Tony is lying in bed sleeping. It’s a Saturday, no school, and a long lie. But he hears his Da arguing with Geordie the milkman outside the front door.
‘For God sake Geordie,’ Dermot says, ‘I just paid you last week and now you’re wantin’ mair money?’
‘Aye, you paid me, but that was four weeks ago, and that’s…
‘I can show you the book, I wouldnae fiddle yeh!’
‘Well, I cannae only gee you half the now. And you’ll need to come back for the rest.’ His Da’s feet pass the room door, heading into the living room, trailing slower than a pall bearer coming back. He hears the cling of coins. ‘There you go.’
‘One mair thing. I’ll need to cancel yeh, I can get the milk in the morning myself.’ Da gives one last shout of defiance. ‘It’s cheaper in the Kippen Dairy.’
The door shuts and feet scurry down the stairs in the close. Da slouches past into the living room, waiting for him to get up, or something else to happen. Tony turns over in bed and wills himself to sleep. But with little or no money, life can quickly turns its back on you. Tony has given up on his shoes and wears wellies to school now regardless of the weather. Even Pizza Face has sannies for gym and doesn’t need to go barefoot. His school clothes had reached a new level of embarrassment, much more than the reddy of getting a free dinner ticket. Colours are so fragile they merge into unwashed grey, stained like pigeon poop. And his duffle coat is too small and has lost all but one toggle. His Da is worse. He’s shrunk, either stoshus drunk or tries to return to normal things, like a sick man slinking out of a graveyard. Tony knows about being sick, his Ma unspooling cough by cough in front of his eyes. It tutored him in grief and pain. It taught him about dying. But it’s too late to get back to sleep. Tony trails through to the living room.
His Da is waiting for him and to light the fire. No need for the metal guard, an ornament in the ingle neuk. Flames no longer leap. Even coal is rationed. Breakfast an empty place. Speechless. Tony chomping Cornflakes and wishing its late enough for something, anything, but the Test Card on the telly. His Da sits in old work clothes, unshaven, nursing a Woodbine, overflowing ashtray beside his chair, reading form in yesterday’s paper, in case he gets lucky and makes a bet on a four-legged horse and not a three-legged. Tony retreats to his room to re-read his fairy book, waiting until it’s time for The Flashing Blade serial on telly. He fancies himself a bit of a swashbuckling swordsman, practices some dash and some sword moves, all he needs is a horse.
When the door chaps, they both know who it is. Angela has taken to calling in whenever she’s nowhere better to go. She likes watching Saturday-morning BBC programmes with Tony, sitting on his knee on one of the armchairs, bouncing up and down matching the action on the screen with her screams. He answers the door before his Da.
Angela’s chatter, even in bare feet and nightdress, brightens up the morning. ‘Jaz says he’s goin’ to buy me a dog. A wee puppy.’
‘That’ll be chocolate,’ say Tony.
‘Aye, he is.’ She grabs onto his pyjama leg and tugs. ‘An Alsatian. And I’ve to walk it and feed it and train it - and everything.’
Tony covers his mouth as he yawns. She follows him through to the living room.
‘Hi pet,’ Da says when he sees her. He lets the Daily Record fall into the side of the chair, gives her a real, not counterfeit smile, bends over and kisses her on the cheek. ‘How are you?’ His tone is of mock solemnity.
Angela rattles on again about getting a dog and how great it will be. The rooms warm and his Da is listening but not listening. Tony tunes the telly in, waiting for the dot onscreen to become something more real than wavy line and echoic voices. Turning the dials until magic happens and other people, happy people, are in the room with them. Sometimes it’s a film, usually Lassie the dog, rescuing some poor boy that is stranded and in terrible danger. Tony bats the top of the telly and twists the aerial, backing away to see if the picture has shifted into watchability.
‘Where are you goin’ to get this dog from?’ asks Dermot.
‘My Da’s getting it.’ Angela’s face is defenceless, with no guile.
Ash falls from Da’s half-smoked fag onto the floor and he half chokes on the smoke, sits up straighter. ‘Your da?’
Tony whips round. ‘Jaz isnae your da.’ The telly is tuned in and Lassie barks a warning.
‘Aye he is,’ she says in a hissy fit. ‘He says he is now, because he lives with my Ma. And I’ve got to dae whit I’m telt.’
‘Fat chance of that,’ says Tony. But it’s no great surprize to him. Although he’s tried to avoid him, he’s spotted Jaz, going in and out the close. And noticed that he used a key for next door. Jaz’s left eye at first was bruised like a fried egg and his right eye like road-junction sign, but now he seems back to his normal swagger and dagger eyes.
Da stubs out his fag before he gets up from the chair with a sigh. He runs the water in the sink before brushing his teeth and gargling with salt. He runs his fingertips over the stubble on his chin and decides not to shave.
Tony and Angela have colonised his seat, sucked the warmth of the chair and made it their own. What is happening on the telly is their new life and they’re living it, images more real than real, jump out at them.
‘Just nipping out,’ says Da, his step firmer.
‘Aye,’ says Tony, knowing what that means.