We had been playing football on the field for most of the day when Bumper was called in for his tea. It had been a great game, and everyone had turned out in full kit. Bumper in his Ipswich Town replica strip, Elvis in his Liverpool one and me in what my parents had told me was the Sunderland goalkeeper’s strip. It was in fact, just a green T-shirt and a pair of black football shorts, but I was convinced.
Whilst I sported the goalkeeper’s strip, Elvis still played in goal due to his broken leg.
He asked if I wanted to go to his for tea and I accepted. I quite enjoyed my little conversations with Mrs Morris and looked forward to one day meeting her husband. Mrs Morris occasionally invited me for tea. I think she was glad that Elvis had a friend and she had long since forgiven me for Elvis’ broken leg.
She didn’t know about the Skip. We could chat about most things, school, television; well, we could chat about those two. The one thing Mrs Morris and I could not agree on was currants. She loved them I hated them. She made fruit cakes, currant buns. I think she would have made currant sandwiches if she could get away with it. This was a difference of opinion that no amount of arbitration would solve, so in order not to upset my mate’s mother I did what any polite young boy would do. I accepted the cakes gratefully and when Mrs Morris wasn’t looking, I picked out the currants and put them in my pocket.
Elvis’ mother had owned the budgie for about five years now. It was called Chirpy and lived in a cage in Mrs Morris’ sitting room. I was never one for pets so couldn’t see the point in having a noisy, brightly coloured bunch of feathers stuck in the corner of your room. At night, to ensure that the budgie went to sleep, Mrs Morris placed a blanket over the cage. For me, they could leave it on all day to stop it from annoying us when we were at Elvis’ house.
As usual, after some polite conversation and a couple of beef paste sandwiches, Mrs Morris produced the fruitcake. I accepted politely and when she went back to the kitchen I picked out the currants. I went to put them in my pockets then I realised. I didn’t have any! I was wearing my new football shorts instead of my school ones that normally masqueraded as football kit. I began to panic. Where could I put them? Mrs Morris would think I was a madman if I announced that I didn’t like currants after I had been accepting her fruitcake for the past two years.
Then I remembered Chirpy. I had seen a few nature programmes on the television. If I was honest, they had bored me senseless, but if I had learnt one thing from David Attenborough, it was that little birds like berries.
Mrs Morris was still pottering about in the kitchen and Elvis was lying on the floor watching Blue Peter. I sidled up to the budgie’s cage and stuck a sprinkling of currants through the bars. Chirpy seemed to like them and whilst I wasn’t a pet lover I was happy to be giving a treat to my little feathered friend.
I settled down to watch Blue Peter with Elvis as his mother went over to the corner shop. When the programme finished Elvis asked if I wanted a glass of orange.
I used the opportunity to see if Chirpy had eaten all the dried fruit. The sight I encountered when I got to the cage came as a bit of a shock. Chirpy had indeed eaten all his currants, however instead of perching on his perch, as budgies do, he was lying flat on his back with his feet sticking straight up in the air.
I knew this couldn’t be my fault. I had seen Wildlife on One. What was I going to tell Mrs Morris?
Elvis hobbled back from the kitchen carrying two glasses of orange and holding his crutch under his left armpit. He handed one of the glasses to me.
“Thanks, four eyes.”
“I said thanks, binocular face.”
“Who do you think you’re calling?” He was going red in the face.
“You, you four eyed peg leg.” After I said this I knew what was coming.
Elvis lifted his crutch and swung it at me. I ducked, and the crutch crashed into the budgie’s cage.
“You’ve killed Chirpy,” I said without looking around.
“Look. Chirpy’s dead.”
As it dawned on Elvis he hobbled frantically over to the cage. We both looked in and Chirpy was indeed dead.
“What am I going to tell my mam?”
“We’ll say he died in his sleep. Put the blanket over his cage and say he wanted an early night. She’ll find him tomorrow and she won’t suspect anything.” I had it all worked out.
“Promise me you won’t say anything to my mam?” Elvis was horrified.
“It’s our secret.” I knew that this made us even. Elvis had saved my life at the Skip. I had now saved his. It was never mentioned again.
There were two playgrounds at St Christopher’s. Originally, they were to separate the Infants and Juniors however since the school had grown, the Infants had moved further down the road. There was the main playground that we tended to use, and the smaller playground was generally unused. This was apart from the presence of Kevin Davison and his associates.
The larger playground was surrounded on three sides by grass and on the fourth was the school. The main playing field was at one end whilst the other two pieces of grass were little more than verges leading to the fence of St Patrick’s Senior school. Every playtime and lunchtime we used to play football along the full length of the yard.
On more than one occasion the ball went flying over the fence into St Patrick’s and would need to be retrieved by whoever had put it there, unless it was a goal. Then it was the goalkeeper’s fault and he had to get it. There were two ways of getting the ball back. The first was to go to the staff room and ask for the key to the gate leading to St Patrick’s. This was a risky business depending on which teacher answered the staff room door. This sometimes resulted in the ball being confiscated for the rest of the day. It was to be avoided if at all possible.
The second was even more dangerous although it was ultimately quicker and more likely to gain respect amongst your peers.
There was a small ditch that ran along the length of the fence. I have never been sure of its purpose however it was the ideal size for a little boy to duck under the fence, reminiscent of somebody out of the Great Escape, and retrieve the ball. If caught, not only would the ball be confiscated, but you were in serious trouble. And if Mr Rowcroft caught you, it didn’t bear thinking about.
This particular game had been going on for nearly the whole lunch hour. It was a special one for me as I was wearing my new anorak. It was split into two diagonal halves, one red and one blue. It had a racing car on the left-hand side and was finished off with a red hood. As I had never owned a real replica football strip, I had convinced myself that this was a match for the Barcelona strip. I was now Johan Cruyff.
Inspired by my new persona, I had already scored ten goals and set up another four. Using a fair bit of wing wizardry on the right I played in the perfect low cross for Bumper to finish. I had never been confident of Bumper’s skills as a goal poacher and my fears were realised when he spooned the ball high over the imaginary crossbar and into the neighbouring field.
“I’ll go and get the key,” said Bumper.
“We haven’t got time,” I said.
I knew that if we didn’t get the key in time, or worse still if the ball was confiscated, the game would be abandoned as a draw. We had a commanding lead and I didn’t want to give it up.
“You’ll have to go under the fence.”
“You’re joking. How do you think I’m getting under there?” He was right. Someone of Bumper’s size was never going to fit.
“Okay then, I’ll go. Create cover for me and I’ll go under.”
They formed a crowd that blocked the view from the staff room window. To offer encouragement they all whistled the theme tune to The Great Escape and shuffled about as if emptying soil from their shorts’ pockets. I was no longer Johan Cruyff. I was Steve McQueen. I rolled down the bank and straight into the ditch and went to get out at the other side.
I couldn’t move.
I was paralysed.
“Little shit alert,” Mr Rowcroft said as he sipped his tar like coffee.
“What’s that?” said Mrs Matthews as they both looked out into the yard.
“Barry’s spooned the ball over the fence again. He’s got to be the worst footballer I’ve ever seen. He’ll be coming in here for that bloody key again.”
“We should get him his own one cut,” said Mrs Matthews. “He’s in here more than I am.”
“What ishe doing?” Bumper was now shuffling about with his hands in his pockets. “He looks like he’s wet himself.”
“If he has, all his friends have as well. Look at them.”
All the teachers were crowded around the window now.
“Go on, Bob. Your turn to go out.”
Bob Rowcroft absent-mindedly picked up the hammer he had been using to repair the bookshelf as he headed for the door.
“I’m going to kill the little bugger.”
As much as I tried to move, I couldn’t. I was lying face down in the ditch unable to move the top half of my body. Had I been shot? The whistling stopped. Whilst I couldn’t see properly, I could feel the crowd move away.
Then it went cold and dark.
“What are you doing down there, Wood?” said a loud, booming voice. I recognised it instantly. I was in the shadow of Mr Rowcroft.
With hindsight I realise that a group of lads, who had been happily playing football no more than two minutes ago, shuffling around and whistling as if they had invented some new low-key dance was likely to arouse suspicion.
Mr Rowcroft had a fearsome reputation. He was known to beat kids to within an inch of their lives with whatever he could lay his hands on. Trainers, large wooden rulers, football boots. It was even rumoured that he had hit Kevin Davison with his running spikes although this had never been confirmed. Did he now have a gun? Was it Mr Rowcroft that had shot me? I had held the record as being one of the only boys in the school never to have been attacked by him; I knew my time had come to an end.
Then I was free, Mr Rowcroft un-snagged my hood from the bottom of the fence. I wasn’t paralysed.
As I was marched across the playground back towards the school, all the lads bowed their heads not wanting to make eye contact with Rowcroft. Bumper did begin to whistle the Great Escape theme again, but a sharp clip to the back of his head soon put an end to it. He was joining me on the trek back to school.
Now I have no idea why a Primary school teacher would have a hammer in his hand, but it certainly added to the tension in Mr Rowcroft’s classroom.
“What do you think I am going to do to you both?” he said.
I went for the obvious answer. “Hit us with the hammer?”
He grinned. Bumper didn’t.
“No, not this time. You and Barry are now banned from the large playground for one week. You, for being stupid enough to think that you could get under the fence without me knowing and your friend here,” he said pointing the hammer at Bumper, “for being such a bad player that he should never be allowed near a football again.”
As we left Mr Rowcroft’s classroom we were both relieved.
“A week in the small playground?” said Bumper. “Can’t be that bad? I thought we were definitely getting the hammer.”
“Me too.” We both laughed.
Then Bumper went white. “The small playground.”
For afternoon break Mr Rowcroft had found some chores for Bumper and me. This was great as it delayed our meeting with Kevin Davison. At least it gave us time to say goodbye to our parents.
“I’m not well,” I said.
“I don’t care. You’re going to school.”
My mam had no heart. I was genuinely sick. Sick with worry. A few doors away Bumper was playing out the same scene with his mam, with similar results.
We met at the top of the street and headed to school. Nobody said much. Elvis and Gilbert knew what we were thinking. I’m not sure what was said in assembly that morning or in Mrs Matthews’ lesson. When the bell rang for first break we knew it was time.
“Good luck,” said Elvis. Shaking my hand knowing that he might not see me again.
“You’ve been a good friend. One of the best,” I said.
“I wish I could take your place.”
It was a nice sentiment, but I knew he didn’t mean it. Bumper and I met at the classroom door and walked downstairs together.
“Take one of these. It might make it easier,” I said as I handed Bumper a prayer card that I had stolen from Mrs Matthews’ desk. It was of St Christopher, they all had been. He was the patron Saint of travellers, it would have to do. He offered me one of his last two Cola Cubes.
The sun blazed down on us as we walked out of the side door and into the yard. It was a lot more compact than the other one and had no grass surrounding it. The school was on two sides. There was a hedge at one end that cut off the view to the road. The hedge then went around the corner, only broken by the path to the caretaker’s house. At the far end of the privet was a path leading to the main yard and playing field. We checked out our escape routes.
The yard was empty at this stage. Davison was probably committing a murder or something on his way to the playground. We headed for the far corner where we thought we were safest. We waited for about five minutes without speaking and then the unmistakable figure of Kevin Davison emerged from the school. He had three henchmen with him and made a beeline to us. I fingered the prayer card in my pocket.
“What are you doing in my yard?” he said.
“We’re banned from the main playground,” said Bumper.
I had chosen not to say anything at the risk of upsetting someone.
“You two? What for?”
Suddenly ducking under a fence didn’t seem so dangerous. I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
“It was either this or the hammer from Rowcroft.” Bumper avoided the question brilliantly.
“The hammer?” They were impressed. “He’s never got me with the hammer before. You must have really upset him.”
Kev was laughing. I think we were safe.
“Fancy a tab?” Kev offered us a cigarette from a box of ten.
“No thanks I said. They stunt your growth.” I tried a joke as I was beginning to feel comfortable. I regretted it instantly when I realised that he was no taller than me.
“Whatever,” he said, not appearing to be insulted. Before Kev could light his cigarette, I noticed Mr Rowcroft approaching.
“Rowcroft,” I said. Alerting him to the danger.
“Quick, grab these. I’ll get them off you later.” He handed me the cigarettes and the matches. I shoved them in my pockets as Mr Rowcroft approached.
“You’re not smoking again are you, Davison?”
“No Sir,” he said. Sounding quite offended at the accusation.
“Empty your pockets.”
Kev emptied his pockets to show nothing more than a handful of loose coins and a key.
“And your friends.” I was in serious trouble now. I had gone from being star pupil one day to being destined to a life of crime. Not only was I banished to the small playground, but I had also befriended a known criminal and I was now a smoker. My descent into criminality had been rapid.
“You two go and play elsewhere. This lot are nothing but trouble.”
Mr Rowcroft had let us off the hook. Bumper and I didn’t need a second invitation and ran to the other end of the playground. We spent the rest of the break using Kev’s matches to set light to sweet wrappers under the bush in front of the caretaker’s house. A surprisingly rewarding experience we found. We ambled back to the school when the bell rang relieved at how painless the whole experience had been. Kev was waiting inside.
“Thanks lads. You saved my skin out there.”
“No problem,” I said as I discreetly handed over his cigarettes and remaining matches.
“See you later.”
We had gained a very powerful friend.
The blue flashing lights of a fire engine always caused excitement for schoolchildren, today was no different. We all rushed to the window as Mrs Matthews fought to contain us. It came as a great surprise to me to find flames leaping from the caretaker’s bush. I looked at Bumper and felt a knot form in my stomach.
We eventually went back to class, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was waiting for the knock on the door to take me away.
It was a relief when the bell for dinnertime went and we headed to the canteen. It also came as a great surprise when we arrived there to see Kevin Davison being loaded into the back of a police car in the car park.
We were even more relieved when we were told that he had been searched again and was found to have matches on him.
We’d got away with it… for now.
After the caretaker’s fire we didn’t see Kevin Davison again for the rest of term. Bumper and I were restored to the main playground and everything went back to normal. We had a brief brush with the criminal underworld. It had been exciting, but neither of us wanted to go back.
Elvis had his plaster removed however his leg hadn’t healed and he still walked using a crutch.
That summer, whilst he made the odd foray up field as a running goalie, he became a bit of a legend in between the sticks.
Our last few weeks at St Christopher’s had been quite eventful, but we were all looking forward to starting St Patrick’s.
I had come top of the school in the end of year exams and was quite proud of myself. It looked like Elvis, Bumper and I would all be in the top stream in St Patrick’s. Gilbert unfortunately would not, although he had managed to avoid going to the special school over the road.
Kevin Davison, fortunately for us, had not been so lucky.
The next chapter will be released soon. If you can’t wait, Leg It is available on Kindle, Paperback and Hardback.