This short story appeared in the now-defunct Recess Magazine in 2008.
We were playing in the back field after school, the four of us, booting around a football we’d stolen from the gym. We hid it in the boxwoods by the rugby shed. The ball had once been tight and hard, perfect to kick and send sailing with the toe of your sneaker even. But being in the damp and resting on the ground, its hexagons were peeling up. It was soft as an old puffball mushroom. When you kicked it, it made the sound of a punch in the stomach. So we booted it down the pitch, the ball going oof, oof. Hennessey as usual out front, pretending to be David Beckham. We all despised Beckham. He was too pretty for us, too popular. There was a red robin singing in one of the bare branches. The field was mostly black clay and mud. Spring not yet arrived.
Hennessey tried to balance the football on his toe, missed. The football rolled away.
“Pass it, Hennessey!”
Hennessey punted it to Barton, who juggled it between his loafers. Barton’s family had money, so he wore leather shoes instead of plain canvas. We told him it made him look queer, whenever he got the high exam score. Light in the Loafers, we called him, though secretly we envied them, the polished cordovan with the braided tassel on the toe. Barton passed it to O’Leary, who passed it to Wilkes. The four of us, we’d been together since nursery school. Our mums lived on the same cul-de-sac in the same cardboard neighborhood. It really was made of cardboard. Our older brothers or our dads, when they got angry, could put a fist in the wall like punching through a cereal box.
Wilkes batted the football back and forth. He wore a beat-up pair of Adidas, which we would have been jealous of but we knew his mum had got them second-hand at a cheap rummage sale. Wilkes was the best at football, good enough for the games instructor to ask him when he was going to join up, try out for the boys’ team. We didn’t like the games instructor. He was a big, red-faced man shaped like a plucked pigeon. He wanted to be called Coach but we called him Cunt behind his back.
Wilkes was going to be famous, you could see it in the quick movement of his toes. Wilkes was going to be on the national football teams, the ones with the names people wore on their scarves. United. National. David Beckham was making over three million pounds a season, we read it in a magazine.
O’Leary shouted, “Here comes the Bleeding Irishman from up the sideline!” He made a sprint for Wilkes. “He’s overtaking Wilkes! Passing him!” He tried to toe the football out from under Wilkes’ feet. We laughed when he fell to the ground. O’Leary was half-Irish. His father, we told him, was a drunk. We’d take turns staggering around with an empty ginger beer bottle, slurring at each other. “I’m Mishter O’Leary,” we’d say. Even O’Leary had to do it. “How’sh about another shnifter of sherry?” O’Leary liked to make jokes. He was the funniest, the one who could make you laugh even in class when everyone else was dead quiet and the teacher was looking to see who was making noise. Being disruptive.
It wasn’t quite the season for swallows, they came in midsummer. They flew over the grass when there was grass on the field. We watched them, running to catch them. Their wings cut the grass just in front of our feet, catching bugs too tiny to see. Hennessey once swore he’d managed to kick one, but we knew he was a liar. We gave him a punch in the shoulder for it, because lying was one of the deadliest sins.
“Wilkes, I saw your pa leaving early this morning.” That was O’Leary. They lived in houses exactly next to each other, not across the way like the other two. Their mums traded magazines and did laundry sharing the same washline.
“He’s gone to town,” Wilkes said. We saw him get a little wrinkle in the middle of his forehead, straight up-and-down like the feather on an Indian.
“What for? Gotta job?” Wilkes’ father was on the dole. He’d worked in the foundry like our fathers until he got scorched and had to go on the dole. One of his legs was burned black, the skin gone to tar under his trousers. It was hard to look at him, sitting in his usual chair in front of Wilkes’ house’s television. It gave us the willies.
“Gone to pick up a car,” Wilkes said.
“What car?” Hennessey.
Wilkes had the ball again. He was batting it lightly between his Adidas, putting one toe on top of it and then hopping over. We’d seen some African do it in the World Cup. Wilkes was the only one of us who could master the trick.
“Gotta new car,” Wilkes said. The little wrinkle on his forehead looked purple for a moment, like he’d drawn on himself with a lilac crayon. “For the job. His job’s giving him a car, new suit. We might move to the city on account of it.”
There was nothing too special about Wilkes, apart from football. His skin wasn’t any clearer than ours, He didn’t own a necktie, like Barton, or have a straight nose like O’Leary. He didn’t look like a city pouf. We all wanted his luck.
“Why’s your dad got a job all of a sudden?” Barton asked.
O’Leary said maybe Mister Wilkes’ leg had gone white again, and we laughed. Wilkes didn’t say anything. His whole forehead was purple now, and he pointed his face at the ground. He tapped the ball off to Hennessey. Hennessey was the biggest of us, the only one who’d got his nose broken. He’d got an elbow in the face during a rugby scrum and had to leave the game with his jersey covered in blood. We’d never seen so much blood all at once. It wasn’t like scraping your knee. It covered Hennessey’s whole chin. Since then we’d all been a little bit afraid of him.
“Why would you leave?” Hennessey asked. Wilkes shrugged.
“Maybe got tired of it,” he said. We felt a prickle in our palms.
Hennessey booted the ball hard, too far ahead of himself. We weren’t chasing it now. We were getting near the edge of the pitch, where the trees began to crop together. They were still mostly bare. We’d thrown some kid’s, Hassan’s, scarf into the branches on recess once. It still hung there, stiff and colorless from the winter rain. Hassan had had to walk home without it, with us walking behind him to make sure he didn’t try to get it back. The skin on the back of his neck was red, but whether from shame or cold we couldn’t tell. The scarf had once been blue, hand-knit with cables running through it.
“D’you think you’re better than this?” Hennessey asked. Hennessey’s mum watched daytime telly. People on daytime telly were always having arguments where they asked each other that question.
“Lucky,” Wilkes said. “Just lucky.”
We hated him. We thought he could read our minds, the way he’d said lucky. Like he knew what we thought of him. Wilkes was going to move away. He’d be playing football at another school, a better one. He’d be famous by the time he was sixteen.
“You’re a liar,” Barton said. We’d come to where the football lay, stuck against a dead branch half-sunk in the clay. “Your father’s got no job.”
“Yes he has,” Wilkes said.
“He hasn’t,” O’Leary said. “He’s a bastard.”
“They’ve got no use for bastards in the city,” Barton said. He put his loafer on top of the football and mashed it into the ground. We could hear the air come out a little, in a sound like a sigh. “Your father’s just run away on his black legs.”
“Coalie legs,” Hennessey said. He said it so casually that we nearly didn’t notice the hateful word, slipping in like it belonged. But then O’Leary repeated it, and Barton too, finally. We shouted at Wilkes.
“You’re no better than us,” Hennessey said. He put his hands in his pockets.
“I never said that,” Wilkes said.
“Yeah, you did. You’re lucky.” Barton was sneering now, his face going yellow in the afternoon light. “Lucky boy, rabbit’s foot.” He stomped Wilkes’ Adidas. Wilkes tried to jump back but we stuck with him, going deeper into the trees.
“Lucky boy, rabbit’s foot! Lucky boy, rabbit’s foot!”
We were all trying to stomp him. Lying is one of the deadliest sins. Liars get hot pokers when they die. We learned it in school. Hot pokers.
Hennessey kicked Wilkes in the shins. Wilkes threw a punch at O’Leary and missed.
“My da’s gone to town!” he shouted. “He’s got a new car!”
Hennessey elbowed him in the back, hard, like a gangster in films. Wilkes fell down against a tree. We didn’t see if he’d banged his head. We didn’t care. Barton kicked him again.
“You’re a fucking liar,” O’Leary said. He pulled off one of Wilkes’ rummage sale shoes and threw it into the brush. “Liars get hot pokers.” He pulled off the other and threw it up in the air. We hoped it would catch in the branches but it fell back to earth with a damp thump.
Wilkes tried to stand up. We could tell how cold the ground was, still nearly frozen. His socks didn’t match. They were two different lengths of white. They soaked up the wet from the clay.
“Fuck off,” Wilkes said. Hennessey punched him in the ear.
“You fuck off,” Hennessey said. “Fucking liar.”
“He’s got burned-up legs, too!” O’Leary said. “Pull his trousers off!”
Hennessey and O’Leary held Wilkes’ arms and Barton pulled off Wilkes’ trousers. They were just school trousers, we all wore the same. Wilkes had thin legs. His legs were pale, not tarry like his pa’s.
“Stop it,” Wilkes said. “I’m sorry, alright, stop it.” He was trying to use a voice like an adult, to calm us. He was afraid. His face had gone from purple to white. It was red in patches.
Barton was holding the trousers like he wasn’t sure. We were a little ashamed of Wilkes’ skinny legs, and the whiteness of his skivvies. We hated him, for looking weak. Wilkes had the best shot of all of us. He could be famous on a national team. By the time he was sixteen. Our brothers who were sixteen worked at Laundromats or sold bad hash to make money. They went out with girls who had spidery eyes and whose bellies stretched out their Madonna t-shirts.
Hennessey pushed Wilkes back into the tree. “You’re a liar. You’re a piece of shit,” he said to Wilkes. We all knew he was right. Wilkes wasn’t lucky. He wasn’t. We were the lucky ones, the strong ones. We could take his luck away from him.
Barton threw the trousers into the brush. “Liar,” he said. We were getting anxious. We wanted to leave. There was something black hovering in the air. It was smaller than an elephant but heavier. In cartoons unlucky people walked under windows where pianos were being thrown out. They were squashed on the pavement, their arms thin under the broken black wood. The pianos sometimes had teeth instead of keys. Sometimes they could run on their bow-legs. They ate the unlucky, jammed him under their lids where the strings and hammers were.
Wilkes made a sound like something had choked him.
“He’s crying,” O’Leary said.
Wilkes sat on the ground. His socks and his skivvies absorbed the wet earth.
“Fucking baby liar,” Hennessey said. But even he, the biggest, was backing away.
We started to run. We ran like rabbits in wheat, zigzagging back and forth through the wood. We looked back once, when we were nearly out of the trees. We saw Wilkes lifting his white thin legs like a bird. He was trying to climb into the brush to get his trousers and his shoe. His neck was red. We couldn’t see his face.
“It wasn’t us,” Barton said.
“But it was.”
“I’m practicing,” Barton said. He scraped the clay off his cordovan loafers. His mum hated us tracking dirt in the house. “It wasn’t us.”
“It was an accident. Wilkes had an accident.”
But we knew he wouldn’t complain. We hated him for that, too. We didn’t ever want to see him again, now that we’d seen him disgraced. He had been white, so pale he was nearly shining.
O’Leary was put on watch, since he lived next door to Wilkes. The next few days we watched for Mister Wilkes to come to our houses to speak to our dads, but he never came.
“Maybe he went to the city after all,” Barton said.
We were ashamed.
We waited for the new car to appear in the cul-de-sac, but it did not come. We knew it would take Wilkes away, Wilkes and his luck. We were afraid that he would take ours with him as well.