We blazed through the neighbourhood like our afterlives depended on it. Ten events in an hour and the winners got to The Promised Land. They’d been hammering us with bible stories at school and punctuating them with updates from the games that were taking place after our bedtimes in South Korea. The two unrelated strands fused our imaginations into one robust and graceful movement, as ingeniously natural and revelatory as a Fosbury Flop.
Half a dozen of us competed in what we in all earnestness called ‘The Soul Olympics’. I, the most zealous of the participants, was both the Moses and the Daley Thompson of the situation, and saw it as my mission to drag as many as possible across the finish line to eternal glory.
My sister sat on the kerb with a traffic-cone-coloured cheese sandwich while I explained the breakdown of the decathlon to the assembled athletes. Three jumping events: the long jump, the high jump and the limbo jump. The sprint was to the end of the street. The relay went round the block. For the javelin we would use the broom handle that also served as the bar for the jumping events. For the shot put, we would go round to Jimmy’s garden where there was a pile of bricks that we could throw. Were we just about at the quota of ten?
We probably didn’t get that far. The others wilted away in dribs and drabs as their mums called them home for tea. My sister went off to look at a friend’s ‘My Little Pony’ collection. Eventually, Jimmy and I, the only survivors, had to abandon the competition entirely, having lost our javelin to a hedge. Jimmy’s sister, who was ten, told us that the broom handle had hit a woman on the bum and that we were in trouble. We ran round the back to wait until it all blew over.
Jimmy was having his tea round at my bit that evening. I got the impression that he didn’t eat much, at least not hot food. His dad was generally in, but typically in bed, and Jimmy and his sister seemed to have to fend for themselves. He came to my house once a week and invariably got a second, third, fourth helping. My mother made chilli con carne and his eyes almost popped out of his head.
He often seemed to be somewhere else, silent and smiling compliantly, constantly shivering from a mysterious coldness that I didn’t feel. I’d found a Spanish dictionary for ten pence at a jumble sale and was determined to memorise all the words. I told Jimmy that, when I’d learned the language and we were both older and had jobs, I’d take him with me to Spain, where we would go on adventures. He just sighed and said: “No.” He wouldn’t get old, wouldn’t get a job and wouldn’t go to Spain. How old was I talking, anyway? Twenty? Twenty-two? No. It wasn’t happening.
We had been avoiding my garden because I’d stood up to the bully who lived next door and we feared retaliation. His name was Ross, but he called himself Dangerross. He was only a bully in the sense that he picked on little kids like us, whom he shouldn’t really have had much to do with. I realise now that he must have been both deeply frustrated and frankly bored out of his mind. His family neglected him and he was derided by his peers on account of his illiteracy, his poverty and his literal dirtiness. Poor guy.
Anyway, he forced me to fight him on the back green. He took his shirt off and said: “Hit me.” I said no way because he’d batter me. He said: “I’ll batter ye if ye dinnae.” I just smacked him and that was that. I gave it everything I had, along with some additional power that must have come from someplace else. He fell sprawling into the mud, touching his nose as the blood trickled out. He didn’t say anything else and we didn’t wait around.
We were fine with staying inside because it was raining and, apart from that, I had organised a concert in Jimmy’s honour. All the kids from the Soul Olympics were coming along, as well as a couple of mums and dads. It had been Jimmy’s birthday the week before and, quite incredibly, he hadn’t told anyone. His sister spilled the beans and when I confronted him about it he became obstinate and said that he didn’t want anybody to get him anything. My own birthday was so close to Christmas that I had to fight for it to be recognised. I’d promised not to get anything but was determined to do something.
I’d become obsessed with 1950’s rock and roll. My uncle had moved on to CD’s and had left his old records to me. My cousins tried in vain to get me into Prince or Madonna or whatever but I wasn’t having any of it. I dressed with odd coloured socks and had renounced Santa Claus since he’d turned down my request for a leather jacket.
The performance amounted to little more than me dancing on a table to the strains of The Wanderer by Dion, but I really did ‘tear open my shirt’ when he sang that line and I really had written ‘Rosie’ on my chest. Jimmy almost wet himself and my mother almost died. The applause was too much for me and I shrunk to the sides, blushing and refusing an encore. Everyone was in party mood because the next day’s school had been replaced with a trip to the Glasgow Garden Festival. One of the mothers, who was coming with us, ruffled my quiff and smooched me across the face, saying: “You’ll be right at home on the old trams, Elvis. If you get lost we’ll know what to do. Look for the one with the red and yellow socks. The Rebel Without a Clue.”