1954 (Chapter one.)
Patrick Storey walked home from school alone with his hands deep in his pockets. He kicked a stone along the pavement and imagined himself playing football for England. He heard the roar of the crowd and kept up a constant commentary on the game in progress...Storey receives the ball on the half-way line, brings it under control, sets it up and sees that the opposing goalkeeper is ten yards from his line. He draws his foot back and then unleashes a long, loping, shot that sails over the goalkeeper's head and into the net. The crowd are going wild. England are one-nil up. Storey is the hero of the hour. The stone flew up and and travelled some way through the air before going over a gate and landing in a garden a few doors away. It was a good stone for playing football and he didn't want to lose it. He'd had it for several weeks and left it outside his front door when he got home from school and then retrieved it the following morning and kicked it all the way to school. He had scored many amazing, almost impossible, goals with it, not least the pile-driver shot that had beaten Brazil in their own country.
Patrick came to the gate, which was nearly as tall as him, and looked over it. There was a fairly large, but neat, garden with flowers and plants around the edge. In the middle of the garden was a tree which grew higher than the house. On the ground beneath the tree Patrick saw his stone. The gate was locked and, at first, he thought of abandoning his stone but then remembered fondly the success he had enjoyed with it. He looked up at the big, imposing, house and saw no sign of occupation. He glanced around to see if anyone was watching then pulled himself up and over the gate. He stood stock-still in the garden, not breathing. He was about to retrieve his stone when he saw a face at an upstairs' window. It was a boy of his own age, about eleven, but he had never seen him before. They didn't go to the same school. He was sure about that. The face disappeared from the window and a moment later the front door opened and a boy appeared wearing grey flannel shorts, socks up to his knees, shiny black shoes and a white shirt. He looked like a character from an old Enid Blyton book. Patrick was now sure that he definitely did not know him. The boy came closer and asked.
"Are you looking for something?"
Patrick felt foolish. How could he say that he was looking for a stone? He quickly changed the subject by asking.
"Are you new around here?"
"Yes. We moved in recently." Replied the boy. "I am Kevin. What is your name?"
"I'm Patrick. What school do you go to?"
"I do not go to school. May parents teach me at home. They do not like the things you learn in a regular school. They say that a lot of it is un-necessary information and my time could be better spent learning about more important issues. I have never been to school."
"But you've learned how to read and write, I suppose."
"Of course and I do history and mathematics, French and Latin. The usual things. It is just like going to school without actually going."
This was Patrick's dream. Not having to go to school had been one of his strongest fantasies for as long as he could remember. It would be wonderful to get up in the morning when he wished and not have to rush out of the door at the last minute. He could wake up slowly every day and not just on weekends.
"Did you throw the stone over the gate?" Kevin asked and pointed at the object on the ground.
"I kicked it. I didn't throw it." Stammered Patrick.
"It must have been a good kick. I was looking out the window and saw it fly over the gate. It was so high I thought that someone must have thrown it." Explained Kevin.
"No. I kicked it." Insisted Patrick. "I was playing a game I play going to school and back."
Kevin walked over to the stone, picked it up, examined it, and gave it to Patrick.
"Do you like your school?" He asked.
"I hate it." Replied Patrick. "It's really, really boring and none of the teachers likes me. I wish I didn't have to go. Sometimes I don't and my mum writes a note saying I was ill or had to go to the dentist or something like that but she don't like me doing it too much. She says she could get into trouble. She don't really care if I goes or not. She's at work all day, anyway."
"Your mother works?" Said Kevin with amazement. "You mean she has a job? Does your father not mind?"
"Of course not. My dad left years ago so my mum has to make some money. She works in a shop. She's the manager."
Kevin looked concerned.
"I am so sorry your parents have separated. That must be very hard for you, not having your father around. Do you see him often?"
"No. I think he lives in Manchester. I haven't seen him in years. Sometimes he send me some money at Xmas and a couple times he remembered my birthday."
"Do you not miss him?" Kevin asked, consolingly."
"No. Not at all. I did when he first left. I was about five or six at the time and it was strange to come home from school and not find him in his armchair with the newspaper. And my mum cried a lot, nearly all the time, but we soon got used to him not being there."
"I am sorry." Said Kevin, with such obvious concern that Patrick wondered why it meant so much to him. Most of the kids Patrick knew lived in single-parent families. That was normal where he lived. Christine Odogyon, from down the street, lived with both her parents but they were really religious.
Kevin said, suddenly. "Would you like to stay to tea? I am sure my mother would not mind."
Patrick thought about it for a moment then said.
"Yes. But I'll have to phone my mum and tell her that I will be late or else she worries."
Kevin looked disappointed.
"I am afraid we do not have a telephone yet."
Patrick took the mobile phone from his pocket and turned it on.
"What is that?" Kevin asked.
"It's a mobile." Said Patrick.
"A mobile what?"
"A mobile phone, of course."
"May I see?" Asked Kevin.
"Of course." Replied Patrick and handed it over. "It's nothing special. You can't get the internet or anything like that and there's no real apps so it's just a basic phone really."
Kevin stared at it intently.
"How does it work?" He queried.
Patrick wondered if Kevin was playing a joke, pretending to not know what it was, but he went along with it. He took the phone back, showed Kevin the screen and pressed the speed-dial button. He put the phone to his ear, listened for a moment, and then said.
"There's no signal. Just a minute, I'll try outside. Can you unlock the gate?"
"I am afraid I do not have a key. I do not know if there is one. I have never seen it open. You will have to climb over." Said Kevin.
Patrick thought that was very strange but climbed over the gate, pressed the speed-dial button and heard the distinctive dial-tone. It stopped and he spoke into the phone.
"Hi. It's me. Is it alright for me to got to someone's house for tea and come back later?"
A voice replied, loud enough for Kevin to hear.
"Of course. Who is it?"
Patrick said. "It's nobody you know. It's someone I just met. He's called Kevin."
"OK. I'll see you later. You be careful." She warned.
Patrick turned off the phone, put it back in his pocket, and climbed back over the gate.
"It's alright. She said I could stay." He told Kevin.
"Did you really talk to your mother using that thing?" He indicated the phone.
"Of course." Said Patrick. "Don't you have one?"
"I did not know such a thing existed. It is quite amazing."
"It's nothing special. Everybody's got one. A kid at school got one where you can see films and television programmes on it. That's really cool. I'd like one like that. Mine doesn't even have a camera."
Kevin looked perplexed then said. "I had better tell my mother that I have invited you. I will be back in a moment."
He disappeared into the house while Patrick looked around the garden. It was huge. Big enough to play football and there was a tall hedge all the way around so you wouldn't lose the ball. He hoped that Kevin liked playing football.
Kevin returned, smiling broadly.
"She said it is fine. We will eat when my father gets home from work."
Patrick asked, hopefully. "Do you play football?"
"That is very difficult to play by yourself but I do have a ball. I have a caser but it needs to be pumped up. I have not played with it for a long time. Here, I will show you."
Kevin went to a small wooden shed next to the house and came back with an object that Patrick did not recognise. It was made of thick, brown, leather with a slit in one side and what appeared to be a shoe-lace hanging from it. A narrow rubber tube protruded from the hole. He handed it to Patrick who examined it.
"What did you say it was?" He asked.
"It is a caser. I have a bicycle pump somewhere."
Kevin went to the shed, came back with a pump, retrieved the object, attached the pump to the tube and began to blow it up. As it became inflated it was obvious to Patrick what it was. A football. He knew about the ones they played with in the old days but nobody used them nowadays. After ten minutes of great effort Kevin declared.
"I think there must be a puncture. I will mend it later. What shall we play instead? How about conkers?"
Patrick had heard about conkers but he had never ever played it. He knew what you had to do, he'd seen it in films, but he had never actually done it.
"Alright." He said. "But you'll have to show me how it is done."
Kevin appeared dumbstruck.
"You do not know how to play conkers?" He spluttered. "It is easy. I will show you. I have two already strung up and there are lots more. I have a big collection."
From his trouser pocket he withdrew two horse-chestnuts with string attached and proffered them to Patrick.
"You can choose which one you want. They are both about the same size."
Patrick looked at them and picked what he thought was the biggest.
"You go first." Said Kevin.
"No, you go first." Insisted Patrick. "What do I do?"
Kevin explained by demonstration how to dangle the conker at a suitable height then stood back and asked.
"Are you ready?"
Patrick nodded and Kevin held the conker in his left hand, measured the distance betwen the two conkers, wound one end of the string around two fingers on his right hand and, concentrating intently, swung his own conker at the other and missed.
"What happens now?" Patrick asked.
"I get three goes and then it is your turn." Kevin explained.
He swung again and connected with a satisfying 'crack!' He examined Patrick's conker and said.
"There is a small split near the top. Look. It is not very big. Now it is your turn."
"But you've only had two goes." Patrick protested.
"As soon as I hit yours it is your turn." Kevin said, holding out his own conker.
Patrick duplicated what he had seen Kevin do. He held the conker in his left hand, the end of the string in his right, measured the distance and let fly with a shot that, had it connected, would have smashed Kevin's conker to smithereens but it missed and connected painfully with his own knuckles.
"Ow!" He muttered.
"That was close." Said Kevin. "It is your turn again."
Patrick repeated the procedure and, although he missed again, this time he avoided getting hit on the knuckles.
"You have one more go." Kevin said. "Try and stand a little closer." He advised.
This time Patrick really concentrated, measured accurately the distance between the two conkers, took a deep breath and swung down with all his might. There was a satisfying thump of objects colliding and he felt the vibration spread up his arm and continue through his body until it reached somewhere in his brain and afforded him the most wonderful sensation of pleasure. Kevin gasped.
"That was super"
Together they inspected the injured conker in Kevin's hand. Patrick had inflicted a mortal wound and the conker had split open from top to bottom and only hung on to the string by a fragment of shell. It was obviously doomed and the next hit would surely seal its fate. Kevin pealed it from the string, threw it to the ground and indicated Patrick's conker.
"That is king over one." He pronounced. "Do you want another game?"
Patrick definitely wanted to play again.
"Do I keep the same conker?" He asked.
"Of course you do." Said Kevin. "You keep playing with the same conker until it gets broken and you have to count all the ones it beats. I had a conker once that was king over thirteen and when I saw that it was it was ready to break I smashed it up against a wall so that it would retire unbeaten. It is good to have someone to play with. I always play alone although sometimes my father joins in."
"But how can you play alone?" Patrick asked.
"It is simple. I hang a conker from the tree and I pretend I am playing against someone but it is much more fun when it is a real person."
Patrick could not understand Kevin's enthusiasm for conkers but he was becoming gripped. After Kevin, using a meat skewer, had threaded another conker they played again. This time, with his very first hit, Patrick split the other's conker half-way round. Kevin got ready, measured the distance, and let fly with an almighty blow that broke both conkers into pieces. They stood there with empty strings in their hands and laughed until tears came to their eyes.
"That was super." Said Kevin. "Do you want another game?"
They played for a long time and Patrick enjoyed it more and more. He hit himself, painfully, on the knuckles many times but it didn't matter. He was learning to avoid it. He was becoming more accurate and when Kevin's mother called them in for tea he was in possession of a king over four and didn't want to stop playing. He had not had so much fun in a long time.
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