Authors: William Sutcliffe
We sprint for the ball
, shoulder to shoulder, our backpacks thumping from side to side. I get in front, but David grabs my schoolbag and pulls me back, like a rider stopping a horse.
‘Oi!’ I shout. ‘That’s a foul!’
‘There’s no such thing.’
‘Yes there is!’
‘Not when there’s no ref.’
David gets to the ball first and shields it with his body. ‘Watch this,’ he says, and jumps on the spot with a jerk of his heels, trying to flick the ball over his head. It dribbles out sideways and rolls into the gutter. David thinks he’s a good footballer, even though he’s so uncoordinated he only knows where his feet are when he’s looking at them.
I wedge the ball between my ankles and leap, with a sharp knee-bend, then swivel. The sphere of leather sits up in the air perfectly, as if it’s waiting for my foot, and I execute what can only be described as an incredible volley, right on the sweet spot. The ball flies away, faster and further than I could ever have hoped.
Life, as you probably know, is full of ups and downs. There is always a price to pay for perfection.
At exactly the moment my trainer whacks into the football, the empty road where we’re playing stops being empty. The security car comes round the corner, but my ball is already in the air, and there’s nothing I can do to get it back again.
The driver can’t be looking very carefully, because he only slams on the brakes after the ball thumps into his windscreen. David runs for it. I sprint for the ball, getting to it just as the security guard climbs out of his car.
‘Was that you?’ he shouts.
‘No,’ I say, as I’m picking up the ball.
‘Do you think I’m stupid?’
I’m very, very close to saying ‘yes’. If I did, I think it might be the funniest thing I’ve ever said, especially since he probably is a bit stupid. Imagine just driving round and round all day, patrolling streets where nothing ever happens. Even if you were clever when you started, your brain would eventually turn to mush. He’s got a gun, but you can’t shoot someone just for calling you stupid.
I keep my mouth shut and run off with the ball, to where David’s waiting for me, half hiding behind a parked car. I tell him what I almost said and he finds it so funny he punches me on the arm, which is actually quite annoying, so I punch him back, then he shoves me so I grab him round the waist and we begin to wrestle.
When the security car drives past us, David’s sitting on my head, and I see the driver tutting at us as if he thinks we’re idiots, but I know it’s him that’s the idiot.
We go back to football tricks after that, until David tries to copy my volley and the ball sails up, across the street, above the bus stop, and over the hoardings around a building site. This isn’t one of the normal building sites around the edge of town, either; this is the strange one opposite the medical centre, where nothing ever gets built, and you never see a single person go in or out.
‘I don’t believe it,’ he says, which is what I knew he was going to say.
‘That’s a new ball!’
‘It bobbled,’ he says. I knew he was going to say that, too.
He’s trying not to look at me, and I can see him thinking about walking away, so I step in front of him and block his path. ‘You’ll have to go over and get it,’ I say.
We look up at the hoarding. It’s more like a wall: solid wood, with nowhere to see in, and more than twice my height. It was originally painted blue, but over the years it’s faded to a dishwater grey, with the paint bubbling up in cracked oval blisters. This building site is pretty much the only place in Amarias that’s not spanking new. The rest of the town feels like it’s just been unwrapped from cellophane.
One section of the fence is a hinged opening, wide enough for a truck, but it’s locked shut with a thick chain which is rusted dark as chocolate. Thinking about my ball, lost over the hoarding, it occurs to me for the first time how strange it is that everyone calls this place a building site, when no one ever builds anything there.
‘You have to climb in and get it,’ I repeat.
‘We can’t go in there,’ he snaps.
‘I didn’t say we, I said you.’
‘There’s no way in.’
‘You’ll have to climb over. It’s a new ball. It was a present.’
‘There’s no way I’m going in there.’
‘So you’ll get me a new ball?’
‘I don’t know. I have to go.’
‘You have to get me a ball, or go in there and get that one back.’
David looks at me with heavy, reluctant eyes. I can see on his face that he’s given up on the ball, and now he just wants to get away from my nagging. ‘I’m late,’ he says. ‘My uncle’s visiting.’
‘You have to help me get the ball back.’
‘I’m late. It’s just a ball.’
‘It’s the only one I’ve got.’
‘No it isn’t.’
‘The only leather one.’
‘Don’t be such a baby.’
‘I’m not being a baby.’
being a baby.’
‘Saying “baby baby baby” over and over makes you a baby, not me,’ I say. I’m embarrassed to be even having this conversation, but with David there’s sometimes no way out. He drags people down to his level.
‘Then why can’t you stop whining about the ball?’
‘Because I want it back.’
Because I want it back
,’ he says, in a baby voice.
I’m not the kind of guy who hits people, but if I were, this is when I’d do it. Smack on the nose.
His backpack is dangling off one shoulder. If I grab his bag and toss it over the fence, he’ll have to climb in. I lunge for it, but he’s too quick. Not that David is ever quick, but I’m just too slow. He’s read my thoughts, and in a second he’s running away, laughing a fake laugh.
David is my best friend in Amarias, even though he’s extremely annoying. Amarias is a strange place. If I were living somewhere normal, I don’t think David would be my friend at all.
‘You owe me a ball!’ I shout after him.
You owe me a ball
’ he says, slowing to a walk, knowing he’s out of reach.
I watch him go. Even the way he walks is irritating, lolloping from leg to leg as if his shoes are made of lead. He thinks he’s going to be a fighter pilot; I think he’s too clumsy to control any machine more complicated than a bicycle pump.
The most frustrating thing of all is that I know in a day or two I’ll have to forget about the ball and make friends again. I used to have lots of people to choose from, but out here, there’s only David. The other boys in Amarias don’t like me, and I don’t like them. They think I’m a weirdo and I think they’re weirdos. In this town, weird is normal and normal is weird.
I look up at the fence. It’s unclimbable. I walk alongside it, blackening my fingertips against the rough wood, bursting a couple of paint blisters with my thumb, until I get to a corner and turn into an alley. I pause to examine the neat ovals of filth at the end of each finger, then place them back on the wooden surface and head down the narrow corridor of cool, shady air. Soon, I come up against a metal dumpster. It’s higher than my hand stretched above my head, but if I can climb on to its lid, it might work as a step that could get me over. If I want my ball back, this is the way.
I take off my schoolbag, hide it in the gap between the dumpster and the fence, then take a few steps back. A short run-up and a good leap is enough to get a decent grip on the hinge. With a swing and a kick, I hook a leg on to the lid, and after an awkward wriggle, which rubs more of me against the bin than I’d really like, I’m up. A tricky manoeuvre, perfectly executed. Climbing isn’t a proper sport, but if it were, it would be the sport I’m best at. I can’t explain why, but whenever I look at a high thing, I want to go up it.
There’s a man who climbs skyscrapers. He just turns up and does it, and by the time he’s off the ground, no one can stop him. When he gets to the top he always gets arrested, but he doesn’t care. I bet that even the policemen doing the arrest secretly wish they were his friend. Sometimes, when I’m bored, I look at things and figure out where the best handholds and footholds would be. The best climbers can lift their whole body weight with one finger.
I look around from the top of the dumpster. There isn’t anything to see – only the alley – but just viewing the world from double my normal height feels good. Sour, fishy wafts are coming up from under my feet. The lid sags under my weight, bending inwards with each step. If it breaks, I can picture how I’d look. I’ve seen it in cartoons a hundred times. The angry face smeared in red and brown goo, a fried egg on one shoulder, a fish skeleton on the other, spaghetti on top of the head. There’s always spaghetti. If you add in the stink and imagine it actually happening, it isn’t funny any more.
From the lid of the bin I can’t see over the fence, but I can now see that the site goes right up to The Wall. If this place does have a secret purpose, this position has to be the key. I pull myself up on to the splintery top of the fence, and with one leg dangling on either side, look down into the site for the first time. There is a house. Just a house and a garden, but I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.