by Alistair Lawrie
His leg still hurt. He tried placing his stick down earlier as a cushion and rounded the high walled corner at the top of Mid Street only to stumble into the back of a boy his own age who had stepped out into the pavement, arms waving and giggling as he told some story.
“Mind oot for the cripple,” said the bigger boy behind him and Billy’s heart sank as he realised it was Big Tocher and that the sallow pock marked face turning towards him was Powser Bruce. Another bulkier figure, an older boy, lounged against the Wee School wall looking down the hill and out to sea. His well worn black leather jacket gleamed in the cold Spring sunshine.
“Watch far the fuck you’re gaan,” said Powser.
Billy put his leg down hard to keep from falling and winced.
“Aah, the poor wee lamb. Is’t sair?” said Tocher.
Powser laughed and made as if to kick Billy.
“At’s richt, Powser. Show’s fit a hard bastard ye are. See if it’s jist a bittie sair or nae.”
“If at slimy bastard kicks me I’ll tak iss stick aff his heid.” Billy had said it before he could even think about it. The silence that followed was broken by another voice.
“Fit if I did it, loon?”
The heavy set older boy, no, man, was looking round, greasy black hair flopping down over his eyes. He flicked it back with a shake of his head and carried on staring at Billy, a cool icy stare where the faded blue of his eyes both seemed to contain and be contemplating some distant sea. Billy recognised him - Jimmer Watt – and met his eyes. Said, shakily.
“I’d try til.”
Jimmer’s eyes narrowed momentarily then returned to their usual cool blue gaze that looked right through him as he said, “Ye’re a Towie, are ye?”
Powser burst in squeaky with excitement. “Fit does it maitter fa he is, Jimmer? He’s naebody. Let’s sort him oot, you an Tocher an me an we’ll …” And only gradually realised his mistake as Jimmer turned with lizard like slowness to say, “Tocher, I dinna ken fit wye ye pit up wi that wee shite but iffen he opens his moo again I’ll brak baith his legs, an yours.”
He turned to Billy.
“Your dydie crewed wi mine fin he was a loon. On the Persever? Am I richt?”
“Fit if he did?”
He continued to look hard into Billy’s eyes until it started to become uncomfortable. Then said, “Aye, and nodded sharply, looking back out to sea as he added, “If ye’re half the man he is ye’ll dae aaricht.”
Billy stood for a minute watching Jimmer’s back, his long deep black hair catching on the collar of his leather jacket then, realising he was dismissed, stepped carefully round the outside of the group and set off down Mid Street to his granda’s house. Painfully conscious of three sets of eyes behind him he tried very hard not to hobble.
As he stepped back on to the flat granite kerb, he stumbled as he heard Jimmer say softly, “Fit’s your name, loon?”
He didn’t break his step nor look around despite the pause that lengthened behind him. Kept on hobbling. Silence continued. And then.
“Weel, loon. Nae doot I’ll be seein ye aroon. See ye later … Bittie.”
Even then he didn’t stop walking, although the name hung heavily in the heat around his shoulders. A challenge or an insult or what? He knew the potential significance of the naming. Was it good or bad? He might have it for life.
Still puzzling over what had just happened, he went straight in.
The old man looked up at Billy as he came slowly into the room carefully trying not to limp. As he eased himself on to an armchair the pressure on his forearms spasmed a muscle across his bruised ribs, causing him to wince momentarily at the pain. Billy looked up into the steady grey eyes that seemed as always to be appraising him. When the old man spoke it was quietly.
“Is it sair, loon?”
Billy shrugged dismissively. “A bittie.” And then felt acutely conscious of a pair of icily grey eyes gazing levelly at him, scrutinising, contemplating. He met the gaze briefly then dropped his eyes to stare inconsequentially at his hands, the floor, the dusty guddle of cardboard boxes and old hessian bags in the dark alcove under the sink. At the point when they seemed to be gaining a significance that was beyond their ability to sustain, and wondering what the deepening silence meant, Billy raised his eyes and returned the stare. It was still some time before the old man finally spoke and, when he did, it was in a slow half whispering voice that commanded attention. “I min eence fan we were near a day’s sail aff Peterheid and aa o a sudden we were in a storm…” As he spoke, his tones rose in intensity and his manner became animated as if he were addressing a hall full of listeners and, as usual, Billy was caught up in the narrative’s surge and flow like the fishing boat itself, rocked and tossed and rolling on the bulging spraying swells only to fall crashing into the cavernous mouth of the next trough. And the next. And the next. He could feel the strain on the boat’s timbers as the jaws of each successive wave clamped wetly round and over and through the boat, spume flying wildly everywhere, the timbers creaking and crackling and screeching at the strain. His hands seemed to be holding fast to ice cold rails, taking the strain too. He felt, could even taste, the water running down his face, combing through his hair; even his gansey under its waxed cotton cape was soaking. He could hear the wind’s howl even as he felt it seize and tug his clothing with a mindlessly brutal, uncalculatingly lethal ferocity. But even in the midst of all that tugging, through the old man’s almost incantatory words, he could hear another tearing rasping shrieking noise as if the boat was splitting in two as the mast uprooted itself and fell in a spray of bent nails, great jagged wood splinters, a darker shadow in the storm’s darkness, down upon him down straight through his arm put up to shield him down to roll across his side and disappear into the cold grey sea spume.
For a time, everything seemed still. At peace. And then, just as the sea’s backswash insinuated itself under the cape and made to float his peaceful body off the deck, a hand grasped his and hauled. The pain that racked through his ribs, his leg, his arm, even his jaw, floated him into a dimly conscious painless state from where he heard and saw but didn’t feel, as if he were some kind of disembodied observer of events. He knew the voices somehow but couldn’t have said how or who they were.
“Gweed be here. Iss man’s half deid.”
“We canna leave him here. Can we move him intil the wheelhoos?”
“Naa. Nae chance o that. Look at his leg. There’s nae doot at’s broken and see far i mast’s catcht him. Er’ll be broken ribs or waur in er. Naa, we canna move him.”
“Tak some o at line and we’ll tie him tae the rail and tae yon winch. At’ll hae tae dee tae get him haim.”
And so Billy listened as the old man’s sibilant voice drew him through the whole of the tale. Through twenty four hours of storm and slopping seawater, foul and salty in his mouth, each lurch and roll of the boat sending spasms of agony shooting throughout his legs, his chest, his face, until he became submerged in a kind of distant semi consciousness of constant pain. All the way to harbour where further discussion of the height of the pier resulted in him being tied to a hoist and board and agonisingly raised to the harbour’s edge where a fish barrow was rattled bumping with him in it over the cobblestones to the Cottage Hospital and oblivion at last.
Billy was so caught up in the rattling and bumping pain of the story that he sat on staring long after the old man had finished speaking. Open mouthed, he looked up to where the old man sat, perched forward on his chair, still there himself in that storm of years ago. “An wis’t sair?” he asked.
The old man’s eyes glinted suddenly at him as he raised his head. “Aye. A bittie,” he said.↑