The school nurse’s grey hair resembles an unkempt blackbird’s nest, with a pokey wee white hat stranded on it. She has squeezed into her white uniform, but overflows the moulded seat of the grey polyester chair facing Tony. She frowns as she carefully reads the note from Mrs Thompson, his teacher, absentmindedly, hitting the tarnished gold button on the ashtray on the table, a gap swallows her menthol cigarette and leaves smoke lingering. The chair scrapes as she stands and comes towards him. No window and an absence of natural light, she pinches his school jersey at the shoulder and drags him across to where the electric light hangs on a cord from the ceiling. The cupboard-sized room stinks like it’s dipped in Vicks Nose Rub and is perched on top of the school. A calor-gas heater hisses, and brightly coloured posters climb the wooden green panels of the walls, promising all kinds of dangers. It is too warm for his liking, sweat runs down his forehead with hurrying. Her glasses are twin telly screens hiding hazel coloured eyes, glinting on the fleshy part of her bulbous nose, squinting, scanning and magnifying the everyday world and examining follicles of hair. Small hands, bony fingers, dragging his scalp, and parting it into hedges for beasties to leap over. She takes an involuntary step backwards, knocking her bum against the desk, and the digits on her fingers grow kind. He feels rather than sees a fine tooth comb plying its trade, paying particular attention to the places around his ears. For some reason she has him tilt his head and examines red shiny skin, the itch under the hair at the back of his neck.
‘Let me see your hands.’
Her thumb and forefinger encircle his wrist and uncurl his fingers. She leans forward peering at the red flesh around his badly bitten nails. He is aware that he is sweating too much. Thin lips, no lipstick coating on the sigh that escapes. Index finger and middle finger, tap onto the base of his thumb and wrist. She studies the upside-down numbers on the upside down watch pinned to the lapel above the shelf of breasts like a medal.
‘Right,’ she seems satisfied, takes off her specs and rubs her eye. ‘Kick off your wellies, will you?’ She wrestles the seat away from the desk to encourage him, and yawns, her hand over her mouth.
He does as he’s told. His feet are creeping things best hidden inside the stink of rubber. What makes it worse is no socks to cover his shame. His head falls into his chest and he glances sideways as she gawps at them, noting skin discoloured, black stretches on long white bones like indian ink and graffiti.
‘Stand over there,’ she points, to a place on the runway of linoleum near the door. He sticks his wellies back on. When she is sure he’s not going to bolt she sits down behind the desk. Turning and reaching to a shelf behind her head she reaches for lined paper and a shatterproof ruler. She pulls open a drawer in her desk and a biro appears in her hand.
He watches her writing, taking off her glasses and rubbing her eyes. She licks the brown envelopes, sealing them shut by pressing down with the ruler. She holds them out for him to take.
‘One is for Mrs Thompson, your teacher,’ she tells him, her voice like a typewriter, ‘explaining your absence. You’ve not to go back to class. You’ve to go home.’ She gives him a second, letting that thought settle in. ‘The other letter is for your mum, advising her to take you to the chemists—a’
‘I’ve no’ got a mum,’ he cuts in.
‘Right,’ she says, proceeding more cautiously, and her tone softening. ‘Give the letter to your dad. It tells him what kind of head-lice powder to get, or shampoo and soap. But don’t worry, the chemist will be able to advice you.’ She scratches at the back of her head, but stops when he sees him watching her.
‘Where is it, you stay again?’ She makes it sound like a throwaway remark.
‘726 Dumbarton Road.’
‘And what landing is that?’
‘The top.’ Tony feels proud that he’s remembered, as if he’s passed an exam.
‘Will there by anybody in if I send you home now?’
‘Aye, my Da.’
‘What’s his name, again?’
‘OK then,’ she jots that down in a lined pad and waves him away. ‘Mind and give him that letter. It’s very important. And give the other letter to your teacher. Don’t forget!’
‘I need to go back for my jacket anyway.’
She looks down at her paperwork when he leaves, his feet trailing. A bit of him is glad, but a bit of him mad, because it’s reading and English and SRA in the afternoon, which he likes.
‘Go and play with your own mates,’ Pizza Face says to Angela. ‘Some wee lassies. Skipping ropes, or something. We’re sick of you following us about.’
‘I’ve no’ got any.’ She stands shivering, wind and drizzle funneling into the close from the backcourts, where they are standing, arms pressed into her body to keep warm, with no jacket on.
‘Besides, they don’t like me.’
‘Jesus,’ says Pizza Face and gives up.
Tony and Pizza Face are bent forward examining what is inside a Bluebell matches box Stigg is holding. He’s a boy with a giant quiff, a bit older than them that lives a few closes away, and is trendy because he wears platform shoes.
‘Whit is it?’ Angela presses in among them, looking up at their faces.
‘It’s a pet spider,’ says Tony.
‘Whit does it dae? she asks.
‘Nuffin’, says Pizza Face, ‘you just feed it flies and stuff. It’s pretty cool.’
‘I want to see,’ she demands. But nobody moves to let her into their group.
‘Ow!’ screeches Tony. He looks down at Angela, and smacks her on the head. ‘No biting. That’s the kind of thing babies do.’
Stigg closes the matchbox because the spider is trying to stray and as a precautionary measure against it getting stolen.
‘I want to see!’ She stamps her foot.
‘Oh, for fuck sake, let her see,’ says Pizza Face. ‘Then maybe we’ll get rid of her.’
Stigg takes his lead from Pizza Face. He steps forward and crouches down to Angela’s height, holding the matchbox up at her nose and using his index finger to pull the lid half open. Tony and Pizza Face crowd in behind him. A spider’s leg waves like a tentacle in the light. Angela gawps at it, then up at the stern white faces surrounding her.
‘That’s rubbish.’ She bats the matchstick box out of his hand. It falls, bounces onto its side and skitters into the damp mire of paving stones, falling open. The spider makes its escape. Before Stigg can recapture the spider, Angela stomps on the spider and then the matchbox.
‘You’re a cruel wee bastard,’ says Stigg, pushing her on the shoulder.
Stigg didn’t see, but felt the punch in the side of his cheek. The next punch catches him on his big nose, making it bleed and run with mucus and snotters. He grapples with Tony, holding him off. A punch to the back of his head from Pizza Face and he almost loses his feet. Stigg lets go of Tony’s flapping arms and hands, wiping away tears, running away from them and back to his own close.
‘Whit did you dae that for?’ Pizza Face asks Tony.
‘He started it, didn’t he.’
Pizza Face shrugs. ‘Suppose so.’