Football Boots for Christmas (Revised Version) – Chapter 1

By Alan Findlay

Alan ‘Baw’ Findlay could think; was always at it. The only problem was getting it down on paper, and the school had only made ir worse. He was in the pre-qualifying then, right down the front amongst the rest that Miss Tripney tried her very best to overlook. Most folk about the doors still took Baw for a thinker, mainly cause of him having such a big heid, like that mad Professor Napper in the Daily Herald cartoon.

Baw much preferred seeing himself playing football in Wullie Thornton’s jersey, up on his toes, keeping his eyes skint, and his heid always on the swivel like a U-Boat periscope during the war, planning his next move, ready to burst through iron curtains. Wasn’t easy, swiveling a heid as heavy as his size 5. In them days most skinny wee laddies outside Edinbury Royal High had a size 4.

When he wore his scout-cub cap there was always a ‘pea on a drum’ wit in the company. Baw tried to laugh along with the chorus in the hope they would leave him alone for a spell, but few knew when enough was enough

Lots of great players were loners; didn’t hang about in gangs, but kept their his distance even on the park, out in front mainly, inside deadly shooting distance, bit all the time keeping  his eyes peeled for his big brother Bobby, just in case some defences just couldn’t take another beating.

Bobby had began praying to the sun just like his Red Indians brothers. Was saving up his paper-round-money for a pair of hand-stitched moccasins, out the People’s Friend. Must have noticed the advert when he was looking at the pictures of the big women in white corsets. Would be a totem pole next, or a Winchester 73.

Bobby was feart for nobody this side of King Kong. Would just stand there and make Baw hit them back, then punch him sore for no hitting them back hard enough. Said bullies knew when others were feart, and was why they attacked. Said Baw’s shadow would be having a go at him next.

Spelling was Baw’s main bother, his and Miss Tripney’s, once she had run out of other things to moan about, specially since his breathing had got that bit easier, when at last their mother was able to take her knuckle out her mouth.

‘Was heart lazy, careless and forever day-dreaming about football’. His faither and his new best pal, Mr. George, the headmaster, agreed. Still didn’t make it true. Nobody tried harder in the classroom and the playground, when there was a ‘cock or a hen’. Wanted to be clever almost as much as he wanted to play centre for Rangers and Scotland in Wullie Thornton’s jersey.

They had never listened to him, right from the start in Primary Two when he first explained the terrible bother he was having, and still having, getting letters down on paper the right way round, specially b, d, p and q. The ones that flicked their tails at him this way then the other, like marooned tadpoles.

Mr. George kept hinting; ‘wouldn’t be putting up with it much longer’, usually when ‘Trip-wire’ was back along in his office with Baw by the ear. If their father and ‘Bruce’ hadn’t been such good pals, Baw would have been in the special school, along there in Brigend.

The closer he looked at the tadpoles the harder it got; a ‘b’ was only a ‘b’ from the front; once it flipped over onto its back it was a‘d’. Upside down and it was a ‘q’ or a ‘p’, and never still for any length of time.

Even had bother with his own name; one day the jotter wasn’t wide enough to get it all on the one line, as he wrote the middle bit over and over. Then when he panicked it was like a haar behind his eyes and him ready for the lavatory, sweating, his throat dry, the other letters playing tricks; even dirtied himself. Thought of walking in front of the Stirling  bus, as he stood there at the school gate waiting to get across and back hame to yet another shouting match.

The big laddie Scott said he had pulled him back just in time, but he never did. Nob’dy had moved a muscle, from what he could mind. The only other time had been when  the branch broke and the clothes rope hit him on the head; across in Peutherers Wood, but had just been kidding himself on.

Yet could count as well as anybody, including her out there, and read the Wizard and the Rover and the sports papers as quick as their big brother Bobby. His and wee Jimmy’s. Bobby was in the first year of the big school and won prizes, along that corridor out there.

One day Miss Tripney came along and chapped their door in the Auld Raws and told their faither about him no being able to write his own name. Some in the class, not near as good a reader of comics as him, had laughed and jeered, but could hardly blame them. Even them in the second infants could write their own name.

Thought their father was going to murder him, the veins in his neck near bursting. Their mother was going to get the police to him if he didn’t stop. Was hard on Bobby and him, but only cause he wanted them to be good  Findlays (with a d).

She had no right coming to the door, her being just a class teacher who had worked in a bank, and was married to a time-keeper down at Dougal’s Brickwork, whose sister was on the buses and went with Poles during the war, or was that his cousin; the blonde one Mrs. Sneddon had been telling their mother about.

No wonder their faither was mad. Was his new best pal Bruce’s job to complain about the likes of Baw. She didn’t like their faither or football; but then neither did Bobby, or Grandpaw Moffat.

Was still out there filling-in their register with her different pens, like it was a painting. She wore brown boots, thick ankle socks, and a feather in her felt hat when it was outside she was in, along with her tweed cape in the cold weather. Her man favoured the kilt for shifting into at weekends, or maybe like them here in P6, just did what he was telt.

Their long-faced lassie carted her library and hand tools and wee coloured stones about in an army rucksack. Wore boots as well, had a drawer full of Highland dance medals, and a Ralaigh 4-speed push bike. They all smelt of embrocation and byde in the steel houses over in the Millgate.

‘Embrocation’ was Nurse Henderson’s favourite word. That and ‘kaolin poultice’, yet the Tripneys were a pasty-faced, sickly looking crowd, and her always on about Professor Boyd Orr and his healthy advice on the wireless, were vegetarians. She didn’t like getting cried Mrs.Tripney. Going by the look on Mr. Tripney’s face, mincing about in his kilt, he didn’t seem to fancy the idea much neither.

The whole class were sitting here two to a desk at attention, listening to that big bluebottle battering itself against the back wall window, too feart to turn round, all the time hoping she was in a wee bit better mood than usual.

Be another ten minutes at least afore she finished her paperwork. Was what she seems to enjoy most. Maybe kidding herself on she was back working in that Royal Bank of Scotland in her ‘Athens of the North’ place, dealing with a nicer class of people. Brought that rolled-up Scotsman paper in with her every morning, along with her sour face.

Had a stride like a shepherd; three from the door to her high desk there, and five and a half to the back wall. Some days towards the end of the week in her growing excitement she seemed to be heading right through it, for the Ochil Hills out there on the horizon, across the Forth, tramp, tramp, tramping through the heather, further and further away from them and their silly stupidness. Was tiresome, she had told somebody, what she had to put up with, day after day.

The last time she was along moaning about Baw to Mr. George, ‘Bruce’ had another brain storm. Decided their faither should make him read the Daily Herald every night after school from cover to cover; improve his spelling.

Things hadn’t turned out the way they hoped. Still couldn’t spell, but he was going to vote socialist when the time came for the working-class to unite behind the party and improve relations with their Soviet comrades. Often minded wee bits and pieces to see the surprise on folk’s faces when he recited them back, like he was reading the News. Big Wullie Wilson, who looked after The Works Baths and the local Labour Party voters was always at him for the latest snippet on the political front; said Baw should be on the wireless. Bobby said he should be put down.

Then, when Trip-wire was off sick again, when Mr. George took the class and gave them an IQ test, Baw was the only one who knew who Sigmund Rhee was, and about Taiwan and the Flying Enterprise and the ground nut scheme out in Kenya, and Paul Robeson being a communist and acting in a film in a Welsh coalmine, and Abadan. Mr. George must have got the Daily Herald as well.

Gave Baw a rubber for being so clever, then took it back when Baw told him that knowing ‘things’ wasn’t right clever, no really. Tried to explain about Herbert Spencer, but Mr. George was shouting at him again and Baw was feart and in need of the lavatory, and couldn’t wait, and his hard breathing was getting harder again. Then Mr. George slapped him on the side of the heid when he got back from the lavatory, for leaving the room without leave. Was the only time Mr. George had ever helped him, and his breathing.

Just the day before, a big article had appeared in the middle pages of The Daily Herald about Mr. Herbert Spencer, who reckoned, when he was still living, that them that did best in school didn’t do so good when they left. Was cause they had let their teachers do their thinking for them and got lazy on it, specially them unlucky enough to end up top of their class. Mr. Spencer said teachers should persuade pupils to reason things out for themselves, and no to show off to the class how clever they were. Baw had understood every word.

Didn’t really mean to tell Miss Tripney about Mr. Herbert Spencer that day she came back, but she had been on again at him right away about being stupid, him no minding Canada’s emblem. Had been thinking about tinned salmon triangle sandwiches and wee Jimmy’s Christening up at Woodend Kirk at the time. Always did when somebody mentioned Canada, especially when he was hungry, and in the Auld Raws they mostly were.

‘Please Miss,’ he had said, ‘Mr. Herbert Spencer says in the Daily Herald that the likes of me would be even more backward if I was to listen any more to you telling us things.’ As usual never got a right chance to explain.

Before drawing his next breath they were once more along the other end of the corridor and into Mr. George’s office – Baw on his knees and her screeching like a football spectator at the referee, after her team being denied a clear penalty. She was still squeezing his Adams Apple through his shirt collar, and standing on his ankle.

Thought he was going to faint like he did in Wee Jocks billiards up at Niddry the week before. Had made a break of 7 in the Friday night Under 12 flyer. Then Mr. George finally prized his Adams Apple free from her grip a finger at a time. She was mad as a brush.

Was then she started kicking him with her heavy boots, for tramp tramp tramping through the heather, and poking him in the back with that steel ruler of hers. No wonder he pee’d himself. Was still wondering if shovels ever went as daft as brushes, or even one-armed Lithga stone masons who held the chisel in their mouths and hit themselves on the back of the heid with the hammer.

When Baw was born, would have died no long after, if it hadn’t been for the new M&B tablets at the time, but things had never ever been as desperate as that day on the office floor. Mr. George was red in the face, sweating and his specs round the side of his head and his belly-jelly wobbling about ready to burst out his shirt, bawling at Miss Tripney to let go.

All the time she was roaring back at him demanding he teach Baw a lesson for saying what he said about her being a bad teacher and her having certificates, and never having been so insulted in her life. Then she had a sly wee back-heel at Baw. Was then she must have noticed he was kneeling in a pool of pee. That and the half-nelson Mr. George was trying to put on her might have upset her balance. Then again, Baw was pumping quite hard at the time as well, and she had the nose of a bloodhound. Ears as well.

Was then Mr. Tweedhope, the janitor, rushing in from the boiler-house still smoking his fag, skidded on Baw’s pee in his tackity boots. Took a long sliding tackle and cannoned off Mr. George’s chair, and ended up under the table with his foot in the wastepaper basket.

The basket was seriously smoldering before they all got back out from under the table. If he hadn’t still been out of breath Baw would have told somebody about the basket, but breathing came first, or so Dr. Grace said, and their mother as well.

If it had been a film, they would have had to get a right stuntman to play Mr. Tweedhope, who looked like Gary Cooper, especially when he was angry and pulling hard on a Woodbine. After a couple of swear words Mr. Tweedhope backed out the office and made along to their classroom to get Trip-wire’s new medicine from behind the fish tank. Once he put out the wee fire in the wastepaper basket he went back out the office again and got a bucket and mop from the cleaner’s cupboard.

Mr. George sent Baw home to get dried out and changed. Never went back till the next day, him having nothing to change into.

Trip-Wire gets bright ideas as well. For instance that they all had to write pen-pal letters, but to keep well clear of right personal stuff, but even Jean Getty didn’t know what she meant. No really, and wasn’t for asking. Nobody was.

Jean was best in the whole class with big words and rivers and knew almost all the capital cities in the world – or at least the ones that hadn’t changed their names since the war.

Almost as good as Bobby on Indian tribes west of the Cremola Mountains, or even Jack Corstorphine at telling the makes of cars out from Edinburgh as they came racing round the school corner, before they got as far as Nellie Smith’s, sometimes just skliffing Mr. Jefferies. He was the lollipop-man.

Baw had asked Bobby what he should write about to this pen-pal. Said to tell the pen-pal that the three prong graip, to replace the four prong fork that was damaging too many Kerr’s Pink tatties, was the first invention in the Industrial Revolution by James Watt; the time James and his wee brother ‘Billy the Kid’ were visiting their Granny Smith down the bottom of the Auld Raws across from the Pit Baths and through the wall from Emperor Ming, just afore she put the kettle on and invented the future. There was definitely a want about Bobby, even though he was a Findlay (with a ‘d’).

He was near first in his class, but only since them with their very own rubbers and rulers and underpants had left for Broxburn High to learn about fancy foreign things and no to wipe their noses on their new blazer sleeves. Bobby passed for Broxburn as well, but didn’t get; something else he held against their faither.

Bobby was the first cowboy in the Auld Raws with a tied down holster. Kidded himself on he was Frank James; Jessie’s awfy mean aulder brother; suited him down to his spurs, made from trouser clips he found round the back of the Post Office that had belonged to the relief postman from Broxburn and wee bits of sprockets and spindles from an auld clock and chewing gum and string.

Bobby said them in the real Wild West out in Arizona couldn’t just depend on shop stuff like them half-cast rustlers and renegades back in Winchburgh. His heid wasn’t as big as Baw’s and a bit more intelligent looking, but that could be cause of his specs and the way he stared through them at folk, like a baddy in a cowboy film.

Bobby just didn’t have it in him to be a ‘goodie’. Must have known that himself. Seemed to have made up his mind that if he had to be a baddie might as well make himself a right bad baddie when he was at it, and twisted like barbed wire.

Baw had kidded himself on for a while there that his nickname was ‘Cannonball’, like that free scoring centre-forward Kelly in the Hotspur comic, but the name just never took off, even after he gave Jock Tweed half a bar of McGowans Highland Toffee to shout ‘Cannonball’ out at him in the back yard at school when they were playing football, when there were plenty of them about, till he was hoarse; every day for a week.

Was Jock’s party the week before, yet for some strange reason Baw wasn’t invited. Instead of ice-cream and jelly and cake they just got mince and main crop tatties. Cheered him and ‘Spug’ Getty up no end. He never got invited neither.

If Jock got some money off some auntie for a present, had promised to give Baw back at least two squares of toffee, but then Jock hadn’t been seen since them at the party went outside to play ‘hide and seek’.

Baw had got to wondering if Jock was in Mrs. Miller’ coalhouse next door, right at the back of the pitch blackness, where she hid her black magic stuff for spells and that. Imagined Jock trusted up like spiders did with fleas on their cobwebs, but Baw wasn’t for going across there to look.

Then he quite fancied the sound of ‘Carrot’ as a nickname for a spell, till some came away with thon we lassie rhyme – ‘rid heid, carrot nose, pull the plug and away he goes’. Making out he was just a wee tollie.

Bobby said tollies tapered at the end so as to stop bums closing with a bang. When his hand swelled up, after him telling Miss Tripney what Bobby said and her stabbing him with her pencil, Bobby said it was lead poisoning. That his jaw would go stiff next, then he would foam at the mouth and go mad. Or else just die in his sleep. Hadn’t slept much since.

Still, wasn’t going to stop all the Winchburgh folk chanting his name once he was a living legend football centre-forward and the pride of the place, same as Wullie Thornton of Rangers and Scotland, just as soon as he was rid of the awfy stitch in his side that had him holding up his breath at times, not able to move another muscle.

Was an awfy worry, so it was, but if ‘Limp Along Leslie’ in ‘The Wizard’ could make the big time, after all that poor orphaned cripple has come through, then so could the rest, specially him, being such a quick developer and that. Except in spelling and parsing verbs and things that didn’t mean much to anybody bar teachers and highly intelligent faithers who were always top of their class afore the war, when slates were still all the rage and ‘cheek’ hadn’t been invented.

Sometimes it was them growing pains that hit him before he’d run a full park length – was that bad at times it had him right up on his tiptoes. Maybe just his second wind that had taken a wrong turning on the way up through his insides, and then got itself trapped in a bit corner under his ribs, just like his big heid did under the sideboard a wee while back.

The sideboard was right heavy yet there was never much in it; only the red rusted hammer with the broken shaft, their wee wedding photos, the cardboard gas-mask box, the cast-iron shoe-last, the eight of spades, two drawing pins, one with a shoogly heid, and what could have been a pickle mouse droppings.

Their faither was for taking the back off to make the sideboard a better fit in the recess, then did he not break the hammer shaft and a matching china cup and saucer their mother had from her days in Service. All that, as well as the corner off the wax-cloth the sideboard had been sitting on since their faither’s Granny Findlay was still about the place.

Now it was the back of the sideboard that was shoogly; held on with one bent wee nail that started off life as a screw at one side and sitting on a broken brick at the other, till their faither could think of something better, but then he never did.

Their mother wasn’t half pleased, him stopping when he did, them not having that much furniture to spare. Had since patched the wax-cloth by his way of it, but their mother thought it looked better the way it was, but not a word to him, for fear of him taking the pet. Always started dead keen then, for whatever reason, stormed out, leaving their mother to tidy up, and to take her rid-heided temper out on them. If she had been out in North Africa along with her brothers during the war, Rommel would never have lasted as long as he did.

Baw didn’t know what could be causing so much pain in his side when he run fast, but Mr. Atlee’s brand new NHS and its army of doctors just might. Said in the ‘Daily Herald’ it wouldn’t be long before most diseases were done away with under their brave new socialist government.

Their faither said there was a surgeon in the Western Infirmary cried Mr. Dott who performed miracles on folk. Drilled holes in skulls and bolted back together bits that had worked loose, like a mechanic fixing a motor; Imagined getting him to shave a bit off the back of his size 5 into a size 4, and take the ‘stitch’ out of his side as well, when he was at it.

All part of something cried ‘The Welfare State’. Folk were to get all the dried milk, orange juice, cod liver oil and bananas and benefits folk would ever need to be healthy and happy and no as poor as folk were afore they came to their senses and stopped wasting their vote on their middle class enemies, who according the Daily Herald were auld Churchill and them that were officers during the war, or else across in Canada.

Said folk were to be better educated as well. Hoped that meant the likes of Miss Tripney was top of the list for a £10 Assisted Passage to Australia or New Zealand. Them in P6 weren’t too bothered where she landed up, as long as it was too much bother for them in charge to send her back. Half expected the folk to be dancing in the street at that good news on the Welfare State that day he read it in the Daily Herald, but then the Sunday Post came out and said things are going from bad to worse, up to its neck in debt to America and private business no getting out the bit and it being about time the Tories got another chance and took sweeties off the ration and got the trains running on time again. That and the Soviets back to where they belonged in the back of beyond.

Their father didn’t like Churchill, specially after he’d been reading the Daily Herald, or talking to the man who knew big foreign sounding words and who came round the doors the end of every month collecting Labour Party dues.

The New Year time before, had ended up in the drying-green, him and the man that collected the dues, drinking stuff out of an auld ginger bottle, shouting and cuddling each other, singing songs about a red flag, shaking their fists in the air, though their father wasn’t like that according to their mother, no really.

Jock McRiner, next door, said the pair of them should away back to Russia where they belong. Ended up with the jacket off and the shirt sleeves rolled up tight to above the elbows, him being a Tory and a fireman during the war, part-time, and before then, when farm servants were never in the one place long, tended the ponies down the mine.

Jock was in the Masons as well, but then that was a secret, or it was till Bobby spied his apron up on their pulley, long sides his salmon-pink John Wayne ‘calvary’ vest and drawers. Then again maybe was another one of his jokes.

Baw had been reading the Daily Herald from back to front, but it still hadn’t improved his spelling any. Maybe made things worse; not able to spell words he never knew existed. No wonder Stewart McPherson cried his wireless show ‘Ignorance is Bliss’.

The big thing in the paper this last while had been ‘Marshall Aid’ and the army fighting the Greeks who had taken an awfy scunner to their own royals, and about Britain having run out of money to buy bullets to kill them, even though they were on the same side during the war.

Had bother getting his head right round that one. Asked Miss Tripney, but she didn’t want to know about what was happening in the Auld Raws, never mind Greece.

Their mother said the stitch in his side would be nothing but a touch colic; Scotland’s standing in the football world could be in serious bother if it wasn’t.

‘Standing’ was their father’s latest very best word. Meant a team’s position in the league, or at least he thought it did and he was never wrong, specially about words and that, him being part-time correspondent for the West Lothian Courier.

Used ‘standing’ four times in his column the week before. Yet the column was even shorter than usual – only so many bits and pieces you could put in a village column; roads were in an awfy mess, the Gala day were looking for new members, or no Gala next year; the new council houses weren’t getting allocated fair; the new street lights were the haws, and the village didn’t have a right library like every other decent sized place round about.

His other favourites were that, mainly cause of Mr. John Findlay, Vice -President of Broxburn  Co-op, Broxburn Co-op was going from strength to strength, same as the British Legion weekly dancing and their ‘Go as you Please’, though that had nothing to do with Mr. John Findlay, President of Broxburn C-operative Society.

That was alongside his load of stuff on the Albion of course, and their high ‘standing’ in juvenile football throughout West Lothian, and indeed the whole country. Didn’t half lay it on thick when it came to the Albion, him being secretary. ‘No standing for it’ meant something else again.

Baw wonder about things that the others in primary six were able to take for granted, For instance that Miss Tripney always knew what she was on about. Fair enough if she hadn’t  know what it was he was wondering, but she always did, her wee narrow eyes glinting like thin daggers, or else a cat, just as she lashes out with her claws.

But then nobody was perfect, no even their faither with a drink in him, his eyes shining like sodger’s buttons, boasting to his wee pal Rab Turnbull about putting this yin or that yin in their place, and nice wee Rab just in for a cup of tea and a blether about the Albion. That and to see if the pliers he lent them a while back hadn’t turned up yet.

At Sunday School they said it was all down to God. What was so wrong with some crying themselves ‘Cannonball’ if they fancied their shooting, or Bobby imagining himself to be ‘Frank James’, or ‘Rock’ for them that liked to scowl at lassies, and that carried one of them new nylon combs about in the top pocket of their shifting jacket. The kind that could bend right round into a loop and then straighten right back out again. What The Daily Herald cried ‘new technology’.Afore long folk wouldn’t need to work.

Baw couldn’t understand why God didn’t just skin and gut Auld Nick alive and nail his pelt to the wall by the tail and claws for a new Kirk decoration right above the communion table just to show who was really boss, and be done with evil spirits and the like. Would leave simple folk in peace to see themselves as a wee bit better than they really were. Was  nice to think nice things about other folk, but still no any better than thinking nice things about yourself

Their faither said ministers only got ‘calls’ to leave wee churches with wee wages the first chance they got to go to them with big wages and maybe even a wee car on the side and an elder or two to look after the manse garden, back and front, and wallpapered rooms and thick curtains and plenty coal and expenses every time they opened the Good Book. All that and the best of high teas and wedding cake once they had said their clever bit speech.

Their faither seemed to regret at times no taking the game up when he was more at himself and still a sergeant in the BBs, before the drink, the fags, and that, got a grip. Maybe lacking in charity a wee bit as well. Just couldn’t stand regular Kirk-going fuddy-duddies, specially if they were into banning Sunday football and tying up weans’ swings. Football was all their faither cared about when it was outside he was in.

That and his part-time job with the Courier and never ever being a teenie bit wrong, or the least bit stupid. Maybe being an surly auld baldy-heided minister would suit him fine, specially during the weeks with few funerals when he could kid himself on he was a full-time chief reporter for the Courier, breenging about between The Star and Garter and The Tally Ho with his collar round the right way and his chest sticking out and his pencil sharpened looking for leads and then across the road to the Post Office to check the early edition Edinburgh evening papers headlines for even more leads.

The new minister and his plastered side-shed, could be why they had more young women Sunday School teachers than they needed, always in line to ask him sensible questions, and play with him at badminton mixed doubles in the Mission Hall on Friday nights, squealing to their hearts content and getting tangled up in the net and showing their frills like they were ‘Gorgeous Gussie’ down at Wimbledon, then forgetting their lines in their wee bit plays on the stage down there, about mines and strikes, playing at being ordinary folk wearing their mothers’ crossover peenies, then getting uppity in felt hats and then learning their lessons near the end, back in their crossover peenies, just in time for them all to live happy ever after. Maybe could do a play next about the important Findlays with a ‘d’ talking funny, like they owned property and gun dogs in about Corstorphine.

The wee plays got good enough crowds, but usually just relations, next door neighbours and them that worked beside them. Was when the new Sunday School teachers got wee parts in the plays that they start taking themselves serious and attending Evening Service in their high heeled shoes and painting seams. In the meantime the lassie Gibb was still odds-on to make the manse a home.

The week afore they were all across at Broxburn Regal matinee to see ‘The Sullivan’s, a war film about five brothers joining the American navy on the same ship and their auld Irish faither on the railway. All got killed, except the faither. Smashing, specially the four ghosts at the end waiting on their wee brother’s ghost. Even Bobby was greeting at that bit, then he hit Baw for noticing.