Please note: this piece contains strong language.
Hearing the whisper of the raindrops on the study’s skylight, Stuart Henshaw swivelled round in his black leather chair, tilted back, and looked up at the window. A white blanket was forming on the outside; it wasn’t raining, it was snowing. Snow on Christmas Day. A smile spread across his wrinkled face. There’s something magical about a white Christmas, always has been. His mind played White Christmas as he sipped hot coffee from his favourite mug. Now chipped and stained, it had been a Christmas present from Moira. On the side of it, “The Worlds’ Greatest Football Supporter”, written in blue and white, the colours of Kilmarnock – his team – although he hadn’t been to a game in forty years.
He had enjoyed going to the footie as a teenager, meeting up with pals. How he misses that camaraderie. Thinking back, the football itself was almost incidental. Killie were in the lower ranks of the league, playing teams like Clydebank and Montrose. Sure, he’d been happy when they won promotion, but the genuine joy was seeing his pals. Laughing and joking about whose turn it was to buy the half-time pie and Bovril.
‘I’ll get them next week,’ Speedy always said.
Of course, they all knew Speedy wouldn’t buy the pies next week, nor the next. He couldn’t; he was unemployed, he was skint. Eating a half-time pie was the highlight of his week.
Stuart could see Speedy now, stuffing the mutton pie into his chubby, ruddy face, the warm grizzle dribbling down from his mouth and dripping off his chin, He’d wipe away the remains of it with the worn sleeve of his jacket, before slurping the hot Bovril too fast, scalding his tongue. He’d curse, but then his face would melt into a smile as the beefy flavour of the drink mixed with the lamb to create a culinary delight. All the lads would watch, waiting as Speedy silently savoured the aftertaste, let it linger in his mouth, then lick his lips and nod in approval. Stuart pitied his vegetarian daughter, who would never taste real food. He hoped that she would have come home for Christmas, but she hadn’t.
Stuart’s mind returned to football, recalling how the atmosphere would intensify as the clock ticked down. The fans would shout and sing, jump up and down and swear a lot. Showing emotions wasn’t a trait found in the west of Scotland male psyche. Football provided a relief valve to the social ills of everyday life: shitty jobs, shitty houses, shitty lives. Christ, even the weather was shitty back then in the late 70s. And as for the music, Bright Eyes was top of the charts, Art Garfunkel singing a song written by a Womble about a bloody dead rabbit. Talk about fiddling while Rome burned. What had the world come to? Had everyone gone mad?
It wasn’t long until Speedy, Shug, and Joe got into trouble. Probation, fined, or even jailed for something; nothing serious, Breach of the Peace or whatever; for being daft lads from a housing scheme. Stuart knew that he’d face the same unless he did something, so he did. He took the easy option, got out, ran away, did a bunk.
Stuart could still remember the exact day that he left home, Friday 4th May 1979. It was summer, but it was freezing, cold enough to snow. He kept his Crombie on as he sat down in front of “the box” with his weekly Fish Supper. One and a half fish battered to death and a pile of chips, over-salted and drowning in vinegar. The acetic aroma caught him in the back of the throat just as the News came on.
Thatcher had become Prime Minister. He choked on his chips as he watched her standing there, outside Number 10, looking all smug and bossy, and then she spoke. God knows where she got that accent, but it sounded false, almost as false as the words she uttered,
“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”
What did the young Stuart know of hope? Nothing. He knew despair though; it was dripping down the damp walls of the council houses and found in the bottom of empty beer glasses. Yes, he knew despair alright, and despair knew him. It was coming to get him. Just as Kilmarnock had escaped from the doldrums of Scottish football, Stuart knew then that he had to escape from the doldrums of Scottish life. He’d never been back, never returned, he never would.
Stuart fumbled through the bottom drawer of his desk until he found a small wooden box containing old letters and photographs he'd never shown. Memories he’d never shared. He found it, now faded, an old photo of Speedy, Shug, Joe and him in the snow.