The bus is warm and sweaty. I’d love to open a window and let some air in but most of the kids are wet, their clothes, tracksuits and jerseys soaked through. Hair normally spiked, massaged into strict attention, is shiny and flat on foreheads. No one thought of bringing a towel. You’d expect them to be subdued. But they’re wired, buzzing. There’s loads of music blaring from their phones. They’ve won their first game. We’ve won our first game. We kept a clean sheet. Well, Kembo kept a clean sheet. The slap of the ball off his hands for some of the saves made people wince. He had no gloves. He was immense. Everyone was impressed.
Kembo sits up the front of the bus, across from me and away from the banter and mayhem down the back. There’s no one in the seat directly behind us. We’re the only ones facing forward. He’s humming a tune to himself and drumming a beat on his leg. The rest of them are turned to the back row and the nonsense that’s going on there.
‘Yeah. It was greah. Shudda brought a towel. But it was greah.’
‘You shudda brought gloves, never mind a towel. You can’t play in future without them. The ref won’t let you.’
He just mumbles so I try to cheer him up by going, ‘Do you play for a team? You should ye know.’
‘I do sir,’ he says, ‘the school team.’ He smiles proudly at his new revelation and turns to look out the window, into the condensation and the streaks of water. The noise from the back row rises.
‘S-s-sir,’ he says after a while, still looking out the window.
He grimaces as he struggles with a question. His lips pout and he turns to me.
‘Wh-why do I haveta wear the grey jersey?’
‘I don’t get ye.’
The bus bounces on a pothole. Loud cheers fill the back.
‘The top I w-wear. Wh-why do I haveta wear it? Everyone else like, wears the purple n white jerseys.’
More cheers down the back. I stand up and peer down at them. I spot someone standing on the seat and give a roar.
I return to Kembo. His eyes are open wide, waiting on my reply.
‘Cause yer the keeper—you have to wear a different colour jersey.’
He tuts and shrugs and frowns as if I’ve disappointed him. He looks again to the window and goes, ‘Then I don’t wanna be a keeper.’
‘Ye see Kembo, you’re different from the rest cause you can handle the ball—the referee needs to see who’s the keeper so you have to wear a different colour jersey. Yer made to be a keeper. It’s the most important position.’
‘Oh,’ he says, letting my words wash over him. It’s a slow acknowledgement that lasts until his breath dies away. He falls back into his seat, sighing slightly, and runs his fingers down the glass. The raindrops shoot across the pane and split into separate strands. Water surges forward in the rubber grooves at the bottom of the window.
Some time later he says, ‘Sir?’ and I turn to him, getting tired of his calling, but giving him a chance since he played so well.
He continues to look out the window. Silence.
‘Em, nothing,’ he says, shaking his head.
I know there’s something, but don’t respond or press him and turn back to my own thoughts. Then, again, it comes.
And again I turn and say, ‘Yes, Kembo,’ and this time he does go on.
‘Me mama doesn’t like me playin football an stuff.’
Never saw this coming.
‘Sh-she thinks I’m just doin it to miss class like, and sh-she says I don’t even, like I’m no good so I should stay in school an, an not miss class cause it’d be bad for stuff. So—so this is like, sh-she doesn’t know like. I can’t play after this.’
I blow out a short breath to give myself some time. I can’t lose him too. We’d be finished without him. I’d lose all the potential half days. I need those breaks.
‘Ye know what I was thinking,’ I say.
‘Mmmhh?’ he says, still looking out the window.
‘Captain, don’t we need a captain.’
He comes away from the middle distance and turns his head to me, lifting it up as if to say ‘Go on.’
‘How would ye feel if I made you captain?’
His cheeks lift. His eyes smile.
‘Yeah. You’d never not be part of the team then would ye? And yer ma couldn’t say you weren’t any good then, could she?’
His bottom lip comes out and he shrugs. The bus growls and lumbers around a corner.
‘Go up for the toss, and lead the team and everything.’
‘Would I get my thingy, my picture in the paper an stuff?’
‘If we do well, yeah, defo.’
He nods to himself as if it’s sorted.
I call them from the front of the bus, over the laughing and the engine, the wind and the rain. The driver turns the radio down.
‘Lads,’ I say, ‘well done today. Great game. Great game.’
‘Right. I’ve decided on a captain.’
A few of them jump up and offer their services. The others laugh.
‘Okay, sit down. I thought our defence was brilliant today—the whole back four and the keeper.’
‘The black four…’ Abdel shouts, and they all burst out laughing.
Kembo appears beside me.
‘Don’t say that. T-t-that’s stupid.’
‘But it isn’t,’ Abdel says, shaking his head, ‘me and Kembo an Nifemi an Jordi are all black—we’re the black four.’ More laughter.
‘Wha abou me?’ JJ says, his white face popping up from behind a headrest, ‘I’m not black and I’m a defender.’
‘The back four were excellent,’ I say, ignoring it, ‘and I thought Kembo in particular was excellent and led by example—so he’s our new captain.’
The windscreen wiper squeals as it crosses over. Brows go deep and there’s mutters; a Mexican wave of disgruntled tuts spread from the back seat up. Whispers and secret looks follow. The engine struggles up a hill and I go to say something but Kembo goes, ‘Ih-if I’m your captain we’ll win—an we’ll beat the Community College.’
A voice, hidden behind a headrest goes, ‘That’s g-g-great,’ and little sniggers swallow up the joke.
‘Enough,’ I shout and go, ‘so for the next game—Kembo’s captain. Okay?’ Mumbles. ‘Okay?’ More mumbles. I leave it at that.
They leave the bus quietly, the buzz of winning drained away. I pat each of them on the shoulder as they go and say, ‘Well done.’ They don’t respond. Their mess, crisps and cans mixed with brown water and feet marks, remain.
Kembo is waiting for me at the school gates, his bag over his head, sheltering from the rain. He puts out his hand.
‘Let me take one of your bags, Sir,’ he says.
‘No way. You’ve done enough today. Go on home—go on. You’ll get sapped.’
The last thing I want’s a hug or something. Can’t be too careful.
He shakes his head, the bag swaying from side to side, and takes the kit bag. I shift the bag with all of the bibs and footballs on my shoulder and we walk away from the gate, down the slope, past the misty pitch beside the gym and into the empty school. I ask him to leave the bag inside the main door and shake his hand and say thanks and well done and move away from him. He nods, a new seriousness on his face, the water dripping from his nose. He stretches his lips and looks into the distance, just like on the bus, makes to move, stops and then moves towards me. He looks troubled.
‘Go on ye mad thing,’ I say, making light of the new awkwardness.
He doesn’t move.
His kit bag is his school bag. It drips on the tiles when he spins it.
‘Do ye want me to pass something on to the Guidance Counsellor?’
I hope he doesn’t. I wanna catch my train. He looks at me, finally, with a new determination. I think of that punch.
‘Can you write…’
‘Course I can write.’
He smiles and chuckles to himself, ‘No, can you write me a letter?’
‘Okay, cool. For what?’
‘My mama w-w-wants me to get a letter from the school and stuff like, to say that I’m a good s-student. I need it like. We need ih like, to show we’re like doin well.’
‘A letter. Cool.’
‘For immigration like. They need proof an stuff. Is that okay, Sir?’
‘No problem. Good man.’
I pat his shoulder and feel his damp jacket. I think of the two of us at the door. His face.
Still there’s no mention of it. Will there ever be? I wonder if he’s holding it over me, for a time when I say no to him, a time that could’ve been today.
He opens the door and puts the school bag over his head but then takes it away and strolls out into the rain, easily, as if the clouds have disappeared and the gloom has been lifted.
Even though I grew up in this town, I don’t know it anymore. The train station is a three minute walk from the school—I know, I’ve timed it. My eyes only see the ticket machine, the beach behind the station, the path from the station, the road beside the school, Supervalu across the road from the school, and the big wooden hoarding,
remnants of once-started, still-not-finished ‘summer works’ that hide the school from the town like a dirty secret.
There’s a problem with walking though. The school has one main entrance. The entrance beside the pitch, the entrance all the cars take, and the students walk through, is the only entrance. The problem with this entrance is that it’s on the opposite side of the school to the train station. So I have this key, to unlock a mad thick padlock, hooked onto a heavy chain, which is hooked onto a bolt that is set deep in the wooden builder’s hoarding that encloses the front of this side of the school.
Everything, according to my da, has changed in the town. But I don’t see any of this change around the beach.
‘I suppose,’ he says, peering up past me, making sure the road is clear before he pulls out, ‘the beach seems grand in passing, son. I mean, to the untrained eye.’
I’m in the passenger seat of me da’s car. Giving him a hand with something.
‘Well, the lighthouse and the harbour look good. They’ve been done up, haven’t they?’
The train station backs up onto the beach. Looks out across the sand, out to the sea, and if I stare hard enough, I can see my parents’ estate, on a hill, up and away from the lighthouse and the harbour.
‘The beach is the face of the town, son,’ my da says, we’re moving now, ‘they’ve got to keep that tidy. They should do something about the knackers drinking down there though. It’s not safe.’
‘Yeah?’ I try to sound interested.
‘It’s not right,’ he says. I don’t think he even heard my question. ‘Knackers. Scumbags. The whole lot o’ them,’ he shakes his head, indicates, changes gear. ‘I mean gone’s the time meself and your mother used walk along the promenade and down into the sand, and sure, there’s gangs of young lads now.’
He nods, a rueful nod, his lips pressed.
‘But sure it’s that end of the town, son. You must see it yerself. They can’t build where we are—thank God—cause of the beach and all that, the cliffs, although Eddie Byrne says they’ve tried for planning permission for the sailors’ cottages and what not. But they won’t get that. Too much corrosion and weather damage to the cliffs. But, by Jesus, they’ve built everywhere they could—and they’re still building where they can down your end.’
He grimaces, as if I’ve asked a silly question. Never had any patience.
‘Your end—the opposite end—your school end. Have ye not gone for a walkabout up there? Have ye no interest? Jesus, it’s like Beirut.’
‘Really?’ I say, just so he doesn’t think I’m not interested. He looks at me out the side of his eyes, ‘Sure why would ye care, you live in town, this town means nothing
to ye. All ye did was get reared here. Sure what’s the town ye grew up in to the likes of you. But let me tell ye, son, it’s a sad day the day ye forget where ye grew up—d’ye hear me? Don’t forget where ye grew up, where your family’s from, where ye teach, where yer childhood friends live, where your parents’ friends live, and drink.’
I sigh and feel embarrassed for something I can’t quite put my finger on. It feels like I’ve one of those redners I could never get rid of when I was a teenager. Shame and anger with something elusive. Fair play, Da. Been a while.
‘I don’t forget where I’m from. Sure how could I?’ I say, ‘how far away is Hopper’s house from here da? I’ve got to get a train.’
We’ve passed the station. It’s half four.
‘I suppose the train’s costing ye too,’ he goes, ignoring the question, ‘I don’t see why ye can’t live here in town, the community, be part of it son. How’s the town meant to hold itself together if there’s no sense of community anymore?’
He stares ahead, at the road, but into it too, into some other place I can’t see. He glances at me and frowns like he’s battling with something. His eyebrows dig deep, ‘Just, son, pride. All I’m askin is ye take some pride in your work—where ye work, and where yer from. Don’t forget you’re representing your parents, son, when ye work up there.’
‘Why ye sayin this, Da?’ I say, losing patience, ‘what’ve ye heard?’
We stop at traffic lights. The air coming from the heaters, clearing the windscreen, blows between us.
‘I’m just sayin. People do be sayin things too, ye know.’
I shake my head.
‘People say things, son. Ye know this place as well as I do. Ye fart at the church and they have ye soilin yer pants again the story reaches the canal.’
He breathes a heavy sigh, indicates, and we move onto the main street, the old main street; the ‘For Let’ signs and the African hairdressers—two in a row—the ‘Afro Caribbean’ restaurant above the boarded-up pub me and Jen met in, the dry cleaners where the IRA had their headquarters in 1920 when Lawless and Gibbons were stabbed to death by the Tans, two ‘Cash for Gold’ joints facing each other across the main road—one-stop shops for all the thieves in the area—the shell of a Tesco, waiting on a new shopping centre to be completed up the far end of the town—a mall of the future—before it closes. We pass the school, the hoardings, the door, my main-street entrance, and keep on going. We pass the council estate on our right, the cop shop on our left, into an estate I used to drink in when I was sixteen. But we’re on a new road, a big major road type thing, and the estate I used to drink in, the fields we’d hide the booze in, are gone and we’re driving on, heading towards what looks like a new town. What I once knew ends after the first roundabout and what were once fields are vast estates. We drive through the narrow streets, like old medieval village
paths or something, and I begin to see the new town my da’s been talking about, complaining about. A playground, houses with no gardens. No garden walls to chat over, no porches, no space. Just doors and cars up on kerbs. Where once there must’ve been white paint shining from the buildings, there’s a yellowy type of grime. That’s what you get when you have tenants, not owners. They’re never going to go out and paint something that’s not theirs. The people on the path, at the doors, in the green Puntos passing us, are mostly foreign—mostly black.
We keep driving. My father just lets me take it all in. It’s too much. Not the spectacle, but the buildings. There’s a cramped kind of feeling as if the houses were thrown up, on top of each other, dumped there, just so they didn’t have to go somewhere else and deface a nicer town. After a few more turns and a few more groans from my da, we reach what must be the centre of this new collection of roads.
A pub, a supermarket, a Chinese, dry cleaners, café, pizza joint, chipper, newsagent’s, beauty salon and a hairdresser’s. It’s not like a new town up here. It is a new town up here. Free and independent of the place where I grew up.
‘Ye see, son,’ my da says, finally coming out of his silence, ‘this is what we’re up against now.’
I don’t know who the ‘we’ is and who they’re ‘up against’. I just nod.
‘Don’t forget where ye come from.’
‘I won’t, Da. I don’t.’
‘That end of the town,’ he says and nods back, to his left, back to where we’ve come from, ‘remember your own.’
He sniffles, checks his sides and moves off, ‘Yer own. Remember who to look out for in the school. People talk. Again you’ve done something for someone, there’ll be two that’ll be sayin you did something against them and be bad mouthin ye to those that’ll listen.’
‘Who’s sayin what, Da?’ I say, wishing he’d just get to the point. But that’s how he works. He speaks while his head slowly shakes, ‘Just people,’ he says, ‘don’t forget where yer from—that’s all. People down our end talk, son.’
‘Talk about what, Da?’
He nods to a black man passing by.
‘Oh,’ I say.
‘Just, look after yer own,’ he says and turns on the radio to some drive-time show and we leave the unnecessary turns and long-winded tour of the town and return to the main street.
We arrive at Hopper’s house and I see the ladder lying in the long grass of his front garden and hope we can get this done quickly, loaded, tied up and be ready to go in
five. My train’s in fifteen minutes.
‘Isn’t it well for some,’ Hopper says nodding at me, but talking to my da, ‘I wish I had the free time our lad has here.’
‘I see you’re off today, Hopper,’ I say and me da looks at me all annoyed. Hopper hasn’t worked in years.
‘How’s he getting on below?’ Hopper says, obviously talking about me, but facing me da, as if he’s the expert. They exchange a sly glance. The question is loaded with some other meaning I’m obviously not clued in on.
‘Grand,’ me da says and then, from the porch, a figure comes out, still and subdued.
‘Ah, Andrew,’ my da goes, ‘Jesus, you’re getting bigger every time I see you. What year ye in now?’
‘Fourth,’ I say.
My da looks at me and smiles, ‘Don’t tell me you have this monster, Andrew, have ye?’
Andrew nods a bashful nod. ‘English,’ he says. It’s weird seeing him without his two cronies: The Droogs.
‘Oh, he has him alright,’ Hopper says, lifting up the ladder, ‘my Andrew could tell ye some stories. Hates the place—but sure—the goings on up there I wouldn’t blame him.’
And there’s that look again, from Hopper to me da to Andrew. An unspoken look of acknowledgement, as if I’m missing out on something, not part of the gang. In fairness though, I’m glad. Whatever gang they’re in, I don’t want to be part of it.
Andrew brushes past me into the garden, where himself, Hopper and me da pick up the ladder and bring it to the trailer at the back of me da’s car.
‘D’ye need a hand?’ I shout after them, wondering why I was even brought.
My da struggles with the ladder but looks up briefly and says, ‘No, son, you stay there and watch us. Sure Andrew is here to help, thank God.’ So I stand there like a tool and watch while they work away without me.
‘You playin ball at all?’ me da goes.
‘No,’ Andrew says, all eyes on the ladder, ‘couldn’t even make the school team and they were short a goalkeeper an all. They’ve all sorts playin for them now, even captain.’
‘Yeah?’ my da goes and looks to me. There it is. I’m about to say, ‘You’re too old for the team, Andrew,’ but don’t bother. I know the conversation’s not about him.