Wednesday, September 26

A Tree For Terrence

I wrote this story years ago and it’s one of my favourites. I am going to re-write it because I think it would fit well within the collection of short stories I’m writing together for publication. It’s interesting to see how, I think, my writing has changed, which is why I’m quite looking forward to trying again. I want to make it better. There is very little of my own work that I’m satisfied with, but this is one of them.



MIKE STOOD AT the top of the hill that very slowly descended into the school playing field. He was a good two feet taller than the children around him and so he should be – he was thirty-six and greying.
‘Excuse me, sir. Can you not smoke here, please.’ A woman shoo-ed him away with her hand. She looked over her glasses at him. He didn’t like it. He let the lungful of smoke dribble out his nostrils and smiled impolitely.
‘O.K.’
She smiled and went back to the kids who littered her feet asking questions and yelling.
He moved to the side, away from the kids, and continued smoking. He could recall his own sports days if he tried hard enough. He stood by the miniature litter-bin and did his best to recollect the humiliating races and throwing events and swimming laps and tattered old brown sacks. ‘I don’t think I came in the top three once,’ he thought. ‘Fucking Ben had all the luck.’ Ben, his brother, was attending his son’s sports day at the school down the road. They were going to dinner later on. He could picture it now: sat in Ben’s favourite restaurant – a sterile shithole with cheap abstract paintings on the wall – each parent bragging about their son’s achievement until events are conjured up out of the air with a matching first place medal while the kid stares on, baffled. Mike wouldn’t say a word.
Sports day was a cruel bastard on the senses. Parents stand on sidelines grunting ‘till their little punks crossed the finish-line. A first place equalled the sort of moans reserved for bedrooms. Mothers wailing with delight and punching the air. Fathers growling, ‘THAT’S MY BOY!’
Mike came second in a sack race once. He soon realised it was a skill completely useless in the real world.
He finished his cigarette and flicked it some distance behind him. It soared, like a rocket, twenty feet. “If only fag-flicking was an event. I’d’ve kicked their arses.” He turned and a young girl was looking at him with sweat on her brow and a thin clear worm of snot dribbling from her nose. She looked at Mike then where he’d flicked the cigarette and then the bin that he stood next to.
‘There’s a bin there.’ She said.
‘O, O.K.’ Mike was nervous. ‘I’m sorry.’ He made off.
He walked down the hill to the bottom where the swimming pool was. He had to avoid the odd child and running event. As soon as they passed he walked across the track, narrowly missing a boy trailing by about ten yards. ‘WATCH IT, MATE!’ Someone shouted.
The swimming pool was wrapped in a six-foot high wooden fence. The diminishing sounds of splashing water could be made out from the other side. He entered and all the children were clearing out of the pool. He walked up to his wife who was smiling quite uncontrollably. She always had the same smile when Sean did well. It was a special smile saved just for Sean. Mike never saw it for himself. Always for Sean.
‘You missed it,’ she said with that same dumb smile. ‘He came first.’
‘O, good.’
‘Yeah, it was close. That Turner kid is really good.’
Mike looked at the little things traipsing into the pool house. Their little bodies glistened and sparkled.
Mrs Turner walked up to them and grinned.
‘Didn’t he do well, Suzanne?’ she asked.
‘Yes, your Daniel was unlucky.’
‘Yeah, he was.’
They stood in silence.
Mike looked at Mrs Turner’s legs. They were out, completely out, so that barely her cunt was covered. She had no class. Her hair was perfect, though, but perfect in a way that said she had nothing better to do during the day other than get her hair done. Suzanne always went on about needing money to get her hair done. Mike liked Suzanne’s hair best when it was a mess, like just after getting off a rollercoaster or post-fuck.
‘See you later, then, Suzanne. By-by, Mike.’
The couple waved her away.
‘Look at the length of that fucking skirt!’
‘Suzanne! Don’t swear in front of the kids.’ Mike’s paternal instincts were as weak as anything. His words were forced yet forceless.
‘O shut up, I just saw you smoking in among all those children. Mrs Gathercole had to chase you away.’
‘Mrs Gathercole – so that’s her name.’
The swimming teacher – dressed in a purple leotard under khaki shorts – passed them and said, ‘Sean did well.’
‘Yes!’ Said Suzanne, beaming. It wound Mike up. Had his sports days really been so full of failure to leave him so bitter thirty years later? They had been the start of something more overcoming, something greater. He never recovered well. Ben’s bedroom walls wore medals and rosettes like a twilight wears stars.
The sun blasted overhead. It was July and the grass was deep green with rustling chlorophyll. The sky was devoid of cloud, only home to the storming sun. His armpits were forming beads of sweat that trickled down his flanks into the elastic of his underwear. He wiped his brow and huffed.
‘I’m going to get a drink. Do you want anything?’
Suzanne shook her head. ‘Hurry up. The cross country is in five minutes.’
Mike walked out of the pool enclosure and back up the hill to the drink stand.
Ben grew taller than Mike when he was thirteen. Mike was fifteen. It killed him. A large part of him resigned to something altogether crippling. Where for the spirit to go? The same family and a runt. Mike ran for the train when he had to. It nearly killed him but he’d only missed it once. He stood there in the carriage leaning against the hand-rail, panting. Every time he made it he was proud. He would sit down and sweat and sweat and sweat. The sweat made his flesh slimy for the rest of the day.
When he reached the top of the hill he looked down at all the children and the parents. The kids dressed in white. It was good to see the small white pieces flicking across the green field. It was blossom. It was confetti.
He walked over to the drinks stand. It was a classroom desk looking guiltily out-of-place, dragged onto the tarmac playground. Behind its many rows of white plastic cups sat a boy. Mike stood in front of the table. The boy looked up at Mike and squinted against the sun – Mike’s frame cast a shadow that glanced the side of the boy’s head.
‘One beer, please.’
‘We don’t do beer!’
Mike frowned. ‘What’s that?’ He pointed at the pale contents of the white plastic cups.
‘Lemon squash.’
‘One of those, then, please.’
‘Fifty pence, please.’
‘Fifty pence!’
‘I didn’t price them!’
Mike gave the kid a pound coin. The kid took it, slipped it into a box and looked up at him.
‘Change! I gave you a quid.’
‘Ah yeah, sorry.’
‘Cheeky shit.’
The boy laughed. ‘It’s worked twice so far.’
Mike smiled.
He took a long slug and finished the drink in one. He looked at the field, the screams of joy and failure as they solidified in the air and took colour from the summer afternoon. He turned back to the boy.
‘Why aren’t you taking part?’
‘I broke my leg.’
Mike looked under the desk as a bulbous piece of plaster covering the boy’s right leg. ‘Yeah? How?’
‘See that tree over there?’ He pointed to a tree on the other side of the field.
‘The tall one, yeah?’
‘Yeah. I jumped off that and broke my leg. Doctor called it a “fracture”, though.’
‘How long ago was that?’
‘Two weeks. I had to jump seven times before it broke – fractured.’
Mike spluttered slightly. ‘You did it on purpose?’
‘Yes. Don’t tell anyone.’
‘Why the hell did you break your fucking leg on purpose?’
When Mike swore the kid gasped and looked around for anyone else that might have heard it. Mike apologised.
‘I didn’t want to take part in sports day. It’s horrid. Look at them all!’
‘You’re right. I wish I’d thought of that when I was a kid. Was it worth it?’
‘Well, I’ve had three free cups of lemon squash.’
The boy and Mike laughed – Mike more than the boy.
‘You didn’t drink all the beer as well, did you?’
‘We never sold beer in the first place. This is a school.’
Mike heard a dad roar: ‘NICE ONE, JAMIE!’ The children never made a sound. It was only the adults who so punctured the surroundings with garish hollers.
‘What’s your name, kid?’
‘Terrence Barron.’
‘Terry?’
‘Don’t call me that. I hate the name “Terry”.’
‘O.K. O.K.’
The two stood there in silence. Terrence handed Mike another cup of lemon squash, gratis.
Eventually Terrence broke out: ‘You’re Sean’s dad, aren’t you?’
Mike raised an eyebrow.
‘I seen you at a parents’ evening a few months back.’
Mike tried to spot Sean out on the field. He saw him. He was leading the group of runners in the cross country, a winding route around the field. It was clearly the highlight of the day. A lot of children and parents stood around and watched it. They cheered. The swine will even cheer at someone else’s kid.
‘Yeah, I’m Sean’s dad.’
‘Your son’s cruel.’
Mike lowered his eyes to his half-empty cup of lemon squash.
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘It’s O.K. Two weeks ago he punched me in the jaw ‘cause he said I looked at him funny.’
Mike turned completely from Terrence, yet Terrence continued to talk and Mike stood for it.
‘When I first started Sean said I couldn’t hang around him and his friends ‘cause I’m rubbish at football. Yesterday he called me a ‘pussy’ for not taking part in sports day.’
Mike faced the boy: ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry about my son.’
Sean crossed the finish-line first. Everyone cheered and jumped. He could see Suzanne yelping and bounding towards her son. Her son that calls people ‘pussy’. He was suddenly ashamed. He had to leave Terrence and get lost in the rabble. There was no one else to keep Terrence company. As soon as Mike left, Terrence would be on his own. Everybody in the field was at the cross country finish-line saluting the victor. Unsure of what to do Mike fumbled in his pockets, pulled out a five-pound note and put it on the desk in front of Terrence and the white plastic cups.
‘I’m sorry my son called you a pussy.’ He fled before Terrence could say anything.
On their way to Ben’s favourite restaurant, Mike was carrying his son’s sports bag over his shoulder. Sean walked between him and Suzanne talking about each event and how hard it had been and who his main competitors had been. He didn’t shut up.
‘Son, do you know Terrence Barron?’
Sean looked up at him and then kicked a pebble into the wall of the village insurance office. ‘Yeah, he broke his leg the other week. He couldn’t race today.’
‘What’s he like?’
‘He’s rubbish at football.’
When they got to the restaurant, Mike ordered a beer and a starter of chicken wings. They tasted all right.

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