“What kind of present is that for a bairn?” Mam asked.
“He could do with a jolt in the mornings,” said Dad.
My morning alarm call was just that. Big Ben was inscribed on the face of the clock Dad brought me back from London. The famous landmark couldn’t have been any louder. There was a wee button on the top of my new alarm that shut it up for five minutes before the racket started again. It had a tiny switch on the back, but in order to locate that, I had to get up and switch the light on.
I thought of faking a sore tummy but twice in the same week was stretching it. I trudged to the bathroom in my pyjamas, my eyes screwed up against the cruel electric light. Squeezing the last dregs of Aquafresh from the tube, I reluctantly splashed a few drops of cold water on my face.
I went downstairs and opened the curtains. Natural light was moving in on another cold and windy day. A bird struggled to hold itself upright on the hedge and hid away under its own feathers. Dad had already gone to work. Mam put a pan on for hot milk to go with the cereal. I was temporarily warmed up by the Weetabix.
I tied up my duffel coat tight at the neck in preparation for the sub-zero air at the door, took a deep breath and walked out of the gate, past the sweet shop, the baker, the chipper and the Flodden flats by Auld Mill Park, over the half-frozen burn, took a left down the Loan, past the granny flats and through the frost-covered fence into the school playground. No time or desire for a game before the bell rang. Straight into line in anticipation of Bren Gun’s whistle drill.
By playtime, snow was falling. Willie and Peter were handing out free milk in plastic bags. I would have preferred a hot cup of tea or soup, but instead I pierced the bag with a straw and sucked on this chilled gift from a cow.
Suddenly, a pink envelope sealed with the word SWALK landed on my desk. Someone had skimmed it across the room. I tried to put it in my bag but Peter noticed and alerted the others.
“Open it! Open it now!”
Even Bren Gun looked a little amused. So, feeling outnumbered, I placed my ruler under the seal and tore the envelope apart. In an odd way, I felt honoured that a girl liked me enough to put us both through this embarrassment. Amid all the fuss, Aileen’s face had turned as red as her hair.
The bell rang and the class went out in search of winter adventures. Throwing snowballs was banned in case you “took someone’s eye out”, and not advisable unless you wanted your hands taken off by the headie’s belt. Still, it was easy to get round this rule by grabbing a victim and giving them a facewash with cold snow instead. Slides were tolerated although there had to be more chance of broken bones than being blinded by snowballs. ‘Wee Mannies’ involved crouching down to half your size while careering down an icy slope.
When the bell rang again, we took longer to line up than usual. Might as well get in one final ‘wee mannie’ before heading back to class. Standing still for even a few minutes could leave your feet numb with the cold. Hands could freeze in no time, so it was best to get the soaking wet gloves off right away and put them over a radiator in the classroom to dry out. Going out minus gloves wasn’t as stupid as it first seemed – if you were going to pick up snow.
As that school day came to an end, the evenings had stretched enough to allow for a walk home in the daylight. I wondered what to do with the card. Mam might keep her amusement to herself but Dad would wind me up. “A valentine card? Who from?” he would ask, while smacking his lips together in a kiss.
I took a detour past the house with a goat in the garden. Goat’s liked paper after all. But the creature had been put away in the shed until the worst of the weather had passed. I could hear it bleating. There was no-one around. A few flakes were falling again. I shaped a hole in the snow with my hands and took my gloves off before tearing the card into little pieces. The wind would disperse any remaining evidence when the snow was gone.
Extract from Countries of the World is available in paperback and as an e-book for Kindle ©2011 Steven Porter/Breogan Books