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I waited at the top of his street. Two young boys were racing in go-karts. Every time they zoomed past the bottom lamppost, they hopped out and started up the road for a rematch.
It began to spit, and the screeching wheels of the go-karts cut through the chilly evening air. I pulled up the zip of my jumper collar, then stuffed my hands in my pockets. There were still no signs of life from his house. The wee house between two tall ones, that was how I’d memorised it years ago. A narrow path sloped up to the front step and in the gravel driveway was the same black Ford Fiesta, covered in bird shite.
It’d been ages since I’d seen him. I wasn’t sure exactly how long, but before we left school. Everyone knew him as ‘Shoogly’ and we’d been good mates when we were younger. He lived just a few streets away so we used to call on each other a lot. And even though they never let me into his house I’d sit on the step till he came out. The blinds were always closed in the living-room, even during the day. Once after I knocked they twitched, and his mum’s pale face peered out at me. We spent more time at my house. I had a bigger garden.
I didn’t see him as much when we were older. None of us did really. He sort of drifted away, but that kind of thing happens everywhere. People lose touch and go their separate ways. I’d been away for two years and never thought I’d see him again. I definitely didn’t expect a message from him inviting me for a drink.
The front door opened. He stepped out and locked it. At the end of the path he stopped to kick some stones into the driveway with a careful sweeping motion. His trainers scuffed against the ground as he walked up to me. He hadn’t changed much. A bit taller but still skinny and now with a thick ’tache. He had on a black Velcro jacket that came down to his knees and was too long at the wrists.
“Arite, Ryan?” I said.
“Hi.” He raised his hand then quickly lowered it.
“Crookie’s?” I said.
We didn’t speak much on the way. I tried asking him what he’d been up to but whatever he replied got lost in the wind. It was freezing, and the pockets of my jeans did nothing to warm my hands. We passed the park where some kids were playing football. Ryan had sometimes joined us back in the day, though he was a bit shite. I always went with him to get the ball back after he’d blootered it over a garden fence, knocking on doors of houses and doing the apologising while he stood behind me. Sometimes I just climbed the fence and retrieved it without anyone inside knowing.
Neil was standing by the front door of the pub smoking a fag. He’d really put on the beef. The lowest button of his shirt was close to popping, and his cheeks had become red and pudgy. I went over to him and shook his hand. Ryan hung back. The glorious smells from the chipper down the road wafted towards us.
“Fit like, min?” Neil said. “Almost didn’t recognise you with that tan. How was your trip?”
“Arite, Neil? Nae bad. It’s weird being back. Nothing’s changed much. Except the size of your fucking belly.”
Neil snorted. “Aye, fuck off.” He looked past my shoulder at Ryan. “Fit ye sayin, Shoogly?”
“Not much,” Ryan said.
“Aye, not much.” Neil took a puff of his fag.
I chatted away with Neil for a while. It was good to listen to his shite again. Ryan stood a few yards behind us, swaying and watching the train tracks like a peer craiter. I would have stayed out longer but the rain was getting heavier.
Inside Lorna was pointing the remote up at the TV, trying to find the right channel. Her hair was shorter now, barely reaching her shoulders. It didn’t suit her. An auld mannie with wispy hair looked on from a nearby table, raising his finger in the direction of the flashing screen. They both turned. She smiled at me in that tired way I’d seen so many times.
“I was wondering when you’d drop by,” she said. “Craig told me you were back. How was Spain?”
“It was grand,” I said. “Passed just like that. Here, let me try.” I walked over to get the remote.
“It’s the football Bill wants,” Lorna said.
I flicked through the channels till I landed on a match.
“That’s it,” Bill said, leaning forward in his chair.
“I’m just hopeless with technology,” Lorna said, moving behind the bar. “What can I get you lads?”
I turned to Ryan. “What you want? Tennent’s?”
“Eh, okay,” he said.
We sat down at a table off to the left of the bar. He held out a tenner to me, but I waved it away and he slowly placed it back in his wallet. I reached over and clinked his glass. Ryan set his down with two hands. His eyes roamed about the room.
“You been here before?” I said.
“Yeah, a few times.”
For a while neither of us spoke. He still had his jacket on and looked at any moment like he might get up and leave. His eyes wandered here there and everywhere, as if he was tracking a fly. I felt the floor beneath me vibrate and glanced down to see his leg bouncing. I watched a bit of the match, wondering why I hadn’t picked a table closer to the TV.
“So how’s life?” I said at last, facing him again. “Been a while since we last saw each other.”
“Yeah. Ah, you know, just busy studying. Yourself?”
“Oh, where do I start. Well after school I took a bit of an extended gap year, worked in Spain.”
“Mostly in Andalusia, in the south.”
“Aye. In the summer it’s crazy, need a fan to get to sleep.”
He didn’t say anything, so I carried on talking.
“I mostly worked in a hostel in Granada. Great wee city. Get free tapas with every beer over there. I also worked for a bit on a farm in the mountains, that was in this town outside Málaga. We did stuff like gardening and building fences in the day, and at night slept under the stars. It was unreal. The whole trip passed so quick.!”
“And then back to Scotland.”
“Ha. Aye, then back to wet and windy Scotland. But it was some experience. What else…” I paused to drink. “I was hoping the trip would give me some idea of what I wanted to do because I hadn’t a clue.”
“And did it?” There was something strange about the way he asked. He still hadn’t touched his glass.
“What is it you study again?” I said.
“How do you get to uni? You driving yet?”
“I get the bus.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
For the next few minutes the only voice came from the commentator on the TV. I downed the rest of my pint and stood up. “Want another?”
Ryan took a sip of his. “No, I’m fine thanks.”
Neil came in soaked while I waited at the bar. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Pishing it doon,” he said.
“Same old shite weather.”
Neil nudged me with his wet elbow. “Aye, you’re no in Spain anymore, Archie. At least you can share Shoogly’s jacket if you’re freezing.” I followed his gaze to our table, where Ryan was sitting examining the backs of his hands. Neil sniggered. I stifled a chuckle. I returned to the table and Neil stayed at the bar to talk to Lorna.
“You going to take that off?” I said as I sat down.
“Oh.” Ryan pulled back the Velcro and folded his jacket. Underneath he was wearing a navy hoodie. He made a right fuss of placing his jacket on the back of the chair, moving it up and down to make sure it wouldn’t fall.
“I think it’s safe,” I said.
He sat back down, quickly checking it over his shoulder. I watched some more of the match. I could hear Neil giving Lorna his expert football opinion from the bar.
“So what do you want to do with English?” I said.
“I’m not sure.”
I’d somehow forgotten how boring Ryan’s voice was. Never rising, always flat. As he talked I glanced over at Neil and Lorna. They were both laughing about something. I took a swig.
He paused, then added, “I’d like to move though.” The vibrating increased.
“I get that.” More laughter from the bar made us both turn.
“I was like that,” I began. You had to fill the silences with Ryan. “It was good to get away. You should try it if you get the chance.” The image of Ryan standing on a beach somewhere hot still wearing his black Velcro jacket came to me.
“What’s your job now?” Ryan said.
“Dishwasher.” I drank some more. For a second I thought I saw a smile on his lips. “It’s just part-time, till I find something that interests me.”
“Do you still talk to people from school?” he said.
“Aye, quite a few of them. Mo, Tommy. I saw Craig yesterday actually.”
“Is he still the same?”
“Oh aye. Craig hasn’t changed a bit.” I laughed thinking about Craig in town the night before. He’d been absolutely steaming. “And you? Still hear from anyone?”
The vibrating stopped. Ryan’s hands appeared from under the table and he looked for somewhere to put them. They were red and cracked. “Not for a while, no.”
“Well, everyone’s busy with their lives.” A long silence followed. I finished my drink but didn’t move. Ryan lifted his pint glass to his nose and grimaced. He put it back on the table without drinking. For all the years that had passed there wasn’t much to say. I racked my brain for something but nothing came up.
“Do you remember Mini Mojo?” Ryan suddenly said.
“Mini Mojo…What was he again?”
“You don’t remember.”
“Hold on. Wasn’t he our imaginary friend or something?”
“That’s it! And we wouldn’t let anyone speak to him because they needed to apply for the job first, right? And what was the job again?”
“Playground world builder.”
“Of course. Did anyone else ever get it?”
“Craig got to the interview stage but didn’t get any further.”
“Craig? How did he get an interview?”
“I told him to bring me some sweets to feed Mojo. For the interview he even brought his dad’s tie to school with him to look the part.” Ryan grinned. “He really wanted to meet Mojo.”
I burst. I don’t know where it all came from, but tears were streaming down my face. Ryan was also laughing, swaying in his chair. Its legs creaked against the ground. I leaned back and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Mini Mojo, oh fuck me,” I said when I caught my breath. I started to get up for another pint but he was already on his feet.
“I’ll get it,” he said.
“Ah, cheers man.”
Rain pelted the windowpane and it was now dark out. I checked the time on my phone. Ten past nine. It was still too early to head back. Staying a wee bit longer was the right thing to do.
Ryan ordered my pint while Neil told Lorna about the time he got stuck in his bathtub. Ryan stood back a bit from the bar, staring at the tenner in his hand. When Neil reached the part where he needed to be hauled out by his neighbours, he cracked up and twisted in his stool to face Ryan.
“Fuck me. That’s some story ain’t it, Shoogly?”
Ryan nodded without meeting Neil’s eyes. He kept staring at the tenner as if it would steady his shaking.
Neil called to me. “I told you that before, Archibaldo?”
“Aye, about a hundred times,” I said.
“A hundred times? Aye, fuck off.” Neil glugged down his pint and then opened a bag of peanuts. “Bet you didnae even set foot in Granada. Probably spent the whole trip getting pished in Magaluf.” He roared with laughter again.
I gave Neil the finger and wondered what someone passing the pub would think if they saw me in the window. If they’d think I always came here.
Lorna placed my pint on the bar and Ryan paid. The moment he turned away holding the glass, Neil stepped behind him with his knees bent and his tongue hanging out. He wobbled from side to side, flailing his arms about like a tightrope walker about to fall. It was tiring to see Neil’s ungainly movements. They were too forced.
“Stop that, Neil,” Lorna said.
Neil flopped back onto his stool and smirked at me.
Ryan didn’t seem to notice what had happened. He set my pint down in front of me then sat down. Foam flowed over the edge of the glass onto the table.
“Why don’t you have a drink?” I indicated his hardly touched glass.
“I’m fine.” His eyes drifted from the table to the bar.
“What were we talking about again,” I said, trying to pull him back.
“Mini Mojo,” he said.
“Oh aye. Those were good days.”
“Yes. Then academy.” Ryan’s attention was back. He rubbed his hands together but moved them under the table when he noticed me watching.
“Aye, they were good too.” I searched images from that time, but none seemed to involve Ryan. I drank more of my lager and realised he wasn’t going to touch his again.
“Hey, remember the night of the prom when Jill downed a whole bottle of Vodka?” I said. “That was the most I think anyone ever heard her talk.”
Ryan looked past me to the window as if the memory didn’t interest him. Seconds passed and it didn’t much interest me neither.
“Or that time Bruce lost his trousers at the beach?”
Ryan’s scabby hands found their way back to the table. He made eye contact.
“Where were you, Archibald?”
“Ah, you weren’t there? It was at the beach. We had a barbecue and Bruce somehow lost his trousers. To this day I don’t know what happened to them.”
“Not the beach.”
“What do you mean?”
“Where were you when I needed you?” Ryan said. “You left me behind. You left me to struggle alone, when I needed you there for me.” He said it all quietly. He’d stopped shaking.
I glanced at the TV but the match had finished. The auld mannie was getting up to leave. Even Neil had grown quiet, slumped over the bar with his glass cradled round his arm. “Ryan, I’m afraid I don’t quite follow you,” I said.
“You know what I mean.”
I let out a laugh and waited for his expression to change. But Ryan kept staring at me, hardly blinking under the dim lights. “Come on, have a drink,” I said. “You’ve hardly touched yours.”
“You know what I mean,” he repeated.
“You talking about academy?”
“I was there, Ryan. I was always there. But we’ve all got our own lives to live.”
He sniffed and looked away.
I considered asking him about home but it wasn’t my place. I finished my pint and listened to the rain hammering against the window. “Look, I think we should finish this another time. It’s getting late and I’ve got an early shift tomorrow.”
“Aye, dishwashing. You coming?”
Ryan hesitated. I waited for the vibrating but it didn’t come. He shot me a glance and nodded.
On the way out I gave Lorna a quick salute. I didn’t hang around to hear what else Neil had to say. If I wanted to find out, I knew where he’d be.
The wind and rain blasted us when we stepped outside. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and kept my arms close to my sides while Ryan wobbled next to me, looking set to be blown onto the railroad tracks. The park we had played at all those years ago was now empty and waterlogged. Talking was pointless, so I lowered my head. Now and again headlights lit up the dark pavement at my feet.
When we reached the top of Ryan’s street I raised my head. We shook hands and said to stay in touch. The rain was lashing down, thick blobs dripping from the tip of my nose. I didn’t move straight away, just stood watching him walk down the street with his shoulders slumped and the hood over his head. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to turn round, but he didn’t. He went left up the path to his house. Even from where I stood I could see the blinds twitch and the dim light from the living-room. He unlocked the door with his key and stepped inside. I tucked my chin into my collar and headed for home, wishing I’d brought a jacket.