– The Black Sheep –
The garden gate was square and made of cast iron and painted black. It was just the right size for the boy to swing on. By standing on the bottom rail, pushing his knees through the bars and resting his elbows on the top rail, he could make the gate swing back and forward, back and forward, only occasionally being required to put one foot on the ground and push the gate in order to refresh its momentum. But he needed to be gentle, otherwise the gate would clang shut and he would have to start all over again.
He would come out here at the front of the house to swing on the gate whenever he wanted some peace from the hubbub going on back there or if he needed to think about something or simply if he had nothing else to do. He liked the tranquillity that the movement gave him. Feeling safe behind the gate, he also liked to watch events on the street: people passing by or tending their gardens or going to and from the succession of vendors’ vans.
Sometimes he thought that he was a younger (and much quieter) version of Jimmy Martin, the man who lived a few doors along. Jimmy often sat for hours on end at the open window of his front room. He also watched the comings and goings on the street, but where he and the boy differed was his habit of shouting out insults at the people he saw, his big, rough voice reverberating off the houses. Although some of the older women became alarmed when Jimmy shouted and wouldn’t venture out on the street if he was sitting there, most people regarded him as a bit of a nuisance, a harmless crank. The boy’s mum used to say that one day the men in white coats would come and cart Jimmy off to the loony bin, but that was before she invited him into her kitchen for a cup of tea – she always did that with waifs and strays – and learned his story. It seemed that Jimmy had been captured by the Germans early on in the War. He spent the remainder of the War working down a salt mine in France. He and his fellow prisoners weren’t treated badly, though, and they got on quite well with their guards. One day, when the Germans realised that the War was lost, the guards took Jimmy and the other prisoners down the mine and told them that they were going to be executed. But the guards cried and said they couldn’t go through with it and just left them there. Jimmy admitted that he hadn’t been right in the head ever since that day.
Jimmy wasn’t at his window today, so the boy was the only one out here, watching, swinging back and forward, back and forward. It was early in the afternoon on a warm, sunny Thursday in July, well into the school holidays. Nothing was happening on the street. The only noises to disturb the quiet of the place were the little squeaks that came intermittently from the gate. If the boy’s mum heard that squeaking, she would come to the front door and shout at him, telling him again to get off the gate, not to break it. But the boy was pretty certain that his mum wouldn’t appear at the front door; not this afternoon, anyway. She was at the back of the house just now, in the kitchen with the two youngest children – ‘the bairns’, everyone called them – and his dad. The last time he saw her, which was only ten minutes ago, she was sitting at the kitchen table, cradling his dad’s head, trying to console him, trying to soothe the awful, relentless pain that was racking him. The poor man had toothache; not the grinding, throbbing kind of toothache that people usually suffered, but a blinding, raging toothache that had come in the night and was now rampaging through the whole of his bottom jaw, making him want to cry out and beat his head against the wall. What made things even more tragic was that his dad couldn’t get any treatment for the toothache. He had no money to pay the local dentist. He couldn’t even scrape together the bus fare to go to the Dental Hospital in Edinburgh, where he would be treated for free. It was pay day at the dockyard tomorrow, another twenty-four hours before he would have the money, an eternity away.
The situation was hopeless, the boy had concluded, which was why he had sought solace out here. He couldn’t bear to watch his dad’s agony any longer, to hear the man groan and whimper. His sisters must have felt the same way; all three of them seemed to have cleared off, leaving just the bairns in the house and him swinging on the gate. A hopeless situation, he concluded again, continuing to swing back and forward, back and forward, feeling very depressed.
She appeared beside him as if from nowhere, startling him. It was one of his sisters – ‘the Mary one’, as their mum often called her. She was two years younger than him. She must have been lurking in the back yard and then sneaked round the side of the house.
‘What do you want?’ the boy asked, sounding annoyed.
She pushed the gate hard, forcing him to jump off it. Stepping quickly past him, she pulled the gate hard this time, banging it shut. ‘To get past,’ she said from the pavement.
The boy felt a wave of anger course through him, but he resisted the urge to rise to the girl’s provocation. Instead, he opened the gate again, climbed on to it and resumed his swinging. He looked at her, expecting to see that sardonic grin, the one she usually showed when she got him angry. But there was no grin today. She seemed sad, her dark eyes large and mournful, her cheeks wet, as if she had been crying hard for a long time.
‘It’s just not fair,’ she said, tears welling up in her eyes. She was wearing a lilac cotton frock with a lilac belt round it, a lilac ribbon in her hair, short white socks and leather sandals that her mum had recently whitened. But the pretty clothes seemed out of place on her, too dainty and girlish. Her hair was long and raven-black and full of ringlets; not the kind of ringlets that women, her mum included, manufactured with curling tongs, but real ones, like those of a Gypsy. She had a long, pointed nose, also like that of a Gypsy – or a witch, if you were being unkind. Beneath the big, dark freckles that covered her face, her skin was sallow, almost yellow. Her scrawny arms and legs were covered in sores that were coloured purple from the iodine that her mum had applied to stop her picking at the scabs. Her teeth were also a sight: ragged and crooked and stained brown from the medicine that she took for her iron deficiency. ‘You’re not one of mine,’ her mum would say whenever Mary was in her bad books, which was often. ‘You must have been left on the doorstep by the tinkers.’
‘It’s not fair,’ Mary repeated. The tears were now rolling down her cheeks.
‘What’s not fair?’ asked the boy, putting a foot on the ground and halting the gate’s motion.
‘It’s dad. I can’t stand to see him like that. Mum said he needs to get all his bottom teeth pulled out. He needs twenty pounds to pay the dentist, she said. Twenty pounds! It’s just not fair!’ The tears were spilling onto her frock, staining it.
‘I know,’ the boy said glumly. ‘But stop crying like a big bairn. There’s nothing can be done about it.’
‘Oh yes there is,’ she sobbed. She wiped away her tears with the backs of her hands and stormed off along the pavement.
‘Where are you going?’ the boy called after her.
She stopped and turned round. ‘Nowhere,’ she called back. She made a face at him, stuck out her tongue and gave him the V-sign. Then she continued on her way.
‘Come back here!’ he demanded, feeling his anger rise again.
‘Fuck off!’ she shouted without stopping or even turning round.
The boy’s anger mounted. ‘Bitch!’ he cried.
He gripped the top of the gate for a few moments. Then he began to swing again, back and forward, back and forward, until his sister was out of sight and the anger was soothed away. She always did this to him; made him boil and do rash things and get into trouble. It was less than a fortnight ago that she had gotten him into real hot water. It was a Saturday afternoon. He had been in the living room watching television when he saw Bob Leil’s van draw up outside. It wasn’t a van really, but an old bus that had been painted red and converted into a mobile shop. It sold fruit and vegetables and other groceries, as well as cigarettes and sweets. You could walk down the aisle of the bus. There were wooden shelves on both sides, where the seats used to be. When you climbed onto the bus, there was always a big pile of potatoes at the top of the steps. Clods of earth still clung to the potatoes, and on wet days you would have to squelch through mud to get past them. Anyway, Mary appeared beside the van that afternoon. When she realised that he had spotted her, she waved to him, not to be friendly, but to show off the coin that she was holding in her hand. It was a two-bob bit or a half-crown. She had stolen it off someone somewhere, he was sure. She disappeared into the van, returning a minute or so later with a Mars Bar in her hand. Knowing that he was watching her, she stood in front of the house, unwrapped the top of the Mars Bar and commenced to lick it as if it were an ice-cream. Every lick was slow and exaggerated; her tongue stretched its full length, like a lizard’s. He grew so angry that he rapped on the window and motioned to her to scram, but his fist went straight through the glass. It was only one of the smaller panes, but he got hell for it nevertheless.
The boy had calmed down after this latest provocation. He was glad that he hadn’t chased Mary along the street and done something he would have regretted. She was a real problem, though. She spat and swore and fought and lied all the time. And she was a thief. Everyone in the house had learned from bitter experience to keep their money hidden well away from her, otherwise it just disappeared. He remembered the time his mum had actually watched Mary take money out of her purse. When she was confronted about the theft, Mary looked his mum straight in the face and swore blind that she was innocent. Depriving her of television or confining her to her room didn’t have any effect on her. No amount of skelping would change her either. She seemed compelled to do the things she did. He didn’t behave like her, nor did his other two sisters. Everyone said she was the black sheep of the family. Another hopeless situation, he sighed. His thoughts returned quickly to his dad’s plight back there in the kitchen. He swung on the gate, back and forward, back and forward, feeling even more depressed.e
He saw her coming back along the street. She had been away for only twenty minutes. He got off the gate and closed it to make sure that she couldn’t do the same thing to him twice. As she came closer, he saw that she was smiling, showing her stained teeth.
‘What are you looking so pleased about?’ he asked. He deliberately kept the gate closed to bar her way.
Out of a pocket at the side of her frock, she took a piece of paper. It looked like it had been folded many times. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘See what I found.’
She unfolded the paper and flattened it out to reveal a crisp, new Bank of England twenty-pound note.
The boy’s mouth fell open. ‘Where did you get that?’ he gasped.
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘I found it,’ she said. ‘On the pavement back there. I was just walking along, and there it was. Twenty pounds. Just what dad needs ...’
He knew that she was lying, but it didn’t matter. He opened the gate wide to let her pass. Mary ran into the house, leaving the front door open. Only moments later, she reappeared at the door with their mum and dad. Their dad had a big woollen scarf wrapped tightly round his jaw. He was hugging Mary. ‘You’re a wee angel, hen,’ he mumbled from behind the scarf. Then he came down the front steps and strode through the gate on his way to the dentist, ruffling the boy’s hair as he passed.
The boy looked up at his sister. Framed by the door, snuggled into their mother’s side, she smiled sweetly, as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
– o –