school photos 72
‘Aye, I remember that well. Your mum always got her own way.’ John covered his mouth with his hand as he yawned. He grunted, his fingers winding behind his neck and stretching his chest and diaphragm he stood up. ‘Well, I’m a stranger in a strange world and that’s for sure. Music waits to be heard. Books wait to be read. And ghost are wailing that they’re not dead. There’s no use endlessly yakking about it.’ He enjoyed watching the growing disbelief in Jack’s face. ‘Let’s go.’
Jack scrambled out of the seat. ‘Where to?’
The boy shook his head and smirked at the Crombie coat John pulled out of the hall cupboard and put on. John had an old pair of gardening boots with steel toecaps, underneath the phone-table near the front door, he used Jack as a balancing post as he slipped them on. ‘Right, that’s us set.’
Outside rain droplets spangled the pavement and road with water sequins. ‘It’s no’ snow, but it’ll need to dae.’ John’s coat protected him from the worst of it. Jack’s leather jacket hung heavier on his shoulders. They walked close together. John stood for a few second at the shortcut, the young man at his elbow, he let his eyes wander over the changes wrought over the years: a tarmac pathway, where there used to be long grass and muck and clay; concrete slabs of stairs, leading down to Shakespeare Avenue, with a wooden fence backing onto the houses below. ‘This used to be all overgrown,’ John explained. ‘At one time I searched about here for my wee sister’s body. Needless to say I didnae find it.’
The revelation embarrassed him. John clattered down the stairs, the boy behind him. The rain eased and the sun came out from behind some clouds. ‘Shite. We didnae want that.’ He gripped onto Jack’s arm. Fir trees planted close together and trimmed horizontal at the top acted as a screen, preventing them looking along the street below. ‘This is where I first saw Lily,’ his voice had an edge to it, ‘the weather was terrible, deep snow. This is the coat I was wearing. I walk down this way every day to see if I can see her again.’ They kept walking, the double-storey houses, whitewashed boxes reflecting light against grey sky. John squinted. ‘Can you see anything?’
The grip on Jack’s arm tightened and the growing excitement made him squeal. ‘I see the same little girl I’ve seen countless number of times. Her name’s Ally.’
‘Where is she?’
‘Over there.’ Jack walked ahead, sure in his step.
‘I cannae see her.’ John sounded disappointed. He tugged at Jack’s sleeve to slow him down. ‘Whit does she look like?’
‘School uniform, blond hair.’
‘Hing on.’ John put his arm across the boy’s chest, stopping him from going any further. ‘You seen a picture of my missing sister?’
‘No.’ The boy was unflustered. Behind him a crow took off from the flat rooftop and cleared its throat with cawing.
‘Whit colour of anorak is she wearing?’
Jack looked down the street and then back at John’s face. ‘She’s wearing a bluish anorak and a school blazer is poking out beneath it.’ He turned back towards John. ‘That’s a trick question.’ He began to sing a French nursery rhyme, to the tune of Ba Ba Black Sheep, changing the words slightly, ‘Brother John, Brother John, where are you? Where are you?’
The recitation bushwhacked John. He crouched low, as if he was going to be sick, and locked his fingers round his knees to keep his balance. ‘How do you know these things?’
‘I just do. I can’t really explain it. Part of them is part of me and part of you too
’‘Can you tell her I love her?’
‘You can tell her yourself. She’s just over there.’ Jack beckoned with his head in the direction of a hedge. ‘But you better hurry. Any time I get close— ’
He broke away from John, as if scattering pigeons, dashing the last few yards. But rather than scamper away the girl stayed put. Waiting for them. She held her hand out for him to take her hand.
‘Where is she noo?’ John scuttled to the side of Jack, his eyes scanning the hedgerow.
‘She’s here. I’ve got her by the hand.’
John bent down and peered, but he couldn’t see her. He reached out to the side of Jack, patted the air around the hedgerow, but felt nothing. ‘Ask her whit happened that day?’
Jack spoke to Allison. ‘She can hear you, just as well as I can hear you and she said you look really old.’
John laughed. ‘That sounds about right.’
Jack cocked his head, listened to what Allison said and repeated it. ‘She said you’ve to take her hand and she’ll show you what happened.’
‘I would, but I cannae see her hand. I cannae see any part of her. I cannae feel any part of her. Ask her if mum’s alright?’
‘Come round this side and take her hand and ask her yourself,’ Jack swivelled sideways, his arm out like a flag pole and his hand capping air.
John’s stomach clenched, his throat choked and he bit back bile. He felt the stupidity of it all, his life a sham, full of don’t knows and make believe. He chuckled, but without humour. Hands were funny bones, just as likely to slap you as to tickle, so many separate pieces, all different. He took a stab at it, fingers fluttering and held on. Little Ally was a revelation standing between them, limply holding his hand and Jack’s. Bawling like a kid, his legs go soft and he pulled her close to him, lifting and squeezing his sister into his chest. Plastering her cheeks and face with sloppy salty kisses. She put up with it for a minute before her head reeled back from him and she accused him: ‘You left me alone with bad men’.
St Stephen’s school bell rang. John knew that was impossible. The shell of the main school building was all that was left. The planned construction of new houses on the land and bulldozing had been stopped because of a squabble about asbestos. Yet the insistent ringing was as much a part of his early childhood as Kellogg’s cornflakes. Unmistakable.
‘Hurry, or I’ll be late.’ Ally squirmed out of John’s hands and stood on the pavement between them, looking quizzically from one to another. She made the decision for them, nipped in front of them, her feet skipping towards the sound of the bell. They caught up with her, patting her on the back, making a game of it, but kept tucked in behind her.
The yells and yips of school children, penned behind the old-style iron railings, was a feast of playground noise. Ahead of them John recognised the lollipop man in his waterproof suit and hat. He stood in the middle of the road, the pole immovable, blocking a Hillman Minx, engine tickling like a cough, as kids ambled across the road. Allison’s legs worked like a filly in a wide-open field, she sprinted past the tree and jumped off the safety of pavement and kerb and onto the road fifteen yards from the school crossing.
‘Hi. Hi.’ The lollipop man shouted in his usual grumpy manner, but she waved good-naturedly at him, safely on the other side. He didn’t look across as they passed in front of him at the school gates.
In the playground John swerved round a boy in short trouser and black shiny shoes that was tiny, whooping as he jumped into a puddle, water splashing onto his boots. ‘You better watch you don’t get your feet wet, or you’ll get a bad cold,’ John warned.
‘Sorry.’ The tot looked up at him, a snail of snot running sideways from his nose, finding a path to his mouth, before he turned and galloped away from them on an imaginary horse.
The janny ambled past, going in the same direction as them. Allison flew up the four steps and into the main building where the younger pupils’ classroom were situated. He took the side-door into the gym hall. It was hushed inside. Further along the corridor a teacher’s heels could be heard tapping, going away from them. Duffle coats, blazers, balaclavas and anoraks hung low on hangers. The radiators on the wall clicked as the heat spread out slowly like school dust with the smell of damp. She tried to worm her way out of her anorak, but the zip stuck and she panicked and tried pulling it over her head. The second school bell rang. Before John or Jack could help the janny stuck his head in the door checking the corridors. Behind and to the side of him children were lining up in crocodiles outside. He watched her wrestling with the anorak and darted up beside her.
‘Wait a wee sec.’ He patting her head through the quilted material. She stopped struggling, the adult voice reassuring her. He tugged at the zip on the anorak, his hand hesitated before his fingers sneaked up under her dress.
‘Hi,’ shouted John, swinging for him, but his hand swept through the janny, clapping together.
Jack lunged across to help and his arms swept through the man. ‘Am I dreaming?’ he asked John, his voice soaring.
‘Nah, it’s a fuckin’ nightmare.’ John tried once more, clutching at the janny, but his hands grasped nothing but despair.
The janny pulled Allison’s hood further up and over her head like a sack and guided her out into the main corridor. ‘We’ll need to get a pair of pliers, for this,’ he explained to the girl, in a strained voice, his head flicking from side to side, checking out if there was anyone close by listening. He bundled her along and under the glazed stare of the statue of the Virgin Mary and took the little-used door out into the playground. Keeping close to the wall underneath the windows of the gym his hand dug into her shoulder, pushing her head down and her body close to him, he walked so fast she ran beside him to keep up. Jack and John pushed in beside them, but couldn’t interfere. The janny spoke out of the side of his mouth, in a reassuring and cajoling tone. ‘I think I’ve got a pair of pliers in the boiler-room.’ He nudged her down the first few steps, and his clattering feet followed behind her, the smile slipping from his face as he searched for his keys. He parcelled her inside and she stumbled and fell on the spill of coal for the boilers. One last look behind him, he banged the door shut behind them and unbuttoned the top button on his trousers and slashed his zip down. ‘Scream all you want,’ his mouth slabbering. ‘Nobody can hear you down here.’