Sometimes I blamed Hughie Gringo. That’s what one of my uncles, Jeff, used to call him, when we watched ‘Opportunity Knocks’. Every week Hughie would look at us with one big saucer shaped eye and one little pea eye and he’d ‘most sincerely' us viewers at home…'because it’s your vote that counts’. But I didn’t vote, because we didn’t have a phone. And even if mum let me I wouldn’t have voted. I’d have just kept the 2p for a packet of Variety caramels and said to her that I did.
Mum never really listened, and was always looking at something else just behind my left shoulder, so wouldn’t know. She was too tired at night, with her long splay-toed talcum feet up on our good fake tan orange couch, with burn holes, where she had dropped her fags, jerking awake and falling asleep, jerking awake and falling asleep. The burning smell sometimes woke her and she’d look at me, her eyelashes drunken spider’s feet tied together, all blue- bleary- eyed, as if I was a stranger and it was my fault. I kept an eye on her and a campaign eye on the telly as my battalions of plastic cowboys and Indians marched up and down the rug in front of the single bar of the electrical fire. One of the Indians was funny looking. His head had fallen against the element. His green plastic rectangle feet were unaffected; ready to ski down the slope between the metal bars of the fire, to spring his trap on a cowpoke below, whose rifle was pointing and shooting the wrong way, into the dark of the living room behind me. I tried to be fair, because the cowboys had guns and the Indians only had bows and arrows, the funny looking Indian was allowed a flame thrower. Similarly, mum’s vote didn’t count on the Opportunity Knocks, but mine counted double, because I bagged hers. And I was right. I knew who the winner would be. It was always Neil Reid.
Hughie Gringo would have his hand on Neil’s shoulder, ready to tell us that he’d won again, and that he was ‘all the way from up there in bonny Scotland,’ which wasn’t far. It was right there outside the living room window, but sometimes when the wind blew really hard and moved the curtains it was also inside.
Neil Reid looked a bit like Marie Docherty, only Marie had longer hair and a face like boiled potato trying to smile, but she didn’t get to be on TV. Maybe that was why Hughie Gringo thought that people in Scotland wore kilts, because Neil Reid wore one and so did Marie Docherty. Nobody else did, apart from Mrs Izzy, but she was old and didn’t count.
Neil Reid got to sing at the beginning of the show because he won, because he always won. It was always the same song and was number 1 on the radio. He didn’t even need the words. He’d sung it that many times that he knew it off by heart. He’d look at the camera, and he’d look at me, and his-and Marie Docherty’s- thick lips would open and a grown man’s voice would lash out: ‘Mother of mine, you’ve gave me love,’ and a tear would appear on cue, rolling down his hamster cheeks, at the end, ‘Mother sweet mother of mine.’ I looked at my sleeping beauty of a mother and I cried too, but nobody could see me, because I wasn’t on telly. I wondered, just wondered, not that I ever would, of course, if I could sing as well as Neil if I wore a kilt and practiced really hard to sound like Marie Docherty. Hughie Gringo would shake his head up and down, at the end of the show, as if he was a boxing champ that had just went the full 15 rounds, and he’d thank ‘the folks; you the viewer,’ and he’d try on his devilish half grin and shake his head at all the funny things that us, the viewers, had been up to. The camera would pick him up, in his best presenter’s charcoal suit and he’d lean down towards the show’s winner for that week. We didn’t hear what he said to Neil, but I was sure it was I’ll see you again next week and the following week and forever, until Neil was as old as Hughie Gringo.
There wasn’t much on after that, apart from documentaries. Mum said that when I was tired I should just go to my bed, but I didn’t like to. I liked to snuggle in beside her on the couch. Sometimes she’d fling an arm over me. Other times I had to burrow underneath her on the couch to get a heat and pull at her arm, gently, so as not to waken her up, and bury myself with her. Sometimes the expensive French perfume that Uncle Archie had bought her, would rub onto me, so that I could smell her even when she wasn’t there.
I’d cut out all the photos of players from the Celtic team and pinned them up on my bedroom wall, so that they could look at me until I fell asleep. But the windows banged and the street lamp outside swayed one way and another in the wind and cut my room in half- darkness and half-light; a lighthouse beam, that pickled my head and I had to hide under the blankets and away from the ghosts.
Mum was usually too tired to get up with me for school. All I needed to do was pull on the clothes I’d worn the day before and make sure I'd brushed the snaggleteeth out of my brown bush hair. Mum said I wasn’t to make toast because all the old congealed fat inside the grill would go on fire with and that it was too dangerous, and besides, we’d ran out of margarine. She left my black cowboy hat on the table beside the Cornflakes box, which meant the milk had gone sour and I was to eat them raw like a cowboy with a spreading of sugar.
There was nothing on the telly apart from the test card, a girl sitting at a blackboard looking at you, with gooey music, but that was better than nothing. I could prop myself up on mum’s chair and imagine it was the summer time when there was always stuff on. Some of them were repeats that I’d only seen a few times before. There was a programme, The Flashing Blade, which was like Zorro, only their flashing teeth didn’t seem to match up with what they were saying, but that was ok, because they were always jumping on horses to go somewhere fast. I wished I’d a horse, or even a dog. Then there was Skippy the bush kangaroo. That was on the other side. I had to turn the TV dial and the picture wasn’t very good. I guessed that Australia must have been a very dangerous place to live. Skippy was always involved in bush fires and he would need to use his little clicking kangaroo language to alert Tommy the ranger, so that they could both escape. Sometime the ranger had a helicopter, but Skippy didn’t bother with all that rigmarole, he’d just bounce away into the bush and he’d spring back for the next episode.
I didn’t like turning the radio on in the mornings, because it was always Neil Reid singing ‘mother sweet mother of mine,’ and that just wasn’t the same as watching it on Hughie Gringo’s show. I just messed about until it was time to go to school.
There was a long way and a short way to school. If I went the long way it took me about ten minutes, but that was too easy. I took the short cut, which was over a wee hedge, down the grass slippery- slope and the tricky part was slithering under the chain link fence at the bottom. When it was really wet or snowing sometimes I was unlucky and fell on my bum and slid the whole way, like an ice-lolly coming out of the wrapper. My shorts would be soaking and I’d need to put my bum against the radiator on school to dry them out a bit. That didn’t happen as much now that I was no longer in infant school.
I quite liked my teacher Mrs Fairlie because she’d tawny brown hair and wasn’t very good at the belt. It was still sore when she gave you two of the strap, for talking in class, which I was always doing, but I’d grin at my best mate Jordie, who sat in the desk beside me, as if it wasn’t. The swish of Mrs Fairlie as she leaned across the desk, fingering her glasses to see if they were still on her owl eyes, to correct something in my jotter was like a breath of niceness. And I liked the fact that her sparkly brown eyes would crinkle and she’d look straight at you, as if you were the centre of the world, and when she spoke to you she’d often put a warm hand on your shoulder. Sometimes I thought she’d make a good mum, but she was probably too fat and not allowed.
In the afternoon we always had SRA. It was quite straightforward. You took a card and read a story. That was my favourite part. I loved stories. To keep Mrs Fairlie happy, you had to answer some questions about the story, by marking down a,b,c or, d- in your blue exercise jotter. When you finished you raced back to the SRA box and looked at the correct answers. If you were really smart and wanted to save time, you’d get both cards in one visit. That meant that you were smarter and had more time to look out the window onto the playground and wait for the bell to go. Sometimes I never wanted school to end.
Mrs Fairlie’s voice was soft and soothing as a cotton wool cloud, when she asked, ‘Are you finished Ross?’
I couldn’t answer because I saw mum in the playground, when she should have been at home, resting herself with one of my uncles. Mum said that I should watch myself; keep my mouth from dropping open to keep the flies out. She had never been to my school, Our Lady of Lorretto, not even on my first day. She said it was good for me going myself, that it would make me a man.
Mr Steel, the headmaster, was in the playground with mum. He had her wrist firmly grasped in his own, handcuffed to him, as they took one baby step after another across the playground. He tried to make himself taller by having a bald head and wearing pin striped suits, but next to my mum he looked like a garden gnome, supporting a stork. Even from that distance I could see mum’s smiling bright eyes and her half hatched clothing, pulled on this way and that, and covering nothing much, with her boobies showing. Her head was turning like a daftie crossing the road, or looking sideways for heaven. I looked away when Mr Steel rapped on the classroom door and pulled mum into the space between Mrs Fairlie’s desk and the collage of papier-mâché daffodils on the wall behind her.
Mum’s bright red lipstick held her mouth together. She attempts to break away from Mr Steel, but he kept a warden like grip on her arm, so that she bounced back the way she’d come.
‘I dreamt you’d been killed son.’ Mum’s voice was groggy with need, the words filling the space between us, as she swayed and bumped against Mr Steel.
We stumbled on, my school bag knocking against mum’s long shaved legs, as we took the long way home.