As the players are leaving the pitch, heads steaming in the mid-winter chill, Mr Bedford walks up to Leon, pulls him aside and whispers, ‘Was a scout here today. Leyton Orient. Seems you made quite an impression, young man.’
‘Stop muckin’ about, Mr B.’
‘I’m serious. Offering you a trial, they are.’
Leon stops and stares, momentarily distracted by the condensation forming on Mr Bedford’s salt-and-pepper moustache. ‘You never said nuffin’ about scouts coming to the game.’
‘That’s ’cause I didn’t know, boy. They’re not after announcing it, you know, otherwise you’s get all nervous and can’t perform.’
Leon tries hard not to smile. ‘They really want me to go for a trial?’
‘That’s what yer man said.’
‘But that’s a school day, sir.’
‘Don’t you be worrying about that.’
Leon thinks a while, barely able to contain his excitement. He pictures himself making his professional debut for the O’s, scoring the winner and celebrating in front of the home supporters. Mr Bedford brings him back to earth.
‘Now listen, son, if I were you, I’d be sure to keep this thing under my hat for now. The other lads don’t know yet. Best to wait and see how it goes before you…’
Leon doesn’t wait to hear the rest. He sprints to the dressing room to brag to his team-mates. When he gets there he’s surprised to see that they’ve arranged themselves into a guard of honour. Glen Barlow, team captain and Emlyn Hughes look-alike, starts clapping and the other boys quickly join in. Grinning from ear to ear, Leon walks slowly between them, his boots clack-clacking against the mud-spattered concrete floor. Along the way he gets slapped about the head and kicked up the backside and at one point his strike partner, Deadly Darren Davis, says: ‘Taught you everyfin’ you know.’ Leon is all set to deliver a comeback when Mr Bedford strides into the dressing room with a netful of footballs slung over his shoulder.
‘OK, OK, break it up there now. He’s only going for a trial.’
‘Yeah,’ says Darren, ‘for Orient.’
The boys fall about laughing, even Leon. A short while later, he’s peeling off his hot sweaty socks and struggling to breathe through the cloying smell of dubbing and Deep Heat, when he starts daydreaming again. In an extension of his earlier fantasy, the Orient fans are now chanting his name.
* * *
When he gets home from school that afternoon and hears from his mum that his dad won’t be home till very late, Leon pulls a face.
‘Wha’ wrong wid you?’
‘Nuffin’.’ Leon looks down at his feet, ashamed for being so close to tears.
His mum puts her finger under his chin, raises his head. ‘Speak.’
‘Was hoping dad would be home tonight.’
‘Why? Wha’ so special ’bout tonight?’ Leon reveals his good news. ‘And causa dat you mek up you face? But you is a real baby. Come here.’ She pulls him roughly into her mid-riff, which is soft and warm and smells of carbolic soap. ‘You can tell you faader ’bout it tomorrow. Now hush.’ She plants a kiss atop Leon’s head then holds him at arm’s length. ‘Hungry?’
* * *
Later that evening, in the middle of dinner, the doorbell rings. Leon is about to get up when his mother shouts, ‘Bwoy, siddung and finish you food.’
‘”But mum” nutten. You frien’ dem can go to juices!’
With a down-turned mouth, Leon stares at his plate. There’s nothing left on it but a small piece of dumpling and a partially-eaten chicken wing swimming in oil. The doorbell rings again. Kissing her teeth, Mrs Simon leaps to her feet, marches over to the sash window, lifts it open and leans out. A blast of cold air rushes into the room, causing Leon to shiver. Two floors below, Neville and Oladi are standing on the doorstep, the former wearing a black woollen parka with the hood up, the latter dressed in a dark-green, knee-length duffle coat. Neville has a football under his arm. On seeing Mrs Simon, the two boys stiffen.
‘Look here,’ says Mrs Simon. ‘Leon eating him dinner. Now go ’bout unnu business and stop ring aaff people bell.’ She slams the window shut and strides back across the room and plonks herself down at the dining table, muttering curses under her breath. Leon doesn’t look at her. He finishes his dinner, puts his knife and fork together on the plate and waits patiently. His mother ignores him and carries on eating. For a few minutes, the only sound in the room is that of cutlery against crockery. At last Mrs Simon raises her head and looks across the table at her sulking son. ‘Oh for God’s sake. Don’t sit there watching me like some kin’a obeah man.’ She waves him away. ‘Gwaan. Gwaan. And tek you dutty plate wid you.’ Smiling, Leon grabs his plate and quickly leaves the room. Moments later he runs back in and kisses his mother on the cheek. She barely has time to react before he’s gone again.
* * *
‘Stop lying,’ says Neville, spinning the football on his forefinger.
‘I’m not!’ shrieks Leon.
‘Then swear on your mum’s life,’ says Oladi. He grabs the ball from Neville and starts doing keep-ups on the pavement.
Leon puts his hand on his heart. ‘I swear on my mum’s life that Orient’ve asked me to come for a trial.’
Neville studies him, his hands stuffed into the side-pockets of his parka. ‘Nah,’ he says, shaking his head, ‘don’t believe you.’ He looks at Oladi, who’s still doing keep-ups. Patting his chest, he says, ‘Put it here, Ladi. If you can.’
Deftly, using his in-step, Oladi lofts the ball towards Neville. Neville traps it with his chest, lets it fall onto his knee, then, like Oladi a few moments earlier, starts doing keep-ups.
‘Just admit it, Leon,’ says Oladi. ‘You’re telling porkies.’
Leon gives him a long, narrow-eyed stare, then pushes him hard in the chest, sending him sprawling across the bonnet of a parked Austin Wolesley. Before Oladi has recovered, Leon marches up to Neville and grabs the ball from him and gives it a hefty kick, sending it soaring over the roof of one of the many terraced houses in the street. For a moment Neville is speechless. He and Leon stand almost toe-to-toe, breathing into each other’s faces. Oladi looks on nervously.
‘You bes’ go and get my ball,’ says Neville.
‘Or else what?’ says Leon, his fists balled.
‘Or else…or else…I’ll get my dad on you!’
‘I got a dad, too,’ growls Leon. He shoots a look at Oladi. ‘And who you staring at, bubu?’
‘Who you calling a bubu?’
‘You, you bloody African.’
Oladi takes a step towards him, then freezes when he sees Mrs Simon throw open her living-room window and stick her head out. ‘Leon!’ she shouts, ‘Time fi you come een. Right dis minute!’
Slowly, Leon mounts the small flight of steps leading up to his front door. Neville and Oladi glower at him. They want to say something, hurl one final insult, but with Mrs Simon still leaning out the window…
* * *
Leon comes in and heads straight for his room, slamming the door behind him. He flings himself onto his bed and lies there mentally abusing Neville and Oladi. After a few minutes he hears, through the plaster-board wall that separates his bedroom from the living room, the theme tune from The Good Old Days. He has to cover his ears. How can his mother watch such rubbish? He gets up and pads across the room to his cluttered study desk and sits there leafing through his latest copy of Shoot! magazine. From the centre of it, he rips a glossy double-page poster of Steve Perryman and sellotapes it to the wall above his desk. It’s the latest in a growing collection of posters featuring Tottenham Hotspur players, past and present. His favourite, occupying pride of place in the centre of the wall, shows Glenn Hoddle wheeling away in celebration after scoring against Arsenal in the North London Derby.
* * *
Leon wakes suddenly to see his father sitting on the edge of his bed, silhouetted by the hallway light.
‘Me could’n wait,’ says Mr Simon. ‘You madder just tell me.’
Leon sits up and starts rubbing his eyes. ‘What time is it?’
‘If I was any prouder of you, me bwoy, I would bus’ wide open!’
Leon smiles. ‘Thanks, Dad, but it’s only a trial. And it’s only Orient.’
‘Bwoy shet you mout’! Everbaddy haffi start somewhere. Dis is a great ting you achieve. A great ting. Don’t belikkle it.’ He pulls the sheet back from Leon. ‘Get up. Come watch some TV wid me.’
‘But mum said….’
‘Don’t worry you head ’bout dat. You madder gaan a bed. Besides, you n’ha no school tomorrow so you can stay up and keep you old man company likkle bit. Wid all dis over-time me a do, me kyaa ‘member when las’ me see you face. Come, man. Quick. Kojak soon start.’
Without another word, Mr Simon rises and departs. Leon, though exhausted, hauls himself out of bed. To counter the cold, he puts on his hand-me-down dressing-gown, over his hand-me-down pyjamas, and slips his socked feet into his threadbare Moccasin slippers. Before he leaves, he remembers to light the wick on his paraffin heater so that the room warms up in his absence.
Stephen Thompson was born in London. Though his primary interest is in prose writing, fiction and non-fiction, he also dabbles in screenwriting. He is the editor and publisher of the online literary journal, The Colverstone Review.