He sits at the back of the class. The teacher’s blurred voice distant, as if talking in the school’s echoing corridor, or in some distant swimming baths. Teachers suspect drugs. Everyone leaves a force field around him as if touching him will shrivel them. He attends school most days but has not been there for years. His fingernails are filled with dirt and his uniform hangs on a by a thread. His brown eyes and black hair suggest a mediterrian background he has never considered. He once created interest and pity, but now he is too far away everyone agrees. In the staff room there is a grumbling agreement: there, but never really there.
The boy leaves school alone. His too big jacket hammocks from him as his belly ruptures over his too tight trousers. Black shoes and socks reveal gaping holes. No one tags along beside him. School is forgotten as he trundles to the shop. He buys crisps and a can of lemonade. Coins clatter in his top pocket. He is served with a mannered indifference. The shop keeper does not like this fat boy. He is unaware of this. The boy aims to eat, sleep. The rest is permafrost.
He is shocked when his mother shouts, ‘James’. He doesn’t think it’s him. He is genuinely surprised that someone knows his name. He doesn’t find that strange. Doesn’t say. His mother examines him as she has not seen him for weeks. She is busy with her new boyfriend who stands in a blur outside the bar, his cigarette weaving from his long arms. She holds her son for a moment and places money in his top pocket. She knows where he keeps his money. That’s one thing she does know about him. She asks him to smile for her boyfriend. He forms a smile as if slowly making concrete. The man walks toward him and takes his mother without speaking. They topple off together; her heels clack on the pavement as he walks home eating crisps that stick to his full lips. Soon he can’t picture his mother.
He does not have a front door key. He clambers over the back wall and likes to listen as the key scrapes in the barrel. The old man sits by the fire and doesn’t raise his head as the boy enters. They don’t speak. The old man’s head is lost to the fire that crackles with the wood he places carefully as if it were a child. They appear golden as the flames rise. This is their moment. The old man should not be here but he has nowhere else to go. He came dragging a heavy suit case and the boy pointed to what was going to be his mother’s bedroom and that was it. They play with silence. It is an instrument they love. They create other noises: the scraping of the old man’s shoes across the bare floor, the smacking of the old man’s hands when the wood runs out for the fire. They sit. Old man and boy. Happy with their silence.
The old man has slipped off everyone’s register. His family have forgotten him. One son moved away. Wife dead. Daughter lost to him. She died young. Doesn’t want to think about that. He doesn’t.
Night cuts in. The boy now wears a battered track suit. One of his mother’s boyfriends gave it to him. He can’t recall his name or face. One of the many, somebody once said. He doesn’t want to think about that so doesn’t.
The old man shuffles to bed, turns and looks at the boy in the track suit and nods his head. The boy notices this. They know one and the others’ every movement. Silence they learn to live with and the looks and movement which have become a new kind of vocabulary. Like the stars. There and distant but understandable.
On the boy’s birthday the mother turned up. She kept a taxi running as she gave him a card and a present she didn’t have time to wrap. At the banging of the front door the old man headed to the bedroom.
His mother looked at nothing. She gave him money from her bulging purse. The boy remembered later that the purse was red.
When the new boyfriend came into the room their drink dressed breath polluted the air. They began to sing happy birthday until they remembered the taxi and ran from the flat without saying goodbye, without ending the song.
They left him and the old man with happy silence. The old man looked out at the boy’s mother falling into the taxi and spat into the fire; decided to speak. Later.
The boy stopped going to school. The address in the schools’ records was four or five rented flats ago. His mother’s mobile seven ago. Authorities decided they had left the area. A rubber stamp made that claim.
The old man and boy began a new regime. There had never been order in the boy’s life. He took it every day as it came. His father, he recalled, was tall and dark but that might have been another of his mother’s boyfriends. ‘He left years ago’, is all his mother ever said. She drank. Flirted. Had late nights. Moved from rented flat to rented flat. He supposed this was routine. He had been to six or seven schools. Liked no school better than any other.
Old man and boy got up early. Bought food. Not just crisps and bread and lemonade. Food that wasn’t in a packet. The cooker began to be used. The old man showed the boy how to cook. They would begin by washing their hands. The old man pointed to the boy’s fingernails and said they should be clean. This was new to the boy.
They began to tidy the house. Bought a brush and shovel, cleared the dog and cat shit from the back yard. Filled the dustbin with the dirt that had gathered in the living room. The boy began to notice change. The old man began to be cleaner and so did the boy.
Nights were for stories. The old man and boy sat either side of the fire. The old man had not really spoken for years. He knew he had to do one thing. Let the boy see. Show him there was more to life than the litany of failure the boy had endured. A sense of duty was something the old man was remembering. Running was something the old man remembered and there was no pain.
When Roger Bannister broke the four minute barrier I thought I could do the same. I could run and get away from everything I didn’t like or understand. A father that hit you before speaking. A mother that wanted to be young forever. The stories of running began every night. The boy liked to hear the same stories. They had gone to the library and the boy became a member for the first time.
They read about Herb Elliott and his coach Percy Cerutty. The boy began to run in his dreams. He told the old man. He said that’s how it begins but you must remember when you run in the real world, what you begin you must not stop. You have a duty to yourself and to running. You must be like a holy man. Work hard every day. The boy did not answer, he didn’t understand. One morning as he and the old man walked to the green market where they bought all their vegetables he caught his reflection in a shop window. He was a thin boy with an old man.
His mother banged on the door. Screamed into their front room. Her boyfriend had beaten her up and said he no longer loved her. She smelt of dried perspiration and stale drink. She threw herself on the floor. When her mobile rang the boy answered. It was the boyfriend. He was in a taxi on his way to pick her up. He told his mother and she ran to the toilet and re-appeared minutes later smiling and handed the boy one hundred pounds, ‘for crisps and stuff’. Then she ran out the door as the taxi reversed and left. She never said goodbye.
The old man took the one hundred pounds and laid it on the table. It remained there all night. The next day the boy told the old man he had to go somewhere. The old man nodded his worried head. The money was gone.
The old man carried out their daily routine alone: green market, butchers. He began their meal.
The boy returned at twelve. Placed the shopping bags on the table. They ate their meal before opening the bags. He produced a pair of training shoes, track suit and vest. For the first time in his life something had begun.
Tom Kelly © 2010