Bored, I bent down to pluck a few blades of grass. Most of the play was up the other end. Often, fat kids or the poorest players in a kickabout end up between the sticks. Sometimes they are social outcasts with no interest in the sport, like Billy Casper, the protagonist in Kes. Few lads with outfield skills volunteer. Look at the many superb Brazilian World Cup sides down the years that were short of a quality keeper. Prior to the introduction of the pass back rule there was little need for a goalie to do much with his feet other than hoof the ball up the park.
Jim Leighton was one of these outfield no-hopers. Yet, stick him in goal and he became the most valuable player in the team. I was inspired to try out the position after seeing him turn in an outstanding performance for a Highland League Select against a Scottish League XI under the floodlights in Breogan. It’s tough going. The keeper takes the blame for any lapse of concentration, no matter how many good saves he makes. If the team is playing well, the goalie is detached from play and freezes his bollocks off for much of the season.
But the sun was out and I was going on holiday to England. The previous year I didn’t see TV for a fortnight: this time we’d hired a caravan and had a black and white telly. The picture wasn’t great. You had to move the aerial around a lot, but at least I was able to see the Red Hand Gang in the mornings.
The caravan was no luxury vehicle but it was a step up from the old van that had all the tinks waving to us on the way from Breogan to Gairloch. I quite enjoyed a west highland holiday but Scarborough, with its dolphins and showies, was a class above midgies and trout fishing.
Dad always liked us to be in plenty of time so as not to waste the day. We were up and away well before dawn and startled red deer out of the ditches on the road south. A few tapes were played to death on the way down. Especially The Alexander Brothers collection with The Jeely Piece Song.
We arrived in Scarborough before the caravan site office had even opened for the day. So we drove down to the bay and slept for a bit while the gulls circled and caw-cawed overhead.
When the site opened, I went into the reception with Dad to register.
“You’re from Scotland?” said the man.
“Well spotted,” Dad replied. He turned to me, winked, and said, “There’s no pulling the wool over his eyes”.
An odd image formed in my head. I had no idea why anyone would want to use wool for this purpose.
“Think you’ll get independence one day?”
“Who knows?” said Dad, taken aback by the directness of the question. “Do you think England will?”
“What? Get independence? You serious? We don’t want or need independence. We’re not nationalists.”
“Oh right. So England doesn’t exist then? We’re all British and that’s it. Problem solved.”
“Oh there’s no problem. Maggie’s keeping us right.”
“Aye. Riots all over the country. Hunger strikes…”
“I don’t mind the Scots, you know. The Welsh are a different matter.”
“Give that man a haggis, son… The Welsh? What have they done to upset you?”
“You’ve obviously never been there?”
“Once or twice.”
“You must have noticed how they start talking Welsh the minute you go into the pub?”
“Can’t say I have, no. I hope you point out their faults to them when they come to the site?”
“We don’t get many Welsh visitors really. And I won’t be going back there if I can help it. Three nights, you said? Thirty pounds. Sign here, Jock.”
Dad didn’t take kindly to being called a jock. Yet, that night he nearly rolled off his seat when we saw Russ Abbot doing his See You Jimmy stereotype in the Summer Madhouse at the Spa Theatre.
Even with the wee black and white telly, it was easy to get bored with the rain pattering away on the window much of the time. I’d read my summer specials and was onto the Commando books that Dad had bought. The pasteurised milk had run out so we drank tea with powdered stuff, just like the Commandos did. When not fighting, the soldiers drank “a cuppa nice hot char” and smoked. It didn’t seem a bad life. “Join the Army, See the World,” people said. Maybe I would. That way I’d get to visit lots of different countries.
It was too wet to do much outdoors, so we went shopping to Leeds. Dad parked in a multi-story and we walked around a precinct. There were women wearing what looked like black headsquares round their heads. I’d seen Muslims on the TV in the news reports from Iran. Never in Breogan. I bought some Liverpool FC top trumps. A card game would come in handy if the rain continued.
When we went back the car was gone.
“Thieving bastards,” said Dad.
“I don’t believe it,” was all Mam could muster.
“Whit are we gonna do noo? I asked. Walk back to Scotland?
“We’ll hae to get the Polis I suppose.”
“Daft buggers we are,” said Dad, bursting into laughter.
“Glad you see the funny side of it,” went Mam.
“Fools the lot o us! We’re on the wrong floor, come on.”
Dad explained on the way to the lift that he’d recalled reaching out for a pipe above his head that was no longer there. The car was where we’d left it on the next floor down.
Beams of light shining in through the caravan windows woke me up. A siren followed accompanied by a loudspeaker announcement that jolted us all out of our beds.
“Attack! Attack! This is a four minute warning!”
“Whit the fuck!” said Dad, grabbing a sweater to put over his vest. He opened the top half of the caravan door. I took the risk of peering through the curtain. We were probably all done for anyway; a blinding flash would reduce us all to skeletons.
We were back in Scotland. Stranraer. A caravanette had pulled up next door. I recognised the motor and the balding figure in the driver’s seat with the loudspeaker up to his lips, accompanied by the War of the Worlds music on the car stereo. Harry had arrived with his wife, Hilary, and my pal, Willie. The D’s were joining us for the rest of the holiday.
We had been following the progress of the Troubles on the news but decided to risk a day trip over to Northern Ireland on the Galloway Princess. Bobby Sands had died after sixty six days without food. It seemed strange to think anything was worth starving yourself over. Many in Ireland clearly thought it was: with Bobby Sands elected to Westminster and Kieran Doherty elected to the Dáil while on hunger strike.
Dad and Harry had a couple of quick beers before coming up to join us on deck.
“They’re off their heids,” said Harry. “Sittin aboot in blankets and smearing their ain shite on the walls. Mental. In fact, the whole bloody lot o them are off their chump. Electing terrorists as MP’s for Christ’s sake? Stoning milkmen and bairns to death. What is that all aboot? Monsters. I hope we get back across the water in one piece.”
“We’ll end up like Moontbatten if you keep goin on like that. Keep yer voice doon, Harry. Ye never ken who’s listenin,” said Hilary, looking round.
I had come home from school one day to hear some Earl called Mountbatten had been blown out of the water by the IRA while on a fishing trip. In adulthood, I would find out that ira meant anger in Spanish. That’s the feeling Harry and many others had whenever they heard the acronym.
There’s a photo of Willie and I sitting on the cannons at Carrickfergus Castle, gazing out over Belfast Lough. Willie in his denims and me in a blue cagoule and purple corduroys. After that, we continued with the tour. On the outskirts of another small town, our coach slowed down. People in suits, backed up by pipe and flute bands were on the march.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Dad said. “An Orange Parade. I hope there’s no gonna be trouble.”
The bus drove on through. Boys and girls flanked both sides of our coach. They were smiling proudly in at us as they marched past in time to the music.
“Dinna worry, they’re aa guid Masons.”
“What exactly do you do there at these lodges, Harry?” asked my curious mother.
“Canna tell ya.”
Harry winked, grinned knowingly.
“I’ve no a clue either. Wilna tell me anythin aboot whit goes on there,” said Hilary, lighting a JPS and giving it to her husband before taking out another for herself.
“It’s handy though, Jim. We help each other oot. Ya should think o joinin.”
Dad hummed. Non-committal.
We skirted Portadown. It didn’t look that much bigger than Breogan but there were British soldiers with guns patrolling the streets. A tank rolled by in the opposite direction.
“They look so young. Just teenagers,” Mam said.
When we got back to our side of the sea, and into the safety of our caravan, we saw fresh riots on the news. Petrol bombs. Rubber bullets. All the usual stuff. The news came through of the death of another striker, Martin Hurson. The second that week. Joe McDonnell who had gone on strike in place of Bobby Sands had also died. IRA prisoners had few qualms about volunteering to substitute deceased companions in their battle for the re-introduction of special category status. Refusing to be treated like common criminals, they wouldn’t wear prison uniforms and wrapped themselves in blankets instead. But the Iron Lady was not for turning: “Crime is crime, it is not political.” It was not until October, after the death of ten prisoners and with another six still on hunger strike, that a compromise was reached.
The midgies in Stranraer got on our nerves. Dad tried to smoke out the insects by lighting one of the fags my folks had bought for Granda. It had little effect. A foreigner, Dutch or German probably, chapped on the door to ask if we were also bothered by the tiny flies. It was a rhetorical question. He was swatting them away as he spoke. Midgies were a real nuisance but there were worse things in life and I knew it.
An excerpt from the novel “Countries of the World” ©Steve Porter, 2009