First featured at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
The streetlights blinked on. A tangerine glow lit up the mist and we kept playing fitba, barging into cars, bouncing the ball off wheels and crawling under engines when it got stuck. Schoolbags marked the goalposts. Time was running out. Forgotten the score so next goal wins.
Maws appeared on doorsteps.
One by one the fitba players went home. Dinner was ready. Homework was waiting.
Me and Ralf stayed out. One-on-one. For the world heavyweight championship of fitba. Taking it in turns to run at each other, scraping elbows, scuffing trousers, out of breath. Next goal wins.
A striped car pulled into the street and blinded us. The doors opened. We looked at each other. Two polis wandered over.
‘Right lads. That’s enough. Ye cannae play fitba here anymair.’
‘But this is oor street.’
‘There’s fields nearby for ye to play at.’
‘But we’re no allowed over the fields at night.’
‘There must be somewhere mair handy.’
‘Mair handy? That’s ma hoose right there. It couldnae be mair handy.’
‘Well ye’ll have to find someplace else. There’s been a complaint. Ye’ll damage the cars.’
‘Doesnae matter. Ye just cannae play fitba in the street anymair, right?’
I scuffed my feet.
The polis went away. Me and Ralf turned and looked at the back-lit curtains at number 362. My next door neighbours, Mr and Mrs Donaldson. Been there fifty years. Everyone knew them.
Grumpy old buggers.
With the street off-limit we played round the corner, at the lock-ups. Kicking the fitba against the wall, one-a-touch. Doof, doof, doof. Kicking it harder and harder, sending it further and further away, into a bush, down the hill, making the next shot impossible. Streetlights clicked on. Move it, hurry.
Maws. Meals. Maths. Ralf and me stayed out. One-on-one. For the world heavyweight championship of one-a-touch. Battering the ball against the bricks. Running, running. Out of breath. One shot caught the corner of the wall and skewed off and away up the street, taking a big bounce, glinting in the streetlight, and landed in the garden of number 362. Our next door neighbours. Mr and Mrs Donaldson. Grumpy old buggers.
They took good care of their garden. It wasn’t like ours, strewn with bikes and balls and mud. They had a flowerbed. And a birdhouse. And a fucking apple tree right in the middle. Ornaments everywhere. An army of gnomes.
We stood and looked. Didn’t want them to see us.
‘Go get it’, hissed Ralf.
‘You go get it,’ hissed me.
The light came on behind the door of number 362. Mrs Donaldson appeared on the step in her baffies. She glared into the dusk. We hid. She hobbled into the garden and picked up the ball. I thought she was going to throw it back out. But no. Took it into the house.
‘That’s it,’ said Ralf. ‘Old bugger’ll pop it with a knife.’
‘Aye.’ This was common knowledge. Some houses if you asked nice you’d get your ball back. But at number 362 they sliced up balls and ate them for dinner.
Ralf scratched his ear. ‘I’m away hame.’
If you’ve not got a fitba you play chap-door-run. It’s as easy as it sounds. Go up to a door. Chap it. Run. Repeat. Not at the same door though.
We terrorised the street. We were ninjas. Knock knock, open door, whoosh, can’t see me pal. Ding dong, hello? zzzip I’m gone.
We moved from street to street, touring the scheme, clattering letterboxes, moving in a pack. The whole gang out together, untouchable, as the sky darkened, and then –
Streetlights. Maws. ‘Marky!Calum!Liam!Andy!’ But me and Ralf stayed out. One-on-one. For the world heavyweight championship of chap-door-run. Knuckling doors and pounding pavements and leaping garden gates. Daring one another to do scarier and scarier families. The minks. The gangsters. The ones with the St Bernard. The scoutleader. The postman. Eejit’s in his bed already.
‘I dare ye,’ said Ralf, ‘to do number 362.’
‘No way,’ said me. ‘They’re my next door neighbours.’
‘And I’ll get in trouble.’
Ralf started clucking and flapping his wings. So I had to do it.
The gate at number 362 creaked. It had a spring action that closed so I couldn’t leave it open for a clear getaway. I’d need to hurdle it. The lights in the living room were on. Grumpy old bastards watching telly. Probably got my burst ball framed on the wall. I crept past the gnomes. Imagined they’d installed CCTV in the wee gnome heads. I spat at one of the gnomes and it still smiled.
I crawled army-style alongside the flowerbed. Smelled the petals in my nose. Like perfume. Yuck. There was an apple in the path that had fallen from the tree. I banged my elbow on it. Smushed it into the concrete. Burst my fitba ya buggers.
It went like this:
Run run run
That bloody apple
The world’s upside down
Bogging wee gnome’s smiling at me
I’ll break your bloody face
I landed on the top of my head in the middle of the garden path.
I wake up. The light’s soft. There’s the smell of food cooking. Mrs Donaldson’s there with a glass of water and a cold flannel.
‘Are ye okay son?’
‘That’s some bang on yer heid.’
‘What happened to ye?’
‘Were ye coming to get yer fitba back? I gave it to yer maw yesterday but she said she was hiding it from ye.’
‘We’re just having some soup. Want some soup?’
She brings the soup on a tray. Stuffs a cushion behind me on the couch. In the corner, Mr Donaldson is in an armchair. He’s very quiet. I get my soup. Pour on salt and pepper to make it taste of something. Mrs Donaldson smiles. She wheels a bag of water hanging from a pole on a trolley over to her husband. He coughs. She pats his hand. Pulls back a plaster from his old skin and goes to stab something in. I don’t look. I stare at my soup. Mrs Donaldson pads away. Gets her own soup. Mr Donaldson sits there watching us eat. The liquid in the pouch next to him bubbles gently.
Mr Donaldson speaks with a soft, husky voice. I see how scrawny his neck and arms are.
‘Seen ye playing fitba out in the street, son. Ye’re a good wee player.’
‘Looking forward to summer?’
‘Me too. I like the warm weather. Know what I fancy doing? In the middle of the summer, I’m gonnae have a barbecue. Sausages, burgers, steak. Beer. I’ll invite the whole street. And we’ll stay up all night.’ He coughed. ‘What d’ye think, hen?’
Mrs Donaldson wiped soup from her mouth. ‘Aye. We’ll see.’