I’d squeezed through the gap in the iron railings, I’d heard the shouts, and then saw there was a game on the gravel park. I no longer played, was too old. Standing under a tree to shelter from the winter rain and blustery wind, I didn’t think I knew any of the players, and I wasn’t for hanging about. Then I spotted Pieman on the half turn, done the tall defender like a kipper, and getting a shot away. He didn’t score, the ball flashing past the post. The opposition keeper ducked under the bar of the railings at the side of Singer’s Park, and squelching through the grass to get the ball. Pieman was about a head shorter than me, with a damp flame of red hair and he carried a bit of paunch in his polyester green football top, even though we’d not long left Secondary school. His older brother was in the same team as him, although I didn’t know him, he’d the same stamp of stout build, puce face, walnut coloured eyes and ginger hair. I figured the other lads in the team were also from Whitecrook, although I didn’t recognise any of them. They were playing on my home turf.
The jannie used to line it with sawdust stored in the boiler room below St. Stephen’s school gym and teachers’ staffroom. Sometimes he’d let us help him. A dot of sawdust for the centre circle. A dot for each penalty spot. The jannie would follow the faint outline of lines, dropping sawdust two dauds for each step. Following the outline from post to post, the goal line was straightforward. Gravel was the astroturf of our day, games were hardly ever off, when it rained day after day the pitch soaked it up and, finally, softened enough to take a stud. Little tributaries formed and came together in a giant puddle behind the goal post nearest the school.
They’d been flat posts painted a greenish wood-preserver colour when I’d started school. Inevitably, with school boy heroics and Roy of the Rovers centre-forwards claiming hat-trick after hat-trick that snapped the crossbar by shooting too hard. Cast-iron, rounded posts replaced them. Teachers stood in as refs. They had to guess whether the ball had went into the net, or not, because there was no nets. They were saved for cup finals, or important matches. No games ended in a boring 0—0 draw.
Even playing headie kicks in the sheds outside the disued toilets, two against two other pupils, was a must win. Pulling on the hooped Celtic strip made us feel we’d made it. We even hard green garters to hold up our white socks. But no player from either team wore shin guards. Jimmy Johnstone showed the way, socks to his ankles, as he dribbled on mud fields past the enemy as if dancing in his living room.
I hung about until the referee blew his whistle and when the players were jogging off to get changed.
‘Pieman,’ I shouted, cut across and slapped him on the back.
He wiped his hand on his shorts before we shook hands. ‘Easily, man of the match,’ I said.
‘Cheers mate.’ His face glowed and showed he was chuffed. He jogged to catch up with his teammates at the gate that took them back into the school. Norrie McGlinchie had lost a couple of toes after his foot had got caught in it, but he still played football. And, years later, there were still no showers, or anywhere to wash. Teams put there outdoor clothes on over their mucky bodies.
Gravel marks tattooed your body. My legs were always bleeding after a game. A slide tackle ripped the skin from your bum to above the knee. I kicked with my right foot and tackled with my right leg, so my right knee would be cut and, if I was unlucky, my left knee too. And watery blood and grit would stick to your denims when you pulled them on—and off. My mum had grimaced when she saw the mess, then she got the scrubbing brush and rattled it across the wounds. After that it was my job, a mark of honour. I learned to do it quickly and not think about it hurting. Within a day, a crusty scab would form a little island waiting for the next game for it to be scrubbed away. It was far more difficult getting hot water with two older sisters in our house.
I’d gained a few pounds and my hair was at war with my head and making the slow retreat towards my ears. I was back, the old cliché of reliving my youth, playing on gravel parks with a pub team in a Saturday morning league. After the game we went back to the pub to get drunk. The Club Bar had changed its name to The Horse and Barge. We used to nip in before the Guild disco and the barmaids would gather all the slops in a glass and serve it to us for 30p a pint. We didn’t have taste buds then—we necked it. But prices had almost quadrupled. We were all broke and Scottish poll tax dodgers now. Stagnant water still sluiced the toilet wall and stunk of years of shit and decay. Toilet roll was only for poof’s pubs. And the walls in the bar were brown with fag smoke, which you could peel off with a fingernail. Old guys sat at the bar nursing pints and halves of whisky. We were higher up and crowded around a haze of smoke at the pool table, when Pieman barrelled in the side doors. Sinead O’Connor on the Jukebox blaring, Nothing Compares 2 U drowned out.
‘Ya bunch of fucking wanks. ’ His face flushed, the same colour as when he’d played football all those years ago.
I pushed a knee into on the cushion to turn and get a better view. Looked past his shoulder, waiting for someone else to appear. Backup from Terry Ross and the Whitecrook team. The Berlin Wall had fallen, but nothing much had changed in Clydebank. But I thought they were coming to wreck the place for protection money in the spirit of Thatcherism and private enterprise.
‘Alright Pieman,’ I nodded towards the bar. ‘You want a beer?’
I soft-shuffled down the stairs to meet him and we stood at the bar and had a couple of pints.
‘Whit was that about?’ I asked him.
‘You’ve got to show them.’
‘Those wanks!’ he pushed his chest out, a cockerel waiting for a match, before his gaze snapped back to the drink in front of him and his eyes drowned in it.
‘Right,’ I laughed. He’d been bevvying earlier and he’d be alright when he went up the road for a sleep.
I hadn’t seen him since then. We’d the intermission of the Orkney sex abuse scandal in the news. And Ravenscraig shutting for the last time. There was talk of a rescue package—there always is. There was talk about attacking the police station after police marksman had shot and killed Pieman. Terry told me that the police no longer entered Whitecrook. I didn’t enter Whitecrook either, so it didn’t really bother me.
Now, I understand better. Pieman had a gun and he wasn’t for giving it up. The police were all wankers. All he wanted to do was visit his girlfriend, up the close near the Park Bar he’d been drink in, and they weren’t letting him. Back then Terry said if the police had let him speak to him, he’d have told him to put the gun down and that would have been that. Or if the police had let his mum or sister through the cordon, they would have got the gun off him. They’d tried but failed to let them talk to him.
There’d been a standoff in the close. We don’t really know what happened next, who said what. I’m sure if I got to look at the police log of events, it would be a black and white judgement—fully justified.