiful glance.
When she’d gone the boy came closer, eyed the grave with trepidation. He’d heard about the supernatural, had read the tales of ghouls and zombies. Joe was dead, he’d seen him die, but that was his body, not his spirit, and spirits lived on for thousands of years. He hesitated to touch the cold smooth stone, to trace his fingers across the concave letters.
JOSEPH BONELLI 1907 – 1987 LOVING HUSBAND OF ANGELA
Did Joe’s spirit live on? Would it rise up through the earth and clamp its limbs around his neck?
He didn’t know why, but suddenly he felt a force inside him, a strange unfamiliar force. It bubbled up through his chest and out through his throat. He wasn’t used to forces, wasn’t used to fury. He took a pebble from his pocket and began to rub, began to obliterate the name he hated. White wisps of chalk floated to the ground.
“Oi! What are you doing?”
A man was running towards him, a small angry man waving his fists, making rapid jerking strides. The boy didn’t move. He stood and watched. He wanted to see why this man was angry.
Back at home his mother was waiting. The man had telephoned, had said he had a serious problem.
“Luca, what you did was bad. Very bad.”
But that was all she could say.
“Flid!” Tony was shaking his head, beaming inside.
The boy went up to his room and closed the door, held the ball tight in his lap. Deep inside him was a flicker - recognition, confusion, who could say - but it was only a flicker.
Downstairs his mother was on the phone to her sister.
“What am I supposed to do with him? He was defacing Joe’s grave!”
“Poor little sod’” said Gloria, switching over to the snooker.
She was sorry for her sister, she really was, but not for the first time she thanked God that she couldn’t have kids.
That summer they went to the seaside, down to the coast of Kent and the English Channel. Sally came too. She didn’t have a man and her girls were grown up. They’d flown the nest and gone to live in London with unsuitable men. For once it didn’t rain. The Garden of England was bright and breezy, bright with sunshine and roses in bloom.
Every day they took a picnic to the beach. Tony threw stones and the boy held his ball. Sally drank wine from a paper cup. The mother looked out to sea and chuntered at the view.
“Why did they have to build a power station there?”
The boy stared at Sally’s shoulders, stared at her bikini and bare expanse of flesh. Her skin was smooth and freckled, whiter than his own. He yearned to touch it, to see how smooth it was, but every time he made his move she’d stand and go to fetch the bottle. She loved her wine, did Sally. Loved it so much that she was always buying more.
In the distance were the ferries, the white metal monsters that scurried between the Channel ports. Tony was afraid of the water. He didn’t like the waves, didn’t like the way they rushed and sucked, knocked him down and dragged him back, but the boy thought otherwise. He found the water mesmerising, could watch the tide for hours as it huffed and puffed.
“Can we go out on a boat, Mummy?” he asked.
But Tony didn’t want to.
One morning the boy woke and looked out of the window. The sun was yawning through the cloud. There was a man and his dog out walking, a ferry bobbing in the distance. The boy put on his clothes and went downstairs. He’d had an idea.
It was half past nine when they realised that he’d gone. Half past nine when Tony poured out his Frosties and the mother shouted up to Luca.
“Come on! We’re starting breakfast!”
“He’s not upstairs,” said Tony. “I thought he was down here.”
And so the manhunt started. Through the garden and out into the street, Sally roused from her bed and made to come and help.
“The ball’s gone too. He can’t have been kidnapped,” said the mother.
But she was already scared.
Sally wiped her brow and felt a little sick.
“Exactly,” she said. “He’s probably gone for a walk.”
But he wasn’t in the shops and he wasn’t on the beach. At twelve they called the cops.
“It happens all the time,” the policeman said. “Kids run off and they always turn up later. He’ll be in the arcade or at the crazy golf.”
But they went and looked and he wasn’t down there either. By three the mother was in a proper flap. She sat down in a chair and Sally gave her sedatives.
“Have one of those, my love. It’ll calm you down.”
“I don’t want to go to sleep!” the mother wailed. “I want to find my boy.”
At seven the phone rang. It was the police. The mother held her breath.
“Have you… found him?”
She could hardly get the words out.
Sally watched from a distance, as breathless as her friend, the wine like acid in her mouth. The mother’s shoulders sagged. She closed her eyes.
“Thank God,” was all she said.
At Dover they were up in arms. The authorities needed answers. Just how, they wanted to know, just how had an eleven-year-old boy climbed aboard a ferry and travelled all the way to France? How come no one saw him? How come no one stopped him? The French were more switched on. They grabbed him at the border and started asking questions.
“I wanted to go on a boat,” he told them.
He didn’t know where he was. He’d never even heard of France.
That night his mother went to fetch him from Dover. He was overjoyed to see her; it had been a long and exciting day. When she saw him she thought she might collapse. There he was, so small and frail, clutching that large white ball. She blinked back tears and squeezed him tight.
“I went on a boat, Mummy. They gave me sweets.”
“Did they, darling?”
She knew she should rebuke him, but she didn’t have the heart. There was one rule for Tony, another rule for Luca. It shouldn’t be like that, she knew it all too well, but that was just the way it was.
Like it or not, the boy was a special case.
The boy had made friends with a cat, a small brown cat with amber eyes and chocolate fur. The cat was new to the garden. It circled the boy as he played with his ball, its tail towering proud, peeped out at him from under hedges and from out between the leaves on the trees.
“Mummy, there’s a cat in our garden,” he said, his voice squeaking with excitement.
“I don’t like cats,” said Mrs Hawkins. “Mean, nasty creatures.”
“Nor me,” said Sally.
They were in the kitchen complaining. The doctor was selfish, the doctor was Scottish, the Scottish were selfish. And so on it went.
“I’ll chase it away,” said Tony.
The boy was alarmed and his face fell. But the cat was too clever. Tony was foe, not friend. It didn’t need to be told. It scurried off under the hedge and scampered away to safety.
Later the cat came back. The boy was alone in the garden, sitting on the lawn making shapes with pieces of twig. Two eyes glinted out from under the hedge. The boy looked over but didn’t move, waited for the cat to come. And out it came, its tail towering, sizing him up with those cool amber eyes, prancing and preening just out of his reach. The boy sat still, held out his hand. Friendship was only a matter of time. Soon the cat stepped forward, still a little cautious, rubbed its wary face against his knuckles. Then it flopped over on to its side, offered up its tummy to be tickled.
“Good little kitty,” said the boy, happy now.
There were running footsteps from the house. It was Tony. There was fear in the cat’s eyes, fear in the boy’s eyes too. The cat scarpered, shot under the hedge and out into the garden beyond.
“Mum told you!” said Tony. “We don’t like cats.”
The boy said nothing and sucked his hand, tasted the blood warm in his mouth. The cat had scratched him, left a claw embedded in his thumb.
The next day Tony asked,
“Mum, can we get a dog?”
But the mother didn’t have time for a dog. Who would look after it when she was at work and the boys were at school?
“I’ll look after it,” said Tony. “I’ll take it to school with me.”
But the mother shook her head, told Tony to hurry up and eat his tea. The boy chewed his fish fingers in silence. He didn’t like dogs. He was wary of them. They bounded and licked, demanded his attention all day long, whereas cats came and went, sought him only when they wanted, more intricate, more capricious, more maddeningly and thrillingly feline.
His mother was tucking him in when he whispered,
“Mummy, can we get a cat?”
“Darling, I wish we could but Tony doesn’t like them.”
In the half light thoughts flashed through his head, thoughts he didn’t comprehend. Thoughts about Tony and his mother, thoughts about cats and dogs.
“He’s now obsessed with getting a cat.”
The mother was on the phone to her sister.
“Well, why don’t you get one?”
Gloria was an animal lover. Went with the territory, or so she said.
“I haven’t got time.”
“Rubbish! They look after themselves.”
“If truth be told, I don’t really like them.”
The mother didn’t know it, but the boy was listening through the bannisters, confused as to why his mother had lied.
The boy was now twelve, still short for his age, not robust like most others in his class.
“He’s asthmatic,” said the doctor one day. “He needs an inhaler.”
There’s always something, thought the mother, always some setback for my darling son. Why can’t he have more of Tony’s strength, Tony’s robustness?
“Don’t listen to that doctor,” said Sally. “Not that miserable Scotsman.”
But they couldn’t afford a second opinion. And anyway, the doctor was right. The boy was having problems. He’d wheeze and turn red in the face. He needed the inhaler and its blast of medication.
“Thank God we didn’t get a cat,” said the mother.
“Why?” asked Gloria.
“Asthmatics are allergic to their fur.”
Gloria said nothing, musing on the sheer convenience.
“Give us a go on that thing.”
The boy was at school, preparing for PE. He hated PE, hated having to put on shorts and run round fields. He wasn’t any good at games, didn’t understand the point of competition.
“I said, Flid, give us a go on that thing!”
A bigger boy was doing the asking, a bigger boy with cropped hair and a silver ear stud. Jewellery wasn’t allowed at school, not for the boys at least, but some families took no notice, regarded rules as empty threats.
“It’s my medicine,” said the boy.
They were crowding round him now, all the bigger boys, all cropped hair and disdainful stares, ready with their fists and brutal tongues. They snatched the inhaler from his hand, twisted back his wrist until it burned.
“After you with that, Steve,” said one of them.
They all tried the medicine, all tried it one by one, and when the inhaler was empty, breathless like the patient it sought to serve, they threw it to the ground and crushed it, stamping on it with their shoes, fragments now of blue and navy plastic. And then they trotted outside, all ready to excel, now an example to others, while the boy sat alone in his shorts and singlet, wide-eyed with confusion.
The teacher came to fetch him.
“Luca, what are you doing here? We’re waiting for you.”
“I can’t find my medicine.”
“You don’t need your medicine,” said the teacher. “We’re practising throwing the cricket ball.”
He’d rather Luca wasn’t in his class, would rather bracket him with the other cripples – the obese, the lame and the sick - and pack them all off home, but he didn’t have a choice. Sport was for them all, not solely for the strong. Or so the government told them.
It was cold and wet outside. The boy’s nose was running. He already sensed the dread of breathlessness. The other boys were throwing balls, hurling red spheres of leather out up into the cruel grey sky. The boy couldn’t throw the ball, had no muscle in his arm or shoulder.
“You throw just like a girl,” said one of the bigger boys.
Which was the kindest thing they said all day.
The boy had a friend called Andrew. Tall where the boy was short, strong where the boy was weak, Andrew was not the school’s most popular kid. He was obnoxious and domineering. His face was flushed and speckled. He carried a persistent smell of something pungent. He was good at maths and bad at games, sat at the front of the class and raised his hand, demanding to be answered.
The boy sat next to him, oddballs both, loners together, put side by side by teachers who couldn’t begin to fathom either. Andrew had a temper, a fire that curdled, surged then spat. He stabbed a girl with a compass who dared to call him fat and emptied his school bag over the head of another, responding to requests for a ruler with a high-pitched squeal of fury.
“Take it all!” he screamed, eyes and mouth enraged, books clattering to the floor.
They’d tried to exclude him twice, feared he might kill a kid one day, but no other school would have him. He wasn’t special needs, didn’t have a screwed up family. His dad ran the local garden centre, wore cords and voted liberal; eccentric, yes, but hardly serial killer stuff.
The boy brought Andrew home one day. They went out in the garden to play, the mother watching fondly, the boy with his ball and inhaler, Andrew lumbering and bossing.
“That kid stinks!” Tony told the kitchen.
“Don’t be nasty,” said his mother.
Sally said nothing, took a slurp of something strong.
Ten minutes later they all rushed to the window. There was commotion in the garden. Andrew was bawling, wailing with anger. Then he was leaping at the boy, pulling his hair, grabbing his ball, exerting all his sweating pungent bulk.
But Tony got there first. Wrestled Andrew off the boy and down on to the grass.
“I want to go home,” wailed Andrew. “He’s been so mean to me.”
The boy stood up and grabbed his ball, bewildered now.
“What’s been going on here?” asked the mother, not sure how cross to be, already dreading the arrival of Andrew’s mother. She had connections in the council, or so the rumours went.
“He said the cat didn’t like me,” wailed Andrew.
But there was no sign of any cat.
Andrew sat at tea and glowered, calmer now, tearing fish fingers from his fork and chewing hard. The boy sat quiet and still, the ball on his lap, aware of Tony’s gloating smile. Angst was Tony’s drug of choice, other people’s angst. He’d moved his chair as far from Andrew as he could, right round next to his brother’s, holding his nose when his mother’s back was turned.
“They had a little tiff,” she was telling Andrew’s mother. “But I think it’s all forgotten now.”
Later that evening the boy was in the bath when she asked him.
“Darling, what did you say to Andrew that made him so upset?”
This was no recrimination in her voice. It was soft and soothing.
“Because I’d like to you to tell me.”
The boy paused, reached out for his rubber duck.
“I don’t really remember,” he said. “But we were stroking the cat and then he got scratched. And I said he got scratched because he smells so horrid.”
She looked into her son’s eyes, searching with her own, but there was nothing there, no hint of contrition, recognition or acknowledgment, just that glassy void. And when she went downstairs and talked to Sally, poured herself a glug of wine and asked,
“Is it me or does he just not get it?”
Sally said, taking a slurp,
“It isn’t you. He simply has no idea of the consequences of his actions.”
Which was what she’d said so many times before.
And the mother sighed, wondering yet again whether she should find the boy a doctor, not the sarcastic Scot down the road, but a proper specialist, someone who could help her son see the light of other people’s problems.
Not long later the mother had some friends to visit. It wasn’t a big house anyway, but with two more adults and two more kids it was like a bus station at rush hour – no chairs to sit on, always noisy, bad temper lurking in every nook and cranny.
The boy kept his distance from the adults. He didn’t like his mother’s friends, was frightened of the husband’s blistering eyes and downturned mouth, of the wife’s harsh face and haw-haw laugh. The kids were better, okay for high achievers. Jeremy was grade five for the piano and oboe, while Michael played hockey for his county, always pressured into climbing higher.
The four of them were strangers but they played as children do, building, breaking and then building bonds, Jeremy more self-conscious than the others, older and aloof, Tony trying a touch too hard. The boy was happy enough, happy that they didn’t try to steal his ball or call him names. He’d wanted to tell them about the cat, hoped to bring it out and show it off, but Tony was there and Tony didn’t like the cat. And besides, the cat never showed its face, never came beyond the hedge and blazed its amber eyes. It knew that they were strangers, knew when it was sensible not to come.
“Boys, it’s time for lunch!” called the mother from the house.
In they ran, dusty and dirty from the garden, friends now in their funny way, the boy with his ball and inhaler.
“Had a nice time?” asked the mother, her voice a touch too bright.
Yes, they nodded. Jeremy and Michael went to wash their hands. They didn’t need to be told. Tony sat at the table, his pleasant face smudged with strain. The boy sat next to him, the ball in his lap, legs dangling from a chair.
“Luca!” said the mother’s friend. Her name was Cathy. “Take that filthy ball away and go and wash your hands!”
Her husband said nothing, surveyed the scene with his blistering eyes and downturned mouth.
The boy looked to his mother, alarm in his eyes. She looked back, now in a quandary. Cathy was right; the ball was filthy, yet she’d allowed it at the table for all those years. And she knew what would happen if she didn’t. There wouldn’t be a storm, but the boy would be confused, a duckling on the road, smashed to smithereens by the wheels of passing life.
“So what did you do?” asked Sally, reaching for the bottle. She was in the kitchen at the end of the day, indulging in all the titbits and fag ends.
“Well,” said the mother. “It was very difficult. Cathy’s an old friend, I don’t see her so often, and I didn’t want to be rude, but what right does she have to tell off my child in my house? I wouldn’t do that to her. Wouldn’t ever dream of it.”
So the mother tried to compromise, tried to explain away the ball with winks and nods and yet keep it at the table. And so they had lunch, passed salad and salami back and forth, but all the adults could see was the elephant in the room, the dirty white ball on the lap of the boy, happy now because he was safe.
Cathy and her husband packed their kids into the car, said goodbye at the door.
“Thanks for a really great day,” they said.
But as the car vanished round the corner the mother could hear Cathy bitching,
“Those children walk all over her!”
And the husband bitching back,
“Well, what do you expect from a woman like that? No wonder he buggered off and left her!”
“We don’t know that,” said Cathy.
“Yes, we do,” he said, swerving to miss a passing car. “We damn well do. It’s the only logical answer.”
Gloria had made the promise on Christmas Day.
“If you’re really good we’ll take you to Aintree next year.”
“What’s Aintree?” asked Tony.
“It’s where they run the National. It’s the biggest, craziest race in all the world.”
From that moment all Tony had wanted to do was to go and watch the National.
That day Mr Frisk won the race in record time. Bill was ecstatic. Brown Windsor – the favourite – trailed in fourth. He didn’t smile – Bill never smiled – but he tilted the trilby back on his head, his ‘cocky look’, as Gloria called it.
“Not a bad day,” he told Tony.
“Can we go to a Little Chef?”
“We can go anywhere you like.”
For Tony a day didn’t get more perfect.
The boy, though, was feeling confused. He’d been to the races several times now, but Aintree was a different beast, a riot of noise and colour, of traffic and glamour, where fences soared, fortunes fell and horses died. He’d heard about the accident, heard about the horse that broke its neck, and in the car he sat and wondered, wondered why the others were laughing when death was all he could think of.
“Why did that horse have to die?” he asked the grown ups.
“It was an accident, ducky,” said Gloria, patting his hand. “Just one of those things.”
“Accidents happen,” said Bill, rolling down the window, blowing out smoke.
But the boy was still confused.
They stopped for tea on the M6, ate burgers in a Little Chef, Bill mooching, jotting down numbers in a notebook.
“We could have a few days in Spain…” Gloria started to say.
Bill said nothing, carried on counting.
It was past ten when they got home. Tony was asleep, horses swirling round his happy head, but the boy was still awake, clutching his ball, thinking of the body beneath the canvas tent, eyes milky, neck lolling, a once proud creature reduced to the rubble of death.
“Come on darling,” said Gloria. “Time to go inside and see your mum.”
But he wouldn’t get out of the car, sat quite still and clutched his ball, staring straight ahead. There weren’t any tears – but then again there rarely were.
“Why did it have to die?”
So she got in and sat beside him. Explained away death and sport, the realities and complexities of planetary existence.
“But it’s supposed to be fun,” the boy said. “So why do the animals have to die?”
He was searching for other words, other words that didn’t come, but she knew what he was trying to say.
He was quiet the next few days, even more quiet than normal. Sat solemn in the garden, his mother watching through the window, tickling the cat’s chin, the cat nuzzling his knuckles, harmony here between man and beast.
“He’s still a little quiet,” said his mother. She was on the phone to Gloria.
“Perhaps it was a mistake to take him.”
“I don’t think so,” said the mother. “He had to learn one day.”
She didn’t tell her sister, but she’d been to see an expert, a professor in child psychology, and asked the obvious questions.
“Bring him in to see me,” said the professor. “Can’t make a diagnosis until I’ve seen the actual child.”
So she made a plan to take him to London, to leave him with the doctor while she waited in the corridor, have him confirm the symptoms that made her despair. She was his mother, she should be able to fix it, but she was starting to drown, wanted to hand it all over to a pro and go and crumple in the corner.
“Sometimes it all feels too much,” she said to Sally in the kitchen.
“It’s not your fault,” said Sally. “You’re a brilliant mum.”
But the mother felt it was her fault, felt it all too keenly, and had a sense, a sense she buried in her conscience, that if she did nothing now it would only get worse, much worse, in the years to come.
Not long after the National the mother received a call, a call she’d always dreaded. It was the school.
“Come and fetch your son,” a lady said. “There’s been an incident.”
The mother was at work. It was hard to get away.
“I… I…” she started to say.
“Take as much time as you like,” said her boss. The boss had children too.
So she jumped in the car and rushed to the school, her mind a whirl of concern. She hadn’t even bothered to ask whether it was Luca or Tony. She didn’t have to - she already knew.
“Come into my office,” said the Head, a tall thin man with a tuft of sandy hair. They said he liked cycling, said he had a short temper. There were trophies all over his office, trophies and photos of his family. Conceited children. The wife he sometimes strayed from.
He offered her coffee. She declined, said she had to be quick. What’s all this about? What’s happened? There’s been an incident, he said, something serious. Luca’s been involved in a…
“In a what?” she asked, now afraid.
“Yes,” he said. “In an altercation.”
“Is he okay?”
There were pinpricks all over her cheeks, sharp jabbing pinpricks of fear.
“Well, we don’t think he started it.”
The Head was frowning, clicking his biro on and off. Click click! Click click! Clicking pens helped him think, helped him steer the righteous course. He was a righteous man, father, sportsman, university donor. His school would flourish, a marvel in a market town, a fine example to all those prigs in Ofsted…
“Where is he? Can I see him?”
His spider’s eyes rotated up, up and into their hoods, idle and watchful. He was already bored, already tired of this woman and her pointless children. He picked up the phone.
“Zoe, could you accompany Mrs…”
He couldn’t even remember her name.
Zoe took the mother to see the nurse. The boy was there with her, legs dangling from a bed, ball on his lap, mouth swollen and pink.
“My poor baby!” cried the mother, rushing over from the door. “What’s happened?”
“I was in a fight, Mummy,” she said.
She didn’t hear it, but there was pride in his voice.
“Yes, with a bigger boy.”
“Who was it?”
She’d have fought the whole school if she’d had to. Crushed them with her slender fingers.
“He’s in solitary,” said the nurse. “He might be expelled.”
The story came out in the car. A boy called Nigel had picked on Andrew, had put pilchards in his briefcase. The classroom now reeked of fish. And the teacher wasn’t there.
“You stink, Andrew!” cried the class.
The boy felt sorry for his friend, sorry for his fellow misfit. It was a strange unusual feeling.
Andrew flung the briefcase to the floor, tipped out papers and pilchards. The class gasped. The class howled. The class bayed for somebody’s blood.
“You shouldn’t do that,” the boy told Nigel. “You shouldn’t put things in his briefcase. It’s not nice.”
That was all Nigel needed, the smallest excuse, the flimsiest pull on the trigger. He rounded on the boy, snarled and squinted.
“What’s it to you, you little freak?”
And so they squared up, Nigel advancing, the boy retreating to the window. Nigel shoved him, caught him with a fist, slapped him hard across the mouth. The boy didn’t flinch, didn’t cower, even though his lip was split and there were crimson spots upon his collar.
“Come on!” urged the class. ’Fight! Fight!”
It didn’t last for long because a teacher arrived and then another. They’d heard the melee next door, heard the shouts through the open window. Maths was abandoned; French verbs left dangling. They pulled Nigel off the boy, prized fingers from clumps of hair and packed him off to see the Head. The boy was bruised and bloodied but that was all. There were no tears, no hint of remorse or suffering. He followed the nurse in silence, pursued by the eyes of the class.
“My poor baby!” repeated his mother.
But that day marked a watershed, a shift in reputation. The boy had stood up for himself and earned the plaudits of his peers. But Andrew couldn’t see this.
“I didn’t want your help,” he said. “And I still don’t.”
They changed seats after that, their friendship in tatters. The boy was moved across the room, away from Andrew, away from Nigel, away to a table with no companion.
The mother was on the phone to her sister.
“I can’t afford the consultations. A hundred and fifty pounds an hour!”
“Then go and see someone cheaper,” said Gloria. She was watching the racing from Ascot.
“But this guy’s good. He’s the best.”
“Then I’ll make a contribution.”
“Don’t be silly. I can’t ask you for that.”
In the end they reached a compromise. The mother would pay for the initial consultation. Then – and only if they thought it was worth it (the mother was quite insistent on this point) – they’d go halves on five more sessions, the minimum period the professor advised.
“Perhaps it’s all a waste of time,” said the mother. “He did stand up for that boy Andrew. Perhaps he’s getting better. Oh, I don’t know.”
“We’ll do whatever you think best.”
“I’m so grateful.”
“Don’t worry about it, ducky,” said Gloria. “It’s going to be a brilliant summer.”
Bill was on a roll. It had been raining for weeks and the ground was sodden. One Monday at Windsor he’d made twelve grand and bought Gloria a necklace. Real diamonds, he’d told her. Only the best for my gal.
“Of course, it’s wasted on me,” Gloria told her sister, fingering it for the umpteenth time that day.
But it was sunny for Ascot. Blazing hot for the dukes and earls, blazing hot for the girls in their frocks and cream cake hats. Light seeped in through Gloria’s telly. She could smell the fresh-cut grass, hear the corks popping from the champagne bottles. The ground was good to firm. And in the Queen Anne Stakes the favourite romped home by three clear lengths.
“Damn,” she said, lighting up a fag.
It was going to be a long old day for Bill. Longer than he’d like; longer than she would too.
“Might have to pawn that necklace,” she told herself.
It wouldn’t have been the first time. After all, she was godmother to the pawnbroker’s youngest.
The next day the mother took the boy to London. She’d had to ask permission from the school.
“We’re going to London, darling. Won’t that be fun?”
Tony had wanted to come along with them. There’d been tears and tantrums.
“Why does he get to go and I don’t? It’s not fair.”
“You’re in the middle of your GCSE’s!”
“So you stay at home until you’ve finished. Then you can go to London.”
The boy thought they were going shopping, thought it was a special treat. He sat on the train with his ball, as good as gold, watching trees flash past the window.
“Can we go to Hamleys?”
“If we have time.”
In Devonshire Place the buildings were red brick mansion blocks, the roosts of surgeons and ladies with exotic accents.
“Darling, we’re going to see a man. He’s going to ask you some questions.”
“Okay,” said the boy.
He wasn’t even suspicious.
The professor was an academic of the progressive school. He studied children but had no offspring of his own. As he told the General Medical Council,
“That would render my theories subjective. Which in turn would damage my work.”
And then added, rather spuriously the Council considered,
“Besides, most classicists don’t live in ancient Rome.”
He always wished he’d read classics. His brother had and he was richer in ever so many ways.
The boy came into the room, clutching his ball. He was bigger now, no longer so small and frail. Thin, yes, and slight, but taller than before. The professor shook his hand.
“I’m Doctor Samuels,” he said. “Why don’t you sit down?”
The mother lingered, made as if to leave the room. The boy looked back.
There was a hint of pleading in his voice.
“It’s okay, darling. I can stay if you want me to.”
“No, you can’t,” said the professor. “I must see him on his own.”
“It’ll be okay,” the mother told the boy. “You’ve got your ball.”
The boy held on tight to his ball, confused and bewildered now. The professor said nothing, watching and waiting. The mother opened the door and walked out through it, trying not to look back. It closed with a click.
“So,” said the professor, taking a chair next to the boy’s, pressing together the tips of his fingers and burrowing the point into his septum. “We’re going to play a little game. I want you to shut your eyes and imagine…”
His voice was gentler now and the boy felt drowsy. The sun pounded down outside, flooding the streets with light and warmth, but inside it was cool and the blinds were drawn. He’d forgotten his mother. He had his ball – that was all that mattered – and he answered the professor’s questions as best he could, never wondering why he was there, never squealing, never bolting for the door like other kids did. The professor prompted and probed, made notes in his head and every so often said in a soothing voice,
“Good, very good.”
Fetching the boy a coke from the fridge beside his desk when they’d reached ten minutes. Coke was a treat for the boy – the mother banned fizzy drinks at home – and in the half-light of the room the boy was happy now, here with his drink, his ball and this funny old man with the darting eyes and spidery hands.
The mother was in the corridor, berating herself for her cruelty. Her boy needed love, love that she could give him, not a bloody psychologist! What had Mrs Hawkins said? These were just growing pains. All kids had to face them. And Mrs Hawkins should know. She’d had six children! She wouldn’t be here in this expensive clinic embracing modern theories. She’d be at home in the kitchen darning socks and letting her kids get on with it. No, she’d drag Luca out and take him home. This would be the one and only time she submitted him to such indignity.
But when the door opened and Luca emerged something odd had happened. The boy’s face was glowing. He didn’t clutch the ball as he always did but held it loosely under an arm.
“I had coke, Mummy,” he said, beaming as he said it. “I had a fizzy drink.”
It was now the mother’s turn to be confused.
“I’m so pleased, darling,” she said. But she didn’t know if she was or wasn’t.
“Perhaps we could speak tomorrow?” said the professor. “Can I reach you at work?”
The boy didn’t want to go to Hamleys. They’d stepped out into the heat of the day and he was hungry. So they sat on a bench and ate their lunch, a classic family portrait, mother with her worries, son with a belly fully of coke. And then the boy put his hand on her shoulder, turned his face up to hers,
“It’s okay, Mummy. It’s going to be okay.”
And where this came from she didn’t know, but she could feel the tears behind her eyes, those great lagoons of salty water she’d been damming up for years, and she wanted to gasp, had to dig her nails deep into her thigh to stop the dam from bursting.
“Of course it will be, darling,” she said, smiling as naturally as she could.
But on the train home she was struck by the role reversal, by the fact that her son, the invalid, had assumed the role of her protector. And not for the first time she wondered whether they’d all got Luca wrong, whether behind the façade the boy was playing the world’s greatest joke and had something wondrous up his sleeve.
“You know,” she said to Gloria later. “I’ve always thought he’ll grow up to be somebody special.”
“I’m so pleased it was a worthwhile trip.”
Bill had lost a packet at Ascot but Gloria didn’t tell let on. She might be broke, but she wouldn’t renege on her promise to go halves on Luca’s sessions. If she could help the boy then she was thrilled. And that was all there was to it.
The boy was in bed but he wasn’t asleep. He was singing, soft and castrato, wafting bars of invented melody out through the crack in his door. The mother listened on the landing. Then she went to bed. For the first time in ages she was happy too.
Tony had a girlfriend, his first true love. There’d been girls before, of course there had been - Tony was a showman - but this was different, this had sting.
“Do you think they’ve had sex yet?” Sally asked the mother.
All the mother did was wince. She just hoped he was careful. She just hoped he wouldn’t get hurt.
Tony was glowing. Tony was surreptitious. Tony would answer the phone at all hours of the night or make calls behind his mother’s back. When she saw the phone bill she had a fit.
“Tony! The phone bill is THROUGH THE ROOF!”
But Tony didn’t hear her. He was dreaming of Lisa’s hair, Lisa’s hands, Lisa’s tongue, Lisa’s soft and succulent mouth. So far it had all been tame; nothing but snogging and rasps of frantic breathing. But Tony wanted more, much more, yearned to tear off that black top and lacy bra, to trace his fingers over that pristine skin and the heady swell of her breast. He dared not dream of further down – that was for another day – but he lay in bed and made his plans, a general with his tactics, a poet with his fantasises.
Tony wouldn’t bring his girlfriend home.
“We want to meet her,” said Sally. There was lipstick all over her glass.
“Perhaps,” said Tony, unusually coy.
The mother said nothing, tightened her brow, carried on with the washing up.
Tony had a job that summer – at an amusement park for young kids.
“Two pounds twenty an hour!” he moaned to his mother. She’d seen an ad in the local paper.
He wasn’t sure which was the more offensive – the pay or the uniform, a stripy grey monstrosity with a waistcoat and scarlet bowtie.
“What if my mates see me like this?”
His mother shrugged her shoulders.
“You want money? You’ve got to go and earn it.”
So he operated the log flume, a fibreglass boat in the shape of a tree that trundled up a gentle slope and splashed down again the other side. Children screamed, adults smirked, Tony yawned. There was a green button to start it and a red button to stop it. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. That was all he had to do. So simple and even then he screwed it up. Got the boat stuck at the top of the slope with all the passengers on it.
The manager had to come and fetch them down.
“You’ve jammed the mechanism!” he said, red faced and glaring.
Adults were pointing, children were bawling, Tony was yawning. He wasn’t fired but he got demoted – now collecting litter in the picnic area. Only Lisa got him through it. It was her face he glimpsed in the cellophane and Styrofoam cups, her face in the coke cans and fag butts. She was calling him to her, turning him to jelly, seducing him whole with her girlish allure.
“I need you,” she seemed to be saying. “I need you now.”
So he ripped off the bowtie, tore off the waistcoat and jacked in the job. Found a payphone and told Lisa his mother was out.
“Come round to mine,” he said, breathless with daring. “My mum doesn’t get back from work until six o’clock.”
He went home and took a shower, gelled his hair into careful spikes. He was like a baby spaniel, nose aquiver and eyes agog with the sheer delight of being alive. He did his best to smell nice, put on his smartest shirt. Would she want to drink? Would she want to smoke? He didn’t know, but there was wine in the fridge – Sally’s wine – and his mother’s fags were on the bookshelf.
She was late, but then women always are. He’d looked in the mirror forty times, changed his shirt another three. There was a demon in his system, a shudder he couldn’t control. He’d never felt like this before. What was it? Was it love? He didn’t know. His armpits were soaking. He’d hoped to kiss on her on the doorstep but he didn’t have the nerve, and by the time she marched in through the door, more timid than he knew, it was already her show and not his. She chose the music, she chose the wine, and he stood there like the French exchange, unable to open his mouth for fear of saying something stupid.
“Let’s go outside and smoke,” she said.
And he agreed even though he didn’t like smoking, didn’t like the acrid taste. They sat in the garden and puffed away, Lisa artfully, Tony not even sure he was inhaling. They talked of this and that, of everything and nothing, and then she fixed her eyes upon him, spoke a million things she couldn’t say.
It was time.
They walked upstairs chewing furiously on their Wrigley’s, sweat on his brow, apprehension on hers. She went into the bathroom and locked the door, while he sat on his bed and clasped his hands, prayed to God to give him strength, not the God at school or on TV but the Catholic God who vanished with his father. He’d never prayed to God before, never made an invocation, would never be a pious man, but this was time for special measures. He closed the curtains, dimmed the lights and held his breath, and when she came back in, fresher now and more composed, the stage was set for teenage kicks.
“Come here, Tony,” she said, settling back on the pillows, running a hand through her curls and waves.
She smiled at him, lashes aflutter, bra strap peeping, black like the colour of sin. She pictured Meg Ryan, the naughty girl next door; he saw danger at every turn. Her tongue was wet, her lips upturned, and in he plunged, not yet reckless, her bare legs kicking.
“Take your time,” his friends had told him.
And so he took his time, unpeeling garments one by one while she waited, passive now, impatience fighting fear. His hands were somewhere soft, searching for hidden gems, when she spoke, suddenly posed the vital question,
“Tony, did you buy any…?”
And he hung his head, not because he hadn’t tried, but because he’d put all his money in the slot to no avail. The machine was jammed, jammed like that sodding log flume, and yet he hadn’t had the guts to ask the landlord to grab his screwdriver and come back with him to the bogs. And so he did what he always did, left his money inside, closed his eyes and wished with all his heart that fate would conjure up solutions.
Lisa sat up straight, smoothed down her skirt.
“Well,” she said, her tone now brisker. “You’d better go out and buy some. Quick.”
The nearest chemist was several minutes away. He grabbed his bike and started pedalling, breathless with shame and frustration. But while he was out his brother came back, dropped off home by Mrs Hawkins.
“You’ll be okay, won’t you my love?” she said. “I know your mum and Tony are out at work, but they’ll be home before you know it.”
Normally during the holidays the boy spent the day at her house, but her mother was ill and she had to go and help out.
“Keep the door locked and don’t answer the phone. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable and watch the telly?”
So she settled him on the sofa and locked the door behind her. He had his ball, he had a biscuit and he had the remote control.
Upstairs Lisa was in a flap. She’d heard Mrs Hawkins, mistook her for the mother. And now the TV was on. She could hear cartoons. What should she do? Stay put and wait for Tony, or take her chances and make a run for it?
She peered through the bannisters. A boy sat on the sofa with his back to her. It must be the brother! Roadrunner was on TV. Where was the mother? In the kitchen or out in the garden? If she were very quiet she could creep down the stairs and out through the front door before anyone noticed. She held her breath and began her descent. She was a floaty thing, was light on her feet, but every step seemed to clatter against the wooden floor.
“I’ll get you!” screeched the TV. “You won’t get away from me!”
The boy shifted in his seat. Lisa was now downstairs, mere metres from the door. She took a step and then another.
“Run!” screamed the TV.
She reached for the handle. She was almost there. Slowly she turned it one way and then the other. But the door wouldn’t budge. It was locked!
“What are you doing?”
The boy was now standing watching, the ball in his arms. She turned round, her hand still on the doorknob, silver bracelets dangling from a dainty wrist. There was no expression on his face, no hint of fear or surprise.
“I’m a friend of Tony’s.”
“Where is Tony?”
Lisa’s mind was whirring. She stood still, not certain what to do. She’d heard about this kid, heard he was a little strange.
“He’s waiting for me outside. I came back in to get my bag and I got locked in.”
She had to get out of there before the mother appeared! Lisa didn’t get on with other people’s parents.
“I thought he was at work,” said the boy. “He went to work this morning.”
“Are you going to let me out or what?”
“Why are you here?”
She would have got angry with this kid, would have raised her voice and yelled, but she dared not attract the mother’s attention. So she lowered her head, fluttered those lashes and said in a sugary whisper,
“I’ll tell you outside if you open the door.”
Some time later Tony came home, his smart shirt crumpled and drenched in sweat. Turned the key in the lock and opened the door. Imagine his shock to find his beloved on the sofa, his brother next to her, watching TV!
“What’s going on?” he said.
Lisa narrowed her eyes.
“We were locked in,” said the boy. “You left your friend locked in!”
Lisa stood up and adjusted the strap of her handbag.
“I’m out of here,” she said, eyes on the ceiling, stomping over to the door, bashing her shoulder on Tony’s.
“Be careful!” she said, even though it wasn’t his fault.
Tony blamed his brother for the mess, temper clouding his pleasant olive face.
“Why can’t you be a normal kid and go out with your friends? Why do you have to be at home all day like a baby?”
“Why was she here, Tony? What were you doing?”
And so Tony stomped off too, knowing his brother would never understand.
“We’re leaving in five minutes!” said the mother.
Tony was upstairs in his room. He was sulking. Lisa hadn’t exactly called a halt to their liaison, but she’d made it pretty damn clear that next time – if there was to be a next – he had better come prepared. She was the laughing stock of the town, or so she claimed. All her friends – all of them - knew what she was supposed to be doing that afternoon, and it wasn’t hanging out on the sofa watching TV with that weirdo brother of his! Tony didn’t try to argue, meeker with Lisa than he was with his mother, Gloria, Sally or any other female he’d ever encountered. He’d bought her a gift – some earrings from the market he’d found for a fiver – but he was having doubts and hadn’t yet presented them. All in all it was a miserable day and the last thing he felt like doing was going ice-skating with his family. It was July, for God’s sake. Who went skating in July?
“Come on!” shouted the mother. “I’m getting into the car.”
The mother didn’t want to go either, but it was a treat for the children, a treat for Tony’s hard work in exams (his results might be another matter) and the boy’s progress with Dr Samuels.
“I’m guardedly optimistic,” the professor had said only that morning when they spoke on the phone.
In fact his diagnosis was simple. There was nothing wrong with the child, or nothing that he could see. If anything, the boy was self-centred and a little detached, but not the autistic academic his mother had first paraded him as. Yes, he was bright, but nothing out of the ordinary. He saw bright kids every day of the week and this one was middle of the road, nothing more. Perhaps he was brighter than the kids he grew up with, but that wasn’t difficult in a provincial town like his.
“He’ll snap out of it,” he assured the mother. “I’ve seen a million cases like Luca’s. Let him grow a foot and get a girlfriend. Then he’ll have all the friends he’ll ever need. I shouldn’t be surprised if this all blows over within a year.”
Sally was in the car already, her tired eyes hidden by the darkest of glasses. She and the boy were looking forward to skating - she liked showing off her legs in public while he enjoyed the strange sensation of wearing skates, the pleasant whoosh of metal as it cut through ice. True, there were bigger boys there, bigger boys who mocked his ball and made him feel afraid, but he was safe with his mother and Sally, two tigresses who’d stand their ground and maul his foes until they ran off screaming.
The ice rink was a sixties creation with oval arena, wooden barriers and small canteen selling drinks and ice cream. Sally glided out on to the ice, arms outstretched, blonde hair streaming, slit-eyed husbands watching morosely. The others dallied and dawdled. There’d been a row over the ball. The mother preferred to leave it behind, locked safely in the boot of the car, but the boy had refused.
“No!” he wailed. “I want to take it with me.”
So they brought it with them but it wouldn’t fit in the changing room lockers.
“I’ll sit and look after it while you go and skate,” the mother said.
“No, I’ll look after it,” said Tony.
Everyone was happy now. The boy had his mother with him on the ice and Tony got to avoid two of Lisa’s friends he’d spotted over by the canteen. They’d see him out on the ice, but if he kept his head down and read a magazine then they might not notice. Or so he hoped.
The boy held on to his mother’s hand.
“Faster!” he cried. His face was glowing. Sally sped off in front, thrusting with those powerful thighs, thankful for her recent sunbed.
Round and round they circled.
“Don’t you want to have a go, Tony?” asked Sally. He shook his head and cowered down behind his magazine.
“Honestly!” said the mother, leaning against the barrier and breathing deeply. “He’d rather read about computers than come and do some exercise.”
Even when they’d finished Tony skulked behind.
“He doesn’t like being seen in public with his mum,” said the mother.
They were taking off their skates when Sally said,
“Shall we go and grab a drink?”
“Yes!” said the boy, his face still glowing.
But Tony said,
“Why don’t we go and get one at home?”
Knowing full well that there was nothing at home bar white wine and water.
And then it happened. Lisa’s friend Susie appeared, all blotches and ringlets. She’d tracked Tony down across the ice.
“Had some problems in the bedroom?” she taunted.
Tony was a showman with the thinnest of skins. He tried his utmost not to crack but he couldn’t see it through. He flushed purple, angle bubbling, paused then hurled the ball at Susie. She ducked and it flew out on to the ice. The boy’s eyes widened.
Stomp! Went a foot. And then stomp! Went another. They were all doing it now, all the skaters stomping with their feet and tungsten blades. The ball began to wither, to deflate before the boy’s own eyes. And his face deflated too, deflated like the ball he loved. Forget the racehorse. Forget Grandpa Joe. This was death, death as he’d never seen it even in his darkest nightmares.
“We’ll get you another…” the mother started to say.
But her voice soon faltered because she knew, knew just as well as anyone, that the damage was done already.
How could the boy forgive his brother after that? How could he?